Category Archives: art

Underneath the bridge

Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling

– Nirvana, Something in the Way

Sometimes, life clings onto existence despite our best efforts.

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Underside of bridge, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf

There is, perhaps, nowhere in the UK as synthetically urban as Canary Wharf. The towers of glass and steel, the steeples of Mammon, that rise out of the graveyard of industrial London’s docklands. Concrete on top of brick on top of mud with the wild ghosts of the ancient marshlands which, for the last two hundred years, have been choked and buried beneath rubble, foundations, and man-made waterways.

But still life pushes its way through, crowding the unloved and functionless corners and crannies. These are places of ‘weeds’ (“a plant growing in the wrong place”); ‘wrong’ as in unwanted.

Underneath a bridge on the eastern boundary of Canary Wharf, pushing aside the pebbles and litter grows a selection of these weeds in the shadows of the graffiti-emblazoned concrete. Catching only the morning sun and occasional spray of horizontally blown rain, these are hardy plants defying the odds of survival like some rarely encountered high-altitude mountain perennial.

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Plants and litter

Amidst the rubble and litter (and yes, those are a pair of pink mens’ boxer shorts), I counted at least 12 species of plant, and there were probably many more.

These are the ‘despite’ organisms. Things that flourish despite the best efforts of humans to sanitise the environs for the office workers like me. ‘Weed’ is a word constructed by humans placing a subjective value judgement on another living being; its life reduced to its value, or in this case ‘lack of’ value, in relation to our lives. This can also be said of the word ‘nature’, almost defined by its ‘otherness’ to the life, existence, and influences of humans, as if, really, we are anything other than just one of the 8.7 million species of lifeforms clinging to this rock as we all hurtle through space.

But perhaps there is an ‘otherness’, not so much of the perceived inferiority of all other life on our home planet, but in the way that we desperately seek to separate ourselves from it, to tame it, to exploit it, or simply to destroy it. That ‘otherness’ has been culturally stamped into us through the centuries by the Abrahamic religions and their comprehensive rejection of anything that might be perceived as ‘animism’. That ‘otherness’ that justifies our subjugation of everything else in the world in the name of ‘progress’.

Setting aside the organisms trampled by ‘progress’ – the birds, butterflies, mammals, and plants now extinct due to the excesses of us – these swarming narcissistic bald apes – a few living beings have the audacity to flourish in our shadows. The ‘weeds’ under the bridge; the gulls that circle the fish market just a short walk from the bridge; the rats that are largely unseen, but we all know are there under the bridge and shudder because of it; and the feral pigeons that roost and brood in the gaps under the bridge. These are organisms that disgust us; feeders on filth, parasites, and vermin. But what really disgusts us? Is it the rats, and pigeons, and weeds, or the fact that they simply reflect the wasteful profligacy with which we live our lives? 

‘Nature’ is ‘good’ when it is beamed into our warm living rooms preserved within the aspic of pixels and remoteness, and preferably with a voiceover by Sir David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. The vulnerability of distant endangered creatures pulling at our heart-strings as we cook, burn, pollute, and trash our planet, whilst the small section of life that has adapted rather well to our appetite for excess and destruction, makes us recoil in fear and disgust.

If you ever want to be reminded that humanity and nature are ‘one’, just take a long hard look underneath the bridge.

If this post was a little hard for you to stomach, don’t worry I shall return with quainter tales of patch birding soon. If this post intrigued you, you may wish to investigate some of these thoughts – more elegantly and thoughtfully put – through The Dark Mountain Project.

Amsterdam

So, Amsterdam, where have you been all my life?

I have actually been to Amsterdam a few times before, but only changing flights at Schiphol so I had never actually seen the famous city. I rectified that last weekend with my wife and in-laws (my sister in-law is lucky enough to live in this amazing city).

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It is, of course, the city that never should have been. A city reclaimed from the sea, with a web of famous canals below sea level while the city itself is propped up by pillars.

The famous canals curve round to feed (or, more accurately, be fed by) the Amstel and the mighty IJ – defined by some as  a river and others a lake, whilst it looks like a narrow strip of sea to me from the map. The Amstel not only gave its name to the beer, but to the city itself.

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The Amstel

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Amsterdam is also famous for bicycles (millions of these!), and art…

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.

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The Rijksmuseum

The Vermeer’s are exquisite , the Rembrandt’s are sublime, and there are some other hidden gems in this huge gallery that drew my attention but wouldn’t, perhaps, be featured in any highlight guide of the museum.

From the titillating (this painting of a young woman removing her stocking and exposing her thighs was seen as so outrageously erotic when first unveiled, it was partially painted over)…

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Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1655-1660

… to the spiritual. I was captivated by this chap (below). His name is Ajita. He is one of the legendary Arhats or lohans, a Buddhist sage tasked with preserving the doctrines until the time when the teachings can be understood. He is listening carefully and serenely to a sutra being recited. In an age where we struggle to listen, I think many of us could learn from Ajita.

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A lohan, anonymous. China, c.1200-1400

I drooled over the museum’s library…

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Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…

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Drake Pintail, Rochus van Veen. 1682

Amsterdam is, of course, famous for one or two other things as well. All I will say on those matters is that if the salesperson in a coffeeshop tells you that a ‘space-cake’ is for sharing between two, don’t eat a whole one!

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Coffeeshop, Amsterdam

The Two Towers

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers, Leytonstone

I was surveying trees on the patch when something caught my eye above the tree-line. Four shapes danced and tumbled together acrobatically in the air. It was a family of Peregrine. They raced, swerved, practised food hand-offs, and span, all with dizzying speed. These were the closest and best views I have had of Peregrine on the patch – they normally seem to be on their way somewhere else, but today this bit of sky was their play and bonding ground.

With no cliffs or hills on the ‘Flats’ (the clue’s in the name), the falcons eventually came to rest, split up and perched on the two towers:

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco perigrinus)

The towers they perched on are 50 years old this year. They are the tallest local structures and stand like sentinels over the Wanstead Flats. When I return from a day on the patch, I head towards the towers as that is my direction home. I can even see them and their neapolitan-style colouration (representing the green of the flats, the beige and grey of the urban, and the blue of the sky – or so I assume) from my office window several miles to the south in Canary Wharf.

I have always had a soft spot for the best of the 1960’s brutalist architecture: the scale, the clean angles, the functionality, and the fact that so many people love to hate them. These local features mean something to me and so I recently bought some original artwork to celebrate them:

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Hand drawing of ‘Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers’ by Sarah Evans aka Oscar Francis

In the shadow of the towers stretches something much older: Evelyn Avenue and the grass land, scrub, and copses of the semi-re-wilding ‘School Scrub’ of the Wanstead Flats.

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Evelyn Avenue

This time last week, I assisted with a wildlife walk in the area…

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Me showing a temporarily captured Small Heath butterfly to a group of locals

Shortly after this was taken I also found the first ringlet butterfly on the patch this year. This evening, after heavy rains, the grasses only gave up the odd Skipper butterfly as well as hundreds of tiny Garden Grass Veneer micro moths (Chrysoteuchia culmella).

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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

In recent weeks I have seen all three resident species of the Skipper family in the area (the other two being the ‘Large’ and the ‘Essex’). All being grassland specialists, they seem to be doing well on the patch. The Wanstead Flats is surely the richest grassland habitat in London, and possibly in any major city.

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Grasses in School Scrub

Birding the Yucatan: Part I

Disclaimer: If you are looking for a standard trip report, this multi-part meander may not be for you, although you could zip through the text focusing in on the species in bold, and the photos – I will also give a few location details in later sections. 

Introduction and an excuse

The Yucatan Peninsula is the Southern claw of the crab of land that stretches around the Gulf of Mexico (the Northern claw is Florida) – or that is how I have always looked at it on a map.

Tropical, lush, and archaeologically rich, with hundreds of miles of beaches and coral reefs (second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size). Little wonder it attracts vast numbers of tourists; mostly crowded together in holiday towns like Cancun and Playa del Carmen or in one of the many huge gated resorts where they roll from the all-you-can-eat buffet to the sun lounger and back again, seemingly oblivious to Mexico that is happening all around them. If my tone appears to be sneering, I should add that for almost a week of my two weeks in the Yucatan, I stayed in one of those resorts and can certainly see some of the appeal.

We were there for a wedding, we did touristy things, and partied a few times like my 35 year-old body can barely manage anymore. But I also attempted to do some birding.

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Magnificent Frigate Bird (Fregata magnificens) – rarely out of sight on the coast

I say “attempt”, because I am a little embarrassed by my species haul (only 87). This is partly down to the fact that it was not a birding holiday and so I was often doing other things, but also because I failed to be out early enough (due to a combination of: not planning ahead, driving too far and so arriving too late for the best birds (it was often over 40 degrees centigrade), and the fact that going to bed at 7am is not conducive to getting up at… err… 6am to go birding (if you know what I mean). I also did all of the birding alone and without a guide, although I realise that is nothing to brag about in this day and age.

But, excuses aside, there were some birds that were almost impossible to miss…

The Ubiquitous

The first bird I saw, soon after stepping off the plane was Tropical Mockingbird – a life tick for me (its range skirting many of the countries I have visited before) that seemed to rarely be out of eye-line or ear-shot.

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Adult Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) with young

If any bird could compete with the above in terms of common presence and volume of voice, then it was surely the Great-tailed Grackle. A bird I remember well from Costa Rica and the southern states of the USA where these jack-of-all-trade opportunists have massively expanded their range; they are brazen and omnipresent even in the urban centres.

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Male Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) gaping in the stifling heat at Chichen Itza

While on the subject of scavengers, it was also difficult to raise your eyes to the skies and not see an American Black Vulture (almost half the size of its Eurasian namesake) or Turkey Vulture (maybe someone can explain to me why some Americans call this vulture a Buzzard?) soaring on the thermals or cruising over the treetops sniffing out carrion.

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American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)


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Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

As with Costa Rica, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Tropical Kingbird were present in almost every location we visited, but I was disappointed not to add Boat-billed Flycatcher to my list.

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Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis texensis)

I didn’t see many species of dove, but those I did see were common flavours nearly everywhere I went: White-winged Dove (these guys are everywhere), the introduced Collared Dove (that I am well familiar with back in the UK), Ruddy Ground Dove (one of my favourite miniature doves), Feral Pigeon, and Common Ground Dove [listed in approximate declining order of commonality].

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White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica mearnsi)


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Ruddy Ground Dove (Columbina talpacoti)

Once these common birds had been ticked off the list, many others were somewhat harder to find, but they shall be the stars of my next instalments.

To be continued…

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIX (birding in mist and fog)

A foggy patch

The Wanstead Flats often wears a coat of early-morning mist.

Western Flats at dawn

Western Flats at dawn

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Two weekends ago I walked around mesmerised by the familiar landscape and how different it can appear. As the sun rose, the mist disappeared like it was a mirage, and the day blazed with early-autumn warmth.

Water Rail
At the other end of the patch, literally the eastern extremity from my home in the West, I bumped into Bob Vaughn by the river Roding. He had just been watching two Water Rail wade and swim against the flow of the river. We stayed together for a while and eventually Bob spotted one of them in the distance gingerly poking its head out of the reeds in that way that rails do. That was my 94th patch tick of the year.

It was a long way away, but I managed to get this snap of it in the distance:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

If your BS detector isn’t squealing at you now like a water rail, then it should be. The photo above is actually one I took in January of this year at Rainham when I was literally a few feet away from the bird which was out in the open – a highly unusual situation. The actual photo I took in Wanstead wasn’t quite as good:

Water Rail

I stayed ‘with’ the rail for about an hour and was peering at the place where it had been from across the river when a pig started squealing beneath my feet. Of course, it wasn’t a pig. It was the other water rail hidden deep in the reeds below me.

Misty river
The following weekend I drove out to the Thames at Rainham in Essex. The area is known as ‘stone barges’ after the concrete and steel barges moored there – it blows my mind that these things actually floated, but apparently they were actually used during the second world war to transport fuel (I am feeling slightly scared I am being gullible just writing this).

Unlike the low carpet of fog on the patch the weekend before, the Thames at Rainham was engulfed in mist.

I walked along, with my scope, watching Redshank, tens of Meadow Pipits, a probable Tree Pipit, a distant Wheatear, loads of skylark, and a Stonechat (some of them captured far better than I did by local birder, Shaun Harvey, who I met along the way). A dog-walker stopped me and commented that it wasn’t very good weather to take photos. I was a bit confused as I wasn’t taking photos, I was looking through a spotting scope, but I exchanged pleasantries and walked on.

It was only after we had parted ways that I realised how much I disagreed with the man. It is true that the cloud joined earth and sky with a blurring or negating of horizon like some bridge between the elements, but just as watercolour often displays a washed out bleakness in art, so can the camera pick up some of the mood of this weather. Perhaps pathetic fallacy in action, although my mood was pretty good and clear but I just wanted to show I haven’t forgotten my literary terms from my days in academia:

Thames at Rainham

Thames at Rainham

Thames

Thames

Later that day I also visited the nearby RSPB reserve – on the other side of the gigantic rubbish dump from Stone Barges – where I listened to numerous Cetti’s Warbler with their calls exploding out of the mist and watched a distant Heron move through the dense atmosphere; the moisture in the air removing most of the colour from the scene, but none of the beauty:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

And eventually, that evening, when the fog had gone (if you are questioning my use of ‘mist’ and ‘fog’ interchangeably, I believe I am correct in understanding these blurry weather forms are indeed blurred in definition as well), I raised my eyes to the newly blue sky. There in the far and high distance, was a dot. That dot was a soaring Marsh Harrier, that I ambitiously pointed my camera at:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part VIII (Ode to Spring)

The lark and birders call Spring

This year I reckon I missed the start of Spring by a few days – on account of being squirrelled away in an air-conditioned glass tower for fifty or more hours a week.

However, as soon as I set foot out on the patch on Sunday it was clear that my favourite season had begun. The weather was a bit of a giveaway, but the flora and fauna that were out to play were pretty conclusive signs. Most notably, a number of singing Skylark:

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly after I took this photo, the lark ascended into full song-flight mode. It really does have to be one of the great songbird spectacles and an increasingly rare one in the UK (Skylark is red-listed), and even rarer in London. Wanstead Flats is one of the best, if not THE best, breeding sites for Skylark in the capital. Last year there were seven distinct singing males recorded.

Skylark

I counted at least three discrete singing males, but didn’t have time to try and count more. I had an appointment to make in Wanstead Park that morning, but first I had one more bird I wanted to see. A female Stonechat – probably a passage migrant – had been seen the day before. On Sunday, however, the female had been replaced by an even more splendid male. It was very flighty – understandable as a passage migrant not used to the surroundings:

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

I did not have time to get a better photo, but you can see much better photos of it, and Saturday’s female here, here, and here. Worth noting that all three of these local birders have called Spring in their blogs as well.

That Stonechat was my 61st patch-bird of 2015 and I was very grateful to Tony aka The Cowboy Birder for pointing it out to me given my lack of time that morning. I should also tip my hat to my neighbour, Dan Hennessy, who first spotted the female Stonechat on Saturday.

Counting birds, not just crows
I was rushing through the patch to meet another patch birder, the very knowledgeable Tim Harris, Chairman of a local conservation society I belong to, The Wren Group.

Tim was leading the regular local count for the BTO’s Wetland Bird Survey. We counted birds on all the major bodies of water in Wanstead Park, noticing the inevitable significant declines – even from a month ago – of the winter flocks of ducks and gulls, such as this second winter (?) Common Gull (Mew Gull if you are reading this from the States) on Heronry lake in the park:

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Several of us walked and counted our way around the main acres of water bodies in the park, and I was even kindly given access to the Basin lake on Wanstead golf course which was a rare treat for someone who normally just presses his nose up against the railings from the nearby road like a boy at a sweetshop window:

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

It was during this bird count, when I took a slight detour along the river Roding, that I snapped my 62nd patch bird of the year so far:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Aside from the Egret and the dwindling ducks, we also spotted several clear signs of Spring, including my first butterfly of the year:

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

… and some Spring flora such as Lesser Celandine (recently discovered to be potentially deadly despite having been eaten and used medicinally for years):

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Ode to Spring
To belatedly begin a more literary theme for this post, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s association with this flower. Whilst he may have been more famous for writing about a certain other yellow flower, it is believed he actually preferred the Lesser Celandine to the Daffodil:

I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
T’was a face I did not know.
– Ode to Celandine

In fact our great Romantic Poet was believed to have liked the flower so much that it was requested it should be carved on his coffin. Unfortunately, a different flower, the Greater Celandine was mistakenly carved on it instead. Oops!

Aside from the Celandine, we also saw some other flowers that I have started listing and tracking on a map – yes I really am that sad – although I am not bringing it out for display just yet:

Flowers

I genuinely enjoy all the seasons, but Spring is my favourite (pretty uncontentious in my opinion there I realise) and I am very happy to see it arrive.

Springtime has obviously also been a favourite of poets for centuries, and the Romantic Poets in particular. Rather than celebrating Spring with some other gushingly serious romantic poem, I am reminded of the more light-hearted and rude ‘Ode to Spring’, by Wordsworth’s Scottish contemporary, Robert Burns, which opens:

[WARNING: PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY BAD LANGUAGE OR LEWDNESS]

When maukin bucks, at early fucks,
In dewy grass are seen, Sir,
And birds, on boughs, take off their mows
Among the leaves sae green, Sir;
Latona’s sun looks liquorish on
Dame Nature’s grand impetus
Till his prick go rise, then westward flies
To roger Madame Thetis.

Roll-on the arrival of Spring and Summer migrants!

A Big Birding Year: Part XXIII (Crow and the blurry man … an apology for poor photography)

I have taken up many column inches (can you use that term with a blog?) bemoaning how difficult it is to photograph birds (see here and here) as even with expensive glass (long and powerful lenses), you really need to be quite close to birds to get a clear shot.

I have also explained how most poor quality shots can be used for record purposes only and never find themselves languishing in their blurry noisiness on the world wide web.

*storytime* A few days ago, I lay in bed with a severe case of near-fatal man-flu (watch this immediately!). Lying in my sick-bed, feeling very sorry for myself, I peered out of my bedroom window and saw a wonderful thing… A THRUSH! My dire illness was momentarily forgotten and I sprang out of bed like a child on Christmas morning. I quickly assembled my camera and started snapping directly through our rather grimy windows (the outsides at least – whatever happened to traditional window cleaners?) and across the road diagonally at a spotty bird perched on a roof.

A thrush, but which one?

A thrush, but which one?

By the time I had opened the window to get a clearer shot, the bird had flown. My clammy little fingers zoomed in on the view screen and I squinted at the distant fuzzy images with the heavy breath of anticipation. “Have I finally snapped the elusive Song Thrush which has evaded me all year so far?” Despite desperately willing to see Song Thrush traits, even with an image as poor as this, enough signs are there to tell me I had photographed a Mistle Thrush again and so not a new tick for my year. In case you are interested to know what thought processes (speed/eventually work their way through) my mind, here is a visual representation:

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

A clear, close view and image of a Thrush would be easy to identify, but distant and obscured views help hone identification skills which are the vital ingredient in any good birder.

Yesterday, I ambled around the London Wetland Centre seeing a lot of not very much (if you know what I mean). I couldn’t go home without taking any photos so I lazily snapped at some distant gulls. It was only when I was back at home with my finger hovering over the delete button, that I realised that my poor quality shot contained something quite interesting. No, unfortunately not some rare gull, but rather a view that reminded me of a famous classical and renaissance subject of philosophy and art: the Three Ages of Man:

Giorgione,_Three_Ages

You may feel I am attempting to inject culture into a fuzzy image of some birds, but actually … well… anyway… here is what I saw: The “Three Ages of Gull”, or more precisely (and ignoring the Coot in the water) left to right, what I believe to be a juvenile Herring Gull approaching its first winter, a second winter Herring Gull, and a third winter Herring Gull on the right:

European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The photo quality is crap, but I still feel like I have captured something special (Mummy says I am special).

Even when you get close enough to get a reasonable quality image, things in the background can spoil the picture. But sometimes those eye-sores and boo-boos can add value to the image. And so it was yesterday in a local park with a Carrion Crow and a blurry pedestrian in the background:

Carrion Crow (Corvix corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvix corone)

As the man walked out of shot, the Crow shuddered and ruffled its feathers giving this evil-associated, intelligent scavenger the momentary look of a cute lil fluffy thing:

I am the cute one, he was just a stranger

I am the cute one, he was just a stranger

And so I conclude… wildlife photography and birding aren’t just about razor-sharp images and rare birds (ticks in a book), but also about some of the magic of happenstance (or at least that is what I tell myself).

Post Scriptum I am sure I needn’t really explain that the word ‘apology’ in the title refers to the ancient meaning of defence and justification, rather than saying ‘sorry’.