Saturday, 22 October 2016

Temperature guage

This post I expect to go down like a lead balloon but I am going to write it anyway. It’s actually boring me writing it, but what the hell, live a little.

For many years I have been obsessed with the temperature. Specifically, how cold is it? Will my plants survive? How ironic then that it was excessively high temperatures that were the cause of recent problems…..though as I said in retrospect that might have been the best thing to ever happen as it appeared to have killed off 100% of insect pests and 90% of the leaves have already grown back or are starting to, so a clear "win". So we’re back to the other end of the thermometer. Everyone still with me? If you’re not, let me summarise. Hot = good, cold = bad.

Currently it is cold that is bothering me. This morning when I checked the fancy gizmo on my shelf that has a wireless link to the greenhouse it showed as 8.6 degrees in there, and it had dropped to 7.4 degrees overnight. Gah! 7.4! That’s freezing! Well not literally obviously, but it’s a far cry from the heady heights of 30 degrees which I was achieving regularly all summer. At this time of year the biggest problem is the differential between day and night time temperatures. Last weekend was really rather nice, and as a result the greenhouse hit 19 degrees. When I popped in during the day it felt really nice, but it more than halved overnight. In the summer when it’s 30 during the day, it never drops below 20 at night, so nothing stops growing. Right now the plants must be very confused, not knowing if they’re coming or going. It is the same every autumn/winter of course, but the last few years I have not cared and simply buried my head in the sand. This year is different. 

Meanwhile in the house the morning temperature was 17.5 degrees. That’s not too bad, but as I mentioned there are a lot of plants still actively growing new flushes of leaves in response to the August furnace incident, and this isn't really warm enough to see these through to their conclusion. They might terminate or become stunted, and I can already see a slowdown. When the first batch of new growth started, in September – read all about it here, 3 people already did! – it was still sufficiently warm and light that the new leaves positively raced away. Those that started in October however, perhaps only a couple weeks later, have been much slower. Away on Shetland and then working in Glasgow I came back to not much change given the number of days that had elapsed. And worse still there are some including my favourite plant that have only just started in the last two days. There is nothing I can do, the plants decide when they will grow, and that is that. I’ve moved it closer to the window for more light, but the lack of heat may end up causing a stall.

Enter heating. This is what the industrial revolution has brought us and it is time. I suppose that it is nothing short of a miracle that Chateau L has not yet this year had to resort to central heating, much less the underfloor heating where the plants are. So last Sunday morning I switched both on, coinciding neatly with our free energy period. It took a while to get going but it was lovely. Warm feet! Warm air! It was so pleasant that it caused me to chill a bottle of Rosé and for us all to have a very protracted Mediterranean family lunch! But outside of those free weekend periods, ouch. We recently got given a smart meter from our supplier. It can show you at any point how much money you have spent on electricity or gas, and all last week those numbers ticked up much faster than at any point for many months. I have a bad feeling that I could be staring a very large bill in the face in a few months, especially if the predicted Siberian winter comes to pass.

That said, the news from across the country of late suggests that it already has!!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A momentary lapse of reason

"I thought you had stopped twitching?"

I got that a lot at Spurn the other day. Er, yes, well. I'm not staying I've started again, but that bloody Accentor at Spurn called to me for some reason. Very contrary. I've managed to not be arsed nearly all year and consequently not seen some amazing birds, and then when a colourful Dunnock turns up I'm in the car like a shot. As Col put it: "I don't do twitching anymore preachy preachy oh hang on, Sibe what? Oh go on then."

With a frankly ridiculous crowd in the dark, I very quickly realised why perhaps it was that I had 'quit'. Hundreds of people all with the same thought. Must. See. The. Bird. At. All. Costs. A sudden surge to the fence line, like somebody had fired a starting pistol, then the masses sheepishly hauled out of the undergrowth by the local birders. I watched, irritated, from the pavement, and joined the queue that was then formed. This was a million times worse that the Lancey on Shetland, but this is mainland UK twitching in 2016. If you want to see the birds, this is what you sign up to. OK so it was worse than normal, this being the second ever UK record of Siberian Accentor, and the first gettable one without spending upwards of £500 - which more than a few people apparently did last week for the first one on Shetland. Nonetheless I suspect my twitching career could still be in its final throes.

It had calmed down by the afternoon when we went back for seconds, the 1200 or so having been sated, but that early morning stampede was amazing. It reminded me of the Kent Dusky Thrush in terms of the desperation, when will people ever learn? They won't.

Spurn itself was amazing. I've only been a few time before, but today was easily the best. Howard, Sam, Bradders and I were almost overwhelmed by the numbers of birds dropping out of the sky. 6 Woodcock, 15+ Ring Ouzels, 4 Redstart, Black Redstart, Shorelark and Jack Snipe accompanied thousands of Redwings and Robins. Chiffchaffs probably numbered 100, and whilst we didn't see all that was on offer, a Dusky Warbler and another Little Bunting were excellent value. Meanwhile Bean GeeseBrents and White-fronts chugged south as we picked through sheltered spots. A Firecrest in a ditch here, exhausted Goldcrests at our feet there, birds falling out of the sky almost everywhere you looked.


The Little Bunting was a major tick for Sam, his number one bogey bird after a lifetime's birding. I remember being with him on Scilly as we dipped a one on St Mary's and then another on St Martins. In the intervening seven years he still hadn't bumped into one, so when Bradders and H called one along the path at Sammy's Point it was a special moment that I was glad I was there for. It showed well too, albeit briefly, and then with the number of birders about caused gridlock at the end of the road - we could barely get back to Easington. All in all a rather spectacular days birding, even if we didn't see all of what was there - simply too many people for that. When brigade numbers of green-clad warriors are actively twitching a Shore Lark you know something is very very wrong. 

Little Bunting


So will my twitching career now see a resurgence? I doubt it, but as with many things in life, never say never. I once said I would never eat a chickpea again for instance, but I had one yesterday. So the odd choice bird perhaps, but I can safely say that the herd mentality isn't for me. That said the earnest evening phone calls, the midnight pickup and whispered conversations in the driveway, and then the drive through the night (thanks H!).... well it was like old times, palpable excitement building in the car, adrenalin overcoming tiredness. And of course the journey passed with the sharing of memories, past glories and silly stories in good company. And it's that as much as the bird that often make these days as good as they are. A solo drive and a brief glimpse just wouldn't be the same, it's a shared experience, success or failure. Happily it was a success, as it frequently is. Spare a thought however for the eight birders who haven't seen a Siberian Accentor this year.

Dusky Warbler

Saturday, 15 October 2016

How does your garden feed?

I am sorry to say that I have not fed my garden birds for at least three years, and consequently I’ve not really seen very much out of the window. My regular Robin has unfailingly turned up whenever I’ve been out gardening, but other than that it has been slim pickings. The reason for this was an indestructible squirrel with metal teeth that came and parked itself on my feeders and sat there 24/24 eating me out of house and home. It actually chewed through one wire cage feeder such that a waterfall of peanuts cascaded onto the lawn. I bought a diversion squirrel feeder and put it on the fence in the hope it would feed there instead, but it preferred seeds and nuts. I eventually resorted to borrowing a gun and trying to shoot it, but it had a forcefield and the pellets simply bounced off, so I let it finish off all the food and then took all the feeders down. Only then did it swagger off to the next benefactor.

I have decided to try again, so a couple of weeks ago I cleaned all my bird feeders, bought a couple of new ones (promised to be squirrel-proof) and some taller poles with squirrel baffles, and finally opened some large bags of seeds and nuts that had been gathering dust in my toilet for a couple of years. Family members are very pleased to be able to sit down without their legs jammed against 12.5kg of nuts.

The squirrel came back immediately of course, but so far it has just been prowling around the base of the feeders whilst its fiendish little brain figures out how to defeat the various anti-squirrel measures. I’ve no doubt it will get there eventually, but so far the combination of the even taller poles with conical baffles holding metal feeders which are spring-loaded such that the weight of a squirrel stops the flow of food seem to be holding it at bay.

It has taken longer for the birds to return, and I’ve not necessarily always been around to see them, but last weekend over lunch they were there en masse. Four species of Tits included a pair of Coal Tits that dashed in for a sunflower seed and then dashed off to consume it, and were only the second time I’ve seen this species in my garden. As well as the Tits, the Robin made an appearance, up to five Goldfinches were at the nyger, and a brief fat Woodpigeon attempted to land but its vast bulk prevented it from doing so. All the activity proved an excellent talking point over lunch, and showed that my kids have still not forgotten all of the basic bird ID lessons that were drummed into them from an early age. Talking of which, this morning as I was making coffee a Great Spotted Woodpecker was on one of the peanut feeders. See what I did there? A huge bird, splinters of peanuts were flying everywhere, so perhaps this will be sufficient to distract evil squirrel from engaging in nefarious acrobatics.

What I am really hoping for is a Nuthatch. For many years we inexplicably didn’t have any Nuthatches on the patch, but they’re making a comeback, and they are mostly based in the same bit of the patch as the Coal Tits. I reckon I have every chance this coming winter as the birds may start to explore local gardens for food. The other vague possibility is Mealy Redpoll. There seem to be quite a few ‘colder’ birds about already on the coast, so there’s always a chance that they gradually form up inland. Both would be garden ticks, and the Redpoll would be a full fat patch tick. Or maybe, just maybe, I should dream bigger? There are numerous examples of stonking rarities visiting garden feeders. What do Siberian Accentors like to eat?

Friday, 14 October 2016

Schadenfreude rules supreme

All this recent writing about blogging or not blogging as the case may be got to me thinking about what makes a blog good. What makes me go back and revisit an old page, what makes me diligently go and check a website just in case there’s something new? I know what I like, I alluded to it earlier – variety. For instance repeated photos of Caspian Gulls banking in flight over shingle, no matter their quality, tends to be a bit of a turn-off. That’s just me, YMMV. And of course I’m hugely guilty of one-dimensionality at times, but nonetheless I wondered if the decline in blogging might be partly due to the material.

Enter blog stats. 

In common with my general falling out of love with this website, though not that you would notice this week, I’ve also not looked at my stats for a while. These tell me - if I desire to know it - who has visited me, where they live, what their pets are called and what those pets had for breakfast. I made an effort to do so yesterday and it is fascinating. Ok so yes there is a general downward trend from about 2013 which I knew about, but taking 2016 as the sample I wondered what had worked and what had not. Seeing as these days comments are a little haphazard in the light of easier forms of social media, I based my “research” on the number of times an individual post has been read. Hits in other words. Highly illuminating! 

All the posts about travel which I admit have been suffocatingly many tend actually not to be very well read. This is a shame as travel is probably my main interest at the moment, but I suppose saturation point has been reached. A trip report on birding Hawaii was read 110 times, a trip to Prague 100, and a post stuffed full of photos of birds on a New York beach just 68. Fair enough, I can see that there may not be a huge amount of relevance there for some people, and it comes back to my Caspo comment above - nice sharp pictures of Skimmers? Meh. Fine.

The local birding posts such as they are tend to do better, perhaps getting 150 individual hits each time. This was a bit of a surprise given it is supposed to be the core element of this blog, but then again I’ve been birding Wanstead and writing about it for many years so to a certain extent it has become a little repetitive and dull  - which of course mirrors my own birding experience: most patch visits are extremely dull! 

Instead the traffic is dominated by tales of woe. Forget local birds and exotic locations, that’s not what the public want. The numbers don’t lie, people want schadenfreude. Noun: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Blog readers want to chuckle at the bad things that happen to other people, which in the case of this blog mostly means me. Thus it was that 200 people gleefully read the post about breaking my hand complete with gory x-ray, 233 joyfully clicked on a post about missing all the rare birds on Shetland, 296 tuned in to my aching buttocks after cycling to work, and then the clear recent winner with 396, a write-up of a dog-walker shouting at another dog-walker and Lee Evans getting zapped by an electric fence.

Ho ho ho! Much mirth and merriment! The message is clear. Lee, no matter what people might think of him, is comedy gold, a best-seller and always will be. That I should engage in more (any!) sporting activity to raise the possibility that something might go "pop!" or "twang!". And that I should start twitching again so that I can DIP.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

So why do bloggers give up?

It’s gratifying to know that a few people still read it and that a few people would be sad if I stopped, and I thank those people for their kind words, but that wasn’t really where I was going with that last post on the death of blogging. In any event I’m not yet decided on what the future holds. On the one hand I’m tired of it, tired of the nagging feelings it can evoke. On the other hand I’ve not yet totally run out of things to write about, and I’ve not really even started on recycling, that great resource for lapsing bloggers. But whatever happens I won’t delete it, as Gavin mentioned blog authors are probably the greatest readers of their old posts and I would miss them too much.

So I should have been more explicit. Rather than responses along the lines of “Please don’t stop”, very kind though they are, what I really wanted to explore was why it is that blogging appears to be on the way out? Many of my favourite blogs have stopped – 3 months, 4 months, over a year in some instances. Why? Apathy? Malaise? Shift of focus? Lack of time?

For me it is a mixture of all of these things, but time pressure is close to the top. Do many bloggers perhaps start in their relative youth when they have a fair amount of time, but then as work gets busier, relationships start, family comes along, house moves, longer commutes – real life in other words, all of the things that typically begin to weigh people down in their mid-thirties or these days perhaps a little later than that – and so quietly drop it? Of course I didn’t start blogging until I had moved house and had three kids, but I’m just a sucker for punishment. But if any of you reading this are the people whose blogs I used to enjoy but who have gone quiet, why is that? What made you stop? And do you still read blogs even if you don’t now write one yourself? And what might make you start again?

There are parallels with twitching. Of the small group of guys that I typically travelled to see birds with, almost every single one of them barely goes any more. I‘m one of the lapsed. I’m busier than I have ever been and so I am actively attempting to be less busy by dropping out of things that don’t seem to matter as much anymore. Twitching is definitely one of those that's fallen by the wayside, but blogging may be as well. It is in that second tier list which could go either way. 

Most of the blogs I follow or followed were centered around birds and birding, just like mine hem hem. Is their demise or mothballing linked to their author’s current lack of birding? Phasing as it is known? Are bird bloggers falling into the trap of no birding equals no blogging? Reading that article I linked to, I am not sure that follows, as the subject matter there was mostly interpersonal, family-oriented “mom” blogs, and it’s not like parenting just stops is it? But just because it's possible that my favourite writers of yesteryear haven’t really been out birding for a while, does it also follow that they have nothing to say? Why not branch out? The best blogs I always felt were the ones that were more varied and didn’t rely purely on birding material which in some instances, say inland patch-working in June, can get really boring really quickly. But they’ve stopped too, which supports the more general malaise that I’m currently seeing.

So why this malaise?

If you once wrote a blog (especially one I followed) why don't you now?
If you once read blogs more frequently than you do now, why is that?
If you thought of starting one but didn't, what held you back?

Answers on a postcard blog please.

I should really try and generate a new one of these to see what has changed.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Blogging is dead

There’s a question that has been vexing me of late. Even though I’ve been posting something almost every day, I have been wondering whether personal blogging is in fact dead. I was therefore delighted to find this piece written by one of my favourite non-bird bloggers, Emma aka Waffle. Please go away and read it and then come back (the link is entirely safe). I’ll go make a cup of tea.



So what did you think? I have been wanting to write this piece or something like it for several months, but now I don’t have to as Emma has done it already, and far better than I ever could have. In simple terms it comes down to the interplay and life-cycle of catharsis and connection. Does a blogger write for themselves or for others? I think it always starts as the former. Surely only very infrequently does someone stand up and declare “The world needs to know about my life.” and then start a blog. Or a reality TV show. No, it’s a release done purely for personal reasons. For me, without going back to the very start I couldn’t actually remember why I started it in January 2009. However reading that firstpost suggests that it was dark and cold, that I was bored, and that other people were writing blogs so why not me? Knowing myself as I do, boredom was and is probably the key element here. As an aside, it also highlights that my love of double deckers existed even then, and that in 2009 my patch list was a mere 89. 89!! Eight years later I am on the dizzy heights of 146, and these days would expect to see 89 birds every year by about May. How things change. But I digress, this post isn’t about that.

About a month later I lost my job of 11 years and the process of writing something, anything, became a little bit more important. Stuck at home with a one year old and a three year old, it became less about birds and more about the minutae of my life. As you would expect the first 20 or so posts sank without trace, and it wasn’t until March that the first comment appeared, from none other than NQS (ex!)writer Gavin H. In the context of this current post this amuses me greatly. I did nothing whatsoever to advertise the fact I was writing it, or at least I don’t think I did, but somehow he found it, and so too did a number of other people. The next 20 posts also mostly sank without trace, but gradually in that first year I started to get what I hesitantly call a following. I hesitate as that sounds awfully big-headed, but we’re only talking about miniscule numbers of people and this is what Blogger itself calls it. I renamed it to Acolytes of course, it seemed only right.

Anyway, thus starts the next phase of personal blogging. The move from writing for yourself to satisfy some kind of inner-need, to writing knowing that other people are reading it, and that those other people may have some kind of connection to what you’re writing. You write differently of course, or I assume you do, and I am sure I did. I cannot pin down exactly what changes, but I think it largely comes down to caring more about whether what you write is actually decent, rather than just bashing something out and hitting publish without much thought. Emma has hit the nail on the head when she writes about the pressure, not imagined but real, to write something “good enough”. Good enough for the 100 people that might read it? Hah! You’ve not clue as to who 90 of them are, but somehow it still matters. You begin to interact with people whether you know them or not. Comments are eagerly anticipated. One blog post spurs another blogger to pick up the theme. One comment spawns a dozen. A tentative community somehow develops, especially on blogs that contain much heartfelt angst. I’ve never really had that, I’ve not laid my life bare as some have, and typically it is the stupider posts that seem to generate the most interest. Especially those with mildly fruity titles that Google searches may misinterpret.

This state of affairs continues for a while. It might be months, it might be years, but eventually this community, such that it ever was, declines. Disappears. It’s like that bit in Amélie where the old guy crosses off another deceased friend in his address book. If I look at that list of my favourite blogs over on the right there are many that are no longer there, many that I have sadly deleted. Of those that are left, some have been inactive for several months and their time is probably up. I note that as they drop off there is not much of a queue of worthy replacements. If not quite dead, personal blogging does indeed seem to be very seriously ill.

Ironically enough I blame social media. I don’t use many of these apps, Twitter and Whatsapp only, but surely the demise of blogging has a lot to do with the condensation of what little material there ever was into 140 characters or a quick photo. In the past I’d have written a whole post on a bird, and sometimes I still do. However I frequently now simply ‘tweet’ out a photo of the back of my camera and move on. It is the modern way. People can ‘like’ it with the prod of finger and also move on. It’s quick, it’s efficient, it requires almost no effort from any of us. You need not have an attention span longer than ten seconds. Why bother reading a post about a Yellow-browed Warbler hours later that evening when you can vicariously see the bird on the phone in your pocket two minutes after it has been discovered? As a further irony I sometimes tweet links to my latest blog post and sometimes people prod a finger at that too. Like. But that singular prod largely eliminates any possibility of community and commonality.  Am I suggesting that as a society we are becoming ever more vacuous?  I think I am.

By the way, this post isn’t a lengthy proxy for “leave more comments you ungrateful bastards”. Far from it. Time is at a premium, I understand that, and as people move into middle age (very early middle age in my case) I am experiencing this first hand and I am sure it is no different for most of my generation. I am busier than ever before. But nonetheless the demise is a shame. Blogging has only lasted a decade. I’ve been going for over seven years now, and as you may have guessed from the title of this post I'm feeling that it, and me, are on the way out. I’m not sure I need it any more, and I can fairly confidently say that nobody else really does either. Oddly enough though I’ve been bashing out more posts recently than at any time since 2013, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. A late and final flourish perhaps? And I’ve got half a dozen things lined up that last week and this weekend triggered the “oooh, I could write about that” instinct and that I filed away in whatever bit of my brain stores these nuggets. Feeding birds in my garden. Chequebook twitching. Sweet and delicious karma. How I’m not the only person to leave Shetland before a biggie (OK so those last two might be related…). A binocular craving. An obsession with temperature. How I am probably more stressed than ever but feeling incredibly relaxed.

Anyway, if you have ever blogged, or been a regular reader of a blog, please do go and read that link above. What I’ve written can’t possibly do it justice, and yes it’s a bit emotional and ‘deep’ in a way that Wansteadbirder never was or is ever likely to be, but nonetheless it resonates strongly, and it may do so with you too.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Bringing it all back home

As Richard neatly put it, this was our Bempton moment. 

I was unpacking from Shetland, and had just rather satisfyingly ticked off a long-standing job on my to-do list. Cleaning the bathroom cupboard if you must know, and throwing out baby shampoo and other bottles of stuff that dated from about 2006. A tweet from James H informed me of Ring Ouzels in Motorcycle Wood. I had been expecting them, the time of year is spot on, and I'd also had an email from Gary H to say he had had a probable yesterday evening. Wishing I'd got up earlier to find these for myself, I trotted out. 

It felt excellent, and just off Shetland I felt on form. Along the SSSI scrub, left at the limes, then right towards the birches. "Tsooo-wee-eeet!". EH? From the birches there was a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. Calling repeatedly. Surely it must be a recording? I called James, no answer. Dashing through the narrow path and around the corner I expected to find a birder with a tape, but no, there was just James with a massive grin on his face, and from the trees above a magic call that I am intimately familiar with and attuned to like no other. The bird was calling it's head off, literally non-stop. We stood there disbelieving. Although I've just seen 67 in a week, I am under no illusions that Shetland is unique. This however was Wanstead Flats, in the heart of London. Zone 2. And yet here was another of these little sprites that has travelled oh so far. Location location location, that's what its all about. I must have imported a little northern magic. Then three Ring Ouzels got up out of the wood and flew in a big circle before dropping in again. Ah, Wanstead. Home.

Tony and Richard turned up having seen the messages I'd sent out, and we set about refinding it. Happily it did the decent thing and started calling again. As it did so some honking in the sky prompted me to look up. A skein of geese looking like they wanted to land. They didn't sound right. Were they Pinkies?  "Get on these Geese!!" I shouted. Quite big, are they just Greylags? "There's barring!" came the cry from Tony. "They're Whitefronts! Count them!"  They circled a few more times before deciding the better of it and heading off east. 15 White-fronted Geese! Utterly sensational, our post-pyhllosc Albatrosses. Grey Geese are not at all common in London, and more often a winter species at sites like Rainham. To have them here is fabulous.

I've had a White-fronted Goose before, in 2007, and a brief Yellow-browed Warbler last year that nobody else saw, but James, Tony and Richard had all just had two patch ticks in under five minutes, and that is the magic of local birding and more proof, if it were needed, that Wanstead Flats is a stunning place to see birds in a London context. Despite not new for me, I was nonetheless on a massive high. This was karma, this was more than payback for leaving Shetland before the big one. Brilliant stuff. There were up to another three Ring Ouzels elsewhere on the patch, and a single Wheatear and Stonechat to complete an epic morning.