Thursday, 31 December 2009

Auld Lang Whine

New Year's Eve, that weakest of temporal barriers between one calendar and the next. More ephemeral than a line in the sand, it's a very wet paper bag in which to carry your hopes for the next 365 days.

You'd be correct in assuming that I'm not a big fan of resolutions at this time of year. Those words that are chiselled into an ice sculpture in the middle of a room full of merry folk, glowing with the warmth of one too many beverages of choice. They inevitably fade away by the morning. Let's face it, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing whatever the time of year.

However, acknowledging the cyclical nature of things, there are new opportunities to be explored during the next four seasons. Considering my options, and in no particular order, here are my aspirations for 2010:

Share a second honeymoon - if it was a mountain, this year would be Suilven;
See a Broad-bodied Chaser - the one that got away in 2009. No... not upset at all... not a bit;
Photograph an otter in the wild - a phottergraph;
Break the 200 species barrier on my pathetic birding life list;
Learn to "play" the bodhran - after first learning how to pronounce it;
Go to the cinema more;
Spot a Clubtail or a Norfolk Hawker or a Southern Damselfly or all three;
Ignore Matt Bellamy's breathing between lines of Muse songs;
Build another water feature in our garden;
Did I mention wanting to see a Broad-bodied Chaser?

Have a Happy New Year, dear reader, and All the Best for 2010.

Monday, 28 December 2009

It's on the cards

Despite having plenty of time to blog in recent days, the opportunity has gone begging, though not for any surfeit of partying or revelling. Santa brought me a head cold which has forced me to remain indoors, staring miserably out of the window, rather than going for brisk walks on crisp paths, through woods and fields.

Motivation has been a bit lacking too, mooching about and relying on the cricket commentary for entertainment. Today dawned bright and clear, which only ramped up the frustration at my exile from the outside world.

I offer this as a possible explanation for what happened next. I'm embarrassed to admit that I started birdwatching our Christmas cards. Perched around the lounge were numerous images of winter scenes, which I methodically studied for ornithological interest. Predictably, you will not be too surprised to read, there were loads of Robins, from the twee cartoon types to the superbly-photographed one, sat amongst frost-laden twigs. However, two cards stood out from the background noise of red, white and brown ruddockness.

The first was an RSPB card showing an almost lifesize Goldcrest on a branch, set against a dark starry sky. In the painting, the buds on the branch and the bird's legs are picked out in gold, which contrasts nicely with the black background. Thanks, J, that really cheered me up.

The other card was much smaller, only 11cm square, from my RSPCA supporting in-laws. The painting on the front is entitled Winter Wildlife by Avril Haynes, published by Otter House.

Please feel free to correct any errors in my list: pair of Blue Tits, Song Thrush, pair of Robins, Wren, Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Collared Dove, pair of Chaffinches, Coal Tit, Great Tit, House Sparrow, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Starling, Goldcrest, Bullfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Nuthatch, pair of Goldfinches, Jay, (domesticated dove), Tree Creeper, Greenfinch, Magpie, Grey Partridge, and a pair of Pheasants. Rounding off the scene: 2 Rabbits, 3 Hedgehogs, 1 Grey Squirrel and 2 Dormice.

Between the card watching and the blogging, it's been a pleasant morning, and I've just noticed a Black Grouse on the sideboard, adorning a bottle of blended Scotch whisky. Cheers!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Rant reprise

Driving home from work this evening, my younger daughter remarked from the passenger seat,

"Oh my God! The driver of the car at that last junction was dressed as Santa!"

Never one to miss an opportunity to subtly hammer home a point, I replied,

"Well, there are nearly 7 billion people on the planet, he's bound to have to start a bit earlier than Christmas Eve."

Monday, 21 December 2009

Dies Natalis Invicti Solis

This was going to be a happy blog. Oh dear.
 
The Winter Solstice, a little ray of hope in the depths of a cold, dark season. From today, the days will start to lengthen again, heralding the promise of life springing anew from the bare earth. A beacon to light the way to better times.

Somehow, this vital spark was missing from the minds of the movers and the shakers at the climate conference in Copenhagen. So much hot air and so little substance, it's so very like our species. Humanity-induced global warming in microcosm. Thanks very much, guys, for another missed opportunity to tackle the thorny problem of sustainability and dwindling resources in the face of unchecked population growth.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of scientists and nations of the world can see the "us" in sustainability, the sceptics and deniers only see the "stain" of conspiracy, and the greedy few shackle the rest of the planet with "inability".

There's too many individuals spending too long in air-conditioned isolation from the outside world, feeding their self interest with huge mouthfuls of short term thinking and quenching their thirst for riches from the polluted seas of commerce. But hey, not to worry, we can all pull together and change the future... well, only if it's manipulating the pop charts. Way to go, people.

Fortunately, for the time being at least, the cycle of life will continue, and as cultures around the Earth begin their midwinter festivals, I raise a glass in celebration of the reborn sun.

Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, indeed.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

In the bleak mid-winter

The recent weather has certainly helped lift the festive mood. It always seems "right" when the garden looks a bit like the myriad of Christmas cards adorning more and more of the horizontal surfaces in the lounge. I hasten to clarify that I'm referring to the snowy scene, rather than the herd of red-nosed reindeer being tended to by the portly gentleman with the white beard.

A cold snap does tend to draw wildlife into the garden. Under the bitter sun, it becomes an oasis in a barren, frozen desert. Over lunch, I spotted a male Bullfinch in one of our rose bushes, his chest incredibly red against the white snow on the branches. Then between these two paragraphs, a male Sparrowhawk has spent a few minutes sitting in the Hawthorn tree attempting to flush a snack from an ivy-covered fence with his icy stare. Several unsuccessful lunges later, he decided to take his custom elsewhere, to terrify some other bird feeder. There will inevitably follow a few nervous minutes until I can confirm the continued existence of the single Coal Tit to grace the environs of Tense Towers. Heck, a male Blackcap, just where the "sprawk" was hunting! But it's chased off by a blinking squirrel before I can bring the camera to bear. Bum.




All this action is set against the Test Match Special cricket commentary from South Africa, with soaring temperatures and waning England hopes. My mental clock is now on Saffer time, so I've felt a meal behind all day.

As the low sun sends the lengthening shadows slicing across the garden, the birds (who are a meal ahead of everybody) congregate for the final eating opportunity of the day. It will be another very chilly night and, whilst running the risk of mixing up my religious festivals, sadly for some, it may be their Last Supper.

Coal Tit! Phew!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Getting in the mood

Normally about this time of year, just as Amazon and I are racking up the amount of email traffic more readily associated with besotted lovers separated by continents, my credit card company stop my account "due to unusual behaviour".

That'll be me buying similar quantities of stuff from similar vendors every Christmas since they invented internet shopping. Possibly in response to the same credit card company offering me the chance of winning some wonderful prize if I use their card for all my purchases.

Jings, it's enough to make a reindeer spit.

Touch wood, things have been a bit sensible so far this year, though the very act of blogging that, makes me suspect that the hand of Fate is about to clip me around the ear.

But this is possibly the best bit of Christmas for me. After the choosing, after the purchasing and before the giving... wrapping!

Man, present, paper and sellotape in perfect harmony. And for that added bit of kitsch, listening to the The Waitresses' "Christmas rapping" at the same time. Perhaps they need to adjust my medication.

On the subject of festive tunes, I guess my fave has to be "I believe in Father Christmas" by Greg Lake, bearing in mind that my formative years were heavily dominated by ELP. Then there's that most Marmite of Christmas songs, Jona Lewie's "Stop the Cavalry", but I couldn't begin to rationalise why it appeals to me so much.

Well, with less than a week to go before the big day, things are shaping up nicely. Bring on the winter solstice.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Blogorama

Well, patient and long-suffering reader, this is new. My last blog has a twin! Does that make it a doppelbloganger?

The whole hawthorn escapade can be viewed from JD's point of view on his RSPB Homes for Wildlife blog, together with some before and after shots.

The garden has complained that no-one mentioned photographs, and if that was going to be the case, it would have spent a good deal of the previous day at the beautician's, having its roots done and a lawn manicure. Fortunately, it didn't notice that there were risque "bare branch" pics.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Hawthorn haircut

It's been a bit of a celeb-fest at Tense Towers this weekend. We've had a visitation from the RSPB and also Big Brother. Now, I know what you're thinking. He's a bit soft in the head whenever that Kate Humble's on the telly, but surely even in his quirkiest moments, he wouldn't have signed up to Channel 4's flagship toxic bucket programme? Ah, not that Big Brother... my big brother, the one from the green, verdant pastures of industrial Teeside. So it's a fair bet that it's not grass giving it the colour.

But let's start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews said, clothing the children in curtains and telling them to pull themselves together.

Friday night saw us entertaining the RSPB's premier guitar playing, blues loving, invertebrate respecting, habitat management advisor, JD. Now, the great British geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J B S Haldane, is reputed to have remarked that God has "an inordinate fondness for beetles". Well that goes for JD too, AND he can trump the Creator with an acoustic set from the Fab Four. Mind you, the only wildlife we saw during the evening was the Admiral and his waitressing stalker, the glamorous Kaz.

Let it be.

Come Saturday morning, a pair of Reed Buntings focused attention on the back garden, so when our lass popped out to the shops, JD and I decided to turn our skills (ok, JD's skills) to pruning the Hawthorn tree that all the birds seem to use on the way to the feeder. Situated a scant wingflap from the big Willow tree in the corner of our neighbour's garden, the Hawthorn is a handy, if unruly, conglomeration of twigs for the finches and tits en route to the sunflower seed. It stands about 4 metres high and is beginning to dominate the north side of the lawn. JD's wildlife-friendly eyes could see potential in reducing the branches by approximately 25% and encouraging the tree to produce more dense growth in the centre. A very un-horticultural thing to do, but here the watchwords are "habitat" and "creation". I'm sure JD thinks "Titchmarsh" is an expletive.

My brother and his wife arrived shortly before we completed the task, so we hurriedly stacked the loppings at the back of one of the borders, to provide further deadwood habitat for all those tiny invertebrates that support the food chain.

After a bracing, breezy walk around Tongwell Lake, we paused at the Nag's Head in Great Linford to sample a more restorative draught, then toddled back to Tense Towers to the news that Boro had won 5-1 away from home. Shurely shome mishtake?

A generation gap opened in the evening, the young 'uns (Ruth and JD) going off to Oxford to see The Answer, whilst those of us who don't even understand the question went to the pub for tea. And, yes, it's definitely called "tea" when there's four Northerners together.

Many thanks for the good times this weekend, guys. Sorry I couldn't stay awake!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Acute Anglesey

This is my first "away" blog, tippy-tapped into the computer of our first born in her room at Bangor. We're having a weekend in North Wales with the wild Welsh weather.

An early start from Tense Towers saw us pootle into dear old Bangy by noon, to be greeted by a downpour and a happy, bouncy Sally. This may have had more to do with the presence of boyfriend Dan than the arrival of the 'rents!

After a quick lunch at Plas Newydd on Anglesey, we headed for our overnight accommodation in Beaumaris, the Townhouse next to Ye Olde Bull's Head Inn. Then it was down to the sea front to experience the howling wind and a brooding cloudstrewn sunset. The odd gull could be seen out in the Menai Strait and a solitary cormorant by the pier, otherwise it was just us and the weather.

In the evening, the four of us had a pleasant meal in Ye Olde Bull, where my wife's love of slate became abundantly clear, even to a "slow on the uptake" chap like myself. Whilst having a nightcap in the bar, an unexpected flash made me look round for a camera, until a huge crash of thunder presented an alternative explanantion. Strangely, after a Welsh cry of "Al qaeda!", the bar swiftly emptied, leaving us to wonder whether the foothills of Snowdonia might be a better place to wage the war on terror, rather than Afghaniraqistan?

Following a fitful night's sleep, punctuated by a squeaky sign outside our window, we struggled bleary-eyed to brekkie. The rain seemed to have got bored and gone off to bother someone else, so we braved the foreshore in the blustery wind. With the tide out and despite being unable to keep my bins still, we managed to spot Oystercatchers, Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and a lone Dunlin, though it could've been a Sanderling. I am still rubbish at waders!

Like a complete buffoon, I didn't realise that there were Red Squirrels on Anglesey, and we will have to return to try and spot these cutesome creatures... when the sky isn't intent on turning itself inside out.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Motorway list

Being a "local patch" birder, it's easy to define that patch as wherever I happen to be. So when I had to journey from Northamptonshire to Manchester this week and found myself in a vehicle sans cd player, one particular option presented itself.

Rather than listen to pop music, inane babble or folk arguing on the radio, I used the motorway network as my birding patch:

M1 J15a -J19   A solitary kestrel. Oddly I didn't see another of these "typical" motorway birds all day.

M6 J1 - J4   A big flock of rooks and jackdaws, wheeling over the traffic. Enjoying the turbulent air of a gusty Autumn day.

M6 Toll   A flock of lapwing making heavy weather of the er... heavy weather. Then, further along, a buzzard hanging in the wind like an enormous kestrel, working the speeding air to remain motionless in space.

M6 J12 - J14    A dozen Canada Geese lift from the flood plain on one side of the motorway and somehow make it over the roofs of the passing vehicles to the other side. Crazy birds!

M6 J19    Two more buzzards. One flying low over the embankment for the slip road, another sat on a fence watching the ground intently.

Lunch in town in the Snipe Retail Park, which sadly didn't live up to its name.

M6 J19 - J15   A huge rounded shadow looms out of the increasing gloom, and at first I thought it was an owl, but it turned out to be a heron.

M6 Stafford services   Fairly obligatory, this one, a bunch of Pied Wagtails in the car park.

M6 J14 - J12   Those pesky Canada Geese again! Struggling into the breeze, back across the carriageways.

Not the best day's birding I've ever had, but when you're stuck behind the wheel for 6 hours, the odd avian sighting does lift the heart.
  

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Early brambling

Though barely awake and bleary eyed,
An early brambling, my wife espied.
A winter visitor with chaffinch flocks,
Cracking view through our binocs!


Early in the day for us, early in the year for him.



Hope Santa brings a bigger camera...

It's all relative

At the end of our Scottish trip, we bid farewell to my wife's sister's family and set off in the rain and fog, bound for warmer climes nearer the Equator. Or England, as I like to call it.

The only member of their family that we hadn't seen was little Andrew, who was away at college, but who would soon be visiting Silverstone for a race meeting. As he was going to be in our neck of the woods, we naturally offered to be of assistance should he require it, and pondered a visit to the circuit ourselves, perhaps.

As it turned out, this was uncharacteristically perceptive of me, but also less than correct.

Several days after our arrival home, my wife received a call from her sister, asking for a bit of help with a problem. Little Andrew was now at Silverstone, but ill and confined to his hotel bed. Could we collect him and provide some much-needed TLC?

The poor, wee lamb was in a bad way, with what we soon realised was not a common cold or that other mildest of ailments, man flu. Fortunately, he was a dab hand at the "catch it, bin it, kill it" game. However, after a few days of no improvement, we called the NHS helpline and were advised to take him to the drop-in clinic at our local hospital. In his diagnosis, the doctor couldn't be 100% sure, but it was either proper flu or the porcine variety, with treatment much the same for either.

At this juncture, I'd better point out that little Andrew isn't so little anymore. He's much taller than the last time I saw him, towering over all at Tense Towers, though still the same polite, unassuming, but humourous chap I remember.

Happily, over the course of the next week, his humour, if not his appetite, slowly returned and today, before dawn, we put him on a train for home and back to his anxious parents. Serendipitiously, this meant we were sat in the lounge much earlier than would have normally been the case on a Saturday morning. Just in time for my wife to spot a male Brambling on the bird feeder. So thank you, Big Andy, that was a really nice surprise.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

BDS Members' Day 2009, Edinburgh

The opportunity to travel north of the border (a very Englo-centric term, sorry) for the 2009 BDS Members' Day was too good to miss. However, we decided against the "mad dash" plan and opted instead for a leisurely trip, taking in some wildlife sights along the way and visiting relatives near Edinburgh.

The day prior to the meeting, we visited the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve at Caerlaverock to see the 1, 2, 3, 4... 9868, 9869, 9870 Barnacle Geese who had recently arrived from the high Arctic to overwinter on the Solway Firth. It was a cool, showery day but we managed to briefly spot a Common Darter between hides and rain squalls. As dusk approached, we parked near the mouth of the River Nith and were treated to a pair of Peregrines spooking waterfowl and waders alike. This resulted in a wonderful spectacle as a flock of waders swooped and swirled in the low sunlight, their burnished plumage literally producing some golden moments.

Arriving at Napier University's Craiglockhart campus on Saturday morning, we could not help but notice the juxtaposition of traditional buildings and contemporary designs, with what at first appeared to be a spacecraft docked in the middle of the university. This turned out to be the Lindsay Stewart Lecture Theatre which, as the brochure says, "is oval in shape and titanium clad, elevated by stilts and with amazing views over the city". And also our home for the day.

During the morning, the Scottish flavour of the talks was to the fore (without once mentioning whisky or haggis) as we were introduced to the concept of guddling, colanders and plastic spoons. Combined, these utensils are the means by which Caledonian dragons are revealed in some of the more remote, rain-lashed wildernesses (personally, we enjoyed 12 gloriously sunny days in Orkney in June, on a colander-free, carefree holiday, so perhaps Pat, Craig and Jonathan were only joking about the weather).

In the afternoon, it was Odonata International, starting with a relocation scheme for White-faced Darters in Cumbria, then taking in some Norwegian Beavers (released in Scotland), after which we ventured to Belize and Texas for 110 species in four weeks, before settling in Sweden for Professor Ulf Norling's talk on cold climate adaptation of larvae.

The day was a heady mixture of facts and fun, information thoughtfully delivered with humour and a love for the subject. Our personal thanks to the hosts, organisers and speakers for a fantastic Members' Day. If there was any disappointment, it was that the keynote speaker was not allowed sufficient time for his talk, but we marvelled at his skill to tailor the content to the time available.

The following day, we visited the RSPB reserve at Vane Farm on Loch Leven, though the strong wind and heavy rain would have vexed even the most colander-hardened odonatologist. Fortunately, we did see a skein of Pink-footed Geese fly over during a brief sunny spell, and there was a tea room, dear reader, so all was well.

Whilst new to this lark, I find the Members' Day to be a fitting finale to the flight season, providing food for thought during the long winter evenings and a healthy dose of feelgood factor too. Time to plan for next year!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Autumnal ramblings

We had a trip to The Lodge at Sandy over the weekend to check out their new footpaths. The RSPB have put in two loops of about a mile each, one from the existing heathland and the other through what was recently woodland.

Disappointingly, there were only a few darters about, but this was of only slight concern as there were loads of ladybirds. Mainly Harlequins, it has to be said, but the traditional 7 spotteds were holding their own and we also saw several Pine Ladybirds.


In the cleared woodland, young birch seedlings were taking full advantage of suddenly being exposed to acres of blue by making their bid for forest glory and reaching for the skies.

The following day, we finally got around to planting out the new flower bed at the front, before having a wander locally around Linford Lakes. Again, only a few Common Darters were seen, but at least the sunset provided some spectacle. Having taken to photographing evening skies whilst on holiday, it was good to discover that it's also possible from home, though the bird silhouettes were a stroke of luck.


Turneresque, someone said. I didn't even know Anthea could paint.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Time Machine

My wife wandered into the lounge, calendar in hand.

“It says here you’re meeting Isaac Newton at 7.30!” she exclaimed.

I tried to remember if I’d invented a time machine recently and decided that, on available evidence, probably not. Though had I done so, the word “recently” would’ve ceased to have any real meaning. This left a combination of my handwriting and someone not wearing her specs as the main reasons for the imaginative interpretation of “ISIHAC, N’ton 7.30”.

That thought started me wondering, if we had the facility to travel in time, when and where would we go? I appreciate that we ARE travelling in time, but it’s a bit of a one way street with No Stopping and Stay In Lane signs. So what if the Temporal Highway Code was ripped up and thrown in the Celestial Bin?

By all accounts, Newton could be a crusty old git and had his fair share of fruit loop ideas. So, a man after my own heart, then, but perhaps not him.

Somewhat predictably, and if the oxygen didn’t get me first, I’d rather like to visit the Carboniferous period of 350 million years ago to see the early dragonflies with their 70cm wingspans. However, a modern human footprint in the fossil record would probably throw current scientific thinking into utter confusion. That and the neat row of rocks I’d arrange to spell the word “D-A-W-K-I-N-S”.

For a more subtle way of changing historic events, I would nip back to 1066 and impress upon Harold Godwinson the importance of maintaining a shield wall at all costs, despite evidence to the contrary. Who could resist the chance to be immortalised in the no-longer-called-Bayeux Tapestry wearing a red shirt with an iconic white chest band?

No, perhaps it would be a bad idea to sit me, or anyone, at the controls of a time machine. As a species we’re pretty good at messing up the now, so let’s try to limit the damage to our own life span and in that way inform the future.

Actually, whilst it didn’t affect the fabric of Space/Time in any meaningful way, the event in Northampton at 7.30 was a Best of… show with the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue cast. The audience were certainly transported to another dimension for two hours and the world definitely seemed a jollier place come the final curtain. My sincere thanks go to Captain Sundial for a wonderful evening.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Of mustelids and meals

Where did those two weeks go? I'd just about got the hang of trolling along, maintaining the correct work/life balance, when blogging upset the apple cart and I'm back to Square One.

Despite extracating myself from behind my desk for a few days, being sat on top of a 12 storey building in the middle of a city wasn't an utter naturefest, would you believe? A dozen or so Starlings on pre-roost and a family of Mistle Thrushes were the sum total of the wildlife distractions. Apart from the Swifts of course. Swifts? In late September? W-e-l-l, kinda. The title song from the Peatbog Faeries "Faery Stories", strangely called "Faery Stories", has Swifts as the backing track. What a glorious thing to do and it certainly cheered up my drives up and down the M6. That and the early mornings with atmospheric patches of mist and the low sun flaring off the autumn colours on the trees.

We've finally been on our anniversary weekend jaunt, combined with a "visit the family" trip to County Durham, Land of the Prince Bishops and Cricket County Champions. We booked into a country hotel in Croft on Tees, Clow Beck House, and what a sumptuous place it was. Us simple folk aren't used to complimentary slippers! The food was fab, with as many veggie options as meatatarian ones and the staff were so welcoming and helpful. We'd barely had time to recover from the evening meal, when it was time for the cooked breakfast. After we'd checked out on the Sunday morning, we ambled around their garden, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of early autumn and were surprised to spot a weasel. Amazingly, it was doing that stuff that you normally only ever see on Springwatch, leaping around like a mad thing and performing crazy back flips, without ever being too perturbed about our presence.


We met up with my brother and his wife for lunch in the sleepy village of Stapleton. Sleepy, that is until the pub opened and the population of Darlington decamped to the carvery, leaving their cars all around the village green. If the local football team had that amount of support, they wouldn't be in such financial straits. Sunday roast came with dish after dish of vegetables, and we all had to admit defeat and forego dessert. No, really!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Gardeners whirled

Whenever friends or relatives visit Tense Towers for the first time, I issue a set of directions to ease their journey from the M1 to our front door. I appreciate that wall-to-wall roundabouts aren't everyone's cup of tea. These instructions always end with "we're up the top of the street behind the pampas grass"... at least, that is, until now.

You may be surprised to learn, dear reader, that our front lawn wouldn't be out of place at the Chelsea Flower Show. To be fair, at the Chelsea Flower Show after 100,000 people have walked over it and then the RHS used it as a lorry park. The only gold medal we would be winning is the Skankiest Bit of Grass Award.


We err on the side of native wild flowers, er... ok, weeds, with lashings of moss, a few blades of "bad hair day" lawn and the aforementioned pampas grass.

Patagonia's third greatest export (after sheep and more sheep, I believe) has dominated the easterly aspect of Tense Towers since well before our residency. It has slowly spread outwards, a bit like its current owner, but with a better-formed plan for global domination. Every few years, I would don protective gear from head to toe, take my life in my hands and attempt a grassy short, back and sides (in deference to South America, I nearly wrote " a brazilian" there). The razor sharp leaves would counter with accurate blows to any exposed skin, the feathery plumes would try to dislodge my safety goggles and a myriad of mercenary spiders would abseil down the back of my neck. You can't imagine how much I looked forward to it.

So the time has come to say "Adios, amigo!" and set our sights on pastures new. Some nice and friendly, fragrant lavender to be exact. Good for butterflies, excellent for bees, but terribly poor for getting spiders down the back of your neck. Win, win!

Yesterday, we spent a happy morning at a local garden centre, selecting said lavender and a tea rose (as MGLW seems to think I need a bit of garden danger. She's wrong). Then, fortified by a mug of tea and a large slice of cake, we loaded up our truck with several hundred kilogrammes of hard landscaping to construct the edge to our new flower bed.

This morning, whilst up to our armpits in mortar, shovels and a wheelbarrow, we were hailed in a soft Scottish accent by a passing cyclist. A lady, who I occasionally see pedalling along our street, stopped and bemoaned that it was sad to see the end of a landmark, as it had been there for such a long time. I was starting to get a bit nervous that she might produce a Pampas Grass Preservation Order and command us to make good our wanton vandalism, but our assurances that there would soon be lavender and roses seemed to calm her worries. I saw fit not to mention the fact that I'd previously tried to set fire to the object of her affections with a blow lamp, as I find that this often polarises opinion quite early in a relationship.

Suffice to say, we're now officially "ne pam pas".

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Emerald swingers and my new flat mate

Our last Dorset survey of the year turned out better than expected, with a total of 13 species for the day. We were helped in no small way by several hours of sunshine, which meant that the dragons were flying before we'd started, a luxury that we'd not experienced for many a visit. Migrant Hawkers hunted over a small lake, Common Hawkers patrolled a wide ditch and Brown Hawkers battled each other for supremacy of the skies. One of these skirmishes saw the combatants end up in the water, still going for it hammer and tongs. We registered a single female Southern Hawker, and only Common Blue and Emerald Damsels in any numbers. Whilst there were still a few Black Darters and Keeled Skimmers about, the Common Darters were all loved up and egg laying in many of the water bodies.
My invertebrate education continued apace, when a strange fly appeared on my hand. It was the very devil to shift and scuttled sideways, like a spider or crab, when I tried to remove it. I did check how many legs it had to be sure. Six, yep it's a fly, though oddly it only had one wing, a fact that took on more significance when my colleague informed me what it was. Welcome to the weird and wacky world of the flat fly, aka louse fly, a parasite that sheds its wings when it has found a suitable host. Charmed to meet you, I'm sure.
Back in MK, and several showers later, I could almost see the funny side.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Sunday? No, Darterday!

None of us could face driving to the coast on a Bank Holiday weekend, so we made our second visit of the year to Woodwalton Fen. With a fair smattering of cloud and a gusty wind, our best odo opportunities were going to found in the occasional calm, sunny spots. There were Hawkers on the wing and a few damsels to be seen, but the stars of the show were the Darters. Both Common and Ruddy were showing off their sartorial skills by roosting on all manner of articles. Hats, shirts, trousers, rucksacks, they didn't care.






I should point out that the pink top doesn't belong to me... as mine's in the wash.
At one point, MGLW was at the centre of a territorial dispute between two male Ruddy Darters, which was a nice way to spend our anniversary weekend, I thought.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

A Really Brief History of Time

Wildlife watching opportunities have been a bit thin on the ground since my previous post. I did spot a Common Darter in our garden last weekend, "obelisking" into the sun during a brief hot spell. It's a very striking pose, which reminds me that, this winter, I should make the time (no pun intended) to design a dragonfly sundial. Later the same day, we ventured to the local reserve for an hour or so and recorded our first Migrant Hawker of the year. A nice male, roosting in the low afternoon sun. That brought my year list (sad, I know, but I'm a slave to my hormones) to a total of 25, which is my usual figure. Missing that Broad-bodied Chaser sighting now, eh, my lad?





Today being the first day of the Bank Holiday, I somehow managed to wake up at the normal time. How does that work? Monday to Friday, I'm rudely awakened by the alarm clock, wrenched from a pleasant somnolence by its strident tones. On a day off, Dink! my eyes open at exactly the same time without any explanation and I'm back in the land of the conscious. Grrrrr!

As the forecast was for sunny spells, we drove to Clifton Reynes and pottered about for an hour or so through the village, along the hedgerows, down to the river and back again. This produced a few Southern Hawkers, Migrant Hawkers, Common Darters and Banded Demoiselles, so we felt that we deserved a pub lunch. I can whole-heartedly recommend The Robin Hood Inn, excellent nosh. Now rather full and not a little tipsy, we wandered vaguely over the fields to Newton Blossomville, encountering more Common Darters, Migrant Hawkers and a Brown Hawker on the way. Our return, via Clifton Spinney, was enlivened by the flypast of a Spitfire and a Messerschmidt, aerial predators of 70 years ago, rather than the ones from 350 million years ago that we normally watch.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Look what turned up on the post!

Whilst at my desk this afternoon, I became aware of some wildlife excitement just outside our office. It was apparent that there was a large insect flying around, which, to be fair, is more temptation than a fully paid up member of the British Dragonfly Society can be expected to ignore. Needing no further encouragement, I sidled (ok, ran) out of the building with a list of possible species scrolling through my head.

It soon became apparent that this was no dragonfly and a discussion ensued as to whether it was a Hornet or not. I thought "not" as even with it zipping around above our heads, it did not seem yellow enough. It was big enough though, which puzzled me. Not an odo, probably not a Hornet.

Then it landed on me. Definitely not a Hornet then, but, my, look at the size of that ovipositor. At...least...I...hope...that's...an...ovipositor.

Fortunately, it then flew off again, but I was able to snap a pic when it landed on a vehicle.

Now I know what you're thinking. The big girl's blouse has a pink camera! Sadly not, dear reader, now please concentrate on the teensy insect inches from my hands.

As a Google image search might tell you, if you happened to enter the words "large yellow insect with ovipositor uk", this is a female Greater Wood Wasp or Horntail. She's 4cm long and is actually a sawfly. Despite being quite harmless, she does makes you glad you're not a tree. After terrorising a few more humans, Mrs Horntail was last seen in combat with a rather brave and normal-sized wasp and we returned to our everyday activities, feeling a little less removed from Mother Nature.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Appearing Knightley

We were in a bit of a quandary. We thought we'd have a family weekend to celebrate Ruth's 21st birthday, just the four of us, somewhere in convivial surroundings, that would be suitable for a hiking, costume drama loving lass. But where?

The Peak District seemed to fit the bill, a place that I can't say I'd visited since the Army sent me to walk the Pennine Way. Not that you'd catch me doing that again. Some of those stiles are a right faff in a bustle.

Being ever topical, we settled on a B+B near Eyam, a village where the concept of a "flu friend" never really caught on and anyone making stupid jokes like that would be sent away with a flea in his ear.

The B+B was excellent, with walks from the door, so on Saturday we set off on a 6 mile circular potter taking in Bretton, Abney, Eyam Moor, Eyam and Eyam Edge. Only one of our number is used to regular lumps of altitude (I very nearly wrote "attitude" there), so the birthday girl got the map and led the way.

The only thing that was wuthering on the heights was my stamina, and when MGLW spotted a dragonfly hawking across the moor, I was particularly keen to stop and photograph it. It was the only dragon of the weekend, but I was chuffed to record a male Common Hawker.



When we reached the village of Eyam, our route took us through the churchyard. It was a lovely day for a wedding too, though the photos with four dishevelled walkers in the background mightn't make it to the mantlepiece. I did say "costume" and "drama".

The museum exhibition showing the extent of the tragedy that befell the village during the Plague was a salient reminder of our fragile tenure on this Earth.

Sunday saw us making a beeline for Haddon Hall, a gem of an English House from the Middle Ages. It has featured in the film version of Pride and Prejudice, the Beeb's Jane Eyre and more recently The Other Boleyn Girl. Never mind all that palaver, here's the bee...


... possibly a leaf-cutter, I dunno. Incidentally, the Beeb's Jane Eyre had a wonderful scene by the river, featuring a female Banded Demoiselle (though not at the correct time of year!). Let it go, Graeme, let it go.

Whilst we wandered around the gardens together, MGLW twirling her parasol and smiling coyly from behind her kerchief, we were apprehended by, what I at first took to be, a somewhat diminutive policeman. On closer inspection, it turned out to be this Small Copper butterfly.


After lunch, we drove to Kedleston Hall, near Derby, where many scenes from The Duchess were filmed. Mind you, when you've seen one elegant neo-classical mansion designed by Robert Adam and set in beautiful parkland, you've seen them all. The costumes on display were both elaborate and exceptionally small-waisted. That Knightley lass needs to get herself off to the National Trust tea room in the West Wing for some proper nosh.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Welsh Dragons

Finally, some sort of flight shot of a dragonfly. Well, ok, so it's not that crisp and it was marginally luckier than winning the lottery, but it is in flight and it is an Emperor. Woo hoo!

We were down in Swansea for the weekend, on the last removals run after Ruth's graduation. As it had stopped raining, the sun had come out and Ruth was packing, we made straight for Broad Pool on the Gower to see what was about.

It was very wet, all the pools being much fuller than previously remembered and we did get rather soggy as we trogged across the moorland. A stiff breeze kept most of the dragons and damsels in cover, so it was hard work finding the seven species we did. But the wind came in handy for the photo, the Emperor was virtually stationary whilst flying forwards, allowing time for my steam-driven Canon S5 to focus(-ish) on the slowly-moving target.

There were quite a few male Black Darters around too, looking ever so smart in that sharp-dressed manner that they exude. Natty little fellas.


Along with some Common Darters, a late emerging Four-Spotted Chaser, and a handful of Common Blue, Blue-tailed and Emerald Damsels, that was about it. Though shortly after putting up a couple of Hares by a stream, we did find an exuvia which turned out to be a Golden-ringed Dragon, but sadly there was no sign of its previous occupant. Still, it's good to know they're there somewhere.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Peatbogs and other habitats

Saturday saw another odo survey in leafy Dorset, but before I relate that tale, I must make mention of a trip to The Stables theatre during the week.

Our in-house historian recently attended a folk festival in Leicester and returned to MK in a state of high excitement, brought about by a Scottish band from the Isle of Skye. As would befit a recent graduate, a little research goes a long way, and it was spotted that The Peatbog Faeries were playing locally in Wavendon. Celtic fusion is the term that is used to describe their musical style, but it doesn't do justice to an eclectic mix of bagpipes, fiddles, guitars, keyboards, drums, trumpet and saxophone. Bizarre but jolly good fun. Anyway, following a thoroughly enjoyable evening of skirling, atmospheric live music, one of their CDs was my companion on the drive to Dorset.

I arrived at the site in glorious sunshine, but by the time that Keith and Iain, my companions for the day, had arrived, we were looking at wall to wall cloud and a gusty breeze. In a spirit of self-sacrifice for the greater good, I had left my camera behind, to satisfy the Law of Physics that states that photographic opportunities are more likely when the number of cameras present is less than the number of participants. As it turned out, I had my hands full with pencil and Weather Writer, so it was probably a good, if frustrating, decision.

From previous experience, we knew that dragons would be few and far between in the conditions, and that until the sun put in an appearance, damsels would be hard work too. Fortunately, there's much more nature to hand, so we were never going to be bored. To prove this, after seeing a family of Stonechats, Iain spotted a Nightjar. We had an early success with an ovipositing Emperor (Empress?) and a few Common Darters, but then we found several Raft Spiders with eggs. The morning continued with an abundance of Small Reds and Common Blues, with a handful of Azures, Blue-tails, Emeralds and Large Reds thrown in. Just before lunch, we came across a scrubby clearing that did reveal several Keeled Skimmers, Common and Ruddy Darters. Iain was busy watching two Emperors hunting, whilst Keith and I logged the numbers of damsels. Suddenly, a shout from Iain, alerted us to some action. One of the Emperors had taken a Darter, bitten its head off and dropped the remainder of the body. Iain retrieved this and as he passed it to me, it continued to crawl up my hand. Whoa!

After lunch, where we were fortunate to see a Downy Emerald, the afternoon got off to a fantastic start with two male Black Darters. I then had my second attack of arachnophobia, when Iain helpfully pointed out a female Wasp Spider. As a northern lad, I wasn't familiar with this particular species, which appears to be colonising the UK from mainland Europe. To be fair, it was a stunningly-marked creature, with its eponymous yellow and black body. The web, too, is a wonder. Presumably to cope with the grasshoppers of the Continent, it is reinforced down the vertical diameter, which gives it an air of dynamism, as if it is rotating. My field guide calls this feature a stabilimentum.

A brief shower gave us the opportunity to spot a roosting Emperor and a Black Darter, but further dark skies and rain convinced us to call it a day. As we left the site, we put up a large flock of Mistle Thrushes, about thirty of them, which seemed a bit early for that sort of behaviour.

Thirteen species of odos for the day wasn't too bad considering the weather. The only species not seen was a poorly Sally, who was hovering between being a red-eyed damsel and a white-faced darter. Get Well Soon, pet.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

A different Family History

Saturday saw MGLW and I off to South Wales for a few days to attend "younger but taller" sproglet's graduation from Swansea Uni. They sure know how to make you feel old, don't they? It doesn't seem five minutes since she was born and now here she is with a History degree. Let the past illuminate the future, indeed.

The journey down was marked by the weather becoming greyer and darker, to match our mood on hearing the updates of the cricket score. The Aussies were putting the England innings into perspective by amassing a hideous amount of runs and we wondered whether to shred our tickets for the last day, rather than torture ourselves with the imminent humiliation.

Sunday dawned clear and bright and remained so, despite the clouds hanging over the England batsmen. KP demonstrated that he still hasn't quite grasped the concept of "team", before Collingwood (good Durham lad that he is) led the way with a gritty 74 in 5 hours and 45 minutes. The atmosphere in the stadium for the last 6 overs was amazing! Every ball loudly cheered, as the increasingly-desperate Aussies unsuccessfully struggled to dislodge Jimmy and Monty. And for a team that uses gamesmanship to the nth degree, the Aussies do like to whinge if anybody else has a go.

And so to Monday, where despite several soakings from the wet Welsh weather, nothing could dampen our spirits as we gathered in the Brangwyn Hall as part of the degree congregation, to see our little Ruth graduate.

Ee, it makes us right proud.

Later, we met up with ten of her friends, many from the uni Hiking Society, at a nearby Italian restaurant and enjoyed as pleasant an evening as I've had in a long while. That made me feel a little younger, and I thank you all for that.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

More "What I did on my holidays..."

Where was I? Oh yeah...

Day 6

We wander back around Loch of Garso and found some more Blue-tails, both males and females. Sadly, there's no access to the water's edge, which makes it difficult finding exuviae for definite proof of breeding.

Our circumnavigation of the island, outside of the Sheep Dyke, is being done in stages. No point trying to tear round the 13 odd miles of it in one go. There's too much to see and hear. Today's section is Linklet Bay. We begin as the tide starts to ebb, soaking up the atmosphere of blue sky, azure sea, white sands and small flocks of waders. MGLW had to almost elbow her way to the tideline...
Day 7

We allow ourselves the luxury of a taxi ride to the other end of the island as we're booked on a tour of the lighthouse at 10.30. After walking everywhere for a week, it seems incredibly fast but probably isn't. I cringe as we approach the one sharp bend en route. Get a grip, man! The lighthouse is now automatic but the associated buildings are being turned into a museum to create a bit more tourism and much-needed jobs. This one replaced the Old Beacon (featured on Restoration) and is the tallest land-based light in the UK.
We had views to Fair Isle and Shetland as well as being able to look down on the passing skuas. In a directional rather than a critical way, I mean.
Day 8
Back on Shanks's Pony today and back to Linklet Bay too. We're heartened to see 9 fledged Arctic Terns at Haskie Taing, though their mums and dads still like to use me as target practice. By the time we return to the Observatory in the late afternoon we are absolutely chin-strapped... until we're told of a Red-Necked Phalarope on Gretchen Loch. It's only a few hundred metres to the loch so it can't really be described as a twitch. Honest. Adrenalin cuts in and we scramble over the rocks to catch a glimpse of this natty little wader, before tea (or dinner for you Southerners). Forgot the camera in my haste. Oh arse! By late evening, I've recovered my composure and hit the sunset.


Day 9

Chatting to some of our fellow guests at the Observatory, we're introduced to the alternative Beaufort Scale for Orkney. I should say that these particular guests were builders from Harray, who knew only too well about the vagaries of the Orcadian weather. The normal Beaufort numbers 1-9 are actually the amount of pegs required to secure one item of clothing to the washing line. Whilst zero means it's "too windy f' claethes".

But the sunsets are a bit good...


Day 10

A very, very warm day by North Ron standards, into the low 20s. The butterflies were out in force. Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Large Whites. We even spotted a solitary Small Tortoiseshell. MGLW took the opportunity to revisit several sites to take photographs of various flowers, Northern Marsh Orchid, Heath Bedstraw, Thyme and quite a few we still haven't worked out what they are.

Day 11

In retrospect, not the best day to go sea watching. We left the Observatory in bright sunshine, but by the time we'd made it halfway up the island, it was becoming distinctly hazy. Perhaps that should be indistinctly hazy. Slowly but surely, as we approached the lighthouse, it disappeared from view altogether. On reaching the hide, situated between the Old Beacon and the lighthouse, we could see neither.

Fog. Apparently always happens after a hot day. Only one scheduled flight made it to the island, rather than the expected three. Hmmm, hope it clears for tomorrow. Honest!

Day 12

The visibility improves sufficiently to catch our flight back to Kirkwall. Whilst waiting for our connection to Glasgow, we have a potter along the beach at Inganess Bay and spot this homeless hermit.

The shell in the photo was my attempt at playing estate agent, but the crab wasn't interested at all.

To sum up, it's been a brilliant week and a half, much fresh air and exercise, wonderful food and fantastic natural history. A huge Thank You to the team at the Bird Observatory, for making us so welcome, answering all my stupid questions and providing endless advice. Cheers, folks!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Still here, never fear

Normally, as the saying goes, I can resist anything but temptation, so the idea of having the will power to go "cold dragonfly" for twelve whole days was a bit daunting. What's this? Is the old git trying a novel way to raise money for charity? Has the last marble rolled out of his ear and Tink...tink...tink...tinked off down the road?

Actually, no, we're going on holiday. To North Ronaldsay, the most northerly isle of Orkney. No odos admittedly, but plenty of everything else with a bit of luck. Bring it on.

Day 1

From our bedroom window, we can see a wind turbine (the Bird Observatory is a rather environmentally-friendly building). We find it a handy indicator of which direction to expect the weather from. For the uninitiated, we go on holidays for wind, waves and weather rather than sun, sea and sand, though North Ron has those too. Some enterprising Starlings have made a nest in the electrical housing at the rear of the turbine, so ensuring that their chicks are sheltered from the excesses of the Orcadian elements by a combination of Man's ingenuity and Nature's tendency to fill a void. Day 2
It's a 5 minute weather day today. If it's raining, not to worry, just wait 5 minutes and it'll be fine. If it's sunny, on the other hand, better get out there quick and enjoy it, 'cos it'll be raining in 5 minutes! Made an abortive attempt to find the island's one calling corncrake and then remembered I don't do late nights.
Day 3
There are plenty of seals around the coast, Common and Grey. The former have pupped and the little bundles are rather cute. Certainly way too cute not to photograph! In the evening, we witnessed a confrontation between two females over ownership of a pup. Weird, you can actually hear Gordon Buchanan's voice in your head as the drama unfolds.
Day 4

Oh my goodness. What a day! Whilst looking at some orchids growing between Yellow Flags on a grass verge, we spot a male Blue-tailed Damselfly. There are odos on North Ron, just no-one thought to look. Whilst relaxing before our evening meal, a Basking Shark slowly meanders across South Bay. Then, dosed up with caffeine, we remain alert long enough to hear Mr Corncrake. Unless it was that Simon King bloke with his comb and credit card trick. Hmmm. Thanks must go to the ever-helpful and friendly locals who were only too happy to share their wildlife with folks "fae the sooth".

Day 5

A quiet day, writing postcards sitting on the rocks as the tide went out. You could feel the sounds of the surf and the calls of the sea birds flowing into the ink as the words took shape. Noticed that the Black Guillemots (Tysties) have designs on Riverdance. They kept gathering in threes and fours to try out their latest routines. It must be some sort of courtship ritual, but we couldn't stop laughing.

To be continued...

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Odes of June

Another trip to Dorset today, for June's odonata survey. Weather warm and sunny, water bodies swarming with dragons and damsels.

The lake that was bereft in May was shimmering with Common Blue Damsels, the ditches were teaming with Four-spotted Chasers and there was a good smattering of Emperors, Black-tailed Skimmers and Downy Emeralds. Though there were still only a few Blue-tailed Damsels, there was loads of Azure, Large Red, Small Red (tick!), Red-eyed and Emerald. Without a reasonable flow of water on site, riverine species aren't to be expected, but that didn't stop Beautiful and Banded Demoiselles from flying through, nor a Scarce Chaser putting in an appearance. Keeled Skimmers were emerging from the boggier areas, too.


Female Emerald Damselfly
The only species I missed was, would you believe it, Broad-bodied Chaser. I am truly destined not to see one in 2009!

Despite that inconvenience, I'm a tired but happy little bunny this evening, after an excellent day's odo-ing. Fifteen species in a day is a pb for me, plus one for the life list. Sweet.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A right royal day out

Ah, the weekend, time to unwind, enjoy the last few days of Spring and... attempt to avoid the rain.


With folk to stay at Tense Towers, it was incumbent upon us to organise a trip to somewhere. This would have to be outdoorsy, as the guests were our younger daughter and her photographer celtic boyfriend, the Prints of Wales. Looking through various weather forecasts on the net, nowhere within easy reach was going to be warm, dry and sunny. O-oh!


The choices boiled down to rain, cloud, wind and a bit of brightness at Wicken Fen or cloud, cloud, wind and cloud at Thursley. MGLW opted for the former, which was an inspired choice as the weather turned out to be warm and sunny, if a bit breezy. Phew.


With the addition of the Admiral, we bundled into the car, trundled across to Cambridgeshire and descended on the National Trust tea room. It's pandering to a stereotype, I know. Following a light lunch, we adjourned to the pond dipping area to search for Variable Damselfly and then set off through the fen, headed for the pub on the Cam at Upware. After a brief view of a male Scarce Chaser, we noticed a huddle of birders and associated optics, which is how we were inadvertently involved in a mini-twitch (may Bill Oddie forgive me). The object of the excitement was a Squacco Heron, out in the open but a long way off. In fact, a long way off from the Mediterranean, which is where it should be, rather than Baker's Fen.


That entertainment over, we continued on, listening to Cuckoos, Snipe and Cetti's Warblers, and watching Marsh Harriers, Hairy Dragons and Red-eyed Damsels (note to self: the comedic potential of that name needs further exploration). Following a sustaining pint of Black Dog, I floated back to Wicken Fen in the company of my fellow travellers, enjoying the last of the late afternoon sunshine. The Admiral found a roosting group of Azure and Variable Damsels, which was useful to compare the slight differences between the species as well as between individual examples of the eponymously-named Variables. Pairs of Muntjac Deer, Hare and Red-legged Partridge appeared in quick succession as we returned to the car and then we decamped to the nearby Red Lion for a feast fit for a king.



However, we couldn't resist returning to the fen for the evening's entertainment. The tower hide provided the perfect grandstand to watch Barn Owls and Marsh Harriers hunting over the reedbeds and scrub. Grasshopper Warblers began a sensory assaults on my ears, their reeling call bouncing to and fro across the lode and around my head. Then as the light began to fade, the much-anticipated finale was introduced with a feeble "tseep", as a male Woodcock patrolled his territory. Even the Prints of Wales was unable to photograph that!


Satisfied with an enjoyable day in good company, we headed back along the boardwalks, only to have one last surprise. MGLW let out a cry and pointed to the ground. We gathered around and peered at a small spot of green light in the grass, a female Glow-worm. She was a first for most of us and I guess Mr Glow-worm must think the sun shines out of her arse.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

That Was The Week That Was

My return to work during the last week has meant a very low-key National Dragonfly Week for me personally. Coupled with the fact that I appear to be wandering around in some sort of Anti Broad-bodied Chaser Bubble, it couldn't have become any lower key without having extra notes fitted to the piano.

So imagine my delight when the Admiral phoned this morning to say that he'd found a new species for this bit of North Bucks. A trip to Emberton Country Park had produced a Downy Emerald, probably from across the Northants border in Yardley Hastings. We couldn't get great photos, as it resolutely refused to land anywhere near us, but this was a county tick for me so the BBCs can wait.

And an evening walk to our local patch put the icing on the cake, when the eagle-eyed Admiral spotted this cheeky chap roosting in the late sun. A cracking male Emperor.

On the way back through the wood, some blackbirds and jays were making a heck of a din, which warranted further investigation. So we managed to round the weekend off with a Tawny Owl.

Neat.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Abundance in Scarcity

Someone pinch me! It's a Bank Holiday weekend and the sun is shining, the Doc has said I can resume normal life (not sure what this actually means?) and we've been to a National Nature Reserve for the day.

After several years of cajoling by the Admiral, we finally went to Woodwalton Fen, a NNR between Peterborough and Huntingdon. It's only about an hour from home, so no excuses really. Height above sea level is zero, as the OS map handily pointed out. This made me realise that, despite being inland, Woodwalton Fen is in the front line of the battle against rising sea levels. We're all moving nearer the coast, folks. A fragile and ephemeral environment indeed, though with its oaks and poplars it looks so permanent and solid. On the warmest day for weeks, it turned into a bit of an Odofest, lots of damsels and dragons. The pick of the abundant Scarce Chasers being this almost-mature male.


We also clocked up a dozen or more Hairy Dragonflies and Four-spotted Chasers, two Black-tailed Skimmers, a Banded Demoiselle and a whole host of damselflies, Azure, Large Red, Blue-tailed and Red-eyed. For good measure, in the early evening sunshine, we spotted a male Marsh Harrier quartering the fields and heard the full-bodied and clear song of a Nightingale. In a gentle breeze, the Admiral navigated us to a pub at Holme, the aptly-named Admiral Wells, to replenish our tired but happy selves.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Echo-logical

There are certain quips and proverbs that we all use, that were never meant in a Save the Planet way.

"Don't run with scissors!" for instance, would be pretty difficult to see in an environmental light, unless you add "... in case you trip and accidentally snip off the last flower head from an endangered plant which could have been pollinated by the sole remaining bee on Earth." Let's face it, by the time you've got all that out, several species of amphibian would be extinct, too.

But recently, I have realised that there is a Green message behind some of our trite sayings.

Sure, you've heard them all before. But this time, just let the words echo inside your head until you wise up to the fact that we live way too unsustainably.

"Which planet are you on?" This ought to be a no-brainer. Currently, to my knowledge, there's only one planet that has been proved to be sustainable to human life. Perhaps we oughtn't f**k it up.

"It means the world to me!" So bloody well act like it then, stop buying flat screen TVs the size of Lichtenstein and using up precious and finite resources. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle should be your mantra, people.

"Don't shit on your own doorstep!" This shouldn't be too tricky really, but with the advent of the Global Village and a rapidly-rising human population, it's going to be all doorsteps soon. So perhaps we ought to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce (and anyone who says "Starting with this blog", is on doorstep-cleaning duty indefinitely).

"How much?! It shouldn't cost the earth?" Ah, but little by little, bit by bit, IT DOES! We mightn't shop at Tesco, but unfortunately, we're all signed up to the unsustainable Western materialistic economy. To maintain our lifestyles, we have to make more money, reach new markets, produce more goods, use more of the Earth. "Sustainable", think about the word.

"Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you." Oh how I wish I'd thought of this one. Leave them alone to piss about in rivers or chase seaweed for a laugh and they won't break into your fridge, steal the taramosalata and poo on your pizza. Incidentally, otter poo has a sweet, musky odour and has been described as smelling like jasmine tea or Bombay Duck. Ask your local pizza parlour for details of this topping.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

For a few damsels more...

This convalescence malarkey is getting beyond a joke. After more than six weeks of prescribed inactivity, the only injury I need to worry about is getting blisters on my bum. I have maintained a state of gentle busyness, doing loads of little paperwork tasks that I've been putting off for ages. Whilst they kept me occupied, they were rather dull, which is probably why they'd been put off for ages in the first place.

But enough's enough. Saturday was Jailbreak Day. Without bending the rules laid down by the hospital, I was on the run and out of the house for over twelve hours. Woo hoo, go me.

Up at 6am (that WAS hard), by 7am I was waiting to be collected by my partner in crime, the Admiral, and two and a half hours later we were in leafy Dorset. Unrolling the treasure map, we looked at the legend beside the big X, "Here be dragons, probably." Yep, forget road movie, this was a dragonfly survey mission.

Now, to say that the weather was a little bit changeable, is like saying Jeremy Clarkson is un petit Francophobic. On the way there, the sky was gloriously sunny one minute and thunderously black the next. All accompanied by enough wind to make Heinz jealous. Perfect conditions in which to look for flying creatures as light as a feather.

We met up with the rest of the outlaw gang. Keith, who had local knowledge of the site, and Sally, a small bundle of excited natural historian. It didn't exactly conjure up images of Clint Eastwood robbing the bank at El Paso. More like Buffy meets Last of the Summer Wine. (What would Nora Batty have thought of Mr Pointy, I wonder?)

Anyway... the survey. Our first target was devoid of any life whatsoever. It was just a lake with a gale howling across it. Moving to a series of ditches, the Admiral was first to strike gold, with a Four-spotted Chaser which had just emerged (and was probably wondering why, if this is what passes for nice weather). A little further down the path, Sally spotted something whizz passed us, which turned out to be a Downy Emerald. Then Keith found several exuviae (the shed larval skin from which the adult insects emerge) and another Four-spotted Chaser. Not to be outdone, I discovered a huge exuvia from an Emperor Dragonfly, but sadly there was no sign of its owner. By now we had all got our eye in, and were starting to pick up damselflies too. By high noon, we had seen seven species with the addition of Large Red, Common Blue, Azure and Red-eyed Damselflies.

Lunch was a chance to take shelter from the wind, though the Admiral was suffering a bit with an extremely hot onion.

During the afternoon, we saw many more Four spots and hundreds of damsels, mainly Azures, all in pockets of vegetation out of the wind, but in the sun. This took us away from the pond edges, through tussocks of grass and gorse bushes. Here, I stumbled across the first of two snakes we were to encounter. At the time, I thought it was an Adder, but having consulted the books, it was more likely to have been a Smooth Snake. Sally nearly trod on another one but only saw its tail, which prevented her from making a positive ID. Our only further success of the afternoon was a single Blue-tailed Damselfly that was also found by Sally, bringing our tally for the day to eight species.

We retired to a nearby Little Chef for copious cups of tea and carrot cake (surely one of your five a day?), to review our findings. In the spirit of lifelong learning, the Admiral offered to educate me by playing Lady Gaga on the return journey. So between him, her and me, who was the Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

Friday, 15 May 2009

Carpet fitting

There's a new stair carpet going in at Tense Towers today as part of the ongoing restoration programme. I've never heard such a hammering since... er... Middlesbrough's last game. OK, many of Middlesbrough's games this season.

On a similar tack, one of the fitters is off to see MK Dons v Scunthorpe tonight and he asked me if I watched the Leeds v Millwall game last night. I had to explain that I know nothing about football, hence the reason I was drinking cold, unsweetened tea from a Middlesbrough FC mug.

Will the Dons get through to the League One play-off final and stand a chance of meeting the mighty, but fallen, Boro in the Championship next season? Or even wave in passing as they continue their meteoric rise up through the Divisions? The Scunthorpe game will certainly be a gripper.

It's a funny old game, they say. Well, "they" didn't support the Boys from the Smog. It's never really been fun, but I suspect that's not the point. I have to tread carefully here, as my support isn't the traditional "go to every home game and never miss Match of the Day" sort. For instance, I don't even know where that Geordie bloke has gone that used to sit alongside Alan Hansen. The last time I went to see Boro would've been in the 70s, the decade that taste forgot. This might explain my choice of team, when all around were supporting Newcastle, Sunderland and Leeds.

But times move on. Now, it's all about the thickness of your pile. Unless you've got the odd oligarch, with an attention deficit disorder, bankrolling your team, fun or more likely success, is going to be in very short supply. Nope, support is more about loyalty, that roller coaster ride of an unexpected away win against a top club and an abject home defeat in the Cup to some minnow from a lower league. It's about popping in and out of the room whilst listening to a football commentary on Radio 5. And every time you leave the room, your team goes a goal down. It was my fault the Boro were thumped 0-5 by Chelsea. Sorry lads, I was taking up the old stair carpet.

MGLW doesn't see the point of football. In fact, she struggles with the whole concept of sport. Cricket is mildly entertaining to her, at least, that bit between the overs when everyone mills around. Rugby's ok, for some strange reason, as she's been heard to shout "Pick the beggar up!" at critical moments. But football, no. Too many braying fans, too much foul language and not nearly enough entertainment to justify the bother and expense. If asked who she supported, she'd probably say Fat Face. Against that logic, what chance for the third best team in the North East?

Yep, form, like stairs, can go up as well as down. At least I hope so.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Air on G's Tring

Out of the wind, it is a pleasant, warm evening. Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid the cold blasts of a chilly Easterly, but a walk in the fresh air has been prescribed. Our route takes us beside a patch of scrub that has designs on being open woodland. The wind swirls through the young trees, whose branches and leaves whip to and fro with each gust.

Suddenly a flock of hirundines swoop down, feeding on insects that have been thrown into the air. We stand and stare as Swallows, House Martins and Swifts expertly use the buffeting breeze to catch an easy meal. These birds are so agile on the wing and they are using their aeronautical abilities to good effect.

I must confess that I do miss living in a home that is not shared with House Martins (for once, I will forego the musical reference). We have often stayed in a cottage in Shropshire, where their mud nests are tucked under the eaves above the bedroom window. I find it most relaxing to listen to their neighbourly chatter of twitters and chirps. Perhaps this is why I feel that the House Martin is often unfairly overshadowed by the flashy Swallow with its red mask and long, forked tail. In comparison, much like the Hawker Hurricane always played second fiddle to the Supermarine Spitfire. Just as successful and hard working and deserving of praise, but not so cemented in the national psyche.

Following the analogy, I guess the Swift is the larger but equally manoeuvrable stablemate to the Spitfire, the de Havilland Mosquito, designed around the concept that it was so fast it didn't need armament.

This reminds me of an incident two years ago, when we were on a birding trip to Tring reservoirs. The weather deteriorated during the day, so that by the time we reached the dam head of Wilstone reservoir, we were caught in a thunderstorm. In retrospect, probably not the best of places to be. Soaked to the skin, but glad to be alive, we watched the storm clouds roll away. Then, without warning, we found ourselves in the middle of a flock of swifts, feeding off the insects driven into the air by the strong wind as it hit the dam head. I had never experienced such a large gathering of these birds, never mind at such low altitude and close quarters. As they scythed through the air around us, catching their prey, we could even hear the snap of their beaks. A dark, streamlined, looming death. Predictably, this proved difficult to record with a camera, this being my... er... best shot.

I was just so glad that the initial concept was "no armament"!

Monday, 11 May 2009

The mathematics of smog

Mathematics, the bedrock of the universe. An infinite number of infinite numbers. As the old saying goes, "All biology is chemistry, all chemistry is physics and all physics is mathematics."

It's a subject and science that sits, almost unseen, behind everything. On a human level, our everyday experiences of it are superficial, yet without it, the world we have built for ourselves would not function. Trigonometry, calculus, a whole string of theories, culminating in... er... string theory. Under our fingertips, binary digits flow from our keyboards to move us around a virtual environment. In our engines, electron shells fracture and reform to transport us across the planet. Politicians and lobbyists compete to twist the last grains of untruth from every statistic.

Numbers, just numbers. Pathetically, we try to tame them with a variety of units, for example, a fee of £10 000 000, or a goal difference of -28 perhaps, or even the bleak nothingness of zero (often applied to chances). But mathematics would exist even if we did not, we are not its masters, which frees us from the great weight of responsibility that numbers hold.

This morning, that is of no great comfort to dejected Boro fans, the most optimistic of whom must now surely realise that the phrase "mathematically possible" has a very hollow, hopeless ring to it.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Too shrewd

I awake to the sound of a Crow on the apex of the roof above our bedroom window. Its raucous call is not the most melodious of rousings. Then, for the first time this year, I hear the screaming cry of a passing Swift. Throwing those curtains wide (see, I do know my Ash from my Elbow), reveals warm sunshine with much less breeze than of late. This has the makings of a good day.

Determined not to waste it indoors, I set out into a calm, quiet morning that is shielded from human interference by late breakfasts and the Sunday papers. As I walk along the old railway line, the church bells mingle intimately with birdsong, recalling a Pink Floyd track on The Division Bell. I take a path that drops down through a small wood, where dappled shade is home to Speckled Wood butterflies and sporadic Bluebells. Whilst the flowers are not in the same league as the abundance at Everdon, they do have a homeopathic relaxing effect in this diluted form. Wrens and Robins sing for all they're worth as I leave the wood to cross a busy road. Once on the other side, I am amazed by the number of Orange Tip butterflies on the verge. They seem to be flirting with the white flowers of the Hawthorn rather than their favoured plant, Lady's Smock (or Cuckoo Flower in these parts). Ah, Hawthorn, the aptly named May flower. At this time of year, why would a pilgrim travel farther?

Leaving the road behind, I enter a glade where there was a report of two cuckoos yesterday. Though it's just out of sight, I do hear one nearby. Approaching the lakes and ponds of the Great Ouse valley, I keep a sharp eye out for dragonflies. There have been precious few so far, though the numbers of damselflies are picking up with a recent mass emergence of Red-eyed Damsels.

Moving quietly, the path leads me between hedges and banks full of joyous warblers, heard but rarely seen. There are also a great many pairs of Long-tailed Tits about this year, little fluffy commas in flight, punctuating from tree to tree.

Suddenly, a frenzied squeaking brings me to an abrupt halt. The high-pitched sounds are coming from the water's edge to my left, but are terminated in a delicate plop, not unlike throwing a small coin into a fountain. Remaining perfectly still, I spot some gentle ripples as a creature moves along the bank a few feet from me, then a little snout surfaces through the duckweed. It's a Water Shrew! I believe, dear reader, that this is the UK's only poisonous mammal. As I watch, it hunts and feeds in the pool in front of me, always returning to the spot where I first heard it, presumably feeding young. Patience is rewarded when I catch sight of two shrews, their black fur and pale ear tufts clearly identifying them. After several more minutes of shrewy squeaking and random "coins being thrown into the fountain", I wish them well and return to my fruitless dragonfly search. However, I do feel that I've had at least one wish granted.