Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Compassion fatigue

Here's a nice non-controversial topic for people to get their teeth into - compassion fatigue. We live in a world with arguably not enough compassion. At least not where it really matters, which is at the government level which dictates policy. Good causes are routinely ignored and marginalised, greed and ego regularly triumph over common sense and decency. And in many cases, humanity. With governments unwilling to help in a meaningful way, all sorts of good causes turn to the general public instead. You and me. And they don't so much turn to you as assault you. Relentlessly. From all sides and using all channels. Physically and online. When is compassion too much compassion?

I work in Canary Wharf. Not exactly a bastion of charitable causes, but I make no apologies for that, it is just a job. I typically arrive on the Jubilee line, and emerge from the bowels of the earth into the cavernous hall. And here, every single morning, is where it begins. A wall of volunteers with buckets, beseeching commuters for donations. Dressed up, bright, cheerful, friendly and smiling. The causes are universally worthy, there is not a single one where I have ever thought that it was a bit rich, so to speak. There has been aid for Syria, collections for children's hospices, for homeless shelters, a fairly practical one recently asking for winter clothing for rough-sleepers (I gave an old coat for that), cancer, alzheimers, you name it and it has probably been there. But here's the rub - it is every single day. And with every single day comes the compassion fatigue. A day here and there and I would likely drop coins in (it does not help that cash is on the way out). But daily and I have become hardened and embittered, immune if you like. And so I feel desperately sorry for those volunteers or charity workers who are there - it is surely their big pay-day so to speak. Canary Wharf at rush hour, the mother lode. But what they don't see is that there was a similar group there doing the same thing yesterday. And the day before that, another. I wonder if when they convene at the end of the day they are disappointed, cursing me and the stingy financial community, or if in fact they do quite well versus other locations? I have no idea.

I actually tend to give money to charity online. Not in response to appeals, simply standing orders or direct debits, fire and forget. It's just easier that way, there is no pressure, no thought necessary. But the online world is under seige as well. I barely use any forms of social media. Twitter is my one real concession, and I follow well under a hundred accounts. Almost all of these are nature related, mostly birds. And of course with that comes, via tweet and retweet, streams of bad news and an almost endless calls to arms. To sign petitions, to do this and to do that, so show support via a click, to express concern. Some I click, some I sign, in fact nearly all I probably sign, as I do actually care about the issues at stake enough to do so. The government ePetitions on driven Grouse shooting, the absurd new visitor centre at Spurn that very few local people actually seem to want, but I can tell you that after several years of this ad nauseam I am getting genuinely tired of it. It is almost as if my brain just switches off, filters it out. Oh look, Natural England has granted another licence to shoot Buzzards, another Hen Harrier has been found dead near a Grouse Moor. Yup, more of the same, next. It's not dissimilar to the almost indifference I sometimes feel when there is yet another terrorist atrocity somewhere in the world, or another air disaster. These things happen so frequently and then are burned into your retinas for endless hours by that scourge of modern society known as "Breaking News" that you end up desensitised to it, immune. The media saturation has the exact opposite effect to that presumably intended, but if you didn't turn off you would end up a basket case, unable to concentrate, an emotional wreck. 

And yet you feel bad, or at least I do. I should care more. I should get involved myself. I should give money. I should promote these causes. I should retweet this. I should sign this. I should make my voice heard. I should express my disgust. If I don't then I'm a bad person and other people will think I don't care. I do care, but compassion fatigue is an actual phenomenon and should not be confused with or be assumed to be an excuse for heartlessness. It isn't, I'm not heartless, but I am definitely sick of both bad things happening as well as people trying to do good. This patently ridiculous, how can I get annoyed by both when one is a solution to the other? 

There are two types of compassion fatigue however, and I have been talking about the minor version. The more serious compassion fatigue is actually a form of traumatic stress disorder caused by emotional exhaustion and it occurs, ironically enough, in caring professions rather than just passers by like me. People can devote themselves so fully to the care of others - people or animals or indeed a cause - that they are affected by it in adverse ways that at their extreme could cause exactly the opposite of caring behaviour. Ultimately it's the same underlying reason - over-exposure to bad things, but seeing too many petitions or watching ten hours of BBC rolling news isn't going to turn me to substance abuse, it's just going to continue to raise my levels of cynicism to new heights.

So what can be done to counter it? I have no ideas I am afraid, not one, which is rather tragic.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Return of the Squirrel

As predicted it has not taken long. My garden is once again besieged by squirrels. I looked out the other day and my largest peanut feeder was simply a writhing mass of grey fur. In the past week they have scoffed about 150g of nuts, 200g of seed, and shredded one of the feeders. The seed came out just fine, but that wasn't enough. No, it wanted to put its whole head inside so it simply gnawed through the plastic. Thanks squirrel, I'll just buy another one then.

There are two of course, the news is out. As I type, squirrels from as far away as Kent are packing up their belongings and setting off. Destination Wanstead. Their greed knows no bounds, their appetites are enormous, their metabolisms supersonic. They arrive at first light, starving, and they stay all day. As dusk approaches they stagger off, bloated, but still no doubt mildly peckish and looking forward to the next day. 

They're indestructible so no point trying to harm them, and chasing them off lasts about a minute before they come sauntering back. In under a month they have learned to climb the palm tree, jump the gap, skip along the greenhouse gutter, run along the apex and then dangle down onto the feeder. With that emptied, they turned their attention to the main feeding station closer to the house. The ease with which they can shimmy up the pole is extraordinary. Straight onto the seed feeder above, which they destroyed in a couple of days. As well as guzzling the contents of course.

It is getting expensive. Whilst buying a replacement feeder I noticed something called a squirrel baffle - a plastic cone to place on the pole. Hah! As if something as cunning as a squirrel is going to be baffled by a mere cone. So like a sucker I bought two, and another squirrel proof feeder - £60 the total bill. They arrived during the week and I spent a bit of time putting them all up yesterday. They look ridiculous, like giant fireworks sticking out of the lawn, and I am not confident that they are going to hold back the assault for long. As I returned back inside, the lead squirrel came to have a look. Slowly it paced around the base of the pole, looking up. Salivating. Then it started to climb up the pole.... And almost unbelievably it was foxed by the baffle! It simply could not work out how to get past the cone, and had to turn back. You could see it looked angry...

This morning whilst enjoying a leisurely breakfast the whole family observed the squirrel zip up the monkey puzzle tree, trip daintily along a branch and in one leap land on the pole above the baffle. 

I went outside and took the feeder down. I've placed it with my pride in the shed. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Southern Texas trip report

  • A four day trip in the October half-term with my son, with two days on the coast between Corpus Christi and Galveston, and two days in the Rio Grande Valley.
  • Flights were direct from London, arriving in Austin on the Friday afternoon and departing from Houston on Tuesday evening.
  • Car hire was a very reasonably-priced small size SUV that was extremely easy to drive and that we put roughly 1200 miles on and was actually relatively efficient. Fuel was roughly $2 to the gallon, which even with the appalling FX rate worked out at about 35p a litre, so about 1/3rd the cost of the UK.
  • Hotels were all booked in advance, and all rather uninspiring as they were large chains. The Holiday Inn on North Padre Island just east of Corpus Christi was our first night, a Hilton Garden Inn in McAllen on the Mexican border nights two and three, and finally another Holiday Inn in Lake Jackson south of Houston on the final night.
  • Birded a number of key sites extensively, and then made it up the rest of the time, with quite a lot of birding from the car. Side trip to Mexico for tourism purposes.
  • We took two excellent ABA guides with us, one specific to the Gulf Coast, the other to the Rop Grande Valley, along with the indispensible Sibley Guide for birds of the eastern USA. Texas is the one state that needs dual coverage, but we did not go to the area west of the Trans Pecos so did not need that guide.
Day 0: A leisurely start, mosied on over to Heathrow and a 10 hour flight to Austin arriving late afternoon. Sorted junior out for clothes at a mall on the way to San Antonio, and then headed south to Corpus Christi arriving well after dark.

Day 1: An early start to be at a couple of sites around Port Aransas for first light, then birded back down the coast until mid morning. Drove south during the heat of the day with stops at the Sarita Rest Area, country roads around Rio Hondo, coastal habitat at Port Isabel and then onto McAllen for the evening.

Day 2: Morning at Estero Llano Grande, late breakfast and then the nearby Frontera Audubon Thicket until mid-afternoon. Remainder of the day at Santa Ana NWR before a silly jaunt into Mexico for a country tick.

Day 3: Bentsen Rio SP until late morning, and then a long drive along country roads raptor spotting towards Corpus Christi. East to Aransas NWR arriving mid-afternoon, birding around Mustang Lake.

Day 4: Dawn at Quintana Neotropical Bird Preserve, mid morning Bryan Beach and Freeport. Afternoon at Brazos Bend State Park, some mild shopping in a huge mall late afternoon before making our way to Houston for our evening flight home to London.


I dipped a bird by ten minutes a few weeks ago. A very rare one. And worse, some friends of mine who had arrived 11 minutes earlier were there to greet me, all big smiles. It would be uncharitable to muse on whether they gained more satisfaction from seeing the bird or from daubing the rear window of my car with the word “DIPPER”, but I think we all know the answer. I am relaxed about it, and that’s what today’s post is about – my uncharacteristically soporific state of mind.

I don’t actually know if I am a relaxed person normally. My family would probably say that I am not. Neither would the poor sods who work for me in London and Glasgow. The nature of my work and my hectic schedule outside of work should also both point to “no”, but somehow – and I have yet to comprehend exactly why – I am feeling more relaxed than I have for what seems like ages. Highs and lows are like water off a duck’s back, nothing phases me at the moment. Not even dips.

Self-inflicted injuries are beginning to grate mind you. One I could cope with, I only got mildly pissed off when I broke my hand which was a bit of a surprise to me as much as anybody. It is fair to say that I did not enjoy either of my colonoscopies very much, but this is just a part of life that no doubt I would have arrived at sooner or later, so I just accepted them for what they were. Necessary and unpleasant, but brief. And then the ankle. That was more just exasperation, and at that point I just wondered when it was going to stop. Had you suggested that any of these things were going to happen to me at the start of 2016, I would likely have freaked out, but actually my reaction has been more along the lines of “and?”.

I think I am beginning to subscribe to the theory of “It is what it is”. This is different to any kind of motto such as seize the day, live every day as if it’s your last or similar. That’s ridiculous. This is more just being resigned to whatever happens, and accepting that things happen for a reason. That’s not to say I’m disinterested in life, far from it, I am enjoying it a lot. I have simply reached a stage in it where I am content and comfortable, and the odd challenge or irritation doesn’t bother me. I've had rather too many challenges in a short space of time perhaps, but I am told this is the new normal and I have several more decades of it to look forward to it. Hence the quiet resignation perhaps as I just limp towards the next minor disaster and an acceptance that nothing really matters that much, and as long as we're all happy then everything's OK really. See? Relaxed.

Today has been a day of low accomplishment. Normally I would be annoyed at myself for wasting an entire precious day, but today I don't really care. It's fine, it's what weekends are for. The girls and I have spent most of the day being cozy in the house, watching birds come to the feeders in the garden. I had no urge to go out onto the Flats to see their brethren, I was quite content indoors. We left the house once, an abortive shopping trip for a birthday present for my nephew where I visited one JD Sports and three Sports Directs in the space of an hour, taking in Leyton, Walthamstow and Tottenham. Even this failed to raise my blood pressure, whereas it ought to have caused apoplexy. I am beginning to wonder if I am alright.....

Sunday, 20 November 2016

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"Dear, I like your blog very much, I can get many useful information. Hope that we can communicate with each other. By the way, have you ever used clone partition to ssd ? Unfortunately I lost my partition. I do not know how to do."

This is one of my favourite ever blog comments. Starts nicely, not a problem that the robot doesn't know my name, just miss it out - the sentiment is there. Then a compliment or two. Excellent, everyone likes a bit of positive feedback. How can we communicate with each other? Well that would be lovely, but I'm not sure how that would work. Maybe I need to write an algorithm that generates auto responses. Have you tried to write one? It's more difficult than you might think, so I very much admire some of the ones I get, true works of art. I can't really compete.

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Then the killer line. Have I ever used clone partition? No I have not. I have not the faintest idea what that is, so thank you ever so much for providing a link so that I can go and find out. I shall just click on it now.....

Needless to say I have never clicked on one of these, and I doubt many are innocent shopping links. And I hope that none of you have either. Since dispensing with comment moderation I have been seeing more and more of these creeping in, and because they frequently go onto older posts, it's very difficult to keep going through and getting rid of them. I've just wasted 20 minutes going through pages and page having a good clear out and I think that - for now - they're all gone. Naturally I saved a few of the best. The top one is deserving of special mention, not only for what I assume is a confusion between insinuate and intimate, but also for the seamless way it flows between the aforementioned insinuate bedroom and the link to Business Communication Articles. A triumph. Also what is a Niagara furry?!

Do have a go in the comments section at bettering the bots.

Saturday, 19 November 2016


As regular readers will know I am bit daft. I am also nothing if not bloody-minded - when I occasionally put my mind to it. The all or nothing approach. Wheatears fall firmly into the "all" category and I am rather determined to get photographs of them all - decent photographs, or at least photographs that please ME. A lot of Wheatears live places that are a little dicey, and as yet my obsession has not led me to risk my safety by seeking them out, however Hume's Wheatear is a regular UAE bird, and the Emirates are perfectly safe. And only seven hours away....

You may remember that I returned last time (Jan 2015) somewhat dissatisfied with my efforts. Yes saw the bird. Yes sharp and nicely exposed. Nice perch....ah. No, not good enough. I came away with wheelie bins, posts and fences. What I really wanted was rocks and nice clean branches. Mostly rocks though. So I went back to Dubai, drove across the desert to the Omani border, loaded the passenger foot-well of my hire car with nice rocks, drove up a mountain, and had another go. 

The below sequence more or less describes what happened next.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Spry, like a mountain goat

I have just spent some time in nice rocky and sandy environments trying to see and photography various birds. I like deserts – they are in their own way very beautiful. I am no Wilfred Thesiger, as I will recount shortly, but they are definitely to be appreciated, and I would urge anyone who has not been to these regions to go. For the landscape as much as the wildlife.

I was in the UAE. You might think that ths is a bit of a pretend desert, criss-crossed by eight lane highways and carpeted in luxury hotels and crazy skyscrapers. Whilst that’s true, you don’t actually have to go that far to get that feeling of isolation; away from Dubai and Sharjah in the north, it’s still all rather primitive and undeveloped. And then anything south-west of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are simply a blank canvas, miles upon miles of nothing until you’re well into Saudi Arabia.

This is where I was. I flew to Dubai but it holds nothing for me. Malls and glitz, no thanks. In the same way that I always turn my back on Marrakech and head south, I turned my back on Dubai and headed towards the Omani border. This is where mountain goat skills are best employed.

So it was that at 6.30am I found myself in a stony wadi picking my way slowly up a mountain and surrounded by birds. Green Bee-eaters were amongst the first birds I saw, followed quickly by Orphean Warblers and a bonus Sand Partridge. Much further along the wadi, by which time it had narrowed significantly, I could see a small bird flitting around some foliage halfway up a cliff. Too far up to identify, I carefully picked my way up a scree slope. Plain Leaf Warbler, fantastic! A world lifer no less. It was joined by a couple of Purple Sunbirds and a gaggle of White-eared Bulbul. All very nice, and as gradually this feeding party moved off.

It was then I realised I was quite far up really quite a steep slope, and as everyone ought to know - especially those approaching early middle age - going down is a lot harder than coming up. And as this is 2016, the year of medical and other traumas, needless to say I totally arsed it up. I slipped, fell, bashed my camera on a rock and twisted my ankle all in one graceful movement. I wondered if I had broken it? My ankle, not the camera - this merely now has another crack in it, these 1 series machines can withstand almost anything. But I couldn't really feel my foot, very very tingly. Gradually sensation returned, and with it agonising pain. Excellent. I still had a good way to descend, and my car was at least a mile away. I made it back down and limped very slowly back to where I had parked. Clearly nothing was broken or I'd be being digested inside Lappet-faced Vultures instead of typing this, but nonetheless this could change the rest of the trip.

Needless to say I pushed on, go hard or go home, and in fact took some of my better photos over the next two days whilst essentially balancing on one leg - no mean feat with a very large telephoto lens. Arriving back in the UK early morning on Tuesday I went straight to work and called up the health insurance people. 

"Oh hi Jono" said a familiar voice on the phone, testament to the number of times I've had to call them this year already. "We were wondering when we would hear from you again. What have you done this time?" I explained the sorry tale and was duly booked to see a physio later that morning who confirmed I had a bad sprain and could look forward to 8 weeks of rehab. I declined the crutches.

I am beginning to tire of this year. My eyes have got crap in them, my hand has a lump in it, my little finger a permanent kink, and let's not even talk about my sigmoid whatever it is and the continued nonsense on that front. I would just like for a few months to pass without anything bad happening to me, is that going to be possible? I do not know how this happens, though I have an idea. I suspect it because I still attempt to charge around the place like I am 20 whereas reality says otherwise. Aged 20 I probably would have skipped down that slope and carried on up the wadi. Over double that and skipping doesn't wash any more. Falling over and snapping things is now much more my style, followed by people poking at me and cc-ing me on large bills on posh paper. Anyhow, what I would like to know from my ageing readership is whether this in fact normal and if this is simply a tipping point. If you will forgive the pun, am I now on a slippery slope?

Not bad for a bloke with one leg, one hand, nine fingers, and failing eyes.