Wednesday, 17 January 2018

News from Chateau L

Throughout the final months of 2017 Chateau L was a living hell (in relative terms, this is not Raqqa). In late August the builders moved in, and we made the mistake of not moving out. In addition to having the moat re-lined and the turrets polished, we had our ancient kitchen replaced, new central heating and a loft extension done. All of this happened concurrently and at one stage we were confined to one half of one room, with a toaster and a slow cooker on the floor, plates on the windowsills and cutlery in an old shoe box. Washing up was done in a bowl filled from the kettle for we had no hot water downstairs - indeed we had no kitchen whatsoever - and Mount Garment (of which I have previously written many times, including here) grew to truly epic proportions as we had no washing machine either.

Day to day life was reduced to one of those square puzzles which has one free space where you have to slide tiles around to create the picture. The contents of the loft went into the bedroom and the front room, the contents of the kitchen (including all the appliances) went into the drawing room, toilet and conservatory. Meanwhile the contents of the drawing room went into the front room, the left hand side of the conservatory went largely to the right hand side and the greenhouse, and we moved the bare essentials into the space this created. Builders tools, materials and new bits of kitchen were slotted in wherever they would fit. Our new fridge for instance lived in the hall for a few days, and then migrated to the front room for a couple of weeks. For what seemed like an age our evenings were spent huddled around a table in an unheated room, eating the same food night after night -  for no matter what you put in a slow cooker it comes out as identical mush. Compounding the misery wine reserves were largely inaccessible during this time, and I quickly went through the Tanqueray. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse it did, just when you thought that you were nearly there you weren’t.

Meanwhile a cold breeze blew in from the hole cut for the new loft stairs, as well as through various holes in the ceiling where the builders had fallen through  - once carrying a bucket of water for added comedy value. When the kitchen ceiling was taken down it was then discovered that the shower above it leaked copiously, so we were reduced to shallow baths once every 2 days. Every move we made involved stepping around a tower of cardboard boxes or plastic sheeting. Wood, pipes, tools and above all dust dominated our lives. The inmates of Stalagluft IV would have felt at home.

And this is with a team of builders that were good, and I mean really good. There was the odd hiccup of course, like creating and fitting a beautiful kitchen counter and then discovering that they had carved the hole for the sink in the wrong place, but largely they were excellent. They worked six days a week for up to 14 hours a day to ensure that it was done by Christmas, and whilst individual elements of the project took longer than anticipated, especially the kitchen, the overall build finished on time just as they said. Looking back it has all been worthwhile, the crocodiles look much happier with the increased water depth in the moat for instance, but whilst it was ongoing it was really hard.

But even though the builders have gone and all the rooms have been restored to their former glory, there is an ongoing legacy that refuses to leave. Dust. Now of course castles are dusty places at the best of times, and back in the days when this blog was interesting I frequently wrote of my ongoing battles with dusting, but this is a whole new level. Which coincidentally is what we now have of course. Anyway, despite the copious use of dust sheets and masking tape, dust has managed to penetrate everywhere and settle on every surface. This includes the vertical inside walls of cupboards that were taped shut and then covered with a dust sheet. And this is not regular grey fluffy dust that blows off, this is a fine white layer of brick and plaster dust that only a damp cloth will remove. My team of domestic staff (i.e. me) have been gamely trying to remove it, but I think it must be in the air as two days after a robust cleaning session you can run your finger over a surface and yet again be coated in a thin film of white powder.

Nearing completion. Yeah right!
It has all been worth it of course. The new kitchen has lights, the cupboards have doors, and the drawers have handles – I think in the previous incarnation we were down to two florescent tubes underneath the wall units and thus could barely see for most of the winter. Drawers were opened with the screws that had used to hold the handles and we had long since given up using gaffer tape to put the cupboard doors back on and simply thrown them away. It was altogether a very down-market experience but one that we were largely reconciled to, but I have to say that the novelty of being able to see what we are doing has yet to wear off! 

There is also another huge and worthwhile change, but this needs a blog post all of its own....

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A post of increasingly bad puns

My best 2018 blogging intentions already went out the window – I started strongly but was unable to maintain the pace, even with dragging out a two hour photography session into three posts! Of course the issue, as ever, is that I have nothing much to say that I have not already said. The mind-numbing stupidity of those in the corridors of power continues to astound and worry me in equal measure, but as this is supposed to be a birding blog I had best not stray. Also if I have learned anything through writing a blog for many years it is that when it comes to politics and current affairs it is impossible to write something without offending some part of your readership. Or maybe it is the way I write it? Not that I have ever paid too much heed to surpressing my feelings on contentious issues, but on the whole writing about birds remains a relatively neutral and easy-going topic that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. Sorry, that was terrible. A bit like “twitchers flock to rare bird” headlines, you can understand I could not pass it up.
So birds then. Well I am pleased to report that 2018 has started rather well in local context, and that not only does my patch list now stand at 67 with many straightforward birds such as Skylark and GBB Gull left, but also that I have already had a full fat patch tick. Some quick thinking and more importantly decisive action allowed me to quickly nab Tim’s fantastic Great White Egret on Perch Pond. An on-the-deck sighting of this species has long been overdue – a few fly-overs seen by others have to my mind not been conclusive, particularly in light of one record where an image was circulated online that people widely agreed was a GWE, only for a bit of tinkering with the levels to expose bright yellow feet! Albino Grey Herons are also not unknown! This bird however left those lucky enough to see it in no doubt, and my unorthodox and rather expensive lunch hour means I am included in that rather exclusive list. Clearly one of the Fairlop birds having a bit of a wander, it stayed all day but unfortunately has not been seen since. I am sure there will be more and that this is just the beginning, just as Little Egret was many years ago, but that said I am pleased to have got it out of the way early! Je n’egret rien, as someone once sang.

Phone photo in a big hurry!

The Egret took me to 62 species for the year, and so this weekend was all about a further clean-up. I added Tawny Owl in Reservoir Wood at about 3am on Friday whilst on my way to catch the night bus to get to Gatwick, and then on my return yesterday I nipped out to the Park to retrace the Saturday steps of all my fellow patch-workers. Time had more or less stood still in that regard, the Water Rail was still calling on Shoulder of Mutton, the Kingfisher was still sitting on Heronry, the Siskin were still feeding by the Tea Hut, and the Great Crested Grebe was still on Perch. However – and seeing as this post already littered with bad puns - it is with no Little Egret that there was no little regret. I'll get my coat.

Late Edit: The GWE returned today and was similarly twitched by another CW stalwart. I like to set trends, even stupid ones.

Monday, 15 January 2018


The weather has been so dreary lately, I hate the UK winter with a passion. Cold and crisp I could deal with, but this mushy crap we are currently experiencing is just rubbish. Two weeks into 2018 and in my estimation there has been one weekend day that has had suitable conditions for bird photography. Well any photography really. That was Sunday 7th, and a brief opening in the otherwise constant grey cloud cover in Wanstead provided just a couple of hours in which to take a few images. Blink and you would have missed it, as other than that one day, the camera has stayed firmly indoors gathering dust. So I already posted the Stonechat and the Treecreeper, and I also did a quick photo-heavy post on Ducks – the way the weather is going and my 2018 duck photography project may have ended before it has even started. It is very frustrating to look outside in my brief periods of free time and realise that there is no point in even trying. Happily though I have thought ahead for today’s post, and foretelling this exact scenario held back a few from the weekend before last. This time it is Mute Swans, nothing special but hopefully can add a bit of light to your dull day.

That’s it I’m afraid, anything fresh is going to require a change in the weather, and with a less than one in three change that that change falls on a Saturday or Sunday it is a bit of a lottery. I also have to be in the country, which is never a given – this Saturday for instance I was on Madeira which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite winter destinations. I’ll be providing some boring information on orchids and succulents shortly. If you have not been it is well worth a trip - there are some endemic birds too.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

In praise of ducks

Way back in 2017 I vowed to spend more time photographing winter ducks. Yeah that went well, I am hopeless. So now it's 2018 and I'm trying again. I went out on Sunday morning and patiently waited by Jubilee Pond for the light to become nice. Jubilee Pond is the most disgusting, filthy, litter and rat-infested water body on the whole of the patch by some margin. I've blogged about it before, here. As you can see, some way from salubrious.

However what looks like a total dump to a human with a camera clearly appeals to birds in a different way, for if I was asked where the best place on the patch to photograph wildfowl was, I would unhesitatingly say it was Jubilee Pond. All of these were taken there last Sunday morning during a half hour period, and I would say that the project is off to a good, if late, start. I am itching to go back - hopefully not literally, there are so many rats there, and hitching on the rats are...

Whist pride of place obviously goes to the fine specimen immediately below, I also managed to get photos of lesser ducks such as Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Pochard and Shoveler. This latter species is one that I want to spend a lot more time with - I particularly want to get the take-off just a little bit better than my current finest effort!


Monday, 8 January 2018

Stonechat on Wanstead Flats

Back in the day we used to get wintering Stonechat year in year out. It was a guaranteed tick on January 1st every year. I can't remember exactly which year they petered out, but last year we had at least one wintering bird and this year there appear to be two. This is excellent news, they are lovely little birds that like to perch up and don't seem to be phased by large cameras or red hats. Yesterday the bird by Cat & Dog pond and I played a little game. The rules were that for the first half an hour I would try my hardest to approach it, and just as I was about to press the shutter it would fly off and giggle. Once this time was up, it then promised to stay still for up to ten seconds at a time before changing perch. This suited me just fine, I don't need anywhere near ten seconds when I am in the groove.....


NB This is exactly the kind of post Gavin H referred to in his recent post about blogging. Forget the words, just go with photos. I wrote it yesterday whilst I had a bit of time, and then set it to publish today at 6pm. I'm at work. You're welcome.

Sunday, 7 January 2018


Remember back in 2016 when my run of injuries and medical complaints was bordering of farcical? No? Well no I suppose not, it is the funny posts that people seem to remember rather than the sad ones that make them well up. Anyhow, the culmination of these was a particularly nasty ankle sprain in Abu Dhabi that in truth has never quite healed, putting paid to what would almost certainly have been a promising career in competitive cycling. With this avenue of calorie-burning cruelly cut off, I resorted to only thing left that I could manage. 


Yes, that noblest and most intense of exercise regimes, striding up and down London's alpine-esque landscape, flab falling by the wayside with every step. Well, more gentle strolling really, mostly on Wanstead Flats. Anyway, whilst it might not have raised my heart rate much above whatever it is normally, what it lacked in aerobic it made up for in sheer distance. I walked 1764.32 miles over the course of the year. I know this as my pedometer was constantly on, and I made the effort, daily, to bung it on a spreadsheet so that I could retrieve all sorts of interesting facts. For instance the most distance I covered in a day was 17.57 miles, and the least was 0.07 miles or 162 steps. Not sure what I was doing that day. Dying in bed is the only reasonable explanation that fits, but actually I would have said that 2017 was amongst my healthiest. I had a couple of bouts of diverticulitis, but you cannot keep a good man down as they say, and I did not visit a doctor once, nor set in foot in any kind of medical facility, Frankly after 2016 I would have performed an amputation on myself rather than go to a hospital. 

1764 miles is a long way. Setting off from London, it would have taken me further than Moscow. It is nearly twice as far as Rome, far further than Reykjavik, Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul or Marrakech. The approximate distance is from London to Rhodes, which probably takes about 4 hours to fly to. But it was in a failing cause as it is not quite five miles per day which was the goal I set myself. Maybe I was over-optimistic, maybe just stupid, but I did come pretty close. Those of you who, like me, have calculators on your desks will no doubt already have tapped this in and worked out that it is 4.83 miles per day. I don't think that's a bad effort at all, after all I am no spring chicken. And a lot of it will have been whilst weighed down with an enormous camera.....

Which is the point of this entire post. Well yes it would have been quicker to say that I went out on the patch today and took a pile of photographs but, well, you know how it is. I went here and I saw this. Not on this blog. Readers truly have to bear with me. So, as threatened yesterday I unpacked the camera for its first outing of 2018. At first it was dull as proverbial ditch-water, but I continued trotting round and eventually the low winter sun came out. Which enabled me to take these.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Having four January Firsts

The last couple of years have seen me bash Wanstead from morning til night, but this year was a little different as I went to Rainham for a bit of a change. Returning just before dusk I scraped another five species onto my patch list to add to the omnipresent insomniac Robin. The next day I had to go to work, and even though it's basically still dark during my morning commute by slowing my pace through Bush Wood I added eight to take me to 14. The next day I had an early meeting and added nothing at all, but the day after that I worked from home. I know what you're thinking - worked from home in inverted commas and hey guess what, the patch list is now 60? Sadly not, a few glances out of the window added another five birds, and the following day a slightly different route to work added a few more to take me to the dizzy heights of 32.

So it wasn't really until today that things got going properly and I was able to give the patch a decent look. I met Tony near Centre Road car park where I'd just located the wintering Stonechat, and together we meandered through the SSSI where we added Smallish Buffy Brown Redpoll, and Sparrowhawk, and then a blitz of Bush Wood added Firecrest, Coal Tit and Nuthatch in quick succession. Tony was particularly pleased with the Firecrest having not managed one in the previous 370 days.... 

Through the Park did not really add a great deal barring the highly prized and elusive Chaffinch, but it still felt exciting because I'd essentially had that New Year's Day feeling all over again. I finished the day on 54, and I anticipate that tomorrow will be the same again as there is still so much to try and find - my highest January total is 71, so there is still a lot to play for. The best bird today was probably Little Owl, the resident pair were unexpectedly out in the open in East Copse and this generated a mini-twitch. No camera today, but with the light potentially looking nice tomorrow I think I'll take it for a little spin and see what I can get.

Happy New Year!