Tuesday 31 March 2020

Home schooling

Given the advanced age of many birders, having children living at home may not be something that many of you can relate to, or at least not any longer. However for those younger readers who visit these pages, it is quite likely that like me you will have children of school age. It is also quite likely that the schools that they go to are currently closed, and many children are now enjoying an extended summer holiday that stretches out to September. 

Six months of no school! I imagine that for many kids this new state of affairs has been received extremely positively, with possibly the opposite reaction from their parents! Goodbye maths, science, tests, exams, homework and pressure. Hello Playstation, online gaming, Netflix, sleeping until midday and a carefree existence.

Not in this house.

My poor children. Mrs L is a teacher and has access to all sorts of online resources. Before the kids' own teachers could react and start setting work via email, Mrs L had structured a home-schooling regime with ruthless efficiency. Weekdays would follow the same timetable as previously - if Charlotte had a maths lesson at 9am on a Tuesday morning at school, then that's what she will be doing at 9am on a Tuesday morning in Chateau L. 

I too have played my part. The house has been transformed. Forseeing the upcoming education crisis I invested in a new desktop computer, additional memory for the existing one, a further monitor, and, as our wi-fi is so poor, enough ethernet cable to wire up the international space station. An old television that was due to go to relatives has been repurposed as another computer monitor, and my laptop with the cracked screen is now hooked up to that in what used to be our living room. The new computer is in the front room and has been hard-wired into the router and the TV, and the upgraded old computer with the new screen has been set up in the guestroom on the basis that that we won't be welcoming any guests for a while.

There are no excuses. Gradually we are getting things set by the school that the girls can be getting on with, and we imagine that after the Easter "holiday" that this will become more formal. For Henry it is slightly different - it is (or rather, was) his GCSE year, and so on that front there is nothing forthcoming and his grades will instead be decided by his mock exams last year and some measure of teacher-defined progress. So instead we've been looking at some of his chosen A-level subjects, as well as essay writing. In other words unremitting fun. All of this is being supplemented by online language courses that we have signed back up to, and grandparents with subject expertise have been pressed into service via Skype and Zoom. This keeps the old folk occupied as well, and you never know, it might stop them going out on "essential" shopping trips for newspapers....

But that is not all. It is important that children become familiar with some of the more practical elements of school subjects. Theory is all well and good, but it is the application of this in real life which I find really engages young people. So far I have set some chemistry, whereby the children examined the effect of certain compounds on stubborn household stains, and there have been numerous lessons on textiles. Further down the line I have lots of biology fieldwork planned, and if we get some nice weather they may also be able to participate in some outdoor-based art classes in the close vicinity of the shed.

They'll be running back to school when all this is over.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Dressing Gown Birding

I've ditched my red camo hat. Indeed almost all my outdoor clothing is now mothballed for the forseeable future. I am probably not the only one - if people are being sensible this is probably happening up and down the land. Instead a new birding wardrobe is coming into fashion. Enter the dressing gown. Expect there to be a best-selling "Birders in their Dressing Gowns" calendar released later this year, complete with optics. Who wants to be Mr. April?

Beige and boring. Like me.

This highly versatile bit of kit is an essential #BWKM0 item that birders cannot afford to be without. Mine is beige and, like its wearer, has seen better days. In recent days it has been seeing a lot more use - I am not normally a slobbing around the house all day kind of person. It has become my go-to birding attire from the bedroom/observatory, and with apologies to my neighbours, also features quite heavily out on the balcony in the mornings.

Bright and early today I was out again and wrapped up in it again. A stiff breeze was blowing and I was glad of the extra warmth that it provided. The first new bird for the lockdown list was a Grey Heron, pretty regular around here but mysteriously absent these past few days. And just as that had stopped flopping around, the whole reason for me being out on the balcony flew past - a flock of about 20 seeping Redwing headed north. All before 7am, lockdown birding at its finest and takes me to the giddy heights of 45.

What I need now is a change in the weather. Specifically I either need a very very still day, or a gentle wind that blows from the south. In these conditions I can usually pick up the distant trills of the Skylarks on Wanstead Flats, and during the night, the Coots on Jubilee Pond. 

Saturday 28 March 2020

Lockdown listing

I admit that I am partial to a list. Following various advice that the abandonment of lists can lead to a healthier state of mind, I have been trying to wean myself off keeping any this year, preferring just to record what I see on eBird without any real effort at counting anything. I have not noticed much if any change in my mental outlook, but I neither have I been missing it. Perhaps the best that can be said is that I have mostly proven to myself that listing is superfluous to my enjoyment of birding. 

Well thanks a lot Coronavirus. 

As the lockdown progresses and more and more birders are stuck at home with nothing to do, the internet has become a hive of garden-listing activity under the hashtag of #BWKM0. Bird Watching Kilometre Zero, as opposed to the 5KM radius or similar. The bird information services have been getting into the spirit too, and rather than publishing news of rarities, instead garden firsts up and down the land are being shared and celebrated. Cormorants. Greylags. Rooks. This is what is all about, and of course I could not resist.

I started on Monday, the first official day of lockdown. I'm working from home and am more or less constantly on the phone during these troubled times. I have always been a bit of a pacer, even in the office, and so I find myself walking from window to window and having a look at what is outside. My step counter says I have walked nearly a mile each day, mostly in very small circles.

Chateau L underwent some battlement renovations a couple of years ago and the whole of the roof space is now a large room with fantastic views to the south-west and north-east. If I stick my head out of the windows or stand on the balcony I can also look due north and south. The only blind spots are those created by the other houses in the terrace and I can still see over their roofs, in fact I reckon I can see very nearly the full 360 degrees of the horizon with a little bit of effort. The best views are to the south-west where there is an unimpeded view of sky, and this is where most of my sightings come from.

Large patches of sky are critical for any decent garden list. Were my list restricted to what I saw actually in the garden, it would be something like 30. As it is over the years it has risen to 83 through sporadic sessions and lucky breaks. I've lived here for 16 years so this isn't very impressive, but I have high hopes for what the lockdown of eight hours a day seven days a week may bring, especially at this time of year. I've already had only my second ever Little Egret, spotted yesterday to the north-east as I was on a call about the upcoming changes to central counterparty regulations. There have also been four Red Kites through, double figures of Buzzards, and also yesterday a very jammy three Fieldfare - a bird I had not managed to see all winter even out on Wanstead Flats.

So there is now a little competition amongst the east London birders, with a sub-division for the local Wanstead patchlisters. This is the kind of thing that helps in these crazy times, that promotes solidarity, interaction and a sense of society, and I'm delighted to be involved, even if it does mean keeping a list again. I've started a new tab (up at the top of this page if on a computer) to keep track of what I've seen, which is now 43, and there are a few gimmes still missing. I wonder if there is still time to squeeze in a late Redwing? I've had quite a few sightings into early April so I would expect so. Might require some nocmig....

Thursday 26 March 2020

The great vegetable gap

We have been proponents of online food shopping for quite some time. In fact that visit to Tesco's the other day was probably the first time anyone in our family has visited a local supermarket for well over a year. We don't have a regular weekly delivery, we just order as and when. Sometimes that might not be for over a week, other times that might be twice a week, it just depends on how many people are home or whether we have guests etc. It has been laughably simple to set up and maintain, and has resulted in lower food bills due to an almost complete lack of compulsive "bargain" purchases.

Then along came Coronavirus and our ability to get a delivery slot vanished overnight. In fact our ability to even log on to the website vanished. When we did finally manage to place an order that also subsequently vanished. And so we are about to enter the long dark vegetable gap of the soul.

The contents of our veg box are as follows:

- 1.2 Bell Peppers
- 3/4 of a bag of Salad
- A root of Ginger
- 3 sticks of Celery
- A bag of Carrots
- Some not so fresh Coriander

We are mostly vegetarian these days, and with five of us in the house having almost no fresh vegetables is actually really annoying. Unlike the rest of the UK we are not stock-pilers or panic buyers, so when our regular and reliable source of food that we don't even think about is suddenly pulled from under us we find ourselves a bit stuck. We don't have loads of tinned food in the cupboards, or a deep shelf of frozen veg. In fact we don't even have a potato in the house! That said scurvy is still a long way off, and we won't starve, but once we've made a carrot biryani and a pepper, ginger and coriander stir fry, the meals could start to get a little bland. Boiled rice anyone?

Our next delivery - fingers crossed - is still about a week away. To even place this required logging on at about 5am, and then getting bounced from virtual queue to virtual queue until around 11am when we were finally able to start placing items in our basket. This was by far the most exciting thing to have happened in Chateau L for several days and we all crowded around the computer. When the website returned a "bad gateway" error on the final click there was pandemonium! Fortunately the back button worked and when we retried it went through. I am ashamed to recount it but there were cheers. This is what we are reduced to. Half the world is hungry, people are dying of a killer virus, and we're upset about our Ocado order being a little bit problematic. When all this is over and things get back to normal, I wonder whether we will ever take things for granted in quite the same way. 

I hope we don't.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Drawbridge up

As with many castles Chateau L has a moat and a fully functioning drawbridge. We are a welcoming bunch and so normally the drawbridge is down. People come and go as they please, and it is only when we go on holiday and need the extra security that we raise it. And release the crocs, lions and so on. 

Right now the drawbridge is up and the portcullis down. And we, the residents, are behind it. This is most unusual, but then again we are in a very unusual situation. Like many, I am aggrieved that my life has been so disrupted. My holiday plans - and predictably there were loads - have been blown away in the blink of an eye. Israel, Argentina, Venice and Finland are all cancelled. A family trip to see my Grandmother in America in May will almost certainly go the same way and even now, in March, I am not remotely confident that a summer holiday to Croatia will go ahead. All my advance planning, all my squirrelling of air-miles and real money, all my research into nice things to do and see, all my mental bird lists. First world problems as they say, and very very selfish. I am also having to work from home on a permanent basis which I do not enjoy. I am one of the lucky ones though that can work from home, others have jobs where they cannot, or jobs that have simply evaporated into thin air. Imagine being in the hospitality trade right now, or being a hairdresser or taxi driver?

Now that we are officially in lockdown, which unfortunately was entirely predictable given the mass migrations to coastal beauty spots, national parks and second homes at the weekend, my thoughts are inevitably drawn to what I can do. And like many I pondered the Government statement on the rules and wondered where particular lines were drawn. In short, I wondered how I could bend them to my advantage, which is probably a natural reaction. 

My eyes lit up on the "you may exercise once a day" or whatever it said. Ah-hah! Right, once a day I will "exercise" on Wanstead Flats, and I will take binoculars as they would be lonely at home. Up until today I had not actually done this. I confess that on reflection I felt a little stupid birding even in a loose group on Saturday, even though we tried our best to remain six feet apart. This was before the lockdown of course, but it really hit home when something I read compared the possibility of sharing recently exhaled air, even outdoors, with that exhaled by vapers. How often do you seem to walk through a cloud of fruity air whilst out and about, even though the nearest e-smoker is some distance away? I think the problem with this virus lies in it being invisible and undetectable. It lulls us into a false sense of security. None of the gang were coughing on Saturday. Well, apart from Richard but he assures us that he's had it since before Coronavirus was a thing. Oh and Bob, but he is always coughing and has done for years. But we were all breathing....

I have been mulling over this since Saturday and this morning I decided to go out and see what it was like. By myself, just me. So with a spring in my step from three full days of not leaving the house, just before eight I trotted out onto Wanstead Flats for a spot of birding. Sorry, I mean exercise.

Good grief. Wrong decision! It was positively heaving for so early in the day. Dog walkers, joggers, walkers, cyclists....And me, contributing to the problem. As birders we tend to be well versed in actively avoiding people, but this took all my skill built up from years of practice. People seemingly made bee-lines for me. I found myself constantly dodging into copses, doing wide loops off the path, all while people out and about serenely carried on in straight lines. If you asked a resident of any of the major cities that this has so far affected what their view of a London "lockdown" is, you may be surprised at what you hear. We are useless, completely useless. Yes it is a big city, and yes there are not that many large open areas, but come on! If several million people go outside every morning for a nice stroll (including many who probably wouldn't normally even visit a park!) then far more draconian measures are just over the horizon.

So I find myself asking if I really need to go out in future. I know I want to, but do I actually need to? I can do my best to avoid people, but with the best will in the world it is virtually impossible in Wanstead, there are just too many people in too small a space. 

I think it comes down to this. The only guaranteed way of not catching COVID-19 is to stay home. This has the added benefit of also not transmitting it to anyone, just in case one of us actually already has it and does not know about it. We don't feel particularly vulnerable, but plenty of people we would normally see or meet might well be. As far as our family goes, I am the one who has undergone the most segregation from the fine citizens of London - my last trip on the tube was 13 days ago. But my kids were still in school only four days ago, as was Mrs L. They, and hence me too, are well in the infectious zone, but each day that goes by, each day that we can keep this up and remain symptom free is another day closer to safety and some semblance of peace of mind. If I can get up in time, I may do one further trial much much earlier in the morning in the hope of avoiding the new "rush hour", but what I am not going to do is reset the clock every day just to get a bit of birding in. It is just common sense and decency.

Drawbridge up, portcullis down.

Monday 23 March 2020

Keeping my distance

I have made sure to keep a healthy distance from humanity the last few days. I went out on Saturday morning to collect the Golden Wheatear Chalice, but that has been it. I was a little nervous if I'm honest, but how can you cancel something as big as Wanstead Wheatear Competition? A large crowd had gathered, at least eight people (decent distances apart), and after Tony had tossed the substantial trophy to me I made a short speech thanking my fellow birders etc, and then we went our separate ways. 

The birding was dreadful, nary a migrant in sight. A cold easterly was blowing, two months ago that might have seen some decent birds on the patch but in March it basically kills it. That said it is still early, the major arrivals are not for a week or so yet, there is plenty of time for the excitement to build. The big unknown is of course whether by then we will all be confined to our homes. It appears large segments of the UK population are treating the current crisis as a vacation, and doing all the things they would normally do on a nice bank holiday weekend. The photos of crowds at Snowdon and on beaches make you want to scream, and if a total lockdown does happen it will be because of idiotic behaviour like this.

Perhaps in anticipation of this birders are moving online. Various competitions and other forms of entertainment are beginning to spread across Twitter etc. I have yet to get involved, it is early days and I have plenty to be getting on with. For me this means pottering with plants and skywatching, both favourite activities that can be done at home. And home is currently where it is at. It is genuinely nice to have the whole family together and engaged in getting through this, and for me to hole up and devote my every waking hour to birding and communicating with other people about birding doesn't seem right. So for now everyone can expect me to be a bit distant.

So far so good at Chateau L. We had a lazy weekend spent mostly in the garden, if we are stuck here it is going to be our salvation. I busied myself with plants and having a big sort out after the winter. I can now get into my greenhouse again without needing to bend double, and gradually it will begin to open up and look decent again. Mrs L serviced all of our bicycles so that we can go on family bike rides, and the kids started transforming their rooms for an extended stint at home. Mrs L and I have our jobs, but for the kids it will be more difficult separating weekends from weekdays. To try and draw a clear boundary they are attempting to keep to their timetables, despite my stupid suggestions of what elements of housework could be dressed up to cover core elements of the curriculum. 

In the evenings we work out something to do en famille. Online quizzes are proving quite fun, particularly those ones that dump you on a google map and you have to work out where you are. We are treating ourselves to the occasional movie night, and I expect we will end up watching everything that David Attenborough has ever made. Board games and jigsaw puzzles are going to feature as we go on, and of course we all have our own projects to be getting on with. I'll be reading even more than I do already, and this is surely my opportunity to try and get to grips with drawing birds, something I have been threatening for a long time.

I think we are in this for the long haul, so stay sane and keep well. 

Saturday 21 March 2020

Fortress Chateau L

As from last night we're all at home on a permanent basis. No commuting, no offices, no school, just five people living on top of each other. I think there could be lots of positives - normally our family are so busy with one thing and another that it is rare that we spend any time together. That's not to say that there might not be some bumps along the way as we readjust to our new schedules, but on the whole I think this could actually be rather nice. Until we kill each other.

We're ready, or at least I think so. Mrs L has brought her desk chair back from work, and we've set up a work space in the spare room. I've bought a new computer, which we sort of needed anyway, as well as another screen for when e-learning kicks in. Other than that my panic buying has been limited to a 5L tin of olive oil from the local Turkish supermarket, 10kg of BBQ coals, and six more bottles of Rosé. If we are stuck in Chateau L over spring and summer there are some basic needs that need to be catered for. That is assuming we can actually get anything to put on the barbecue. If not, wine by itself will be perfectly acceptable.

Not everyone is as sensible as me however. I was forced to visit the local Tesco yesterday morning before work. Boots was not open and Mrs L needed some critical "right now" items that she had unfortunately not stockpiled, and I needed some hayfever tablets. The world has changed a lot recently, but I expect nobody has told the trees and grasses and they still plan on releasing a shed load of pollen right on time. I am a sufferer, particularly earlier in the season, and with endless birding on the horizon as there will be nothing else to do I needed to get a few weeks worth. 

I'd heard that supermarkets were carnage but nothing could have prepared me. The place was packed, the queues for the tills stretched in enormous snakes to the back of the shop. Many of the shelves were bare at 8am. A few lonely items sat in disarray whilst seemingly the whole of East London wheeled grossly overladen trolleys around looking for goods that may have escaped their frantic attention first time around. A few forlorn shoppers who had missed the boat scratched around looking for something, anything, that might provide sustenance. Fortunately for me the things we needed were just about still in stock (heaven forbid if I had wanted a tin of tomatoes...) and I could pay for them at the chemist bit relatively quickly - a few chancers were trying to pay for food shopping there but getting sent away.

There were tannoy announcements saying that shoppers could only have three of any one item so I imagine that there were going to be some heated arguments at the tills, but I did not stay to witness one. Frankly it was grim, but of course not unexpected - a sign of the times. There are stories of hospital workers finishing long shifts and then being unable to buy any food - if their local supermarkets are anything like mine I can well believe it. 

I really don't understand the mentality, but it's happening across the globe - the prevailing attitude is just me me me. Hopefully once the initial panic has abated and people realise that this is survivable without 80kg of pasta and 900 rolls of toilet paper there will be less outright selfishness and more acts of human kindness. We have already put a note through the door of our elderly neighbour over the road in case she needs something - we've had a weekly online delivery for a couple of years now and can easily add anything. So far during this crisis I think we have had our favourite brand of houmous replaced by a different one, which suggests to me that wholesale panic is unwarranted. Today's delivery even contains toilet paper, a whole 9 rolls. I will be taking them straight down to the Tesco car park and auctioning them to the highest bidder.

Monday 16 March 2020

Silver coronavirus clouds and the rite of spring

As you know I cannot now go to the office to work. This is a shame, there are social elements to a job that go along with the grind and that make it tolerable - without the people there would be no point. Me and all my colleagues are now working from home for the forseeable future, and I can imagine that this will drive a number of them slightly crazy. In time it may well drive me mad as well, but for now it is spring time and I am fortunate to have a hobby which is very fulfilling. No more so than today.

Today was a big day. My first shot at the title, now in its third year. My first date in the Wanstead Wheatear Sweepstake 2020. On what day would the first one be found? A quick recap on the rules - the names of ten local birders were drawn out of a hat (well, a bowl actually) by Tony, and we then got to choose two dates in the order our names came out. Once a date is chosen nobody else can choose it. I came third and plumped for the 16th and 19th of March, nice median arrival dates, by no means my earliest but also a long way from the latest. 

I had been waiting for this moment and marshaled the troops. At first light Tony would start at the Alex and comb that area. Rob and Simon would start in the Old Sewage Works, and from there progress to the Plain in the Park. James would check School Scrub, with Richard carefully checking the Western Flats, then both moving to the Fairground. Meanwhile Bob, Tim and I would cover the central portion of the Flats (the most likely place frankly), with Nick starting at Angel and working his way up. Sean, who has a bike, would take the whole southern side of the Flats along Capel Road. We would then all meet at the Vizmig point at 11am for the prize-giving ceremony where I would be crowned victor ludorum, provided this was granted Government approval as there would be more than five of us. It's all about confidence.

So bright and early I found myself on out on the Flats in the central portion as discussed. It was a lovely morning, blue skies and a gentle breeze. Oddly no sign of Tim or Bob, they were probably just a little behind, so I set off solo on my search. First of all a circuit of the Brooms where I met Louis and Gosia, nobly helping my cause even though they were not in the sweepstake. Nothing doing in this area, so I went off to check first the Barrage Hitches and then the Ditch of Despair, both of which were also Wheatearless. I was now at the Alex where mysteriously I could not find Tony. He must have been there somewhere, really trying his hardest to winkle one out of some deep scrub or something. Or perhaps he had swum over to the islands to check those? I did a loop of the Pub Scrub where I met a lady with bins who I have never seen before - good of her to get involved. 

Meanwhile some fairly negative news from other areas of the patch. On the western side James, who lives about a third of a mile from the Flats, had briefly looked out of his top window and not been able to see any Wheatears, and was now patiently waiting (at home) for Richard to arrive so that they could coordinate their areas. On the southern sector Sean was just finishing a hasty breakfast and would only be about another 45 minutes, excellent to see him so committed. Simon was also on his way but did need to try and find some toilet paper first so had still not started looking. Also bad news from Rob who needed to reorganise his entire life before coming out birding. And finally Nick was still asleep in Forest Gate. 

In other words a real team effort. Back in the central brooms there was still no sign of Tim and Bob.... but I did briefly see Marco (not in the sweepstake) cycling off east. Perhaps Sean had drafted him in whilst he had another round of toast. Fine. I get it, I was on my own. I had no idea people took the competition so seriously! That being the case, and with only a few minutes left before I had to leave the patch, I pulled out all the stops and stormed round the central path one final time. A Stonechat in the Brooms ! A Skylark singing from a mound! Another Stonechat flitting around the base of some wispy stuff! And then, finally, tantalisingly, a flash of white over my head towards the Model Airfield. A bouncy flight, was it a Woodpecker? Heading directly away it was impossible to see. And then it landed. And turned sideways on. Yessssss!!! A male Wheatear! Fresh in and carrying a small trophy under one wing!

I sent out a message to the team signalling the end of the 2020 competition and thanking them for their unwavering dedication to the cause. Soon Bob turned up, and a short while later Tim and Nick, eager to get in on the action now that the competitive element was over. Tony is contacting COBRA to see if the presentation can go ahead, meanwhile I am of course over the moon that against all the odds I have managed to pull it off. It has not escaped my notice that in peacetime I would have been forced to leave the patch nearly an hour before I found the bird in order to get to work, and that Nick would have snaffled it up like he usually does. Every cloud....

Friday 13 March 2020

Sent home

Well now. Hasn't the world become an interesting place?

Where I work has been split into two teams in order to preserve some ability to continue what we do. One team works in the office, the other works from home, and then we swap. The idea of course is that we never meet, so this lessens the odds of, say, a very infectious virus sweeping through all of us. I've been in this week, and so have been braving the tube every morning to get to the office. A man coughed next to me today, I was not impressed. My line of work involves the fun of global financial systems, which even somebody completely disengaged from world economics cannot have failed to notice have been a little rocky lately. As in 30 years rocky.

Anyhow, as I was chomping on some breakfast an email popped into my inbox. The latest centralised update on Covid-19. We have been getting these daily of course, in common with many other organisations large and small. I started scanning....and to cut a long story short I have been quarantined. I went to France within the last two weeks, and thus the latest guidance/order is that I remove myself from the office. I finished my breakfast, gathered my things, and headed back to the tube and the isolation of home.

Which means I can bring you this.

Not one but two Red Kites circling just above my house in Wanstead. They represent my 19th and 20th Red Kites in Wanstead, and the 7th and 8th from my garden. This is of course the prime time for them to be having a bit of a wander, and in between metaphorically feverish bouts of work I had been poking my head skywards out of an upstairs window looking for precisely this kind of thing. My pension pot might be sinking like a stone, but there are still silver linings to be found in global pandemics.

As fear grips the nation and this virus gets worse (and without wishing to sound overly doom-mongering, it is going to get a lot worse), there could be a lot more of this. By which I mean local birding, somewhat a thing of the past as far as I have been concerned. Needless to say almost all of my planned birdy travel has been cancelled, generally by the places I was going to - I am persona non grata for both Israel and Argentina for instance. So staying local is likely to be the name of the game, and actually that's not the worst thing ever. It is pleasantly timed for small African birds with white bottoms for example. 

The issue I see is one of sustainability and endurance. Next week was my week at home anyway, but what if that extends to two weeks? Or a month? Or two months? I am going to go stir crazy. And what if Mrs L and the children are also all sent home? And frankly this is a when not if and I think we all know that. What happens when all five of us are cooped up for several weeks in Chateau L? Family harmony and happy matrimony, that's what. But it may at least result in some blogging.