Thursday, 21 March 2019

The edge

Last Sunday I ended up writing about six future blog posts. None of them are lengthy, for the most part I just wanted some words to accompany some photographs from my recent travels. Working through them, I found that I knew what I wanted to say but that I could barely type and in addition had forgotten how to spell some common words. I struggled with ‘decision’ for instance, and found myself needing to use backspace incredibly frequently. For a moment I wondered if I had some kind of early-onset degenerative disease whose only manifestation at this stage was manual dexterity and a bit of memory loss, but I think the answer is far simpler. And nicer. In short, inactivity. I was rusty. I hadn’t typed anything for ages, and my brain had not been forced to do any kind of non-numerical work for several weeks. I’ve not been reading any books, I’ve not been writing anything, and so whatever part of my brain controls literacy had gone into power-save mode and took a while to come back online. Like anything you don’t engage in for a while, your proficiency declines. By the third post I was finding it much much easier, and as I type this I have now completed around eight small posts which will be winging your way shortly at around two day intervals. It’s always nice to know that what you write is being read and appreciated by others, but this recent experience brings a whole new meaning to the notion that I write this as much for me as for other people. It may be that it’s an important part of keeping my mental edge.

PS if this post was completely incomprehensible.....

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Oriental Magpie Robin

Other than Mynas, Oriental Magpie Robin is possibly the commonest birds encountered in South-east Asia. They are extremely vocal with a lovely song - indeed they are also a very common cage bird and when I visited the bird market in Hong Kong there were loads of them - unfortunately. I found this bird at the Singapore Botanical Garden, which is an oasis in what is already an incredibly green city. Attracted initially by their calls, I found a pair investigating nesting spots alongside one of the ponds on the eastern side of the garden, and from a higher vantage point managed to get a reasonably clean shot which (in the interests of full transparency) I have turned into a totally clean shot with a small amount of wizardry on the left hand side. I had a photo like this in my mind before I left, so I'm pretty pleased that I managed to get this specific pose. The bird's mate was just out of shot on the right, and before too long they had both moved on around the margins.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Hooray it's spring!

The first Wanstead Wheatear was seen yesterday, unfortunately not by me. However there are other ways to tell that the season has changed. In fact, evidence was to be found in my garden...

Voila, spring! The sting as the hail hit my cheeks nearly horizontally was also a clear indicator that this most pleasant of seasons was now upon us, and as the grass turned from green to white and the ricochets off the roof drowned out the singing birds I thought how timely my recent decision to move my arid-loving desert plants onto the terrace had been. It is not often you get the timing spot on like this, I am very fortunate.

Seriously though, the weather has been crazy - every day last week saw near gale-force winds and yesterday's front was merely the icing on the cake. A panel on my greenhouse blew out, and one of my Yuccas blew over. This graph neatly illustrates exactly when the hailstorm hit, and I can tell you that stood watching it it felt exactly as below!

The internet of things has enhanced my geekiness no end, it comes from a sensor in my greenhouse (blue = interior, yellow = exterior) that wirelessly transmits readings every 7 minutes which I can pick up on my phone wherever I am. Pretty neat huh? 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Chateau L and the planet: Part II

So the last post was about preaching, this one is more preach-y. I didn't blog a lot in January, nor in February, but one of the posts was about a few changes the residents of a small castle in Wanstead are going to make in 2019. Part I can be found here and concerned energy. Shortly before that there was the whole vegetarian thing, which is still going strong into March. Here are some of the other things that occurred to us as we worked out what small changes could be made to our lifestyle.
  • Extend the vegetable patch! We're not going full-on The Good Life, but actually growing veg is a lot of fun, and as you know I am fairly green-fingered. We have a meagre vegetable patch that last year delivered a handful of meals. To be fair we didn’t really do very much, it was more of a kid’s project. This year we plan to treble it in size and actually tend to it diligently. The seeds were bought a month or so ago and and the first plants have germinated in the greenhouse already. This includes lots of tomatoes – per the BBC mass-grown tomatoes are one of the worst vegetables in terms of water usage per kg. I expect this to only make a meagre dent in the amount of food we have to buy, but it does mean we may be able to survive Brexit for a few days longer than our neighbours.
  • Composting. This is something we used to do but gave up on. We have started again and once again realised it takes no effort whatsoever. We have several large compost bins at the end of the garden which for a few years now have only had garden waste and grass clippings. It is amazing how quickly this mass reduces in size, and we can use the results for the enlarged vegetable patch, and to fill the pots for strawberries and tomatoes and so on. As a family of five we rarely even fill a 30L bin bag with non-recyclables each week, and this should now become even less. Versus some of the immense piles of rubbish I see on my street on collection days I feel pretty virtuous. Emptying it and carrying it down to the bottom of the garden is not the nicest of tasks, so this has been decreed to be one of my jobs, just like cleaning the toilets and taking out the rubbish.
  • Water. Our main bathroom with the bath in it is currently out of action until we can raise the money needed to renovate it. It has been like this for over a year actually, but we are coping admirably. It was the the turret work that really killed us but I think we are nearly there now, although it means more work and more mess. This means we all have showers which is much better for water usage than having a bath. Watering the garden and greenhouses is mostly accomplished using stored rain water, and we do a fair amount of actual washing up as opposed to using the dishwasher (which I think we use four times a week – too much I am sure but there are some luxuries I insist on). Where we can do better is with washing – one of my daughters frequently seems to wear three different sets of clothes a day, and with stupid things like not leaving the tap running whilst brushing our teeth. Basic stuff. I think we have a water meter somewhere so we may be able to see if this makes any difference.

So just a few more things that can easily be tweaked, not a lot of effort required. The big elephant in the room is of course my love of travel, particularly air travel. A tough one, and one I am doing really badly on with two long haul trips this year already. However I did just cancel one - I had planned to go to Boston and then had a change of heart and canned it. I checked and the plane took off regardless.... I'll return to this in another post, there is a lot to cover.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Singapore taster

I've heard people say that it is boring, too sanitary to really be considered Asia, and certainly there are more authentic places you can go. However if you're into birds and into plants, as I am, you could do worse than spend time in Singapore. It is like an open-air greenhouse, resplendently planted and with colourful inhabitants. Here is one of them, an Olive-backed Sunbird.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

How to improve your commute

I think I have hit upon the answer to commuting. This morning James and I happened to coincide on the Central Line. As usual there were delays, something about track problems further in towards the city, and as we waited the platform started to overflowl with people. Oh joy. Barely any week goes by where there is not some kind of issue, and indeed some weeks there are more problematic days than smooth days. Even on a day with no problems it is an absolute crush at peak time, so this morning I looked forward even by Central Line standards to a particularly cramped journey. 

A train duly arrived and James and I somehow managed to squeeze on, but in the scrum we ended up with a lady between us. It was awful, no room to move, I couldn’t even wriggle to take my coat off and of course the train then didn’t move. Ugh. Still, this was no reason not to continue our conversation, which naturally was about birds. “Have you seen Wallcreeper?” James asked. “No, dipped it twice in Les Baux. Is it at your place in France?” I replied. “No, but close by.” We continued to be held in the platform, and so dialogue continued back and forth, whether it was year round or just in winter, what a great bird it was and so on, when suddenly the lady bolted for the doors leaving behind a much-needed gap that we could all take advantage of. But what had prompted this? Surely she had needed to get to work too? The answer is simple. Middle-aged men talking about birds is simply intolerably boring and normal people cannot cope with more than about 30 seconds.. James and I are so mind-numbingly dull that the lady had no choice but to get out before she died. 

What a fantastic discovery! Being a birder makes it possible to be so tediously uninteresting that fellow commuters are forced to change carriages.  And as I remarked to James, even if we rarely meet on the commute this strategy ought to be even more effective when travelling alone. Especially for James as he has a beard to mumble into. We just have to remember not to talk to any TfL staff, and particularly not the driver.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Wanstead Bird Report 2017

The Wanstead Bird Report 2017 is out, and you can read it here. I confess that I played very little part in its production this time around - what time I have for this type of thing goes towards the London Bird Report instead. But I am pleased to say that Nick and Bob have put in a ton of effort and got this excellent read prepared - it is amazingly professionally produced for a what is just a local bird report. 

As I am sure I have bleated on about on here more than a few times, the landowner and the general public's view and use of the area continues to be absolutely shameful, and is at least part of the reason that I personally bird the area far less than I used to. A swan was killed by a dog just a few days ago for example. Others may feel the same way, and unfortunately with the more committed people off-patch for various unavoidable reasons the coverage and thus records dropped. What we should have done was bird it even more furiously than before to prove that the poor habitat management combined with the selfish behaviour of a small minority makes the place a far poorer place for birds than it has ever been, both for breeders and migrants. Regardless, we have been branded as activists for a number of reasons - objecting to things mostly. Objecting to the proposed use of the Flats as a festival-style concert venue in the breeding season. Objecting to the continued clearance of scrub in the name of absurd Victorianisation designed to satisfy a small band of old-timers, scrub that is vital breeding habit for passerines and a food source for insects. Objecting to pretty much anything that sets nature back, anything that is a means to make money and birds be damned. Unfortunately our activism also means there a lack of willingness to engage with us. We are troublesome; we are ignored, a story repeated across the country. Please have a read, it is admittedly a little fierier than prior years, but there were nonetheless some decent birds in 2017.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Oh look, it's March.....

Oh, hello. I see it has been a full month since I updated this blog. Not sure what to say really, other than I predicted this would probably happen and sure enough it did. I’ve been busy, and so I suspect have all of you. The usual, work and play. The less said about the former the better, all I will say is that Brexit is a big steaming pile of shit and working in a bank (and indeed probably anywhere) makes it particularly shit. Forget the inability of the UK government to organise a piss up in a brewery, my company’s course was set many many months ago. The lack of any type of decision with mere weeks to go just makes it harder, but we have a lot of smart people and we are getting it done, albeit at immense cost, and this ultimately includes my ability and inclination to come home and write fun and uplifting blog posts. Instead I come home and devote what limited brainpower I still possess to simpler tasks. Watering plants, tidying up, other various quotidian to-do list types of things which do not make for interesting blog posts. Back in the old days I would have made something of them irrespective of people’s boredom thresholds. These days I don’t so count yourselves lucky.

I have not been birding in Wanstead since the start of February, my fellow patch-workers must be wondering what has happened to me. I am fine, just not enamoured by the prospect of trudging around Wanstead Flats seeing very little. It will kick off again soon and I am genuinely looking forward to it – my prediction (and upon which a beer rides) is Wheatear on March 14th. One week to go. Despite not birding I have managed to get a little bit of fresh air, both here and other places. The unseasonal warm spell earlier this month was very much appreciated, and I spent a lot of time mucking about with plants – an early implementation of my normal spring reshuffle when plants that were overwintering in the greenhouse move back outside, which then makes space for plants with less cold tolerance to move out of the house. Of course since then we have gone back to normal weather, but the danger period is over and there is no need to reverse anything I have done to date. I can only imagine you are relieved as I am.

The other reason for little blogging is whilst the first six weeks of the year involved zero travel as work was so busy, once certain deadlines were over I wasted no time in getting the hell out of Dodge. So in the last three weeks I’ve had a fun day in Helsinki, a half term photography expedition with my son to Utah and Arizona, and then most recently a slightly crazy weekend birding and plant-appreciating in Singapore. I truly love plants. All of these will feature in blog posts soon, for which I apologise now as I fully expect all of them to absolutely bomb. I guess many people just don’t relate to travel in the same way as I do. That’s fine, it is what floats my boat that really counts here, and which is what I have said all along. If you can get through it I expect there will be some local birding just around the corner.

This place IS as amazing as it looks

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Lights, camera, action!

It looked like it would be one of those lovely clear cold and crisp mornings today, so I leaped out of bed and hurried out. And in a break from recent tradition I took my camera, all those lovely Gulls sat out on the ice.....Aaarghhhh what am I saying!! Ducks, I meant ducks. It was indeed lovely weather, but wait, what is this huge ungainly lump hanging off my right shoulder causing me to bend double? Well, I have not used my camera all year, which also means that I have not had to carry it anywhere. This was the mainly lightweight version, and blimey what a massive pain in the backside it was. Did I really used to do this regularly?

All was forgotten when I reached the Jubilee pond. Perfect light, and loads of ducks paddling about in the small amount of clear water. And out on the ice Gulls, dozens of perfect, gleaming..... Gnuuuuurrrrr. I prepared the camera and for the next half an hour didn't take a single image. Nothing. Nada. A complete wash out. I was hopeless. Useless. Completely incapable of creating anything.

I suppose this is completely deserved. It should not be easy. Even with great kit you should not be able to simply pick it up and go out and create world-class photographs. This morning I couldn't even create pre-school class....  Thinking about it I have not even pointed my camera at a bird since I went to Florida in November. That's only a few months ago but it goes to show how easy it is to get rusty. Not that Wanstead is anywhere near as conducive to bird photography as Florida, but still, I would back to myself to take a good photograph anywhere. Or maybe not anymore....

Whilst I was flapping around I did manage to Linnet and, finally, Fieldfare to the year list, which added to the Buzzard that flew over the house yesterday takes me to the grand total of 66 for the year. So 2019 is below par on that front too. Onwards and upwards.

116 frames taken, 115 deleted. This survived, but only just.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Preaching to the converted

Remember this? Well I went, I could hardly have skipped it having posted about it. Get your miniature violins ready as I dashed out of work at about 7pm, got to the Gold Club just as it started and listened to Rob’s talk, and then went back to work. My own current misfortunes aside, it was a hugely informative session and I would have said that I was one of the converted, i.e. I should know a lot of this already. You have heard this expression I take it, preaching to the converted? I think it started off life being associated with religion, whereby an evangelistic priest is viewed as wasting his time preaching in a church as everyone in the church is already, well, in the church. The same thing can said about many areas, including nature. I didn’t conduct a survey, but I would be willing to bet that everyone at the Golf Club listening to Rob was there because they deeply cared about nature already. That’s not to say, like me, that they didn’t learn something, but it is hardly spreading the word is it? Spreading the word – again this is religious in nature, the word of God. The Gospel. For this to work, the message about the deep shit we’re in needs to spread. Rob alluded to it by mentioning that people could become involved by using social media, but I find that to be a closed circle. Almost everything that flows across my Twitter timeline is there because I have chosen to be exposed to it. People who hold opposing views on various topics experience exactly the same phenomenon, it is what I refer to as the echo chamber. Mainly I mean that in a pejorative way – echo chambers of intolerance and hate – but the same thing can be said of nature and conservation. What is needed is to spread beyond our familiar circles, to wriggle our way into other people’s comfort zones to tell the story. To make a connection to nature for them that, however small, may set seed.

The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife (get it here) contained a very interesting statistic. A study carried out by the RSPB showed that 1/3rd of adults did not recognise a Barn Owl. Wow, just wow. It is not conceivable to me that people would not know what a Barn Owl was. Then again if you spend your life watching Netflix and piddling about on SnapChat, leading a life so unbelievably blinkered that you never go outside, maybe that is entirely possible. I decided it to test it with a willing* group of volunteers. My team at work. It is not a big team, but we all spend most of our waking hours cooped up inside so in that respect are similar to most of the country. Crucially I knew that none of them are obsessive bird watchers. Also things have been pretty hard recently and anything that can lighten the mood is a good thing.

I sent around the following photo, no funny business here.

The result was an exact split. From a field of 18, half the people got it right, and half the people got it wrong or didn’t know. The most popular wrong answer was Arctic Owl. Yes, Arctic Owl, like in Harry Potter..... Now it probably won’t be a surprise to many of you (don’t forget, you are the converted) that a bunch of finance workers would know less about nature than other demographics. It was not a surprise to me, even though I try and talk to them about birds as much as possible and they have to humour me. These people need help. In my view a Barn Owl is iconic. I don’t see them very often, but nonetheless it is a strikingly obvious bird and I don’t understand how you can get to age 23ish (the youngest) and not just have never knowingly seen one but not know what one is full stop. It’s a scandal. The manifesto also mentions something called Shifting Baseline Syndrome – where each subsequent generation has a new and generally poorer view of what constitutes normal. Younger generations simply cannot comprehend that fields used to be full of Skylarks as now there are just a handful, or that they can expect to see perhaps one Turtle Dove a year whereas an elderly relative may have seen hundreds.

How do we get people who think they don’t care about wildlife to start taking an interest and to start caring? Nature is good for the soul, this is a well-known fact. In some countries doctors are beginning to prescribe it instead of pills! My view is that many people simply don’t know what they are missing. All it might take is one walk outside in springtime, or one visit to a winter wader roost or Starling murmuration to open their eyes to what is all around them. And then when they realise that it might soon be gone, and perhaps that their actions as well as their previous indifference could be contributing to that, might that not then strike a chord? There is obviously something to be said for making the conservation movement’s voice heard, for coming together as a collective and shouting loudly. That’s when our dear elected leaders sit up and take note, when they realise that large swathes of people might not vote for them next time, and if the last few weeks have taught us anything it is that self-interest among politicians still reigns supreme. But in my view the real battle is quietly initiating the uninitiated. Not to be conservation heroes but just to be interested and to care. That’s the fight right there.

So the message is simply this. Tell your friends. Tell your colleagues. Tell extended family. Tell the bus driver. Tell the dog walkers (although be prepared to be told to fuck off...). As I sat in that room earlier this week I wondered if I had been doing it all wrong. For me birding is very much a solitary activity, indeed I sometimes go out of my way to make it so. Perhaps instead I should be the kindly old duffer who quietly tells the disengaged phone-obsessed passer-by about the Green Woodpecker feeding on the path in front of them, about the Skylark trilling overhead. It is not in my nature but it would probably be worth it.

Anyhow, read the Manifesto here. Download it, spread it, leave copies lying around wherever you work. Mention wildlife as much as possible to as many people as possible, and especially to those who you know are not already converted. Those are the people who will win this.

*unwilling, but when I ask….

Monday, 28 January 2019

Putting pen to paper, minor birding and some music

You have probably already gathered that I am finding blogging no easier in 2019. I very nearly wound the whole thing up on the 6th January actually, the post was set to auto-publish, but after New Year I had a sudden change of heart. I'm not convinced I made the right decision. 

Anyhow, I did nip out on Saturday to enjoy a short amount of birding while one of the kids did Park Run. It was mildly successful given the 30 minute timeframe - a Skylark over the brooms, and the pair of Stonechat that eluded me on my first outing were knocking about near Capel Road. This puts me on 63 for the year but in all honesty I have not been trying very hard - plenty of other things have been diverting my attention. 

Big Garden Birdwatch for starters, which unsurprisingly was dominated by sodding Parakeets, although not the largest number I have ever had. Feeders without protection go down at the rate of about 3 inches a day. As with all of these events I've recorded over the years, none of the good stuff turned up. Coal Tit for example, and Jackdaw, both of which are otherwise regular. I did get a House Sparrow though which rarely happens. Because I've not really gone out anywhere I've spent more time than usual watching the garden. Nothing particularly exciting, but I have noticed a subtle change in bird behaviour as from about a fortnight ago. Blackbirds for instance suddenly appeared and started chasing each other around the place. This week the changes have been led by the local Dunnocks, many of which have started singing. It may not feel like it, with snow last week and more forecast, but it's a reminder that ornithological spring has started. It's even possible that the first northbound Wheatears are setting off.....

I'm getting ahead of myself. We still have a difficult month of no birds ahead of us. Luckily I have been so slack that there are still things to find before it gets interesting again. Now where did I leave that Fieldfare?

As an aside, I have been listening to the following song a lot. Love Knopfler and his lack of ego, could watch him effortlessly play guitar for hours, and his partner on this track is Ruth Moody from the Wailin' Jennys. I discovered it randomly at the weekend via a random "play Mark Knopfler" command to She Who Must Not Be Named, somehow I missed the album completely. What a lovely voice she has, it has been on repeat. Today I watched the video. Birders take note....

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Chateau L and the planet: Part I

Our family life is largely centred around meals around the dining table. That’s where we gather, where we share the day, where we discuss the news and tell each other stories. There are no TV dinners in our house, there is no grab and go. Despite our busy schedule we always try and make time for this daily event. It’s something I hope our kids will take forward – how do families spend time together if they don’t do this? Topics of conversation are varied. We talk about Trump, we talk about Brexit, we talk about school, books, things we heard on the radio. We talk about family. We talk about holidays, books, music and food. I try and talk about birds and plants….. There are few taboos, a few nights ago for example we ended up talking about FGM. There is no shying away from things like this, it is best that kids are informed, and actually you would be surprised at how early school’s start sex education and a number of other things under a banner they call “citizenship”. Our kids are exposed to a broad palette.

As I mentioned to in my last post, one topic that we talk a lot about is the environment. Like many of you I have been reading some very very sobering things about the state of the planet. Our family is not a wasteful one, but neither are we saints. Also, I suspect, like many there was a pervading and overriding thought of “What difference can we make, nobody else bothers, why should we?”, and certainly if you have ever visited America it is enough to make you wonder why anybody bothers. In fact it makes you want to weep. But there are five of us, and the upshot is we think that we can do better. It requires some changes, but none of it is hard, and we think that we can make a small difference.  I feel faintly embarrassed and more than a little sanctimonious for even typing this, and I am not holding myself up as a shining beacon of sustainability, but I just felt that if I outlined a few easy things that we have started to do then maybe it would encourage others to do the same. No doubt some will say “Oh we have been doing that for years”, and if you have then that is great and you are ahead of us. Of course this will never be enough for the more radical members of the green movement, but in my opinion it isn’t the full-on eco warriors who will drive the change that is needed. It’s the thousands upon thousands of normal families like ours, living normal working lives, who en masses can help to stem the tide. I already wrote about changing our diet, but what else? Well, what about energy use?
  • Gas. We already changed our energy supplier last year to one that only uses green energy, waving goodbye to the big national supplier that we had used for years but that ultimately is not doing enough. If sufficient people make that conscious choice then things will change. In doing so we lost our smart meter which is a bit of a shame and means we can no longer see our real-time energy use. But we do have one of those supposedly intelligent thermostats, and after Christmas I went onto the app and reduced the temperature at all points in the day by a full 2 degrees. It is noticeably colder in the house, but it is also noticeable that the boiler is not on as much. Obviously this is variable depending on the weather outside, but all things being equal our gas consumption should drop. Also as of last year Chateau L has a new boiler, replacing one that was at least 15 years old. Whilst our motivation for this wasn’t reduced consumption, it is a fact that it is significantly more efficient than the old one.
  • Electricity. I wasn’t sure about this as it seems that ever more things require a power supply these days. Several mobile phones need charging nearly every day for instance, and all those smart-home devices that we simply didn’t have two years ago are in an “always on” state. With our smart meter gone it is a lot harder to see what we’re using, but there are some good stats on the internet on exactly how much this constant stand-by uses. An Amazon Echo Dot for instance, of which we have several, draws a constant 1.7-3W of power. A smart hub used to control lights draws 1.5W. I dutifully added up all of these various devices that are now dotted around Chateau L and discovered that over a year they use 170KwH – about £20 - simply from being plugged in, and it’s actually not much more if they’re actually being used, playing music etc. That’s actually a lot better than I thought but nonetheless it’s an increase versus where we were. Luckily there are all sorts of things that go the other way – if you wanted to make a change the easiest of these is LED light bulbs. I don’t know how many lights the average house has but after the renovation and turret extension Chateau L has 78 (I actually counted!), and nearly every single one of these is now an LED. Previously we had a mix of halogen, CFL, fluorescent tubes and ancient filaments, albeit that we had half as many lights. The big difference is that the new rooms have lots of LED downlights in the ceilings, but despite this increase the overall wattage of bulbs in the house is 20% of what it was. I find that incredible, image how much energy people wasted in the past! I’ve had a go at working out what our real-life usage does to this, a relatively detailed estimate of what we used prior to the building work but with older style bulbs, versus what we use now including the extra rooms but with LED bulbs. I think that annually we have dropped from around 825KwH to 275KwH, saving around £75. That may not sound a lot but it easily eclipses the increase associated with the various smart devices. And the benefit of smart devices is that I can turn off anything that has been accidentally left on with just a tap on my phone no matter where I am - no more lights left on all day. Each house and each family living in it is different, I’ve only looked at lighting and smart devices here, and of course switching out all the old bulbs for new comes at a manufacturing cost. That said LEDs seem to go on forever whereas I was frequently having to change those supposedly long-life bulbs. I propose to not even venture down that road - one thing I have learned over the last few weeks is that working out any kind of totally accurate view of any one person’s overall impact on this earth is practically impossible. There is plenty more to have a look at as well.
  • Petrol. For a long time we had two cars. For the last two years though we have only had one, and that does not get used very often or go very far. For instance I no longer engage in twitching, nor any kind of year-listing other than locally on foot. In fact now that I think about it my UK birding is about as carbon neutral as it could possibly be. Unfortunately we still need a car, or rather it would be inconvenient not to have one immediately available. I am giving thought to getting rid of it though, mainly for economic reasons, and especially as so many other options are coming online all the time. For now we’re keeping it, but fundamentally buses, trains and tubes are the way we all get around on a daily basis. Bicycles would be better, especially for Mrs L and I. She however cycles when the weather is nice, whereas I am just far too lazy always injured in some way that prevents exercise.
So that concludes part one of this essay. Part two is on the way. I ended up writing so much I felt that people might give up before I finished so I've split it into two. After that normal service will resume as I still haven't seen a Fieldfare this year....

Sunday, 13 January 2019

What have I started?

Over Christmas the residents of Chateau L spent a lot of time together. When we are together we chat - the topics are wide and varied, and sometimes I even get to talk about plants and birds. One of the things we talked about was the environment - this is a house where we are all fairly conscious of about the state of the planet, because we follow current affairs and we are interested in nature. As we talked about the dire state of affairs, we realised that the five of us could do a lot better. Not that we were bad particularly, but there is always something that can be improved. 

We are starting with meat. Now our intention is not to become vegan as appears to be all the rage, nor even vegetarian, however having done some basic research on the impacts of certain foods versus others it is clear that red meat is the single most environmentally unfriendly foodstuff around - beef leads the way closely followed by lamb. Unfortunately it’s also really convenient – when you get home from work at 7pm whipping up a chilli con carne or similar is an easy option. We probably did this twice a week, though other types of red meat were very rare. No longer. We’ve invested in a couple of vegetarian cookbooks and as a family gone through them to see what we might like that seems easy and tasty – in short there are loads. What we are not going to do is go with any substitutes – quorn, tofu and their ilk are all out. Pointless to try and pretend, instead we’re going to base dishes on actual vegetables.

Last week we had a carrot biryani, a mushroom risotto using orzo, and a dish based on lentils, which means we haven’t bought or eaten something approaching 1.5kg of beef – that will soon add up. The biryani was excellent and got the thumbs up from all five of us. The risotto however,…… well we’re probably not going to have that as often. However this morning when we were planning the shopping for the week ahead I realised that Mrs L is really getting into this - four out of five meals next week seem to be vegetarian. This is was not what I thought I was getting myself into! I expect I will survive, but just to let prospective veggies out there that it appears to be a slippery slope. 

Reducing meat consumption was actually just one of the things we decided we would do, but I'm already feeling overly sanctimonious for one day, and the last thing I would want people to think is that I am a saint. Nonetheless watch this space - when I've run out of birdy things to write about I might turn to the other seven or so changes. Oh, wait.....

Saturday, 12 January 2019

January Accumulation

In a break from tradition this post is going to be about birds. It is January, and this means local birding is exciting again. Kind of. Like many birders who have local patches, for me the start of the new year heralds the start of new year list - I can happily wander around seeing exactly the same birds that I see every year. The excitement is palpable, the competition has started again! 

It is all pointless. Whether I have seen 50 birds, 60, or even 70 by the end of January is completely irrelevant. These are the birds that I will see no matter what, I would have to be blind to miss them. But somehow this does not stop me seeking out the more obscure bits of the Park to find a Siskin, or to spend inordinate amounts of time in Bush Wood in search of Treecreeper. I am a fool, but a happy one.

Last weekend I had no blogging urges to speak off, so this year's fine start has gone unrecorded in internetland. However towards the top of this page you will see a shiny new link to "Wanstead 2019" which details each and every magnificent completely expected and regular sighting so far. Last weekend Tony and I mopped up most of what was available on the Flats. There were of course notable exceptions - could we find a Skylark or Stonechat? No we could not. We also paid our annual visit to Bush Wood, where we found Nuthatch and Firecrest in short order, but of Treecreeper there was no sign. We then took a quick spin around the Park, adding Teal, Little Egret and Green Woodpecker. Adding to the birds I'd seen out of the window on the New Year's Day, I ended that first proper outing on 54 species which is decidedly average - sometimes I get more than that on the first day. 

I am not as keen as I once was, in fact some may describe me as more than a little jaded - by many things, not just birding. However a week at work tends to help build up the necessary level of enthusiasm to get out there, for fresh air if nothing else. So this morning I was up nice and early and found myself in Bush Wood for the second time this year. It will also be the last time, as happily I found the missing Treecreeper quite quickly near the dried up pond. In fact I found two, which bodes well for their continued presence in our area. Flush with early success I made my way over to Chalet Wood. This proved the perfect comedown, with zero sign of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and ten trillion out of control dogs running amok whilst their owners emitted a variety of pathetic and useless cries which were roundly ignored. Also sighted on my tour were Water Rail on Shoulder of Mutton, a pleasing 51 Teal on Heronry plus a fly-by Kingfisher, 8+ Siskin in the Dell, and a Great Crested Grebe on Perch. If you are interested in knowing where all these locations are, the map is here. If you are not that's fine too.

This places me on 61 for the year. I would describe this as 'getting there'. Significant misses so far include Pochard, Kestrel and Fieldfare, as well as the birds mentioned above. The thrill of seeking these out cannot be understat.....

Vista management in the Park. This used to be a nice tangle that birds could rest up in, safe and out of sight. Maybe one day the Corporation of London will plant something rather than just chopping it all down?

Thursday, 10 January 2019

A People's Manifesto for Wildlife in Wanstead

There is a talk at the Wanstead Golf Club on 30th January - all welcome. One of the local birders here, Rob "Treecreeper" Sheldon, will give a presentation and buy everyone drinks*. If you are a lover of green spaces in our area you should make sure you are there. Thanks.

* He won't, but there is a bar.

Friday, 4 January 2019

A short history of me and computer games

Writing a bird blog automatically disqualifies a person from being a geek, everyone knows that. However I can honestly say that over the last few days I have had as much fun as I can remember recalling days of nerdiness – before this blog came along, obviously. I was inspired to write this by watching a film on a plane, and subsequently reading a book I got for Christmas – Ready Player One, a glorious dive into 80s Pop Culture. Music, film and video games. Primarily the latter. If you are about my age I cannot recommend it highly enough, and watching it at home with the family yesterday evening perhaps gave them hints of my childhood and indeed early adulthood.

In 1980 I turned five, so the first half of that decade rather passed me by in terms of pop culture. However by the end of the decade I was a fully fledged teenager, and the subject matter of the film was my era. Now although I was quite a peculiar teenager, particularly when it came to music (think Tallis, Bach and Beethoven…), I did play computer games. Not many back then, as my parents were quite anti-computer and felt my time was better spent studying (bor-ing!), so initially I played at my friends’ houses – formative years with two buddies called Nick and Stuart. However at some point my lot relented, and so in about 1987 I was allowed to buy an Acorn Electron. I would have been around 12 years old. It was second hand, bought out of the local rag, and came with a tape recorder and a bag of cassettes. Looking at it now it is almost comic, but back then, wowsers! I also managed to get hold of a tiny tiny black and white TV. I was set! 

My pride and joy would have looked much like this

Once switched on and plugged into the TV you got two lines of text.

Acorn Electron



Then you had to load a game. That’s where the tape recorder came in. For those of you struggling with the concept of a cassette tape, it was how people once listened to music and predated the CD. Spotify? Hah! A game came on a tape. You loaded it up by typing something after the command prompt symbol and then playing the tape – all sorts of strange noises and hisses would come out, similar to what you hear if you dial a fax number by mistake, and meanwhile hexadecimal numbers would count up on the screen. You could go off for a wander, a bike ride, play a game of football, whatever, and when you came back it would almost certainly have failed. But the point was that it had loaded at least some of it, so you could wind back the tape to approximately where you thought it had fallen over, restart from there, and go on another bike ride. Eventually it would complete, and your game would start.

If you had asked me last week what games I had played on it I would have been able to name just two. Chuckie Egg and Elite. But having spent the last week stuck indoors and having researched the limited number of titles that were then available I have now filled in all the blank spaces that I vaguely recalled. Given this is nearly 30 years ago, I am astonished that mere screenshots of these ancient pixelated relics invoke such strong emotions in me. That castle game I could never ever finish was called “Citadel”, goddamit that was hard! I dread to think how many hours I devoted to that, all in ultimate failure. Chuckie Egg I completed several times, and I still remember the day I finished Commando. What an achievement!

The best game was Elite of course. A space simulator! You flew a ship from star system to star system (all identical, graphically), buying low and selling high, and fighting off space pirates! The graphics were terrible of course, but actually versus the awful 2D blocks that made up all other games I had ever seen, the “3D” wire-frame representation of various space ships was incredible. Along the way you could upgrade your weapons and armour, and gradually you moved away from being cannon fodder…..Harmless, Mostly Harmless, Poor, Average, Above Average, Competent, Dangerous, Deadly, ….Elite!  I can remember that rank progression all these years later. In fact I can still remember individual system names where I spent most time bounty-hunting pirates – Riedquat. The ship, a Cobra Mark III, well I reckon could draw its wire frame today, blindfolded. Fond, fond memories.

In about 1988 Nick or Nick’s Dad, a Cambridge Academic, got a PC. A real computer. You didn’t even plug it into the TV, it came with an enormous monochrome monitor. My dad had a typewriter. I didn’t quite move in with Nick but I spent a huge amount of time there. We alternated between playing an amazing tank game called M1 Tank Platoon, and building a very complex tank out of Lego. As only 15 year olds could we accidentally left it on an opened velux window one day as we went downstairs for some lunch, and then closed the window when we came back upstairs, and well that was rather sad. After that we concentrated just on the game. If I recall we also played Sid Meier’s SimEarth, and a pirate-based game as well. His family found bits of Lego in the garden for years afterwards. 

Hours of fun!

Computers were banned in my house until about 1991 when I finished my GCSEs. I think I had an Amstrad Word Processor that was almost entirely incapable of doing anything fun with and thus got my parents’ seal of approval. Possibly as a result my grades were not actually that bad. I got into the town's best sixth form college, and was allowed to buy a proper computer, a mighty Intel 286 processor home-build with a 256 colour VGA monitor!  Cassette tapes were long gone, and I now had a 5.25 inch floppy disk drive. Better than that, I had a 20 *mega*byte hard disk. This was a double height 5.25 inch format, ie about the size of four house bricks! I could store loads! These days of course you can get thousands of times that amount of storage in something the size of your fingernail for about a tenner, but back then hard disk drives were pretty new technology. It ran Windows 3.1, and had a mouse, an incredible novelty. The world was now my oyster! I learned from a neighbour how the different components of a home computer went together, and as funds allowed gradually replaced and upgraded bits of it. Naturally I went and bought games to play on it in glorious technicolour. The tank game obviously (a stunning palette of about 4 greens), but new titles that my now zippy 386 DX-40 machine could run easily were being released all the time, plus all the older ones I needed to catch up on! SimCity and Space Rogue I remember being excellent, as well as rise of the first person shooters like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom, but the ones that really stuck in my mind were the role-playing adventure ones. You know, wizards, elves and dragons. Eye of the Beholder, Shadow Sorcerer and the Ultima series which by then was on about its fifth installment. Reading about these over the last few days I am amazed at how much I remember of them, especially the character names and maps from the Ultima Games. I must have got really into them as when I saw screenshots of them earlier this week they brought the memories flooding back.

For some reason my A level predictions were not very good, and I was forced to delay my university application by a year. My parents, both in the teaching profession, despaired. I was just a teenager and was bewildered by their angst, but looking back I must have really put them through the wringer. I don’t exactly recall if my computer got confiscated, but whilst I didn’t quite turn a corner it was a least quite a sharp bend and my actually results ended up being much better. Not as good as perhaps I was capable of, but enough to get me to a decent university. Of course this was for the following year, 1994, as all the places for the coming year had been allocated based on predicted grades. I had 15 months of no academic work, which meant…..

Of course, looking back on it all, I wish I had had the foresight to have just gone birding instead, but it is rare that teenagers have this kind of wisdom and I did not buck that trend. I didn’t just sit in a darkened room and play games though. I went to France for nearly a year to work in a Cognac factory. I gave multilingual tours of the cellars and information centre to tourists, and worked on one of the bottling lines with the engineering department. My French, already good, went up several notches, and I didn’t touch a single computer during my entire time there. Once back home however I was reunited with my PC, or at least whilst I wasn't working. I had two jobs, a breakfast shift at a university canteen, a day shift in a central admin office, and then an evening shift back at the canteen. There were always nights however, and now that I had some money I rebuilt it into a 486 DX2-66, which literally flew. I got little sleep, and caught up on all the games I had missed. I remember titles like Myst, Day of the Tentacle, Simcity 2000, and most of all devoting hours to Frontier Elite 2, the much anticipated remake of Elite nearly a decade after the puny BBC Micro and Acornsoft versions. I also remember being devastated that all my hours of efforts led to nothing when the main plot line turned out to be a bug-ridden game-ending flop.

Anyway, university started. And what do students do at university? Yes, they drink and they, er, do other things, but what else? Yes that’s right, they play computer games! Now to be fair there was a lot going on at university, wooing Mrs L for starters, and so during my first year there computers barely got a look in. I am sure there is no correlation, but my first year went very well academically and romantically. During my second year, off campus and in a shitty house (think The Young Ones) in a crappy town in Surrey, computers came back. It was around then that multi-player gaming first started to make an appearance, or at least that we found out about it. To manage it you had to buy a special serial cable and physically place two computers close enough together to attach it, but our student house contained more than one geek, including a computer scientist for whom this stuff came very naturally, and so hours of fun were had playing Doom, Quake etc. And all away from pesky meddling parents! Civilization II, UFO Enemy Unknown,  X-COM, Duke-Nukem….

Second year results were not quite as good as year one, again a total mystery, but at least this had the benefit of concentrating the mind for Finals which counted for a lot more. I don’t recall playing any computer games at all until I had finished my exams. This was probably for the best, as Mrs L and I got identical degrees thus eliminating any “I did better than you” conversations for all time, and I also improbably equalled my father’s grade. This has helped enormously to stem any parental criticism of my academic record. Instead they concentrate on my hobbies. And my weight. However it does put my own children under severe pressure in the coming years Then again, they don’t play computer games at all, we don’t have any consoles and never have, and nor do they watch TV (and despite all my screen time, neither did I and I still don’t), so they’ll probably be fine. Anyhow, then I went of travelling, and then I started work.

In those early days, Mrs L worked as an auditor for a multinational, which meant she was frequently abroad all week. Rather than go out drinking or frequent seedy establishments, I simply looked after my plants and played computer games after work. The biggest revelation was Baldur’s Gate, a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s adventure that was identical to the pen and paper version I had played with my mates many years before. It is difficult to put into words but although I was in my early twenties it was as if my childhood had started again. You are probably imagining a long-haired greasy oik emerging red-eyed from the house every morning, but despite everything I’ve written above I mostly defy the stereotypes that go along with ‘gamer’. I loved playing them – also from that era were SimCity 3000, The Elder Scrolls III and IV, Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dal, Neverwinter Nights and X2 The Threat – and I am sure if I ever played them again I could reasonably clearly remember the plots and hidden twists, secret chambers and so on for most of them, but I was never a true hardcore gamer. I’m sure I’ve wasted hours over the years, hours that could have fruitfully been used elsewhere, but those hours were only ever a distraction rather than defining. As I mentioned above, and indeed several times previously, I wish I’d discovered the pleasures of local birding a lot earlier, but it is all part of growing up and dare I say it, life.

I’ve played two computer games in the last 10 years. Just two. Birding, children, even more chlorophyll-based enthusiasm, travel and photography have all taken over. I very much enjoyed a game called Skyrim for a few months back in about 2012 , and then more recently, and fittingly 30 years after the original Elite was released running on computers with 16kb of memory, an all singing all dancing remake was released called Elite Dangerous. It was indeed dangerous, and for a while I became addicted. Then again I never do anything half-heartedly. However it was just too big, too vast, and every few months they released more and more content to the extent that unless you were prepared to devote your entire life to the game it became pointless remaining involved with it. It was online, what they call a massively multiplayer online game or MMO. These are as I understand it all the rage, and whilst this one was a thing of beauty – both graphically and conceptually  - for me it was too big, and I let it go.

Skyrim, released around 2011, was a visual feast

I don’t think anyone will ever die wishing that they had spent more time playing computer games. As the creator of the online world in Ready Player One says at the end of the film immediately after quoting Groucho Marx, [only] reality is real. They are however very much a part of modern life, and like the premise of the film, to see how they have developed from almost their earliest days (I missed those by a few years) is quite fascinating, and I had forgotten how fascinating until just now. Chunky square monochrome graphics to practically movie-like sequences in the space of a generation. The novel/film of course also reference movies and a great many other genres and eras, and each person who watches it will come away with something different that will trigger a memory, or a series of memories. This is mine. My kids enjoyed it hugely, my youngest wanted to know when the VR technology would be available for her to use – she clearly views her current reality as far too dull!

Anyway, apologies for starting the year with a distinctly non-birdy post. I never quite know what, if anything, I am going to end up typing, but I’ve spent many hours over the last few days completely nerding out and felt I needed to share. By all means let me know if you too enjoyed any of the games I mentioned, or just if you were out birding like a sensible and wholesome child.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

A slow start

I have yet to set foot on the patch this year, the day I look forward to most keenly came and went with me having all the energy of a limp leaf of lettuce. I managed a few birds out of the chateau windows on the 1st, and a few more on the commute the following day, but when I tell you I have not seen a Mallard in 2019 that probably tells you all you need to know.

If I still have any lung function by the time this weekend arrives then hopefully I can put this right and get out on my beloved Wanstead Flats to wish Happy New Year to all its avian residents (and possibly some of the human ones too). In the meantime, with my list on a mere 21 and feeling like death warmed up, I bid the same to you. 

This was #2 on the list this year, still stuffing itself daily with peanuts that cost £3 a kilo. I would happily go back to down to 20 if it would just piss off and never come back.