Sunday 30 April 2023

The Things We Do For Blogs

Last time I was with you, you may remember, I was peering into prickly bushes. For this post I'm crouching, kneeling and sometimes rolling around in a wet field. It takes all sorts.

I had closed the back door, jumped on my bike and pedalled a mile-and-a-half through the village to a small, badly-drained meadow, where I locked my bike to a fence and wandered off with my camera. At least I was alone this time and Les didn't have to put up with my ridiculous behaviour.

And here is the reason for my grovelling around in the dewy grass - cowslips!

They are not rare or unusual flowers, but I happen to like 'em! And that's a good enough reason for me to be out taking photographs on what started as a foggy morning and is forecast to turn into a cloudy day.

There's some brightness penetrating the clouds though, so if I want to make the most of the sparkling dew I'd best get a move on.

Cowslips are traditionally associated with this time of year and were always picked for May Day garlands. They're also known as St Peter's Keys, from their supposed resemblance to a bunch of golden keys.

Although this meadow is quite waterlogged, the cowslips tend to grow on the drier parts. And the sun is coming out and beginning to dry out the morning dew.

They look quite spectacular with the sun shining through them.

I began to wander off and photograph some of the supporting cast, like these Celandine.
🎜 Sweet Celandine, good times never seemed so good 🎜

There's always one that has to step out of line!

But these are the other wild flowers that always go together in my mind with cowslips - Lady's Smock. I once heard it called Milkmaids and have never been able to get that name out of my mind. They don't "go together" in nature however; Lady's Smock preferring the wetter parts.

A small bee was fuelling up on nectar. There were also a few butterflies on the wing as the morning grew warmer. I hope that one will visit a flower near me - it's rarely any use chasing after them.

A flicker of yellow announced that a male Brimstone had just alighted nearby. Even its tiny weight was enough to bend the flower stalk.

And here's an Orange Tip, another of our early butterflies.

Just one more shot of the cowslips, then I'd better be going home. Ah, here's where I left my bicycle.

Take care.

Thursday 27 April 2023

A Sunny Morning On The Fen

At this time of year, as spring takes a firmer hold on our weather, those of us with an interest in wild birds can be found staring at any hedges and bushes from which twitterings and chirpings are spilling forth. We attract some strange looks.

We are at Baker's Fen, which is part of the large area of reedbeds and wild country centred on the National Trust's reserve at Wicken Sedge Fen. Not so long ago much of this was farmland, but the NT has pledged to buy up any fields which come up for sale and expand their holding, eventually to form a wild area reaching all the way to Cambridge.

But back to those eccentric people peering into the thickening foliage. What they are seeking is that group of small unobtrusive birds called Warblers, who are returning to these latitudes from their winter quarters. The first two we encountered were the Chiffchaff and the Blackcap - though they don't really count as some of each species remain here throughout the winter. 

Even so it's good to hear Chiffchaffs, the first sign of real spring, as well as the Blackcap which is one of my favourite songsters. Maybe you'd like to hear one too - and YouTube will allow us to do just that.

As you can see the male is well-named, though the females have brown caps, but look just as jaunty.

I've shown you Wicken Fen's remarkable tower hide before. It allows wide-ranging views across the area, but it's on the other side of the water so we'll not be climbing its steps this morning. We'll carry on alongside the "lode" - the local name for these man-made drainage channels and waterways.

I'm pretty sure that I've photographed that tree many times too, but today it had a strange soundtrack - a whirring, reeling, mechanical noise that seemed to be coming from several different directions. If you didn't know what it was you'd be unlikely to guess it was a bird singing. But that's what it is - a Grasshopper Warbler. YouTube to the rescue once again...

They don't usually sing out in the open like that; our bird was performing in some dense, scrubby vegetation - at least I think so; it was difficult to pin down exactly where the sound was coming from.

Willow trees can look marvellous with the sun shining through their catkins and new leaves. Nearby a Willow Warbler was in full song - it doesn't always work in that way - Willow Warblers in the willow trees - bird names can be very misleading. By the way, if you diligently click on all the links I've provided, you'll see that most of these warblers look much the same (especially the Chiffchaff and the Willow Warbler) - it's the songs that allow you to tell them apart.

The other migrant birds we encountered included a Reed Warbler (in a bush), Sedge Warbler (on a branch), Whitethroat and a Swallow.

When we got home Les looked at the online Cambridgeshire Bird Club page. Later in the day a Cuckoo was recorded on the fen. We'll save that one for next time!

Take care.

Sunday 23 April 2023

Meet The South Folk

....but before we find the South Folk we'll call in at a little car park and picnic site that's much loved by van drivers wanting a quiet spot for their lunch-break. Les recalled stopping here during his days as a TV engineer. Few of those who stop ever get out to look around and even fewer will be aware of its importance to the history of science.

OK, it's fairly typical of the scrubby landscape that develops when the Breckland is left to its own devices. It's called Ramparts Field and in 1860 Joseph Prestwich and John Evans came here to dig about and search for evidence that flint implements were around at the same time as what they referred to as "antediluvian animals". Darwin had published his Origin of Species just the previous year and now the hunt was on to prove, or disprove, his contention that life on earth had developed in ways, and over a time-span, unimagined in the Bible. They found both flint tools and elephant bones but not the fossils they had hoped for.

And now to make the acquaintance of those South Folk....

The Anglo-Saxons came this way around the year 400 and made their homes in this area, gradually establishing the kingdom of East Anglia, which occupied present day Norfolk and Suffolk (the lands of the North Folk and the South Folk) as well as parts of Cambridgeshire. One of their villages was right here at West Stow in Suffolk, where today there's a reconstruction of some of their buildings - though this is no "theme-park re-imagining" as we shall see.

Having paid our entry fee we were greeted by the noble beast above. It's actually a cross between several traditional breeds to try to emulate the kind of pigs that might have existed 1,600 years ago.

In the foreground is a building to shelter livestock, while behind it lie the kind of buildings occupied by the Anglo-Saxons themselves.

Archaeologists are a varied bunch and, while some have the skills to analyse tiny samples of wood or bone with expensive scientific instruments, others take a more practical approach. And so it was that when this site was investigated in the early 1970s some of those present decided to test their theories as to how the buildings might have looked by reconstructing them using the tools and materials available to the Anglo-Saxons. Above is their workshop area.

The building above, known as "The Oldest House" was their first effort. They soon found that some of their methods were unsuccessful and others, which may have been used elsewhere, were wrong for this location. But that was the point of the exercise - to see what worked and what didn't. In fairness they didn't have much to go on apart from the size and arrangement of postholes, the location of fires and odd chance survivals from those dim and distant days.

Other buildings incorporating different ideas followed, such as the one above. It's called "The Living House" and would have slept around ten people. What's more you can go inside all these buildings (except the first one I showed you, which is on the point of collapse). The door's open - lets take a look.

The raised sleeping platform is covered with animal skins. We were surprised to see that the fire-box was made of wood, but it's obviously been used and apparently works. There's no chimney; the smoke had to find its own way out through the gaps in the thatch.

Up in the rafters more animal skins grinned down on the sleeping inhabitants.

An open door beckons us into "The Weaving House". Notice the simple wooden catch and the fact that the whole door is held together with wooden dowels. 

Up in the roof-space skeins of dyed yarn are stored.

And here's the simple loom, the vertical threads held taut by clay weights; they are often the only remaining clue that weaving took place in a location.

"The Farmer's House" is next. The village is thought to have been inhabited from AD 420 to 650. In other words from soon after the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and other tribes began arriving here from continental Europe. Long after the site was deserted it became buried by wind-blown sand (a frequent occurrence in the Breckland of those times). As the sand was unsuitable for agriculture everything lay undisturbed for centuries, till the archaeologists arrived in the 1970s.

I became fascinated by the uncomplicated functionality of these door-catches. This one looks as though it could be flipped over so that it could be opened from outside. Alternatively it could drop into the notch to bar the door and keep the farmer and his family safe inside.

Not that one would want to argue with this farmer, for besides his shield he also had a vicious blade with a six-foot long handle hanging on one of the posts.

That should deter any intruders!

Lastly we'll visit "The Meeting Hall" where the community might gather together, perhaps to hear ancient songs or stories.

Inside it's surprisingly spacious with a large chair at one end, presumably for the leader of the group, while there are benches for everyone else.

For some reason the simple domesticity of this trio of earthenware bowls on their rough-hewn wooden table brought me closest of all to the South Folk - after all, I could well be descended from them!

Take care.

Thursday 20 April 2023

Friendly Nature

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and we're off to sunny Suffolk! The only problem is, that by the time we arrive at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust's nature reserve at Lackford Lakes, it's overcast with a chill wind. But that won't stop us!

It's a while since we've been here and I remember a series of scenic lakes with a mix of open areas and woodland. But we could really do with a bit of sunshine to both brighten up my photos and to set the birds singing. That's a real old-school bird hide on the far side of the water.

And this magnificent construction, which has appeared since we were last here, is very much the state-of-the-art design, both practical and visually appealing. It's a two-storey affair with indoor seating and balconies. On the lower level there's a special low window to accommodate those who use wheelchairs.

And here's the panorama from up top. On a dull day like this there's one location that might just provide some photos. In a small patch of woodland there's a fallen tree where photographers and others scatter seed and nuts to tempt the birds to come closer. The birds, of course, know all about this and take full advantage.

The Robin is one of our most approachable birds. At one time they made a good living following herds of wild pigs through the forest, picking off any grubs and insects turned up by their rootling snouts. In the absence of wild pigs they quickly learned that human gardeners gave them much the same opportunities through their digging and hoeing.

Here comes a Great Tit, looking very smart and perhaps on the look-out  for a mate. 

But food is the main priority on a chilly morning like this. Not only was nature being friendly this morning but also the people who were sharing the joy of being close to the birds. Les soon fell into conversation with a man with a fine country accent. But there was also a young woman training her camera lens on a disintegrating log and intermittently firing off a short volley of shots. Try as we may we couldn't make out what she was photographing till she let us in on the secret.

Bank Voles! They've also discovered the constant source of food here and scamper out from their hidey-holes, grab a mouthful and are gone. They are really quite common in woodland areas, but mostly go unnoticed because of their tiny size and secretive ways. They have good reason to be secretive too; all kinds of predators regard them as a tasty snack.

The Great Tit's smaller cousin, the Blue Tit, is also here to enjoy a free meal.

And here's that Robin again. One thing you quickly become aware of is the strict "pecking order" amongst the birds who come to this fast-food take-away. And the bird that most exemplifies that phrase has been here several times already. However its "take-away" is so fast that it's no sooner here than gone.

Eventually a Coal Tit hesitated for just a second and allowed me to get my picture (I won't show you all the failed attempts which just show a bare piece of log). Then for a minute or so all the birds were gone.

A Nuthatch was making an upside-down approach to the feeding area and they seem to be the boss among the smaller woodland birds.

There were actually two of them who appeared together, probably a pair, though they were never close enough to each other to get them both in the picture.

A Bank Vole pops out to pick up any fallen seed.

And we'll finish off the morning's entertainment with another portrait of the Nuthatch. As so often happens, just as we were about to leave, some watery sunshine seeped through the clouds.

These trees, just coming into leaf, deep in the reedbed, caught my eye for some reason as we made our way back to the car park. We had plans to spend the afternoon somewhere rather different.

Take care.