A goodbye to 2016

So much has been said and written about 2016 that there are probably few, if any, stones left to turn. The level of attrition among well-loved and iconic celebrities seems to have been unprecedented; the shifts in the political landscape certainly caught out the commentators and experts – pollsters included; indeed pollsters in particular. If I’m left with any overriding impression, it’s of a year where seminal, potentially life-changing events seemed to have moved beyond the control of anyone and assumed a momentum all of their own.

Turmoil: it’s not exactly a new phenomenon but it does make me grateful for the cathartic effects of walking among the hills, getting some separation, if only temporarily, from what passes for reality. This year, those have been the best of times; and that’s probably true in most years.

The worst of times? If I had to single out just one, it was the senseless, incomprehensible killing of Jo Cox.

On a personal level, I shall forever miss Leonard Cohen; there won’t be another to fill that particular void, not in my lifetime. Since his passing, I’ve listened to a number of discussions about which was the best cover of Hallelujah – Rufus Wanwright? John Cale? Jeff Buckley? The list, like the debate, goes on…

There’s a custom in football of, in exceptional circumstances, ‘retiring’ a shirt number worn with distinction by an outstanding player: Cruyff, Baresi, Zola, Henrik Larsson as just a few examples. Similarly, every now and again somebody just makes a song their own, for posterity…


Jo Cox : 1974-2016

A happy 2017 to all: perhaps we will get to live in uninteresting times for a while.

Winter birds (so far)…

As of today, we haven’t had much in the way of genuine winter weather here in the English midlands – a few frosts, only a couple of which endured throughout the day; some early morning mist and fog; a couple of biting winds, and that’s been about it. From memory, that makes this year’s pre new year period similar to that of 2015.

I couldn’t count myself as a birdwatcher in the proper meaning of the word, although, as it happens, I’m not sure of the exact meaning. Time for a digression: those in the know tell me that there are clear distinctions between birdwatchers, twitchers and birders. I’ve had it all explained to me, more than once, and it’s still not stuck – although I’m pretty sure that birders are at the apex of the pyramid. If I’ve got that right, then I’m most definitely not a birder, in any sense of the word.

I’m generally of the view that whatever I see when out walking is most likely to be something I’ve inadvertently disturbed by my presence. It took me a while to work out that birds disappearing into hedgerows, or moving behind the branch of a tree, wasn’t ‘unlucky’ – it was simply them being smart in the face of a perceived threat; that and the fact that they’d undoubtedly seen me long before I ever spotted them. That’s just for context – my observations and recording of sightings are inexpert, inconsistent and would probably exasperate a proper birder.

Anyway, back to the point. Two winter varieties I always look for are redwings and fieldfares; both members of the thrush family – so big enough to be easily spotted, and likely to be gathered in flocks. Last winter, I saw just a single group of fieldfares and not even a solitary redwing: the fieldfares were in a place where I wouldn’t normally be walking (I was planning a route for a local charity, from a starting point they’d already chosen); other than that winter would have passed without a single sighting of either variety.

Already this winter I’ve stumbled across several large gatherings of both fieldfares and redwings; all of them adjacent to regular ‘beaten tracks’, although they do keep their distance and it seems that when one moves they all do.

The other thing I’ve noticed is – and I hope I’m not tempting fate here – how well the very smallest birds seem to be doing: I don’t recall ever seeing so many goldcrests and, on a run earlier today, there was a section of path, bounded by hedgerows on either side, where wrens seemed to be criss-crossing in front of me every twenty yards or so. It’s possible that this year’s numbers are a consequence of last year’s benign winter; if a sustained cold snap does arrive, they will be hit hard. Hopefully nature finds a way to make it all work out…

Addendum: And kingfishers – more than for many a year; mostly along stretches of rural canal, but elsewhere as well.

Pictures:     Top – Redwing (RSPB images); Centre – Fieldfare (BBC.co.uk); Bottom – Godcrest (RSPB images)




Pictures taken with a smartphone

I might be about to buy a new compact camera: I have a venerable but ageing Panasonic Lumix – an item seemingly so bombproof it will probably outlive me. But, like many things of a certain age, its performance is limited and – powered, as it is, by AA batteries – prone to running out of steam just when you might need it. It strikes me that, apart from the battery-powered bit, I could just as easily be describing bits of my anatomy here.

Because of a preference for binoculars slung around my neck, as opposed to a camera, I’m often caught napping when an opportunity – particularly for a wildlife shot – presents itself. The Panasonic dates back to long before the days of superzoom compacts, and the bridge camera, which I also sometimes carry, is invariably in the rucksack. Birds and other animals will rarely sit patiently while you take off a pack, retrieve a camera, zoom, focus, generally faff… Although, strangely, it seems they will often hang around until you’re nearly ready before making off.

So, a pocket-sized camera seems like the answer. My son has a fairly recent Panasonic compact, with a 30X zoom, and gets some very good results; although he has to keep it very steady when shooting at anything over 20X.

In the interim, I’ve been trying to take the occasional shot with a camera phone, just by way of experimentation and in the knowledge that the camera on the phone I have is generally described as “disappointing” by reviewers. Some of the results are below and I was surprised at how atmospheric some of them seemed to have turned out. However – atmospheric or otherwise – the one thing they all have in common is that the colours and lighting bear little resemblance to what they were actually like on the day.

The pictures below, mostly give the impression of gathering gloom and fading light: in fact they were all taken at just gone 1 pm on a fairly bright winter’s day, with broken cloud and sunshine. Even the lightest of them – the bottom one – significantly understates how light it was in reality. The camera might not lie, but it can be pretty economical with the truth…   dsc_0043  dsc_0041  dsc_0038  dsc_0036

All pictures were taken from the eastern side of Kinver Edge, Staffordshire, looking          roughly due east. The higher ground in the distance is the Clent Hills, Worcestershire.

The phone is (according to the box) a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and the camera sensor is 13 megapixels – more pixels than the one on my too-heavy-to-take-on-a-walk Sony DSLR, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger sensor, apparently. It’s produced some quite nice pictures – just not quite the ones I thought I was taking.

The blog parasite

By the way, that’s not some very selective strain of computer virus specifically targeting Blogger and WordPress. It’s me I’m referring to; although it’s taken me a while to realise…

Back in the summer, the outdoor blogging community sadly lost one of its finest – Oldmortality. And there, straight away, that tells its own story: I never met him, never knew him by his real name; only by his blogger username.

His blog, One small step, was (and remains – follow this link) wise, funny, erudite, provocative, irreverent, endlessly entertaining, and all of the many other things you’d want to find in a blog. As if that wasn’t enough, he’d also frequently add links to some exceptionally fine musical treasures.

But here’s the thing: I visited One small step regularly, have read pretty much all of the back posts at some point, still do, and will continue to do so for as long as the link works. But I rarely commented: only a handful of times over the years and that’s true of other blogs as well and for all sorts of reasons. Now I’m wondering if passive reading of the efforts of others, without the mutuality of leaving at least a brief comment is tantamount to taking from the (blogging) community and contributing nothing – or not much – by way of reciprocation. People go to a lot of trouble to put this stuff in the public domain, generally without reward or any desire for it; maybe they deserve better recognition – something a bit more tangible than another tick in the stats counter.

I know some blog sites – this one among them – can make commenting less than straightforward: crossing platforms seems, if anything, to become less intuitive as the social media options continue to proliferate. Measures intended to keep the spammers at bay can be a deterrent to like-minded souls whose only intention is to add a constructive comment.

So, not normally given to the making of resolutions, I’ll break the habit and resolve firstly to comment more regularly on other blogs when I visit them, and secondly to explore ways of making this one a bit more accessible and welcoming.

I hope I’m not breaking too many laws by adding this…