Tuesday 27 July 2021

Creaks and groans

Something I knew would eventually happen just did. I have finally bought a garden kneeling pad. I am 46 years old. 

I associate garden kneeling pads very strongly with my Grandparents in Sussex. Old people in other words. They had an enormous garden in the South Downs, or so it seemed to me then, and endless flower beds that needing weeding. There were two sheds, both immaculate in and out - as an aside the smell of those sheds will live with me forever - and hanging on one of the walls were some old canvas covered pads, along with proper old wooden trugs, cracked gloves and all sorts of tools. I still use some of those tools today. As a child I could never understand why grown ups needed soft pads to weed a flowerbed, I just crawled in or squatted. Time is the ultimate teacher though, and at the weekend before the storm hit I had been using the doormat to kneel on whilst clearing the area around the cucumbers. As the first few spots hit, I stood up to an audible creaking sound, and let out an involuntary groan of the sort that frequently passes my lips these days. Getting out of bed, putting my socks on, picking things up off the floor; all these things tend to nowadays elicit a small groan, sometimes a loud one!

But what really made me throw in the towel when I stood up was that the knees on my pride-and-joy middle-aged pale yellow trousers were soaked through. And as doormats are dirty I didn't just have two wet smudges, I had two wet muddy smudges. Gah! That afternoon I went online to find a mat just like my grandparents had had. I could picture it, but did not know what they were called as they had not been a part of my life for nearly 40 years.

 "Alexa, what do old people use to help do the weeding? 


Anyway, I got there in the end and on Monday morning this arrived. It is extremely plump and comfortable, and, so far, waterproof. I have not yet found the setting that suppresses the user's groans, but then again it was only £13. Perhaps more expensive models exist which have this functionality? And ideally also hydraulics. No doubt I will need something like that in time.

Monday 26 July 2021

Some momentary and conflicting excitement

All things considered it was a very interesting weekend, certainly rather better than the last few where I have moped at home or worked. Saturday saw an unnecessarily early start for a quick dash up to Norfolk for the Western Sandpiper, and frankly the amazing spectacle of Snettisham RSPB over a high tide which was perfectly timed. Bradders and I met near Barton Mills and dumped one of the cars before continuing up, arriving at around 6am. The star attraction was on view quite quickly but was hard to stay on as it was rather distant and extremely active. The best views ended up being from about half nine onwards and once the water had gone down significantly, and when despite the miles and miles of available mud it decided to feed with Dunlin right on the edge in front of the assembled crowd. Despite how close it was I did not get a photo of it but I did enjoy exceptionally good views. It would always seem to aim for a morsel that was ever so slightly out of reach, which as a dumpy and quite long-legged bird meant it appeared to pitch forward every time as if it had tripped up before recovering and continuing. I last saw one of these nearly ten years ago, also in Norfolk, so this wasn't a new bird or any kind of tick, but it felt like it given the passage of time and was extremely smart in summer plumage.

Although seeing the target bird so well was superb, you cannot go to Snettisham at this time of year and come away un-wowed. The thousands upon thousands of Knot and Dunlin that moved as one between the shore and the mud were a sight to behold, even more so when a flock came off the lagoons and buzzed over the path and out to the Wash. It is a life-affirming experience that everyone should be made to do at least once. Quite extraordinary. Bonuses included an adult Spoonbill and more Little Terns than I have seen for a good while, including a few juveniles. Good also to catch up with a few faces I've not seen for a while having only twitched very sporadically over the last few years. Clearly there is a big scene that I am no longer part of, a group of people who see each other all over the place.

It seemed only natural to drive around the Wash to Frampton RSPB given the abundance of more waders there, including of course the glowing Pacific Golden Plover. I wonder if this is the same individual that I stopped to see in Northumberland on the way up to Fife last year? Frampton is a very fine reserve, seemingly superbly managed, so the supporting cash was truly excellent with Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Little Stint amongst over 20 species of wader. This latter bird was an adult and showed amazingly, easily the best views of the species I have ever had. My rubbish phonescoping attempts don't do it any justice at all but all blog posts are improved by photographs, no matter how naff, so here it is.

A lovely gingery adult Little Stint

Tempting as it was to bird for the rest of the day I had things to do back home so my pressing need to see a Great Tit in Lincolnshire had to go unfulfilled. One day....

On Sunday the heavens opened. I had planned to spend the day gardening, harvesting my first tomatoes, weeding the vegetable beds lest the cucumbers get overwhelmed, and planting up some pots of succulents. As it happened I only got a part of that list done before we had an hour and a half of the most torrential rain I can remember for a very long time. Our street largely disappeared underwater other than the very top of the camber. The water flowed over the curbs and also submerged the pavements, lapping up to the start of my front path. Thankfully this was the highest it got. 

This looked much more impressive as a photo with houses in the background and submerged pavements, but I don't want to post photos showing exactly where I live. Had I stepped off the curb I would have been shin-deep, and I live in a completely flat area.

It was a similar story in the back garden - we have a slight dip in the middle of the grass and this quickly filled up until the central portion looked a bit like Frampton but with fewer waders. The grass will be fine though and it truth it needed the water. What didn't need the moisture was the inside of the house. The volume of rain was such that it somehow managed to find a way through the back door, and for a while we had a stream of water flowing down the inside of the door and pooling quite extensively on the floor. Four or five leaks developed in the ceiling at the same time - not quite the end of days but clearly we are not as waterproof as we had hoped. There was nothing we could do to stop any of it, and so for a while it was mops, cloths and buckets, plus strategically placed watering cans.

Locally it was much worse. Various nearby underpasses flooded, normal roads became unpassable, and some cars were abandoned to the surge. I later learned that we had 45.9mm of rain in about an hour and a half. It doesn't sound much does it, but if that water has nowhere to go... I spent a lot of the evening reading about local experiences and have nothing but sympathy for those who didn't manage to get away with it as we had done, people whose cellars and ground floors are flooded, people with sewage in their front hall. I have no idea how much longer or harder it would have had to rain here before we would have had a genuine problem at Chateau L, but it felt closer than on any previous occasion even despite only being the third wettest 24 hour period recorded by a local meteorologist.

I had not planned to write about this weekend at all. Who wants to know about a few birds I saw and a bit of rain? But there is such an obvious dichotomy between the two days of this weekend, alternatively known as a correlation, that I felt compelled to start typing. On Saturday I had a thoroughly marvellous time gallivanting around East Anglia by car. On Sunday I was defending my house against water and flooding. Well now. I am not suggesting that my 250 mostly shared miles were directly responsible for the rain the next day, but in the last two weeks London has made the news twice (albeit barely) for severe flooding, and the scenes from Germany and China were on another level entirely. Few places are immune, climate change is not a phenomenon confined to the third world any longer, and it seems that not a week goes by without there being some kind of natural disaster where the root cause, ultimately, is human activity. However infinitesimally small, I'm afraid that on Saturday I contributed. On the other hand I had a great time birding two fantastic reserves, and after three weeks of having gone nowhere and done nothing I genuinely needed to leave London. Places like Snettisham are good for the soul. So are Albatrosses. I am hugely conflicted and I don't know what to do.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

The rut of the routine

My life continues to be unimaginably dull. Work, sleep, work, sleep. There is some eating and some drinking, and I continue to raise the excitement bar by taking out the recycling once a week and things like that, but really I am in a kind of Sisyphean nightmare where each week is basically identical and then I just start again. I used to survive this by going away frequently. By always having something on the near term horizon that I could aim at I found that I could get through the relentless weekdays without cracking up; these days it is hard to see the next chink of light.

Living on Plague Island doesn't help. I am double jabbed and I can prove it, but going abroad remains a complete minefield (not that double jabbed means I am invincible, far from it - there are worrying signs that more and more people who have been vaccinated are continuing to catch it - but it does seem to be the way we are headed). I investigated going to Iceland, at the time on the green list, and concluded that it was an exercise in folly. Far too many things to go wrong, most of which would be very complicated and extremely expensive. 

I don't disagree with it, but the need to have a test before returning home seems to completely destroy weekend forays. Longer trips would seem to work, but the possibility of a green country becoming amber at any moment and trapping you there, or at the very least ensuring you have to pay for a vastly inflated short-notice return flight is very off-putting. And of course more and more countries are becoming reluctant to let the stupid inhabitants of this country visit them. I don't blame them one little bit, I would put the UK on every red list there is. Actually given the scenes in central London and Wembley a couple of weeks ago I think I'd ban us even if there wasn't a pandemic.

So Plague Island it is then. I've done domestic breaks before and they have been refreshingly pleasant - there are many lovely places on these islands. Excellent, sounds like a plan. Ah. Have you tried booking a holiday cottage in this country recently? What a joke. Obviously I understand the economics of supply and demand, but the situation is completely ludicrous. I had a brief look on a few popular websites this morning for a week away in late August. Not seriously of course, just for research purposes; I knew what the answer would be. One website returned zero results. Nothing at all for our family of five. Another offered me a semi-detached house in Seasalter, Kent, for £2500. Another offered a week in a bungalow in Monmouth for £3052. I think it had a pond. So actually we are just going to visit family in Fife again, it's by the coast, it's very pretty in a non-London way, and frankly it is something different. As ever movements and timings for a large family are not straightforward, and so last week I booked a domestic flight for Mrs L in order to get her back from Edinburgh a little early for work. This morning it got cancelled. That is just what trying to organise anything at the moment ends up being like.

Some people, lots probably, are no doubt better organised than I am. They did book early or at vast expense, accepting of the risk that their plans could dissolve into an expensive non-event. Some will have been lucky and made it to wherever they had planned to go. And who knows, they may even get back again! Others will be quietly raging that with their break nearly in sight, fate conspired to bring it all crashing down. Or perhaps they had made it there only to have come racing back before a newly announced quarantine deadline? Maybe I am too cautious - I am a seasoned traveller but I am unwilling to adapt to the level of uncertainty that now exists.

My point being that the merest attempt to try and change your routine, to do something different, to get out of your personalised rut, becomes an exercise in frustration to the point where it is far easier to throw in the towel, head back to your favourite boulder and get pushing. Which is basically where I am at, sitting in Wanstead with little enthusiasm for much of anything. I need a project, a fresh approach, something different to get excited about. I just don't know what!

Monday 12 July 2021

A minor upgrade

As I think I have already mentioned Mary is our new superstar bird finder. Her list of finds is already quite long, very distinguished, and getting better all the time. Today she found an Oystercatcher circling around Alex, site of most of her best birds. Oystercatcher is somewhat of a patch mega by virtue of it being and exceedingly hard and very frustrating bird to catch up with - as far as I am aware this is the first one that anyone has ever clapped eyes on - all other records are heard only but most people haven't even had that pleasure. I have two heard-only records - one nearly a decade ago on a very foggy  November morning on Wanstead Flats when a bird took off from the grass somewhere ahead of me and kleeped its way further into the murk, and another early morning in October 2013 that for the life of me I couldn't pick up. I also have three separate noc-mig records from last year all of which I was asleep for. 

This morning was therefore a pretty unusual event. I had just finished one Zoom meeting and had started another. Multi-tasking as ever I had quickly thrown open the velux windows and was scanning towards the Flats as the meeting got going. People started talking, and at the exact moment my phone rang and for some unknown reason I picked it up. Silly me. It was a crank call about a bank account I don't have, and I forgot to mute my Zoom call whilst answering it so my colleagues got to hear what I thought about it. Very professional. I apologised and muted my microphone. As I did so I realised I was hearing an Oystercatcher calling. Gah!!

Completely flustered by too many things going on I was completely unable to get on it despite it calling probably half a dozen times. My best guess at that point was that it was headed north west over the Park but I just couldn't pick it. I heard later from Mary that it had departed west from Alex at around that time, so perhaps it passed to the south of me when I was scanning east. Deeply frustrating. Nonetheless it is an upgrade to my existing Oystercatcher records from the house, as this time I was awake which means I can count it. Indeed none of my nocmig records are on my garden list as I don't count the ones that the recorder picks up without my knowledge. So a garden tick, albeit one lacking a little in lustre, but who is arguing when it is #98? It is also a patch year tick and means I move on to 116, a total which I have only ever previously reached in September. I quickly let the local Whatsapp group know about the calls - so four concurrent tasks, I had no idea my brain could even do this - and then got on with the meeting which was well underway by this point.

Other than a brief trip to Rainham followed by a short stop at Wanstead Flats about ten days ago I have been pretty slack - no birding at all anywhere. I did contemplate the Elegant Tern in North Wales but concluded I would loathe all that time in the car and that despite the rarity value it did not have the same appeal as the Black-browed Albatross. It occurs to me that if I use the "but will it be as good as the BBA?" argument on myself each time I will probably never go birding again, so I need to snap out of it at some point and just get out there. Mary's Oystercatcher proves that the dead season is over, wader passage is underway, and that now is the time to start putting some hours in!

Different day, different bird, but one of these just flew over my airspace!

Friday 2 July 2021

There is something I just have to do

There is something I just have to do and have been waiting a very long time to try

These are the words I typed to my boss and my colleagues at 9.30pm on Tuesday evening. Shortly after that I worked out who could cover the meetings I was supposed to be in on Wednesday, sent some more apologies, set my out of office message up and drove to East Yorkshire.

The day had been one of torture. Late on Monday night I had been lying in bed when the news broke of the returning Black-browed Albatross in the Gannetry at Bempton Cliffs. Full of wine and with a full schedule the following day, I sighed at yet another missed opportunity for this dream bird. For as long as I have been a birder I have wanted to see an Albatross. I have never seen one on a seawatch, I have never been ideally positioned when news on one heading down the coast has come out, the Hermaness bird was before my time and the previous Bempton appearances just didn't work. It seemed that this would be one more to simply chalk up and move on. It was still there on the cliff face in the morning, and so my Twitter feed and Birdguides subscription fed me the agonising news of joy and personal triumph all day long. But it returned to the cliff in the early evening....  hmmmm.

Could I? I had a tentative conversation with my boss. No not Mrs L, my boss at work! I mentioned the considerable amount of uncertainty - never great in my line of work, you are either there or you are not, and if you are not generally that requires a fair amount of advance notice. Happily she gave the green light and then I was able to have the hard conversation. Mrs L said I was an idiot, and I explained that seeing an Albatross would make me a very happy idiot. Barring one momentarily distressing update about the bird flying off and out of view, pleasingly soon rectified by an "on the cliff again" message, the evening proceeded exactly as I had hoped and with the bird still in situ at 9pm I decided it was certain to still be sat there on Wednesday morning. Game on. I committed with work and started to gather all the things I would need by the front door. 

I have not done an overnight drive for many years. Fuelled by coffee, the BBC World Service and premature thoughts of a nailed on dream bird it was surprisingly uneventful, and I arrived at the car park at about half two. I was not alone. The car park was a hive of activity, and with more people arriving all the time any thought of a short nap went out the window. At half three the sky started to lighten, and as I could see people heading out to the cliff I felt compelled to join them - the thought of the dim shape of the Albatross in my scope in the half light meant I could not contain myself. Nailed on....

Probably 80+ people at 3.30am

I was not prepared for the scale of the task. I think I had just assumed I would bowl up and somebody would give directions and that would be that. As it happened few if any people present first thing knew where exactly it had been seen the previous evening, and the cliffs are absolutely enormous. And on top of this the weather was filthy with sheets of driving northerly rain - I was soon shivering uncontrollably. Dawn came and went and the swelling crowd began to lose heart. Fewer and fewer people were actively looking and some people started to leave, convinced that the bird had departed in the night. By now we knew exactly where on the cliff it had spent the night, or at least the early part of the night, but now there was no sign. Had it perhaps snuck out to sea unseen when the first people had been scanning other parts of the colony? Conversation changed to how foolish we all were to have thought that this bird was a dead cert. 

By 7am I was done in. I'd taken a day off work, I'd driven through the night, I was tired, cold and miserable with a big dip under my belt. This is why I don't twitch I rued, what an idiot. Never count your Albatrosses.... 

At 7.15 someone called it flying out of Thornwick Bay. I saw it momentarily and lost it immediately - for a gigantic bird it was very hard to stay on at range and in the drizzle, and particularly when it flew against the cliffs. There were some keen eyes present though, and gradually the desperate shouts of "where?!" subsided and those key observers were allowed to keep calling it. Well done Mr Andrews and another person I didn't know who repeatedly picked it up and gave running commentary. 

The next two hours were a blur. I stopped shivering, I stopped feeling tired, and I certainly stopped feeling miserable! At several points the bird flew at eye level along the cliff at point blank range. This was one of the best birds I have ever seen anywhere, and I can honestly say that being on Bempton Cliff on Wednesday morning rises to close to the top of my best birding experiences ever despite the mass of humanity. This bird was pure unadulterated joy. Its flight was effortless, I don't think I ever saw if flap once aloft. When it came towards us it moved astonishingly rapidly, testament to the mastery afforded by those incredible wings. Think where it hatched, where it has travelled, what it has seen. Like many, going to the southern oceans is on my bucket list but who knows if I will ever manage it. The way things are going you wouldn't bet on it ever happening, but I have now seen an Albatross first hand, seen one wheel, skim, fly and soar. My photos are utter garbage and do you know what? I don't care a jot. No photo can in anyway sum up the feelings I felt or invoke the magnitude of the occasion, although some of the "habitat" shots are pretty compelling. What a bird! Simply magnificent. I think I said quite recently that I find it hard to summon up the enthusiasm for twitching, but for a bird like this I can make an exception. It gets a bad rap these days, and probably rightly so for the most part. but this is something I had to do and I don't regret it for one minute I'm afraid. It was amazing. Is that bad?

I spent the rest of the day on cloud nine. I managed a short nap on the side of a reservoir whilst waiting for a pair of Caspian Terns to turn up, but remarkably I never felt shatteringly tired, and there were no dicey driving moments at all. I felt so goo that I continued birding until about 11pm, with the evening spent on the Washes with multiple Barn Owl, Marsh Harrier and Hobby, displaying Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit, and various calling Crakes. I felt like birding the Fens all night, but with Thursday definitely a working day I had to leave. I didn't arrive home until after after midnight, 40 hours on the go, but I felt like I could have driven to Cornwall and back again. A monumental day, they don't come around often but I'll remember this for a very long time indeed.

Thursday 1 July 2021

The joy of planning

I have no idea if I have ever written about wine on this blog before. Perhaps not actually. I've been known to tweet a photo of a bottle from time to time so that the internet knows I'm living my best life, ditto the odd fruity concoction, but for the most part I think my love of drinking wine largely passes by unremarked. 

Lockdown - especially the winter one - proved to be hard work. There were many things I wanted to do, many things I ought to have done. Most of these remain in the starting blocks For reasons I still don't understand I have been unable to pick up a book and read it from cover to cover for instance. It was not for want to trying and I probably had about eight false starts, the furthest I got on any of them was about page 400 of A Suitable Boy and with another 600 to go I found I could not sustain it. A shame, as it was the ideal opportunity. Ditto drawing, I got as far as ordering some paper and then found I did not have the motivation and have yet to pick up a pencil or even think about doing so. Organising my cellar on the other hand...

Maybe because it involved a spreadsheet? Spreadsheets rule my waking hours. You would think that as I spend all day working with spreadsheets that once tools down it would be the last thing on my mind. You would be wrong, and unfortunately so would I. I think it is about bringing order to chaos, shining a light on a big mess and finding a way to catalogue it and make sense of it. I just love it. Way back in about 2008 I completed a similar stock take and felt very pleased with myself. For a while everything was well laid out, easy to work with. I had a plan and I stuck to it.

Gradually chaos returned. I've still been drinking wine, and buying more to replace it, but it all became slightly haphazard. In retrospect I drank a lot far too early. I bought too much of one thing and not enough of another. I found I had gaps, big gaping holes where wine should have been but was not. In Chateau L wine is almost always secondary to food, that is to say that we work out what we are having for dinner and then hunt around for the perfect wine to accompany it. You cannot simply pick up any old bottle and think it will work, I mean it would be fine, these are micro problems of the first order, but I am very picky in this regard. No, there needs to be thoughtful consideration, and with consideration comes anticipation. 

The trouble with decent wine is that there needs to be forward planning, sometimes many many years of it. A moment of inattention and down the line you will have a gap at some point. That may be three years away, or it may be twenty years away. I appear to have had many moments of inattention. Some are understandable - I went through a somewhat fallow period as far as employment was concerned and buying wine was swiftly deprioritised. Unfortunately that happened to coincide with two fantastic and long-lived vintages, 2009 and 2010, and so ten years later when these started to hit their stride I realised I didn't have any. No problem, I'll just buy some. Ah, the whole world already did that and the prices now are not ones I can easily cope with. And no, I am not nipping down to Tesco to pick up a box of eurozone wine lake, I would rather be teetotal. The same problem exists in 2015 and 2016, I was focused on travelling and forgot to top up. That's not an issue right now, but I can see that gap on several horizons already. And the one you thing you can't plan for is how your tastes and diet may change. In my twenties I just wanted to eat steak and drink long-lived red wine, and that is what I planned for. But now red meats have taken a back seat, and those big bold bottles that pair brilliantly with lamb and so on have little use in vegetarian and Mediterranean cooking. These days I am for the most part after a much lighter duo.

Lockdown this winter proved the perfect time in which to sort all of this out, to take stock of exactly where I stood, and age 46, to work the plan for the second half so to speak. Wines which only peak in 2050 for instance come with a certain amount of risk. Equally, for how much longer I am going to be able to splash out? That too would seem to be finite, so perhaps while the sun is still shining it makes sense to take action. That planning, this delicate balancing act, has consumed lots of my time this year and slowly things are beginning to take shape. The ideal blueprint has been drawn up, the obvious gaps in it have been partially filled, sometimes at over the odds, and where for various reasons there was a glut there has been a rebalancing, which happily has also involved drinking some of it. I still have too much red wine but I can worry about much of that later - indeed it may even turn out to be a decent investment even though that was not the intent.

Most importantly however there is now an immense spreadsheet, ably backed up by a nifty online tool called CellarTracker (the eBird equivalent for wine). I am back to being fully up to date, knowing what is stored where, when it will be at its best and for how long. It is mapped out by appellation, by vintage, and by all sorts of other geeky measures of the sort that would only appeal to a boring wine buff. I know how much storage space I have at home, and how that can be optimally balanced so as to decrease the frequency of food-pairing despair, and when reserves stocks should be transferred to maintain that balance. And so last week I had the pleasure of pressing a few buttons on a website, without any new expense at all a few days later a van arrived with a couple of boxes. By this point you are probably desperately hoping I don't go into what exactly was in those boxes lest further paragraphs ensue. You're right, I shouldn't and I won't. Suffice to say that they contained the joy of planning.