Tuesday 31 March 2020

Recent Visitors

Don't panic! They're not visitors of the human kind.

Mrs Pheasant started visiting a couple of weeks ago and is becoming more and more bold as the days go by. Her presence has also encouraged two more females to venture across the ditch running between the field and the grass near the houses. They come to feed on the grain spilled from bird feeders.

Although the Pheasant is an unmistakable symbol of English country life it has not always been here. There is some debate about how and when they arrived here, but they were certainly common by the fifteenth century. As far as we know they have always been hunted for food.

The male Pheasant is a lot more wary, as he has every right to be with what amounts to a bright red "bullseye" decorating the side of his head. Males are extremely visible when you're walking in the countryside, whereas females can slip by undetected. Although there's a large population of these birds living wild in our countryside they are joined every year by birds bred in captivity and released for no other reason than to be shot at by people paying for the "pleasure".

This may be bad news for the Pheasants, but it's good for the other farmland birds. Research suggests that there are many more birds in areas where Pheasants are bred as the landscape which suits the Pheasants also suits other species - and I suspect they also eat a proportion of the feed put out for the gamebirds.

Near where I used to live in Grantchester there was a large estate which ran organised shoots. As soon as the first shots rang out there was a sudden influx of Pheasants on the meadows on the opposite side of the river, where they seemed to know they were safe. They are pretty safe here to, apart from....

This beautiful cat has dreams of dining on Pheasant but doesn't really seem to know how to go about it!

The little Muntjac deer does not often venture across the ditch, preferring to dine on the bramble leaves along the field-edge. They are not a native species here either and they are thought to have descended from a few that escaped from the Woburn Estate in Bedfordshire in 1925. From those few they have expanded their numbers and range, and now can be found over most of England. They can be quite destructive to native wildflowers and trees.

Whether they should be here or not, I enjoy their visits to the area just outside my porch window at this time.

Take care.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Tales From The Rookery

I must have been dimly aware of Rooks since I was a baby, as they used to Caw loudly from the trees near my home. If I'd been able to ask anyone at the time they'd have probably told me they were "just some old crows", for even country people have always mixed up the two species. We even have the word scarecrow, even though the crows, being carrion eaters, do little or no damage to the farmers' crops. And neither do Rooks for that matter, once the crop is established, in fact they eat insect pests so may be beneficial overall.

Most of the crow family have a reputation for evil and mischief, possibly because of the Carrion Crow's habit in days of yore to feed on the dead on battlefields or the gallows. Nowadays they're more likely to be feasting on wildlife killed by cars. I'm fairly convinced that their close cousin, the Magpie, has hugely increased in numbers in recent decades as a result of this food-source. At one time you mostly saw them in thorny scrub, well away from people; nowadays if you travel the roads in early morning, before there's much traffic about, they are the bird you're most likely to encounter, as they feast on anything killed overnight.

The crow family are known to naturalists as Corvids - and very tempting it was to call this post "Corvid 19", as I can sometimes convince myself that there are 19 Rooks in the picture above. It is of course a rookery, where the birds are nesting at present and are probably sitting on eggs by now. There is an old piece of folklore that says that if the Rooks build high in the trees it will be a good summer - and what a load of rubbish that is! They use the same nests year after year. 

In winter they gather in even larger numbers at roosts (which are also called rookeries, rather confusingly) often in the company of the smaller Jackdaw. These roosts can contain thousands of birds. They tend to flock together in greater and greater numbers as winter progresses. In the evening they gradually assemble in the fields near the roost site, then, just as it's almost dark they all ascend, as if to some invisible signal, into the treetops. It's one of the great, but little known, wildlife spectacles of these islands. And it's also one of the noisiest as they are very vocal birds.

The fellow above is a Jackdaw, easily recognisable by their smaller size, their light-coloured eye and the grey feathers around the head. Just like me the Jackdaw gets greyer and greyer as it gets older! 

Both Jackdaws and Rooks appear to be playful birds, especially on windy days. On the farm where I worked years ago, there was a huge barn and when the wind was in a certain direction they would fly towards the barn sheltering from the wind, then would climb up steeply to the top of its roof where the wind would suddenly catch them and throw them high in the air. They then used to fly back and repeat the process again and again. If they weren't playing then I don't know what they were doing!

When they tired of that game they had another. This involved flying up to the vertical side of the strawstack and hanging on for as long as possible. Again there seemed no practical reason for this behaviour.

Unlike some birds who appear to have an inate ability to build nests, the Rook, who as far as we can tell is one of the more intelligent birds, has but the sketchiest idea of how to construct one. They appear to experiment and by trial and error achieve a large heap of sticks which somehow stays aloft, not only for the nesting season, but right through the year including the winter gales. As I've mentioned elsewhere they steal material from each others nests but never pick up anything that falls to the ground.

According to some of the old farm-workers I used to know, Rooks hanging around the farm in the morning meant that bad weather was on the way. It's difficult to prove this one way or the other but, from their elevated position they could certainly see dark clouds approaching.

Another tale was that if Rooks moved away from a farm it spelled bad luck. As my father pointed out to me once, you'd have to be farming pretty badly if things got so desperate that the Rooks moved on!

There is a (slightly) serious point to the pictures above. A Rook's eyes point forwards so it can't see all around as some birds can and is unaware of what's going on behind. That may be one advantage to their gregarious lifestyle - there's always someone on lookout. 

Above is a Carrion Crow with a cruel-looking beak, ideal for tearing apart the dead creatures on which it feeds. A Rook on the other hand has a long, pointed bill with which to probe the newly-ploughed fields for worms and grubs. The other way to tell them apart is the old country saying, "If you sees a lot of Crows together, they be Rooks. But one Rook on his own? Tha's a Crow". It's all down to the way they feed: a Carrion Crow discovering a dead vole or mouse will want it all to itself; whereas Rooks feed mainly on earthworms which are hidden below the surface, so many birds feeding together will soon find the best hunting ground for worms.

Oh, and for those who like those strange collective nouns for birds and animals: a lot of noisy Rooks, all crowded together and chattering and shouting at the same time, is known as a parliament of Rooks. About which I shall say no more.

Take care.

Friday 27 March 2020

Music Soothes....

And before anyone misquotes the rest of it, it's "the savage breast", nothing to do with beasts. I couldn't make up my mind which of these two tunes to include so you're treated to both of them. Both could be called lullabies, though I bet Axl Rose didn't know this was a quiet, dreamy song when he strained it through his larynx. Here's Thea Gilmore singing "Sweet Child Of Mine" in her own beautiful way....

And secondly the perfect song at the end of a late-night music session in a pub where they've called last orders long ago and it's time to wander home - Christy Moore with Bill Caddick's song "John O'Dreams".....

Despite what he says in the introduction, it's not Tchaikovsky's tune either, he apparently pinched it too but was less honest about it!

(with thanks to Robin and Roger at https://newdharmabums.blogspot.com/ who first suggested putting up some music every Friday. There's a couple of excellent songs there again this week)

Sweet dreams and take care.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

A Long, Cool Look At Spring

When the walker and author John Hillaby was asked to choose a luxury item on the radio programme Desert Island Discs he very wisely chose to take some binoculars. He reasoned that a few minutes peering at nature close-up always cheered him up when he was a bit down.

I know exactly what he means; it quite literally gives you a different perspective on the world. A long lens on a camera is the same, it changes the world in all sorts of unexpected and delightful ways.

A telephoto lens not only enlarges things, it also has a narrow depth of field. All that really means is that everything in front of or behind the main subject is blurred and sometimes quite attractively

If you point the camera into the sun then things like these newly sprouting reeds suddenly burst into life.

The old photography text books used to tell you not to shoot towards the light, but actually every one of these images, apart from the first one, were taken into the sun. That's not the only rule I found myself contravening. For years I've relied on those three pieces of advice for the photographer "Get closer, get closer, get closer", but if you're using a big lens you sometimes have to back away from the subject - and a very weird feeling it is!

Another thing that happens when the background's out of focus is the appearance of what I grew up calling "circles of confusion" where bright spots transform into a series of coloured discs. Nowadays everyone calls it "bokeh", which has me chanting "OK bokeh" to myself whenever it appears in my viewfinder!

The slightest half-step left or right can change the picture completely. "Up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, a little bit right - click!"

If anyone sees you doing this they'll think you've gone crackers. And if you happen to be on a bird reserve you'll soon collect a group of grumpy bird-watchers with binoculars wanting to know if you've spotted a Cetti's Warbler or a Nightingale in the undergrowth. Well, they will be grumpy when you tell them you're photographing leaves!

I hope you like at least some of these as I foresee a lot of partly-blurred-flower-pictures-with-coloured-discs-floating-around-in-the-background once I'm able to get to the Botanic Gardens again.

The photo above was taken accidentally when I pressed the shutter by mistake! It's turned out better than some of the ones I spent ages over. Such is life!

Most of the others are roughly as I envisaged them, but can anyone out there explain what's happening in the background of this last picture?

It's not a quiz, I'd really like to know. A little magic lurking in the hedgerow, you never know where or when you might find it.

Take care.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Everyday Scenes

There are many things that I pass by almost every day without giving them a second glance. What started me thinking was that Granny Sue asked me in a comment what "the stocks", which I mentioned last week, might be. So on a rather dull day I walked around and took some photos of what are familiar sights to me, though not to most others.

Here they are: the stocks and whipping post, beneath the magnificent chestnut tree, on a small triangle of grass known as Marvell's Green. Like most of what's in this post (and most of what I know about the village) I'm indebted to the website of the local history group. I'll put a link at the end. Just to tempt you to learn more, the stocks were last used in 1860 to punish those brawling in church. The legislation relating to the use of stocks as a punishment for "unruly artisans" has never been abolished, so theoretically I might get put in them if I become too unruly!

Near to the stocks is what is probably the base of an old preaching cross. It was unearthed in someone's garden and put here in the late nineteenth century.

Just across the road is an old-style wooden fingerpost. I remember watching a sign-writer re-paint one of these when I was a child. I must have been very impressed by his efforts as for a few years after that I wanted to be a sign-writer. I keep meaning to look closely and see if this one is still hand-painted or if technology has moved on. Most road signs elsewhere are now metal or plastic.

This is our village shop and post office which is part of the OneStop chain which is owned by Tesco, though operates as a separate company. We're lucky to have it still as many have closed down in recent decades.

And there's a village pub, The British Queen, too. Again we thought it might close down a few years ago, but it was bought by a local man who set about transforming its fortunes. It still serves an excellent pint and you can get a very nice meal too (in normal times*). I hope that the shop and the pub are able to survive the current Covid-19 crisis.

* and indeed now as I'm reminded they're offering a take-away service.

Just down the road is the village's primary school for children up to the age of 11. My little friend who lives next-door to me tells me it's a very good school and you learn all about "dinosaurs and aquatic beasts" there. I hope they'll soon be back in operation too.

The school has a very nice sign imploring drivers to slow down.

We're also lucky to have our own mainline station with trains to London in one direction and Cambridge in the other. The first trains stopped here in 1851 and there are now trains every half-hour during the week and every hour at weekends. The station is still manned during the busy morning period.

Just on the opposite side of the road to the station are these Nissen huts, occupied by car repairers and other small businesses. The history of these workaday premises is rather unexpected. I was thinking of asking for guesses as to its former use, but of course someone would find the answer on the History Group's website. They were constructed in 1944 to serve as reception centres for wounded soldiers brought by ambulance trains from the D-Day landings. Soldiers were then sent on to other hospital facilities in the area.

Nearby stands the village war memorial commemorating the dead of both world wars. Almost every village you go to has some sort of memorial and remarkably there was never any centrally organised movement to construct and pay for these; each village collected money independently to pay for their own memorial. So nobody really knows how many there are, though there are around 16,000 villages in England. There are just 53 communities which suffered no losses in WWI and are known as "Thankful Villages". 16 of these also saw no losses in WWII. Most are very small farming settlements.

And this is something I don't see every day: a thatcher at work, renewing some of the roofing on one the nineteen thatched cottages in the village. He seemed pleased that someone had stopped to admire his work and take a photo. I wrote a bit about thatch and thatching here:

Meldreth Local History Group website: http://www.meldrethhistory.org.uk/index.aspx

Take care.

Sunday 22 March 2020

A Spring In The Step

Suddenly, after all the grey weather we've had recently, there are now battalions of those little yellow suns all over our part of the weather map as the clouds have rolled away to reveal that Spring is almost here. Alas, there is no equivalent cheer to be had by listening to the news, so I headed out on a stress-busting walk (as recommended by Boris). To be honest I haven't really felt under too much strain from the current situation, though I feel for those who are more directly affected than me.

If you're unable to get out and about you might enjoy a few photographs of how things are going out there in the natural world:

Those fields of daffs that top and tail today's post are the result of the old flower-growing industry around here. In fact flowers are still farmed here but several daffodil fields are largely abandoned and left to their own devices. 


I was searching yesterday on YouTube to see if there were any good videos of walks in Great Britain which might occupy the time and lift the spirits of those "confined to barracks". Most of them were pretty dire, put up by people who are convinced that we want to see their ugly mugs as they drone on endlessly. However, amongst all the dross, I came across these excellent short(ish) videos of scenic short(ish) walks in the English Lake District. Here's a link to one of them:

If you click on this link you'll find lots more like it:

Take care.