Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A definition of disappointment

Elements of Famille L went to visit some old friends a couple of weekends ago. We had not seen them in ages and in the intervening time they had moved house. Where they used to live they had had a lovely long garden, albeit very thin, and right down the bottom (about a mile and half if I recall) there were a selection of wonderful vegetable beds. Whilst their new place does not have any where near the same amount of outdoor space, their new garden is up and running and one corner has been devoted to a couple of raised beds. In one of these were the remains of this year's strawberry crop, and in the other was the most gigantic clump of rhubarb I think I have ever seen. It resembled a Gunnera in stature.

Anyway, we had a lovely weekend, stayed overnight on the Saturday, and as a parting gift my mate chopped some rhubarb stems out from this clump and sent us on our way. I don't know about you but I love rhubarb, and I especially like it in a crumble. Mmm mmmmm.

So, we arrive home and the rhubarb is stashed in the kitchen. A few days later as I am passing the kitchen door one evening I see Mrs L at the far end just adding crumble topping to the crumble dish. Ah-hah! I know what that is! I started to salivate at the thought of what was to come, it has been a very long time since I had a rhubarb crumble and I couldn't wait! Dinner was served and I gleefully headed to the table. The green crumble dish was there, centre stage. A bit unusual that dessert was out before a main course, but on reflection I would be perfectly happy just eating rhubarb crumble on its own.

It was haloumi and couscous.

What the? I have rarely experienced such crushing disappointment. From a distance, couscous looks a lot like crumble topping, and there was no mistaking the dish. Why did she use the crumble dish? This was last week and I am not sure I have yet recovered. Meanwhile the rhubarb is still on the kitchen counter. Calling me. Taunting me.

I just thought I would mention this in case anyone else has a similar tale of unrequited lust and bitter disappointment that is any way comparable. To be honest I would be surprised, but who knows what lurks out there in blog land? Please do share any thoughts below.   

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Ant Day

I expect that many readers may have experienced something similar recently, especially if they live in Wimbledon, but for me in Wanstead on Sunday it was Flying Ant Day. Flying Ant Day is an annual event with no set timetable, it just needs to be hot and muggy and then it will happen. I’d been in the garden all day – a frequent occurrence of late – and was just sitting down to a very well earned G&T when I noticed a small trickle of ants coming from a hole at the corner of the terrace. Soon the trickle became a torrent, and gradually the large winged ones started coming up. They climbed up the brickwork steadily, and once at the top milled around for a while before taking flight and floating into the humid evening sky - it would have been a good evening to be a local Swift. An hour later and there were none left at all and you would never have known that it had happened. I know it is only small scale, and isn’t quite comparable as a wildlife spectacle to the annual migration of the Wildebeest, but it’s always quite a special moment – especially the way that these hidden colonies all of a sudden become incredibly visible.

In a previous house we lived in we had the unfortunate ‘pleasure’ of one of the egresses being indoors. No matter what we tried in terms of blocking up holes or putting down ant poison, once a year in addition to the hordes taking flight in the garden, a steady stream would exit into the house, in the kitchen and conservatory to be precise, and we would then spend the next week either transporting them outside, or more likely hoovering up dessicated carcasses. It makes you wonder what their subterraenean world looks like – somewhere under our house there was clearly this large network of catacombs, home to thousands of tiny creatures going about their lives in total darkness. The kitchen was some way away from either the front or the back, it must have been like the mines of Moria down there, I'd like to think with one super-ant in charge. I wonder how big it was? Shudder. Luckily the Wanstead colonies are all outside. I’d known about three nests as I disturb them from time to time with my potterings, but this one yesterday was a new one on me, and seemingly right below where I like to sit and contemplate. An interesting thing to think about, especially in flip flops…..

Monday, 17 July 2017

Oh, hello

Oh hello, I’m back, at least for now. For one reason or another I have been finding blogging difficult. This has gone hand in hand with also finding birding rather difficult. The end result is that I felt compelled to do neither for quite a while. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy, far from it. In fact I consider that I have been as productive as I have ever been, but unfortunately unless I rename this blog “Wanstead Gardener” then the kinds of things I’ve been up to don’t really fit. There were hints I suppose; a photo of a flower bed at Chateau L earlier on in the summer, and then most recently of a plant in the greenhouse doing its thing, but I did rather feel that those fell on deaf ears so I subsided into silence.

Ah yes, when a hobby goes quiet. Phasing. Most often seen in the context of birding, I’ve seen talk of this surface in a few places lately and it has definitely struck a chord. I am hesitant to label myself a serial phaser, after all the whole 'not birding during June' thing is basically an annual event for many people, however this year I have extended this period of abstention into July as I have been busy digging holes in the garden. I did consider going out and trying to find a Yellow-legged Gull, but then those holes won’t dig themselves will they?

No they won’t! It has been a bit back-breaking actually, and whilst I would love to show you my carefully crossed-out to-do lists as they tell a tale of true graft and considerable effort, it actually bores me as well! In summary however the extensive grounds of Chateau L are undergoing a transformation, and I am very much enjoying the visual results of my labour. But given that this is of interest to, oh let’s see, zero other people, I think I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that all my obsessive tendencies have been spent on horticulture (itself a victim of phasing in the past) and as such I have felt no compunction to go out birding at all in the UK. I did manage a weekend in Estonia which I plan to share in due course, but compare this to April and May when I spent several hours a day out on the patch and it must be difficult to understand why something that was so all-consuming can so easily and abruptly be dropped entirely.

It’s the same with the camera, it has barely seen the light of day since I pumped 4000 frames through it in the space of 48 hours in Iceland. When I sit down and think about I’ll admit that it sounds odd, but it is just what happens and I don’t fight it. I don’t have any interests that ever truly die, or at least not any more. I have of course dabbled in many things over the years, but I think I am now down to the few hobbies I know I really like, and whilst they might wax and wane from time to time, they’ll always be there. Take birds for instance, I’ve been interested in them for many years, but there was probably a break of ten years from late teens to my late twenties where they barely registered. In that context a gap of a few months is nothing! I’ll get back out there soon I expect, it is beginning to feel about right.

I'm pleased to say that despite the recent lack of use my binoculars have seen, I remain as sharp as ever. Here is a Cattle Egret from Estonia.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

On growing things

No, not my midriff..... Although that said I have recently hopped on my bike again after Mrs L serviced it for me. I took it as a strong hint, what can I say? I cycled all of about five miles and felt none the worse for wear. Anyway, in the absence of much inclination to go birding I have been concentrating on the greenhouse, and I can think of no better way to bore you all rigid now that June has passed by showing you quite how quickly one of my plants has grown new leaves during this hot spell.  

It is of course a Dioon spinulosum, a type of cycad from Mexico. The key to a successful blog is knowing your audience... Here it is in mid-June growing next to a dustbin full of bird seed. The trunk (known as a caudex) is about 30cm from the soil to the tip of the growing point, and the pot is about 40cm across. I bought it cheaply on Ebay of all places, from a nursery in Spain, and it arrived in terrible condition in early March. However under my expert care it has slowly been recovering, and as you can see from the pointy bit in the middle has been gradually planning something....

As you can imagine, I was delighted when three days after this photo I saw this:

20th June
Signs of life! Being somewhat of an obsessive type I've been carefully charting it's progress since then. This was for my benefit and pleasure alone, it was only later on I realised what a fine blog post this would make, hem hem. So here is a short sequence of photos showing the last three weeks.

21st June

23rd June

24th June

26th June

27th June

30th June

4th July

5th July

7th July

This charts a mere 17 days from the first visible sign of leaves to yesterday, when the tallest leaf now reaches my nose! The nice weather has seen the greenhouse hit 30 degrees pretty regularly, and I sure this has contributed to the breakneck speed. I reckon it has a little way to go yet whilst the leaves harden up, but the difference is astounding. I've gone from a boring pineapple-lookalike to a magnificent firework of bright green. The leaves will darken over time to a glossy olive green, unyielding and spiky. Happily for the family it will have to come indoors over winter as this is not a cold-tolerant species and a few days of minus temperatures could see those lovely leaves turn brown and collapse. Nobody wants that...

As I am sure you can tell from the photos I have a lot of plants like this, and thus lots of growth sequences. We had all better hope that I see some birds soon.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Iceland - Day 2

Day 2
Last day! I awoke even earlier and was alongside the Eider colony in beautiful light that money cannot buy, once again driving slowly up and down the road. The local guardians were also up and about, I have to confess I hardly saw the point – what were they hoping to achieve? I was soon joined by Mick who had indeed arrived overnight at some point, and we swapped stories about where we had been and what we had seen. He’d also been sleeping in his car, but had arrived earlier in the week so was even more tired than I was. Although he hadn’t found the Slavs that Shaun and I had been lucky enough to get last year he had photographed almost everything else, including some Arctic Skuas at what seemed like point blank range. He didn’t seem to be feeling the love for the Eiders and Terns as I was though and before long hurried off to the Grebe. I continued with plan A, even jamming my own pale phase Arctic Skua harrowing the colony before it was seen off by the Terns. Easily the best photo of a Skua I have ever taken, little did I know however.

Over the course of a couple of hours the wind started to get up and was making it quite hard, so I quit this location and went up to my favourite toilet at Gardur, and attempted to photograph Fulmars but I could barely hold the camera straight. Some tiny and very plucky Eider ducklings were being taken for a paddle by their parents in the waters around the lighthouse, quite incredible, but they navigated the chop and currents with aplomb. I returned to the Eiders but it was clear that the photographic conditions were not very good anymore, so I too headed off to the Slavonian Grebe.

I found Mick contentedly basking by the lake, the shutter from his 1DX smoking gently…. He had a big grin on his face as I suspected he might. I gave it a go but the wind was up here now as well and the resulting images were not as pleasing as the day before so I didn’t take long. The bird also disappeared which didn’t help, and it took ages to refind – turns out it had gone to sleep in a bit of floating vegetation a bit further out. I seem to have this effect on birds! Maybe on people too…..

It was only 11am by this point and we had both been up for about 8 hours. We made plans to go to Floi, but as we approached the main road I had second thoughts? Where had Mick been the previous day for his close RT Diver and Skuas? I pulled into a layby and we had a conflab. He had been about 90 minutes north of Rekyavik, driving the same side roads that Shaun and I had been on near Borgarnes and which had been very productive in places. We had however not tried the one he had found best, and seeing as he had no objection to going back, we changed plans and the side of the road we were on. Both of us nearly crashed en route we were so tired so we had a roadside coffee at Borgarnes. Five quid might be a bit steep but if it saves your life….

Refreshed we hit the smaller roads. The first one we tried wasn’t very good, and halfway along with the light quite harsh we jacked it in for a roadside kip. With the light now better and feeling even more refreshed, we turned onto a further side road and almost immediately started taking pictures. Having two cars was really convenient, one of us could stop and the other could carry on. In this manner we arrived back at the area favoured by the pair of Arctic Skuas. I didn’t initially work out quite how good these were as I stopped my car before we got there having noticed a small group of Red-necked Phalaropes in a very narrow and sheltered ditch. I cautiously approached but I needn’t have bothered, this species is well known for happily swimming round your feet and these were no exception. I got a bit wet, but I was able to get ridiculously close and right at water level. In fact at one point I misjudged it and water ran into the lens hood – luckily it is all splash-proof and there are also gaps where the hood fixes to the barrel so it flowed out the other end, but it goes to show that having kit that is a little bit more robust can be useful in some situations. There were four birds in total, so there was a bit of fighting as well as a bit of preening, and on one occasion during the latter I got extremely lucky with a freak bit of timing.

I joined Mick a bit further up the road who was photographing a nesting RT Diver from the car. The nest was only a few feet from the road, why the bird had chosen there as the spot was a bit strange, but I suppose these country roads get almost no traffic. I was more interested in the Skuas though, a pale phase and a dark morph bird now both loitering on the track behind my car. I took a few out of the window before deciding I needed to be at ground level and getting out and lying down on the road. What an experience! The birds alternated between loafing on the road and loafing on a patch of sandy grass just to one side, and I was able to crawl very close to them indeed in both of these spots without them moving.


For the next few hours Mick and I alternated between these Skuas and a non-nesting pair of Divers on the adjacent lake. However when we attempted to move from the Skuas to the Divers, even if you backed out before getting up, once you got up and started to walk towards the lake and  away, the birds went into full attack mode. They made a fearsome sound as they whipped past our ears – I’m used to being bombed by Arctic Terns, and I usually just hold my camera up, or a tripod, but these birds were a totally different ball game. To cut a long story short  we had to duck, weave and run. Happy enough to let me take their photo from 20ft away if I was lying down, they continue to harry me all the way out until I was at least 80ft away. And then they were happy for me to crawl right back up to them once I was too cold to continue photographing the Divers in the dampness of the water’s edge. Now this following sequence may look a lot like another blog you have read....

By now it was nearly 10pm and the afternoon had disappeared. We agreed that neither of us needed any more Diver or Skua images for a while, and started on the drive back to the capital. Another coffee was needed but we made it by about midnight. With the owner’s permission I had a quick shower at Mick’s hotel – he had booked the last night in order to sort himself out after a week of camping, and with a flight at 10am or so this made it a bit worthwhile. I had planned to raid a campsite or use the airport, so this was much appreciated. My flight left at 6am so I didn’t see the point, and I retired to Hotel VW for the short night. Whilst I could have got another hour or so of photography in, I was completely dead at this point and just needed to go home. I remember nothing at all about the Wow Air flight home, I passed out before we even took off I think. Having only hand luggage I was through Gatwick in under 20 minutes and on a train to London. I slept on that too! I reached my desk by 11:45, changed into my suit that I had cunningly left ready in the office, and 'enjoyed' an afternoon of work. Once home I downloaded the four memory cards and had the best sleep I can remember.