Thursday, 25 February 2016

Nearly there in several senses

Spring is on the way, there are signs everywhere. There were a load of daffodils in a local park that we drove past on the way to hockey at the weekend, and better even than flowers, there is birdsong being belted out from almost everywhere. Song Thrushes seem to be the most prominent, but everything is starting up. This pleases me a great deal. I am fed up of winter and the short days. Short days confine me inside, give me no time outside of the complexities of life with which to play. And above all I like playing. I have far too many interests to have a job really, but somehow I fit that in.

Not right now however, I'm in full-on playing mode, and doing something that right now is close to if not at the top of the list of things that I enjoy. I'm travelling. Again. I had a nice few days off at home after our trip to Spain, during which I accomplished many useful things, some of them that had waited an exceedingly long time for a blank period to appear in my schedule. Things like sorting out the medicine cabinet and throwing out all the various liquids and ointments that were supposed to have been used many years ago. The record one we found was 2005 - it smelled OK but I'm not ill so didn't try it. The kids must have had a terrible 2009 though, there were litres of stuff from 2009 and 2010. So, this and a number of other good deeds done and I felt I was deserving of another short break, so I am actually typing this on the great circle route somewhere above Newfoundland on my way to Arizona for a few days of relaxed birding. Hah, who am I kidding? I don't do relaxed anything...

But that's not what I wanted to write about, that was just a preamble. What I really wanted to get off my chest was where I currently at with twitching. Yes, again. I don't make you click on here. So, last year I got two new birds for my UK list on New Year's Day. TWO ticks. That's more than some of the old timers get in a whole year. It's also more than I might get this year. I appreciate that this is probably my umpteenth post on falling out of love with twitching, but I think something has actually changed this time. The reason is that it's not just me, it's most of the gang that I started twitching with. A few years back if a rarity turned up, it was guaranteed that you could fill a car pretty quickly and be off. I'll always remember taking an afternoon off work, a posse of guys meeting at mine, and then driving to Wales for a Cream-coloured Courser. It was great fun, there and back, and the bird was an absolute belter. I think of this particular trip quite often as to me it sums up the peak of the period, the nadir if you will, of when a bunch of like-minded guys got caught up in the thrill of the chase, and had a lot of fun doing it.

Any old excuse eh?
Today if a rarity turned up and you asked that same carload if they wanted to go for it, I doubt if I'd get many takers. We barely even go twitching at the weekend any more, let alone in the middle of the working week. Ok so it's currently the quiet season at the moment and there really isn't much going on, but that Pacific Diver has been off Cornwall all winter. In days gone by I drove to Cornwall twice in a fortnight. This winter I've not even contemplated it – too far, insufficient enthusiasm. And anyway, I've seen a Pacific Diver in the Pacific. I'm wondering if we've all grown up?

I therefore doubt if I'll ever hit that magic 500, the new benchmark. It's quite possible that my UK list may permanently stall below 450. As I'm typing this at 40,000 feet with no internet connection I am not able to tell you what the actual number is. I'm pretty sure it's 440 something, and I'm also pretty sure that my last tick was that Blyth's Reed Warbler on the North Norfolk coast, but I'm not certain, and that indicates a certain cooling of the ardour. Two years ago I would have had no hesitation in knowing the exact number and probably the last fifty ticks. In order! That no longer seems particularly important. I'm not saying I'm done, but I reckon I mostly am, and certainly the distance I am willing to go has shrunk dramatically. Cornwall? Forget it. Scotland? Hahahahahah. I mean, who does that?

Oh, me. Multiple times. I've twitched Shetland! And the Outer Hebs! I honestly can't see that happening again, even though I really really enjoyed it. Anyhow, be that as it may, it's important to get a post like this in before the start of the next migration period. Why? Well obviously the whole point is to sow the seed of long-distance twitching in the mind of Mrs L, who does occasionally read this. As I said, Spring is on the way!

Saturday, 20 February 2016 Spain

Can you spot Anakin?
February has not so been particularly birdy or bloggy, but when I looked at my calendar earlier in the year that was immediately obvious. Once again I have barely stood still, with a trip to Hamburg, an intense period at work, and more recently nearly a full week in Spain en famille. This latter is all I really have to talk at the moment, my blog has descended into "my life, by me" which is a bit sad. I still have the death of the high street tucked away, which I wrote in jest about a day before our local butcher went bust. There is now a very sad empty shop on in Wanstead with a "To Let" sign on it. 90 years they had been going, a proper multi-generational family business. No doubt it will soon be yet another fried chicken place, it's next to Costa and there's already a Starbucks a few doors down so unless Nero fancy their chances I think we can discount coffee. Tescos is already here having taken over the Woolies a few years ago. Is the demise of A G Dennis a coincidence? On the plus side the Allied Irish office has turned into a pub, and we now have a proper fishmonger, so it isn't all bad news. Still, I felt it was slightly insensitive to post it so soon after this loss, when all I am really doing is complaining about people going shopping and thus getting in the way of my Strava record attempts!

When I got home from Spain there was some really bad news though! I have written a fully-fledged blog piece on the stupidity of bird books as a follow-up to the one I did on how my decluttering was going. This was basically ready to go, penned on the London to Madrid flight, but when I got home I discovered that somebody had beaten me to it!  Now you will probably have noticed that a fair few of the blogs I read are written by similarly-aged men. I might [nearly] be one too, although I am confident I am the youngest of the lot! Anyhow, this writing collective being essentially one super-organism nearly always agrees with everything written by any of them, and one post can frequently spark a post in reply and so on. It would be going too far to say that they're all the same as they're not, each one has a distinct style and different humour, but you do sometimes feel like you're reading a set. Thus I cannot possibly now post something about how on earth I've ended with 50 unread bird books, and so that one has to remain in draft too until everyone has forgotten about Gavin's post. And Steve's.... 

Which leaves me with Extramadura, Seville and Madrid. All in Spain, but just like our writers all very different in their feel and the experiences they afford. This was a family holiday - binoculars came but were used on just two days out of six. Yes, only a third of the holiday contained birds! Despite this abject failure I still racked up a pretty respectable list in quiet moments, but as Mrs L might read this I'll need to stay silent on that for now. Black-winged Kite!! Shhhhhh! You will also have to excuse me for this being a rather photo-heavy post. Think of it as compensating for the lack of birdiness... I took my rejuvenated (read fixed at great expense) 5D3 with me, confirming it's a wonderful tool for my kind of travel.

Trujillo is a lovely place. If you come just a little later you can see the colony of Lesser Kestrels at the bullring. We were too early though, and had to wander round the town until the kids got bored.
Our first day was in Trujillo in a gale. We had a very leisurely local breakfast, and then wandered around the medieval town. The kids practiced their spanish in various shops, and Mrs L and I were happy just to see them getting to grips with a new place. After an excellent picnic lunch in the countryside where we devoured all the hard-communicated produce, we went for a walk on the plains. Or more accurately we were blown across the plains, the wind was quite ridiculous. With leaden skies mounting worryingly fast we fought our way back to the car just in time to escape a monumental rain storm. 

Shortly after I took this it landed on us, but we were safely in our car by then, The landscape is incredibly impressive, and there are birds everywhere.

The following day after another stupidly long breakfast we made our way to Monfrague National Park. Henry, who had been before with me, took on the mantle of expedition leader, and so the whole family saw Vultures, Blue Rock Thrushes, Azure-winged Magpies and a host of other lovely birds set in dramatic scenery. Another lengthy and satisfying al fresco lunch took place, after which we decided we would visit Portugal on the way to Seville. This we did, heading west at Barajoz and discovering that the Portugese economy is in far worse shape than Spain's. A bit sad really to wander around a run-down town, being served out-of-date fruit juice with mould in the bottles. To be fair it's probably not like this in Lisbon or Faro, but on the far edges of the country you do feel like you have hit a rather neglected area.

If I lived in Extramadura and my house didn't have a Stork on it I would have to move to one that did.

Even Mrs L with her bird phobia could not fail to be impressed with the Griffons at Salto del Gitano. Confession time, my large lens did come too, but was used very sparingly indeed.

The jangling of Serins is never far away. Another failure for this country. Bring on Global Warming I say.
Back into Spain we woke up the next day in Seville, and spent all of the next two days exploring this wonderful city, stacked to the gills with fantastic moorish architecture and open spaces, narrow streets with doorways leading to palatial courtyards. Everywhere was tiled, everywhere was delightful. Amazing food at all corners, we ate a lot of it but equally walked miles and miles. Oranges are everywhere, they appear to grow on trees. There is a whole municipal department devoted to picking them up and throwing them away, as they fall faster than they can be used. And they're delicious to boot, and absurdly cheap. We saw where Star Wars was filmed. More interestingly we saw where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. I can't recommend it highly enough as a city break. If you do one thing, go to the Alcazar. Or the Casa de Pilatos. Or......I'll let the photos do the talking I think.

Behind wooden doorways along the narrow streets you often got a glimpse of the charms within. It is simply a different style of living.
This is where we were lucky enough to be staying. Horrible isn't it?

I certainly didn't like it at all as it provoked feelings of pure rage.

These are known as the mushrooms. Whoever designed it had been on them I think.

The sheer intricacy of the Alcazar was breathtaking. Hundreds of years old. The gardens were tranquility apart from the demented Mallard that thought it was a Peacock.

Don't go to southern Spain if you don't like tiles and glazed ceramics would be my advice

On our final day we went to Madrid. I cunningly booked a very long connection which allowed us about six hours in the city, and so by 9am we were eating breakfast overlooking the Royal Palace, and then were able to bimble at leisure for a few hours. We explored a few markets, and revisited a couple of Tapas places I had enjoyed solo on a previous trip, saw a tubby Spiderman and considered the purchase of a life-sized fibreglass Jesus, the most impressive of countless pieces of devotional crud that are ubiquitously available in Spain. We filled a suitcase with salami, cheese, oranges, ham, chocolate, vegetables and olive oil, and were home in Chateau L by supper time.

Ah, supper - I could not write about Spain without talking more about the food. Just to wander around the markets is enough to make you weep. We bought a kilo of prawns for about three quid. In England even finding a prawn is hard work. To walk past the rows of bodegas and not go into every single one of them is a super-human feat. The fruit looks and tastes amazing, the vegetables make what we get here seem a poor excuse. As mentioned above we brought back what we could, but it's no substitute for being able to simply nip out and grab an entire delicious meal of fresh ingredients for a fraction of the price that here simply gets you drab uniformity. Have a look at the next few photos and salivate....

Boquerones, frequently filleted and soaked in oil and vinegar for extra deliciousness.

A small selection of a dizzying amount of Tapas routinely available almost anywhere you went. The UK's reputation for a poor diet is very well founded.

There is nothing to say.

Unlike poor A G Dennis, Spain has thousands of thriving small niche food businesses

To complete lunch.....

This is actually a skip of oranges. Council workers were gathering these from the ground at Seville Cathedral and dumping them in bucketloads. What happens to them I have no idea. Once they have no taste I expect Tesco take them.

Not food, but in case you didn't believe me.

And no "trip report" would be complete without this to finish up with. A Tapas place in Madrid that only did shrimp in garlic. And white wine.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Out through the in door

February has flown by, and despite my best intentions blogging (and cycling!) has taken a back seat. I have quite literally done nothing other than go to work and come home again, But what of the patch? Well we always knew that after a stellar January it would be hard work, but I've not actually found it difficult at all. This is because I've completely abandoned it. See, easy! Not even set foot on it once since the month began, and I can highly recommend this as a way of beating the February blues – just wait until March and then go out. Simple when you think about, you won't get depressed getting wet and seeing nothing, you can stay dry inside, have a nice cup of tea, and do other things.

Other things in my case have mostly involved the continued removal of stuff from Chateau L. This is also pretty simple as it turns out, and extremely cathartic. I walk around the house looking for things I've not picked up or used for a long time. When I find something I wonder if somebody else might use it more than me, to which the answer is generally yes as the only things I regularly use are my phone, my camera, and various bits of optical equpiment – and even these are not safe. So once I have hoiked this under-used object from whatever hidey-hole it has been gathering dust in, the next questions involve whether anyone would like to give me lots of money for it (so that I might recoup at least some of the sum I wasted on it), but also how awkward it will be to post to whichever sucker is doing the opposite to me and collecting junk. If it ticks both these boxes it goes on Ebay. If nobody is that stupid I simply chuck it away.

Nowhere is safe. I've pulled cupboards apart to find these objects offensive my new zen self. This reveals the occasional hidden gem - the other day I found six bottles of whiskey I had secreted away a few years ago and totally forgotten about. Turns out they might be worth a hundred quid each having languished under the stairs whilst global supplies diminshed. I might keep one I suppose, but given I am happy with a much cheaper dram and I could make a few quid and thus drink free whiskey, they're off to auction. Despite the advances of the Dorset massive, I could not quite let the Leicas go yet, so they have survived. Instead I flogged the bins that sat in the car and never got used as whenever I got in the car I had my normal bins round my neck anyway. Thus the purging continues - on the list are no fewer than eight lens filters, a radio scanner, two flashguns, the Scopac from my pushchair birding days, a spare tripod strap, some computer games, a couple of books, a model aeroplane, a lego camper van, an arca clamp, a spare monopod, a portable long wave radio, a lens hood, and a host of other bits and bobs. Most remarkbly of all people are willing to fork out money for airline amenity kits. You know, those bags they throw at you which have tiny tubes of toothpaste in and a toothbrush with a 3cm handle that cost at least 0.5p to produce. Somehow I had a heap of these in a cupboard, I have no idea why. I threw at least one away before trying my luck online. Five whole pounds! And then a second one became the subject of a bidding war! Amazing, idiocy knows no bounds! Next time I'm on a plane I'm going to ask all the other passengers if they want theirs.... 

Actually I'm not. The best way to de-clutter is not to let any of things pass the threshold in the first place, which is where I have been going wrong all these years. I took a huge box of books to the charity chop yesterday, and I have become a regular visitor at a number of local post offices. And it is working! There is visibly less stuff in areas of the house commonly associated with me, and I am feeling exceedingly good about this. It's ridiculous really, as I was probably equally pleased with myself when buying whatever it was in the first place. Of course almost as pleasing as the outflow of crud is the inflow of cash. My bank balance has increased by several hundred pounds in the last fortnight, and so whilst the skip option would have brilliant (and significantly less effort) my capitalist conscience is feeling vindicated.

Fishing gear is next, though the thought of posting carp rods fills me with dread. As well as about six rods I also have about eight reels and a heap of useless accessories that all fishermen need. I last went fishing in about 2005 I reckon, so it is high time I realised that I won't be going again any time soon. I enjoy it, but unfortunately I enjoy other things slightly more and so fishing never gets a look in. I figure that after ten years the tide has probably turned, so they're toast. Being ruthless is key. I wonder what I'll get for my Hardy Gem mk1, used for one session a decade ago and during which I caught exactly nothing? I could advertise it as virgin! In the same cupboard as the fishing gear is my 35mm slide projector, it is quite possible that this ship has sailed however... when was the last time that anybody looked a slide on Planet Earth? Kids born today wouldn't even know what a slide was. Kids born ten years ago might not...

But what about the bird books? This is a really tricky one as they're special, but in all honesty many of them rarely get looked at. I have three or four shelves dedicated to avian life, including the full set of nine Birds of Western Paleartic. I also have almost all of the Helm series. Unsurprisingly the only one I really look at is Olsen Gulls. Not really, that can be pulped straight away! But really, are these books useful? Sure, they're nice, but I use the web for bird research more than books these days. Only once in a blue moon do I have a leaf through for some titbit of information I can't find online. And as for the Poyser monographs..... I've read a few of them and I can safely say I'll never read them again. Fabulously interesting and incredibly dull at the same time. Field guides are different of course – Sibley, Collins and the like all have to stay – these are genuinely useful items, looked at again and again. However when am I next going to open a book on world Parrots? Probably never is my current line of thinking. I have not quite plucked up the courage to take the plunge and list them all on Bird Forum, but the day cannot be far off. Sacrilege? Possibly. Sensible? Probably. Emotional? Definitely.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Not much birding - Amsterdam and Hamburg

I have no birding updates. Or do I? The Caspian Gull came back to Wanstead Flats and I saw it. Right, that's quite enough of that. Instead I have been doing a bit of galivanting, as has of course been known to happen from time to time. Amsterdam last weekend, and yesterday Hamburg.

Amsterdam was nice. I met up with my mate Andy, a university buddy that I don't get to catch up with very frequently because he lives in, well, Amsterdam. We walked and walked, and talked and talked. We have very similar outlooks of life, both working for big corporates, both wishing that perhaps we didn't. Good to see him, and the city is fabulous. Being both sensible grown ups, neither of us partook of anything more exotic than coffee, and pushing the boat out, a single beer over lunch. Such is life in the forties. The smell of things other than coffee hung heavy on the breeze, and in various windows in the very touristy red-light district young ladies of the night day advertised their wares. Well, themselves really. Andy and I spent far more time looking at the buildings I'm ashamed to say - one of the things I particularly enjoy about european cities are the fantastic buildings, particularly in those places founded upon commerce and the sea. Amsterdam is full of tall thin buildings, rows upon rows bordering the canals. You can see some in the photo below, and they are superb.

The stairs are so narrow that things have to brought in through the windows. Today there are specialised trucks that have vertical conveyer belts attached, however in the past the goods to be stored on various levels would have been winched up from the waterside, so it's pretty cool that this use continues in modern Amsterdam. Andy lives in the top floor of one and is about to move into another one, it was pleasure to be able to see one inside - what a fantastic living space.

Hamburg has a whole trade district, with fabulous red brick warehouses lining a section of islands. Today they're preserved and harbour galleries, museums, antique shops and the like, but to wander amongst them is to be transported back to the Hanseatic League. I spent the day just wandering, as I usually do in these places - 12 miles in Amsterdam, 6.5 in Hamburg - taking a measure of the city. What was is like when it was growing? How busy was it? Who lived here then and who lives here today? And why do Germans smoke quite so much? Honestly, in the UK there is more than a little stigma now associated with lighting up. In Germany however it is a way of life, and even indoors they have little smoking booths. They don't work, and everywhere you go has undertones of smoke - like background radiation. Took me back twenty years when any visit to a pub or restaurant and you would come back reeking. 

This was the only negative really, and if anything the Hamburgers are addicted to coffee (and cake!) possibly more than their counterparts in Amsterdam. An interesting city that it was easy to spend a few hours in, the time went very quickly. Shame that the weather was a bit dull, as my skies got washed out by the neutral density filter. The one disadvantage of day trips in winter is that you're rarely there for the sunrise, and sunset is often a non-event. Anyway, if you do get a chance to visit either of these two places, even for just a few hours, I definitely recommend it. Now, back to my maps and timetables!