Sunday 31 March 2019

Patch Garganey!

Compounding the loss of an hour's sleep, I was also rudely awakened this morning by Rob S who had found a male Garganey on Jubilee. This is a properly rare bird round here, my only previous record was in 2009 and most of my fellow patch-workers needed it. In short it would have been poor not to go and share in their warm post-twitch glow. As I live closer than most of them I arrived very quickly, only Marco beat me on his bike, which put me in prime position to witness their final desperate runs to get a clear view. First Nick, then Richard (although compared to the Thrush Nightingale he was practically comatose!), Tim, and finally James, to whom the prize must go for sheer panic and yearning. Luckily the whole team got it with the exception at the time of writing of Tony who we were unable to raise from his slumbers. It was very skittish indeed and I only had a small camera, but what a lovely bird. I went back a little later to have another go with something a bit larger....

Thursday 28 March 2019

Joshua Tree encounter

On the way to Bryce Canyon from Las Vegas we were on the lookout for anything that might make for a decent photograph with the setting sun as a backdrop. On any photography expedition the first day is always a challenge. You forget important things as you refamiliarise yourself with your gear, but really it is inspiration and artist talent that is normally lacking. We had a few hours to get over that hump and hopefully start our first full day in the right frame of mind.

Driving through the semi-desert landscape I began to perceive familiar shapes. Shapes I had never seen but that were burned in my subconscious. Joshua Trees. I am a big fan of spiky plants - cycads, agaves, aloes and yuccas, and the Joshua Tree, named by Mormon settlers, is one of the latter. Yucca brevifolia to be precise. I had never seen one in habitat, indeed never even tried to grow one as I viewed it as pointless - they grow an inch per year in a narrow elevation band where California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona meet, and until they develop a trunk they look like quite a few other yuccas. Many people will have heard of Joshua Tree National Park east of L.A. in California, but actually the denser populations of trees are further north in the Mojave Preserve. I had not been expecting to find trees even further north than this, but here they undeniably were.

We pulled over as soon as a suitable way to get closer to the trees presented itself, and I fulfilled a long-held ambition. To cut to the chase they are extraordinary. The trunks are covered in the old leaf bases, and the green spheres of live growth are completely unyielding with pungent spines. Tree-huggers beware, these are a fabulous example of evolution at work, completely at ease in the landscape, ancient sentinels keeping watch. We stuck around until the sun set behind the clouds, enthralled.

Monday 25 March 2019

Birding interlude

Quick update on the birding front – this Saturday was a very enjoyable time to be out on Wanstead Flats. Unfortunately I met up with Tony only after he had had Woodcock, but we then recorded an extremely early House Martin, two Sand Martins, and last but by no means least a Wheatear.  A genuine pleasure as always, even if it did do a vanishing act immediately. With luck there will be many more. We then had a mini-raptor fest at Alex - Buzzard, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite were all seen in a single ten minute period mid-morning. The first Blackcaps were in song, and I had picked up Chiffchaff in the week, so my languishing year list now looks a little more respectable. If I can get up in the mornings and get out there, it could increase by more – but this means getting up at 5.30am, at least this week until the clocks change. And per my previous post, I am not sure I can manage that!

Coming up, Utah....

Sunday 24 March 2019

Circadian rythyms

In my younger days I could happily stay up until 1am and then bounce out of bed feeling completely normal only a few hours later. Things have changed, and not for the better. I find that I now need at least eight hours a night in order to wake up feeling normal. This has required going to bed at around 10pm. Raging gales aside, this gives me a solid 8-9 hours. The last few weeks have been rather busy, and rather than being all tucked up nice and early I find myself going to bed a little later than I would like. The trouble is that I appear to be pre-programmed to wake up at about 6am no matter what time I actually go to bed, and without that eight hour sleep I am absolutely shattered. I was hoping that I could force myself to cope with less sleep and that after a while I would get used to it. Nope.

Saturday night this week was a case in point. I couldn't sleep as I had an annoying cough. Instead I lay in bed watching Marvel's Agent's of Shield - pathetic but addictive american guff. Probably a mistake but there you go. Once I put that down I had a full hour of still not being able to sleep and the last time I looked at the clock it was about 1am. Excellent. At least it was the weekend. I awoke at 6am with five hours under my belt and feeling dreadul, snuck another hour in to see if that helped (not really) and finally dragged myself up and out onto the patch by about 8am thereby missing finding the year's first Wheatear. Sunday night was more or less a repeat, and so I started the week feeling less than tip top by some margin.

I am assuming it is an age-related thing. As I approach my 45th year on this planet, am I finally slowing down? Or is this a message to slow down? I mean, it's a bit early isn't it? Imagine when I'm 50. Or 60? Or even older! I'll be sleeping 18 hours a day, at which point, well, what's the point?

Anyway, I clearly need to get back to the 10pms, even if this means that I basically get in from work, grab a bite to eat, crack through the to-do list for an hour or so and then retire. There is just so little time, and I really need those extra hours to do all sorts of things that will otherwise not get done. Blogging is one of them - that was traditionally a late evening activity once all the important stuff like watering plants and organising holidays got done. Now that I think about it my increased sleep needs have probably contributed to my dearth of posts. Now if I didn't have to go to work it would be a whole different story, but sadly and in the absence of miracles that appears to be a very long way off!

Friday 22 March 2019


Very little makes me apoplectic with rage. Our politicians however....

I loathe online petitions. I would nonetheless urge anyone in the UK who does not want Brexit to happen to sign this one.


It is now at over 3.5 million signatories, and without a doubt will be ignored regardless of how many it gets. But when the time comes to throw out our current 'democratic' representatives it can be another charge to level against them. I hope that time comes soon.

On the same topic, if you are the marching kind then there is a demo in London tomorrow. 12pm Park Lane, and from there to Westminster. Just so you know, the last one was enormous and roundly ignored. Apparently the only democratic decisions that carry any weight are ones that are three years old. However I think the winds of change are starting to blow. This lot have had it - from both sides - and the public will not forgive them. This is not the 'will of the people', or what 'by far the majority' wants. There are still many people who, despite the facts, still genuinely want out of Europe for reasons known only to themselves. I think that casual xenophobia and a fear of the future accounts for a large part of that. Thousands upon thousands of people of people will tomorrow reject that small mindedness. 

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