Sunday, 3 February 2019

Lights, camera, action!

It looked like it would be one of those lovely clear cold and crisp mornings today, so I leaped out of bed and hurried out. And in a break from recent tradition I took my camera, all those lovely Gulls sat out on the ice.....Aaarghhhh what am I saying!! Ducks, I meant ducks. It was indeed lovely weather, but wait, what is this huge ungainly lump hanging off my right shoulder causing me to bend double? Well, I have not used my camera all year, which also means that I have not had to carry it anywhere. This was the mainly lightweight version, and blimey what a massive pain in the backside it was. Did I really used to do this regularly?

All was forgotten when I reached the Jubilee pond. Perfect light, and loads of ducks paddling about in the small amount of clear water. And out on the ice Gulls, dozens of perfect, gleaming..... Gnuuuuurrrrr. I prepared the camera and for the next half an hour didn't take a single image. Nothing. Nada. A complete wash out. I was hopeless. Useless. Completely incapable of creating anything.

I suppose this is completely deserved. It should not be easy. Even with great kit you should not be able to simply pick it up and go out and create world-class photographs. This morning I couldn't even create pre-school class....  Thinking about it I have not even pointed my camera at a bird since I went to Florida in November. That's only a few months ago but it goes to show how easy it is to get rusty. Not that Wanstead is anywhere near as conducive to bird photography as Florida, but still, I would back to myself to take a good photograph anywhere. Or maybe not anymore....

Whilst I was flapping around I did manage to Linnet and, finally, Fieldfare to the year list, which added to the Buzzard that flew over the house yesterday takes me to the grand total of 66 for the year. So 2019 is below par on that front too. Onwards and upwards.

116 frames taken, 115 deleted. This survived, but only just.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Preaching to the converted

Remember this? Well I went, I could hardly have skipped it having posted about it. Get your miniature violins ready as I dashed out of work at about 7pm, got to the Gold Club just as it started and listened to Rob’s talk, and then went back to work. My own current misfortunes aside, it was a hugely informative session and I would have said that I was one of the converted, i.e. I should know a lot of this already. You have heard this expression I take it, preaching to the converted? I think it started off life being associated with religion, whereby an evangelistic priest is viewed as wasting his time preaching in a church as everyone in the church is already, well, in the church. The same thing can said about many areas, including nature. I didn’t conduct a survey, but I would be willing to bet that everyone at the Golf Club listening to Rob was there because they deeply cared about nature already. That’s not to say, like me, that they didn’t learn something, but it is hardly spreading the word is it? Spreading the word – again this is religious in nature, the word of God. The Gospel. For this to work, the message about the deep shit we’re in needs to spread. Rob alluded to it by mentioning that people could become involved by using social media, but I find that to be a closed circle. Almost everything that flows across my Twitter timeline is there because I have chosen to be exposed to it. People who hold opposing views on various topics experience exactly the same phenomenon, it is what I refer to as the echo chamber. Mainly I mean that in a pejorative way – echo chambers of intolerance and hate – but the same thing can be said of nature and conservation. What is needed is to spread beyond our familiar circles, to wriggle our way into other people’s comfort zones to tell the story. To make a connection to nature for them that, however small, may set seed.

The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife (get it here) contained a very interesting statistic. A study carried out by the RSPB showed that 1/3rd of adults did not recognise a Barn Owl. Wow, just wow. It is not conceivable to me that people would not know what a Barn Owl was. Then again if you spend your life watching Netflix and piddling about on SnapChat, leading a life so unbelievably blinkered that you never go outside, maybe that is entirely possible. I decided it to test it with a willing* group of volunteers. My team at work. It is not a big team, but we all spend most of our waking hours cooped up inside so in that respect are similar to most of the country. Crucially I knew that none of them are obsessive bird watchers. Also things have been pretty hard recently and anything that can lighten the mood is a good thing.

I sent around the following photo, no funny business here.

The result was an exact split. From a field of 18, half the people got it right, and half the people got it wrong or didn’t know. The most popular wrong answer was Arctic Owl. Yes, Arctic Owl, like in Harry Potter..... Now it probably won’t be a surprise to many of you (don’t forget, you are the converted) that a bunch of finance workers would know less about nature than other demographics. It was not a surprise to me, even though I try and talk to them about birds as much as possible and they have to humour me. These people need help. In my view a Barn Owl is iconic. I don’t see them very often, but nonetheless it is a strikingly obvious bird and I don’t understand how you can get to age 23ish (the youngest) and not just have never knowingly seen one but not know what one is full stop. It’s a scandal. The manifesto also mentions something called Shifting Baseline Syndrome – where each subsequent generation has a new and generally poorer view of what constitutes normal. Younger generations simply cannot comprehend that fields used to be full of Skylarks as now there are just a handful, or that they can expect to see perhaps one Turtle Dove a year whereas an elderly relative may have seen hundreds.

How do we get people who think they don’t care about wildlife to start taking an interest and to start caring? Nature is good for the soul, this is a well-known fact. In some countries doctors are beginning to prescribe it instead of pills! My view is that many people simply don’t know what they are missing. All it might take is one walk outside in springtime, or one visit to a winter wader roost or Starling murmuration to open their eyes to what is all around them. And then when they realise that it might soon be gone, and perhaps that their actions as well as their previous indifference could be contributing to that, might that not then strike a chord? There is obviously something to be said for making the conservation movement’s voice heard, for coming together as a collective and shouting loudly. That’s when our dear elected leaders sit up and take note, when they realise that large swathes of people might not vote for them next time, and if the last few weeks have taught us anything it is that self-interest among politicians still reigns supreme. But in my view the real battle is quietly initiating the uninitiated. Not to be conservation heroes but just to be interested and to care. That’s the fight right there.

So the message is simply this. Tell your friends. Tell your colleagues. Tell extended family. Tell the bus driver. Tell the dog walkers (although be prepared to be told to fuck off...). As I sat in that room earlier this week I wondered if I had been doing it all wrong. For me birding is very much a solitary activity, indeed I sometimes go out of my way to make it so. Perhaps instead I should be the kindly old duffer who quietly tells the disengaged phone-obsessed passer-by about the Green Woodpecker feeding on the path in front of them, about the Skylark trilling overhead. It is not in my nature but it would probably be worth it.

Anyhow, read the Manifesto here. Download it, spread it, leave copies lying around wherever you work. Mention wildlife as much as possible to as many people as possible, and especially to those who you know are not already converted. Those are the people who will win this.

*unwilling, but when I ask….

Monday, 28 January 2019

Putting pen to paper, minor birding and some music

You have probably already gathered that I am finding blogging no easier in 2019. I very nearly wound the whole thing up on the 6th January actually, the post was set to auto-publish, but after New Year I had a sudden change of heart. I'm not convinced I made the right decision. 

Anyhow, I did nip out on Saturday to enjoy a short amount of birding while one of the kids did Park Run. It was mildly successful given the 30 minute timeframe - a Skylark over the brooms, and the pair of Stonechat that eluded me on my first outing were knocking about near Capel Road. This puts me on 63 for the year but in all honesty I have not been trying very hard - plenty of other things have been diverting my attention. 

Big Garden Birdwatch for starters, which unsurprisingly was dominated by sodding Parakeets, although not the largest number I have ever had. Feeders without protection go down at the rate of about 3 inches a day. As with all of these events I've recorded over the years, none of the good stuff turned up. Coal Tit for example, and Jackdaw, both of which are otherwise regular. I did get a House Sparrow though which rarely happens. Because I've not really gone out anywhere I've spent more time than usual watching the garden. Nothing particularly exciting, but I have noticed a subtle change in bird behaviour as from about a fortnight ago. Blackbirds for instance suddenly appeared and started chasing each other around the place. This week the changes have been led by the local Dunnocks, many of which have started singing. It may not feel like it, with snow last week and more forecast, but it's a reminder that ornithological spring has started. It's even possible that the first northbound Wheatears are setting off.....

I'm getting ahead of myself. We still have a difficult month of no birds ahead of us. Luckily I have been so slack that there are still things to find before it gets interesting again. Now where did I leave that Fieldfare?

As an aside, I have been listening to the following song a lot. Love Knopfler and his lack of ego, could watch him effortlessly play guitar for hours, and his partner on this track is Ruth Moody from the Wailin' Jennys. I discovered it randomly at the weekend via a random "play Mark Knopfler" command to She Who Must Not Be Named, somehow I missed the album completely. What a lovely voice she has, it has been on repeat. Today I watched the video. Birders take note....

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Chateau L and the planet: Part I

Our family life is largely centred around meals around the dining table. That’s where we gather, where we share the day, where we discuss the news and tell each other stories. There are no TV dinners in our house, there is no grab and go. Despite our busy schedule we always try and make time for this daily event. It’s something I hope our kids will take forward – how do families spend time together if they don’t do this? Topics of conversation are varied. We talk about Trump, we talk about Brexit, we talk about school, books, things we heard on the radio. We talk about family. We talk about holidays, books, music and food. I try and talk about birds and plants….. There are few taboos, a few nights ago for example we ended up talking about FGM. There is no shying away from things like this, it is best that kids are informed, and actually you would be surprised at how early school’s start sex education and a number of other things under a banner they call “citizenship”. Our kids are exposed to a broad palette.

As I mentioned to in my last post, one topic that we talk a lot about is the environment. Like many of you I have been reading some very very sobering things about the state of the planet. Our family is not a wasteful one, but neither are we saints. Also, I suspect, like many there was a pervading and overriding thought of “What difference can we make, nobody else bothers, why should we?”, and certainly if you have ever visited America it is enough to make you wonder why anybody bothers. In fact it makes you want to weep. But there are five of us, and the upshot is we think that we can do better. It requires some changes, but none of it is hard, and we think that we can make a small difference.  I feel faintly embarrassed and more than a little sanctimonious for even typing this, and I am not holding myself up as a shining beacon of sustainability, but I just felt that if I outlined a few easy things that we have started to do then maybe it would encourage others to do the same. No doubt some will say “Oh we have been doing that for years”, and if you have then that is great and you are ahead of us. Of course this will never be enough for the more radical members of the green movement, but in my opinion it isn’t the full-on eco warriors who will drive the change that is needed. It’s the thousands upon thousands of normal families like ours, living normal working lives, who en masses can help to stem the tide. I already wrote about changing our diet, but what else? Well, what about energy use?
  • Gas. We already changed our energy supplier last year to one that only uses green energy, waving goodbye to the big national supplier that we had used for years but that ultimately is not doing enough. If sufficient people make that conscious choice then things will change. In doing so we lost our smart meter which is a bit of a shame and means we can no longer see our real-time energy use. But we do have one of those supposedly intelligent thermostats, and after Christmas I went onto the app and reduced the temperature at all points in the day by a full 2 degrees. It is noticeably colder in the house, but it is also noticeable that the boiler is not on as much. Obviously this is variable depending on the weather outside, but all things being equal our gas consumption should drop. Also as of last year Chateau L has a new boiler, replacing one that was at least 15 years old. Whilst our motivation for this wasn’t reduced consumption, it is a fact that it is significantly more efficient than the old one.
  • Electricity. I wasn’t sure about this as it seems that ever more things require a power supply these days. Several mobile phones need charging nearly every day for instance, and all those smart-home devices that we simply didn’t have two years ago are in an “always on” state. With our smart meter gone it is a lot harder to see what we’re using, but there are some good stats on the internet on exactly how much this constant stand-by uses. An Amazon Echo Dot for instance, of which we have several, draws a constant 1.7-3W of power. A smart hub used to control lights draws 1.5W. I dutifully added up all of these various devices that are now dotted around Chateau L and discovered that over a year they use 170KwH – about £20 - simply from being plugged in, and it’s actually not much more if they’re actually being used, playing music etc. That’s actually a lot better than I thought but nonetheless it’s an increase versus where we were. Luckily there are all sorts of things that go the other way – if you wanted to make a change the easiest of these is LED light bulbs. I don’t know how many lights the average house has but after the renovation and turret extension Chateau L has 78 (I actually counted!), and nearly every single one of these is now an LED. Previously we had a mix of halogen, CFL, fluorescent tubes and ancient filaments, albeit that we had half as many lights. The big difference is that the new rooms have lots of LED downlights in the ceilings, but despite this increase the overall wattage of bulbs in the house is 20% of what it was. I find that incredible, image how much energy people wasted in the past! I’ve had a go at working out what our real-life usage does to this, a relatively detailed estimate of what we used prior to the building work but with older style bulbs, versus what we use now including the extra rooms but with LED bulbs. I think that annually we have dropped from around 825KwH to 275KwH, saving around £75. That may not sound a lot but it easily eclipses the increase associated with the various smart devices. And the benefit of smart devices is that I can turn off anything that has been accidentally left on with just a tap on my phone no matter where I am - no more lights left on all day. Each house and each family living in it is different, I’ve only looked at lighting and smart devices here, and of course switching out all the old bulbs for new comes at a manufacturing cost. That said LEDs seem to go on forever whereas I was frequently having to change those supposedly long-life bulbs. I propose to not even venture down that road - one thing I have learned over the last few weeks is that working out any kind of totally accurate view of any one person’s overall impact on this earth is practically impossible. There is plenty more to have a look at as well.
  • Petrol. For a long time we had two cars. For the last two years though we have only had one, and that does not get used very often or go very far. For instance I no longer engage in twitching, nor any kind of year-listing other than locally on foot. In fact now that I think about it my UK birding is about as carbon neutral as it could possibly be. Unfortunately we still need a car, or rather it would be inconvenient not to have one immediately available. I am giving thought to getting rid of it though, mainly for economic reasons, and especially as so many other options are coming online all the time. For now we’re keeping it, but fundamentally buses, trains and tubes are the way we all get around on a daily basis. Bicycles would be better, especially for Mrs L and I. She however cycles when the weather is nice, whereas I am just far too lazy always injured in some way that prevents exercise.
So that concludes part one of this essay. Part two is on the way. I ended up writing so much I felt that people might give up before I finished so I've split it into two. After that normal service will resume as I still haven't seen a Fieldfare this year....

Sunday, 13 January 2019

What have I started?

Over Christmas the residents of Chateau L spent a lot of time together. When we are together we chat - the topics are wide and varied, and sometimes I even get to talk about plants and birds. One of the things we talked about was the environment - this is a house where we are all fairly conscious of about the state of the planet, because we follow current affairs and we are interested in nature. As we talked about the dire state of affairs, we realised that the five of us could do a lot better. Not that we were bad particularly, but there is always something that can be improved. 

We are starting with meat. Now our intention is not to become vegan as appears to be all the rage, nor even vegetarian, however having done some basic research on the impacts of certain foods versus others it is clear that red meat is the single most environmentally unfriendly foodstuff around - beef leads the way closely followed by lamb. Unfortunately it’s also really convenient – when you get home from work at 7pm whipping up a chilli con carne or similar is an easy option. We probably did this twice a week, though other types of red meat were very rare. No longer. We’ve invested in a couple of vegetarian cookbooks and as a family gone through them to see what we might like that seems easy and tasty – in short there are loads. What we are not going to do is go with any substitutes – quorn, tofu and their ilk are all out. Pointless to try and pretend, instead we’re going to base dishes on actual vegetables.

Last week we had a carrot biryani, a mushroom risotto using orzo, and a dish based on lentils, which means we haven’t bought or eaten something approaching 1.5kg of beef – that will soon add up. The biryani was excellent and got the thumbs up from all five of us. The risotto however,…… well we’re probably not going to have that as often. However this morning when we were planning the shopping for the week ahead I realised that Mrs L is really getting into this - four out of five meals next week seem to be vegetarian. This is was not what I thought I was getting myself into! I expect I will survive, but just to let prospective veggies out there that it appears to be a slippery slope. 

Reducing meat consumption was actually just one of the things we decided we would do, but I'm already feeling overly sanctimonious for one day, and the last thing I would want people to think is that I am a saint. Nonetheless watch this space - when I've run out of birdy things to write about I might turn to the other seven or so changes. Oh, wait.....

Saturday, 12 January 2019

January Accumulation

In a break from tradition this post is going to be about birds. It is January, and this means local birding is exciting again. Kind of. Like many birders who have local patches, for me the start of the new year heralds the start of new year list - I can happily wander around seeing exactly the same birds that I see every year. The excitement is palpable, the competition has started again! 

It is all pointless. Whether I have seen 50 birds, 60, or even 70 by the end of January is completely irrelevant. These are the birds that I will see no matter what, I would have to be blind to miss them. But somehow this does not stop me seeking out the more obscure bits of the Park to find a Siskin, or to spend inordinate amounts of time in Bush Wood in search of Treecreeper. I am a fool, but a happy one.

Last weekend I had no blogging urges to speak off, so this year's fine start has gone unrecorded in internetland. However towards the top of this page you will see a shiny new link to "Wanstead 2019" which details each and every magnificent completely expected and regular sighting so far. Last weekend Tony and I mopped up most of what was available on the Flats. There were of course notable exceptions - could we find a Skylark or Stonechat? No we could not. We also paid our annual visit to Bush Wood, where we found Nuthatch and Firecrest in short order, but of Treecreeper there was no sign. We then took a quick spin around the Park, adding Teal, Little Egret and Green Woodpecker. Adding to the birds I'd seen out of the window on the New Year's Day, I ended that first proper outing on 54 species which is decidedly average - sometimes I get more than that on the first day. 

I am not as keen as I once was, in fact some may describe me as more than a little jaded - by many things, not just birding. However a week at work tends to help build up the necessary level of enthusiasm to get out there, for fresh air if nothing else. So this morning I was up nice and early and found myself in Bush Wood for the second time this year. It will also be the last time, as happily I found the missing Treecreeper quite quickly near the dried up pond. In fact I found two, which bodes well for their continued presence in our area. Flush with early success I made my way over to Chalet Wood. This proved the perfect comedown, with zero sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and ten trillion out of control dogs running amok whilst their owners emitted a variety of pathetic and useless cries which were roundly ignored. Also sighted on my tour were Water Rail on Shoulder of Mutton, a pleasing 51 Teal on Heronry plus a fly-by Kingfisher, 8+ Siskin in the Dell, and a Great Crested Grebe on Perch. If you are interested in knowing where all these locations are, the map is here. If you are not that's fine too.

This places me on 61 for the year. I would describe this as 'getting there'. Significant misses so far include Pochard, Kestrel and Fieldfare, as well as the birds mentioned above. The thrill of seeking these out cannot be understat.....

Vista management in the Park. This used to be a nice tangle that birds could rest up in, safe and out of sight. Maybe one day the Corporation of London will plant something rather than just chopping it all down?

Thursday, 10 January 2019

A People's Manifesto for Wildlife in Wanstead

There is a talk at the Wanstead Golf Club on 30th January - all welcome. One of the local birders here, Rob "Treecreeper" Sheldon, will give a presentation and buy everyone drinks*. If you are a lover of green spaces in our area you should make sure you are there. Thanks.

* He won't, but there is a bar.