Thursday 28 February 2019

A Few Fine Days

A few fine days and suddenly we're all thinking about Spring, even though the meteorologists inform us that it's still winter. But things are certainly beginning to look different. Come with me for a stroll around my local area.

I'm off on one of my regular walks that I can do straight from my back door. I have three or four walks that I can choose from, across fields, down lanes or beside the river. And suddenly they're all coming to life.

We had a sudden warm spell like this back in 2012 when temperatures suddenly shot up to 18 C, having been down at -10 C just a few days before. This time though temperatures of 20 C were higher than anything recorded in previous winters.

This little wood is just half a mile or so down the road, though I don't know how many people know it's here. There are a few places near here where daffodils were grown commercially, but some seem to have been forgotten and neglected. The flowers keep coming up even after trees have been planted on the land.

Some people definitely know about this spot though, and there are noticeably less flowers where the fence has fallen down and access is easier!

I take nothing but photographs though and continue on my way down the lane.

The leaves of Arum Maculatum, or Lords-and-Ladies, or Cuckoo Pint, or Snakeshead, or Shiners, or...or....or....….are just bursting through the leaf litter. If you're unfamiliar with this plant I wrote a whole post about it here.

It's been warm enough to convince this Seven-Spotted Ladybird that summer is on its way. It may be our most common Ladybird but it's still nice to see it around.

Given the right growing conditions (and no interference from mechanical flails) the common hedgerow Blackthorn can give displays every bit as impressive as the more celebrated blossom trees.

Periwinkle tries its best to escape from the garden environment and, though it's not usually considered as a troublesome invasive species here in the UK, it could perhaps become one if our climate changes in the way it threatens to.

Unbroken blue skies have been the order of the day for the past week or so, though as I write this we're already back to our more usual February fare.

Our little chalk stream, the River Mel, cheerfully makes its way beneath the sun-blessed blossoms. It's less than a mile from its source here and it's crystal clear as it passes over its gravel bed. 

Whether this is the start of Spring or just a pleasant respite from winter remains to be seen.

Take care.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Welcoming Signs

As I wander around the countryside I often pass one of our dwindling stock of English pubs (and occasionally drop in for a drink or a meal). I take a lot of photos of their signs, particularly if I see one that's interesting or attractive, and over the months these accumulate into a collection.

The one above, in Elmdon, is no longer a pub but the householder has kept the unusual sign. The name, "The Carrier", is uncommon but not unique, but this kind of large wooden cut-out sign seems to be a feature of this little area around the Cambridgeshire/Hertfordshire/Essex border country. The idea was, I suppose, copied from one pub to another and perhaps they were all made by the same craftsman.

There are lots of more normal signs though:

Most of them tell something about the area where they're found - "The Anchor" is on the coast, "The Old Barge" stands beside a canal and "The Fox" and "The Fox And Hounds" are in places where fox-hunting was carried out. You can't always make that connection however; my home village, miles from the sea, had a "Sailor's Rest" - perhaps this relates to the old story about retired sailors who would walk inland carrying an oar: when someone asked what it was, he knew he'd got far enough away from the sea to settle down. 

Others changed their name over the years; "The Ship Inn" is also sometimes found well away from the coast and it's been suggested that they may have once been called "The Shippen", an old name for a cowshed!

And we'll finish off with another of those unusual signs found not too far from home:

Take care.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

February Tree, February Flower

Last month, completely on a whim of the moment, I decided that each month I would scour the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge to find and photograph just one tree and one flower that grabbed my attention. There's no master-plan involved, but this month it just happens that we're "in black and white". First the "black"...…

The Black Pine - Pinus Nigra

If we're looking for a pine tree the obvious place to start is in the Old Pinetum, which was planted at the founding of the present garden in 1846. It's a magical place, especially when sun slants in to illuminate the emerald grass, scattered with pine cones.

The Black Pine is a tree which occurs naturally in various locations throughout Europe and into North Africa. In each of these places the tree has developed in response to local climate and soil-type, leading to several sub-species - Austrian Black Pine, Crimean Black Pine, Causican Black Pine and so on.

It's grown in the UK as both an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens, and for timber in commercial plantations. Some of the regional sub-species are more useful than others for these differing purposes, but most of the main types can be seen in the Pinetum or lining the Main Walk.

In recent years the world's Black Pines have suffered from infestation by a fungus which can kill the trees. In North America this has got out of control and is likely to kill all the Black Pines growing there.

It's another tree which has a beautifully patterned bark demanding lots of photos. I can see my hard-drive becoming cluttered with bark pictures if I continue this series throughout the year! Now lets move on to the "white" element of this month's post....

Snowdrop - galanthus

Apologies to any non-galanthophiles, but we're back with those living sparks of optimism that shine through the winter gloom in the dark days of February - snowdrops.

There are several places in the Garden where there are marvellous displays of these little flowers. The obvious place to make for is the Winter Garden, though in reality you're bound to have seen others before you get there, whichever gate you enter by. The one shown above is Galanthus S Arnott, which as well as being a robust plant has flowers which are said to give off a honey-like scent on warm days. So at least one type of snowdrop attempts to attract insect pollinators at this unpromising time of year.

Top left: Galanthus 'James Backhouse'
Top right: Galanthus plicatus 'Wendy's Gold'
Centre: Galanthus nivalis 'Viridapice' Green-Tipped Snowdrop
Lower left: Galanthus 'Kite'
Lower right: Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno' x Galanthus plicatus

Not everyone realises that there are different varieties of this humble flower. Above are just five which were neatly and conveniently labelled, so even an uneducated but enthusiastic snowdrop-lover like me could know what they were.

Like the first Cuckoo heard in Spring, the first appearance of the Snowdrop has always excited comment. This has been very useful in charting the ever-earlier start to the seasons in recent years, so that the Snowdrop Season has moved from late February to mid-January in many places. Occasional very early plants contrive to flower at the end of December, which seems to point towards climate change, whatever the cynics say.

And that is definitely my last snowdrop photo for 2019 - unless I find one in flower in November!

Take care.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Along The Washes

Off to the Fens today in search of some very special birds. We'll start off at a place called Welches Dam on the Old Bedford River.

The Old Bedford River isn't really a river and it's nowhere near Bedford! It's actually a dead-straight drainage channel which dates from the early seventeenth century and was named after the Duke of Bedford, who was one of those who backed the scheme. It was an attempt to drain part of the Fens by getting the waters of the River Ouse more rapidly to the sea by straightening its course.

Like every earlier attempt to drain this flat landscape it was partly successful, but then led to flooding elsewhere. Another channel, parallel to the first and imaginatively named the New Bedford River, was built a few decades later with the land between the two, half-a-mile wide and twenty-two miles long (0.8 Km x 35 Km), being allowed to flood in periods of high rainfall.

It still serves this vital role today, and also provides a home for thousands of wintering, migrating and nesting wildfowl and waders. However when water levels are as high as this the birds are often very distant from the RSPB's hides. Time to get in the car and head a little further north.

The roads around here can be "interesting". Despite the flatness of the landscape the roads are often wildly uneven. They travel in ruler straight lines, frequently alongside unfenced drainage channels, but then make unexpected right-angle turns, for no obvious reason, in the middle of nowhere. Slow, careful progress is the order of the day, which means that the passenger can lean out of the open window and take photos of the overflying Whooper Swans.


You might even spot an early Barn Owl at the side of the road. As you get close it languidly takes to the air and settles a hundred yards or so further on, without apparently realising that this just means it's going to have to move on again a few seconds later. On one of these short hops our owl spotted a mouse or vole in the grass and swooped down. But no sooner had it made its catch than a Sparrowhawk sped in from stage left, grabbed the prey and, after a short tussle, left the owl supperless. This is behaviour I've never witnessed before.

We crossed the floodplain on the Wash Road and stopped to photograph a blazing Fenland sunset. I love these flat horizons and huge skies, but there are those who find them depressing and disorienting - a correspondent of the writer Robert Macfarlane has coined the marvellous term "horizontigo" to describe this distressing condition!

You might expect photos of the sunset to signal an end to the bird-watching day, but we're heading to the Wildfowl And Wetland Trust's centre near Welney where there's a pleasant café. The only other customers when we arrived were two policemen who may have been expecting a sudden crime wave or were more likely just availing themselves of a cup of tea and a large slice of chocolate cake - just like us!

Suitably fortified we made our way across to the luxurious heated bird observatory to enjoy the last lingering glow of twilight.

Here at last we could enjoy close views of the Whooper Swans. These are migratory birds that nest in remote parts of Iceland then fly over a thousand miles, much of it over the North Atlantic, to spend their winters here on the East Anglian Fens. 


As darkness falls the swans gather expectantly in front of the Observatory. As they mill about you can spot family groups and watch the birds' behaviour - mostly misbehaviour, I suppose - as they squabble and honk at each other.


What they are waiting for is the warden to feed them grain from his wheelbarrow. This supplementary feeding is not really necessary for the birds' well-being - they find plenty to eat out on the fields - but these floodlit swan feeds are a popular attraction, raising money for the Trust's work and giving us the chance to see these beautiful birds.


Bottoms up!

Take care.

Saturday 16 February 2019

A Fine Day

The day dawned with a touch of frost on the rooftops and silvery sunshine glowing through the thin veil of mist. A fine day was forecast so I caught the train to Royston and commenced putting one foot in front of the other.

These rather ancient dwellings used to be on the ridiculously wide main street which once formed an elongated market place. Over the years the stalls became permanent buildings, infilling the centre of the old street. The other side became the new main thoroughfare while these buildings became stranded in a backwater.

A tree-lined track leads up and on to the chalky ridge behind the town. 

We're soon into a rather odd landscape with elaborate fences and railings. This is home to horses and, judging by the money spent on their accommodation, these must be valuable race-horses.

But most of the land is given over to agriculture and pretty ruthless intensive farming at that. Fields here are huge by British standards and largely dedicated to growing grain crops. Yields per acre are as high as any in the world and this is mostly thanks to chemical fertilizers. 

The path led to a stretch of road walking, but there were wide verges and little traffic and the far reaching views give an impression of being really high. The name of this road that makes you feel happy and high? It's called The Joint. Honest!

I then took to a muddy by-way (a former road which is still legally, but not realistically, open to traffic) past a stretch of woodland before entering the village of Reed.

Despite being near to a main road, Reed seems a place lost in time and an idyllic place to live. Despite its small size it does have a village cricket team - and not just any old village team. Reed Cricket Club won the National Village Cricket Knock-Out Cup in both 2012 and 2017, not bad for a place with a population of around 300.

I trudged onwards along another minor road towards Therfield and found this little pond by the roadside. There was a bench nearby where I sat down for a few minutes and had a drink from my flask. The sun was shining, the birds were singing......why not!

Yes, why not stretch out on the bench and soak up the sun for a while. A Robin was singing in a nearby bush and a Chaffinch was desperately trying to remember the song he sang last year. In the blue sky a Buzzard passed overhead and a little later there was a Red Kite as well. Higher up there was an Easyjet aeroplane too! Difficult to believe this is mid-February.

Eventually I gathered sufficient resolution to press on across the fields back towards Royston.

You might expect that this sea of modern agriculture would host very little bird-life, but in fact Skylarks were singing on high for most of the day, and those Buzzards and Red Kites are obviously finding something on which to feed.

The reason for such bird-life is somewhat counter-intuitive: it's probably because this land is also used for shooting Pheasant and Partridge. Small areas are left to provide cover for the gamebirds and feed is provided for them. Other smaller birds are lucky enough to benefit from this without running the risk of being shot at.

All that remained was a saunter across Royston Heath and back into town to catch my train home.

Walker's Log:

     Start: Royston, Hertfordshire 09:50
     End: Royston, Hertfordshire 14:35
     Distance walked: 11 miles (17.5 Km)
     Total ascent 710 ft (216 metres)
            Notable birds: Red Kite, Buzzard, Skylark, Kestrel,Jay, Redwing, Meadow Pipit, and most of the usual suspects.
     Churches: unusually I didn't pass by any churches on today's route.
     People with dogs: 2
     People just enjoying a walk: 5
     Cyclists: 0
     Horse riders: 0

Take care.