Thursday 11 April 2024

Has it stopped raining yet?

It has been one of the wettest winters I can recall. The local ponds are all full to the brim, wader passage (such that we ever get here) will be virtually non-existent. I'd rather them be full than empty, as that would just be disgusting around here, and as we head into no doubt another record-breaking summer we need every ounce of water we can store as the levels will fall very quickly with the kind of temperatures that are commonplace these days. Ounce? Drop, maybe. Large sections of the patch which are not ponds are close to becoming ponds, or at the very least incredibly waterlogged and boggy. And bird-free of course, even though from a distance it looks really quite attractive. But of course what do I know? I am not a bird, and as Jubilee Pond constantly reminds us what looks completely grim from a human perspective seems to be very attractive to birds. So the reverse is probably true - to me it looks great. To a passing bird, meh.

The deluge is showing signs of easing, finally, and occasionally a funny yellow ball can be seen in the sky. This is very pleasant, and both and my plant-growing environments have begun to feel warm again. Only briefly of course, but I have sown the seeds of what will eventually become my annual bean harvest and now have a nice collection of seedlings that I will soon plant out. Concurrent with this change in the weather we have finally seen a bit of migration, although I missed by far the best day of the year by virtue of being somewhere else that was also very waterlogged. So waterlogged in fact that the streets had all flooded and the residents were having to get about in boats.

Even though I missed the fun at the weekend, the mornings have provided an opportunity to partially catch up. We've had a good passage of Common Redstart (unusual for Spring) including a lingering bird that has started to sing, the first Swallows have been passing over,  the regular Reed Warbler has put in an early appearance on Shoulder of Mutton pond, and in the last couple of days the first Whitethroats have arrived and are tentatively singing whilst getting booted around by Robins. Patch birders are never satisfied of course, and t
houghts are turning to what we might get next, and all local birders worth their salt have a mental list of targets and have fine-tuned their birdy radars for specific species. I am on high alert for Ring Ouzel for example, the 'tsiep' of a Yellow Wagtail, and for that first rattle of a Lesser Whitethroat. Any day now.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Easter weekend

I've spent all weekend on the patch, birded it three days out of four. The result, a stonking bag of spring migrants one Willow Warbler. One. That's it. Barring this one bird, not a single migrant of any note. No Wheatears, no fly-over waders, no hirundines, no nothing. It is hard not to be disappointed over four days. The numbers tell a different story as I ended March way above average on 83, but those are just numbers - all you need to see is one individual of one species and you're done. A more interesting stat is how many passed through. If I purposefully ommit Chiffchaff and Blackcap as they now overwinter in small numbers and are thus seen way before migration has officially started, the only passage migrant to appear so far this year prior to April 1st's Willow Warbler has been Wheatear.  The first of these was on March 16th, the next day it was joined by another, and a little later that week, the 19th, I picked up another male whilst Nick found a female. So what's that? Four birds if you're feeling generous? Since that day there hasn't been a sausage. Yes there was a Partridge, and you could say that a few Red Kite passing over are also migrants, but what I am trying to say in a far too roundabout way is that it has been shit. Four days of complete freedom to bird the patch, no work, no committments, and one single Willow Warbler. Unremittingly shit. Luckily I have other hobbies too, but I won't bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I have put in some serious shifts in the greenhouse and garden with which I am extremely satisfied.

So a weekend of pottering around basically, something I am extremely good at. I did exciting things like sweeping, pruning, and going to the dump. I have been middle-aged since I was about 19 and am now really beginning to hit my stride. As I took a lunch break on one of the days I wondered aloud to Mrs L whether this was what retirement was like. For some reason she put her head in her hands, I am not sure why. It is nice to spend time at home with the family, and I can only assume she is looking forward to it as much as I am.

The weekend also revolved around food. It being the holidays we have a full house here, and with the five of us it made a bit more sense to push the boat out a little. Of course some dishes were sniffed at - chickpea and chicory salad was not met with universal acclaim for some reason although Mrs L and I both liked it a lot. What irritates me is the picking and choosing, or that we will spend hours cooking a substantial meal and only a few hours later they will be swarming in the kitchen again, wolfing down cereal and toast as if they haven't been fed for days. Teenagers eh? Was I like this? The highlight of the weekend was probably our Italian meal, I haven't stopped jabbering about Italy since I returned from Piedmont in early March. I imported a load of goodies including a local pasta called Tajarin which we had as a primi piatti with some of my home-made ragu, and it was every bit as good as the dish I ate in an osteria in Alba. 

In other (now sadly regular) news the fence battles continue unabated. There was some minor respite on Good Friday, and for a moment we thought our anonymous adversary had perhaps gone away for Easter. Unfortunately they had not as we arrived on Saturday to one of the most egregious slashing incidents thus far that required the CoL team to come out and repair it as it was beyond the volunteers. On Sunday and Monday there was virtually no damage at all, but this morning it had been cut again, albeit only a little. Perhaps as we now re-enter the normal working week it will all start up again, my pet theory is that weekdays are more likely than weekends as people are up much earlier in order to walk their dogs before work, and the damage has always occured before we get there in the morning. So, a bum note to end on, but the Skylarks continue to sing - perhaps as many as four birds. Fingers crossed.

Thursday 28 March 2024

Red letter day

Back in 2015 one morning in April became rather a red letter day. Tim had found a Grasshopper Warbler, a patch first, in the Old Sewage Works. I'd dashed over there from where I had been on Wanstead Flats and managed to see and hear it, but literally as we were watching it news came from the Flats of a Red-Legged Partridge running around. Whilst not a patch first it was new for most of us and so I desparately dashed back over there. It wasn't to be and I had had to leave for work. But I decided to walk back across Wanstead Flats after work, and there in glorious low sunshine was a Red-legged Partridge bimbling around the football fields, happy as you like. I could scarcely believe my luck, and even managed to run home and get my camera, returning just in time to take a few photos in the dying rays of light.

It remained the only sighting for ages until Marco found one during the pandemic years, but that eluded everyone but him I think. That changed early yesterday when Tony found another one in the Skylark enclosure. It didn't show quite like the one above, but occasionally popped its head up from the long grass to have a look around. Of course being beyond the rope we couldn't get any closer (where is our knife-wielding friend when you really need him?) but it was excellent to finally get another, and it was a patch tick for at least two people who had missed the last one or not been birding here then. 

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Offensive fence offences

The battle for the fence is in full swing. On the one side, the birdwatchers of Wanstead Flats, the local wildlife group, and the Corporation of London. On the other, a small band of pathetic local vigilantes. Each morning the birders and wildlife volunteers find small sections of the fence cut, and each morning they repair it with spare rope that they carry. The next morning we find that it has been cut again and so we repair it again. This happens literally every day. It is quite tiresome and detracts from birding, but at the same time the damage is repaired very quickly and the integrity of the fence restored. Damaged or undamaged, it is having the desired effect of keep people and dogs out of the main Skylark breeding areas.

The damage is almost always where the footpaths intersect with the fence, a clear message that a person's right of way trumps wildlife. Sometimes a real rage descends, and not only is the rope near the paths cut but also anywhere where there is a sign about Skylarks. Sometimes the signs themselves are hacked to pieces. The mind boggles, really it does. Can you imagine a grown adult becoming so incensed with a sign about protected birds that their reaction is to kick it down and cut it up? I can't. This is the reponse of a truculent child, a spoilt brat. Every evening, or early morning, or possibly in the middle of the night, they sneak out with scissors or a knife and engage in this petty vandalism. No doubt it makes them feel good, important, untouchable and full of anti-woke virtue. They need to have a long hard look at themselves.

Some mornings after this red mist the damage is so severe and the Corporation has to send out a team to repair entire lengths of it. Last week I was first on site and discovered over 60 sections of fence cut through, signs slashed and thrown to the ground. As you might expect CoL are getting a little fed up of it, and rightly so. Lines have been drawn, the Police are involved, and they are out to catch the perpetrators. There is now CCTV, and signs warning of this. One person has already been caught in the act, a dog walker who in the middle of the day and casually as you like approached the fence, cut it, walked through the gap and all the way across the Skylark area before cutting the fence at the other end and walking out. Entirely deliberate, brazen. Happily they've been identified and the various follow ups that you would expect are apparently in hand. On another day a jogger decided to hop over the fence and carry on down the main path; they were apprehended on the spot by the Epping Forest Constables and told in no uncertain terms that they would not be doing that again. Turns out there was a language barrier, but at the same a physical barrier is a physical barrier and you shouldn't need to be able to read a sign to understand that a fence is there for a reason.

But the strong feeling is that the main vigilante, or possible several, are still out there and remain deeply committed to sending their message. So be it. They're outnumbered, out-gunned, and ultimately they are ineffectual - the fence remains, the Skylarks are within it and are singing away. No doubt these people are very pleased with themselves but that will change when they're caught. This isn't a one off, a mistake, oops, mea culpa. Every time the fence is damaged we're photographing it, sending the evidence to the Corporation, and a case is being built. As well as cameras there are now also patrols, official and unofficial, and we're collectively all committed to finding and stopping these people. And when that eventually happens, as surely it must as we've only got to get lucky once, they're not going to be let off with a slap on the wrist. It's gone way beyond that at this point. Watch this space.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Playing catch up

For a variety of the usual reasons I'd not spent any time on the patch for the last few weeks. My mood was buoyed on Friday by my first Chiffchaff of the year as a I took a slightly different route to work, but I felt strongly that Saturday would be the day that I would properly catch up with all that I had been missing. So it proved.

I bounced out of bed at 6.05am, annoyed with myself for oversleeping a bit. My eBird list went live at 6.24am as I stepped out of the front door. Game on. I had a little chat with Eve on Centre Path whilst not seeing very much - still too early for many things, a small flock of lingering Redwing, some excited Woodpeckers. The temperature began to rise just after 7am when Tony found a Yellowhammer - a strange combination of a skulker that could simply vanish, but also a belting bright yellow male that even began to sing from bushes. It was my tenth Yellowhammer on the patch, so a rare bird here, and the timing was pretty spot on. Of those ten records, seven of them have been in March or April. An ice-cool Richard managed to get across in time to tick it, but unfortunately couldn't stick around for the celebratory breakfast.

Of course the real prize this morning was a certain Chat. We were at exactly the half-way point in the annual Wheatear Sweepstake, mid month a prime date, and for Tony whose day it was all to play for. As we contemplated breakfast an odd Duck flew over us towards Jubilee. In almost all cases a Duck across Wanstead Flats is a Mallard, but this was completely wrong. A very small head, and a diminutive bill, pale underneath - alarm bells started to ring. This was surely a female Mandarin wasn't it? We scooted across to Jub where it had appeared to land, discussing the various things we had seen, and concluded it could only have been this. Wood Duck anyone? Frustratingly there was no sign on Jubilee, but I'd searched for Mandarin on here before knowing full well it was there and come away empty handed, so either it only thought about landing and then carried on, or it simply melted into the thick vegetation on the islands.

Breakfast from Greggs was superb and we sent Richard the bill - these are basically the rules for full fat patch tickage. As we strolled back towards VizMig a large Peregrine circled the Skylark enclosure - now enclosed again, although more on that later. Another year tick! Then, just as I was finishing my coffee, a Rook flew over. Not as rare as Yellowhammer, my 20th sighting, but really quite tricky as they are almost always flyovers and who can be bothered to check out each and every Crow as it goes over? The timing is a little early, at least for my records, with 15 out of those 20 in April, but it's a good time for things moving around and indeed Wanstead was not the only London patch to record its first Rook of 2024 yesterday.

Leaning against the fence I picked up my first Buzzard of the year, one of ten that morning once the sun had come out. Perfect, the day was proceeding exactly as planned in many ways, but with some massively unexpected bonuses. Tony and I had joined Sgt. Bob (on patrol) to check out a pale Stonechat when the moment happened. WHEATEAR! A smart male on the fence right next to us! Tony called it first, Louis still forming the letter 'W' as Tony claimed the prize and both trophies, finder and date - a new member of the exclusive 'double' club. My sixth new bird for the year, what a morning this was turning out to be!

I wasn't over yet though. Thanks to a dog walker we were alerted to a Little Owl in Centre Copse, and as the day warmed up and the raptors began to soar I felt certain I'd manage to pick out a Red Kite. This took until about 11.15, some five hours after leaving my house, but a bird flew relatively low over VizMig as I continued my vigil. My laggard performance of 74 on Friday had become 82. I basically skipped home.

The presence of a entirely reasonable sign is just so utterly offensive that it simply has to be kicked down and snapped in half.

So what about that Skylark fence? Well in 2024 it has been decided that whilst there will be a fence again it won't be as intrusive as last year, so rather than the full plastic barrier we just have the rope. It looks a lot better of course, and is far more sustainable, but also far less effective as dogs can just run straight under it. I suppose that the mere presence of a barrier of any kind will stop the majority of people, dog owners or otherwise, from crossing the area, but it feels rather weak.

Of course for some people, or perhaps just one person, even a thin blue rope is an outrage. The culture war is in full swing, and the fence that has now been up for a little over two weeks has been repeatedly vandalised. And I mean repeatedly. Day after day someone has methodically worked their way along whole sections of it cutting it between each post. It is maddening that someone can be so incensed by the thought that wildlife might be more important than they are, but this is where we are in 2024. Bob, Tim and the Corporation have just as methodically repaired each and every section, but it keeps happening and unless we can catch the perpertrator in the act I don't see that this will stop. Lines have been drawn.

You just wonder how petty, small-minded and pathetic someone has to be to come out day after day and defiantly engage in this absurd vandalism, sabotaging a well meaning-effort to safeguard what is now a mere handful of ground-nesting birds. It is just shameful, but as I said, it's a culture war. We know there are a few dog walkers who vehemently disagree with our efforts to protect the Skylarks. It is their right to walk wherever they want to, it's public land, blah blah blah. There is no educating these people because this is not about birds, or Wanstead, or even their dog. That is all a pretext. It's about their diminishing influence in the world and I see it as identical to the themes that handed us Brexit. Poisoned by the media, a certain segment of the population has come to hate liberalism, and ironically also authority. They can't tell me what to do, who do they think they are? This is my country, I can do what I want here, your woke rules don't apply. Great Britain. The fence is just a symbol, one of many things that provokes irrational rage in a particular type of person. Unisex toilets and pronouns, asylum seekers, women in power, pride flags, the mere concept of wellness, our blue fence is just another thing in a long list of things that are wrong with this country. Our scissor-wielding friend is fully on board with hating all of this, and chopping our fence is the one small act of defiance that he, for it almost certainly a he, can carry out. It probably gives him a daily sense of satisfaction that he is fighting back against the system that in his head has marginalised him. That's what this is about, a feeling of declining power and a deep concern that the era when he and people like him ruled the roost is over. Well I have news for this guy. It is over and cutting our fence every day isn't magically going to bring back the 1950s. All that's going to happen is that we're going to repair it, and the cruel system that is responsible for so many imagined woes and slights is going to move forward unabated because the world moves on whether you like it or not. Get with the program. And hope that we don't catch you.

Tuesday 12 March 2024


I had a problem. UK Air traffic control was having a melt-down, and it was not certain if my flight home to London would run. Fine fine, spend another night in France or Switzerland, no? Well yes, that's what a normal person would do but my travel plans are generally more complicated than they need to be. In this case I was due to fly to Bogota from Madrid the following evening, a trip to visit a Colombian friend who was spending some time back home after a long period in London. So I might have been able to get back to Heathrow, but would that have allowed me to catch my afternoon flight to Madrid to connect with the long haul flight? With flights being cancelled in their hundreds and no end to the chaos, would that flight even leave London? I couldn't risk it, I had to be in Madrid, and this was all on separate tickets which meant that if I missed it I was on my own and wouldn't just be put on the next one. Plus I had a day of birding planned as soon as I arrived which I did not want to miss. So in the taxi on the way to Geneva I cancelled the following day's London to Madrid flight and replaced it with one from Geneva to Madrid that was leaving imminently! This was free as it happened, the magic of airmiles and BA and Iberia being in the same alliance - the only bit of marginally good news that evening. Indeed my friends were still in Geneva airport in the small hours long after I'd arrived in Spain.

The big issue of course was that my bag for Colombia was waiting for me in London. In it were were packed lots of clean clothes for the tropics, but also more critically my birding camera and lens. Bugger. Then again I had my binoculars and my passport, all a travelling birder really needs, and I could buy some clothes in Madrid now that I had a full day there rather than a matter of hours. Not ideal, but not a complete show-stopper by any means, and I was glad I had made a snap decision and could now get on with things - it is the uncertainty that drives you mad in these situations. Of course had I planned it better I would have gone direct from Geneva to Madrid in the first place and taken everything I needed with me, but the trips were not planned in this order - Colombia was (by my standards) quite a last minute thing, squeezed between Chamonix on one end and a visit to see my Aunt in America on the other. 

I like Madrid, I come here quite a lot and know my way around quite well now. After dumping my bag at a cheap hotel that was coincidentally close to Colombia Metro I went out for the evening to a tapas place I know and had a fun time watching the city go by. Even on a Monday evening Madrid is buzzing, especially so in August. Whilst eating prawns and having a glass of wine I constructed myself a little itinerary for the following morning to take in some birding, some clothes shopping, and finally getting some US Dollars, which had also been in my bag in London ready to go and which I had forgotten about up until this point. With this plan formed I returned to Colombia and went to bed.

The next morning I was up early(ish) and had a happy three hours walking around Parque Enrique Tierno Galvan in the south of the city, chosen because there were a number of Spanish ticks available. Yes eBird does govern my every waking move, why do you ask? This was really very pleasant, it was a warm morning and whilst I only recorded 30 species five of them were new including Garden Warbler, Western Bonelli's Warbler, and Pied Flycatcher. These latter were everywhere, and I counted at least 28 as I walked a circular route around the Park, quite exceptional numbers. Some were incredibly showy as they fed up, where was my camera? Excellent, missing it already. I hoped this wouldn't also be the case in Colombia, but at least I would get there and that was the most important thing.

I had a relaxed open air lunch at a place near the park popular with office workers. This is one of the reasons (there are many more) why Europe is so much better than the UK. People take lunch seriously. At Canary Wharf it is exceptionally rare that I don't eat my lunch at my desk. In Spain I would leave my desk, roll up my sleeves and put on my hat, and go to a local restaurant for an hour and a half whilst soaking up some sunshine. Which of the two scenarios is better for the soul? Anyway, very pleasant indeed, the Europeans have it all worked out and we could learn a thing or two. After lunch, which included a nice cold beer, I went shopping at Uniqlo which is a cheap source of OK-ish light-weight clothing in my experience. Pants and socks formed the bulk of my purchases but I also picked up a couple of shirts that I could wear until I could do some washing in Bogota. I think I may have changed into one straight away. I replaced my dollars close by and then spent the rest of the afternoon being a tourist and doing things like having an icecream, some more early evening tapas, and another beer. I returned to the hotel quickly to pick up my case and repack, and then went to Barajas where I was able to have a shower and repack yet again. The flight left on time just after midnight and as I settled down in my seat a sense of complete calm and satisfaction came over me. When travelling lots of things inevitably go wrong but they are quite often surmountable with a bit of tweaking provided you don't hang around. In the event I worked out that I would have been able to manage the turnaround in London although it would have been a matter of hours at home rather than a full day, and the flight to Madrid by some miracle did in fact leave as scheduled despite the chaos. It even arrived early! Such is life I suppose, but I have no doubt that my decision was the correct one. In a few hours I would be birding the western slope of the Cordillera oriental in Cundinamarca, that was all that mattered at this juncture.

One of the murals at the Colombia Metro. Very apt indeed.

Thursday 7 March 2024


Back in August of last year I went to Chamonix with some good friends - Charlie, Ben and JT. Andy, the fifth member of the gang wasn't able to make it. We've known each for about a million years, or it seems that way. Since the start of University more or less, which is coming up to a horrendous 30 years ago. Half a lifetime, although I think the actual milestone being celebrated was 25 years since we all graduated. We met up for similar reasons in Zermatt in 2018, I'm not sure why mountains are involved. I think Charlie just likes them! 

We're all arts graduates, none of your STEM nonsense here. All four of us studied French in some way, combining it with other things. For Charlie and I that was Management Studies, and ensured a year away at a French Business School. We chose the South of France, lived together, and had a thoroughly marvellous if rather un-academic year. Ben added classics, and taught in a school in the sud-ouest during the same year, and in fact we met up a few times as Montpellier and Dax are not hugely distant in the grand scheme of things. JT went to Canada I think, he was always ambitious like that. So nearly three decades have passed and we are all still alive and broadly doing OK, let's meet up somewhere and some fun. Mountains anyone? Yes, mountains will do. 

Ben and I arrived first even though we were supposed to arrive last. JT and Charlie's earlier  flight was cancelled, whereas our later flight was not. In the ensuing chaos Charlie ended up on the next flight out the following morning, but somehow JT missed that boat (well, plane) and didn't travel until the following day by which point we were probably over the half-way point! Transport woes did not end there but I can save that for later. 

Ben and I had a riotous journey. Even though we managed to get there on the correct day our flight was really quite delayed which meant we were able to spend a lot more time in the airport lounge than originally planned. Seeing as we had the time we started with a few drinks. After working up an appetite at the bar we then had a very leisurely multi-course dinner and then moved on to after dinner drinks. Lots of after dinner drinks. We continued the after dinner drinks on the plane too and were pretty well oiled by the time we arrived in Geneva where our transfer was waiting. This is a rare event in my life, and pretty rare in Ben's too - we are normally serious people who are not stupid. On this occasion however..... I make make no apologies, we had not seen each other for a long time and despite the sad news that our travelling companions were not with us we had a lot of fun.

The next morning we were quite in need of some cool mountain air for some reason..... Up the cable car to Brévent it is then! What a view! What. A. View. I now remember why we come to the mountains. I am not a skier by the way, I tried it a couple of times in my youth and never really enjoyed it, I just found it boring and painful. Walking in the mountains in the summer however, well that's just an excellent use of time, despite my near certain tendency to be crushed by patellar tendonitis at the drop of a hat. 

Charlie met us halfway up the mountain at some point in the late morning. The band is getting back together. We went on a short walk during which my legs behaved perfectly, or did they crap out? I can't remember. Actually maybe they did let me down? Anyway, we were together again and it was all very pleasant. This is the type of friendship where even if you don't see each other for months or years it is as if time has stood still when you do get back together. I am sure you know what I am talking about. In short it's great. That evening we consumed a hundred-weight of cheese and then attempted to replicate the previous evening's antics in various bars in Chamonix, pretty successfully I might add.

The next day JT arrived reasonably early and we went up the other side of the valley to the Mer de Glace. The others are in much better shape - less Burgundy I expect - and marched up there. I could barely walk so was forced to take the red train a little later after having a nice walk birding around the town on the flat. Chamonix was gearing up for an ultra-marathon, a gruelling course where you run around the Alps day and night. For seriously fit people only, I was content just to watch these perfect humans wander round the town as they got ready.

In common with many other glaciers the Mer de Glace has retreated so far in the face of climate change that it is now a Mer de Pebble where Glace once was, but in any event the weather was pretty filthy, with cloud obscuring most of the view. We all took the train down, and back in the town the weather was nice enough to sit and have lunch outside. With Sparrows. We went for another walk along the river, the boys being kind to my legs. Very bizarre whatever this tendon is, I can walk perfectly happily either uphill or on the flat, but a single step downhill is agony once it has gone. We then repaired to the roof-top hot tub of our hotel and consumed a series of colourful drinks. This is what old guys do apparently, sit around and get pinker and more wrinkly. In the evening we sought out yet more cheese (although I passed and had something else) and then spent the rest of the evening in a very loud bar pretending we were a lot younger than we were. We fooled no-one.

Our final day and my knee still did not allow for strenuous descents so I chilled out whilst the boys climbed Mont Blanc or something. JT had had to leave already but Charlie, Ben and I had a leisurely lunch and then watched some of the superhumans complete the course which happened to finish just outside our hotel. They had been running through the night and to be fair most of them looked like it. Incredible though. Soon it was time to go, our decadent long weekend was over, and so we took a taxi back down to Geneva and had a walk around the lake until our flight home to London left. If it left that is. UK Air traffic control was having some kind of meltdown and we were not sure what was going to happen. More on that later, as it had a significant impact on my next trip and I had a decision to make. Still, a wonderful few days. Already looking forward to 2028.

Monday 26 February 2024

Fife targets

I've just returned from my first trip to Fife of the year. Seeing aged relatives was the primary purpose as ever, but I find there is always time to sneak in a little bit of birding here and there, especially if I travel over a weekend. 

I arrived on Wednesday morning, leaving so early that I'd had to stay in an airport hotel the previous evening as there was no way I could have got there on public transport in the morning. I hadn't considered this when I booked the ticket, I had just assumed it would be fine, and that London, the capital and one of the largest cities in the world would have functioning transport links that would allow me to cross it no matter what time of day. Well now I know. I am kind of surprised I didn't know actually, maybe it is simply a coincidence that I've never taken this particular flight before and thus had never had to test it out. I could have taken a taxi, but this was more expensive than the hotel and would have meant getting up in the middle of the night. As it was I only had to get up at 4am.... 

So after three full days of work I had a bit of me time. Saturday morning I went and looked at the sea at Leven, then Cameron Reservoir which had a very lovely drake Smew, and then somewhat speculatively checked out a particular tree near St Andrews that had had some Waxwing in it on Friday. Remarkably it still had Waxwing in it nearly 24 hours later, a new bird for my Fife list. In the afternoon we went into Edinburgh to see my sister. I was fortunate to be able to use one of her tickets for the Rugby at Murrayfield, and so the afternoon was spent with my nephew watching Scotland spank England and win the Calcutta Cup for the fourth time in a row. Excellent. I wore my (very old) white shirt with pride, but it is a febrile atmosphere and the travelling fans were very much outnumbered. My nephew was wearing blue.... Then a lovely birthday dinner which was the main purpose for the visit.

Sunday I started early, heading west towards Rosyth via Loch Gelly. My luck was in as there were Jack Snipe ringers working St Margaret's Marsh. Having seen just one Jack Snipe in Fife before my tally is now eight by virtue of standing on the path watching as the ringers (armed with thermal imagers and a big net) attempted to sneak up on birds. I only saw them miss four by about the halfway point, but they reported 8-0 when they stopped for a break after about an hour. As I headed back towards the car I occasionally stopped and scoped them up, seeing them miss another three. Common Snipe numbered about 50, these of course getting up way before the guys got anywhere near them.

Next stop the Tay at Newburgh, somewhere I had never managed to get to in all my many visits up here. It was a clear and calm day, and I felt sure I would have a good chance of Bearded Tit in the reeds of Mugdrum Island, halfway across the river but still in Fife. These are very irregularly reported, no doubt because of the perfect conditions needed to see them. The slightest breeze and you would probably fail, but Sunday was gloriously calm, both the Forth and the Tay like glass. My scope was at the full 50x magnification, and they were still tiny, but my luck was in and I found a group of eight really quite quickly. Another Fife tick and this puts me on 199. Exciting! 

200 could have been on the cards as I headed towards a spot I'd heard about for Goshawk. Fife is well wooded, and there are apparently quite a few pairs, but they are as hard to see as elsewhere and news is of course kept to an absolute minimum. As I headed east however the weather changed markedly, as can often happen up here, with dark clouds and quite a heavy mist bearing in mind it was close to midday by now. I abandoned my planned vigil when I passed Cupar and instead went and dipped Dipper at Ceres. From there I went to my favourite spot at Letham before doubling back to the coast at Leven for a simply brilliant extended scan of Largo Bay - I was going to call it a sea-watch and then realised that wasn't quite like that. So then I came up with bay-watch, but....oh nevermind. Anyway, Velvet and Common Scoters, Black-necked Grebe (rare here), multiple Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Long-tailed Ducks and Mergansers, Auks, Kittiwakes, two species of Diver, waders on the beach.... Wonderful, I love it here. A quick stop off at a nearby hill for Red Grouse and Short-eared Owl and my time was up. I'd crammed quite a lot into the weekend and ended on 93 species for my trip, with nothing added on Monday as I was working again. As usual there were Bullfinches and Tree Sparrows in my parents' garden.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Cooking and wine

I've had an extremely productive weekend. A bit of birding on Saturday morning netted Treecreeper, Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and a Bacon bap. The bacon bap is usually the highlight of any morning birding in Wanstead, and to be fair it was pretty good, but today it was eclipsed by the birds. None of them are rare, but they are all tricky. I was aiming for them all of course, but without any real feeling of certainty so to get them all, probably in the space of an hour or so, was really quite unexpected and very pleasing. 72 for the year - above average.

Back home I blitzed my to-do list, including a long and tedious admin exercise that I had been putting off since September. It was not as difficult as I had remembered it being, but it is one of those things that you simply have to get right, the stakes are genuinely high. I've done it once before, successfully I might add, but it was probably the most stressful fortnight of my entire life. Miracle of miracles it came off, still a massive high and one of the things that when I look back I am most impressed with having done. The time pressure and various other sensitivities aren't there this time, but still. It's impossible to approach it with anything other than anxiety. Anyway, step one is done and now we wait. 

I was going to devote some time to gardening but wasn't feeling it. Instead I turned my hand to cooking - a massive ragu that will provide several days of meals when we next need them most. This would have been ideal during the mental Ofsted/Year End period a few weeks back, but those times are never far away and will no doubt return. This is what we need - no takeaways, no ready meals, no garbage - forward planning like this means you can eschew all that. I use a traditional recipe that involves a massive amount of vegetable chopping - carrots, celery and onion. I put on an old episode of my favourite radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, and got to work. Each one is two hours long, and I was still on the carrots when the Powdermilk Biscuits segment came on at the end of the first half hour. By the time the hour mark came up I was into the onions, but that's an hour of chopping - you have to cut everything into tiny cubes and this is just not my forté. Mrs L came back from choir and helped me over the line, but the show had finished long before I had even got to the simmering stage - almost all of that time in prep.

The recipe calls for a whole bottle of red and there is no such thing as cooking wine in Chateau L. I opened the cheapest red I had and it was just delicious, a bottle of 2016 Cairanne, a wine I'd bought for under a tenner some years ago and patiently put aside. Five years ago it would have been a blow your socks off full-throttle alcoholic mess, but good things come to those who wait. So much so that I couldn't do it, a quick taste confirmed that this would be sacrilege. Instead I poured myself a big glass and went and found something else. Although pricier, this time there was no looking back, no hesitation, and in it went - 2019 Syrah from Yves Cuilleron, a producer from the Northern Rhone. Still a waste, but c'est la vie. The house smells lovely....

Do you see what I mean about the amount of chopping?

Getting there

There are some wines I simply would not cook with though. There is a category of wine for pure hedonistic consumption with like-minded people. Nerds. My people.  I've always drunk wine, it was as long ago as 1995 when I bought by first en-primeur case (where you buy it as a 'future', before it has been bottled), but during lockdown my interest in wine grew exponentially. When the world opened up again I did something very unlike me and joined some online wine forums. Some chat groups are all about online discussion but this was different, it was always destined to culminate in actually meeting real people. Whoa! I still remember turning up at a venue in Crouch End back in 2021, bottle in hand and full of trepidation. What would these people be like? Would they be normal? What if I don't like them? What if they don't like me! More importantly, what if my wine is terrible!! The shame! Etc etc. I needn't have worried - everyone likely felt the same way but it went well, so well that I now have a group of new friends and we meet up all the time for themed tastings or dinners. Sharing good wine is a genuine pleasure, and whilst courtesy of this group and others I've rotated into I've drunk some ridiculously good wine, it's still really about the people, their enthusiasm, their generosity, their knowledge, humour, and kindred spirit. The next one is coming up at the end of the month, a comparison of French and South African syrah from top producers. My entry is French, from Hermitage in the Northern Rhone, the middle one in the photo below. With the other bottles being brought by my friends it promises to be an epic evening, if you're into that kind of thing of course. Once upon a time I would have laughed at this kind of thing, the wine I drank I was divided into two categories - nice and eugh. But times change, people change, and along with birds, plants, photography and travel, wine is a full-fledged all-consuming hobby. I just wish I'd cottoned earlier.

I have now have a shelf in my cellar for wines scheduled for sharing at various events.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Go west young man

Last Friday I worked from home. When I was done, I stood up from my desk, walked downstairs, got in the car, and drove to Cardiff. This was not my ideal evening all things considered, but Mrs L had long ago organised a family get-together with her sisters and their families, none of whom live in Cardiff but they all like it. Of course this was not an entirely random destination...

Yes, number one child now lives in Cardiff. For you old-timers out there the little kid that I dragged here there and everywhere birdwatching from around 2009 onwards is now an enormous twenty year old at Cardiff university. How time flies. I mean he is not even a teenager any more! Anyway, we don't see him very often, but we still hear from him all the time. Sorry my mistake, we don't hear from him either, so travelling to Cardiff is a good way to establish contact. It's not a massive undertaking, but neither is it just popping round the corner. So off we went. 

To cut a long story short he was in Bristol...

But he did show up the following morning (having had precisely zero hours of sleep) and spent the day with us and the extended family which was very nice. Despite 36 hours and counting of being awake, once he had a couple of beers down him in a Cardiff pub he perked up a lot, and with an important Rugby match on found the kind of second wind that once upon a time I could summon on request but that these days rather eludes me. 

A partisan crowd. We had to be very quiet at the end...

For the younger children - not that much younger is has to be said - Cardiff on Friday and Saturday nights was rather an eye-opener. If anything Saturday was more exuberant than Friday with people able to kick things off that much earlier. Hen parties seemed to get going shortly after midday, and by mid afternoon they had already reached the drunken barefoot lurching around streets stage, heels in hand. The vomiting presumably started shortly thereafter. We left the city centre and went to Cardiff Bay for the afternoon, but when we returned in the evening things were in full swing. And I mean full swing. I am a very boring person as everyone knows and I barely go out in the evenings. When I do it is to genteel middle-aged things like wine tastings, restaurants and recitals, and so the scenes that greeted us were as much of an eye-opener for me as for the kids. KFC has bouncers on the door, this is the level I am talking about. On a short walk down the main drag that earlier that day had been populated by familes out shopping I narrowly avoided a hug from a drunk, had to sidestep more than a few puddles (liquid and solid) and got flashed by a young lady who had almost no clothes on yet still seemed insistent that everyone see parts of her that were marginally covered. This was with my youngest daughter on one arm and wearing my woolly hat by the way, I was not exactly cart-wheeling down the street pint in hand.

Cardiff has a bit of thing for Arcades.

Cardiff street life c2000 years ago. More or less unchanged judging by the people crawling along the floor.

The next morning this had all been swept away and the main pedestrian area was civilised once more. The street with a thousand kebab shops on had seen heavier use, and despite some remedial action was still rather sludgy... yuck. Despite pubs already being open again we opted for a museum and then Cardiff Castle for lunch, after which we bade goodbye to one and all and headed back for the long drive east.

So that was the weekend, and whilst there were no birds I thought I had better bash something out lest people think I was phasing again. I did add Coot to my Wales list from the pub window, but that was about it - I didn't even have my bins with me which is essentially the story of February. A shame really as I rather had the bit between my teeth from a blogging perspective in January. Anyway, it will be March soon and everyone knows what arrives in March. Don't they?

Do I have to say it's name?


Do I have to say it's name?


Say what?