Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Death and Despair. No Biscuits.

Where I work there are televisions that are always on. One is always in my line of sight if I am looking at my computer screens. If I turn around to get away from it, another appears instead. In the 360 degrees from my desk, I can see seven televisions, and every single one of them, despite no sound, is feeding me a diet of bad news. Constant bad news. Constant unpleasant bad news. Unless I’m in a meeting somewhere, my day is completely dominated by whatever atrocity or disaster is currently befalling the world. It does not do much for my well-being is the conclusion I am reaching. I don’t know about you, but as I age I seem to slowly but surely become more sensitive to sad and bad things happening. I never used to be like this, and really you would expect that the constant in-your-face aspect of today’s news services, often beaming you tragedy live and as it happens would harden you to it. Toughen you up. Yet it is the opposite, and there are some stories that I end up with a lump in my throat. They can be global news stories where you see a child’s body under a sheet, or they can be reading Michael Clarke’s address from Philip Hughes’ funeral. Perhaps it is to do with having children, perhaps it is to do with my own mortality, as so famously penned in song by Pink Floyd. Shorter of breath, one day closer to death.

I’m trying to work, but I’m surrounded by death. Seemingly news is not news unless somebody has died. Preferably lots of people. Yesterday I was pumped ten hours of the siege at that café in Sydney. As terrified people ran out of the building, so I saw them run. Then I saw the repeats of them running. Again and again. I saw the SWAT team going in and the flashes of gunfine. Again and again. And I saw the wounded being carried out. Today I’m being fed live updates from Peshawar, where religiously-motivated gunmen have just killed 130 children in some kind of revenge attack, part of an ever-increasing spiral of violence. Children, shot in their classrooms in cold blood. To say it is harrowing is to belittle it, I am speechless. I spent the summer watching Ebola unfold, with light relief provided by the periodic beheading of western hostages in Syria and Iraq. I saw the candle-lit vigils, and then the stills from the videos and the men in black with balaclavas on. I get aerial footage of M25 crash scenes, I get capsized ferries and cruise liners, I get downed airliners. Rape, murder and child abuse are all quotidian.

Occasionally, very occasionally, the BBC feel sorry for the viewer and stick on a feel good story. Or indeed comedy, for instance when UKIP take part in a by-election, or when FIFA release a report into their own activities. This is very rare, but the other day there was a piece, repeated pleasingly often, about baby seals, replete with extensive footage of baby seals looking adorable. This was heart-warming, and I watched it as often as I could, transfixed by the deep black eyes of the pups. But of course it was a story about orphaned seal pups being hand-reared back to health, so the sub-text was still DEATH. And as I type the BBC is now telling me that one of the last Northern White Rhinos has died in captivity. Ideally they’ll follow this up with a story about poaching, and show a few dead and mutilated animals bleeding in some dry acacia-dotted scrubland. Breaking News they call it. I’m sick of it.

I know what you’re thinking. Get up and turn the TV off. I would, believe me I would, but they’re suspended from the ceiling and I can’t reach the buttons.

Monday, 15 December 2014

No more trips this year!!

I'm all done! No more trips for the whole rest of the year! I know, how will I cope? Well, cabin fever is a distinct possibility, but I have a solid seven days at work before my next break, or four if you count going to Edinburgh. The good news is that this means that I will be birding Wanstead comprehensively and continuously. Between my house and the bus stop mostly, but I am intrigued by the news of a Water Rail on the Shoulder of Mutton Pond. Will I go and have a look for it? Well, only time will tell I suppose. Work hard play hard seems to be the order of the day, and that unfortunately leaves little time for the patch. Hopefully I'll redress the balance a little next year, but Heathrow is only an hour and a bit away.....

So what has been happening? Well, Tenerife happened, which was very pleasant, and as you may have seen, so did Morocco. Both very productive little trips, with birds way better than here. Mind you, this time last year, or perhaps it was during the first winter season, not sure, I was fully engrossed in some amazing UK birds, including a fabulously showy Black-bellied Dipper and a local Slavonian Grebe. That's the kind of thing I'd like to do more of, but finding those types of birds is a rare chance indeed. Hopefully we'll get a cold snap, a bit of a freeze up, and I'll be able to get up close and personal with some wildfowl. I like winter, especially the cold clear days where you get decent light and the temperature keeps most other people indoors. Crossing my fingers. 

But even without that prospect, I remain pretty stacked. Last week was three Christmas parties on the trot, two in London on Wednesday and Thursday, with another in Glasgow on Friday. It's not just that I'm wildly popular, it's also because I'm the boss and they have to invite me. Not really. Well, I am in charge of a few people as befits a man of my advanced years, but rather it's a chance for the department to let their hair down and have a rare evening not talking about work. Even if we did talk about work most of the time. A riotous affair Thursday, obviously, culminating in a 1am (I know how to live, me) arrival home and an angry wife. Angry wife again, as this was preceded by the East London Birders Drinks, with typical levels of stupidity, and flying hot towels. We really are the Wild Bunch, and I can confirm that Mrs L does not appreciate cold drunken men invading lovely warm beds in the small hours. Even if they're me! Friday night was in Glasgow, but by then I was a shadow of my former self and didn't even make it 'til midnight. Partly this was to do with a Chicken Tikka Pakora of such immense proportions that I could barely move after eating it, but mainly it was to do with being totally shattered. I am not as young as I used to be, and this shows no signs of improving. 

Luckily I had a quiet weekend back in London as a fully-fledged domestic goddess before gratefully hitting Canary Wharf again this morning, as much for a rest as anything else. Apart from not getting home until gone 8am and then spending half an hour picking things up of the floor, as is typical of an evening. I particularly want to let people know how much I enjoy stacking the dishwasher after an 11 hour day at work, it really takes the edge off my stress levels - wonderfully therapeutic. What I am really trying to say is that I am in dire need of a holiday.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Morocco - Trip Report

·        A two day trip in early December (6th – 8th) booked in a fit of enthusiasm during a British Airways flight sale. No particular targets, just an expectation to pootle around and point the camera at stuff, much like my trip back in January.Two up, with Andrew M for the first time.
·        BA flight to Marrakech (RAK) from Gatwick departed 1250h on Saturday morning, arriving at around 1630h. At the time of booking this had been an early morning departure arriving at lunchtime, but this flight was axed from the schedule a few months later. I could have cancelled, but decided not to. Nonetheless it shortened the holiday by half a day, so I shall in future be looking at other airlines for this route.
·        Car hire via Avis was a clapped out Peugeot 206 that took a full 90 minutes to claim, an hour to give back, and came with zero petrol in it. I cannot remember a shittier car hire experience. Last time I used a local company, Medloc, and having now experienced the lackadaisical competition I will use them again. £94 and the doors didn't even close properly.  
·        No accommodation booked in advance, but I had two places in mind. The first was the Camping Sidi Wassay just north of Massa on the south side of the river, used back in Feb, where a small hobbit dwelling set us back approx £18, and then the Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir for the second night, which was £16 each including breakfast. We arrived at unannounced at 2330h and 2200h respectively, and had no trouble sorting out rooms at either place.
·        Research was unnecessary, as I'd been to all the places before, but I would have done well to read the news before leaving, as had I done so I would have learned about the incredible rain and subsequent flooding in southern Morocco, and may have changed the itinerary. The Massa and many other places have been devastated by floodwaters surging down from the mountains, and whilst we were still able to pursue the original plan, it was nowhere near as easy. A number of roads that I had planned to drive, both in the Massa and the Atlas foothills, had had bridges washed away and were thus impassable.
·        Ate mostly oranges and drank mostly water - an exceedingly cheap survival strategy! In fact the whole trip was stupidly cheap, spending under £100 each which included all accommodation, all food, petrol and motorway tolls. No police bribes for 'speeding' were necessary this time, but I was being particularly paranoid.


Day 1: Flight arrived at 1630h, and then wasted over an hour faffing with Avis thus missing all daylight. Missed the quick route out of Marrakech and arrived in the Massa just after 2300h.
Day 2: Birded the Oued Massa all morning, explored the Oued Souss in the afternoon, and then drove to Ait Ourir in the dark.
Day 3: Drove the backroads looking for photographic opportunities until about 1430h, when we headed for Menara airport and home.

Day 1
By the time we had managed to get a car off the cretins at Avis it was dark, and so all that remained was to drive to our destination in the Oued Massa. This took far longer than anticipated, and even in the dark it was clear that the heavy rains must have taken their toll. At the Sidi Wassay camping we sourced a dank hobbit cabana thing that had clearly soaked up a great deal of moisture, but were so shattered that it made no difference.

Day 2
A fine day by the looks of it, with Linnet flying round the campsite and a Moussier's Redstart perched on a German campervan's wing mirror. Up and out quite quickly we tried some of the same fields as last time for Bald Ibis, but drew a blank and instead were diverted by numerous Thekla Larks feeding nearby. As we crested the hill, the sight of the Massa drew our breath away - devastated, the delicate system of drainage and irrigation overwhelmed and destroyed. Birds a plenty, but penetrating into the maze of small fields proved practically impossible. At one point we had to jump what had been a path but was now a stream, and balance along the top of some of the remaining dykes to pick our way back to dry land. A Bluethroat was a pleasing find, though rather skulky - nothing that Photoshop cannot sort out though..... Other than that the usual denizens were present a correct in the post-diluvian morass - Bulbuls chattering away, Tchagras fluting, and numerous Stonechats and Sardinian Warblers, including some very obliging birds that made our struggle with floodwaters very worthwhile. We whiled away most of the day here before trying out the Oued Souss a little further north. This was nowhere near as good, but we were operating on no gen whatsoever, whereas the Massa was known quite well, despite its watery reshaping. With the light fading we skirted Agadir and crossed over the western part of the Atlas and back to Marrakech, getting hopelessly lost in the city before popping out of the other side and onto the road to Oukaimaden. It took until the road started to climb into the mountains for me to realise we had wanted the road to Ouzarzate, but this was easily corrected and we pulled into the Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir at around half ten. Whilst the previous night we had fallen asleep to the sound of the Atlantic, here we had the raging Oued Zatt, still in full flow a week after the rains. 

Day 3
After a fine breakfast we started exploring the nearby hills, just as I had done earlier in January. The Zatt was indeed in full flow, I've never seen so much as a single drop in it on any previous trip. We headed up on the P2021 through the Iggrouka forest and onto the plain above, seeing numerous Shrikes and other birds beside the road. Best of all was a Black Wheatear near Towouret, which I spied from miles away as it perched up distinctively on some cairns. The short hike up the slope to its territory was well worth it, and meant that we didn't need to risk the drive over the mountains further east where I knew there was another pair. In the event that was impossible anyway, as the bridge between Timezguida and Timzilite had been washed away by the torrent. Although not as bad as the Guelmin and Agadir area, clearly the impact of floods here had also been substantial.

One of the ex-bridges in the lower Atlas

So, turning around we had no choice but to head back to Ait Ourir. The usual White Storks circled the dump, and we took the P2010 out of town in the hope of coming across some bird-attracting irrigation in the fields. A roadside LRP and White Wagtail entertained for a while, but it was all about the Shrikes, which were stationed very regularly along the larger R210 road back west towards Marrakech. Soon however it was time to pack up and head for the airport - the flight departed at half five, and our short trip was at an end.

More shenanigans at the airport with Avis, who truly hit rock bottom. Mind you, this is a first world problem, think of those locals having to deal with rebuilding homes and fields. Easy flight back, I had my pick of passport officers at Gatwick and was back in the car so soon after landing I thought it might have all been a dream. The trip list was not high, perhaps mid-fifties, but plenty of decent images to wade through.

Averagely-loaded Moroccan truck. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Morocco again

Sorry, but I like it. I like it a lot better than here actually. Specifically there are lots of birds and very few people. Whereas in the UK if you go birding and are lucky enough to actually see a bird, no matter where you go the experience is soon ruined by dog-walkers, holier-than-thous, or the general twattishness of broad segments of the UK population. In Morocco, if you pick your spot you occasionally get interrupted by someone wanting money off you, but that's about it. It's altogether far better for actually enjoying the birds, which some would argue is the entire point. In the UK that's somewhat secondary, it seems to be all about perception and conformance. Possibly I'm just a bit bitter, but be that as it may, birding abroad is an a much more satisfying experience than birding here. And it's mostly warm, which counts for a lot. Also, there are no Shrikes in the UK, hence I go abroad to places where there are Shrikes. If there is a counter-argument on the Shrike front I'd like to hear it.

Time being a very limiting factor in my personal situation, this was another absurdly short trip, with less than 48 hours in the country. I can accomplish a lot in 48 hours. For instance getting up close and personal with Shrikes. In the UK on the rare occasion you get to see a Shrike, it's often in the company of fifty other people, and could easily be a hundred yards away across a field. In Morocco they're simply part of the landscape, omnipresent, and you just stop your car when you see one and then just lap up it's sheer awesomeness for as long as you want. Or as long as you can manage before risking missing your flight....

Oh, and some of other birds are rather nice too. I'll do a trip report in due course, but for now I can simply say that I saw nothing hugely rare, that my life list has increased by precisely zero, but that it was phenomenal once again - my third trip this year. I reckon I know enough about the region now that I could lead a tour (that's how easy it is!). Bookings can be made via the comments box below, and my rates are very reasonable. Oranges free.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

In praise of Lego

Not that Lego......real Lego. Birders, tchah! No, real, actual plastic Lego - bricks, plates, tiles and bars. The toy of champions, and I love it. Yes I still play with Lego, and I'm not ashamed. It's one of the principal reasons I had children actually, so that I needn't come across as all weird and nerdy. Consequently, rather than in spite of, we have a lot of Lego in the house. Seriously loads. For instance there's a Lego Mos Eisley in the front room that measures a good 4 feet by 4 feet, and has seen many years of love despite it being a wretched hive of scum and villany. But we have nothing on some people, oh no. This weekend the kids and I went to Brick 2014, a Lego exhibition at Excel populated by dysfunctional dweebs amazingly talented grown-ups.

We were blown away. The dedication of these people is sensational, I thought I was committed to some of the things I enjoy. I have nothing on these guys, nothing. I am a pale imitation, my particular brand of OCD a mere shadow of what it could be. This is obsession on a whole new level, these guys would make amazing twitchers if it ever occured to them. Anyone remember this famous National Geographic cover?

What about Westminster Abbey?

I could go on and on. Three hours passed in a blur, especially the final thirty minutes when I lost a child. Some free advice for any other parents out there - monstrously large exhibitions are not the place to lose a ten year old boy. Of course we hadn't arranged a meeting point if we were separated. Or any kind of scenario planning whatsoever. All of a sudden he's nowhere to be seen, in a room the size of a football field populated by thousands of small people his exact size. Parenting fail. I got him back of course, wasn't worried for a moment, ahem, but FFS. But back to the Lego, I want to give up work, downgrade my house to a bungalow somewhere, and purchase half a million bricks, there to spend the rest of my life building the most amazing dioramas in the hope of being invited to sit behind railings in huge exhibition halls being admired by loads of kids. And their dads....

Here's a selection, including birds so that I can keep this blog resolutely on topic! 


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Pope flees to Turkey

Yet again the supreme Pontiff got wind of my impending visit and fled the country. Last time Korea, this time Turkey. Seriously, these Vatican informants seem to be everywhere, I'm going to have to be careful what I say. Having enjoyed Rome immensely last time I went, it wasn't a massive deal booking to go again, this time with a child - a special birthday treat. Having done a project on the Romans there was apparently a need to see the Colosseum. Fair enough, and I had missed it out on my last trip so that's what we did. Incredibly impressive that any of it is still standing, let alone most of it - some of the artistic impressions of what it would have looked like fully formed are incredible. We had a good old wander around, and also took in a huge number of other antiquity while we were at it, including getting hopelessly lost in The Forum three times. I have never been to a place where there is quite as much history just lying around. Westminster Abbey came close, a history of England in a single building, but Rome is a different story. It's a place that you go to and come back wishing to read a great number of books. You don't of course, that passes, but it's incredibly interesting while you're there.

I'm sorry this isn't much about Wanstead. I just can't get the urge to out there, especially now that I hear there are wild packs of killer dogs on the loose. We nearly lost Bob recently, one of his hands is hanging by a thread. Well, the wound is at least 3mm deep, but the hounds looked large and their owners unrepentant (massive, massive surprise there), and frankly I would not have liked to have been in his shoes. Though I might have had a monopod on my person, and a dog owner may have subsequently had a monopod in their rectum. When said hounds have been rounded up and shot, I may give it a go, but until the weather changes I don't really see much point. We need a bit of change - first cold snap and I'll be right there. Unless I'm abroad.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Movember madness

Only a few more days go, it is getting rather wearing. My children (though they have been since given up for adoption) challenged me to do Movember. Much in the same way as they challenged me to do a 'fun' run. Apparently this is penance for various unspecified misdemeanours, such as when I took the car keys to Norfolk and they had - shock, horror - to take public transport one morning. 

Before I continue, this wasn't because they wanted to see me with a moustache, but because they figured I couldn't grow one, and that in trying I would look utterly ridiculous and thus they would gain a month's worth of daily amusement from the pathetic wisps of fluff that would no-doubt adorn my top lip. They were right in one sense, I do look utterly ridiculous, and they are amused daily, but I have surprised even myself with the vigour of growth. And by the amount of white. And worse than that, ginger. I mean where the hell does that come from? I need to talk to my Mum. If she is my Mum.

Nontheless it has been hard, as bottom line is that I am not one of those extremely hairy people. There are guys in my office who can grow in a few days what has taken me nearly four weeks. I started off with the full beard look, until it was pointed out that this was cheating and it had to be tash only. Now, there's no point going at it half-assed and growing a tiny little neatly trimmed thing. No, if you're going to raise money for a decent cause you might as well go at it 100%. Sorry, make that 110%. So I've tried to look as stupid as possible, going for the full mexican look as famously worn by Big Merv. Obviously I've got nothing on Merv, the luxuriance of that particular tash knows almost no equal, however to attempt to grow a mere shadow of it is a particularly stupid look. So, I psyched myself up for it and, armed with two bics, attacked my face after about ten days. 

It was terrible. What I should have done was buy a trimmer thing, but I am far too tight for that. Instead I ripped my face apart, blood everywhere, not nice at all. Both bics were trashed beyond re-use, and I was disappointed to require a third. I mean Jesus, that's probably 60p right there! But with a small amount of pain and a higher amount of humiliation comes maximum fund-raising, or that's the plan. I think I'm currently at around £120, which is in no way fair recompense for the daily event of mothers crossing the street with their children, people moving away from me on the tube, that kind of thing. Notwithstanding that I have to manage a team of however many people at work and they're supposed to take me seriously. Whereas now they just giggle.

Anyhow, the joy of the internet is that images can accompany words, and I felt it would be unfair to deprive my many readers (both of them) the opportunity to also enjoy my discomfort. And to donate, obviously, though don't feel you have to. 


So with that done, here's a picture of my chin pre-shave this morning. Chins. Whatever. Shut up.