Sunday, January 31, 2016

My tribute to Martin

Any birder who's on social media must have noticed the passing of Martin Garner. Many people have written wonderful words about him. I wrote something on Facebook as well, but that type of media is somewhat limited in how much one can write. So I will use my blog to tell, in some length (sorry), a bit more about what Martin meant to me.
I first 'met' Martin in December 2011. It wasn't a real meeting yet, but as often birders do nowadays, Martin contacted me after he noticed two interesting White-fronted Geese I had photographed in Yotvata and posted in my blog. Of course I knew nothing about White-fronted Geese, and Martin took my goose shots and made something delicious out of them. We then started communicating more closely about interesting birds in Israel. Few months later, in March 2012, Martin was invited to our Eilat Bird Festival. Before the festival I persuaded Martin to come and spend some days with me. It was sort of weird, to invite a person I had never actually met before to stay in our house. But my wife was kind of used to that, and as soon as had Martin entered our house he was so welcome and I think he felt that. Back then my children couldn't speak any English at all, but Martin found a way to communicate with them through laughter and play. It was beautiful, and my kids did not forget that several years later when we met again in the UK.

Together with Rami Mizrachi, photographing this Basalt Wheatear, one of the highlights of spring 2012


Martin's first invitation to the Eilat Festival was so successful. His talk was one of the best talks I had heard, and he really inspired everyone there. Luckily, it was one of the best spring migrations ever recorded in Israel, and Martin was almost shocked by the volume and diversity of birds. I think he really understood then the potential Israel has as a frontier for bird identification. Martin's first visit resulted in two more invitations, to the autumn Hula Valley Festivals in 2012 and 2013 - both were tremendous for me, for us as the Israeli birding community, and for him as well I think. Before both festivals Martin came to stay with us again. In both cases my lovely wife forgave me for birding for several days before disappearing to the festival for a week, only because of Martin. It was always such a pleasure to have him with us, and the mutual friendship got stronger each time.

November 2012 - birding in the Negev with Tristan Reid 

November 2013 - birding again in the Negev, where we studied Sibe Stonechats

In early 2013 Martin invited me to join the Birding Frontiers team, or rather family. It took me time to understand, as Terry wrote beautifully, what was Martin's intention - not a selfish ambition to promote his blog by interesting content. Martin gave each team member the opportunity to grow, to expand, to become better, and Martin used his site as a platform for his altruism.

In January 2013 I had a week of meetings at the BTO offices in Thetford. In the weekend I asked some friend to join me for a couple of days of birding along the N Norfolk coast, not knowing yet that a few years later this would become my local patch. We had a super team that weekend - Martin drove all the way from Sheffield, Tris and Chris drove all the way from Cumbria, Tormod came all the way from Varanger, and Nick came all the way from Thetford... Back then I didn't appreciate enough the distances these guys drove over icy roads just to bird with me for the weekend. It was a memorable weekend, and as always with Martin, it was not only the birding but the enthusiasm and the fun and the friendship.

Chris, Tormod, Martin, Tris, me and Nick at RSPB Titchwell

Wathcing Great Ouse near King's Lynn - Smews, Slav Grebes etc. 

I was lucky to be involved in the two Challenge Series books Martin wrote - Autumn and Winter. Again, it was all about Martin helping others to become better birders, more knowledgeable, more connected to each other. My contribution to these books was rather minor - they are extraordinary books, and I think it is quite amazing how Martin managed to write them both, especially the second, Winter, when he was already very ill.

In the summer of 2014 I moved to the UK. Because of special circumstances the decision making process before coming was swift, but I did have some long discussions with Martin about the pros and cons of embarking with my family on such an adventure. Martin's words made me feel secure and confident, and indeed since I had arrived in the UK Martin spread a red carpet for me in the UK birding scene. The climax was my invitation to give the main talk at Spurn Migfest in September 2015. I arrived in Spurn just on time to hear Martin give the last briefing to the Migfest super team of volunteers. And he said nothing about birds. He talked only about people, and about how the human interaction will eventually affect the birding experience. I was moved by his words, and whenever I saw someone working so hard at Migfest to make every visitor happy, I felt the contagious effect of Martin's humanity. The way Martin was excited about the Young Birder competition was incredible. He was a great teacher and mentor, and I guess he identified himself in these talented young birders, developing their skills and looking for mentors.

I enjoyed photographing and sound-recording a family of British yellow Wagtails with Martin

Martin with Ray Scally, artist of the Challenge Series books 

In May 2015 I drove up with my family to spend a few days in Flamborough. Martin was not feeling well, but I did manage to spend time with him birding and our families spent time together (not birding, mostly...). Apart for the lovely time we had together, Martin introduced me to some other great local guys that instantly became friends. That was another unique character Martin had - to create these networks, those links between people. He was so good at that. He simply said 'I think you should meet Mark'. He made it happen and that's it. Done deal.

Seawatching at Flamborough Head. Martin was so happy to be there. I was too.

Martin looking at fossils with my sons, Selwick's Bay, Flamborough

Since we first met, Martin talked to me about Shetland, and made me want to get up there. In autumn it happened, and I went up with Martin and Sharon to spend a week with good friends there. It was an emotional roller-coaster of a week. The trip started with tears, as Martin got off the train in York and remembered how exactly two years before he had first encountered his cancer. Somehow we managed to make it up in one piece. Instead of resting, on the first day on Shetland Martin joined me for a crazy day. Boom! We just went on and on all day. It was a stunning day, with so much to see and then write about. The rest of the week was very difficult for Martin and Sharon. On the one hand we were together with amazing people in this incredible place. But Martin was restricted to very short local walks, and it was very difficult for him. Especially when he saw me and the others running around and he just could not join in. We both cried when I helped Martin climb over a fence and jump over a small ditch to look for a Bluethroat I had just found. Martin knew then better than me how bad his condition is. I tried to encourage him and motivate him - how amazing it is that he is up there, on Shetland, climbing over fences and jumping over ditches, but I think he understood then that his is losing the battle. He started crying and I joined in. For me it was an amazing week. Again, Martin laid a red carpet for me and connected me with the 'right' people on Shetland, to create new friendship and collaborations. I appreciate this so much.

Bring it on!

Peter Colston, MG, me, Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington

From there it was a steep downhill. What Martin first thought was just fatigue and pain as a result of the first strenuous day on Shetland was in fact a new cancer explosion in his body. I tried to communicate with Martin as much as I could, and helped a bit with his new book, but it became increasingly difficult to communicate with Martin, and I didn't want to hassle him or the family. In hindsight, the week we had together on Shetland is the best farewell I could have asked for. I saw there Martin in his high and low. Saw how much he is loved by Sharon and by his old friends. Saw his dedication and determination, but also his understanding of the nearing end. I feel privileged to have spent this week with Martin and Sharon, and will cherish this experience with me forever.

Rest in peace, Martin. May the people you touched and friendships you have created continue to make the world a better place, as you have done. I am humbled to call myself your friend. You really are, or were, a great person. Larger than life. Always giving, always sharing, always thinking about others before yourself. You gave me so much, supported me in difficult times, enthused me to be better, not to give up, to achieve what I was determined to. I hope I managed to give even a little back to you. I am not a believer (thanks for never talking to me about God!) but I hope that you are in a good place now. You found peace before you died, which is incredible. Now the physical suffering is over. I will always think about you and try to be a better person, for you. I love you man.
I send here my deepest condolences and love to Sharon, Abi and Emily.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Today I went on my first international twitch. I Met up with Nick early am to catch a 06:50 flight out of Heathrow. Our original plan was to hit the rubythroat that took up residence in the small village of Hoogwoud, about 40 minutes north of Schiphol airport, since January 15th. Then head straight away to Den Oever right at the north of the peninsula for the Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup there

Nice sunrise over the clouds

But our plans didn't really work as hoped. It started with a delay in picking our hire car up (don't hire from Green Motion! They're located a long way out of the airport, waste if time) and we waited even more time to meet up with my good friend Gert who accompanied us today. While we were driving up we got news that the rubythroat is still there, occasionally singing - sigh of relief... 
We arrived at Hoogwoud about an hour later than we had planned. The weather was quite miserable. We positioned ourselves with the crowds - still many tens of people on site when we were there. We had OK views of it quickly - it was very shy and elusive, skulking in some thick undergrowth, like rubythroats should... But what a stunning bird! I understood that as long as it stays in the undergrowth I had no chance whatsoever to get a proper photo of it. So I sat down on the wet floor and waited for it to eventually come out of its hide and consume the yummy mealworms strategically placed for him out in the open. And I waited, and waited, and waited. Our precious time flied by. We had good views of a Blackbird, and a couple of cats, but Mr. Ruby continued to play hide-and-seek. We waited for long enough to miss the chance to see the wished-for ducks and head back to the airport on time for the early flight back, so we waited a bit more. And just a few minutes before we really had to make a move, wet and frozen, HH finally walked out of the shrubbery, gracefully climbed on 'his' log and posed for a few seconds of grace, to the satisfaction of the crowd of photographers. He appeared out in the open twice, each time for about 10 seconds, but I was pretty well positioned and I am rather pleased with my results from this very brief but very exciting encounter:

Siberian Rubythroat - 2cy male
Hoogwoud, Holland, 24/1/16


And that was that. We had to rush back to Schiphol to drop the car off and make it to the flight (that was delayed...). Good to meet Vincent on site - I hope he got some good photos too.
I have seen many Siberian Rubythroats in SE Asia in the past but this was a WP tick for me. Hoped for one in Shetland in October but no luck. Non-twitchers and non-listers would not understand why I went on this half-day trip to Holland for one single bird, but those who are surely appreciate the quest to see the Holy Grail of Siberian vagrants in the WP. 
So apart for the rubythorat we saw little else. It was nice to drive on the highways and see everywhere large flocks of geese - mainly greylags but also a few flocks of whitefronts and barnacles.
Many thanks to Nick for the plan and company, and to Gert for all his help before and during the trip.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Canaries Singing Blues

I guess many news headlines started liked this - didn't check.
I have a confession. Yesterday I went to the first football match in my life. My elder son is very keen so I joined him and a few friends to Norwich City vs. Manchester City, in the third round of the FA Cup. I took my camera and big lens along with me and learned some important lessons as an unsuccessful and extremely amateur sport photographer (maybe I'd better stick with Wildlife).
The atmosphere at Carrow Road was fantastic - a crowd of 24,500 did the job. Despite us being automatically Norwich supporters, most eyes were on Sergio Aguero. He is an amazing player indeed and I was impressed by his actions.

Here he is straight after scoring his goal:

Willy Caballero didn't work too hard yesterday:

Cameron Jerome's expression says it all:

Jesus Navas after a hard tackle:

Raheem Sterling had a very good match: 

With Ryan Bennett:

Andre Wisdom with the distinctive bald patch on the back of his head:

Pablo Zabaleta and Kevin de Bruyne:

And now for the excuses:
I sat in the 10th row, hence the lousy angle resulting in green background. Also I was worried about knocking those sat in front of me with my lens. I was trying to enjoy the match and rarely tried to get action shots and that never worked well, so I have mostly relaxed portraits in slow moments. When I had my eye inside the viewfinder I could really see nothing of the match and felt I was missing much. I was very limited with my 500 mm for shots at short distance. And my 7D has a slow shutter release speed - I need a faster camera.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

One of these random days

Very enjoyable day with Terry T today in N Norfolk. Weather was lovely - nice and sunny. Started off at pretty casually around Cley and Blakeney. Best find was James McCallum at Cley Visitor Centre, identified by Terry. Not much else - Merlin, Peregrine etc.
Lady Ann's Drive at Holkham was fabulous - packed with birds. Geese, Wigeons, large flock of Goldies, thousands of Lapwings - just brilliant.

Pink-footed Geese

I love brents - truly adorable birds. This one was caught red-handed killing a grass:

I saw a couple of hybrid X Black Brants but too far to photograph
In Blakeney there is a small waterfowl collection run by some dodgy shooting association. So many unringed exotics there - how can you ever tick waterfowl in the UK with these collections everywhere? 
Hooded Merganser 

Wood Duck

Red-breasted, Ross's and Barnaross's Geese, and Fulvous Whistling Ducks (and Jackdaw)

Red-crested Pochards

Spot-billed Duck

The second half of the day was sort of weird. After Holkham we decided to try the Iceland Gull at King's Lynn. My tomtom lead me through Flitcham. Over the past week or so during which this Pallid Harrier is there I was offered several times by friends to go and see it, including this morning, but I declined because I couldn't be bothered. When I approached Flitcham I saw a group of birders scoping something from the roadside. I thought I might as well stop and have a quick look around. I pulled over and there it was, perched distantly on a hedge, decent scope views. Accidental UK tick... 

At Fisher's fleet, King's Lynn, at first there was a nice feeding frenzy of gulls on some leftover prawns, but soon the tide rose and they all dispersed - we didn't see the iceland for an hour or so. The light was fading and the gulls were heading out to sea to roost. We just had to use the magic murphy words 'counter-productive' and 'it was a nice day anyway' when Terry spotted the gull as it flew from behind a hangar! It gave us good but very brief views, maybe 3 seconds, not enough to photograph it. Then it didn't show again despite us using the same negative phrases, and that was the end of the day.