Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Big Willy and Rabbit Shit

You will have to excuse the title, the reasons for which will become clear as I continue. I am in Austria, taking a break from relentlessly birding Wanstead. I deserve it. My contribution to the status of the patch list is beyond reproach. Or it was in about 2014. Ok, 2013. Anyway, it is the first time I have properly visited Austria, a short autobahn hop from Germany to Italy over a decade ago does not really count, and I am enjoying it immensely. There are two main reasons for this – cake and beer. Cake and coffee are traditional, but away from work I am not a huge coffee drinker so I have been largely substituting.

Who knew?
Cake is something of a Viennese institution, and the multitude of konditorei are living proof that this proud heritage is in rude health. Kaffee und kuchen for the five of us was generally around twenty quid a pop – this is broadly equivalent to what a “meal” in a fast food place would cost, and some way below what coffee and bite to eat would set us back in, say, Canary Wharf, so we have been making sure to stock up as frequently as our stomachs will allow. At least once per day. The Viennese understand cake, and crucially they understand size. There is none of this namby-pamby amuse-bouche going on, which whilst delicious leaves you wanting. Instead you have immense slabs of utterly exquisite and beautiful sugary goodness which are so vast that about two thirds of the way through you secretly hope you will discover a caterpillar nestled away and push the plate away in disgust. Oh sorry that’s fruit, my mistake. With no such relief possible you plough on through, wondering if the children will let you skip dinner and just go to sleep at 4pm.

Panther for scale
Beyond the cake we have had a wonderful time. We started off in Budapest having decided that a bit of culture should replace the traditional summer beach holiday, and after a day and a half of exploring Hungary’s capital city took the train to Vienna. As I explained in my last post I am a very cultured individual, and I hope to ensure my children gain this same sense of wonder and enchantment that travel frequently brings. With this firmly in mind we booked a day trip to the town of Melk, famous for its incredible Abbey and collection of manuscripts. And flying bishop’s hats.

We hadn’t actually intended to visit the Abbey at all, but by some miracle we managed to curtail the normal breakfast buffet extravaganza and catch the earlier of the two trains we had in mind. This left us with nearly two hours to kill before our scenic boat trip down the Danube to Krems, and seeing as the kombitikett got us in we thought we might as well. Amazingly we had the place more or less to ourselves having arrived a few minutes before the first coach trips, and thus were a crucial few minutes before everyone else. This allowed us time for careful study of the exhibits in the museum section that started off the visit, which unsurprisingly was devoted to religion, and which regular readers will know is one of my very favourite topics. Kicking off the displays was a Madonna and child, fantastic…

We neatly avoided this.

The Abbey is Benedictine, although I enjoy all religions equally. Especially those that charge for entrance. And boy do they need to. The amount of opulence of display was quite incredible. Sickeningly so actually, I have never seen more gold gilt in any setting anywhere. Piety seemed somewhat absent, and I was left with the distinct impression that this particular branch of religion was more about the glorification of priests than the worship of any deity. Clearly I am tinged with scepticism in this field, but the bishop gear on show would not have been out of place in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Robes, gloves, bejewelled slippers, and staves and cups so glittering they could have been props from Indiana Jones. All of these exceeded however by the flying mitre, displayed nattily seven feet above the floor in a suspended glass case, with DANGLY BITS extended as if the hat were flying. I was so in awe I forgot to take a photo and as a family we all enjoyed this very much, imagining the levitating bishop of yesteryear gliding serenely to his gold-cushioned altar to preach humility to the unwashed masses.

A simple cup
The spartan altar

We had of course come to admire the world-famous collection of manuscripts, not to poke fun at the excesses of the eighteenth century. These were housed in a magnificent library adjacent to the chapel that looked every inch the real deal, with endless wooden bookcases, spiral staircases, rolling ladders and ancient tomes floor to ceiling. We spent all of two seconds looking at the manuscripts, as none of them appeared to be on view and the room was manned by two fierce-looking guardians, there to ensure you didn’t attempt to actually touch anything (which is fair enough really, some people just have no sense of history), and proceeded to the chapel. If we had thought that some of the finery on show earlier was OTT, this place was dazzling. You didn’t need lights (although these came on automatically just as the automatic door closed behind you - no expense spared), the church was aglow. In all honestly I could not say it was beautiful, it was too gaudy for that. But it was highly impressive, which is no doubt exactly what it was intended to be. I don’t know much about history, but I am led to believe that living conditions for the vast majority of the population in medieval Europe were pretty execrable. Not so for priests and monks it seems, who although simple people in the service of God appeared to have vast wealth with which to gratuitously cover all surfaces with gold leaf, tapestries, silks and so forth. But they did brew decent ale so hats off to them I suppose. Gilded flying hats with streamers.

Please give generously such that we may buy more gold. For purely venerative purposes you understand.

Notwithstanding the fabulous terrace with views over the Wachau Valley, the highlight of the Abbey were the toilets immediately after the gift shop (all Abbeys worth their salt have gift shops). After several coffees earlier in the day (no trappist ale as yet) I was severely in need and it was with great relief that I entered into some spotless facilities. And it was with no small amount of delight that I registered that the brand of toilet roll dispenser was “Big Willy”. It is the smaller things in life which for me really make the difference. You can take all the glittering frescos you like, all the medieval books and candelabras, all the stained glass and gem-encrusted paraphernalia in the world and I am still going to be more pleased with a puerile piece of anodized aluminium. My children, bless them, expressed similar delight.

It got better though, albeit you suspect with less innocence. After we had walked around the Abbey gardens and descended back into the town in order to catch our boat, we walked past a sign advertising Rabbit Shit. No really, I took a photo. Per the sign this meant chocolate pearls, but still, would you really call it that in the hope that people would pop in? A little further on a sign felt the need to translate Apfelstrudel into apple strudel. I am not sure exactly what kind of person would stare hard at the word Apfelstrudel and come away none the wiser, but nonetheless it capped off an excellent morning, and we headed to the boat with a spring in our steps.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


I did in fact go out birding on Saturday. It was very pleasant to be back out, and my efforts gained me a Yellow Wagtail, a Spotted Flycatcher, two Hobbies, a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk - the birds of prey all simultaneously. I say effort, but I have forgotten how easy birding can be. I wandered about a bit is the sum of it. Easy this birding lark, but someone has to do it. Shetland will be rather different I expect, slogging it up Quendale repeatedly is decidedly not easy. I am on the cusp of booking tickets, oh what fun, a week of being blown off my feet, getting very wet, and seeing Blackcaps.

In other news I went out birding today too! This morning's very brief jaunt gained me a winter Wigeon (thanks Bob!) and probably a Tree Pipit. Tony had one buzzing around the brooms earlier, but when we all had a bit of look later we could only find a cheeping Meadow Pipit. Until that is I found a silent Pipit. Silent Pipits are the worst kind of Pipits. I like loud noisy Pipits, especially ones that go zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I especially like very stripy Pipits, but this wasn't one of those. No this was one of those oh you little bugger Pipits that might have been a Tree Pipit, but equally might not have been. Bob did catch up with it after I had left to go do my mountain of errands, but I have on plenty of occasions chased around resolutely silent Pipits only for them to eventually go seep after wasting half an hour of my time. So I will have to leave it, unless it was up near the log of happiness, in which case I am having it. Maybe. Need to get into shape for Shetland I suppose!

In other news I had a plant disaster at home whilst we were on holiday, failed ventilation, and when we got back from Vienna at 7.30pm it was 43 degrees in there Lord knows what it would have been in the heat of the day. Five days of it and there has been mass leaf die-off in my conservatory. And I do mean mass, it is so sad. I was doing so well, my new-found enthusiasm was producing excellent results. Anyway, what was a beautiful and lush place to spend time is now a mostly barren desert filled with what look like empty pots. We spend so much time in there as a family that we can't wait that long, and whilst most plants will likely regrow leaves in time it could easily be a year from now or even longer. So I have embarked upon a whirlwind of foliage gathering, buying new plants all over the place for instant and replacement happiness. This has seen me hit Maldon in Essex, and New Malden and Guildford in Surrey this weekend, but I am pleased to say that after a weekend of slogging and hard graft we are getting back to something looking more green and pleasant. Let's face it, I'd be bored if everything just went according to plan and all I had to do was sit down.

None of these plants exist any more... :-(

Friday, 19 August 2016

Time to go birding again?

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I thought about going birding. In this country. In Wanstead even. I reckon it is about time. A few Spotted Flycatchers have turned up, Pied Flycatchers on the coast, and even the first Wrynecks and Hoopoes. In other words the doldrums of summer are finished and it is becoming interesting again. I am also getting interested again, I am in the mood. A long hard summer of medical nonsense seems to be behind me - my gut consultant says he doesn't want to see me again for a long time - after what he did to me the feeling is entirely mutual! My hand is also feeling a lot better about three and half weeks in - not better better, but I can tie shoes again, and I have a cast thingy that I can take off if it annoys me. Naturally I have not worn it for days, and I am very much enjoying the freedom of not having it on, albeit with all the risks that comes with. Bah, it'll be fine. So tomorrow you may well see me out on Wanstead Flats, both hands holding binoculars to my keen little face as I strain every optic nerve to seek out migrants.

I've not been birding for a while, certainly not in this country. A host of rarities have passed me by, perhaps proving that my twitching days are firmly behind me. Purple what? Oh nevermind. That said I am working out how I am going to get myself onto Shetland this October, and have a vague itinerary planned that involves planes and boats. All in order to fall into iris beds and be driven to the ends of the earth to see nothing but Chaffinches. Bring it on, I am genuinely looking forward to it. Perhaps the fact that I've been slack is the ideal preparation in terms of generating enthusiasm?

Just like blogging. It felt like months since I had written anything, and then there was a flurry of blogging in July. Predictably I gave up again for August, but I've done little this month other than work my ass off, visit hospitals, and travel. I can't blog about work, I told you about my hand, but travel...... Did I mention I went to New York? It wasn't the greatest trip I have ever done as the weather was dreadful, but it wasn't a total let down either as I came away largely with many of the images I wanted. It was more a case of what might have been really, and I can't wait to get back there at the same time next year. Not committed yet as ticket prices are silly and I know the deals will come. There have also been family trips to Prague, Budapest and Vienna, all of which were fabulous and none of which involved birds, although we did see a Kingfisher in the Wachau valley whilst tasting apricot juice. Plenty of blogging material gained, but I may have to release it bit by bit as I get time. Time is still a large problem, specifically a lack of it. I like to be busy of course, but it's a bit of a joke at the moment. Can I make time for birding for the next two months? Hope so,I fancy a Tropicbird....

Red-throated Diver

Red-throated Diver was a top target species for Shaun and I's trip to Iceland. I had done a pile of research beforehand and knew just where to go, and it was a huge relief when on our first morning we arrived and there were Divers all over the place, pairs on small lakes, sometimes two pairs. Cred maintained. A fabulous site with lots of birds, paths that you could view from, and constant activity. What you can never plan of course is the weather. Dull and nasty. Not photography weather, and we left quite quickly without getting what we wanted.

We returned on our final evening in much nicer weather. Too nice! What we needed to do really was wait until 9 or 10pm, but we didn't have the patience for that after three long days, and wimped out basically. I was beat, and Shaun was hungry. Shaun is always hungry. Or thirsty. Or both, and in his mind it was time for dinner. I made him wait another three hours as I was birding, and he repaid this by taking me to KFC. Evens I suppose. Far too much heat in the air even at 6pm, and as a result rather useless photos. Here are a couple anyway - you can see that the haze has prevented any feather detail from being captured - I will have to go back. I am keen to get them out of the way actually, as this is my last species from Iceland and I have a ton of birds from the USA to go through as well as another long-distance trip on the horizon.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Collins first edition

This is a post about birds and birding actually. I know, I was surprised too. Mrs L and I went to Prague at the weekend for a spot of tourism birding. I've never been before, indeed it was a country tick for me (#48 I think, can't seem to add it on Bubo), and very pleasant it was too. I was in a very relaxed frame of mind, other than of course wondering which part of me would next land me in hospital. Too relaxed it soon became apparent, as on Saturday morning I found myself in a museum. I'm not sure how it happened either, I must have let my guard down, a momentary lapse of concentration. But that's all it takes, the ticket was purchased, and we were inside. Before lunch!

I am not a cultural person. I'm not a philistine either, but given the choice of going to a museum or, say, sitting in the sunshine drinking a Pilsner Urquell, you will find me on that cobbled street every time, glass in hand. Nevermind. I am a dutiful husband, and so the museum it was. It was set in an old convent near the river, and the visit seemed to be a mixture of being reverent in empty bits of church, and admiring various bits of religious iconography scattered in less churchy bits. I have seen enough Madonna and children to last a lifetime. Several lifetimes. All very old, all very similar. All very boring. Here's one of them, with added feline interest. In my defence, this was a fake one which was part of a tactile display for blind people, a reproduction of the real thing which was in a room upstairs and which I ignored. Does it still count as sacrilege? Probably. Whatever. Look! The little child is trying to get Snuffi to play with a ball!

Anyway, the real meat of the exhibition other than twenty million basically identical Madonnas and children were a series of paintings of religious scenes. You know, somebody on a Mount of Olives, that kind of thing. On a mound of olives would have been a lot funnier, but the artists probably didn't think of that at the time. Or they did, but would have been killed.... I nearly lost the will to live by about the second room, but then noticed that the [presumably massively bored] painters had frequently included birds in their scenes. I don't recall any of their names, but I'm pretty sure an ancestor of Zetterstrom was amongst them. Just look at this! I mean this is notably better than Fitter and Parslow in many ways. From that moment on I was birding.

Eight hundred years old, but clearly a Goldfinch, a Bullfinch, and a.... Hoopoe of sorts. I went on the hunt for more and found plenty. Now I've not been birding in Israel or wherever the large pile of olives was, but I'm looking forward to going as there are going to be a lot of ticks for me. I've certainly not seen the two species depicted below, but I'll know them when I see them for sure. The first is clearly some kind of Blyth's Reed Warbler, but the ultra-rare hepatic variant that is a very likely AERC split. The second is possibly new to science, an undescribed species of Night Heron is my best guess at this point. See the concentration on its face as it stalks an olive? Actually it just looks bored and depressed. Like I would soon be again.

I continued birding less and less enthusiastically around the museum, finding many more species hidden away in the corners of paintings, but by far my favourite piece of art (before I collapsed and died) involved The Impeturbable Monk. Just look at this for cool, calm and collected! Somebody has just shot him with a bloody great arrow and he hasn't even dropped his book! In fact he has barely noticed. And how about that for an arrow, it's more like a ballista. It should have cut him in two, or at the very least have knocked him backwards by twenty feet, but he is rock hard. This is the Steven Seagal of antiquity.

The next day I found myself in another museum having nodded off again at a crucial moment. This was an exhibition of Asian art from a similar time period, curated in part by the author of the wonderful "The Hare with Amber Eyes", Edmund de Waal, and was much more varied. And much better actually, much of it made the European efforts look childish in comparison. The Italians were carving shoddy wooden statues and painting entirely unrealistic battle scenes whilst the Japanese and Chinese were weaving with silk and making incredible ceramics. Look at this plate! You could sell it via the Sunday supplements even today, and there's not much doubt about the species, Red-crowned Crane. Stonking!

And this pot, or maybe vase (except it was so massive you could have put a tree in it), was exceptionally wonderful, one of a pair that probably stood four feet tall. Covered in fish, Carp and the like, I reckon it wouldn't have looked out of place in Chateau L but I couldn't find a price tag, and in any event we were hand luggage only as I just don't do queuing up in airports these days. I very much enjoyed this exhibition, which took in Turkey eastwards, various flavours of Buddhism, and concentrated mostly on more animate objects that actually would have been useful. Plates, bowls, pots, furniture, screening, storage chests. Like Ikea in many ways, but less spartan and requiring no self-assembly. Lacking in panther display units mind you.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Skimmer Sunday

I snuck in a trip to America at the weekend, with a day and a half on Long Island in NY State. The primary target was Black Skimmer, a bird I got a brief glimpse of in Florida on my last visit. I am very fond of it, they're brilliant, and this time the species was on view for as long as wanted it. However the weather played havoc with my carefully laid plans and what should have been glorious early morning sunshine was in fact squally overcast grey skies and a stiff breeze. I did my best - with a broken hand - and given the circumstances I can't honestly say I'm unhappy with the results. Surely one of these days me and some decent weather are going to coincide? This is of course one of the risks of going on exceedingly short trips; on balance I'm still happy to take it. So, here are a few photos of the Skimmers, sorry, images. I managed 2280 despite the cruddy weather, and am still in the process of editing them down. There are many more to come....

Friday, 29 July 2016

Iceland for Waders: Part 2

Black-tailed Godwits were not as common on this trip as I had expected, and we only saw birds in a few locations and none of them were that good for photography. The first was on the approach track to the Red-throated Diver pools early in the morning, with three birds squabbling by the roadside in the lush grass. The aggressor, the most active bird, was colour ringed, which personally I don’t like as it’s a clear sign of human activity. Still, as these were the first birds we had seen since arriving the previous evening we could not resist pointing our lenses at them. I’ve included a couple of images here but I’m not really feeling the love for them.

Far better was another roadside bird much further north. From a distance we could tell that the background would be a lovely deep green, with the bird perched up nicely on a grassy knoll. We crossed our fingers that this bird would stay put as we rolled the car gently up to it. It did, but only for long enough to get a single shot! Luckily the light was very flat and the scene extremely neutral, so my pre-selected manual exposure settings were basically spot on and did not require any adjustment that probably would have cost me the shot. The simplicity of this one makes it, for me, one of most pleasing shots from the whole trip.

The final wader I wanted to cover is of course the Red-necked Phalarope. These are everywhere in Iceland, at sea-level bobbing around in the surf to still pools on upland passes. Having done relatively well with them on my last trip I really didn’t go after them much on this one, but there were a couple of opportunities that got me a bit interested. I am spoiled really! The best place was a still pool along the main highway as we headed north, and had three pairs that drifted quite close to us. Other locations did not really provide much joy but we were not looking that hard.


So that concludes the waders for the trip. I will definitely be going back!