Monday, 10 September 2018

All hail to the chef

I've been following cricket for about as long as I can remember, and it really does feel like the end of an era. Whilst I remember Gatting, Gooch, Atherton and Nasser, my memories of the England side are built around Vaughan, Strauss and Cook. More recently it has been Cook - it is hard to believe Joe Root has been captain for 20 or so matches already. Today Alastair Cook played his final test innings and what a way to bow out. He has not had it easy, openers never do - they face the best when they are at their best - and he has been out of form for a while. The decision to retire from the test arena has clearly freed him up mentally as he has been supreme in this final match. Class, as they say, is permanent. 

As many people have said, in particular Graham Gooch, Cookie should be lauded for being a great person as well as one of the finest test batsman many of us have been privileged to watch play. A beacon and a role model Gooch said, and I can certainly attest to that. Almost four years to the day today he came with some of his Essex team mates to play at our local club here in Wanstead. It was all about the kids, he was brilliant. Here are a few photos from that memorable day. I am about to listen to as much of the day's play as I can before I fall asleep - what a day it would have been to be at the Oval - but thank you Alastair Cook, you have been magnificent both on and off the field and I have enjoyed the game all the more for it.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Not birding in Malaysia


Mrs L and I recently went on a short break to Malaysia and Japan. Ostensibly this was a grown-up holiday, with spa treatments, nice meals and all that kind of thing, but actually I just went birding. Not really. I was a dutiful husband and largely we did the tourism thing and just enjoyed being together. In our daily lives in London we seem to pass like ships in the night, such are the pressures of work and family, so some downtime a deux was really nice. We spent three and a half days in Malaysia, and then a day in Japan on the way home. Japan isn’t on the way home of course, but the way the airline tickets worked out meant that we couldn’t get home from Kuala Lumpur in the required level of comfort so had to look at other options. In the end ‘via Japan’ was an excellent choice, and we both enjoyed it a lot. Despite this not being a birding holiday I did of course take binoculars. Even more remarkably so did Mrs L!

During our Malaysian break we spent the majority of time in the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing colonial era hill station about three hours north of KL. We did get an evening in KL when we arrived though, and in addition having a nice walk around a night market and eating large amounts of Satay Chicken from street hawkers and going to a roof terrace bar for amazing views of the Petronas Towers, I also spotted a Black-naped Oriole from our hotel room and numerous Common Mynas. Not forgetting of course the Milky Stork that flew over the car on the drive from the airport.

The endemic Cyathea excavata - a tree fern

The best birds were in the forests. The Cameron Highlands rise above the coastal plain to a high point of just over 2000m, and the town of Tanah Rata where we spent most of our time is at 1440m – pretty much identical to the summit of Ben Nevis. At sea level the temperature is 34 degrees and humidity close to 100% - tropical and steamy. In the Highlands it was a much easier 22 degrees with very little of the clamminess of KL – easy to see why the English settled the area as somewhere to grow crops – principally tea - and escape the heat early in the pre-war years. The Highlands are well known for their walking trails – we were cheered by someone we met in KL who asked why we were going there, as there was only nature and stuff! Precisely! Whilst we had enjoyed wandering around the city, both of us prefer the outdoors and so over the course of the next few days we walked a number of the trails. Birds and plants, that is what it is all about, and these days I am probably equally interested in both. Some people see entire landscapes, I see individual elements in a landscape, and tropical forests are remarkable places. The proliferation of immense ferns, both epiphytic and terrestrial, fascinating orchids and all manner of various other plants was incredible and a highlight of the trip. There was even a species of Begonia with iridescent leaves that changed colour depending on how you viewed them. 

Anthurium sp, commonly seen as house plants!

Blue Begonia - Begonia pavonina. Unbelievable.

Whilst there was a lot of relaxing, including tea baths and Malay massages, we spent most of our time walking the trails. They were steep! Anyone who has been birding in a rainforest knows how hard it is to identify unfamiliar species – they are often obscured, high up, but frustratingly vocal! Nonetheless we racked up a nice selection of birds over our hikes. Trail #s 5 and 9  were probably the most profitable, and there was a memorable bird wave which included my new favourite bird, Blue Nuthatch. We spent one morning with a bargain local guide for about £30, recommended to us by our hotel. Mr Attak knew all the birds, but rather entertainingly did not know their english names. He would say things like "the Yellow one!", and then we would have to guess. Luckily I had a field guide in my pocket and so gradually we were able to piece things together. The highlight in terms of rarity was probably the Mountain Peacock Pheasant, a brief sighting one morning on an unguided walk of a bird up towards what is known as the Lutheran Mission between the towns of Tanah Rata and Brinchang where we were staying. As an aside, the Cameron Highlands Resort was extremely nice, and was an excellent base from which to explore the area.

Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush

On our final day we headed north from Tanah Rata and visited a tea plantation. After a cuppa and a slice of cake we drove up to the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia, the peak of Gunung Brinchang. This was in a cloud, but had lots of good birds from the boardwalk, including Pygmy Wren Babbler, Chestnut-tailed Minla, and Little Pied Flycatcher. It was a rather hurried visit because we needed to be back in KL for an evening flight to Tokyo and the traffic in the Cameron Highlands can be rather trying.

Trip List (in rough order seen rather than taxonomic)

1. Milky Stork
2. Common Myna
3. Oriental Magpie Robin
4. Black-naped Oriole
5. Large-billed Crow
6. Glossy Swiflet
7. Asian House Martin
8, Pacific Swallow
9. Tree Sparrow
10. Red-wattled Lapwing
11. Cattle Egret
11. Mountain Peacock Pheasant
12. White-breasted Waterhen
13. Bronzed Drongo
14. Grey Wagtail
15. Paddyfield Pipit
16. Javan Munia
17. White-throated Fantail
18. Black-crested Bulbul
19. Yellow-vented Bulbul
20. Olive-winged Bulbul
21. Mountain Tailorbird
22. Chestnut-capped Laughing Thrush
23. Streaked Wren Babbler
24. Pygmy Wren Babbler
25. Blue Nuthatch
26. Streaked Spiderhunter
27. Silver-eared Mesia
28. Little Cuckoo Dove
29. Mountain Leaf Warbler
30. Fire-tufted Barbet
31. Slaty-backed Forktail
32. Mountain Bulbul
33. Black-throated Sunbird
34. Mountain Fulvetta
35. Everett's White-eye
36. Long-tailed Sibia
37. Barred Cuckoo Dove
38. Chestnut-backed Scimitar Babbler
39. Malayan Whistling Thrush
40. Golden Babbler
41. Stripe-throated Bulbul
42. White-tailed Robin
43. Chestnut-tailed Minla
44. Little Pied Flycatcher
45. Asian Glossy Starling
46. Rock Dove

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The modern man

A few years ago many men looked like this.

Then something happened. First of all add this.

Then this

And finally this

And so now 90% of the male UK population all look the same, thus: 

I am not even going to begin to wonder at why, but surely we are at beard, tattoo and headphone saturation point? These photos are simply randoms that I pulled from the internet, and if you reading this and are one of these people then I apologise in advance. In a sorry not sorry kind of way. It is ridiculous. Fair enough at one stage it was probably trend-setting, but now it is just silly. What happened to individuality? Why do people feel the need for a huge beard and a tattoo covering 80% of their body? To make them stand out? These days it is more likely to be to blend in and not be different! Baaaaah! I predict a revolution, beard clipper manufacturers are set to make a fortune. Not so easy to get rid of a full arm tattoo though is it? Did they think it through? What happens when they get old and wrinkly? Yuck I expect. That's where I am going to make my millions. Arm transplants.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

There have been birds

Let's pretend this is a birding blog. The summer, as always, was slow. I had a very nice time, but little genuine birding took place. There was a bit of travel towards the end of the school holidays, which whilst not centered around birds obviously featured them a bit, and then, finally, it was time for birding again locally.

I was inconveniently in Switzerland when the local WhatsApp group went into overdrive. Nick had found a Red-backed Shrike near the Alex. I was near the Matterhorn. Sub-optimal. That said, the canton of Valais treated me to some amazing birds during my four days there. I was hiking with friends, all non-birders (though I did my best), and naturally I had my binoculars with me. What the Pennine Alps lack in quantity they make up for in quality. On day one, at about 2400m, my buddies were treated to what happens when I see a much-wanted new bird, in this an adult Lammergeir that came cruising round the mountain. They had not witnessed this before, but I like to think that they shared the joy I was feeling. I went on to see seven birds over the course of the trip. Almost as amazing as this was that I had to give up counting Nutcrackers - there were simply too many. Alpine Accentors, Ravens, Wheatears and Black Redstarts were my daily fodder, and on one day on the ridge towards the Weisshorn a pair of Golden Eagles glided over.

The black dot to the right of the 'Horn is a Lammergeir. You will have to trust me on this.

But back to the Shrike. Long predicted. Long awaited. Autumn arrived in style. The day it was found I was actually due to come home, but not until the evening. And of course, during the course of the day nearly every single local birder dropped whatever it was they were doing and made their way to the Flats to drink it in. Does nobody work anymore?! Happily the weather was a bit inclement overnight, and the next morning when the rain had stopped I started my search - and of course there it was. Phew! It is actually still present a week later as I type this and has been widely appreciated. I've not managed to get my arse in gear to photograph it but lots of lovely photos are appearing online - a nice chevron-adorned juvenile. It marks my 151st bird for the patch, my second Shrike species, and I am over the moon.

The Shrike was the main course, but there have been plenty of appetisers to go with it. I've also seen half a dozen Whinchat, four Spotted Flycatchers, two Pied Flycatchers and a Redstart amongst various other birds. Of the latter three species, one two minute spell in the Enclosure saw all three in the same tree. When Wanstead Flats is in the mood, it is really in the the mood. I am starting to get out, excited at what might be here.

And then of course there was the Blue Nuthatch. What. A. Bird. Sadly not in Wanstead. I was in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia with Mrs L on a short break, and it was Mrs L who spotted it, identified it as Nuthatch (but not as we know it Jim), and got me on to it. Sadly I was too stunned to get a proper photo, but I can assure you it was epic. Electric blue, unreal. There were a ton of other birds too, and whilst this was not a birding trip there is a lot to be said for just spending time walking through forests. I'll do a short trip report in due course just to alert people that romantic breaks in south-east Asia need not be entirely devoid of avian interest. 

All I am trying to say really is that whilst I have not been birding there have still been birds. I cannot avoid them, wherever I go I am alert to the possibilities, and do my best to try and see something. Not everything, just incidental, but deeply satisfying nonetheless.

Sunday, 2 September 2018


So, I am still here. Writing urges - not so many.... That's not to say nothing has happened, indeed my life continues to be extremely interesting and highly entertaining. Hem hem. No, really. Look, it has only been a few weeks but I have done so much that I literally do not know where to start and there has been zero time for writing. Let me summarise in bullet point format, and then if I ever get round to it I will expand upon each bit. I may build up a head of steam and simply pour out words. Alternatively I may not. At this stage it is simply not possible to tell and I cannot explain why. 

- Japan is excellent
- Blue Nuthatch is my new favourite bird
- I've seen a Lammergeir and came close to climbing the Matterhorn*
- There is a Red-backed Shrike on Wanstead Flats
- Autumn has started -Redstart, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers
- I used my bike

* more accurately came close to the Matterhorn. I did look up at it a lot.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The written word and the reading voice

This is mostly a post for writers, though I think it is equally interesting for pure readers too. So here’s a thing. I write as me, no surprises there. What I mean by that is that what I write is actually what I speak. And what I mean by that is that I type words onto the page I am speaking them in my head as me. So what I see on the page when I am finished, to me at least, seems a perfect representation of what I wanted to say verbally. Kind of. Some things you cannot write adequately. Nevertheless, for the most part I can imagine myself saying it, as essentially I have done just that a few moments ago. I hear it in my own particular style and timbre. I know where I place emphasis, or where my voice would naturally inflect, such as the falling pitch at the end of a sentence. I know where I would pause, I know where I would continue without taking a breath. But whilst I can try my best to represent that with commas, with italics, with dots (…), dashes (-), brackets, underlining and other various other punctuation marks or constructs, really only I understand how I would have said something, and therefore when what I write is being read by others (which is after all the whole point), I do worry from time to time that it simply may not work, and that the reader won’t grasp what I am trying to say, or at least not in quite the desired way. I tend to worry less about sentence length. Anyway, I thought I would just mention that to me my words sound exactly as I expect them to, but for anyone else, well let’s just say their mileage may vary.

Well actually that is not quite true. A few hardy souls who continue to read this blog have actually had the great pleasure/misfortune (delete as appropriate) of meeting me in person. Some, for instance local birders or family friends, may in fact know me quite well, indeed some may have known me for many years. For those lucky people I imagine that they can read it as I would speak it. Or at least I expect them to, I may be wrong. Certainly when I read something written by people I know I will tend to read it in their ‘voice’. When reading letters or emails from my parents say, or messages from Mrs L, my sister or my children, I ‘hear’ them speaking. In the same vein there is a radio variety show I am very fond of called “A Prairie Home Companion” which was for many years hosted by a man called Garrison Keillor. He also writes books that involve a particular sketch from the show, a monologue called “The News from Lake Wobegon”, and when I’ve read those books I’ve read them as Garrison – frankly it was impossible not to. It’s an interesting concept isn’t it? As I say, my assumption is that other people do this too but I would love to know for certain.

But coming back to the original point, I suspect that many people who read what I write, and read it regularly, will have ‘translated’ my punctuation (in so far as that is even possible - I tend to take many liberties, this bracketed interlude is a prime example) into what they think I sound like, and so every time they open up a post they may subconsciously revert into reading it in a style that they believe is me. Personally I think that is entirely natural, and it’s certainly something I do to words written by bloggers who I have never met. Equally if I read a long novel written in the first person, after a time I may develop an interpretation of what the protagonist sounds like and then carry that forward for the rest of the book. Entirely in my head. Having read certain bloggers’ posts, or certain author’s books over many years I have conceived an idea of what they sound like, and as I read I slip into their ‘voice’. Now of course this may be – and probably is – a million miles away from what they sound like in person. I was tempted to say ‘in real life’ but as we all know blogging is real life hem hem. But if I were ever to meet one of these people face to face might I be rather surprised, perhaps even disappointed (!), that I have been reading them ‘wrong’ for all this time? Perhaps the best example I have is of listening to a short audio clip from a blogger who I had read for years and for whom I had developed a ‘voice’, only to discover that they spoke completely different from how I had imagined them. In some ways it was actually shocking. I felt I knew somebody but in fact I didn’t – and this was somebody who writes very, very well - how could they have got themselves so wrong?! I had the same experience once of hearing an audiobook after having read a few physical books, I think it was Bill Bryson reading one of his own books - it just wasn’t right even though it was him! Can a voice be said to define a person? Surely not, but more interesting is that having heard that blogger speak I found it very difficult – in fact, impossible -  to change my preconceived idea of what they sounded like when I next read one of their posts. Very strange how the written and spoken words both interact and diverge. Knowing somebody well eliminates that issue, but I do wonder if I were one day to meet a person whose output I consume whether I would find that encounter odd or somehow affirming? 

And trying to answer my own question, if a regular reader were to bump into me one day out birding, would they be surprised to find me different from how they imagined I sounded, or surprised that in fact I sounded exactly as they had interpreted the way I wrote? Who knows? I think it is safe to say however that they would nonetheless be disappointed….

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Insects abound

My herb bed has finished being edible for the year and is flowering like crazy - of particular attraction to legions of hoverflies and hordes of Tachina Fera is the mint. The mint is nice to eat for about a month in late spring, then it bolts and goes to seed, or flower, or whatever. Given mint is so easy to grow I could rip it up and do something else with the space but it is good for the bugs and then it saves me replanting it in the spring.

Tachina fera on mint

I also planted some kind of sunflower as it said it was good for bees and butterflies - tithionia is the latin name. So far it is living up to its billing and there are loads of things on it, including ants for some reason. Anyway, I dusted off the macro lens and took a few photos. Very hard work, birds are a lot easier!

Honeybee - not as common as they used to be

I think this is Myathropa florea, or the Common Batman Hoverfly