Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Fairy dust

Hot news from Chateau L - there is a possibility that the magic fairy may return, at least on a part time basis. We have recently dispensed with the services of our cleaner, it wasn't going well and was one expense too many in the age of austerity - it is not like living is becoming any cheaper. This means that the residents of this fine abode are going to need to pick up the slack, and this includes an opening for the sorely-missed fairy. There have been signs that a return may be imminent. Check this out!

Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall an outrageously long advert for a static floor duster. It went on and on and on, showing every conceivable use of such a duster, with multiple glorious slow-motion sweeps of this thing being dragged across a sea of dust and leaving a gleaming swipe of a frankly unbelievable nature. It then cut to a sparkling blonde supermodel-type housewife looking deeply satisfied with herself as she deposited the used wipe into an immaculate bin. This happened again and again for what seemed like five minutes. It was beyond ridiculous, and I have no clue where I might have seen this as I don’t ever watch television. To cut a long story short I have bought one, mainly because our ailing vacuum cleaner seems to just push dust around rather than actually suck it up. Our ex-cleaner destroyed its predecessor in the autumn, and its replacement arrived right before the building work started. In the face of such a task in all honesty I think we asked this new machine to do things it simply wasn’t capable of. It now emits a suspicious burning smell when used for more than a few minutes, and having attempted to use it on the wooden floor of the loft it seems to make almost no discernible dent in the current dust fest. I cannot bring myself to purchase yet another one so soon, and have instead bought my first ever static floor duster. It arrived yesterday and I spent a couple of minutes putting the handle together and attaching the first wipe to it.

Don’t judge us.

This is from its first use, I simply went up and down the wooden planks in the manner of a lawnmower. I could not believe it. My cynicism of advertisements has perhaps diminished a fraction, for this was almost like the image I had in my mind of the gleaming swipe. I felt like the model as I too dropped my used static wipe in the bin. How it works is beyond me, and it could be that future passes are simply not as satisfying, but given how much our house has wooden or tiled floors this could make a real difference in the never-ending fight with dust and hair. The pink scrubbing brush may be long gone, but the lime green duster could be a worthy successor.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The never-ending Wheatear mission

A top target for my trip to South Africa at the end of last year was Capped Wheatear, and Mick and I devoted many hours to trying to get decent images of them. We saw our first on day 1 in some farmland near Strandfontein, but it was not possible to get close and in any event we really needed to be birding the water treatment works and not mucking about with Wheatears. We did remark on how smart they appeared though, and this thoroughly whetted our appetite for more over the following days. 

It was a tad damp

We saw some the next day as well, again in agricultural land, in the Darling Hills to the northwest of Cape Town. We managed to get a bit closer but the weather was somewhat trying in the morning, and when we returned at the end of the day after the rain and in night light the birds were not playing ball at all. Still, one of my favourite images comes from this brief stint, a bird does not always need to be at point blank range and I really like the sense of habitat - so much so that at the time of writing I am using it as my blog header. This is the one below.

Day 3 was a Capped Wheatear free day, but the next day we really started to get into their territory as we travelled into the Overberg. We spent an inordinate amount of time along a particular stretch of fence line that held a confiding pair somewhere north of Malgas, but try as we might we could not get them to land on anything other than wire or a post. We went as far as putting rocks on every single post for about 200m but the birds simply refused to use them. We had some very close images due to using the car as a hide, and whilst they were not quite what we wanted the quality was nonetheless on the up.

That evening and the following morning we struck gold. On the short-cropped grass outside our cottage at the De Hoop Collection were numerous Capped Wheatears. Initially I spent a bit of time with a juvenile whilst some Cape Mountain Zebra grazed nearby, and later on I found an obliging adult nearer to the main building in the last of the light. Seeing these Mick then opted to spend the following morning having a crack - his fantastic series is here. In his case all previous images got deleted, but I am partial to a nice post or bit of wire and have kept quite a few....

Monday, 29 January 2018

Madrid minibreak

The view from the Templo de Debod SW towardsthe Royal Palace
Last November we went on a family trip to Madrid. I never bothered blogging about it as time was short, but in the depths of January it somehow seems more appropriate. I love travel as you know, and Madrid is a wonderful city that I am beginning to know quite well – I have another flying visit scheduled for February, which is all the more reason to get this one blogged and out of the way. 

Ostensibly this was a trip to visit our old Au Pair, Silvia, who came from Madrid, but in the time between booking the tickets and the trip happening she actually moved back to London. However armed with her advice on what to do, where to go, and crucially where to eat, the five of us had a really nice time. In addition to having been given the best location for lunch and churros, we leveraged modern technology to go on a morning walking tour of the city centre via an Android App that took your location, time available, and interests, and then creates a bespoke self-guided itinerary. This worked an absolute treat as one leg of this tour took us through a park where, binocular-less, I spotted a Hawfinch! Rather than wander aimlessly, we beat a logical path between churches and monuments, and at the end felt we had learned something. Just like when you read a blog post on this website ahem.


To be honest it is so long ago that I have now forgotten almost everything historical, but I do remember the food. Saturday evening was spent at a fantastic tapas bar in the Sol area. I arrived first as the advanced guard with one half of the family, and Mrs L arrived a little later with the other half who had been busy during the afternoon. This gave me the opportunity to consume several quarts of wine and beer during the early evening, and then to start again later on.

The interior of the amazing Catedral de la Almudena

"It was this big I tell you!"
"Stop exaggerating!"

The following day we all had breakfast together at the hotel and then went on our walking tour which at its conclusion deposited us at Silvia’s favourite restaurant, Casa Lucia, for a slap up lunch. This was truly excellent, a multi-course extrazaganza of taste. The place was packed, and we were lucky to get a table for five on a Sunday. We savoured it, a proper european family lunch, prolonged and meaningul - they take food far more seriously on the continent as a matter of course. You can find the same in London of course, but only if you are prepared to cough up. In Spain, as with most places in Europe (Western Europe, don't get me started about countries further east!), any place you go does a solid job and cooks properly. Sated we rolled gently back to the airport for our flight back home. As a quick weekend trip it is up there with Rome in my opinion, and it is so easy to do, and flights so cheap, that I don’t understand why I don't do it every weekend. Beats sitting at home or trudging around looking for invisible Grey Wagtails!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Dedication's what you need!

Roy would be so proud, I'm a record breaker! In a last gasp score before the working week arrives, and with it February, I have secured my 72nd species for the patch in January. I am delighted, as for the last week I have continually drawn a blank on my frequent early morning forays to the Park. Today I trudged another seven miles, all the way to the OSW and then a full loop around the Ornamental Waters with Richard. And all for practically nothing - the Ornamentals are looking really quite good having now filled up again but are mostly devoid of birds. As we returned to the Perch Pond I decided to have one final look at the manure pile near the stables, and as predicted by Nick a Grey Wagtail flew up from alongside the heap and over towards the indoor paddock.  Yay!

My alternative was to go and hang around near the Roding for the Woodcock to come out and feed at dusk, something I really didn't fancy very much, so this eleventh hour tick saved me from having to do that and I was able to have a nice leisurely lunch at home avec vin. I will probably now see a Peregrine on the way to work tomorrow and a Snipe the day after that, this is how it goes sometimes. So a big score to top off a productive weekend which saw yet another trip to the dump (goodbye a bent bicycle wheel, a rotten wooden bird feeder, some more rusting tins of paint, and other assorted junk from our now 100% clear and functional shed, as well as some garden waste and the packaging material from our new bedside tables), some more DIY, the tidying of one of the understairs cupboards, and a trip out to Essex to pick up some plants.

Today was as dull as predicted and I didn't take a camera. In anticipation of this I saved this Great Crested Grebe from yesterday. I suspect that's the final photograph I will take in January, it has really been dreadfully unproductive - I've saved a mere 34 photos from the one morning that there was a hint of sunshine. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018


Today added approximately half an hour of sunshine to the meagre eight hours across all of the weekends so far in January (thanks @wanstead_meteo), to say it has been a dull grey month is rather an understatement. So much therefore for photography...  I took these as one of the kids was doing Park Run. Mmmmmmm.

Friday, 26 January 2018


I like islands. Even the one I live on, and I mean the UK not Chateau L which is surrounded by a moat and is therefore an island of sorts. I don’t travel much in the UK now that I don’t do that whole twitching thing. I do however visit lots of islands abroad, and in the last few years have been to Shetland, Majorca, Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Madeira, Corfu and Cyprus. It is Madeira I keep returning to due to my love affair with plants.

View of Funchal harbour from my hotel balcony 

The south coast of the island is a series of viaducts and tunnels perched above the sea

Madeira is not only rugged and exceedingly beautiful, it is also a giant greenhouse where tropical plants from all over the world grow in lush profusion. I want my garden to look like Madeira but this is beyond the realms of possibility. What is just about possible however is for the various areas under glass at Chateau L to look like Madeira, at least as far as succulents, cacti, cycads and palms are concerned. The huge numbers of profusely flowering vines is something that I simply cannot recreate, bougainvilleas for instance simply will not grow for me, and various other vines like passiflora and thunbergia also struggle. The biggest issue is the lack of humidity which is just not compatible with a domestic house castle. Succulents however I do just fine with – they probably grow better and more quickly than they do in nature due to the constant supply of water available to them, and this is the principal reason I went to Madeira a couple of weeks ago. Partly it was to harvest or buy a few small plants that are hard to find here or are expensive, but mostly it was to be inspired. That tiny little green thing in that small pot in the corner? What potential does it have if I repot it, or if I move it to a sunnier position? What does it look like planted en masse?

This is a Staghorn Fern. IN true geek fashion I call this a Platycerium.

So for about 36 hours I wandered happily up and down the slopes of Funchal, visiting botanical gardens, parks, nurseries and roadside displays – in Madeira I would pretty much die for just the central reservation of the Via Rapida, which is stuffed full of Agaves, Aloes and Strelitzias amongst other things. Plants that I take the utmost care of and devote hours to cultivate are essentially invasive weeds on Madeira. Seeds that I was delighted to source and carefully germinate in the UK lie discarded on the ground.

The island is blessed with what is my view a perfect climate. It is never truly hot and it is never bitingly cold - frosts are all but unknown. There is regular rain, but rarely too much, and in any event the steepness of the land results in excellent drainage and run-off. Indeed this latter is very carefully managed, with relief channels and deep gutters a feature of every town and street. I’ve never visited in heavy rain, but I can imagine that the island must become a mass of small waterfalls and torrents. In early January it was very much short sleeves territory but with a noticeable drop-off in temperature in the evening. I packed light – very light – arriving at lunchtime on Friday with what was basically an empty suitcase and various bits and pieces with which to protect and cushion plants on the return journey. My first stop off was the Mercado dos Lavradores, where I happily picked my way around the various stalls – sourcing a heliconia here, a plumeria there, a few canna bulbs to add a bit more of a tropical feel to the garden, and few other oddments. I then checked into my hotel and went for a swim before driving the short distance to Ponta do Sol to meet a fellow cycad grower. This is always very dangerous, viewing the plants of somebody who has the proper conditions to grow these plants, and this was no exception – putting my meagre selection of potted plants to shame. I spent a happy afternoon conversing in pidgin English, Spanish and Portugese, discussing species, growth, soils, watering, sunlight and all manner of things that would bore most normal people rigid. I am not normal however, and in my eyes there was no better way to spend a few hours, pottering around plants I know and love, talking to someone who shares that interest in a highly nerdy way. Brilliant. We shared a beer and a commitment to keep in touch and exchange plants later in the year, and then I returned to Funchal and a great dinner in one of my favourite restaurants. Usually eating alone is one of the things I hate most about solo travel, but at the Vaca Negra in the Lido district I felt right at home.

Proteas - another type of plant I cannot grow!

Aloe plicatilis, the Fan Aloe

A large Encephalartos species

No idea!
I was up early and collecting plants before most of Funchal woke up. The Lido esplanade  contains all manner of wonderful plants, and the beauty of succulents is that they tend to reproduce by creating miniature versions of themselves from the base of the mother plant. The sheer number of plants on Madeira means that in order to keep the place looking tidy the vast majority of these baby plants are mercilessly hacked off at ground level and composted. A few entrepreneurs try and sell them, both in Madeira and online, but why pay for something that you can get for free? I weeded a small Aloe here, a baby Agave there, as well as a Senecio twig and a Crassula stem – all of these will root up in my greenhouse in no time at all and in time form plants that hopefully will rival their parents. Then I visited an orchid nursery, for this is a sphere of horticulture that is completely foreign to me and I was interested to discover a little more – if there was ever a group of plants that got people worked up it is these. All I can say is that they are stunning, but my growing conditions in London would simply not allow it. I bought a small plant to try in the bathroom but largely I think I am reconciled to not having a collection of orchids. This is probably for the best.

Quinta da Boa Vista Orchid collection

Finally I went to visit the Funchal Botanical Garden. Whilst in my eyes the whole island qualifies as a botanical garden, this is a structured and scientific collection, and so I left my scissors behind – one does not freely take cuttings somewhere like this. Instead I took my camera and notebook, and wrote down names of interesting looking plants in the hope of being able to source seeds or small plants when back in the UK, and took photos of how the exhibits had been structured. Which plants grow together, which plants look great in a display of ten, which look best just as a single specimen. Part of the wonder of gardening is creating a certain look that is all your own, but gardeners are typically always inspired by the vision of other gardeners and I am no different. I already found one of the plants I wanted in Essex, an Aeonium that grows like a flattened plate, and will be heading off there for a spot of coastal birding this weekend followed by a plant pick-up. It’s hard having this many interests, but ultimately very rewarding.

Agave attentuata, or the Foxtail Agave. In this case with a panther in it.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Great White Egret redux

As was verging on inevitable after my expensive twitch I've now seen the Wanstead Great White Egret three times. This morning I discovered it again on a quick tour of the Park before work, fishing on the eastern end of the Perch Pond. As before it was very flighty and soon headed off towards the Ornamental Waters, although nobody is quite sure where it actually ends up as nobody has seen it there. I didn't have a camera as my mission was the mythical Grey Wagtail for the January record-busting year list, a bird that I just cannot seem to find anywhere. It seems odd to be disappointed with a Great White Egret, but that is the danger of counting things. I suppose also that GWE will eventually descend into the ranks of the ubiquitous, as Little Egret did before it. I know some highly ancient birders who can still wax lyrical about their first Little Egret, which seems absurd but that is how quickly things can change. It also happens the other way of course, and more frequently - look at Willow Tit, Snipe, Woodcock and countless other species that were once common and whose numbers have plunged in a matter of decades. 

Here is a photo from the second time I saw it - a dreary morning about a fortnight ago. The amount of disturbance around the Perch Pond was scarcely believable for 8am on a weekday morning so the images I returned with were of it flying around from pillar to post, a scenario repeated this morning and I suspect every morning that it is there.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Pushing the VizMig boundaries

Vizmigging is an essential part of watching a local patch. The sky above your patch is always larger than the patch itself, and contains few annoying obstacles for birds to hide in. You get clear uninterrupted lines of sight that stretch for vast distances and can cover a huge area without going anywhere. Nowhere is this truer than in your garden. Were my garden list restricted to birds seen only IN the garden, my house list would be about 20. As it is it is 82, and this is solely as a result of scanning the sky. If you can see or hear a bird from garden, it is as good as in your garden and on the list it goes. Now my garden is quite small, and there are mature trees all around, as well as the pesky houses of neighbours – the lines of sight are much reduced and I am sure that this restricts the numbers of birds that I can hope to get on the house list. Previous shenanigans have included standing on part of a low roof to get a bit of extra height, as well as standing with one foot on the front drive whilst straining with all my sinew to detect the call of a Whitethroat from the patch.

Night falls on the patch, as seen from west wing top turret...

Now however a new window of opportunity has opened. Several in fact. We converted the loft at Chateau L, and my visible sky has increased hugely. I can see for miles! I can see over the houses on the other side of the road. I can see over the houses behind. Looking left or right out of the perfectly-positioned-for-skywatching velux windows I can see all the way over Bush Wood and the edge of the Park, and in the other direction I can see the expanse of Wanstead Flats. The view towards Walthamstow has opened up - a known flyway - and I should also be able to detect birds of prey far further away as the corridor that they previously would have had to travel has widened considerably. In fact there is so much sky that I am not sure where I should look. All good omens for some additions to the garden list, which is possibly my favourite list as it has so many unexpected birds on it and also by virtue of the fact that it is, err, right on my doorstep.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

January pace

An idle moment at the beginning of this year revealed that my highest January total on the patch was 71. You want life tips, this is where you come. Totting up the 'available' species that didn't seem too hard, I wondered how I had never managed more than this? Looking at the other years where I've kept easily retrievable records - nearly a decade now - showed that the average and mean are both around 66. It is always good to have goals, especially measurable ones, and lists are nothing if not measurable. A target was set....

Today I equalled my highest ever. I have been spurred on in no small measure by Tim, who has taken up where Nick left off. I can only think that the book he is currently editing must be extremely dull as he is constantly out birding the patch!. And as everyone knows, there is simply no substitute for time in the field - so far he has pulled out Med Gull, Great White Egret, Wigeon and Hawfinch and is setting the pace. Bob is not far behind (generally literally!) but I reckon I can't be that far away either. 

failed Little Egret selfie

The Egret was completely left field, and Wigeon is never easy on the patch, so these two have been very helpful in elevating my total, but largely it is the January grind that is responsible for my current total. This morning before the rain set in I set out once more into the gloom, my eyes and mind set firmly on picking up the missing species that I knew were there somewhere. It started well, with the Little Egret finally giving itself up on Heronry, and a short while later two adult Great Black-backed Gulls flopped slowly eastwards to add to the one seen from the breakfast table before I set out. In search of Grey Wagtail I went all the way to the Dell but drew a blank, and as the rain started I ditched my plans to go to the OSW - a short while a presumably damp Tim found a Hawfinch! Retracing my steps along the north side of Heronry I attempted a Little Egret selfie, and then was lucky enough to get a Bullfinch flying through the cover between the path and the golf course, its flashing white rump signalling its presence. Presumably this is the same bird that Rob S found last week, it has been a really good winter season for them. Only another couple of months before that rump could end up being something else!

The list of what is still possible in the ten days that remain is long and varied. Just one of the following, all of which have occurred either here or nearby in January, will see me over the line: Grey WagtailWoodcock, Snipe, Jack SnipePeregrine, Buzzard, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Hawfinch, Short-eared Owl, Med Gull, Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Shelduck, Red Kite, BramblingLapwing.... Time is running out however - the mornings are still not light enough to be conducive to birding before work, and there is only one weekend remaining.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Little Bunting Urban Extravaganza!

Many year ago, in 2007, a Little Bunting took up residence at Amwell. It was there for months and months, and somehow I failed to go and see it despite it being a lifer back then. It just goes to show that I am who I am and nothing will ever change that. Amwell is up in the Herts sector of the London recording area, so in addition to it being a lifer it would also have been a London tick. I was clearly implacable. Maybe I just didn't know what a Little Bunting was? I subsequently became moderately interested in London listing and realised I had missed a golden opportunity. 

Some 10 years and 136 birds later I have managed to get it back. The good Prof and Dave Bradshaw found a Little Bunting at the Walthamstow Wetlands Visitor Experience yesterday, and today between a break in the showers I managed to get over and see it. Pulling on my trainers and lycra, and retrieving my mountain bike and rollerblades from the shed, I gathered some local children, made a big picnic and a flask of tea and jogged over to the Reservoirs hoping that I would be allowed in. Turns out I was just the kind of visitor they were interested in, although they did confiscate my optics saying they wouldn't be necessary and anyway would give the wrong impression.

In the manner of all good twitches I joined a small crowd staring at some bushes. The bird had been seen about half an hour previously, so the line of people was essentially now more of a coffee morning. Happily I was fully alert and concentrating, and amongst all the conviviality I picked it out flying in. My initial directions (middle of the bush!) were a bit rubbish and caught people off guard until they suddenly remembered why they were there! I managed to scope it up for the nearest people and then it did the decent thing and perched up right in the open for everyone. A huge high-five fail with Lee B and one quick Scaup later I was on my way home in increasingly harder rain - good timing.

Walthamstow is a well watched site, and its rechristening as Europe's biggest Urban Wetlands has, it is safe to say, not really had the full blessing of the local patchers. What previously was a permit-only area with a few lonely fishermen and free-reign for birders now has a huge car-park, visitor centre, free access and their main objection, people! I can see that it would be annoying given the scale of change, certainly I view Wanstead as overrun at times by people who couldn't give two shits about nature and the environment, so the irony of a first for the site and only the 11th Little Bunting for London almost immediately after opening their doors is rather delicious, and certainly not lost on the Prof and others. Very sociable creatures Little Buntings. Gregarious, enjoy a crowd. It's not mentioned in the Collins, but they just love a nice cup of tea and a bit of a jog.

So a long time coming and therefore especially satisfying, and doing it on public transport for less than the cost of the car park felt particularly noble. It puts me on 257 for the LNHS area, and being east of the river Lea is thus also an Essex tick for good measure.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Clearing the clutter

How do the majority of households in the UK keep their houses looking clean? It’s easy, you just chuck stuff up in the loft where you can’t see it and then you forget about it. In the case of Chateau L that’s what we did for over a decade. The interior looked quite nice and I'd made a conscious effort to rid myself of some junk a while back, but that hatch on the upstairs landing told a different story. When you pulled the ladder down and poked your head through all you could see was piles. A spare bed, a high chair, a cot, a crib, a potty, stair gates, baby toys, wooden trains, Lego, three children’s worth of baby clothes, all my childhood books, the boxes for almost every piece of electrical equipment we have ever owned, an old computer, university notes, accountancy books, old sleeping bags, a futon, a rug. It went on and on, eave to eave, wall to hip. Many of the boxes had come with us from our previous house, moving simply from loft to lot. The only things that we actually used were the suitcases (frequently) and the Christmas decorations (infrequently). But what if you want to do a loft extension?

Ah. Decision time. On the one hand there is Big Yellow Storage. On the other hand there is the dump. I know of one person who decided that on the basis they had not opened any boxes in their loft for over ten years that there was nothing in there that they could possibly need and chucked out the lot without opening a single box. Brave, very brave. We could not manage that, but I am pleased to report that nonetheless we cleared nearly the whole lot. We actively sought out people having babies and forced things on them. We gave away the bed, we went to charity shops with the better books and toys, we actually found somebody who genuinely wanted some cut crystal glasses. But largely we went to the dump, load after load, and with increasing ruthlessness. Pleasingly almost none of it went into landfill – the local recycling centre has separate containers for wood (highchair), plastic (potty, toys), fabrics (clothes and towels), small electricals (the computer and loads of other tech antiquity), and paper (books, cardboard and paper). It took longer but was more satisfying. I’d estimate that we divested ourselves of easily 80% of a decade of clutter and laziness, and the resultant catharsis has been amazing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

What used to take up the entire loft now fits comfortably in a tiny part of the eaves.

Here is a fact. If you undertake any major home improvements that require you to turn parts of your house upside-down, you will gain far more space than you may have thought possibl, far more in fact than the size of whatever extension you are having built. Our efforts did not just stop with the contents of the loft. We packed up our knackered old kitchen in a big hurry, but as we unpacked into our brand new shiny kitchen it became very hard to find places for the two years out of date jar of prunes and the raclette set we had used once in about 1999. Out went all the plastic toddler plates and mouse-themed cutlery. Goodbye to the three jars of crystalized honey and other ancient condiments. The drawer of USB cables, old phones and chargers, old memory chips, dead pens, stubby birthday cake candles and other assorted junk was not lovingly recreated. 

The loft is now Mrs L’s new bedroom, and I get to sleep there too. Similarly to the kitchen we simply could not bring ourselves to cart all of the years worth of stuff up the new stairs. With all of the upheaval our bedroom contained much more than just a bed and clothes – my desk, books, photo albums, my camera stuff, slides, bedding, and I even found a fishing rod that had escaped my previous cull. I’d estimate that only 50% of what had been there moved up. Most of what was left has now left the premises, and the rest will probably soon follow as we pick through it. In short we have had a complete clear out, and given almost every part of the house was exposed during the building work, almost no part of the house has been unscathed. Whilst we have not completely decluttered we feel highly rejuvenated, but without the impetus provided by the huge disruption I doubt we would have done it. It is very easy to find other things to do in the face of the unnecessary effort needed to throw things away, but when you have a team of people arriving on a certain date and the scaffolding going up around you, you find that hitherto missing willpower and just get on with it.

There is a disadvantage to doing work though, which is that any rooms that didn’t feature in the grand remodeling now look far worse than they did before even though nothing has changed. Unfortunately we are now approaching utter destitution and cannot even afford a pot of paint, so at the moment we are simply avoiding all those rooms and all standing in the shiny new kitchen. With satisfaction written all over our tired faces.

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!