Thursday, 19 January 2017


Music is an important part of my life, other than when I am birding or working there is likely to be music in the background. I am quite old school in that I listen to and enjoy the physical presence of CDs. For any younger readers, they’re a kind of shiny plastic disc about 15cm wide that you place in a little drawer in a machine, and wires then run from this machine to another machine called an amplifier, and from there yet more wires run to loudspeakers. If you want to listen to something different you have to go to the machine, take the disc out and put another one in. Or send a child. When not being listened to the discs live in little square plastic cases which take up vast amounts of room yet give undeniable pleasure. This past sodden weekend my CD player got a lot of action, including Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” which seems to be appropriately apocalyptic for the current place where the world finds itself. 38 years old yet still highly relevant, prophetically cyclical you could say. We also listened to Van Morrison, Keane, Springsteen, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Chapman and Mozart. What that says about Chateau L and its residents I cannot say.

Music can also help connect you to physical moments. Neither Mrs L nor I are soppy enough to have an “our song” or anything like that, but Friday evening will always see Van M’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview” get an airing. The whole family know it by its alternative name of “The start of the weekend music”. This tradition goes back a long way and the original reasons why are lost, but those first "da da das" signify the start of something better, something positive, a clean break. It is infectious; I suspect our kids will do it too in later life.

For me, music comes into its own during travel, especially solo travel, which has been known to happen from time to time. All of my trips have soundtracks. Just before my recent trip to Madeira I finally fixed whatever it was that was wrong with my iPod (other MP3 players are available) and so was at long last able to download a number of those funny shiny discs onto it, including Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise” that I had bought some time ago. This is a series of recordings from the late 1970s that were part of the “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” sessions, but that didn’t make that album’s final cut. Released finally in 2010 after a 30 year hiatus they are however equally as good, and I spent my journey to and from Madeira, driving time, as well as some down-time in the evenings getting to know it. I mean really know it. In short, excellent, particularly The Brokenhearted and a couple of others. This is not intended be some kind of Springsteen eulogy, the same is applicable to all sorts of albums listened to on other journeys. I am just saying that whenever I listen to this particular album or hear a song from it, and despite its content and mood, I will now always think of the glorious levadas in Madeira that I walked along whilst humming various melodies, and the wind-blown trek out along the ridge to the viewpoint at the Pico do Arieiro to look at the Zino's colony. Of the stunning collection of mature South African cycads at the Monte Palace Jardim, hundreds of ancient plants. Of the amazing succession of viaducts and tunnels that make up the major roads on the south of the island, and the amazing coastal road that goes from Sao Vicente to Porto da Cruz on the northern side. And then finally a rather gin-fuelled return journey back to the UK with a fabulous sunset at 37,000 feet.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A slight pause

I have an increasing sense of paranoia about my use of commas. It could be worse I admit, but I write a fair bit at work, executive summaries and the like, and then of course these musings. When I reread things I have written I am aghast at the, overuse of commas. See what I did there? OK so that was deliberate and I don't ever foul it up quite like that, or at least I hope I don't, but nonetheless I have noticed a tendency to write extremely long sentences which inevitably means I use quite a lot of these humble little bits of punctuation.

I can't quite place my finger on it, but I just have this sense that there are too many. That last sentence for example - did I need the comma in the middle of it or would it have worked perfectly well without it? It's the practical use I am most concerned with, rather than any sense of grammatical correctness. Nobody cares about that anymore, this is 2016! I was probably taught it once, eons ago, and indeed a short refresher on the internet does suggest that before a "but" is an OK place to put a comma, but also that it does not necessarily follow that where a slight pause might exist in spoken english that this is the right place for a comma to be inserted. Unhelpful. It seems to be quite easy to spot where you definitely shouldn't whack a comma, but quite difficult to know where exactly one is actually needed and where you might get away without one. If I am ever in doubt, which is frequently, I seem to put one in. That last sentence there, would it have been OK, or even better, if it had read " If I am ever in doubt - which is frequently - I put one in." Or perhaps " If I am ever in doubt which is frequently, I put one in.

Ridiculous though it sounds, I quite often trawl through old posts removing commas that I feel are superfluous. You could argue I should quit while I'm vaguely ahead. English is not an easy language so in one sense I am doing quite well to even get words out and should not worry about the real nitty gritty. For instance I manage to avoid many of the usual written pitfalls such as their, there and they're, and also your and you're - the poor use of these latter two in particular I find impossibly annoying, far more than I ought to I'm sure. I've also seen his and he's used more-or-less interchangeably, and just recently no and know. I have recently caught myself simply writing the wrong word in a sentence, hear instead of here, but managed to go back and correct it before I hit send as it just didn't look write right. Easily done, english probably has more homonyms than many other languages, it must be incredibly confusing for anyone learning it as a foreign language. Then again it appears to be a foreign language for many people born here such is the amount of mangling that goes on.

At this point it is probably best to quote Nigel Molesworth, that fabulous creation of Willians and Searle, as he does a run-through of his various teachers in "Down with Skool".

"They teach english e.g. migod you didn't ort to write a sentence like that molesworth."

Monday, 16 January 2017

Missing Mistle

It was getting embarrassing. Mid-January and no Mistle Thrush. I mean I know I’m not the greatest birder to have ever issued forth from the streets of London, but this is a Mistle Thrush. They’re everywhere, they’re loud, and they’re absolutely enormous. Most of my compatriots easily bumped into one on January the first, I never had a sniff. On Saturday I went for a leisurely stroll around the Park, and helpfully gave Tony the heads up that the Little Egret on Perch was relatively friendly whilst simultaneously moaning that I was still such an unbelievably poor birder that I couldn’t find a Mistle Thrush to save my life. He helpfully replied that two had flown over Shoulder of Mutton just a short while ago. The same Shoulder of Mutton I’d walked alongside an hour or so before. Crushing doesn’t even begin to describe it. I didn’t retrace my steps of course, I’m bigger than that. One does not twitch Mistle Thrushes unless one is an utter loser. 

As predicted Sunday morning dawned grey and shitty. The kind of day that immediately promotes thoughts of slippers, multiple classy small cups of coffee, and heated conservatory floors. And annual tax returns. The less said about this latter the better, given how much tax I have already paid it is astonishing that they want more, and that they want it within two weeks. If they were ever able to get this mysterious thing known as a tax code correct, a dark art if ever there was one, then it would be a lot easier to bear. As it is I start 2017 not from the position of comfort that I envisaged but as completely broke. But I digress.

My peaceful Sunday was shattered with news of a Wigeon on Shoulder of Mutton. I’d searched every pond on Saturday without success, yet here one was. It was probably there all along but my birding skills were just too feeble to hoik it out. So what to do, given the rain? I mean this is after all just a Wigeon. A duck. OK, maybe I do know what I am talking about. One of the harder ducks it has to be said and on most patch visits you won’t see one. So I decided to go, albeit that this decision took me about five hours to make, still reeling from the injustice of Self Assessment. I also happen to know that from my house to Shoulder of Mutton and back is about 3,500 steps, and with my daily total languishing on about 1,500, mostly pacing around the house muttering dark thoughts, I needed those steps to stand any chance of avoiding a pathetic start to the week. 

I set off into the gloom, the rain beating down on my new coat. I bought it on the cheap in Texas where it never rains, so this was also a test of sorts. Hood up, face down, I trotted through Reservoir Wood where the paths currently resemble Passchendaele. Some poor guy was attempting to jog through it and looked like something just dredged from a swamp. I was being more cautious, skipping and jumping in an effeminate manner from one side to the other like some kind of Captain Jack Sparrow wannabe. This also means more steps of course, huzzah!

It was still there, a drake, and looking very happy chasing a few Mallard around. The rain seemed to just slide elegantly off its upper feathers for some reason, which wasn’t happening to me. Somebody should make a coat out of duck backs. It was then that I had a genius idea. One of those almost once-in-a-lifetime plans that is so marvellously simple that you wonder why you didn’t think of it years ago, or in my case, yesterday. I checked the golf course. Grass innit? And no golfers as who in their right mind plays golf in the rain, I mean it’s dull enough in nice weather. Side-stepped a couple of Canada Geese and sidled up to the fence...a and would you bloody believe it, a pair of Mistle Thrush with a retinue of subservient Redwings feeding on one of the fairways. Serious score, and a huge boost for what had been a rapidly diminishing faith in my birding abilities. I can do this. I am not hopeless. Then I realised I was just getting wetter so I went home to my slippers.

From 2013 for illustrative purposes, and to show I know what a Mistle Thrush looks like.

Sunday, 15 January 2017


In our house we listen to the radio a lot, mostly Radio 4 which is suitably middle class. We call it the wireless of course. Not really. Anyway, it means that the kids get a good selection of comedy and current affairs. So in addition to being fans of various long-running series like "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" and "The News Quiz", they are also up to speed with all the unfortunate things happening in the world, know all about Trump, ISIS and other tragedies. And they also get the weather.

So it did not escape their attention when, with increasing urgency, the weather forecasters began talking about storm surges, travel disruption, flight cancellations, danger, amber warnings, carnage etc etc. Her eyes full of hope, my youngest daughter looked up at me on the way out of the house on Thursday morning. "Daddy, I haven't made a snowman since I was five". 

Well what can I say? This is what we woke up to on Friday morning. As you can see, chaos.

Why is it that in this country we frequently predict the end of times when nothing of the sort ever happens? It is a national past-time to obsess about no weather at all. Perhaps it is because when we do get the tiniest bit of bad weather that we experience a collective collapse, weather that most normal countries wouldn't even notice brings us to a complete standstill. Despite the intensity of the band of snow said to be crossing the country, last week was so pitiful that public transport continued to run without any problems at all, and the nice cozy day I had envisaged working from home turned into the usual schlep to Canary Wharf. And needless to say we did not get to build a snow man..... I'd estimate there was just about enough of the white stuff in our garden to build something, oooh I don't know, an inch high and about half and inch wide. Pitiful. 

Here's an old photo from a few years back instead. I haven't shown it to the kids...

My garden, circa 1852

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Slow progress

I've not been on the patch for a few days - it hardly seems worth it when the sun rises at approximately the same time I need to be on the tube, and as I was away last weekend today was probably the first real opportunity for a while. I made the most of it, doing a complete loop of the Park and the Flats. For little reward it has to be said, as for all this talk of cold weather, huge tides and gargantuan amounts of snow, Wanstead has remained steadfastly dull. On Thursday I awoke to about half a millimeter of something that anyone who lives north of the Pennines would call a mild frost, and it had completely disappeared by the time I came home. Instead everything is just damp and miserably cold, with just enough ice on the local ponds to ensure that all the wildfowl have decamped to the Thames, but not enough ice to bring anything interesting in from a frozen countryside. Pathetic in other words, woeful for birding.

I struggled round manfully - five miles or so at a steady pace - I called it a dash on Twitter but actually it was at 3.3mph - and saw just two new species for the year, a couple of Siskin in the Dell, and then a small flock of Fieldfare over near the stables. I still can't dig out a Mistle Thrush anywhere, and tomorrow is looking very much like an indoor day with heavy rain forecast during all hours of daylight. So ends another week of local birding.

This Robin was really rather friendly. I expect it just wanted a handout mind you.

That is OK, I have plenty of other things to keep me going, a benefit of having lots of hobbies. My tax return for instance has been crying out for day like tomorrow. I have dutifully gathered all the required bits of information, one of which took over an hour to find in a stack of paper about two feet high. The number that I needed from it was zero. Excellent, excellent..... Given the effort I almost wish it had been something. 

There is of course a lot of blogging, and given I've just been away, a bit of photo-editing as well. I've almost finished potting up my stash of greenery from Madeira, the conservatory is looking less dining room and more Kew Gardens. Needless to say Mrs L is not impressed, plants are just things for her to walk into or that stab her. Sob stories about how they will all die if they go outside or in the greenhouse are just about working for now, but I don't know how long I've got - I need to get through to about mid-March I reckon. That's the trouble with this weather, I like it cold as it (very occasionally) brings birds and nice photographic conditions, but this clashes almost exactly with some of the other things I like, namely strolling around in shorts whilst poking at tropical plants and drinking chilled wine.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Full flow

Believe it or not this is my 10th post of 2017. Ten in 13 days. Somehow I have rediscovered my enjoyment of writing, and you the internet unfortunately have to bear the brunt. Last year I was on the point of throwing the towel in. Quitting blogging altogether. I simply couldn't be bothered, the blogging community was shrinking, most posts received no acknowledgement whatsoever, I didn't really feel I had the time to devote. Then I wrote about this sad state of affairs and in the process discovered that despite all of this I still really enjoyed it. And so here we are. 

After a summer of writing almost nothing, the autumn saw step up a few gears. I've not regained the heights of 2011 and I doubt I ever will - that was a unique period in my life - but it is beginning to flow again. I can't really say that there is a reason for this, it just is what it is. It may continue or it may not. It may get boring, indeed some may say that it already is! Now that I think about it I'm sure I once wrote a blog post about how I was boring even myself. That said, I’m back to doing what I used to do back then, which is keeping a list of things that I see or think of that I might then choose to bash out a few sentences on. Currently on this small scrap of paper are my unique sense of balance, snowmageddon in Wanstead, how trips often have soundtracks, sunsets, and why it is that I frequently use too many commas. As usual not much birdy content.

That said and despite the title, it has never really been all about birds. That would too boring. Had it been, I think it would have died a death quite a few years ago. As it is this is the ninth year, can I make it ten? How long does the average blog endure for? And how on earth does Steve Gale manage to write so much?! He's just won the highly-coveted Rambler award for the best blog that Neil reads, and for the fourth year running. This is richly deserved, his output is second to none, no repetition, always something to whet the appetite and always something new to make the commute go that little bit quicker. Apparently I was the runner-up again, although I did pick up a gong for my overly-emotional post about the parallels between the US election and Brexit. I think I won it once, probably back when I was a house husband and wrote stupid things every day about the minutae of life and my laughable attempts at domesticity and bringing up children. Anyway cheers Neil (aka Factor), and well done to Steve and thanks for the words!

Factor has also listed a number of really good reads to make up his shortlists, it is well worth going over to his page and having a look - you may discover something that really piques your interest. Since I had my big moan/epiphany, I have been trawling around various birdy spots on the web and have managed to discover a number of enjoyable places to fritter away time. So now over there on the right you should see a fresh and expanded blog-roll. There is a new one about waders, one from a birder who travels possibly more than I do, a few local patch soldiers from around the country, and a couple more photography ones. I hope to add a few more in the coming weeks, albeit that I don’t want the list to be too lengthy. In summary, there is light.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A short missive from Madeira

Hello from Madeira! I am spending a few days on this Atlantic garden island because I was not able to have any days off over Christmas, and because I like plants. I have been before, but that was mostly a birding trip when my horticultural inclinations were at a low ebb. Whilst chasing Firecrest around I did happen to notice that there were quite a few nice-looking plants around though, and it is this that has spurred me to come back. This time around I'll mostly be visiting botanical gardens and parks, but bins will be around my neck and I plan a few walks along some of the levadas - narrow mountain tracks with watercourses that wind their way around the edges of the many valleys. You can often get good views of the Trocaz Pigeons flying below you, and Firecrests are guaranteed pretty much everywhere you go.

It is all about the climate - sub-tropical. Moist oceanic air, warm winds. This means that you can grow almost anything without fear of frost or low temperatures. It's early January and I've been wandering around in shorts. At home it was just -4 in Wanstead a few days ago, here in Madeira it's about 20 degrees, and all those plants in my greenhouse that I spend hours agonising over whether they're too cold, whether I've watered too much or too little, they all grow like the clappers here with no care whatsoever. Huge proliferations of colourful flowers, fabulous palms, cycads, succulents and agaves. Yuccas the size of trees, Aloe arborescens with amazing red flower spikes growing as roadside weeds.The last time I was here I helped myself to a couple of Agave attentuata offshoots, a plant that is very difficult to find in the UK but which on Madeira has naturalised and is literally everywhere in Funchal and along the coast. Huge pale green rosettes, and unlike the rest of the family, no spines. They multiply by seed, but they also put out suckers and turn into huge clumps, thus liberating few babies from the roadside is not a problem. These have grown steadily in sub-tropical Wanstead, don't be fooled by the fragile look, they go into the minus figures with no problems if kept dry. A number of people have asked if they could have one and I already gave one to a guy over the road who seemed really keen. As mine have not yet grown offshoots of their own I'll try and source a few more in the next few days. Thank god we're still in Europe and they can be imported with impunity.

The middle three. In Madeira they grow to the size of armchairs.
I'm also hoping to see if I can pick up a few different things, so a number of nurseries and market stalls have been bookmarked for a visit, and my suitcase is practically empty in case they should have any small gems that take my fancy. Heliconia, strelitzia, canna, gingers, protea, bananas, agapanthus. Oh sorry, I'm getting carried away, I forgot this is a birding blog. Anyway, well done for making it this far, I know my plant fetish is not exactly riveting for most people. I will probably not be able to resist posting a few photos either, but there might be a few landscapes as well as I quite like that side of things too. Birds? Well there is large white tube over there in the corner of the hotel room - rarely do I go anywhere without it. I may find something to pose in front of it...

Oh well I never, will you look at that?!