Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Normal service is resumed

Surely this is a 'fuscus' Lesser Black-back?
Phew, it's been a hectic few days what with Mickey J popping his moccasins, me working my nuts off to finish my debut article for BBC Wildlife magazine plus preparing for and travelling to Helsinki - from where I write this blog. Oh, and I had the worst football game in history on Saturday. We lost something like 10-1!

I arrived in Finland yesterday afternoon and immediately holed myself up in my hotel room until 3am when I finally finished my article on my favourite sites in London. I then had to meet with my guide Hannu Tammelin from Birdlife International Finland who whisked me off to our first urban destination, Hotel Torni just down the road from where I was staying. The idea was not get breakfast, but to stake out a breeding pair of Eagle Owl that can sometimes be seen leaving their rooftop nest site. 

We had no luck, so for the next 10 hours we scooted from site to site picking up mosquito bites, hearing several singing Blyth's Reed Warblers, a couple River Warblers and Marsh Warblers. We also saw a family party of up to 4 Citrine Wagtails at their breeding area, plenty of Common Rosefinch, singing Icterine Warbler, Caspian Terns, Ruff still in near enough summer plumage, Wood Sandpipers and a distant unidentified eagle sp, that was being mobbed by a gull.

Speaking of which, the Larid of choice around here is definitely Common Gull. There are in the parks and patiently waiting by al fresco tables for tossed morsels. They haven't quite learnt the evil thieving ways of their larger cousins yet. The Lesser Black-backs here are darker backed with longer wing projection when at rest. They also hold their bodies in a downward slant - almost as if their wings are too heavy for them. Got to be a Baltic Gull, surely?

When I got back to my hotel, hot and knackered, I received an email from BBC Wildlife Magazine saying that they thought my article was great! Yay!

TUB in Helsinki

There was a lot of response to the Swift entry (my last entry). Let's get out and count those Swifts and help to get them and the House Martins back on their feet (so to speak!).

I'm off for another night time vigil. Firstly, I'm going to stake out that Eagle Owl, then I'm going to cycle around the western outskirts of the city in the wee daylight hours (sunrise is at around 2.45am) to see what I can find. 

Here's to being crepuscular!

Thursday, 25 June 2009


Eurasian Swift (J. Sanz)
I'm really into Swifts and I'm quite alarmed about their demise in numbers over the years - down by 47% according to figures released by the RSPB. Over the years, I have actually noticed a slump in numbers. Far less birds are to be found swooping low over the grassland at Wormwood Scrubs than in previous years. I remember tons more Swifts flying around on hot summer days when I was a teenager at school.

And the reason for the decline? A lack of nest sites. We are building structures without the crevices that these birds so love. I just hope that the architects who design new buildings wake up to the opportunity that they have to help hole nesters survive and prosper.

They have enough dangers to face on their long migrations. Let's get out there and make some holes!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Swift decline

Picture by Kim Dixon
I haven't been in tip-top condition since the weekend, as I have been suffering from one of my 'headache-less' migranes that has rendered me quite hard of hearing. Most sounds I hear grate inside my head. Not pleasant I can assure you.

This morning I arose early and made my way to my patch. It was a beautiful morning and quite hot. Just before 8am I gave a telephone interview for BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester about the demise of the Swift. There was something cool about sitting on a park bench in the sunshine watching and talking about Swifts.

The rest of my day was spent either in a torpor or typing on the computer. I received the itinerary for my Finland trip next week. The first three days will be spent in Helsinki urban birding and then the rest of the week until Sunday will be further north, hopefully spying on Wolverines and Brown Bear.

I can hardly wait.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Beddington surprise

I've been off the radar recently industriously working away here at The Urban Birder Factory. I was working on the usual things including TV programme treatments, checking out The Scrubs and general plotting and planning. Throw in a bit of football and a tad of socialising and that's the sum total of what I've been up to.

On Sunday, I continued to visit some of the locations that I plan to write about in my forthcoming BBC Wildlife piece. In the morning, after a brief visit to The Scrubs to film the first of a new series of video blogs that I plan to put on the net, I headed over to relatively nearby Yeading Brook Meadows, some 3 miles up the A40. This area of scrub and woodland is part of a collection of nature reserves along the Hillingdon Trail. This whole area is totally underwatched but quite interesting with breeding Little Owl to its credit.

Later in the afternoon I met with Roger Browne and Peter Alfrey at Beddington (Sewage) Farm for a guided tour. 

Beddington Farm looking north east 
The Croydon skyline as seen from Beddington Farm
Beddington Birders: Roger Browne, Peter Alfrey & TUB
It had changed beyond all recognition to the place I used to bird for a few years during the '80's. The guys explained the complicated conservation issues that were at hand - issues that I will raise more comprehensively in my forthcoming article and on my website. 

But in short, there has been some amazing birds found here and the site boasts perhaps the largest Tree Sparrow colony in Britain. Although the owners of the land have good intentions on paper, it seems as though the conservation measures are not being implemented as proposed and instead, the site is being slowly eroded away by construction.

Standing on top of the watch point mound (known by the local birders as Mt Beddington) I could clearly see that this site - which is practically 4 times larger than the London Wetland Centre - was a sleeping colossus. With proper management it would be the best birding site in London by far, in my opinion.

I will keep you updated on this potentially amazing urban paradise.

Friday, 19 June 2009

I love this city!

Canary Wharf - an urban birding hotspot
I got a new bat tick last night. What we thought was a Noctule clicking was re-identified as a Leisler's Bat. Apparently the first record for my area. Isn't it amazing what can be found in cities. I must admit that if a Leisler's Bat flew up to me and slapped me in the face, I probably wouldn't recognise it - unless I had a bat detector!

Today was spent researching for my BBC Wildlife article on birding sites within London. Last weekend I visited Canary Wharf on the strength of an article I read on Birdguides recently. The author talked about the amazing variety of migrants that turned up in the few trees that lined the tiny gardens at the foot of Canada Wharf Tower (the one with the triangle on top). Unfortunately, I can't write about it to encourage people to come down for security reasons.

I received a digital SLR from Nikon yesterday, so I also browsed the instruction manual and finally worked out how to turn it on. Tomorrow I will try and take a picture!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Things that go bump...and click

The dark Kensal Green Cemetery catacombs caught in a camera flash
A fairly grey day today, only relieved by the sight of a Peregrine soaring over the A40 near White City that I saw whilst driving to the car wash. Funnily enough, I saw a Peregrine yesterday drifting west over Portobello Road. They are obviously breeding nearby.

Tonight I made my ITV debut on Countrywise (you may remember me talking about shooting it last month). My piece was about the wildlife in Kensal Green Cemetery and how London is a haven for birds. They introduced me as a local hero - which was a bit embarrassing!

Later on, myself, local birder Rob Ayers and ecologist and bat woman extraordinaire Alison Fure aka Indiana Joan went for a nocturnal walk around Kensal Green Cemetery looking for bats, replete with our bat detectors. I had managed to get the company who run the cemetery to entrust me with a set of keys for the site. I had no problem strolling around the cemetery even despite Alison's stories of paranormal experiences in other London cemeteries. What did spook me slightly was the underground wanderings we had in the musty, cold catacombs. Now that was eerie. We only found one bat dropping in the whole hour plus that we spent down there.

Out in the darkened cemetery we had two species of pipistrelle plus a Noctule as we picked our way across the graves. I'm sure if I'd be wanting to hit the catacombs ever again!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Nice things

This Fur Seal was nowhere near an underground station!

As the Chair of the judges for the Mind The Bird Photographic Competition, I spent a lot of this evening scouring through some amazing images of birds taken near London Underground Stations. Basically, the competition has been organised by the RSPB in partnership with Transport for London and I have to get my votes for each category in by Friday. The official awards day will be July 15th at TfL's HQ.

I also got a lovely invite to the Isle of Mull from Debby Thorne, the RSPB White-tailed Eagle Information Officer, to traipse up to her part of the world to observe the wildlife, perhaps give a talk and certainly to have a chat. I will be up in Glasgow and Edinburgh in mid July and it's a shame that I kinda organised it already because it would have been good to travel onwards to Mull. I'm sure that something will be worked out.

Earlier today I had a meeting with my lovely agent Jo for a quick catch up. Afterwards, I hooked up with the equally lovely Alicia, my web designer. I'm relaunching my site soon and she showed me some fabulous designs that were so sexy, that I'm sure when you guys eventually see it you'll be orgasmic!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Don't resist it

Desert Wheatear in Korea (Sacha Barbato)
I had a great day today with the main achievement being finishing my Budapest article for Bird Watching Magazine in one sitting - as opposed to a more usual protracted process involving weeks of thinking before typing.

My good friend, Sacha Barbato recent sent me some pictures from his honeymoon in Korea. I was expecting images of the happy couple holding hands walking along idyllic sandy beaches. Instead, I received great images of Baillon's Crake, Little Bunting and Blur Rock Thrush amongst others. Hence the Desert Wheatear picture. 

I couldn't resist!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Football in the park

TUB in Kensington Gardens
This morning I lazily got out of bed at 7am and dragged myself down to The Scrubs. I counted at least 13 Common Whitethroat territories in the north western area of the site. Of interest was a solitary Mistle Thrush and a I saw a sole Sand Martin in amongst some swilling Swifts.

Later, I got roped into a game of jumpers-for-goalposts footie with some lads who were friends of friends. As it was just a kick around, I spent my time idly standing in goal listening for calling Great Spotted Woodpeckers and watching the sky.

After football, I headed off in search of birding sites to feature in my BBC Wildlife Magazine piece on London's birding spots. My polluted, traffic filled journey across London took me to such diverse places as Canary Wharf, Walthamstow Reservoirs and a small public park in Wapping by the Thames.

I will have more journeys to make like that one over the next couple of weeks - that is for sure!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Return of the Skylark?

TUB  (Nadia Attura)
Got slaughtered today at football - 6-2. It was 4-0 after 15 minutes, but to be fair to us, we turned it on during the final quarter of the game by scoring 2 goals. You win some, you lose some.

Yesterday morning, I visited the Scrubs for the first time this month and apart from the usual breeding suspects including observing a couple of lovely Lesser Whitethroats, I saw a distant Little Egret (our 5th record), a female Grey Wagtail and most surprisingly a Skylark (or two). After having our hopes raised in March when a pair settled only to be seemingly discouraged by persistent disturbance, it was a very welcomed sight. The bird I saw flew unflushed out of the grassland as if it was out getting a pint of milk. It seemed as though it had been living at The Scrubs for always. Had our Skylarks remained all this time and are indeed breeding, or was this just a transient bird? It seems hard to believe that they had escaped detection for all this time.

Also, later I spoke with the guy organising the trip to Costa Rica that he wants me to lead. He's going to send me an itinerary and costings and we're tentatively talking about an 8 day trip in early December.

Anybody out there interested in going on that trip with me?

Today, I spent time writing my Budapest piece for Bird Watching Magazine and mapping out my article on my favourite sites in London for BBC Wildlife Magazine.

Best get on with it then.....

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Costa Rica

Crosstown traffic.......in, er Mexico City!
Whilst London was crippled by the ongoing tube strike, I decided to sit it out at home. Both my book meetings (yesterday and today) were cancelled due to the industrial action. My meeting with A&C Black is now scheduled for tomorrow and we will be discussing an idea that has been on their table now for over nine years - yes, it read it right - nine years!

It's an idea for a field guide that first came to me when I was perhaps 11 years old. I will break the idea down in more detail if and when I get properly commissioned to do it. It will be a labour of love and there will almost certainly be no money in it. The other idea with the other publisher is far more straight forward. It will probably be called The Urban Birder and I think the title speaks for itself.

My trip to Helsinki has been confirmed for the end of the month. I will spend 3 days wandering the city with a guide looking for owls and other goodies during their perpetual daylight. In fact my guide will be picking me up from my hotel at 3am to start our day. But the bear filming element of my stay looks in doubt as permissions and agreements have to be granted by several sources before Malka (my camera operator) can be allowed to come. The worse case scenario would be that only I would go up to witness this amazing spectacle. I'll keep you informed.

I got called today by the RSPB who asked me to go to Edinburgh before mid-July to go on a boat ride up the Forth of Firth to watch seabirds. This would be for an article that I would have to write before mid-July for the autumn issue. I thought that by going to Edinburgh it would be a great opportunity to nip across to Glasgow for a couple of days to research for a Bird Watching Magazine urban birding piece. So I got on the phone to the Scottish Tourist Board and within minutes they sent me a press trip form to fill in. Now that's what I call service!

Finally, I received another email from the tour company that had invited me to Costa Rica. it contained the main guy's cell number, so I'm going to give him a bell right now.

See ya!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Urban photos

A Peregrine with a unfortunate Feral Pigeon outside Manchester Cathedral (A. Dancy)
An industrious day today. 

I seemed to be getting more and more emails to respond to on a daily basis. They range from Viagra through to various requests and messages from birders keen to let me know what they have seen in their respective urban areas. I also had an invitation to lead a tour in Costa Rica. My first thought was Yowza! But I feel further investigation is needed.

I also got the permission to use the above Peregrine picture. I think it's such a dramatic urban image. I'd love to gain as many urban pictures as possible for my site. So you if guys have any.......

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Out of the woods?

The past couple of days have been quite difficult in that I have had the sudden realisation that I have a lot of work to do in a relatively short period of time. I have a meaty article to write and finish by the end of this month for BBC Wildlife Magazine as well as my Budapest piece for Bird Watching Magazine.

I've also got to figure out how to film bears in forests on the Russian/Finnish border. I've been invited to Helsinki at the end of the month to write for Bird Watching Magazine then flown further north to spend a few days tracking bears. Don't get me wrong, it is utterly superb, but I still have to return with an amazing film.

Does David Attenborough have sleepless nights like I do?

Friday, 5 June 2009

I guess I'm moody

I need a hot sauna (Justine Watson)
It's always nice to come home, back to London the city of my birth. It's not so nice to come back to a chilly climate, grey skies and rain. It's hardly inspiring. Today, I set about household chores and replying to emails that should have been replied back to about a thousand years ago. 

For example, I or to be exact 'someone from The Urban Birder', was invited by the New York Bird Club to celebrate National Pigeon Day on June 13th in Central Park. Quite what happens on that day I wasn't sure off. Unfortunately, I will be trapped in my room on that date slaving over a 2000 word article on birding in London for BBC Wildlife Magazine.

I also managed to have a blazing argument with a woman on the phone over nothing. I think it was the tone of her voice that started me off on the warpath. Anyway, after the angry exchange, she sent me a text 5 minutes later to apologise for her part of the disagreement.

Uncharacteristically, I didn't send her an apologetic text. I thought that I would revel in negativity until tomorrow. I will apologise then.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Green green grass of home

I write this sat on the edge of my bed, pretty tired after the early start this morning and the traveling - an act that never ceases to make you tired.

I was remembering this morning when Malka and I were filming the Nightingales that I was telling you about - the ones that were hopping all around the grounds of the hotel. To be exact, they were mostly under bushes though occasionally they would come right out into the open, stand on a fallen branch and preen or feed a nearby fledgling. We even had one sing from its low perch.

Whilst we were filming in the background were singing Blackcaps, Golden Orioles juxtapositioned with police sirens, park buggies and shouting people. What a heady urban mix!

All in all, I had a fantastic time in Budapest with some great birds, a great guide in the shape of Gerard Gorman (who's lovely wife I met last night at dinner) and superb hosting by Malev Hungarian Airlines, Danubious Hotels and the Hungarian Tourist Board and their PR agents.

I'm currently looking through the rushes of what we shot in Budapest and I must say that some of the birdy images are great. I can't wait to post it on Birdguides' website.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Urban Budapest

Malka knocking out a shot
At 7am Malka and I were trying to stuff scrambled egg and a weird vegetable concoction down our throats in double quick time as we were meeting Gerard Gorman at 7am. We eventually linked up with him 15 minutes later. Thereafter, we visited his local patch in the Buda Woods where we filmed and hunted unsuccessfully for Black Woodpecker (well, we did see one fleetingly). We also scored there with Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Golden Orioles and a family of Collared Flycatchers.

We then nipped over to a posh cemetery where we came across a mobbed grey phased Tawny Owl that was being mobbed by some angry Blackbirds in a willow tree. I've never seen this colour morph before.

After dipping Crested Lark at a nearby Tescos car park we finally hit a tiny urban park to register Syrian Woodpecker. The filming went well today and Gerard performed very well in front of the camera.

That evening, we all went for dinner in town along with Gerard's missus. Had a lovely evening telling stories and talking about pubic lice!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Birds birds birds

Day two in Hungary was truly stupendous!

Malka, my camera woman and I met with Gerard Gorman and his client Joan Clark who was an amazing octogenarian with an incredible world list of over 6700 species. She has spent many years traversing every continent in the world to accumulate this grand total. Indeed, she has seen a representative from every bird family known to science.

She was in Budapest for a couple of days whilst cruising up the Danube on what looked like a mega-long luxury liner. Instead of going off on a group expedition to explore Budapest she chose to contact Gerard for a birding trip.

Gerard Gorman, Joan Clark and TUB
So, 45 minutes after picking her up, we were in the Hungarian hinterland finding such mouthwatering delights as Great Bustard, Roller, Bee-eater, Caspian Gull, Little Bittern, Spoonbill, White Stork, Purple Heron, Ferruginous Duck, Saker, Red-footed Falcon, singing Quail, Savi's Warbler (both of which I didn't see of course!), Marsh Warbler,  many Turtle Dove, Tawny Pipit, Blue-headed Wagtail, Great Reed Warbler, Red-backed & Lesser Grey Shrikes and more Golden Orioles.

The moment of the out of town excursion was seeing an Otter scamper across the road in front of us as we slowly drove down a dirt track in a fish pond area. It was a magical and unexpected moment, as man and beast were both surprised to see each other - both momentarily eyeing each other up before the Otter broke the spell and crept of into the reedbed on the other side of the road.

The typical countryside vista outside Budapest

A White Stork nest in a town whose name loosely translated means 'Woman's knickers'!

After an amazing half day, we returned to southern Budapest and another island in the Danube to chase down some woodpeckers in a small urban park. Within minutes we were watching a family of Syrian Woodpeckers whilst Gerard broke down the pertinent id features. It was an education.

We dropped a delighted Joan to her 'cruise liner' and Gerard dropped myself and Malka at our hotel. Malka had been ill all day with suspected tonsillitis. So she got sent to bed for an early night, in order for her to be shipshape for tomorrow's shoot day.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Nightingales and Orioles

The view from my hotel balcony
I arrived in Budapest with Malka, my camera operator, under dark rainy skies - a far cry from the solid hot sunshine that I had originally imagined. In fact, a friend of mine had just returned from this city raving about the weather. Thankfully, the rain soon subsided to reveal a cloudier day.

We are staying at the Danubius Health Spa Resort, Margitsziget (Margaret's Island) in the middle of the Danube. The island is about 5km around, so was a bit bigger than what I imagined. After receiving a tour around the hotel's impressive health and spa by the duty manager, I nipped out to meet with Gerard Gorman, my guide for the next few days. We strolled around the island whilst chatting and discussing the plans for tomorrow. The island itself was like a large area of wooded parkland inhabited by tons of people. Despite this we heard several Nightingales in full song and to Gerard's great surprise, several were out in the open hopping on the ground like Robins!

Aside from the by now obligatory Hooded Crows and Blackbirds, several Golden Orioles rang out their beautiful tropical sounding songs. I never tire of hearing these gorgeous birds. My pained achilles ruled out any major walk so we ended our stroll back at my hotel to watch a male Black Redstart belting out its scratchy song.
The sky above