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.


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.