Monday, 10 June 2019

Jacket pockets

I am 44 years old and I have just discovered the incredible utility of a jacket. Pockets. I am converted. Having never worn a jacket in anger before (the back of my chair wears my suit jackets and has done for years) I decided I was grown up enough to wear a casual jacket and took the plunge last weekend. I believe it is called sartorial elegance. Or being a big fuddy duddy. Anyway, a side benefit to looking debonair was all of sudden finding I had loads of pockets with nothing in them. Wow! Up until now I just stuffed everything into my trouser pockets - keys, coins, pen, phone, cards etc. Far too much, sometimes uncomfortably so. This is far better, it is much easier to find stuff, no digging around, and my trouser pockets can just have my hands in as I stroll jauntily along. Muscle memory keeps returning my phone to my left trouser pocket, but in time will that pass.

It is going to take some getting used to but I will keep trying. It suppose it will concentrate the mind when I leave the house without it and suddenly discover I have none of the stuff I need any more. Especially if that includes keys. The trial run was in Helsinki on Saturday, and very good it was too. Or at least for a couple of hours until I spilled a grilled shrimp down it which mostly ruined the effect. Might invest in a bib next.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

It's just a phase

I last went birding locally in about mid-May. I realise that this is poor, but I have felt absolutely no compunction to go out. I am not sure I have missed a great deal in listing terms, but I have definitely missed out on the inner calm that birding brings, that feeling of connection with a local patch, that it is "yours" and you know it so intimately. I am not worried, the desire to reacquaint myself with its highways and byways will surely come again and I will find, as I always do, that I have not forgotten it at all and that pleasingly nothing has changed. This is typical of a long-term relationship with an area, be it green or urban. I get it when I revisit my childhood haunts; various parts of Cambridge, the village and countryside where my grandparents lived in Sussex, other places with which I have a long association. Years can pass but when I am at one of these places it is as if it were only yesterday. I have been here before and I will be here again, mentally and physically.

But as you know I have other pursuits, other ways of maintaining my inner calm, an art long mastered. That is not to say that there has been zero birding. I have enjoyed all that I have seen from the garden for instance, screaming Swifts are daily, and last weekend whilst watching the girls play cricket a Hobby cut curves out of the sky. That same day I even managed to twitch a Ring-necked Duck in the Lea Valley and saw my first Common Terns of the year.  

Anyway, to all those of you who sometimes worry that you are phasing and that this is terrible, it isn't. It is perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about at all. Everything you once thought you loved, birding included, will return. It is there, dormant, waiting to bubble up once more.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Upper Texas Coast - Day 1

After a quick breakfast at the 24h Waffle House over the road from our hotel in Winnie we made the 20 minute drive south to High Island. First stop was the much-lauded Smith Oaks Sanctuary. This is actually quite a large reserve, with a big heronry as well as woodland and drips. Despite the southerly winds it was not exactly heaving with birds, but we had excellent views of Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing and a smart male Scarlet Tanager before we had even left the car park. We paid the small entrance fee which covered us for all of the Audubon reserves for the day, and eagerly headed out into the woods. It was surprisingly quiet under the tree cover, but I picked out my first Blackpoll Warbler quite quickly. Catbirds were everywhere, easily the dominant bird – very pleased I did not schlep to Cornwall last year to see the vagrant!

Blackpoll Warbler

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

We spent a pleasant morning here walking around, including looking at the heronry which was heaving with Snowy and Great White Egrets, Ibises and Roseate Spoonbill. A Green Heron flew across the lake, but the photography opportunities were slim due to the orientation of the raised bund. It would be better in the late afternoon but it also appeared that the golden hour wouldn’t happen here due to the height of the trees alongside the water. We continued to rack up bird species everywhere we looked – Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, various hirudines and warblers, and then Indigo Buntings out in the field near the car park. Mostly however it was a massive warblerfest.


Black-throated Green Warbler

Wanting to see what other options existed, we relocated the short distance to Boy Scout Woods mid morning. This was a lot busier with people, but also had a lot more birds. Here we racked up Black and White Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Northern ParulaBlack-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow WarblerTennessee Warbler, Northern WaterthrushSwainson’s Thrush and Blue Grosbeak. We ended up spending the rest of the day here. As we left I was lucky enough to see a Mississippi Kite flying north. It had been a shattering day, and very hard work behind the camera, but we had really sussed out the location and knew better how to approach it in the following days. High ISO basically!!

Magnolia Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

American Redstart

Swainson's Thrush drunk on Mulberries

Friday, 31 May 2019

The joy of veg

We are still living the vegetarian dream in Chateau L. All dishes are scored out of five by all family members, and then rounded up or down depending on the whim of Mrs L. I wanted to post this for two reasons. One, it is an excellent filler - written inspiration continues to be alternately easy and hard, and it is the hard phase that seems to dominate. And two, if I can become mostly vegetarian then anyone can. It is easy, healthier and cheaper, and we have found that we do not miss meat that much at all. Perhaps the biggest downside is that red wine – of which I have a lot – lends itself very well to pairing up with meat-based dishes. Still, there is always cheese I suppose. Goat’s cheese of course.

Anyway here is the list of dishes that we keep coming back to. Some experiments don’t work, but some of the below have become staples around here. By the way, for anything involving Paneer or Tofu, I was conveniently out. But I would have scored them zero - meat substitutes are pointless in my opinion, rubbery tasteless nonsense. There are plenty of actual vegetables with which to make fabulous dishes. Anyway, take a look at this mouthwatering list!

Pea and Paneer Curry 5 
Tofu and Mushrooms 5
Carrot Biryani 5
Roasted Veg Lasagna 5

Spinach and Almond Cannelloni 4
Green Beans, Potatos and Chives 4
Mexican Soup 4
Veg Tagine 4
Kale Speltotto 4
Macaroni Peas 4
Basil and Ricotta Risotto 4
Broccoli Pasta 4
Veggie Tacos 4
Pasta with Greens, Chilli and Garlic 4

Summer Stir Fry 3
Veggie Pasties 3
Summer Veg Frittata 3
Mushroom Risotto 3
Mushroom Bourguignon 3
Pasta with Kale, Chilli and Garlic 3

Spring green pasta from the River Cottage Veg Every Day cookbook. We had it during the winter with Kale and it was not as good, only scoring a 3.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Upper Texas Coast - Spring migration Trip Report

I finally managed to hit the Upper Texas Coast (UTC) for the spring migration to explore the places of birding lore like Smith Oaks, Boy Scout Woods and Sabine Woods around the town of High Island. Tag on Anahuac NR, Bolivar Flats and a slight diversion to Cape May in New Jersey and you have the makings of a very fine birding trip indeed!

  • A five day trip in late April, leaving on Wednesday afternoon and returning overnight on Monday. This allowed three full days on the UTC, a morning in the woods north of Houston, and then nearly a full day on Cape May.
  • Afternoon flight to Houston from London put us in position for the following morning at High Island, and then back via Philadelphia which is only an hour from Cape May.
  • Texas hotels universally crappy. Winnie is the closest (20 mins) reasonably-priced accommodation from High Island as is a total dump. Suck it up and think about the birds.
  • Cape May is the off season still in late April. book a hotel in advance as most are closed, and don't arrive late thinking you can get food!
  • Typical american fare throughout. Big shout out to Sonic Burger.
  • It gets hot in Texas, and there are lots of mosquitos. Bring sunscreen and repellent.

  • Day 0: This was basically a travel day, getting over to Texas ready to hit the coast the following morning.
  • Day 1: Early start at Smith Oaks Sanctuary, High Island. Spent the whole day exploring here, Boy Scout Woods and the nearby area.
  • Day 2: Dawn at Anahuac NWR, a vast wetland area above High Island. Afternoon at Sabine Woods.
  • Day 3: Back to Anahuac for the morning as it was so good, High Island for a few hours around lunchtime and then across to the Bolivar Flats for the afternoon. Evening drive back to Houston.
  • Day 4: Early morning birding at the W G State Forest for a shot at Red-cockaded Woodpecker, then a lunchtime flight to Philadelphia arriving at Cape May that evening.
  • Day 5: Explored Cape May until mid afternoon, a quick stop at Heislerville WMA, and then an the red-eye back to London for a day's work.

Texas Locations

  • High Island Reserves: Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks Sanctuary, Hooks Woods
  • Sabine Woods, an hours drive east of High Island
  • Sea Rim State Park
  • Anahuac NWR - superb wetland reserve with a great drivable loop
  • Rollover Pass - coastal habitat halfway towards Bolivar Flats west of High Island
  • Bolivar Flats - impressive concentration of waders, gulls and terns
New Jersey Locations
  • Cape May - Lighthouse, Wetlands, South Meadows, Sunset Beach
  • Heislerville Wildlife Management Area  

Monday, 27 May 2019

The joy of shoes

Am I alone in appreciating a nice shoe? Most people seem to buy a cheap pair of shoes which then fall apart after a year, forcing them to buy another pair. Nick C from my local Wanstead patch is the classic example of this. Every time I see him on the patch he has a new pair of shoes on because the pair I saw him in last time have mysteriously developed a hole and are letting in water, and that isn’t a reflection of how frequently I go birding locally. I take the opposite approach – a higher initial outlay but then years of mostly trouble-free use. For instance I had a pair of brown brogues that I bought in 1997 and that I only threw away last year – 21 years of service, albeit that during the final few years they had been relegated to gardening shoes. They were refurbished only once during that time, and came back almost as good as new. It was a sad day when they finally reached the end of their long, long life. Happily I have managed to replace them with a pair of scotch grain derbys on dainite soles which look equally sturdy, I’ll let you know in 2040 how they’re looking.

I actually have another pair of brogues that were bought at around the same time, either 1998 or 1999, but these were never worn as much as the first pair as they were very slightly on the tight side. I had these repaired about five years ago, just before the first pair became the gardening shoes – how about that for advance planning?! They too came back after a 10 week holiday looking equally sparkly, and I happily started wearing them as my everyday go-to shoe. So much so that they are now beginning to show their age and I found myself in that grey area between a further repair or whether to buy a second-hand pair in better condition – a pair of brown brogues is of course an absolute must for the fashion-conscious man-about-town . I chose to source different ones purely on the basis that the fit was not quite perfect, and I’m pleased to say that I have now found a lovely pair on Ebay that should last for ages and ages.

Wait, you wear second hand shoes? Shoes worn by another person? Absolutely, no qualms whatsoever. A pair of decent shoes cost £400 new and that is obscene really in this day and age. If you hunt around a bit you can pick up a pair with only a small amount of wear for a third of that, often even less - the last pair I bought cost a mere £50 and needed no remedial work whatsoever. A bit of basic hygiene and off you go. If you are so inclined you can also send them back to the factory where they were made and have them come back almost as new and still end up ahead. I’ve now bought four pairs of pre-owned shoes and been extremely happy with three of them; being fickle I sold the fourth. Style is everything, not for nothing am I known as a fashionista.

I suppose you are wondering at this stage whether I have a shoe fetish? Well, a bit. How many pairs of shoes do I have? Not as many as Mrs L is the only answer I am prepared to give. OK, if you only count proper shoes, and not wellies, flip-flops etc, it is well under ten. Ten?!! Ten!!!!!! Well, I have two pairs of shoes for work which I rotate, both black oxfords but in different styles. One pair is actually the ones I got married in, which makes them close to 18 years old – they are still going strong, just as we are! Then I have 3 pairs of more utilitarian brown shoes in different styles, one of which is going to find a new home shortly, and then an essential pair of tan brogues. So that’s six pairs. Walking boots seven, a pair of running shoes eight (immaculate condition!), and then two pairs of western boots. Western boots? Oh yes….. They are very special…. No, no photos of me wearing them exist I’m afraid.

You cannot however buy yourself a decent pair of shoes and then expect to have them last several decades just because they are well made. Maintenance is key, and good shoes  need looking after on a regular basis. Those brown brogues I mentioned were purchased during my feckless years, and I still feel a twinge of regret that they might have gone on for far longer had I looked after them properly in their early days. These days I brush, clean and polish on a mildly obsessive basis. All the shoes have trees, and I rotate what I wear so that the shoes get a rest. When I put them on I use a shoe horn to protect the heel, and if I go out in bad weather, the first thing that will happen when I get home is that the shoes get a brush down, then the trees go in, and then they are left to dry for a couple of days before I give them a clean. And it goes without saying that the more you look after them, the easier it becomes to keep them in tip top shape. I've got a selection of brushes, cloths, creams and waxes that I keep in an old wooden box, and there is something actually quite pleasurable about sitting down of an evening and getting my shoes looking really nice.

I hope you have all enjoyed this mega-boring post.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The *other* Hoover Dam

Back in 2014 Famille L did a road trip around some of the northern states around Lake Erie - we were there for my grandmother's 90th birthday, what we me being part 'murcun 'n'all. Just outside Columbus Ohio, as we headed up towards Cleveland, we saw signs for the Hoover Dam. Wow! This is one of the modern wonders of the world, a must see! We immediately decided to divert, this was unmissable, what a stroke of luck!

A short while later we arrived at a small lake with a decidedly unimpressive dam at one end. There were a few joggers, a couple of cyclists and a nesting Killdeer.  We had a bit of a wander, kicked a few stones, and wondered which fool had decided to list this pathetic construction as one of the pinnacles of human engineering achievement. Later that evening we discovered that there were two Hoover Dams.....

For obvious reasons I never wrote a blog post about Ohio’s Hoover Dam, but fast forward nearly five years later, this blog is somehow still alive, and now I have a chance to write about the actual Hoover Dam, which sits on the border of Arizona and Nevada, and was conveniently on the route that Henry and I were taking back to Las Vegas. We may therefore be in a select group of people who have visited both Hoover Dams. Seen one dam, seen them all?

As these photos hopefully show, no. Not by a long shot. The real Hoover Dam is incredible in a way that the Columbus one really isn’t. In fact I would go as far as to say it was breathtaking. Magnificent in a totally different way from the natural wonders that we had seen over the previous few days, it had that same capacity to make you feel really really small. The ingenuity of man, so destructive but yet so so clever. It was built over the course of five years starting in 1931, and at that time was one of the most incredible man-made structures on earth. It probably still is. It is a tourist attraction in its own right so we were able to visit both the road bridge that overlooks the dam, notable for the number of lost baseball caps on the canyon walls, and then the roadway atop the dam. It was scarily high, very windy, and eerily silent and enormous – we both felt extremely exposed. Nonetheless, certain things have to be done....