Tag Archives: Peregrine Falcon

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

Peregrine: hit the deck!

So there I was, doing my tree survey (more on that another time) and minding my own business when a delinquent juvenile came and shook everything up. Literally!

I was by Alexandra lake when I noticed a lot of bird alarm calling. Then everything hit the deck or the water… crows, gulls, and pigeons all happily circling a minute earlier were suddenly grounded. I ran out from under the trees expecting to see a Peregrine passing high overhead. But it wasn’t. It was dive bombing birds on the ground!

There is a steep hillock on the western side of Alex and the Peregrine was out of view so I ran some more along the northern shore and around the side of the hill to hopefully get a better view.

“Be careful what you wish for” old people like saying. I now think they have a point. As I emerged into view of the pitches, the Peregrine was hurtling straight towards me at head height! For half a second I genuinely thought it was going to attack me, and even with hindsight, I think for half a second it actually contemplated it, but it pulled up hard and over me and it was then that I realised what was ‘wrong’. As it exposed its undersides to me, in my closest ever experience with a wild Peregrine, I could see the heavy streaking rather than the usual barring; it was a juvenile.

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Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I thought it would take a lot to top my Peregrine experience last week. But, this was something else. For the next ten minutes or so, I watched this youngster race around like some kind of avian joy-rider. Nothing was going to stop it and it would quite like to kill EVERYONE! I watched it plummet on a grounded crow, knock it sideways, and then try and jump on it from just a few feet away (this second time sidestepped by the stunned corvid).

It circled around the pitches like it was a Nascar racer. There was none of the careful watching from on high, followed by a well-aimed stoop, this was just hit and run. Soon, the grounded birds got fed up, or rather, pissed off. Some of the gulls and crows took off to mob this angry annoyance.

Thousands and thousands of generations of genetic programming have turned the Peregrine into a fine tuned killer. Every one of its physical attributes, its senses, and – most importantly perhaps – its instincts are honed to kill. This juvenile had those instincts in spades – possibly heightened by teenage hormones (I am clearly making this up now, but watching it did make me wonder), but not all that much of the skill or preciseness of an adult.

Courageous crows would mob the Peregrine, but then – using manoeuvring that would not be out of place in a Star Wars space battle scene – the falcon would turn the tables and attack its attackers. At one point, it sped towards a London Plane tree, surprised a perched crow and snatched at it with its talons sending the corvid spinning. The crow survived, the Peregrine had only a black feather in its talons.

If my description thus far has failed to persuade you that this falcon was a furious, feathered teenager, then try this out for size… it kept hold of the feather and landed on the football pitches where it proceeded to jump and stamp, and tear and rip at the feather like petulant brat…

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Peregrine attacking crow … err… feather

I am not sure who was more breath-taken: the falcon or me. It looked up angrily as gulls dive bombed it before taking off and repeating the process all over again. It landed three more times! Hopefully this youngster will soon improve its hunting skills.

Last week, I saw a family of Peregrines, and today I watched a juvenile practise hunting, all on the patch. They have clearly bred close by and I hope today’s experience is the beginning of more close encounters with these fantastic birds on the patch.

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

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

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The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

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Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

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The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

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Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

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Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

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Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

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Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

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Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

A Big British Birding Year: Part X (distant dots)

We are now in Spring. The weather shows it, the flowers show it, and the birds know it. However, the calendar tells us we have another 5 days to go in the UK. The calendar is wrong, or rather, it is inflexible. I spend enough time out in the wild to back my judgement on this one.

Two weeks ago today was also a beautiful day, but there was a definite sense that we were still within the grip of Winter. But even in the dying days of Winter, the harbingers of Spring were starting to break through, such as the first Bumblebee I have seen this year:

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Cliffe Pools is part of the scientifically important Northern Kent marshes. They sit on the Hoo Peninsula in the Medway right next to the Thames Estuary.

Cliffe Pools

Sheep

Rather like the song, Moon River, the Thames at Cliffe is, quite literally, wider than a mile:

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Everything here is big: the sky, the river, the lakes, and the wild marshes. Unfortunately, this scale has implications for a birder: the birds I photograph are often far, far away. My bid to photograph as many species of birds as possible in a year went well on the day, but, as you will see, the shots of birds are sometimes atrocious quality or distant dots.

It was a great day for raptors. The first of four birds of prey to be added to my year list on the day was the Kestrel (seen below in two merged photos silhouetted against the sky and being harried by a Black-headed Gull):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Also in the sky, doing its best impression of a vulture, was a Common Buzzard – the most common British raptor:

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Buzzard caused havoc amongst an enormous number (well into the thousands) of waders attempting to roost on islands deep in the centre of one of the lakes:

Flock

Peering slightly deeper into the swirling cloud of waders, I was able to identify two new birds for the year, albeit admittedly two of our commonest water birds, Dunlin and Redshank. There were well over 1000 Dunlin present – the smaller bird consisting of a sizeable majority of this flock – and a few of the much larger Redshank to the bottom of the shot:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Whilst both of those waders are a fairly common sight on wetlands, less common is the iconic Avocet, which I could only photograph at the other side of one of the largest lakes:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

As well as waders, there are also hundreds of ducks at Cliffe, most of which I have already photo-recorded this year. However, I photographed my first Shelduck of the year:

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

… and my first ever photo of a the sea-faring Goldeneye duck:

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

So Cliffe added 7 new species to my year list of photographed birds, but it should have added 8. I heard a familiar song and scanned the sky to find a distant speck rising vertically with its call: despite the great distance, it was unmistakeable in song and behaviour as a Skylark. I lined it up in my lens and got a few snaps. Back at home, going through my hundreds of photos, I had just finished deleting a set of images of an unrecognisable dot in the sky when the memory of the skylark came flooding back. I cursed… a lot.

I left Cliffe in the afternoon and drove back to Elmley Marshes which I had visited a few weeks earlier. The weather on my two trips could not have been more different. Last time I struggled to walk in the driving rain and icy wind. This time the water was as flat as a millpond and the sky was blue.

Elmley Marshes

I got some more snaps of friends I made there last time, such as Curlew:

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

… and more Little Egrets than I have seen before (I got a great video of the Egret hunting, by stirring up the silt with its colourful feet in a sort of shaking dance and catching a couple of fish and a snail, but unfortunately I can’t upload videos on to this blog, so you shall have to make do with a photo):

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Elmley also delivered a new wader for me for the year, a couple of distant shots of the colourful Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

I got somewhat closer to a Reed Bunting (although I have already photographed this smart species this year):

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

I met a ‘peering’ of birders (I have decided that should be the collective noun for birdwatchers) gathered around spotting scopes (normally a good sign) who told me there were a couple of “short-ears” around and who also kindly let me see a Peregrine about half a mile away on a post through their powerful scopes. Unfortunately, I had left my iphone in the car and so had to try and snap it with my 300mm lens. The main photo below is at maximum zoom and in the digitally further-zoomed section, you may be able to see a grey/blue shape on top of a post with a patch of white near the head. This was the first time I had ever photographed the fastest bird in the world – it was just a shame it so distant and fuzzy:

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I left the birders (seen below with billowing chimneys behind them) to go in search of the Short-eared Owl – which would be a lifetime first for me.

Birders

Last time I came to Elmley (click here) I was lucky enough to photograph rare Marsh Harriers with their distinctive low-flying hunting technique. Two weeks ago I spotted another doing exactly the same thing way off in the distance. I swung my lens towards the movement and snapped away, taking many shots. I then looked at my view screen and zoomed in on the harrier to see it was strangely pale and had a wide round face. It wasn’t a Harrier at all, it was my first sighting of a Short-eared Owl:

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

I had walked for several miles in two bleak but beautiful wetland environments in Kent and added ten new species to my year list, taking me to a total of 72 species so far for the year. As I left Elmley with an amazing Kent sunset, I could not have been happier:

Elmley sunset

Elmley sunset 2

Wharf in the rain… with Hipstamatic

OK, I realise that photo-blogging London in the rain in black and white can become a little tired, but… hey, my life at the moment is all about London in the rain. I could use Hipstamatic’s many colour combinations, but Canary Wharf is grey at the best of times. In the rain, it is grey on grey so I may as well use monochrome to make it look like I’m in control of the colour!

I nipped out during my lunch break and braved the pathetic drizzle to capture a very wet Wharf.

The eyesore

This carbuncle below is a big deal for me at the moment. It is being erected at lighting pace and is blocking my view from my office window (yes, ‘poor you’ I hear you all chorus). I am obviously not a structural engineer or an architect, but I believe that it is actually a hollow and temporary shell protecting the concrete core/lift shaft being constructed inside for a new glass and steel tower.

The cable car?

Below is a ground level view of the ‘O2’ (or “the dome” in non-sponsor-speak) which is also visible from my office. Less visible are the tiny pylon things to the left of the dome. That is the ‘Emirates Air Line’ (or “cable car” in non-sponsor speak) which is the first urban cable car in any UK city.

The wharf in the foreground is one of many interconnected waterways at Canary Wharf and you can see the mouth into the Thames. My gym is at water-level of a connecting piece of water and I have seen a wild Common Seal playing with a metal pipe there. No, I am not lying.

Canary Wharf?

To many people, the building below IS Canary Wharf (the famous flashing pyramid roof is not visible from this ground-level perspective). It is the original and tallest building in the Wharf (only recently knocked off its overall UK top-spot by the Shard) and is more correctly named ‘1 Canada Square’. I like the tiny eagle you can see soaring around the building just to the right of the tower.

Oh alright! It’s not an eagle, but a Herring Gull in the photo. I was just trying to spice things up a bit having raised expectations with the seal. We do get Peregrine Falcons at the Wharf though and I have interrupted important meetings on the 30th floor of my building to “corr!” and “wow!” at the fastest creature on earth plummeting down off our roof after some poor unsuspecting pigeon. 

Metal and glass

Canary Wharf is all about metal and glass. There is a lot of metal and lot of glass including most of the sculpture and artwork (as below outside one of the office towers).

The new Wharf

Ever since the experiment began in the ’90s to build a new business district in London in one of the traditionally poorest and most run-down areas of the country (let alone the capital), there has continued to be a huge amount of development down here. Just as I started this post with a building site, so I finish with one. This poor sod below was sweeping the muddy puddles off the new concrete that has been laid for one of the largest construction projects the in the country: Crossrail.

Many people attack Canary Wharf for being soulless. I wouldn’t want to live there, but I genuinely enjoy working there (despite it not having the history of the ‘City of London’) and I wouldn’t want to bet that this young and thrusting concrete, metal and glass upstart doesn’t actually have a soul of sorts after all.