Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Patch woes

How has another month gone by? I'll tell you why, it is because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And boy am I dull. And lazy. And lacking in inspiration. And frankly the birding has been absolutely dire. And I mean dire. The patch seems unrecognisable from last year. There has been a dribble of migrants. Well. What's smaller and even more pitiful than a dribble? A drip? Yes, let's go with a drip. 

So, this past weekend, all four days of it, I eschewed all the magnificent birding available in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scilly and so on, and instead thrashed the patch under largely blue skies. Lovely. Surely at this time of year a bank holiday weekend spent locally would pay handsome dividends? The drip would turn into a torrent! I walked 15 miles over 16 hours - I guess there must be a lot of standing around as I don't walk that slowly!



Those 16 hours delivered the following meagre totals: 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler, 1 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 1 Yellow Wagtail and 1 Nightingale. The Nightingale is a quality local bird, not quite annual but seemingly being picked up more often of late. I never saw it of course, but walking past Long Wood early on Good Friday I heard a snatch of song which persuaded me to linger. It took a while to get going, and I was wary of mimicry at play, but after a while it did enough of pure Nightingale to convince James and I of its undeniable identity. Quite mobile, it moved from one end of the copse to the other, at one stage ending up at and singing from the exact spot last year's bird had. It is tempting to think it could be the same individual, but more likely is that it is just semi-decent Nightingale habitat. Not decent enough to hold it sadly, and it was gone the next day. 

So that was the highlight. It is the rest of the list that I think deserves attention. Look at it, just look at it!  I'll repeat it for emphasis. 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler, 1 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 1 Yellow Wagtail. That is the sum total of the other migrants that I saw or heard over four days. Four days!! There are levels of poor, and this is towards the bottom of the lower rungs. Part of me wished I had just jumped in the car and gleefully headed off on a big twitch, but I kept feeling that it just had to happen and so I stuck it out. Of course it didn't happen until this morning when everyone went back to work (by everyone I mean 5% of the local birders as employment is pretty overrated on this patch these days), when the year's first Ring Ouzel made an appearance in front of Marco along with Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears. I cannot help thinking that my whole big local weekend was a big damp squib. Luckily I managed to quickly snaffle the Ouzel as I headed to work else I would be in a foul mood. I don't know what other inland patch workers experienced this weekend, but if it was anything like us then they have my pity and admiration.



At least the weather was good, which meant a lot of gardening that I have been looking forward to was able to get done. And a lot of gardening I had not been looking forward to as well, including over doubling the size of my vegetable patch by removing some large shrubs which came with two massive root balls that needed digging out. The veg patch has not been a great success to this point, and I have done much better growing stuff in large pots. The main reason is that it was excessively shaded by a large sycamore tree in next door's garden, as well as being overrun with weeds from the same garden as we have a wire fence. However some new people have arrived and drastically reduced the size of the tree as well as more generally blitzing the entire garden - cutting almost everything down and ploughing it into a barren wasteland. Not great for nature, but my garden is noticeably brighter and the weed incursion has basically stopped. I figured I'd try again, but I wanted a bigger area - it is not huge, but it has potential. Getting rid of the shrubs above ground was bad enough, but the root balls I had to dig out were huge and I am feeble. I saved this worst of jobs until yesterday. It took me four hours of digging and  levering, and so predictably this morning I was a wreck. But I now have a nice area to sift stones out of and dig manure into when I am well enough. Meanwhile the seeds are germinating in the greenhouse - beans, lettuce, cucumbers and others. Some have already started so I am just in time.

The long weekend and nice weather also meant many opportunities for eating and drinking, both favourite activities of mine. After a long afternoon of toil in the garden, what better than a bit of pre-dinner pick-me-up? It is blood orange season, so....


Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Lust for Life: 2022 edition

I nearly made it all month without a post but I appear to fallen at the last hurdle, close to covering myself in social media glory but felled by the sucker punch of actually having something to say. Or thinking I have at any rate. To start with though let me state that 2022 has not been great - a maelstrom of endless work and constant doom-scrolling. If we were all naive enough to think that this year might be better than its two immediate predecessors, well, more fool us. Time to reconsider. What is happening in Ukraine is barbaric, heartless and completely unjustified - the crazed machinations of a deeply bitter megalomaniac, hemmed in by in the past and unable to accept change, and who sees a world without Russia as a major power as a pointless world. Scary. That this is happening on Europe's doorstep is extraordinary - we have been able to somehow ignore similar conflicts further afield, the media willfully steering us away with some new trivial soundbite that we have been collectively stupid enough or lazy enough to fall for, but there is no getting away from this one and hard as it is we all need to sit up and pay attention. I am not going to lecture anyone, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but everyone should have seen this coming. That this country and many others are so inextricably beholden to this man and his cronies is inexcusable, and it is not just the politicians that are to blame this time - it is our lifestyles.

The timing could not be much worse, and Russia knows this. My energy supplier went bust last year, and my newly appointed supplier wasted little time in telling me that my annual bill of £2,780 was going to rise to £4,179. By the time October comes around I fully expect that this will become £6,000, perhaps more. I will do all I can to reduce it, but ultimately I will pay it, what choice do I have? Lots of households have a much harder choice coming up, think about that for a minute and about those people. And then consider what it means for the fabric of society as a whole. Mrs L is a teacher, she is already seeing the impacts in some of the kids that sit in her classroom, but versus where we are headed early 2022 will be looked back at as a golden period. Meanwhile our politicians have abandoned one dictator (a bit) and are busy cozying up to new ones so that we can continue to live in comfort and wander around in T-shirts in December. Tell that to people in Ukraine and other countries who no longer have a house or a town.

In a rare moment of good news Covid is over. Oh wait. No, sorry, that is just wishful thinking on my part. And government policy of course, thus consigning us to another year of unnecessary deaths, illness, strain and all the rest of it. Anyone who thinks this is over is a complete dope. This unfortunately means that very large segments of the population are idiots, as evidenced by my newly restored commute and a rare visit into London last week. We seem to have happily, joyfully even, dispensed with any suggestion that the virus is still present and mutating, and are all skipping along merrily pretending that everything is fine. La la la! Don't look up! On the one hand the 2020/21 approach could not go on indefinitely, on the other how hard is it to take a few trivial precautions to help out your fellow man? In Portugal recently social distancing and all the rest of it was being practiced by 100% of the population, indoors and out. We on the other hand are a nation of twats, ungovernable.

But back to this uninspiring corner of London for a moment, the initial point of posting before I was distracted by the shithousery of planet earth. I have found 2022 hard. This does not apply just to blogging but to many things. Birding. Reading. Photography. Plants. Getting stuff done. Everything I enjoy has been hard to focus on, let alone stuff I don't enjoy, and instead or forcing myself to get on with it I have instead found myself coasting along, floating on the circadian current of work, sleep, work, sleep. Even at the weekends I have had almost no get up and go. I have not been unhappy per se, just content for some reason to do nothing, to let the days pass by without fighting them. Consequently is it nearly April and I can look back at the first quarter of the year and know that I have underachieved massively in most facets of my life and that I couldn't really care less. It is a funny feeling, not caring. In the mornings I have been staying in bed for longer than I should. There are no evenings, I just go to sleep, most of the time before 9pm. Lust for life I think they call it.



However recently there has been a change. Possibly it is the weather, who can say, but I have rediscovered the joy of doing things. There have been a few early morning starts, the camera has come out - only for a few ducks on one of the local ponds, but it is something. There has been a flurry of activity in the garden - the first stages of the transition from winter to spring have occurred in my greenhouse, the terrace has been repopulated with Agave and Yucca, the pointless Yew bush under the Monkey Puzzle has gone and the lawn has been mowed. I even went to the dump to get rid of all the garden waste so that I could continue my work with empty green bags. If the mood takes me I may provide illustrations at a future point. There is a lot more to do and that I am looking forward to despite the accompanying aches and pains that getting this far entailed, but for now it appears that winter is returning so I shall pause.



On the birding front there has been a smidgen of returning interest. I have missed both Wheatears to have graced the patch, and so far my migrant searches have turned up only Blackcaps that may never have left in the first place. Overall I would say fervour is still lacking - the patch has been quiet for sure, but my drive has been more silent still. I suspect I am being hindered by the ghost of 2021, a nagging feeling that last year cannot be topped and this is weirdly preventing me from getting out there. It may of course be the general all-permeating malaise of 2022, but whatever it is, this time last year I had seen 15 more species that I have so far this year, and which ranks as my least impressive start since my records began. This is not restricted to Wanstead - I have not been birding anywhere in the UK in March. A drive to the coast feels like a world away for some reason (and not just diesel being in excess of £1.70 a litre!), a twitch for a rarity even further than that. I do occasionally wonder if the sight of a Belted Kingfisher in Lancashire might do me some good despite the cost, time and effort, but I quickly move on. Part of the reason I went to the dump was to ensure the car battery didn't go flat, I can't think when we last went anywhere or did anything in it. In that respect it is a fine symbol for 2022.

In more potential evidence of a change in the air I am nearly done with the London Bird Report 2020 images - a "to-do" that has been hanging over me for ages. It is a month later than I said I would have it completed by; when I say that I have I had trouble doing anything I really mean that. I've dabbled with it in fits and starts, made the shortlist, sorted the covers, but what I have not been able to do is sit down for three or four hours straight and absolutely nail it. I think about it frequently but then I go and do something else instead. Or do nothing most likely, the overriding theme of 2022. When I finally hit send it will be one of the only things I have achieved of any note this year. I hope to use it as a catalyst, but let's see how we go. Initial indications are reasonably positive, and not before time. Small steps. 

I am 47 years old, I cannot believe I am typing this but these are strange times and they affect people differently depending on who they are and where they are on life's journey. Like many I feel that the events that started in March 2020 have been nigh on impossible to control, and have dominated our personal narratives for two years. The state of the world is quite numbing, or at least I find it to be. And as mentioned above we are kidding ourselves if we think we are on the up. We are not, and not only that we seem to be seamlessly morphing into a new phase of awfulness, a cost of living crisis that will impact almost everyone. 

For now, have another Pochard. I'm fine by the way, just not very productive.









Sunday, 20 February 2022

Shooting the breeze

I have several items of news to share, none of them hugely exciting but enough to eke out some verbiage.

One - I've been to Scotland again, a few days up in Fife. Once again the birding was really nice, way better than locally. I did a bit of sea-watching from Fife Ness. Nothing spectacular flew or bobbed past, but the fact that it was so different from my normal circumstances made it exciting for me. 27 Gannets in case you were wondering. That's what I classify as exciting these days. I also finally found some Crossbills up there, not sure what took me so long. I also managed to time my trip to coincide with Storm Dudley which made for some exciting homebound travel.


Two - No sooner had I arrived home than Storm Eunice paid a visit. I spent half an hour in the garden moving loose items to safer places, laying several plants on the ground which have a tendency to fall over in just a moderate breeze, generally being a responsible neighbour. I was away during the last equivalent storm in 2013 and back then we did not have a loft extension. This time I was here and sat working in said loft extension. Scary stuff, a lot of shaking - and not just me! I have various plants on stands, and to see them rocking and quivering indoors was quite something. We were battered and buffeted by four hours of some of the most intense wind I've ever experienced outside of Shetland and the Midwest. Whilst all the trees and fences survived, the loft dormer roof did not fare very well. The fiberglass sill on the most exposed corner was ripped off and I found it in the front garden, but worse than that the entire length of the lip above the balcony has tented up, no longer secure against the top of the brickwork. As I type Storm Franklin is rolling in, followed by yet another one Monday, and it remains to be seen whether either of these will contain enough puff to rip it off entirely. Needless to say it was impossible to raise the insurance company on the phone so we have submitted a claim online as I have a feeling the whole lot will need to replaced - I can't bend it back to resecure it and we are rather at the mercy of the weather until someone can come and sort it out. 

Three - I renewed my passport online which was remarkably straightforward. My old one only had about two months to go, and I had no travel plans so bit the bullet. The old one had not worked in the eGates since I sat on it Morocco in about 2013, so to have one that will allow me to get out of the airport without joining an almighty queue is rather a novelty. It is nonetheless a downgrade of course - it is disappointingly blue and no longer affords free access to 27 countries that the old burgundy one did. I am paying the price for other people's xenophobic stupidity and I don't care who knows it.

Four - Whilst out inspecting local storm damage yesterday I both heard and then saw a Dunnock, a tricky species that has been eluding me all year. Great Crested Grebe also fell, as did Mistle Thrush. It was nice to be out, but I cannot say it was inspiring. IN fact it was about as naff as it has been all year and spring cannot come soon enough as far as I am concerned. I say this every year, but the first Wheatear is just around the corner. Ideally the corner of March 21st.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Indoor Weekend

I have managed to go outside - a visit to Topps Tiles to return extra tiles we hadn't needed in the bathroom was very exciting, especially as in a reversal of roles the shop gave me money. Only money I'd already given them, but still. Even more exciting is that soon we will have a functioning family bathroom, something we have not been able to say since 2018. We move quickly around here.... About halfway through the work our plumber caught Covid and everything stopped, but when you have not been able to have a bath in your own house for over three years what is an extra week? We are very much looking forward to it. Mrs L and I then proceeded to the local aquatic shop to replenish the fish tank - some very cute Tiger Barbs and various Tetras are now exploring their new home. Again, this is something that we have been threatening for ages but somehow never got around to doing and so for at least two years we have been staring at a mostly empty tank. I find staring into a fish tank very soothing, not sure why we didn't get our arses in gear a long time ago, but that is just real life for you I suppose. Other things come up, weeks and months pass, time disappears. 



I did think about going birding today, but one look outside at the lashing rain, swaying trees and horizontal bamboos persuaded me against it, and so another weekend has passed without any advancement of the year list. I'll cope. I nearly saw a Sparrowhawk over lunch yesterday but it didn't feel quite right and quickly snatching up the house bins proved it to be a Kestrel, far less frequent from the garden. Colour and interest came from within these four walls. Firstly our large Fan Aloe has started flowering, as is normal at this time of year (it is a southern hemisphere plant). It is unscented, but nonetheless very cool indeed - even without flowers it is a stunner - pretty big for a potted plant and with several stems, but still a baby in many respects. I've seen them in botanic gardens abroad where they form actual trees and are simply magnificent. If I can pluck up the courage I might put it out on the terrace this year as it does get very dusty indoors. And as if this were not colourful enough, more summery thought were evoked by these two beauties. How was your weekend?


Saturday, 5 February 2022

Sky high

I am not doing very well at birding at the moment. It will sneak up on me at some point no doubt, that is what usually happens - Wheatears are after all just around the corner. What I am doing very well at is sitting in my attic eyrie working excessive hours. Still, if it means I can afford to heat the house I suppose it would be churlish to complain, not everyone is so lucky. I have many thoughts on what is happening and where we are headed, but my own relatively secure position would I think diminish those thoughts a great deal. What I will say is that I am getting hammered by every single economic headline at the moment, but not to the point of having any genuinely impossible choice. That is the grim reality for many people, and it is just outrageous that it has been allowed to happen. Something is going to have to give and the frightening lack of empathy at the top does not bode well.

Whilst my day is not often improved by the news, it is occasionally enhanced by a glorious sunset as I settle into the final third. Wednesday was one of the best I've seen in a long while and I was forced to take a short break to step outside and admire it. Deep breath, and exhale. Wow, magical. Maybe things will be OK.


Friday, 4 February 2022

Sourdough Recipe

Oh look, a birdy post! Just kidding! I have not seen any birds recently so this is about bread again. A blog correspondent asked about the recipe and process we are using for sourdough, who am I to refuse such a request? Sourdough is tough, I will be the first to admit that and it comes as no surprise that some people don't get on with it and have given up. It is a big faff that requires planning and some hands on work over a number of hours, but the new environment we find ourselves in with many of us working from home is ideal. 

I can take no credit for what follows. Last year we went to visit J and J, good friends of ours from college days, and were stunned by a home made soup and blown away by a glorious loaf of bread. They not only gave us some of their starter but also wrote out this recipe for us. We have not adapted it, but we have learned which bits you have to get right and which bits are more forgiving. And the best bit? This is really cheap - there is no butter or ongoing need for yeast. The flour for a loaf is about 70p using a normal supermarket packet, and if you buy it in bulk sacks like we do it is more like 40p. Salt is 0.5p. What may become the biggest cost is turning the oven on for an hour - about 15p today but lord only knows where it will end up. But the point is that today at least you can make an amazing loaf for the same as it costs to buy a cheapest 'value' one in a supermarket. A sourdough loaf from the local artisanal bakery is £4.

Maintaining a Sourdough Starter 

1. You need some starter. The best place to get some from is from someone who has some already!

2. Feed your starter at least once a week,1 part starter to 1 part strong flour to 1 part water.

3. All you need is one pot of it, you can discard the part you don't renew/feed. The starter should live in the fridge. It looks like gloupy milk.



Making Bread

1. In the morning the day before you want bread, mix 50g starter, 50g water and 50g strong flour in a clear jar and leave out on the kitchen counter for 4 hours with the lid on. It will roughly double in size so make sure your container is large enough.

2. At the same time as step #1, mix 600g strong flour with 375g water in a large bowl and also leave it for 4 hours, covered with a wet cloth. Our kitchen is probably between 18C and 22C. Your 600g can contain other flours, for instance you could go with part rye or wholemeal.

3. When the 4 hours is up, pour the starter mix into the big bowl of flour mix. Add 12-15g of salt and mix it well for about 10 minutes with a wooden spoon or similar. Cover and leave for an hour. Wash your mixing implement immediately before it solidifies.

4. When the hour is up, stretch and pull the dough a few times by hand and cover it again. Literally pull it flat, and then fold it back on itself. Turn it 90 degrees and then do it again until you have got round 360 degrees. Wash your hands well afterwards as it really hurts when tiny bits of dough dry on the hair on the back of your hands and fingers!

5. Repeat step #4 three more times, once an hour. The first and second times it will likely be quite sloppy and sticky. Once you get to the third stretching it will look and feel a lot more like dough. The photo below is just after the first stretching. Timing is not critical here, if I have a heavy afternoon of meetings it may be that I leave it three hours and it seems not to matter. This is where a warm environment helps, but it does not seem to be critical. My pet theory however is that the cooler it is the more flexibility you have in terms of timings.

After round one of stretching. You can also see the cooking pot in the background.


6. After the final stretch, cover the dough again and put it in the fridge overnight, or 12-24 hours. If approaching a weekend, you can easily make a double recipe on the Friday and make one loaf on Saturday and another on Sunday. The Sunday dough would therefore spend more like 36 hours in the fridge but again it seems not to matter.

7. The following morning is baking day. The ideal time to do this is obviously before breakfast, so send your beloved downstairs to do it whilst you remain tucked up in bed. Put semolina into the bottom of a large cast iron pot that is oven-proof and has a tight lid. 

8. Heat the oven to 270C (fan)

9. Shape the dough, stretching it to form a tight skin.

10.Spread flour over the top of the dough, a solid covering or a pretty pattern. Make a few scores with a sharp knife in the top, don't skip this step. Some people use a razor to make elaborate patterns. 

11. Put it in the pot on top of the layer of semolina, put the lid on, and bake for 40 minutes.

12. Remove the lid at the 40 minute mark and bake for a further 10 minutes.

13. CONSUME!

Behold the finished article


Thursday, 3 February 2022

A body of work

At some point towards the back end of 2021 this blog ticked over two million clicks. I did notice and meant to mark the 'occasion' but other things came up and it slipped my mind. Whilst trying to change the text blurb at the top the other day I came across the stats page and saw that this now read two million and fifty thousand. Fifty thousand? Really? If I am lucky the average blog post will get something between 100 and 300 reads. Or between 100 and 300 arrivals at least, many people will quickly realise they have a mistake.... In January I somehow bashed out 16 posts - it is not uncommon that I start the year with a surge and then decline. So 16 posts at an average of 200 suggests that the total clicks should have advanced by a little over 3,000. So where on earth does 55,000 come from?

Taking the last 24 hours as an example, 60-odd people read the most recent blog post. A further 300 read something else. Going back a further 24 hours to the start of February there are now another 450 visitors and no other recent blog posts. What on earth are they reading? Well, digging a little deeper (or as far as you can get within the innards of Blogger), it suggests that the vast majority of visitors are in fact reading stuff I wrote ages ago. And I mean ages ago. There is only so much information I can gather, but here is a snapshot of the last seven days.



No surprise that the most recent posts are at the top of the list, followed by those from last month, but what is St Lucia doing in there? That was 2013. A random post with a photo of a Mallard is from 2010. A bit further down there is something I wrote in 2009 about needing a better pair of gloves. The data runs out below three clicks, but I suspect that there are probably a large number of similarly ancient posts that perhaps get one or two a week. And then you get onto "Pages" - these are things that sit in that bar at the top, where I keep my various lists, a map of the patch and so on. Within the last week eight people have looked up my 2019 patch list. Or one very forgetful person. Five people looked at my garden list! How niche is that?!


If these stats were not available I would have come up with the opposite answer, a gradual downwards trend. In general blogs are somewhat passé, people today favour a shorter web experience measured in characters and seconds. Certainly the number of writers that I follow keeps declining - that list on the right hand side of blogs I visit has several people who have not posted for over a year, and every now and again I go through the list and perform a sad cull. My own output is also a shadow of its former self. I post far less these days and consider what I do post to be far less interesting that it used to be. I reckon I hit my stride in about 2010 when I was a house husband and have been on the wane ever since!

The answer is volume. This has been going for over ten years and there are now over 2,000 posts. They are probably all indexed in some way by Google and other search engines, and thus entirely innocent internet enquiries send people my way. And with so many posts on what is actually a more wide-ranging subject matter than just birds, this must happen on quite a regular basis. I suspect I could stop posting altogether and it would still keep going up. 

I will leave you with one final stat that I think proves what is happening. In 2021 I scraped together just 106 posts, 5% of the grand total. It was hard work and had I not managed to eke out a dozen posts from my trip to the Midwest it would have been my lowest output ever. However the total site visits in 2021 equated to 21% of the historic total. I reckon I can sit back and relax!

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

So that was January


It would be a gross understatement to say I have pushed myself.
Dunnock is currently missing from my local patch list, and do you know what, I don't really mind that much. One day soon, meandering around the patch, I will register the shrill song of a Dunnock, and I might even remember that this represents a patch year tick.

A number of other local patch workers seem to feel a bit like I do, as if a different approach is needed. I do hope that my patch year-listing effort in 2021 is not responsible for killing off our collective enthusiasm, but I can't help feeling as if it has. Having hit it it out of the park last year I definitely don't feel the need to do so again this year. I am not sure to what extent we all compete against each other. It feels more like a collective effort, with our Saturday morning excursions more a good excuse to chat to people that we don't live or work with and scoff bacon butties than to urgently seek out avian life. Sure we keep half an eye on what others have seen, what they might be missing, but actively competing, probably not, or at least not very much. Last year I was only vaguely aware of what the patch record was until the last couple of months when it was pointed out to me. I knew it was Nick, but until he told me the exact number it hadn't really registered. Mostly I was trying to eclipse my previous best, and that I think is the central problem this year - it is unattainable in my mind. I don't think I'll ever get anywhere near it again and so I am not trying to. In other words I have given up even before even starting. Given that pretty much every single other local birder also got their best ever tallies last year this may explain the somewhat relaxed approach this year. Apart from Simon who is absolutely killing it for some reason and just needs to calm down!

So, no Dunnock. No Linnet, no Reed Bunting, no Mistle Thrush, no Great-crested Grebe, no birds of prey other than a solitary Kestrel, no GBB, no Snipe, no Treecreeper, and no Cetti's Warbler. Also no Tawny Owl despite nightly weak bladder issues..... All this adds up to, or rather does not add up to, my lowliest January total since 2009, a year when I only just made three figures. In other words I think 2022 is going rather well versus my aims and ambitions, and it also means that February will be a lot more exciting than it usually is!

In other news and a propos of nothing at all, in one of my few forays out I bumped into the Epping Forest Longhorn Cattle (Wanstead Park sub-division) at the bottom end of the plain. They have spent a number of weeks/months in the Park over the last few years but I had never seen them. Not sure how as they are absolutely massive. Their movements are controlled by geo-locating collars which do something to them (blow them up?) if they go beyond a certain point, so there is no need for fences or cattle grids. I understand they have now been moved back to join the rest of the herd further up in the forest, so I only just scraped in. 


Saturday, 29 January 2022

Achievements in the Covid Era

When people say that during the pandemic they learned a new language, took up Tai Chi, renovated a small house in the country and so on I tend to be quite skeptical. Did anyone really do that kind of thing? Not in this house, I could barely pick up a book. But not being able to go anywhere did cause many people to reevaluate life a bit, and the narrowing of horizons has in some respects caused a widening of perspective and a newfound appreciation for the basics.

If we were not travelling, not going anywhere, not having our senses piqued by external forces then we were damned sure we were going to raise the enjoyment bar at home. In Chateau L we started with our stomachs. The quality of food round here has gone up significantly, and along with it, wine. The cellar has taken a real beating but so far has sustained us admirably. There is definitely element of "screw it, why the hell not", and then a lovely cork is pulled. Yesterday over dinner - Salmon and leek gratin, with Meursault - we went through all the new veggie recipes we had tried over the last few years and pulled out four of the best ones for this coming week, we're having duck for the fifth night as we're not wholly vegetarian and eat meat or fish once or twice a week still. We score all vegetarian dishes out of five, each diner having a vote, and then round to the nearest integer. There have been some unanimous fives, like cherry tomato and four-cheese tart, or mange tout and pistachio trofie. However as well as reminiscing about the glorious successes we were also reminded of the absolute stinkers. The children tend to pull no punches, zero is far from unknown from these judges, and although the lentil ragu was about nine months ago they apparently still carry the scars. I thought it was quite nice actually, perhaps not one I'd like to have too frequently, but the children have made it very clear that it is not to be cooked again until they have all left home. Obviously it didn't make the cut for next week, but no matter. I am very much looking forward to what did.

Is comfort eating an achievement? Maybe not. I actually think that just getting through this shit show with your sanity vaguely intact is a pretty monumental achievement in itself, but we have really raised the bar when it comes to baking bread (see what I did there?). We have a bread maker still, but it sits idle and unloved on the counter. Now we bake sourdough with a passion, a middle-class pastime if ever there was one, perfect for Wanstead. We have settled into a routine, and without wishing to brag Team L is getting better and better at it. We started tentatively in November, and the results whilst good were not wholly consistent. But now, behold!



Mrs L starts the process off in the morning before she goes to work - mixing flour and water, and preparing the starter. At around lunchtime I come downstairs and engage in some heavy duty mixing, especially when me make a double recipe for the weekend. Throughout the afternoon if I can engineer a break between hour-long conference calls I nip downstairs and knead the mixture for a few minutes. The first couple of times it is very wet and sticky, but by about the third go it is far more like dough. Mrs L does the final stretch when she gets home, and then the now dough is set aside for the following morning. Mrs L rises earlier than the rest of us and her first daily task is to bake the loaf. It takes an hour, by which time the rest of us are stirring, egged on by the smell of fresh bread. Boy oh boy. I cannot begin to tell you what a start to the morning this is. It provides breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and will generally last to the next morning so we don't need to do it every day. Our lives are transformed I tell you, transformed. You just want to get up in the morning and eat bread and drink coffee. With an espresso at my side and a slice in hand, slathered in butter and apricot jam, I look outside at the gathering light and realise despite all the angst that life is a joy, and that we can get through this. All you need is bread.





Monday, 24 January 2022

Here's what you could have won

Bird information is beginning to annoy me. I am assaulted on all sides and I am coming to the conclusion that this is not good for me. A big part of the problem is the explosion of social media. First of all there is Twitter. Because I like birds (amongst other things of course) a lot of my timeline is very birdy in nature. I don't follow many out and out twitchers, but I do follow people who do. I don't know how the algorithms that sit behind it work, but I frequently see tweets from other peoples' timelines because people I do follow have 'liked' something, or retweeted it, or maybe something else entirely? Maybe two or three contacts have to scroll past it and then I get it? Anyway cue 2000 blurry photos I did not want to see and did not ask to see of a Belted Kingfisher 235 miles away. And then of course there are people who live in nice places, nicer than here at any rate, and who get to see good birds on a daily basis. Should I just dump them on the basis of unwanted bird envy? Or more accurately, life envy.

Then there is WhatsApp, a really good source of local bird news. I am a member of three groups composed of local birders. One for Wanstead, one for London more generally but with an emphasis on the east of the city, and then another for Fife as part of my Fife Bird Club membership. All of them besiege me with information on an hourly basis. The Fife one does not annoy me, it is what it is and I don't live there, so unless I am actually visiting I usually mute it. What the eyes don't see etc. The one in Wanstead is not so active, or at least not at the moment. There are a few people out and about each day, but there is naff all going on and in one walk around the patch this weekend James saw what everybody else had seen in the space of three weeks. It is the same as every other grey January has ever been, and with few exceptions the same birds are in the same places that they always are. I can cope with that, and after the excesses of last year I am in no mood for twitching patch scarcities anyway. If something truly amazing for the patch turns up the likelihood is I can nip out for it, so I'll keep an eye on this one. 

It is the London bird group that I find the most irritating. Unlike Fife it is "in range", and unlike Wanstead there is quite a lot happening. It also has more than its fair share of people for whom graft and toil in the service of an employer is but a distant memory, and for whom birding every daylight hour is now the priority - there is no delicate way to put it, but I guess they have less time left. No doubt (well, there is always some doubt!) they did their fair share back in the day, but back in the day the grapevine wasn't anywhere like as in your face as it is today. You had to seek news out whereas today it is just omnipresent. So there is a constant stream of winter delights tracking across my screen from people who have plenty of time on their hands, and after the kind of weeks I have had lately it is becoming irksome. By the time the weekend comes around I have lost the will to live, and all I really want to do is nothing.

And then to cap it all, then there is Birdguides, which I choose to pay for. It isn't very much, 15p a day, and when I got it was because I decided that I wanted to know what was happening, what was turning up, rather than in any expectation that I would actually go and see it myself. I was dead right, I have barely used it for twitching purposes, but even the pure informational part of it is now beginning to grate. Which is odd, if as I was not going to go anyway why I am now irritated that I cannot go? 



The overriding feeling I have is one of missing out. Here's what you could have won Jonathan, but unfortunately you are instead going home with nothing. Better luck next time! Of course I have not actually left home, a big part of the problem, but you know what I mean. So the question is whether I would be happier simply not knowing? I could mute all the WhatsApp groups, unfollow everyone on Twitter, and unsubscribe from Birdguides. It would save a bit of cash and a lot of angst, but where would it leave me? Is being annoyed about birds that I can't see better than worrying about not knowing what birds might be missing even if I can't see 99% of them? Questions, questions....

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Las Vegas - Trip List



Here is the list of species I saw during the very short trip - 71 species, including two lifers (Pinyon Jay and Sagebrush Sparrow). If I were doing it as a real birding trip I would obviously go for longer, although perhaps not that much longer. Once again I've used the relatively new eBird Trip List functionality, and you can use the link to browse species, see locations, maps, dates, counts and so on.



Las Vegas - December 2021 - Day 2

I was flying back out in the evening, and the hour I had wasted taking tests, scanning codes and filling in forms resulted in being able to check in online and get a boarding pass now I was within 24 hours. Hurrah! I had another breakfast at Denny's and then attended the mythical appointment that I thought would never happen - the mountain of paperwork I had with me wasn't in the event asked for and whilst it wasn't exactly in and out, it was done. A three month nail-biting saga over - celebrations would take place later, for now birding for as long as possible prior to returning to London was the order of the day.

I could have gone back west to try for some more ABA ticks, but that had been rather gruelling and I was in the mood for some relaxed birding. Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, to the east of the city, seemed to offer a wealth of species to bump up my all-important Nevada list. It was wonderful, a series of medium to large lagoons absolutely teeming with bird life. I racked up nearly 50 species over the course of a couple of hours. Ducks galore - Wood Duck, Cinnamon Teal, hundreds of Shoveler and Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Pintail, and single figures of Bufflehead, Ring-necked-Duck, Redhead and Green-winged Teal.

American Avocet

I couldn't begin to count the American Coot there were so many, odd that I could only find three American Moorhens in the whole complex. Pied-billed Grebe were numerous, and one of the lagoons had a single flock of eight Black-necked Grebes. A pair of Northern Harriers were hunting low over one of the furthest lagoons, and a flooded muddy field outside the boundary fence had a number of Killdeer. The rarest birds were probably an unseasonal pair of American Avocets. Meanwhile small numbers of Rough-winged and Barn Swallow flew over the water, and Vermillion Flycatchers, Say's and Black Phoebe were common, but outnumbered hugely by Yellow-rumped Warblers that were simply everywhere.

female Vermillion Flycatcher

Verdin

It was just really good birding, if rather like shooting fish in a barrel. Birds everywhere. At the front gate they had a number of feeders set up, and sitting on a bench here and waiting afforded good views of Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, Abert's Towhee, and a small groups of Mourning Dove and Gambell's Quail skittered around. I wish I had had all my camera stuff, as it was I had brought just a small lens and ended up not really using it very much as I was just in birding mode.

Mourning Dove


I finished the day just up the road at the Clark County Wetlands Park. I am not sure if I ever found the right area as water here was quite hard to find and the bird count was very low, at least compared to Henderson. Best of the bunch were more hunting Northern Harriers, a Cooper's Hawk and a bird I had really hoped to see - Greater Roadrunner!

Meep meep!

With the light gone I went on a small shopping spree for jeans and so on at one of the massive outlet malls near the airport, packed up, gave the car back, and went into the  terminal as I could not think of anything else to do - the bright lights of The Strip hold no attraction for me whatsoever. Sadly the lounge was closed so I could not shelter from the masses with a gin and tonic and instead had to endure the terminal. Call me a snob but the kind of people who come to Las Vegas for fun are not my kind of people. Finally they called the flight, which was when I discovered that my online boarding card which had got me as far as the gate was no good, and that somebody wanted to see a paper one which I did not have. In order to get one I had to find and show all the documents I had used to get the online one. I mean what is the point, just what is the bloody point? Travelling at the moment is just no fun at all. Anyway, I got on and arrived safely in London the next morning, and my day 2 PCR test was negative, so I also avoided the Omicron wave that was picking up in the US. Looking back I can still scarcely believe it. What had seemed impossible had been achieved, in almost record time and against a backdrop of significantly increased logistical difficulties. 

I saw 71 species, not loads, but also not too bad given the circumstances. With a few more days and some planning, I think a winter trip to Nevada could be really good, much like Arizona. I would have to do some research to see if there are birds in Nevada that are not available further south - possibly there are not, but it could also be combined with a visit to some of the National Parks in Utah and Arizona, as well as the Grand Canyon and Death Valley. America is vast and magnificent. Sitting here now I am imagining what I could do with infinite free time, where I could go, what I could see. I reckon I could make a road trip last months and not get bored. One day perhaps, one day.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

Las Vegas - December 2021 - Day 1


I woke up and did a COVID test. People reading this in several years time may wonder what on earth I am on about, but in late 2021 you could not do anything or go anywhere without paying for the privilege of poking a cotton bud up down your throat and up your nose and then taking a pregnancy test. I was not pregnant luckily, and so a short while later I got sent a QR code to prove this, which I then used to populate a mandatory government web-form along with some details about my vaccination status, what plane I was getting on, where I lived, what I was planning to do for the next ten days and various other details. All this took about an hour of prime birding time, but I was finally ready.

A quick look at Lake Las Vegas, right next to the hotel, did not produce much - a handful of Great-tailed Grackles and a few Collared Doves. I did not linger, I was hungry. Enter Denny's, America's diner. Franchises are found across the land, and all serve monumental breakfasts. I find most American fast food grim beyond description, but for Denny's hash browns I will make an exception. Wonderful. I had the All-American Slam - a huge heap of hashbrowns, 2 strips of bacon, two sausages, three poached eggs, toast and coffee. 490 calories minimum, I would not need to eat again until the spring. 


Wild Burro



Sated, I staggered back out to the car and continued west to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park - target Pinyon Jay, a bird I had missed due to roadworks in Colorado. Little did I know at the time that within a fortnight I would have another chance. At this site there are both Woodhouse's Scrub Jay and Pinyon Jay, and it took a few minutes to overcome my initial excitement at having scored so quickly to realise this and start to look and listen more critically. After stalking several birds I managed to find what I was looking for - a generally greyer bird with less contrast on the breast and bluer on the face. A pair of Golden Eagles soared about the crags, Anna's Hummingbirds flitted around, and the scrub was alive with Verdins, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. In my shirt sleeves, under a blue sky and with little now standing between me and the all important appointment, life felt pretty good.

Say's Phoebe


I spent all morning and a little of the afternoon at Spring Mountain trying without success for Juniper Titmouse and Red-naped Sapsucker, but eventually called it quits and moved on to Floyd Lamb Park in north Las Vegas for some different birding - some arid parkland centered on a handful of small lakes. Of note here were marauding flocks of American Coot numbering several hundred and frankly rather terrifying, several Say's Phoebe and a Black Phoebe, as well as Bewick's Wren, Mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings and three Phainopeplas




The sun sets early in late December and so my final stop of the day, just a short way further north, was at Corn Creek Desert NW. Here a walk around the actual preserve just before sunset added Western Bluebird to the list, but I couldn't find my number one American bogey bird - Sagebrush Sparrow. I cannot count the number of hours I have spent fruitlessly trudging around sagebrush deserts looking for this species. The species keeps low, more often running between bushes than flying. Another hour burned. One day, one day. 

As I left the site I decided to stop in a layby and admire the sunset.....what an inspired decision!

Sagebrush Sparrow!







Friday, 21 January 2022

Las Vegas - December 2021 - Logistics and Itinerary

Las Vegas, 19th-20th December 2021


This trip, a family matter, had been in the back of my mind for a number of months but we had all dismissed it as definitely not happening and made alternate plans. All that changed a couple of days before I was due to fly back to the UK from my Midwest trip - it was on, but it had to happen immediately and could not be deferred. One shot, a drop-everything emergency situation. I considered staying in America and getting myself from Illinois to Nevada - the least risky option given the possibility of lockdowns and closed borders, but after a few sleepless nights decided to come back to the UK and work it all out from home. And I had to go to work....

Once back I applied myself to getting through an immense and complicated logistics exercise, the to-do list from hell, not least finding a suitable ticket to the USA (and back again!) at such short notice. I think deep down I like a thorny travel problem but so much was out of my control. However with an eventual window of just four days remarkably everything worked out, and all the various things that could have gone wrong, any single one of which could have prevented the trip, one by one came good. This carried on to the very last minute - sitting on the aircraft at Heathrow a luggage delay took two hours, and just as we were finally ready and about to push back a fuel leak was discovered and everyone had to get off. I had a day in reserve for this kind of eventuality, but still, why now, why on this particular trip?! Thankfully another plane was found and we managed to actually leave on the same day, not a given by any means as the crew were very close to timing out. On the way to that aircraft the terminal transit broke down and I had to race through the foot tunnels to make it. I am not a religious person but I may have offered a silent prayer as we took off. 

I thought about simply skipping this from my list of trip reports, but what birding there was was actually really good, and in normal times this could be a good winter break in the same way that Arizona is for example.

Logistics
  • As mentioned this was not a birding trip, I had an unmissable appointment on Monday morning, and any free time outside of that was a bonus. I had built in Sunday as a reserve travel day (very nearly needed!) and was able to spend this birding, as well as the rest of Monday after the meeting.
  • Flights: Direct from Heathrow to Las Vegas on a British Airways airmiles ticket (fortunately I have a lot to burn)
  • Covid logistics were a "Proof of Covid recovery" NHS QR code combined with a letter from a recognised health provider confirming I could not reliably take tests and was fit to fly. Otherwise a negative lateral flow would have been sufficient. I brought a pre-departure test from the UK with me in order to be able to fly home, and as the return was within 48 hours took it as soon as I arrived in Las Vegas, my thinking being that even if I had contracted it on the way over it would not yet show up.
  • Car Hire: I hired a VW Taureg from Budget using airmiles as last minute pricing was ridiculous, but this was a not a road-trip and I just needed something to get around. 
  • Accommodation: I stayed as far away from the famous Las Vegas Strip as I  could, at the Las Vegas Lake Westin. First of all gambling and bright lights are really not my thing, but weighing more on my mind was the Covid situation. Omicron had arrived in the US about two weeks earlier and was spreading rapidly.
  • Food: I ate a huge breakfast at Denny's each morning and did not then need to eat for the reat of the day.
  • Literature: eBird, eBird and eBird. There was no time for any planning for this trip, I just went.



Itinerary

Day 0: Landed at 11pm (a mere 5 hours late!) and drove straight to my hotel about 40 minutes east of the airport.
Day 1: After a hearty breakfast crossed the city and birded the hills to the west during the morning and early afternoon, finishing the day in the desert to the north.
Day 2: Morning appointment, afternoon birding along the watershed to the east of the city, evening departure.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Winter birding in Fife

I've just been in Scotland for a week - visiting family as I had not managed to get up over Christmas due to an emergency trip away. Mainly I just worked - my chosen career is relentless, particularly so just after the end of a calendar year. But at the weekend I managed to go on a birding tour of Fife which was simply brilliant. Sadly there are almost no photos, the type of birding up there requires a scope which meant that the camera got left behind.

I started at around 9am at Tentsmuir, which is the top eastern corner, so above St Andrews between the Eden and the Tay. My main target were a small group of Snow Buntings that had been on Kinshaldy beach for the past week or so. Kinshaldy beach is very hard to access at the moment - heavy rain has created a long series of lagoons in the dunes that are more or less impassable for a stretch of about a mile, without wellies I had to walk quite a way north to find a point to cross. This may be working to the advantage of the Buntings with fewer people on the beach. That said the the beach is huge, and even with lots of people there would still be plenty of quiet spots in which to remain undisturbed. Maybe as a result it took me ages and ages, five miles of walking in fact, in order to find 15 out of the reported 25+ birds, and the views were frustratingly brief as they flew over my head back in the direction I had just come from. Still, a county tick is a county tick. A Peregrine flew over early doors.

There are some more permanent lagoons at the northern end, not far beyond the current crossing point, and these held two Mergansers, two Long-tailed Ducks, a Greenshank and a Little Egret (still reasonably scarce in Fife). Offshore there were plenty of Common Scoter, single Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver, and a good number of Grey Plover on the surf line. It had been a good morning of birding but I needed to move on as I would lose the light early.

I skipped the Eden Estuary - a shame as I always enjoy it, but I had managed a short visit during the week where I had finally found Brent Goose as well as a big flock of Scaup in the outer estuary - nearly three figures. I've been birding in Fife for years, my parents moved up from England in about 2005, but my prior list-keeping has been somewhat slack. Brent Goose is scarce in Fife but there is often a small wintering flock on the Eden. I vaguely remember seeing them some years ago but I could find no record of having done so in my spreadsheet, and as my historical eBird records were nearly exclusively generated from this it was missing there too. 

My next stop was instead Cameron Reservoir, where the male Smew was easily picked out about half way down - another new county (well, Kingdom) bird. Loads of ducks today, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Teal and Tufted Duck, with ten Whooper Swans in the field next to the entrance track and a further two out on the water. I had no time to walk around the edge, and the views are mostly not very good until you reach the far end so this felt a little bit like tick and run.

Twite


From here it is a short run to the coast - via flocks of Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer - and I emerged near Largo and soon found myself at the entrance to Shell Bay. This has been for years one of my favourite spots to go birding in Fife - Ruddon's Point on a good day can be peerless. I hurried past a huge swirling flock of Linnet up on Kincraig Hill (rumoured to also contain Brambling and Twite) and made my way to Largo Bay. The water was like glass, absolutely brilliant for birding, and I had magnificent views of the Eider flock, of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. On the Cocklemill Burn I put up a small flock of Twite with some Reed Buntings, always good to see. I have clear memories of regularly seeing Twite in good numbers on the Fife coastal path, but once again I have no written records. That wrong is now righted. As I made my way back two Ravens cronked overhead and a Mistle Thrush whirred. I nearly trudged up the hill to get a view of the finch flock but decided instead to spend the last hour of the day at Leven where a Black-necked Grebe had been reported earlier - with the water so calm it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I parked in my usual spot near the crappy snack van and scoped the water. There were Long-tailed Duck really close in, what a shame I had no camera, and really good views of Velvet Scoter. The Grebe was a little more distant but I'll take it - the scarcest of all the Grebes in Fife and one I'd never seen up here. Slavs are positively common in comparison. A Black-throated Diver with a couple of Red-throats completed a very successful day.

The birding up in Fife is wonderful, a huge contrast to my local patch in Wanstead at this time of year. Almost everything I saw would be a wonderful bird in London, and I am very pleased that I have the opportunity to visit not just as a one off but on a regular basis. My Fife list is not too far away from 200 these days. Obviously I can't chase rarities as I don't live there, but there are still quite a few common birds I've never seen, or at least not ever noted down. I am suspicious about Crossbill for example, but would be more confident that I've never seen a Barn Owl or a Cuckoo. I've also never spent an autumn in Fife, so I've never seen any of the more regular scarce migrants like RosefinchBarred Warbler or Red-backed Shrike. Maybe that could be a plan for this year?

Of course most of my birding last week was incidental - the odd moment snatched between meetings, gazing out of the window whilst on a conference call. My parents have Bullfinch and Tree Sparrow in their garden. I am sure I have mentioned this before but as a Londoner this is nothing short of sensational. The best bird of the week however was a Jay, a new garden tick for Fife, and only the second or third I've seen in the area. For whatever reason they are far scarcer than they are down here, or at least so it seems, and I only saw my first last year and had to search quite extensively for it. I was just scanning up the hill for Partridges and so on and it flew right across and into the woods towards Star. #53 for my second garden - a long way to go!