Friday 22 May 2009

New species of human discovered

I spend an unhealthy amount of time in Tesco in my new role as a domestic god. Today I found this.

Frankly the mind boggles. If you too are having trouble comprehending the image, then yes, this is pre-cooked frozen rice for people who are so unbelievably stupid that they don't know how to cook rice. I mean quite how dumb do you have to be to find cooking rice that little bit too complex? You will note that this is a "New!" product - hats off to the marketing people who recognised that there is a grade of consumer so half-witted that this product is actually needed. Personally I wouldn't have thought that rice featured heavily in the diets of the target market, but there you go, you learn something every day. Or maybe, just maybe, it is a cunning and slightly third-reichish ploy, and anyone caught at the checkout with a bag of this will be quietly taken aside and never seen again.

Monday 18 May 2009

Australia Australia Australia Australia We Love You. Amen.

All the birds in the UK are boring at the moment. Just dull Collared Flycatchers and plain old Pratincoles, which I spit at. Nothing doing in Wanstead either, despite a 5am start - oh the dedication - so instead I can get back to Australia, which is a fab country and has lots of brightly coloured birds like the one below that would get people of a twitching persuasion really rather excited should it turn up here. Having seen loads of White-cheeked Honeyeaters in Australia I wouldn't bother going for it of course.

I should perhaps start with the sombre bit, which is that we were there for a funeral. I know about four people in Australia, and it came as a huge blow that one of them should have been caught up in the Victorian Bushfires. For the first few days it was just a news item, something you take a passing interest in, shrug, and move on. Bad news every day, but remote. Happens all the time, but doesn't impact me. Very selfish, but that is just the way I think we all treat news. This time it did, and what was just the news suddenly became very real, despite not really believing it. James was missing. Gradually as the picture became clearer we all began to realise he wasn't going to be found, he wasn't coming back - even James, idiot though he undoubtedly was, would have made a phonecall by now. The police found what was thought to be his body after about a week, on a remote bush track. He and his girlfriend Julie had been trying to flee Marysville, and had not made it. DNA analysis took over a month, but it was him, and so passed a unique and amazing person. Here he is in France in about 1997, at a conveniently named village.

We were probably the first people to ever take a photo next to this sign

By the time the funeral came around, enough time had passed that the initial shock and sorrow had passed. The funeral was still tough, the burial harder, but people had begun to move on, to accept what had happened, and to instead remember all the great Jimmy stories, all the anecdotes and ridiculous situations, the mannerisms and the way he spoke. And so in fact the atmosphere was more one of celebration than of mourning. When the news had sunk in, I knew I had to go, so did Bob, and we were both glad that we did, despite the distance and short duration.

Byron Bay. Lots of surfers and shearwaters.

We flew to Brisbane via Singapore - see a previous post about 18 years ago - and hired a car for the drive down to Coffs. Bob is extremely relaxed about the car screeching to a halt and me tumbling out with bins to check out something I have seen by the roadside. Which is lucky as that happened quite a lot. Back in France where we met, we spent a huge amount of time exploring the wilderness behind Montpellier, so looking at scary insects, grand vistas and so on is second nature when we are together, and I just tacked a few birds on....

Here are some. And another scary spider.

We were only there for just over five days, and it rained for four of those. And not just crappy drizzley rain. Real rain. Rivers bursting their banks rain. Cars floating down the street rain. People being evacuated in boats rain. As everyone knows Australia is a land of immense contrasts, but there was a certain irony about being flooded out at at funeral for someone who died in a wildfire.

Sitting here, writing this, I am puffing. I always puff when I am having a hard time, am stressed, or something is not going right. Zoe recognises the exact type of puff. Writing this post, thinking of James, has got me all in a bother. I'm still writing, but I can't concentrate on what I am actually trying to say. I was going to go on a bit about the Aboriginal elder who led the burial service, and I was going to write a bit about the small amount of birding I managed to do during rain breaks, but I'm no longer in the mood. Maybe tomorrow. Lets call this Part 1.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Norfolk disappoints. Again.

Well, apart from the Collared Pratincole of course, but this aside, for the umpteenth time Norfolk failed to live up to expectations. Now Collared Pratincole is an excellent bird, the first I have seen in fact (may there be many more), and I had excellent views, but by 8am I was all done with twitching and wanted to do some proper birding. I had come up largely based on the forecast, and although the winds had shifted, by rights there should have been gazillions of eastern vagrants still around, dripping from every bush. In the event there were none. I have almost lost count of the number of times I have come up to Norfolk based on incredibly promising weather forecasts, only to come away without scoring heavily, or indeed at all. Today was no different. I bashed Gun Hill and Burham Overy Dunes for four hours and turned up precisely nothing. Or at least nothing abnormal with lots of blue on it. It was the same story all along the coast, seems everything cleared out just before the weekend, leaving people to twitch the Pratincole, Hoopoe and Grey-headed Wags, and then wonder what to do with themselves. Presumably they didn't bother going birding, as I only saw one other guy at Burham Overy the whole time I was there. He had also seen dick all despite putting in the hard yards, so perhaps the army of twitchers who ticked the Pratincole early doors and then went home to light barbeques and watch the football are entirely vindicated.
Two non-bird related highlights to report:
1) Seen from the car window as I was stopped at the lights, the photograph of a doner on the window of a Kebab shop in Brandon that looked uncannily like a Pitta that a dog had done a 5-part crap in, and then garnished with lettuce. If you find yourself hungry and in Brandon, don't go in.
2) Eating Sausage and Bean Casserole for dinner once back home, and Henry saying "Don't knights fight with Casseroles?" "Do you mean catapults Henry?" "Oh yeah, catapults, that's what I meant", conjuring up a great image of a medieval battle involving piping-hot dishes being lobbed at each other by the opposing sides.

Tuesday 12 May 2009


May 2009 has so far been stunning. Mega after mega. Crested Lark, Collared Flycatcher, Black-winged Pratincole, but all of these are eclipsed by what must be a first for Britain. Found my myself and Bradders in Norfolk on Saturday, I only managed one record shot before it was lost to view in a cloud of dust.

Monkey sp. twitcher var. driver

A tick and a dip

Latter-day Sisyphus that I am, I was just about to start on a mountain of domestic chores when the Black-winged Pratincole was refound at Grove Ferry. Charlotte was in the car quicker than she could say "Daddy, what about the vacuuming?". Having dipped the bird on Sunday at Reculver, and then having spent several hours at Grove Ferry yesterday in the vain hope that the bird might turn up, this was my third trip in three days. Naturally it was at the furthest point from the carpark, and I had badly misjudged the terrain. Totally unsuitable for a buggy, it contained several obstacles including two gates and a small bridge, so my thanks to the two selfless birders who delayed their fix by helping me lift it over. Eventually got to the hide, which was utterly packed, but a locally-based RSPB Information/Twitching Officer departed leaving a convenient hole, so Charlotte and I got in and got our tick, and she then got a scone as a reward whilst I grilled it and waited for it to show a bit of underwing.

On the way back to the car, disaster as my beloved cap is blown off my head and into a drainage ditch. Hmm, what to do? I know, I'll extend my tripod legs and just hook it out. Errr, it's being blown further away quite quickly, errr, ok better just see how far I can tread out, this bit of greenery looks suitable.....oh shit. Waist deep.

Utterly soaked, but triumphant with cap, I haul myself out. Transfer all critical things out of my trousers, like car keys, and assess the situation. I'm half a mile from the car, I am soaked from the waist down, my shoes have water in, and I have a buggy to push and carry over stuff. Excellent. I come to the rapid conclusion that there is nothing to assess and that I just have to get on with it. About halfway back I meet a sweaty wild-eyed Monkey, so desperate for his tick that he fails to even note that all is not well chez Lethbridge, and just pants for directions. In fact, not one birder I passed on the way back said anything about my state, and neither did anyone in the carpark as I stood in a small puddle and proceeded take my shoes, socks and trousers off. Perhaps this is all just acknowledged as normal behaviour for obsessive birders, and they have all been there at some point? So an unexpected and literal dip, but I decide that it was well worth it, and that in years to come I will be able to regale people with quite how stupid people like me can be in their quest for birds.

Drove back to London in my pants, barefoot.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Almost unemployed, so now what?

Well, only a week to go, and then I am properly unemployed. The last two months and three weeks have been absolutely ideal - no work, full pay and rare vagrants, but reality is about to kick in with the loss of the monthly pay packet. And in the depths of winter with six hours of available daylight, sub-zero temperatures, cold-sensitive children and no rare birds, and with the reserves dropping daily, it may all be rather miserable.

Which leads me to wonder what I am going to do with myself? Of course, being able to stay home and look after the kids is a rare privilege, and all the more so given the demands of my previous career, but the redundancy settlement won't last forever and I will need an income. I need direction. The longer I am out of the City, the more difficult it will be to get back in, and the less likely I am to want to get back in anyway. Right now I have no desire to work in finance ever again, and I expect my enthusiasm for it will only diminish. Which begs the question of what alternative employment might be suitable? I don't need a huge salary, my new lifestyle has quickly taught me that having stacks of money isn't really very important, but that sitting in the garden and looking at the sky is. With Mrs L now the main earner, I just need something relatively lightweight so that we can break even. Working from home, and for myself, would suit me down to the ground, but doing what exactly? I can't think many people are going to pay me for looking at the sky. My current interests are birds, more birds, photography, plants and wine. A few people no doubt subsist quite happily doing one or more of these things, but they are a minority; for every wildlife photographer who makes a living from it, there are probably a thousand who tried and failed. I'm slowly getting better, but I am a million miles away from the elite standard. Similarly, I am not a very good birder either - getting better, but not able to take up guiding, or to write about it and be taken seriously. My plants are too niche to make money from, so they are out, which leaves wine. Now here is one thing I am genuinely good at. In fact I would go so far as to say that I excel at drinking wine. So if anyone out there needs someone to come and drink nice wine for them, I am your man, and you will find my rates very reasonable, especially for Grand Crus.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Birding in New Delhi

Lodi Gardens

There is Hot, and then there is HOT, and then there is New Delhi in late April. Unless you perhaps spend a lot of time in Dubai or somewhere, then you just have no conception of quite how hot it is. I didn't, but like a fool, went out birding anyway as soon as I got there.

43 degrees centigrade. In many ways the human body is remarkable. We are able to adjust extremely rapidly to changes in our external environment. My body's initial thought was of course "FUCCCKKKK its HOT!!!!!!!!!!!! You are INSANE", but with a bottle of water and a hat, and a stack of new birds to see, it coped admirably with what I put it through, and it didn't even catch the dreaded Delhi Belly that Mrs L was certain would befall me.


If you read the wedding post you'll know that there wasn't much time devoted to birding, this really was a very short trip indeed - Sunday midday to Wednesday 10am, with a lot of wedding in between, but I managed about 4 hours at Lodi Gardens in central New Delhi, 4 hours at the Okhla barrage, just south of the city, and 3 hours at the Zoo. The end of April is not ideal for a birding trip - it is too hot to be out and about between the hours of 10am and 5pm, and most migrants and wintering species have moved through or off. Or at least that is my excuse for only notching up 76 species in the time I had, including such dross as Coot, Moorhen and Hoopoe.

But despite what seems a low triplist, I had a wonderful time just wandering about, knowing I could not be out all day (and knowing I would be up half the night), so taking it nice and slow, setting up a few photos and so on, and just letting the sights and sounds of a new continent wash over me.

As always, click on the images to make them bigger, and then if you hover in the bottom right corner, you can make them bigger again.

Black Kite

So, perspiring gently shortly after arrival in the middle of Delhi, I took a taxi to Lodi gardens. If you only have a short time in Delhi, this site is as good as any for an introduction to the species of North India, and on Sundays, to the amorous couples of New Delhi. Common Myna, Ring-necked Parakeet, Indian House Crow and Black Kite are by far the most numerous species, but a little searching reveals a lot more. The garden is centred around a few old Muslim tombs from the Mughal period, and has many shady walks and a small amount of water, which if you are lucky, might have a few Moorhen. Actually I also saw Little Cormorant, Spot-billed Duck, and White-throated Kingfisher here. Jungle Babblers scratch about in the dry scrub, and a search of larger trees produced Brown-headed Barbet, Spotted Owlet, Purple Sunbird, Rufous Treepie, and Indian Grey Hornbill. Oh and did I mention Hoopoe?

Spotted Owlet

House Crow

Jungle Babbler

Common Myna

Laughing Dove

Squirrel thing

Spot-billed Duck

Asian Pied Starling

Ring-necked Parakeet

The next day I got up early and took a car (£15 for the whole day, with a driver, Manu) out to the Yamuna barrage, near Okhla Village. The river has been dammed at this point, and has created a large wetland area. There is construction all around, and largely the area is filthy, but the main body of water is not polluted, and you can walk the entire length of the eastern side along a small road. You will get followed by locals wondering what on earth you are doing, but at no point did I feel threatened. The most disconcerting thing was having my car follow me at walking pace about 100 yards behind me, though eventually the guy gave up and just parked up.

51 Garganey

I started at 6am, when it was a cool 25C, and spent four hours (until it got too hot) walking up and down the road. I didn't have a scope, but I didn't miss a single bird. Those that I could not get enough on I used my camera on to get "closer" so to speak, the wonders of digital. This walked produced a whole host of new species, such as Northern Shoveler, Garganey, Tufted Duck, Green Sandpiper and Collared Dove. Excellent, glad I came.

Green Bee-eater

White-throated Kingfisher

Grey-breasted Prinia

Red-vented Bulbul

Shikra, like a Sparrowhawk

Red-wattled Lapwing

Yellow-bellied Prinia

Final day and off to the zoo mid-morning to shake off a bit of a hang-over. Zoos are always good for birds and Delhi Zoo was no exception. The waterbird colonies in particular were sensational - Black-crowned Night Heron's drip off every branch, huge Painted Storks stand sentinal-like mid-way up trees, and Black-headed Ibis are found in clusters. The best birding of the day by far though was a small concrete ditch that I found just next to one of the paths. Pretty unpreposessing but there was a thin layer of water at the bottom of it, and several dead braches and shrubs overhung. A steady trickle of birds came to feed and drink at the bottom of this ditch, and all I had to do was look down. Two species of Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Oriental White-eye, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Indian Robin, Red-vented Bulbul, Asian Koel, Oriental Magpie Lark and Black Redstart all came through at some point, and I must have spent 2 hours basically motionless just peering in. Luckily it was in the shade...

Painted Stork

Mrs Asian Koel

Mr Asian Koel

Oriental White-eye

Oriental Magpie Robin

Indian Pond Heron


Lodi Gardens
1. Pigeon
2. Black Kite
3. Common Myna
4. Ring-necked Parakeet
5. House Crow
6. Jungle Babbler
7. Purple Sunbird
8. Little Egret
9. Moorhen
10. Spot-billed Duck
11. Laughing Dove
12. Asian Pied Starling
13. Hoopoe
14. Red-whiskered Bulbul
15. Little Cormorant
16. Shikra
17. Spotted Owlet
18. House Swift
19. Brown-headed Barbet
20. Red-vented Bulbul
21. Indian Grey Hornbill
22. Oriental Magpie Robin
23. Alexandrine Parakeet
24. Large-billed Crow
25. White-throated Kingfisher

26. Whiskered Tern
27. Black Drongo
28. Indian Pond Heron
29. Cattle Egret
31. Green Bee-eater
32. Greater Coucal
33. Collared Dove
34. Grey-breasted Prinia
35. Red Avadavat
36. Plain Martin
37. Red-wattled Lapwing
38. Great White Egret
39. Indian Silverbill
40. Blyth's Reed Warbler
41. Grey Heron
42. Caspian Gull
43. Shoveler
44. Common Tailorbird
45. Tufted Duck
46. Pleasant-tailed Jacana
47. Garganey
48. Indian Robin
49. Coot
50. Black-winged Stilt
51. Yellow-footed Green Pigeon
52. Citrine Wagtail
53. Purple Swamphen
54. Purple Heron
55. Green Sandpiper
56. Wood Sandpiper
57. Little Grebe
58. White-tailed Stonechat
59. Common Babbler
60. Pied Bushchat
61. Yellow-bellied Prinia
62. Long-tailed Shrike
63. Striated Babbler
64. White-breasted Waterhen

Delhi Zoo
65. Black-crowned Night Heron
66. Indian Cormorant
67. Painted Stork
68. Black-headed Ibis
69. Stone Curlew
70. Rosy Pelican
71. Asian Koel
72. Black Redstart
73. Ashy Prinia
74. Oriental White-eye
75. Indian Peafowl
76. Coppersmith Barbet

Filthy Twitching

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. Ten and a half hours in the car on Saturday, many carbon emmisions, and for what? For a boring brown bird with a spiky hairdo that I have seen loads of in France, and a small black and white bird looking a lot like a Pied Flycatcher. Stupid huh? Yes, but tick-tastic and a very satisfying day, rounded off with about 8 Manx Shearwater off the Bill with a side-order of Puffin. Having said that, on Saturday night as I crawled wearily into bed at abouyt midnight (in the process waking Mrs L up for the fifth time that day (1) 4am alarm, (2) Closing the front door, (3) Closing the front door again, (4) Opening and closing the front door when I got back, and (5) Getting into bed), my sincere hope was that no rare birds would be found on Sunday and I could just stay at home and do the patch.

"7.5 hours for this lousy photo" - This could be a successful T-shirt design

The gang did very well this weekend. We all got the Lark and the Flycatcher, and David the Obsessed jammed in on the Eastern Bonelli's Warbler while he was at it AND drove to Merseyside for the Pallid Swift. I debated this latter bird, but could summon up no enthusiasm for more time in the car, which I guess makes me a twitching failure.

Saturday 2 May 2009

New Delhi Wedding

My new look

I have just returned from another extravagant trip, this time to New Delhi, for a friend's wedding. Given I have not even managed to write about my March/April trip to Australia on this blog yet, bar my lay-over in Singapore, this is going to disturb the chronology. But blogs are fluid instruments, the readership is no doubt intelligent, and I will get back to the Aus birds at some point, but the wedding was too good not to get up straight away. There were of course some birds, mainly Hoopoes.... but they can wait.

So, Andy marries Disha, Disha being the New Delhi connection. I received a phone call from Andy somewhat out of the blue, in mid Feb, saying that the family had finally relented (several years of pain and difficulty) and that it was game on. In April. No time like the present I suppose, and anyway best get it sealed before anyone has a change of heart. So would I like to be put up in five star hotel in New Delhi for three days? Yes, I rather think I would, despite the certain blow to the BP stash. A cheapo flight was procured, jabs were had, a Visa was granted, most critically a field guide to the Birds of Northern India was purchased, and I was on my way.

Monday Night - Engagement Party at Claridges

The swimming pool courtyard at the hotel was transformed over the course of the day by a small army. Serving staff recieved their orders, and at about 7pm the event kicked off with a ceremony which I do not confess to understanding. But whereas here getting engaged is a pretty casual affair between the happy couple, followed by phoning the families and then organising beers with your mates, for Hindus it is a larger and more formal event, with lots of exchanging of items, laying things on each others laps, and involving the whole family on both sides and several hundred guests.

As this was a formal occasion, the venue was fully decorated, and everyone dressed up, and the colours and patterns were simply stunning. There is no nice way to say it, but weddings in this country and incredibly dull and sterile in comparison.

This was followed by a Bollywood presentation performed by Disha's sister and cousins, which was a particular highlight, especially for the bachelors in the room. And for the married men actually... Again, none of the European contingent really understood the songs, but the storyline as I saw it, presented across several numbers presumably taken from incredibly well-known films, seemed to be "boy meets girl", "girl plays hard to get", "boy tries too hard and makes a prat of himself", "another boy comes along", "original boy becomes very sad", "girl takes pity on boy", "mother forbids daughter to see either boy", "daughter becomes very sad", "slightly illicit relationship starts to develop", "boy finally accepted by family", "they all live happily after (other than second boy presumably)". Possibly I read too much into it, or at least tried to draw too many parallels with Andy's particular journey, which thinking about it makes at least some of the themes slightly unlikely to get major focus at an engagement party, but it was great fun nonetheless, and got the crowd going. A quick bite to eat around the magnificently transformed courtyard, followed by a disco where I discovered that I cannot dance to Indian songs any more than I can to European ones.

Andy's Socks. What was he thinking?

Tuesday Night - Wedding at the Taj Palace

Andy and Disha's Engagement was very brief - about 15 hours in fact. The party ended at 3am and the wedding started at 8pm on the same day. When Andy moves, he moves fast! At 7pm we assembled for some special headgear, and a pre-wedding blessing by one of the priets (although I was unfortunately in the bar admiring my new look in the mirror when that happened). We then drove in convoy to the Taj Palace hotel, only to be waylaid by a party of drummers! Actually this is no surprise - throughout Hindu weddings a number of games take place, and this is the first - the Bride's family engage a troupe of drummers to drive the Groom and his party away. they get paid twice, as custom dictates that the Groom et al then pay the drummers to leave, which we did, but not before a lot of very loud drumming and dancing in the street. Once we dispensed with the drummers, the Bride's party then "realise" that nothing will stop us, so decide instead to welcome us, which they then do, with a lot of garlands and flowers that they have lying around just in case this eventually should occur. So we passed through a tunnel of cousins and friends and emerge into the most sumptuous place I have ever been in my life. Claridges down the road had previously held this honour, but the Taj Palace is on another level entirely.

Another small ceremony took place up the front, whilst dancers and a bangra band played in one corner. Then the bride and groom posed for endless photographs, and finally we could eat - it was about 11pm by now. No drink, but there you go. The wedding proper started at midnight, outside under an Mandap a kind of awning. There were four low couches arranged in a square around. On one side were the priests, opposite sat Andy (no Disha yet), his parents on the right, and Disha's parents on the left. A very complex ceremony then took place, involving lots of food items. Again, I don't pretend to understand what was happening, but there were many spices, some fruit, other food items, some money - all used as symbols around a sacred fire in the middle, and a lot of chanting of mantras from the Vedas. At certain points in the ceremony relatives stepped forward to perform various parts. I have to say it was fascinating, but given that it started at midnight and went on until 4am, it was pretty hard to follow. That wasn't a problem - you could engage as much or as little as you like - most people were chatting or wandering around, and some were actually asleep. The wedding ceremony in the Mandap is almost a peripheral event.

Anyway, a great night, and a real eye-opener. I'll show you a few of the birds later, they were pretty good too. Especially the Hoopoes.