Monday, 18 January 2021

A few sentences about a few birds

I have ventured out locally a couple of times lately. It has been hard going and I've seen nothing particularly of note, but seeing as how this is a birding blog first and foremost I suppose that I had best mention it. I saw a Kingfisher. I also saw a Kestrel. Interestingly enough I was actually looking for a Cetti's Warbler which I didn't see.  

Right now that is out of the way I can get back to the usual fare. Despite my last post being about a 5MR I managed not to leave the house at all this weekend, not even on Sunday when some blue sky appeared and which according to a contact keen on all things weather was the first view of the sun for about seven days. I did go outside though in order to a do a job that I have been putting off for ages and ages. Sorting out a recalcitrant water butt.

As a water conscious gardener I have three water butts, all of which are connected to the substantial roof area of my greenhouse. They fill up remarkably quickly, and it is very rare that I ever run out as it is something like 700 litres worth and my plants are mainly arid in nature. In winter they are hardly used at all, so I was a little surprised to find one of them empty before Christmas. This is the one which had half of the tap snapped off by my son's basketball last summer, which does make it a little less clear which way is on and which way is off. I twiddled the tap the other way, assuming that because of this I'd simply left it open, and then went and did something else. It has rained extremely heavily recently, so I assumed that it would be full again by now. However when I looked last week it was still empty. Hmmm, do I have a leak?

So when that little bit of blue sky appeared on Sunday I changed into some old clothes and went outside to sort it out. I took it off the breeze blocks it sits on and turned it upside down to have a look for cracks on the base. A huge gush of foul-smelling black sludge immediately slewed out and soaked my feet, leaving a disgusting slimy puddle on my pristine lawn moss. Excellent. Seeing I was now filthy anyway I took the opportunity to clean out the greenhouse guttering which was also pretty nasty. Anyway, after cleaning the butt out with a hose and partially filling it up again I can detect no leaks whatsoever which is all very odd. I have no idea what is going on and appear to have deposited a load of gunk on the grass for nothing. However I have now marked "on" and "off" on the side of the butt with a sharpie so that there can be more ambiguity, and the good news is that there is a lot more rain forecast for later this week and so I should find out definitively if I have sorted it out or not.

Back to the 5MR, I have now created it in eBird and the total number of species I've seen without realising it is 187. Whilst this might sound impressive I've seen more than that at a single London site, Rainham Marshes, and in any event Wanstead contributes 159 of them. That said, some of the additional 28 species are pretty tasty in a London context - Little BuntingFulmar, Long-tailed Duck, Tawny Pipit, Bonaparte's Gull, Melodious Warbler, Dusky Warbler. Common Rosefinch, Alpine Swift, Eider, Velvet Scoter and the only Nightjar I have ever seen perched up at a day roost.


The next step is of course to work out what I have not seen in this 5MR. That will take up some time. I swear I spend more time thinking about birds than I do actually looking at them. Of course I could just go out anyway.... a bit radical perhaps but you never know.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The 5MR

The 5MR, the Five Mile Radius. Birding, ideally in a green zero-carbon manner, no further than five miles in any direction from your front door. Even before the pandemic the 5MR was being touted as a sustainable way to bird, and has quite a large following particularly in America. But I think that in these trying times the 5MR (despite seven miles being the "local lockdown" distance as defined by the Prime Minister's recent bike ride) is increasingly relevant for all of us. As I've mentioned a couple of times recently I've been looking at ways to mix things up a bit as I think lockdown or forms of it are here to stay rather than being a temporary state of affairs. I've also said that I find birding Wanstead Flats ad infinitum rather limiting, and so in the absence of being able to travel anywhere better I have been giving serious thought to a 5MR. Extending my local horizons by a few miles is likely not going to be earth-shattering, but it will be different and that may be all I need. Many people I know have taken great solace in recent months exploring their local area and getting to know it better, whereas for my part I have done precisely nothing different at all barring nocmig and a lot of sky watching from my balcony.

I wonder what my 5MR looks like?


Well well, will you look at that? My 5MR has most of the Walthamstow Reservoirs in it, albeit only half of the Girling and excluding KGV altogether. It also has the Roding Valley Park, Coppermill Lane, Waterworks NR, Stoke Newington Reservoirs (these days aka Woodberry Wetlands), Hackney Marshes, Victoria Park, the Olympic Park, Fairlop Water, Thames Barrier Park, Galleon's Reach, Beckton Sewage Works and Barking Creekmouth - a veritable who's who of East London birding sites. Excitingly there is even some river, including the very bit of river that I am certain I've seen a Fulmar on, and possibly also a Guillemot

As you might expect many of the best bits are right on the edge, which if I am to cycle to them means that they are basically out of range during the working week, but come the weekend I could find myself down by the Thames or up on the Reservoirs. I have a pannier which held my shirt and tie when I flirted with cycling to work; it can easily hold my scope and tripod with very little modification. The only thing I will need to work out is how to get to some of these places safely as London traffic continues to be quite challenging.

I am about to devote a quality half hour to constructing this 5MR in eBird, which being a US platform has exactly the functionality needed. Although it is missing Rainham I am expecting that the starting point could be really rather good. I suppose the real challenge is the 5MR green year list, but it will still be interesting to find out exactly what I've seen over the years. 

Let's find out.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Slipper sloth

As you can see I have remembered what my stunningly relevant blog post last week was going to be about. Slippers. This is peak Wanstead frankly. Or peak middle age. Probably both. So here's the question: With another six weeks of lockdown ahead of us during which we are largely confined to our homes, will people mostly be wearing slippers or will they be making a bit of an effort and wearing proper shoes? Note that I am assuming people actually make the effort to get dressed, rather than slumming it in their pyjamas and dressing gowns all day. If you are one of these people then please pull yourself together, it is no way to live.

I have been wearing shoes quite a bit, even if I don't step outside. I like shoes, as I have perhaps mentioned before, and I also think that in some ways you're not fully dressed unless you have shoes on. I have no qualms at all about wearing shoes indoors. For some though the mere thought of shoes on carpets and interior flooring is just a complete no no. Back in the distant days when we used to leave our houses and visit other people in theirs, how many asked that you take your shoes off before you came in? Quite a few I'd wager.

We are not that fussy, but nonetheless Mrs L thinks it is odd that I wear shoes inside on days where I am very unlikely to go outside. She wears slippers and would not even contemplate shoes as part of the working from home wardrobe. She probably won't even look at her shoes for the whole of this period, the exception being her walking boots for short bouts of 'essential exercise'. I just don't know about that. For starters when shoes do become necessary again it may feel rather strange putting them on. During one of the earlier lockdowns I think I went for about a week wearing only slippers and when I then tried to put shoes on they felt peculiar and somehow restrictive.

I own a lovely pair of wool slippers that during the night sit by the side of my bed with some laundry fresheners in them lest they get a bit pongy. When I swung my legs out it was almost instinctive that the first thing I did was to reach for my slippers. As I picked them up the question formed in my mind as to whether or not I would be wearing shoes later on that day or not, and whether this new lockdown meant I might not wear shoes for weeks and weeks. One of the last things I remembered to grab back in March 2020 when I left my office in Canary Wharf for the last time were my two pairs of black formal shoes that I wore on rotation. They have not been touched since, it is such a waste, and I just don't want my brown shoes to sit and gather dust in the same way.


Is wearing shoes a sign that you are serious and not slovenly? If you're working from home does getting fully dressed for work, including shoes, somehow put you in a different frame of mind? Are you more purposeful, more dynamic, more awake and raring to go? And does the near permanent wearing of slippers have the opposite effect? Do they render you somnambulant and soporific? I associate slippers with weekends and evenings, with routines linked to the day either having ended or not yet started. It is how I have been conditioned over many years, and so to have them as my only footwear for months at a time just seems really odd, yet another blurring of the boundary between work and home that I am trying unsuccessfully to remove. 

I just thought I would put it out there to see if anyone else had an opinion? Saves writing about birds at any rate.

Monday, 11 January 2021

A culinary triumph!

It has been a long time since I did any cooking. The odd dabble perhaps, but since the La Fée Magique left for pastures new some years ago my time in front of the stove has been extremely limited. Les résidents du Chateau L believe that they are in the current situation for the long haul. Mid February may have been toted by our glorious leaders but we're thinking longer than that, so in the absence of going anywhere and doing anything we're trying to think of ways to mix it up a bit. As with many households meal times are one of the core familial events, and one idea we had was to take it turns to try and produce something special at weekends. This Sunday I went first, or as Mrs L would describe it, 845,489,271st.

So on Saturday afternoon I dusted off and donned my ceremonial apron. But wait I hear you exclaim! Saturday? I thought you said Sunday? Indeed dear reader you did, but Coq-au-vin is so much better if prepared the day before. So says Delia, and so that's what I did. Now I have probably posted the odd photo of food here before, I recall a post about various vegetarian triumphs last year or the year before that, but I don't think I have ever done a post about cooking a meal, or at least not for many many years. Back when I was a fully enlisted Domestic Goddess I suppose that something like this could have featured, but that is now a decade ago and largely forgotten. The children all survived, that is what matters.

So here goes. Also, to the reader who felt sufficiently moved to complain that my post about the US Capitol Riots strayed too far from the expected bird content, this contains chicken. Ca va? Anyway, apron on and sleeves rolled up. I couldn't find my tiara. Au boulot! By the way the recipe is from Delia's Complete Cookery Course, the one with a photo of her in a red top smiling radiantly on the front cover, before she started wearing yellow and became a football hooligan.

Saturday

You basically need chicken bits, bacon, onions, garlic, mushrooms, butter,  herbs and WINE!

This is it towards the end of day one. The chicken and bacon has been browned off, and the onions are doing the same next door. (NB ideally you should use small button onions of the sort that Mrs L allegedly told me were in the freezer but I allegedly wasn't paying attention). Soon I will add them to the main dish and poor in an entire bottle of cheap red plonk. The white bits are two whole cloves of garlic chopped up and sprinkled into the pan. Delia said to crush it but I couldn't be bothered.

Liberally seasoned with pepper and salt, and with both thyme sprigs and bay leaves added, the next step is to leave it to simmer for half an hour. After that turn the bits of chicken over, let the whole dish cool, and whack it in the fridge overnight.


Sunday

About an hour and a half before the meal haul it out of the fridge and slowly bring the pot back to the boil. After a further fifteen minutes of simmering add all the mushrooms. Again ideally these should be the small button mushrooms on the left, but as we did not have much chicken I elected to bulk it out with the extra ones on the right.

Let it simmer for a further half hour or so. You want those mushrooms to really absorb a lot of the flavour and liquid.

Mmmmm mmmmmmm

Yuck! This is some butter and flour that I had to hand knead into a paste. Unpleasant, but such is the life of a Domestic Goddess. Once this is ready, sieve out all the chicken, bacon, onion and mushroom until all you have is the liquid. Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaves at this point. Then put this grotesque lump in the liquid and stir it a lot until the sauce thickens.

This is parsley and adds nothing whatsoever to the dish.

When your sauce is nice and thick recombine everything into a suitable serving dish, sprinkle the parsley on the top to make it look posh, and serve to the famished masses. Time how long they take to eat it versus how long it took you to cook it and complain vociferously about the mismatch.

Et voilà! This step requires cutlery and another bottle of wine. Traditionalists would probably say that rice has no place on the table with a dish of this calibre, and that potatoes and only potatoes should be served. And on plates! They are probably right, but in Chateau L we have only ever served this with rice and in bowls and I would urge you not to knock it until you have tried it.


So there you have it. Many compliments were paid to the chef. Children kept appearing in the kitchen on both Saturday and Sunday, attracted by the frankly divine aromas permeating throughout the entire house. Sunday morning appeared to be actual torture for at least one of them, but by about 1pm the five of us were sat down and tucking in. My eldest daughter thanked me profusely for once again eschewing potatoes, and we all wondered aloud why it was that we hadn't had this dish for years and years? A roaring success, and a major contributor to a Sunday afternoon spent doing very little indeed.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Small steps

Yesterday I ventured outside for the first time in a week - this is not a healthy lifestyle. I started early as I knew how busy it would become - even at 8am the Tea Hut was open. I have nothing against the Tea Hut, quite the opposite in fact, however the very fact it remains open attracts people to the area - hundreds on nice days. Is a cup of coffee and a piece of cake worth the price of queues stretching nearly to the road and a concentration of people around the tables and the rubbish bin? I am sure they are being as careful as they can be, and there is a surfeit of signs and tape to guide and separate people, but personally I think it's madness in the current circumstances. 

On the way I picked up one of our resident Water Rails. Most of our ponds are iced up so the areas that they can be in are much reduced. The only pond that remains ice free is Perch as it it is much deeper, and this is where the Goosander have been lately. Nothing special there this time, but if this cold weather persists we may be in with a chance. The Grey Wagtail was on the Stables dung heap, and anyone wanting to scoop up all the common Finches need only hang around the paddock on the corner for a while.

By 9am I was on the Flats and feeling more confident about my ability to steer clear of humanity. Wide open spaces. I did a double circuit - Alex to Jubilee and then back again. Nothing special, my first sighting of the Little Owl this year, my first Mistle Thrush, and a record count of over 100 Egyptian Geese. The Med Gull was still present. All in all I covered five miles and felt much better for it.

Maybe my lack of fresh air is why I had a horrible headache last week. I just could not shift it, and along with some stiffness and shortness of breath this was enough to convince me to go and have a rapid COVID test, just in case. This was remarkably efficient and I had the result in about half an hour. Negative. Unfortunately we are now in a situation where there are so many alleged symptoms of this virus that the slightest niggle has us in a psychosomatic quandry. For instance one of the kids has had significant shortness of breath and funny toes. Yes, COVID toes are apparently a thing - the whole situation is crazy, I am sick of it. Although apparently not sick with it. Mind you, what would having had it actually change? Would it cause us to skip around with gay abandon? To let our guard down and behave with impunity? No it would not. 

Last week I tried to find out my likely vaccination date. There is a website that gives you an estimate based on your age and various data points about current levels of vaccination deliveries and uptake - best case I was something like #28,000,000 in the queue, with a date of February 2022! Worst case it was around #37,000,000 in July 2022. Life appears not to be getting back to normal any time soon. However since then another vaccine has gained emergency approval, and there is a bit more data about the rollout and the numbers accepting it, so my date has come forward to between July and September 2021. Without wishing to be overly cynical I'll believe it when I see it. There is no limit to our wonderful Government's ability to cock things up, or to put profit ahead of the common good. For instance how long before private practices are offering these vaccines at huge expense, allowing queue jumping for those who can I afford it? Would I get my family done earlier if that was a possibility? It's a horrible question isn't it? It wouldn't be right but of course I would. Who wouldn't? Hopefully it isn't ever an option and supply really comes online and means that the whole country is flooded with more than enough for both of the required doses. And of course that the mutations don't go so far that the vaccines become useless.... 

I like to end blog posts on a cheery note if I can, so in more news completely unrelated to birding (someone left a comment recently asking me to stick to birds, the temerity!!) I did some cooking yesterday. Coq-au-vin, so not really in our usual vegetarian spirit. If we are all confined indoors for the majority of the time I want to make sure that time is at least enjoyable and this feels like a special treat. We're eating it today, it is a lot better if you cook it in two stages with a day in between. I may yet do a blog post about it as I had the presence of mind to take photos at various stages of the preparation. To whet your appetite, so to speak, here is a photo of part of the chef. If you are a long-time sufferer reader you will perhaps remember this from days of yore.






Thursday, 7 January 2021

Mob rule


This is what Donald Trump wanted, this is what he spent weeks narrating. America's traditional adversaries around the globe must be pinching themselves with delight. Like many yesterday I had half an eye on the proceedings in the joint Congressional session, knowing that this time it wasn't quite the formality it normally is. I wasn't really paying attention to what was happening a couple of miles away near the White House - no coincidence I now realise that Trump was holding a rally for his most diehard supporters. What I didn't expect was for a sitting President to incite mob violence but I guess I am just a naive idealist. He told them to come, he spent some time whipping them up into a frenzy, and then he told them to march to the Capitol. He only told them to make their voices heard, not to violently storm it, but he knew what he was doing. A last throw of the dice. He knew. 

Yesterday evening I had planned to watch an episode of The Sopranos with my son. Instead we all ended up watching CNN as the incredible scenes in Washington D.C. were broadcast around the world. What a disgrace. What an absolute disgrace and an embarrassment. After the emphatic election result did Trump genuinely think that he could alter the outcome? Is he really that delusional? Yet for weeks now, aided and abetted by poisonous sections of the media, aided and abetted by sycophantic Senators and members of Congress thinking only of their political careers in their home States, he has refused to accept the result, repeatedly lied, doubled down time after time with baseless and fraudulent accusations, and repeatedly stoked division. It's extraordinary that one man's narcissism can lead to this. 

And it could have been so much worse, the lunatics who found themselves under the rotunda and in Speaker Pelosi's office clearly had no clue what to do once they got in there. It looked as if they could scarcely believe it themselves. Had this actually been planned it could have been horrible, and as it is several people died. As I type the joint session has now concluded, finishing at close to 4am. It was important that it did. What should not have been news is now headline news, and of course Joe Biden will be the next President, as nearly everyone knew two months ago.

Trump put kids in cages, he tried to ban Muslims, he praised white supremacists, he courted dictators, he sided against his own national security advisors time and again, he rolled back environmental protections - I could go on and on and on. And let us not forget that Trump was impeached! Impeached for the same type of phone call he just made to the election officials in Georgia, desperately trying to pressurise them into changing their election result. All of that may be now be forgotten in the face of this latest outrage. Even as his supporters clambered over the dais in the chamber he continued to contest the result, continued to lie. He told them to go home whilst repeating that lie. He praised them, he said he loved them; he did not condemn them and still hasn't. And even after the election was eventually officially certified he preceded his remark about an orderly transition to the next administration with the same baseless falsehoods that play to the same base instincts. 

It's too late for that, and I think that message is now sinking in. The last four years have been a national embarrassment, but four years of a President seemingly suffering no consequences for a continued upscaling of unpresidential behaviour have been completely overshadowed by this one event. It is the lack of any significant challenge during these four years that has led to this. That sense of impunity meant he believed he could do this too. Everyone was thinking it, Biden said it - a sitting President inciting sedition. THIS is now Trump's legacy. The people around him now realise the game is up and that despite all prior transgressions seemingly never reaching any kind of "oh now he's gone too far" limit, this is the one that does. He is being abandoned left right and centre. It is no surprise that even with only 13 days to go the 25th Amendment is now being whispered about (the removal of a sitting President deemed to be incapable of doing their job). It is also no surprise that the majority of the Republican Senators who had been planning to object to the Electoral College slate rapidly changed their minds once the Capitol had been cleared and the certification reconvened. The Trump train, at least within the Republican Party, has fully derailed. What comes next?

Well that's harder. It would be a mistake to dismiss the people who attended the rally and who felt compelled to go the Capitol. Some of them seem to be the usual anti-Federal gun-toting supremacist nut jobs, and the photos being circulated around the world certainly reinforce that stereotype. But many are not. I watched interviews with regular American men and women who, punch drunk, truly believed that the were on the right side of history. This is what they have been told. They believe that they are the true patriots fighting the true fight. When you're fed misinformation by the elected leader of your country, the President of the United States, lies which are then taken up by other senior elected representatives, lies which are constantly reiterated by news channels and which are all over your social media, why wouldn't you believe in some huge conspiracy theory? 2016 was their moment, the election that would sweep away all of the corrupt politicians - drain the swamp! - and to see that ending has made many people very sad. Sad and above all angry. Whatever rational political judgement they may have possessed has been surpassed or suppressed that by anger, and they see Biden and Harris as a return to the same old same old that marginalised them for years and that must be avoided at all costs. Trump radically changed what constituted normal and accepted behaviour across America, and his removal from office in a fortnight won't change that. He'll continue to be the populist, he'll continue to tweet bile, to rattle cages and to promote division. He'll be easier for the mainstream to ignore of course, but his millions of devotees won't change their minds overnight.

The good news is that there could be consequences for yesterday. More good news is that there could be a variety of other legal proceedings that get going once he is no longer the President. He could be rebranded as a criminal, though I'm not certain whether that would be helpful or not. Even more good news is that Trump's anger at his election defeat looks to have cost the Republican Party both their Senate seats in Georgia, which means that Joe Biden's policy agenda becomes much easier to enact - 50:50 with Kamala Harris having a deciding vote. But that doesn't solve the deep and scary underlying problems

People say that you should never write Trump off, and up until now they have been proved right every time. I may end up being wrong I suppose, but I believe that after this final disgrace he is finished, a spent political force. I had wondered about him needing to be dragged out of the Oval Office by the US Secret Service but that moment just moved forward by two weeks. This is the watershed that ends his Presidency and any shred of legitimacy he may still have had. I am worried by what comes next though. There are plenty of people out there who have the same world view as Donald Trump and the same lack of respect for democratic institutions, and some of them will have political ambitions. I'm not talking about the rest of the Trump family, they are not the next Kennedys and they're beyond ridiculous. I'm talking about some as yet unknown populist who is not restrained by the temperament of a two year old and who will learn from Trump's mistakes that played out so visibly and absurdly in the public eye. Someone who truly has their shit together could wreak havoc at a time like this and we're on countdown. It's four years away. Biden has always said he's a transitional President. The question is what he transitions to and I for one am scared.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Powers of recall

I had [what I considered to be] a great idea for a blog post at about 8am this morning and an hour later* I cannot remember what it was. This is so frustrating, but symptomatic of a wider issue that most commonly expresses itself with me walking upstairs or downstairs to do something and upon arrival having no idea what it was. I am hoping by typing this that it will all of a sudden come back to me, a bit like when you forget a person's name and intensely trying to recall it has precisely zero effect, but then a little while later you are doing something completely different and all of sudden shout out "John Mensah!". That's a recent example - we had been talking about race whilst having dinner and of our experiences growing up in almost completely white caucasian schools in areas far less diverse (at least back then, and probably still) than where we live now . There was a girl called Michelle whose last name I remembered instantly and as a result have been able to discover is now a psychologist in London, but the only other black kid I could remember was John and for the life of me I just could not dredge up his last name. I could picture him perfectly, hear his voice almost - bear in mind this is over 30 years ago - but all that came to me was John. I tried all the usual tricks like going through the alphabet and trying out sounds, but it wasn't until a few days later that I suddenly and completely tangentially announced to the family that I thought his surname might have started with M, at which point my son offered up a few ideas, one of which was Mensah and which is apparently a very common Ghanaian name. I could not have said that was his heritage, when you're a kid that kind of thing isn't important, he was just John, just as Michelle was simply Michelle. 

Anyway, one paragraph in I am still none the wiser, and so instead of a zinging post that tapped directly into the zeitgeist instead there is this. It wasn't about birds, that much I know, as I briefly questioned whether it was OK to follow my last post about drinking with another one also completely devoid of birdy content. I decided I didn't care, went and had a shower, and appear to have washed my amazing idea down the plug hole. It will no doubt come to me when I am least expecting it, so watch this space. 

In other news I have no other news. I've not been outside since Saturday except to take the recycling out. I've seen nothing and met nobody. Welcome to the next few weeks. This is why good ideas are so important. Bummer.

* I actually wrote this this morning actually but set it up to auto-publish this evening at half past six, which is what I always do when writing stuff in advance. And no, I still can't remember....