Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Same old, same old

Ok so yesterday or whenever I wrote a whole long post about how my blog was much better when I did nothing and just bummed about at home with my duster, and how it would be good to get back to that as I was much more comfortable, albeit without getting fired again. But did I mention I went to Florida for the weekend?! Not being able to piss off abroad for the weekend was one of the chief disadvantages of not having a job, and yes maybe it doesn't provide great blogging material in the same way that potty training does, but jeez, it's Florida! Warmth, happiness, birds galore, a feeling of comparative slenderness.....what's not to like?

A trip report will follow, but basically it was about flopping about on the beach flat on my not insubstantial stomach and getting as many photographs of birds as I possibly could. As many as possible in two days ended up being 3,120 which is pretty obscene, but in the cold light of day this has been culled down to 600 or so, of which a mere 86 are at this point deemed worthy of publication. If you are very very bored, or wish to avoid consumer hell this coming Friday, you can see them all here. If just one is all you need, then clap your eyes on this! It is a Black Skimmer and is totally ace at beaks.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Where is the joy?

I was reading a few of my earliest ever blog posts recently, from back in 2009. I’ve not looked at them for ages but with the revival of NQS and the recycling of some of those early blog posts, I wondered how I’ve evolved in nearly seven years of clogging up the www. In a nutshell I have become a lot more boring. The photographs have improved, but the content has been on a steady downhill trajectory since around 2011. The joy has gone from it.

In 2009 when I kicked it off I was about to lose my job. I didn’t know this at the time of course, but under two months in and I found my world turned upside down. It was OK as Famille L had a plan which we swiftly put into action. It involved me being IN CHARGE!!!! (or being made to believe I was at least, in reality Mrs L was in charge). Whilst I had heaps to do, and many new things to learn (far-fetched things like how to shop for stuff to eat), I was at a loose end intellectually. Reading back some of what I wrote, I can’t in all honesty say that the blog satisfied this, but it seems a lot merrier. Much sillier, with happiness and humour derived from the minutiae of a new life spent grappling with domesticity. My many failures and few triumphs were shared with the spirit of a pioneer, issues with socks and cleaning products detailed to the nth degree, child-rearing and rarity-twitching combined to, err, interesting effect. You would not think that the life of a newly promoted and under-skilled house husband could possibly have generated so much material, but back them it seemed like anything I looked at was fair game for a few hundred words and what's more I had the time to do it. Craft is the wrong word, but I did take reasonable care with each post. It was pretty formulaic stuff really with the odd curveball thrown in, but somehow it worked, or at least that’s what I continue to tell myself. I enjoyed it immensely, despite the drudgery of most of the subject matter, and I remember giggling like a schoolboy at some of what I put down. It was of course mostly all true, albeit with a bit of exaggerration. I did struggle with really really easy things, I was absolutely hopeless at most of it to start with, but some of what I did to get through it, though not obvious to Mrs L, did actually work and somehow I have three very well grounded and fully-limbed children at the end of it. And the house is still standing.

Things are different now. In 2011 I went back to working in the financial sector. The flip-flopped life I had enjoyed for over two years changed overnight and it was back to suits and office cubicles. My pool of “life material” shrank dramatically, though my bank balance started going up again. For obvious reasons I cannot write about what I do in Canary Wharf, but take it from me that it is unbelievably dull and would not make good blogging material. 

Both my recent careers come with their own challenges, and I would take issue with anyone that said being a stay-at-home parent was a walk in the park, though we did of course go for walks in the park. WHEN ALL THE WORK WAS DONE WHICH WAS NEVER. But only one of the jobs turns me into a grumpy, moaning, unpleasant, stressed and objectionable individual. I’ll give you a clue: It wasn’t the one that came with a pink brush. So the combination of having done nothing worthwhile and being permanently irritable is not ideal for getting the creative juices flowing. Nor, frankly, do I often come home from work feeling in the mood for a bit of light-hearted blogging, so these days if you get anything at all it’s more likely to be a rant or a trip report. Very one dimensional and not very interesting.

It retained a bit of the old spark after 2011, but by the end of that year it’s a shadow of 2010 which is when I felt I really hit my stride. The numbers tell the story quite well, 202 posts in 2011 declined to 123 by 2014, and this year it’s a mere 81. Of these 81, probably a third of them are trip reports – I went abroad and I saw such and such. Zzzzzz. This leaves about 50 posts, and a miserable 50 at that. Where is the joy? How can I get it back? Am I at a crossroads? Can my nearly 41 year-old self rediscover the absurdity and joie-de-vivre that existed as a 35 year old? Why was I better at writing about doing the dishes than I seem to be at detailing birding the west coast of the USA? More to the point, why did I enjoy writing about the dishes more than I do writing about foreign birding? Is the difference purely causal? Or is it that I’m five years older and five years more knackered?

2009-2011 – Domestic drudgery and seeing the same local birds over and over again. Fun!
2012-2015 – Working in a fast-paced environment and travelling the world. Ugh.

I mean it’s perverse isn’t it? I have all these opportunities now and I make the most of them. I constantly burn the candle at both ends and do a huge amount. I enjoy most aspects of my current life a great deal, but I think my writing shows that I enjoyed my time at home more. And I don’t dispute that, those two years were fantastic. No work, lots of time with the kids and master of my own time, brilliant. And I knew then they would never come again and it was an opportunity not to be missed. So what to do? How can I get the spark back? I’ve been thinking long and hard about this as I sit and stare at my computer screen and realise I have absolutely nothing to say. Back in the day this never seemed a constraint, I would think about what I did that day and off I would go. These days the screen remains blank and I go off and have a G&T, and you dear readers get nothing. Or if you do it’s more often than not half-hearted. I’m constantly impressed by those bloggers who do seem to have a steady stream of something meaningful to say. Not drivel like me. 

So I am musing on what to do. How to refresh myself? I’ve only had two “back to basics” ideas so far, and they were pretty obvious. If I were to re-takeup domestic duties as a hobby, would my blog improve?! Ditch photography, start dusting. It’s a thought isn’t it? Sack the cleaner, get back to doing the vacuuming myself. I used to love that vacuum, spilled rice was a joy. Baked-beans less so but if left a while they became easier. It rather lacks the element of competitive listing so important to birding, but I’m sure this could be worked around. But this is where the second idea comes in! Get back to local birding of course! Properly I mean. Every time I get out there I love it. And every time I say that I don't do it! Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, I have a go and then lapse again, as it can be dreadful, and as I’m also sure I’ve said before, I’ve not got the time to work the patch properly. A snatched 30 minutes here and there simply isn’t enough time to do it justice, especially with other birders out there more or less constantly, annoying you with good birds. This is what leads me to the “sod it” decision more often than not. That and being at Heathrow.

Ultimately it all comes down to time and not having enough of it. There is so much going on that free time is rare and I can’t do everything I want to do. A day would need to be 36 hours long at least for me to get to all the things on my list. This is why vacuuming and writing a decent blog post about vacuuming rarely feature, I just don’t get round to it. That post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about memory I had been wanting to do for ages, but I kept forgetting to do it and doing something else. When I finally got to it it was pretty easy to bash out, but I’m convinced that the time between thinking of it and then doing it meant it lost some spontaneity. When I was a Domestic Goddess that was all part of the fun. Mop down, keyboard out, write some rubbish, cook dinner realise no food in the house, go shopping, cook dinner. Which is what I've just done as it happens, cook dinner. It involved unwrapping two pizzas and turning the oven on, not exactly haute cuisine but, as ever, all I had time for. Pizza #2 was enhanced with Chorizo, and was a massive hit with the children, stratospherically better than the Margherita it started off life as. Worthy of a separate blog post? In 2009 I probably would have done it. In 2015 I simply can't be bothered. Be thankful for small mercies.

PS I've sprinkled this post with some "old life" photos. Do any long-time readers remember what it was like?

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Nelson (II)

It doesn't happen every year - last year was blank - but every now and again I hit the "Nelson" in terms of patch-listing. As every cricket lover knows, the Nelson is 111, and in the lucky event that an innings spends some time on this score, or a multiple thereof, the commentators always call it out wait eagerly for a wicket to fall. It is rare that nothing happens on 111 or 222, indeed some people are very superstitious of it, and an umpire called David Shepherd used to hop on one leg nervously whilst on the field. 

I am not superstitious of it, and certainly not on the patch where today this landmark was reached. I'd unsuccessfully attempted to find Bob's Caspian Gull on the Flats this morning, finding only Bob instead (not as good), and together we went in search of rare waterfowl in the Park. We found only ice for the most part for it has suddenly got very cold here in London, and yesterday's Goldeneye had departed. However Shoulder of Mutton did have some very curious noises coming from the reeds, which on closer inspection and encouragement became the familiar squealing of a Water Rail, which once it fully kicked off got another one going on the other side of the pond.

Now I was pretty slack in the first winter period on the patch, failing to go birding very much at all. So it was that Lapwing and Redpoll were year ticks the other day, and so it was that Water Rail was another this morning. The 111th in fact, which is quite remarkable. It elicited a friendly text from fellow patch-worker Nick, thus: "How the fuck are you on 111?" It's a fair question really. I have not been the most ardent of patch workers this year, with many other plates being spun, but as I said to Nick it is marathon and not a sprint, and slowly (ve-ry slowly) I have been plugging away in snatched moments. Red Kite fell whilst watching the kids play cricket, Short-eared Owl on a brief walk around before work. I've been there on all the critical days when the good stuff has turned up - a decent morning last month saw me stood beneath flyover Brambling, Woodlark and Lapwing, and Bob's flyover Goldeneye from a couple weeks ago was gripped back yesterday. Whilst I can't say I've put in massive amounts of time except during the spring and autumn, I've done enough to stay in the game. In fact a bit more effort and I could be in contention - Tawny Owl and Woodcock have yet to grace my list, and there is still plenty of time for a cold snap to bring in some goodies. I've obliterated last year's 102, and as it stands 111 is my fourth highest total since moving here over ten years ago and I've high hopes of passing 113 to make it my second best ever behind the 118 from 2013. Wasn't that a stat-filled sentence! Anyhow, here's a Reddish Egret recently spied during a rare moment away from the patch.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Hong Kong. Some Birds.

It is rare I go anywhere without bins. It has been known to happen of course, but for a trip to Asia, even a family holiday - not a chance. I wore them most days though I have no idea why. Maybe it is the mark of a birder, a badge of sorts, and if I'm not wearing them I still reach for them, so it makes sense to wear them just in case. On most days we barely saw a bird other than the ubiquitous Tree Sparrows hopping around and the Black Kites soaring among the skyscrapers and over the harbour. But one morning I did skip off to the New Territories, much like I did last year, and then they came into their own and justified the thousands of miles they had travelled, if not quite taking them round Kowloon. 

Long-tailed Tailorbird

I started off at about 7am in Tai Po Kau, a mountainous forested area close to the Chinese border. I'd visited here before in the company of a guide, but felt that I was well equipped to just do it myself this time. What a mistake that ended up being! I saw practically nothing! I heard a great deal, but barring one brief moment when a mixed flock of Hwamei and various other unidentified birds zoomed across a path, I basically slogged it up and down for four hours without seeing a bird. Talk about depressing - you know those mornings on Shetland where everything looks to be in place for an amazing morning and you head out at first light with ridiculous enthusiasm, and by eight you haven't really seen very much, and then nine comes and your head begins to go down a bit, and by ten you're totally disillusioned with the whole thing that is birding and it's shit and why did you bother and this is costing you money and you want to go home and wish you'd never come. Well it wasn't quite like that, as it was a nice 80 degrees and I'd seen a Scarlet Minivet, but I couldn't help but feel cheated. I mean this was the tropics, where were all the fabulous birds that are supposed to live here?

I sloped off back down the hill to consider my next move and wait for a bus back to the nearest station. It was midday and the sun was high in the sky. Did I really want to go to Long Valley, totally exposed, bake in the oppressive heat and not see any birds as they would all have disappeared by now. In for a penny in for a pound, so off I toddled via a bus, a tube and a taxi that I guided to the spot via a map on my phone. And it was superb, there were birds everywhere. The six-thousand miles of binocular transportation were immediately vindicated. Yellow Wagtails, White Wagtails, Wood Sandpipers, Snipe, Stonechat....Hang on a darn minute! I've seen all these birds a hundred yards from my house in Wanstead! Conned!

Stejneger's Stonechat (I think)

Wood Sandpiper

Twelve hours on a plane and a 5am start and now cheated by a bunch of european birds that I could easily see back home. Pah. But at least I could see them, unlike in the forest, so I ended up having a lovely afternoon picking my way around the dykes and bunds that surrounded the small scale agriculture, taking the odd photo here and there, for I had also carted a large lens half way across the planet. Think of a cross between paddy fields, an allotment, and St Martins on Scilly and you have it. 

Long-tailed Shrike

Red-whiskered Bulbul having a bad hair day

Dusky Warbler

There were also Olive-backed Pipits, Red-throated Pipits (on the ground!), Long-tailed Shrikes, Bulbuls and things I couldn't easily see back home, so these appeased my sense of outrage. Heaps of Little Egrets and Black-winged Stilts, and interestingly quite a few Dusky Warbler tukking away quietly to themselves. I spent ages trying to work out what these were, as they're as unobtrusive at home in Asia as they are when off-course in the UK. And of course Kentish Pond Heron....

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Hong Kong again

So I went back to Hong Kong. This is because it was great last year, because I knew the family would find it fantastic, and because the offer of free accommodation was still available (Thanks Sis!). Not quite your average half term break, but we did a beach holiday already this year and this would be life-enriching for the children in a way that somehow the Costa Calma on Fuerteventura wasn't. I remember when I was about 15 my parents took us to Hong Kong, and it blew my mind. I waited about 25 years before going back last year, whereupon it blew my mind all over again. I knew that I had to make sure my kids had this opportunity too, plus a get-together with the cousins is always fun. 

We left on Friday evening after school. Well, that's to say that the flight took off after school, but Wanstead is sadly lacking an international airport so we sinned and withdrew the children just after lunch to ensure we made it over to Heathrow. And we told the truth and we didn't get fined! Honestly, what a world we live in when parents get fined for going on holiday and offering children far more than a day at school could possibly offer. And being shrewd we also did the maths and it was far cheaper to pay any resulting fine than fly the next day. So, Wanstead Friday afternoon, Hong Kong Saturday lunchtime and watching the rugby in an expat bar Saturday evening! This meant that I avoided jet lag entirely.

We stayed with my sister on Lantau, ten of us in the house and their full life still going on. They do busy a bit like we do busy so it was some way from being calm and quiet, but this is the way of families with young children. So there was school and there was work and all that fun stuff. And there was even Halloween HK Style! But there were also G&Ts and ceiling fans, balconies and nibbles, moments of calm in a sea of activity, and we felt very welcome indeed. Oh, and sorry about your next air-con electricity bill....

I won't bore you with a day by day account like I usually do with trips. That level of dull is reserved for birding trips, and fair enough whilst I did see a few birds here and there and binoculars did come with me, that was way down the priority list for this week. In summary we had a very full week. We wandered happily around outlying islands, we admired the view from the peak. We went browsing in night markets and we went for drinks on roof-top bars. We watched rugby with Kiwis and watched Giant Pandas with a million Chinese people. We ate a lot of Dim Sum and several Peking Ducks. We took trams, buses, tubes, ferries, taxis and even a golf cart. We gawped at the harbour, we visited parks, markets and Buddhas, we strolled around the zoo and we went on roller-coasters. In short we did masses in a very short space of time and thoroughly knackered ourselves, the mark of an excellent holiday. None of this coming back refreshed nonsense, it's a prerequisite that you must return home shattered or you will have wasted precious time. Unless you go to the Caribbean that is, if you come home knackered from there you've been doing it wrong.

Anyhow, the kids were exposed to the mass of humanity that is Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, and to the more genteel areas like Lantau and Peng Chau. They went from eating nothing to (within reason, this is Asia after all!) eating almost everything. They started drinking Jasmine tea and recognising Cantonese characters. They appeared not to be phased at all by the enormous change from their normal lives - numero uno now resides in rural Norfolk during term time, so in three seconds in Hong Kong he probably saw more people than he sees in a month! It was fantastic in all respects, a real adventure for the five of us, and something we'll all remember for a very long time. I still remember 1989 and some of the things we did then. We're already talking about the next amazing place we might visit. South America is being mentioned, but that may be the year after next. We'll have to see. I still have a hankering for California, another repeat of a childhood trip that left a lasting impression. The world is a big place.....

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Birding Diaries and the strangeness of memory

I don't know about you but I keep a birding diary. It's not a boring list of birds (though they have their place and the occasional list does feature), rather it's a journal of where I've been birding, what it was like, how I got there, who I was with, what was good, what wasn't, stupid stuff that happened. Scintillating stuff. It's mostly restricted to travels as I do sometimes go abroad, however trips to Shetland make it in, as do long-distance twitches that are equally about the experience as the bird - for instance the North Uist Harlequin Duck. Every night whilst away, despite the fact I'm usually totally knackered from a long day, I make the time to write it up in my own inimitable style, and it serves as a reminder of the fun times and the great places I've been do. When I die it will be published to critical acclaim. Er...

About halfway through 2014 the diary ran out. I reached the end of it with a trip to Norway or somewhere, and then completely failed to buy a new one. Meanwhile my life continued apace, and whilst in this limbo I wrote down lists of birds, itineraries and so on, on boarding cards, odd bits of paper like airline menus and hotel notepaper, and in one instance on a bus ticket. I dutifully kept all these scraps in a drawer and whilst adding to them recently decided the time had come to get a new notebook. However the manic obsessive in me could not let the intervening 15 months go unrecorded, and as I can't guess how much I might write, I can't simply flick to the fiftieth page and start with Hong Kong. Did I mention I went to Hong Kong? Anyway, I've started writing up 2014 and I have to say that for an old codger my memory is bloody superb. And I mean ridiculously good. I might not be able to remember any password for any website, nor where I put the extended guarantee for our recently deceased washing machine, but boy do I have an eye for detail when on the road. The human brain is a marvel. Mine has very clearly deprioritised boring nonsense like remembering to renew our home insurance policy, but it can tell me which bench I slept on in the middle of Vikki bay in Finland and how I found it, as well as the first name of the mosquito that ensured I got almost no rest. Helmi.

So far I've written up Helsinki, Berneray, Tenerife and Morocco from 2014, I've done the Little Bustard twitch, and I'm now onto the UAE in January of this year. I'm not saying I have a photographic memory, and indeed my various exam results would back that up, but it is extremely visual. Ten months later I can picture the immigration line at Dubai airport, trace my steps to the rental car area, and clearly recreate the chaotic scenes of people waiting for cars, and how the cars came in and out. I can remember our first roadside stop for water and victuals, and the first birding stop at a place called Qarn Nazwa. Here I can picture almost the exact route I took on foot, I remember the huge and shiny camper van, the local on the quad bike. The Purple Sunbird in the tree near the broken concrete, the first Red-tailed Wheatear, the flock of Bulbuls round the back, near the dumped crate and food rubbish. I remember then the tall fence on hillside and the Bee-eater on it, and how hot and arid it was. I remember Mick stalking a Shrike, and Richard wandering around not photographing a Shrike. I remember the road kind of ending at a turning circle, and a fence we walked around. I remember that when we left we turned right. East. 

All of this is in my head. I have not referred once to the trip report I wrote on my blog. Some of it is the same, some of I didn't mention. Perhaps the act of writing it down has caused it to stick, as various teachers and parents once opined. I have no idea if other peoples' brains are wired the same way, mine is the only one I have access to, and that not even all of the time! But what I find interesting is that the visual aspect of, say, travelling down a road, is as strong if not stronger than a bird I saw. After we got lost and went through a small piece of Oman, I remember how the road ended at a roundabout in a valley, that right was somewhere we didn't want to go, but that we went left instead to retrace our route. Maybe the birds are as strong, as shortly after that turning we stopped the car due to our first black and white Wheatear on our right hand side, perched on a small abandoned building. It was very wary, nearly impossible to get close enough to negate the haze. As a test, and just by way of an example of what I mean, I opened Google maps to find this spot, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it took me under five seconds, starting from London, to scroll to this exact location in the UAE and zoom in on the building the bird was perched on. I remember it as it was at an angle to the road. That's how my memory works. I just did it with the bench, about seven seconds. The timing isn't really important, though it illustrates how clear it must be in my mind. I find it odd I can do it at all.

Finding the time to pick up these memories is the difficult bit. I'm way ahead of my pen here, thinking about Madeira whilst writing Abu Dhabi. Recalling the pine cone I picked up halfway up towards the Laurel forests and finding a Canary, simultaneously whilst picturing the flyby White-tailed Lapwing (right to left btw) just off the camel racing track at Al Wabtha, that in turn invoked memories of that ridiculous morning at Rainham. I couldn't even tell you what year that was, but I can see the scene on the viewing platform as the crowd soaked it in, as the final people dashed around the loop in near darkness, as an artist sat and patiently sketched or painted his own memory. I don't do painting, but it's all in there, stored as electrical impulses that for now remain relatively easy to retrieve.

Better write it down before that all changes!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Operation Brambling

My mission, should I choose to accept it, to get out the of house at an ungodly hour (again) and find Brambling on the patch. I did accept it. Having spent the first winter season not really bothering very much, this autumn I am all systems go, and as we move into yet another season I am well up for it. My list of winter wants is great. Earlier on in the year I didn't see Lapwing. I didn't see Water Rail. I didn't see Woodcock and I didn't get Brambling. It's like I'm starting at zero again - except I'm on 105 - so the excitement is palpable. 

I met up with Bob in the mist just after seven. So not that ungodly, but barely light and the sun not yet over horizon. He had the same idea, and so together we made our way to the Vizmig Point. This is on the central path immediately to the east of the main broom fields, marked by the Wheatear logs at one end, and a "Keep your fucking dogs on a lead you bastards" sign at the other. It was also marked this morning by a dead mouse, but that disappeared a little later on, either by Crow or by Fox, so don't rely on it. The first birds were thrushes, and lots of them, but it didn't really start happening until a very tardy Nick turned up. He's the patch Double Decker in many ways, and within about five minutes of him turning up a Brambling wheezed through heading west. Called twice in the end, but once would have been enough. Easy when you know how. 

It didn't end there of course. It hadn't been more than a few more minutes when I became aware of a funny tootling call. Couldn't place it for a while, and then the bird was over our heads without much of a tail. My brain struggled with the thought of Woodlark, Nick's mouth managed to say it. Bob's mouth fell open, for it was a full fat patch tick for him and nullifies my little sprite from the other day, honours even at 144. Two year ticks in the space of a few minutes, getting up and getting out had been an inspired decision. Birds continued to pour through. Groups of Chaffinch up to 30 strong, more thrushes, the first signs of Woodpigeon migration, and then..... Lapwing! Eight birds, flopping west, swiftly followed by a further four. Get in! Suddenly from being a total lightweight I find myself within a couple of Bob for the year*. How did that happen exactly? And as mentioned above there are plenty of what ought to be sitters to come as all the winter stuff remains unseen. So does Tawny Owl, and one lives about 200 yards from my house. I just have to risk my life and go out in the dark to find it - taking James along for protection later this week.

An excellent morning all in all, with a supporting cast of Snipe, a few Redpoll and Linnet, and Reed Bunting. And it was beautiful too. Tomorrow? Don't bet against it, the weather is on the turn, and that usually means birds.

*Note that we don't compete with Nick as that's pointless. He lives on the patch, and in a day spends more time birding it than we do in a fortnight. In the past I used to attempt to keep up, but no more.