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?


Sunday 4 February 2024

A quiet weekend

The weekend has been about recovery here in Chateau L. For me it has been for catching my breath after a torrid couple of weeks at work - there is one left and it should then calm down a little bit. I'm exhausted, my industry is a young man's game. I have the knowledge, lots of it, gleaned over many years, but the energy.....not as much as I once had. The hunger, the ambition? Limited to doing a good job and making it to Friday. I was hoping that at this stage in my career things might be getting easier and that the 11pms might be a distant memory. Alas no, each year is harder than the one before. Gruelling is what it is. I am resilient but it stacks up. The people are what make it tolerable - champions all of them, no doubt more than a few of the older ones would echo my thoughts. 

Mrs L is a teacher and last week Ofsted arrived. It's probably as good a time as there has ever been to be inspected by Ofsted but that doesn't make it any easier. They arrive with almost no notice and can delve into anything they want. Which they did. The ramifications of a bad result are enormous, imagine the pressure, the stress that the staff are under. Four days, four categories, five possible words. There wasn't much sleep last week. She is shattered, I've never seen her so tired, but she's through it and its over. 

Unsurprisingly come Saturday morning neither of us were really up to much. The Sociable Plover in Cornwall? Not a chance. I didn't even make it out onto the patch until about 11am, that's how slow I was. When I did get out it was pretty decent though - a vaguely regular Caspian Gull on Alexandra Lake waited long enough after being found for me to pedal down there, and then a little later I found Mistle Thrush and Cetti's Warbler in the Old Sewage Works. These three take me to 69 for the year, a pretty solid start all things considered, certainly higher than the last two years. I do enjoy birding around here, even during the quiet season. There are still ten or so realistic targets before Spring gets underway so I've played it quite well, rather than the whole of February to get through with nothing to see there is still interest out there.

Caspo in 100 pixels.

This short trip nearly sent me back to bed, but I plucked up the courage to instead have an Espresso Martini which brought me back to life. The rest of the afternoon was then spent caressing a glass of Chambolle-Musigny - well, several glasses actually - and then we spent some quality time cooking together. I say cooking, I am very much a sous chef when Mrs L is around. A junior sous chef. A junior trainee sous chef. My role is to fetch things for her and clear up after her. Sometimes I put things away before she has used them which can result in being fired but which is always fun. It would be easier without me apparently. Yes, but then I would be lonely, and anyway, I like thinking I am being helpful. 

Today is more of the same precocious inactivity. I could not be bothered to go birding, but I did make it down to the greenhouse for almost the first time this year. I have about as much fungus as plants it seems, but that will dry up and clean off once the sun starts to appear for longer. For now it was about a brief watering to keep stuff going, wake things up a bit. The proper work will start in March I expect. I always look forward to it whilst partly dreading it. What will I find, what has died? This year I cracked and put the heating on down there during the cold snap, so actually things looks pretty good. I learned that lesson the hard way last year, not this time. It was nice to see plants I've not looked at for weeks, reminding myself of my plans for them this summer, what needs repotting and so on. Roll on Spring, for all sorts of reasons.