Thursday 27 February 2020

From My Window

Earlier in the week, while I was out for a walk, I managed to step into a hole and hurt my back. I've done it before and know that the cure is to keep moving but keep warm. So what could be better than staying indoors and getting up every few minutes to watch the wildlife through my porch window.

Most of these will be very familiar to people from the UK but maybe not so well-known to those from further afield. I probably don't need to tell anyone that the first photo is of a Robin. Their old name used to be Redbreast, but at some time in the past it became popular to give some birds human names - Robin Redbreast, Jenny Wren and Tom Tit, for example. Now we think of the proper name as Robin, while Robin Redbreast is something for children's books.

Here's another - Jack-Daw. Yes, these small crows used to be called just plain Daws till some playful person added Jack to their name. They've been Jackdaws ever since.

I recently hung up a feeder on my shed for a few weeks. It was not the most successful experiment; this Great Tit was the only visitor I had.

The pigeon family are not universally popular, though the Stock Dove generally escapes too much criticism, indeed most people don't even know that such a bird exists. They are a little smaller than the Wood Pigeons that can devastate farmers' crops and used to delight in uprooting my cabbage plants as soon as I'd planted them in my mother's garden. And they're a bit bigger than the Collared Doves that make such a mess if you have bird feeders.

Blackbirds already think it's Spring and some of them can be heard singing in the mornings and superb singers they are, though we're so used to them that they're not as much appreciated as the Nightingale or the Blackcap for example. But this morning it didn't look so Spring-like....

This Grey Squirrel sought shelter behind a tree as we had the first snowfall of the year in this part of England - it may even be the first snow this little creature has ever seen.

This male Chaffinch wasn't much impressed either as he searched the ground under the bird feeders for any fallen seeds.

A gang of Starlings suddenly descended and grabbed everything they could, scaring away some of the smaller birds. This one has a leg ring but I couldn't get a shot where I could make out the number.

Up in the tree there was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. It's one of those birds that's not as big as its name suggests or most people imagine - only a fraction bigger than a Starling.

This little Muntjac deer passed by in the field just beyond where we've been looking at the birds. They are quite numerous around here and I often hear them "barking" at night.

As I look out of the window now the snow has just about disappeared - it might well be the last we see in this mildest, but wettest, of winters.

Take care.

Friday 21 February 2020

Dónal Óg

A song about an untrustworthy man called Donald (no, not that one).

If you are one of those people who says that the old songs are the best, well, this is almost certainly one of the oldest you're likely to hear, dating from the 8th century AD. The original was in Gaelic but there have been many translations into English including one by Lady Augusta Gregory. But this one  by Frank O'Connor is the one most often heard as a song today.

I've known the song for about forty years but it was this version by Cathy Jordan, with her band Dervish, that re-awakened my love of this old ballad when I attended one of their concerts a few months ago. It's a simple story of a young girl who is deserted by her lover, a story familiar enough in folk songs of these islands, though seldom told from the young woman's point of view and never so poetically and poignantly as here.

Dónal Óg

O Dónal Óg when you cross the ocean
Take me with you when you are going
At fair or market you'll be well looked after
And you shall sleep with the Greek king's daughter

My mother ordered me to shun you
Today tomorrow, and on Sunday
Too late, in vain o'er spilt milk grieving
Closing the door on a bygone thieving

If you come at all, come when stars are peeping
Rap on the door that makes no squeaking
My mother will ask you to name your people
And all I'll say t’was the night wind weeping

The first kiss came and from no craven
The second kiss came on top the stairway
The third kiss came as down you lay me
But for that one night, I’d be still a maiden

O Dónal Óg you’ll not find me lazy.
Not like some high-born expensive lady
I’ll do you’re milking, and I’ll nurse your baby
And if you're beset on I’ll defend you bravely

You said you’d meet me, but you were lying
Beside the sheep shed as the day was dying
I whistled and called you, twelve times repeating
But all I heard was the young lambs bleating

You took what's before me and what's behind me
Took east and west when you wouldn't mind me
Sun, moon and stars you have taken
And God Himself if I'm not mistaken.

If you're as in love with the song as I am you might like to hear a stripped back version by Cathy on her own

Take care.

Thursday 20 February 2020

The First Signs

I quietly made my way to the porch window hoping to see the Jays that sometimes come to feed just outside my door. There was no sign of any birds, or even the squirrels who raid the bird-feeders on a regular basis, but there was a suspicion of white on the distant hedgerow. It wasn't frost, it was blossom; one of the first signs of Spring.

"Time to get your boots on, John, and go out for a walk", I said out loud - and we all know what talking to yourself is the first sign of!

My steps led me alongside hedgerows and along muddy paths. The wind had an icy edge, but thankfully the grey clouds were not releasing any rain for the time being. There was even an occasional glimpse of sunlight. But my mood was mostly brightened by the discovery of some foxes' tracks where I wasn't expecting to see them. Rooks passed overhead on their way to the fields.

A little later I found that the recent storm-force winds, which claimed my neighbours' garden fence among its victims, had also brought down an ivy-clad tree across my path. This little scrap of woodland is not managed in any way and casualties of earlier gales lay littered around.

All the nourishment which the roots had extracted over a century or so was being slowly returned to the soil and, in the meantime, providing a home for countless insects and fungi.

Other trees were still standing but already full of nooks and crannies for tiny beasts to set up home - and make interesting diversions for the curious photographer.

Is it just me, or is there a face in there? It could be the old man of the woods or even the king of the jungle keeping an eye on me. Spirits and wildness lurk in even the most civilised places!

The spell of Springtime compelled me to stroll on to a little local nature reserve. Unlike areas in the care of bigger organisations, this place doesn't have armies of volunteers armed with strimmers and chainsaws tidying it to death; nature is left to its own devices.

You don't see much of this rampant, primitive nature on most nature reserves. And you rarely encounter such disorganised and barbaric landscapes in landscape photographs.

Ever since mankind started controlling nature according to his own tastes, and artists began painting the scene as idealised parkland, we've constructed some pretty rigid rules about what's beautiful. Many years ago I had the good fortune to be looking at some of that year's finest landscape photos in the company of a work colleague. She suddenly let out a loud sigh, "Ah, so beautiful.....but...."

" beautiful but they remind me a little of the photos of Princess Diana in the glossy magazines; the photographer is brilliant at showing us the beauty, even hiding some small flaws, but there's not much empathy or understanding of the subject". Those words came back to me recently listening to a talk about landscape photos; there was a lot about gear, technique, viewpoint and quality of light, but the photographer was ignorant of what crops were in the fields, what trees grew in the wood, or the geology underlying the scene. 

Perhaps those things don't matter to everyone as they did to my friend, though back then we didn't know that those who chased after the Princess were about to destroy the very beauty they sought. And increasingly there's a real danger that some of the most celebrated locations are also threatened by the sheer number of people who want to see and photograph them.

Even more worryingly we might stop looking at and appreciating the less obvious appeal of places nearer to home, places that we can enjoy with minimal impact on this tired old planet. 

While my mind has been off on its unfettered travels, my feet and eyes have been firmly fixed in the rather muddy and unkempt scenes around me. I detect Mother Nature muttering away madly to herself as she prepares, in her own unfathomable fashion, for her expected guests who are approaching slowly from the south. Springtime and Summer are on their way and when they arrive all this chaos will be covered up with greenery and birdsong.

And, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, they're soon coming to a place near you. I hope you get out there and enjoy them.

Take care.

Tuesday 11 February 2020

Watching The Birdies

Some pretty...some understated...some cute...and some deadly. Another half-dozen feathered friends encountered on recent rambles.

If I were to search for a word to describe this hyper-active spark of colour it would not be "grey", but that's its name - Grey Wagtail. I suppose its back is grey and it certainly wags its tail a great deal, but you can see why many people want to call it "yellow", though that name is reserved for another wagtail which is even more yellow.

You rarely see them away from running water, and they especially like mountain streams, though they seem to do just as well on the sluggish steams of East Anglia. Perhaps the old country name of Water Wagtail describes them more accurately.

The male Gadwall appears at first glance to be a grey duck with a black tail and usually you can see a little white patch on its wing too. But when you look closely you can see tiny delicate patterns on the feathers - "vermiculation" is the word to describe it. 

Mrs Gadwall is also subtly coloured in various shades of brown, quite like a female Mallard.

Lurking at the water's edge is a Green Sandpiper, though in this case its not as colourful as the name suggests. Officially it's a wader, or shorebird, albeit one that's rarely seen on the coast. They nest up in Scandinavia or northern Russia and, whereas most waders nest in a scrape on the ground, Green Sandpipers utilise the old nests of other birds, often quite high up in a tree. This means that the flightless hatchlings' first experience of life is a long fall earthwards.

Some Green Sandpipers overwinter in the UK, others pass north in Spring, while non-breeding birds start to come south again in Summer, before the bulk of them come through in Autumn. So all in all you might see one in any month of the year, though you'd have to be observant; most of them are nowhere near as co-operative as this individual!

This endearing ball of fluff is a Little Grebe. I was in a hide once when there were some children present who were convinced it was a "baby duck" and were surprised to learn from a wildlife warden that it was fully grown. They were even more surprised ("alarmed" might be a better word) when it abruptly disappeared under the water, never to be seen again. The warden assured them that it was quite normal behaviour and that the bird had almost certainly bobbed up again in amongst the reeds. I don't think they believed him though!

Three Tufted Ducks, two males and a female. They are common here especially in winter when their numbers are increased by birds coming south from more northerly parts of Europe. That tuft, which gives them their name, isn't always as obvious as it is here.

When you see a rough wooden box attached to an electricity pylon in a car park you might think that the person who put it there as a possible nesting site for a wild bird was being rather optimistic, but this Kestrel seemed to find it to his liking.

Despite the handsome colours and rather wistful expression, this is a ruthless hunting machine, particularly if you're a small mouse or vole. When we were young we used to call them "Hover-hawks" because of their ability to hang motionless in the sky while searching for prey. Now they are much more common and are familiar to many people as they hover beside motorways watching for anything disturbed by the rumble of heavy lorries. 

Take care.

Sunday 9 February 2020

Frosty Morning, Cosy Evening

You've probably realised by now, if you read this blog regularly, that I love a frosty morning. And if there's a little early morning fog to leave a rime on the branches then so much the better. We had a couple of mornings like that during the last week.....

The rest of my day was less picturesque - a walk to the farm shop and the Co-op shop in the next village and some cleaning and tidying up. In the evening I made myself a cup of tea and listened to some music.

One of the things I liked about work was that my colleagues were such a varied lot; most of them younger than me as well as several from different countries. Between them they introduced me to a lot of music that might otherwise have slipped by unnoticed. Here's a singer-songwriter from Manchester called Josephine Oniyama.....

As far as I know she's only made one album, "Portrait", which was released in 2012. It's a very classy recording and it would be a pity if there are not several more to follow. Since then there's been a collaboration with the band Travis and she provided vocals on a nu-jazz album by trumpeter Matthew Halsall. Lets hear the title song from her own album, but heard here with just her acoustic guitar in the unlikely surroundings of EMI's old vinyl record factory in Hayes.....

Then I went to bed.

Take care.

Thursday 6 February 2020

Down In Deepest Suffolk

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths is an area which is poorly served by public transport, so it remained relatively unknown to me, till my brother retired from work and now occasionally drives the two of us to the RSPB bird reserve at Minsmere for a day's walking and birdwatching.

Many would say that this is the best spot for birds in England and it certainly has a wide range of landscapes with something to please most birds. Reedbeds, damp pastures, shingle banks, heathland, shallow scrapes and woodland are all represented in a fairly compact area. At this time of year there are many different species of duck to be seen.

This elegant fellow is a Pintail (I'll let you work out how it got its name). It's all style and grace - a duck that's been to finishing school, for sure! A few pairs nest in the UK but mostly they just come here for the winter - and welcome visitors they are.

And these shallow bodies of water are just right for them. It may surprise you that this is a man-made landscape, but one that's designed specifically with birds in mind. Before the Second World War this land had been drained for agriculture, but it was hastily returned to marshland to make any invasion along this stretch of coast more difficult. The Nazis didn't come but the birds did!

The Shelduck is a big, handsome duck - as large as some geese - and is the novice birdwatcher's friend as it can hardly be mistaken for anything else. There were ten species of duck on the scrapes yesterday, including one Green Winged Teal, a visitor from North America. Not a very entertaining guest though; it spent the whole time we were there sound asleep as far away from the hides as it could get. I dutifully focussed the scope on it and ticked it off on the year-list, but I can't say it was particularly exciting to make its acquaintance.

There were plenty of gulls on the scrapes too and luckily there was an expert on hand to point out the more interesting ones.

This, I'm reliably informed, is an immature Caspian Gull. People who are experts on gulls are a special breed indeed, telling gulls and all their immature variations apart is a seemingly impossible skill to master. And every few years they make it harder by sub-dividing the various species into more and more subtle distinctions. Shelducks are a lot easier!

One of the few waders on show yesterday were Lapwings, familiar farmland birds during my childhood but less numerous these days. We always called them Peewits, from the call they make, while the bird guides of the time told us that we should call them Green Plovers. Now everyone seems to have settled on Lapwing.

There's so much to see that you can almost forget that you're on the coast and actually there was very little wildlife on the ocen wave. A few Cormorants were fishing and every now and again a seal popped its head up for a quick look around. Around lunchtime we went to the nearest pub, the Eel's Foot at Eastbridge for a meal and a pint.

(Photo from Les's phone)
On the ceiling above us was a reminder that the BBC's Springwatch nature programme was based here in 2014. All the team involved in the filming have signed their names.

After lunch we explored the reedbeds but the Bitterns which we'd hoped to see were hiding deep among the reeds. A couple of Marsh Harriers made the odd hunting sortie but prefered to just sit and watch from the tops of distant bushes. You'll just have to believe me that that's a Marsh Harrier!

But I really don't care; I just like taking photographs of the elusive beauty of reedbeds. Over on the horizon though was the looming shape of Sizewell B nuclear power station and, while I'm dreaming of reedbeds, EDF Energy are dreaming about their plans for Sizewell C, a development which the RSPB fear will have a negative impact on their conservation work.

Sorry, I can't help myself! Earlier in the day, as we passed a smaller reedbed, we'd heard the unmistakable sounds of Water Rails - these secretive birds make a noise just like a squealing pig, it really can't be anything else (unless there's an actual pig in there of course!).

Making our way back through the wood we spotted a Blue Tit taking a drink from a puddle. They are one of our most familiar birds as they turn up anywhere that you hang out a bird feeder.

A Grey Squirrel was sunning himself on a branch.

Back at the café at the visitor centre we sat and watched the birds on the feeders, mostly Blue Tits, Great Tits and Chaffinches (below).

A birdwatcher's list:

Magpie, Carrion Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Wood Pigeon, Pheasant, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Robin, Blackbird, Starling, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long-Tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Wren, Water Rail (heard), Pintail, Gadwall, Teal, Shelduck, Green Winged Teal, Shoveler, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Moorhen, Coot, Snipe, Lapwing, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Kestrel, Cormorant, Stonechat, Reed Bunting, Mute Swan, Black-Headed Gull, Caspian Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Herring Gull, Common Gull, Greylag Goose.

Animals: Rabbit, Muntjac, Roe Deer, Grey Squirrel, Grey Seal.

Take care.