Sunday, 29 September 2013

Onwards and upwards

What with the upcoming move, the consensus over breakfast this morning was that today was the day to venture skywards. By this I mean explore the accumulated detritus stored in the attic, rather than anything vaguely aeronautical.

Second Born needed to sort out several boxes that had been stored up there, possibly from pre-university days, so it was going to be a gentle jog down Memory Lane.

I am sure that our loft is no different to that in a million other homes across the land, where it would appear that the officer in charge of the space is Captain Clutter.

As can be expected in a household that firmly adheres to the mantra of 'it'll come in handy one day', there was an awful lot of... well... just... stuff: boxes of jigsaws; bags full of curtains that are much too nice to be chucked out but don't match anything at Tense Towers; an old computer; toys from childhood (First and Second Born's, as well as Our Lass's and mine!); sports trophies that aren't allowed to see the light of day; and, clothes from a life that seems a world away but is as close as a warm, fond memory.

Boxes were unpacked and repacked, bags were reorganised, several snorts of derision saw items quickly despatched to the boot of the car for a swift journey to the recycling centre. Various piles appeared, notionally labelled 'For Oxfam', 'For someone at work' and 'This needs more discussion'. Slowly, almost inexorably, a few spaces appeared amongst the jumble and we finally had room to allocate an area for each family member.

Having spent the previous day in the office/study packing books into boxes (fifteen and counting), what I didn't want to discover was a suitcase crammed full of my father's books. Oops.

On a nature note, whilst in the loft space, I did hear a Buzzard calling overhead, plus the accompanying raucous complaints of the local Carrion Crows as they saw off the intruder. But the attic itself was mercifully free of wasps, bees, velociraptors, squirrels, starlings and bats. Though I suspect that any of those creatures would be tidier than us humans.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tense Book Club revisited

Way back in May of this year, I set myself a bit of a challenge when I drew up a list of famous and iconic natural history books that I hadn't read but decided I ought to. I should point out that 'famous and iconic' is defined as 'Tense has heard of them', rather than anything more rigorous and literary.

The blogpost in question was this one, and several commenters pitched in with other ideas for books, so I felt that, all things considered, it was too late to back out even if I could get the Tensemobile into reverse.

To recap, the original list was:

The Natural History of Selborne (1788-9) by Gilbert White

The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin

Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson

Gaia (1979) by James Lovelock

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009) by Michael McCarthy

So with several titles tucked into our luggage for the Summer holidays, I began to make good on my promise.

As previously mentioned, the intention was to read these in chronological order. This was based on the notion that some semblance of progress would be seen across the span of  three centuries, with possible changes in biodiversity being more obvious.

Beginning with Gilbert White's tome was a steep learning curve, for several reasons. Pretty much all the books I've ever read have been from no earlier than the Twentieth Century, the few exceptions being from my school days with the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens (and whilst I now know that there are references to Nature in the works of these authors, that wasn't the focus of my attention way back then!). So the use of language was a bit of a challenge.

Also, several species were known by different names back then. Names that other species are now known by! For example, I was well and truly confused by the whole Wood-pigeon and Ring-dove palaver. Mainly because in the UK in this day and age we have the Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus, and the Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto. Now I know for a fact that the latter, (Collar? Ring?) didn't appear within these shores until 1955, so what was the dear Reverend on about? It turns out that the Ring-dove of yore is now the Woodpigeon (yeah, ok, it does have a white ring around its neck) and the Wood-pigeon of old is today's Stock Dove. Obvious, if I'd paid more attention to the Latin names.

Gilbert White was rightly credited with distinguishing between the three warblers: Chiffchaff, Willow and Wood Warbler. The received wisdom is that everyone prior to this had thought they were the same species. He also was the first to realise the essential part that earthworms played in maintaining healthy soil, but his deliberations over whether hirundines migrated or hibernated drove me to distraction.

What particularly irked me was that White happily accepted the fact that thrushes like Redwings and Fieldfares visited our shores from Scandinavia in the Winter, but he struggled to grasp that hirundines and other small passerines retreated south from Britain to escape the cold weather, with the reverse happening in Spring. I'm probably being too harsh a judge here, but is it unreasonable to see this as part of the same movement of species? It certainly wasn't for the fact that he took too parochial a view, as he had contacts all over the country and abroad.

It's fair to say that I was a bit miffed with our Gilbert, which just goes to prove what a curmudgeonly old soul I am.

This, in turn, didn't exactly light my fuse to plough straight into The Origin of Species, so to reset my literary compass I opted to ditch the whole chronological malarkey and jumped to 2009 and Michael McCarthy's Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo.

As it happened, this was an enlightened move, because it put the topic of migration into a better context for me. Each chapter of the book looked at a particular Summer visitor to the UK. And I realised that not only did Gilbert White struggle with what happened to Swallows and Turtle Doves and Cuckoos in the Winter - but until the latter part of the Twentieth Century, so did everyone else. In fact, it is only the recent use of satellite tracking of GPS tagged birds that is finally answering these questions.

Sorry, Gilbert.

Michael McCarthy's book also filled in a great deal of the history of ornithological science, name checking most of the other authors on my list and those suggested by the commenters to the original post. A cracking read and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

I'm now working my way through Silent Spring. I can say that it is a deeply disturbing book and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rachel Carson for writing it. It covers the period up to and including the time when I first appeared on the planet, so I find it rather pertinent in a very personal way. Although after reading of the cavalier and knuckle-headed decisions that were taken to liberally soak our world with herbicides and insecticides, quite how there's a single living creature (including humans) left alive is beyond me. Fortunately, Miss Carson and her ilk highlighted the problem before it was too late and the environmental movement was born. Though I do feel that sometimes we're still learning these lessons and there's a way to go yet.

Effectively, I'm at the halfway stage of the reading list (if I don't count the excellent suggestions of my learned followers), so I will attempt to complete the task before the year is out.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Odonata Tensica 6

Having blithely assumed that Odonata Tensica 5 was likely to be the last post on the subject, for this flight season and for this house, I'm going to tentatively suggest that perhaps this is actually the final offering.

Sure, there's still dragons on the wing, but opportunities to observe them are becoming fewer and farther between, due to the constraints imposed by the upcoming move and the Autumnal weather (by the way, Happy Equinox/Mabon, folks).

Therefore, it was a doubly pleasant surprise, on Friday evening, when JD arrived bearing a gift. He admitted that it was a bit early for my birthday, but wasn't sure that we'd have the opportunity to meet up betwixt then and now, so here it is.

I was handed a bag that was much heavier than anticipated. Intrigued, I peeped inside, to discover a dragonfly sculpture made from recycled metal. Careful analysis revealed, amongst other things, the business ends of a hand trowel and fork.

I was thrilled to receive such a unique artwork, not only for its subject, but also for the re-use of materials in such an innovative way.

It was immediately installed in pride of place on the stone at the shallow end of the pond, where it looked right at home mimicking the 'obelisking' behaviour of the Common Darters that frequent our small water body.

Many, many thanks, JD!

Early next morning, as Our Lass and I breakfasted, the question arose of whether the local wildlife would take to such an art installation, slap bang on the shores of their favourite drinking hole and bathing spot.

We needn't have worried.

That'll be a Yes, then.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Toadlet update

Twenty two, this morning!

All captured and re-homed under a nearby hedge.

I did momentarily contemplate a 'mark and release' scheme so that we could identify serial offenders, but was talked out of it.

Measures were taken to block up their means of entry, otherwise we would be knee deep in toads by Monday morning.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The odd, the mad and the ranty

It's been one of those weeks. Huge swathes of wildlife-lacking normalness and then a mad half hour of Mother Nature at her most bizarre.

Would we have it any other way? Probably not.

Yesterday, at work, there was a sudden flurry of interest in the office entrance. A huddle of my colleagues were staring through the glass door at the large creature apparently gazing back at them.

When some sort of sense kicked in, we rationalised that it was likely trying to scare its reflection into backing down. Which will always be unsuccessful, n'est-ce pas?

Then today, we discovered that, during the night, the department had been overrun by a veritable plague of toadlets. OK, so it wasn't of biblical proportions (there's been a global recession, after all), but we had to re-home up to a dozen of the cutesy wee things.

At least, I think they're young toads rather than frogs, but they were a bit dessicated after their nocturnal wanderings around the dry and dusty corners of Chez Travail, which made identifying them somewhat trickier. Please feel free to correct any faux pas on my part.

Why am I dropping in French phrases everywhere? Not a clue, but it has been a bizarre week.

In other news, I've come to the end of my tether with estate agents. Having chosen the firm we wished to represent us in the housing market, I wasn't expecting to be besieged by another five companies touting for unsolicited business. But sure enough, letters and business cards wafted through our letter box like confetti.

And scribbling "Please call me, urgent" on a business card isn't going to work, not the first time, not the SECOND time, not ever.

Ah, the joys...

Saturday, 7 September 2013

An unholy trinity

The Somerset Levels and the surrounding area posed three conundrums for me during the past week: a word that was new to me; a word that I thought was familiar but as it turns out is not; and, Glastonbury.

1. A new word

Looking at the Ordnance Survey map for the area around Westhay (the village where we stayed for the week), a strange word appeared time and time again. It was used to identify the multitude of drainage ditches which linked the larger streams across the Levels.

Part of OS Explorer Map 141, Cheddar Gorge and Mendip Hills West (Copyright Ordnance Survey)

I'd not come across that before and was struggling to work out the possibilities for the derivation. However, one of the excellent local leaflets came to my rescue, handily pointing out that the word is pronounced 'reen' and comes from the Welsh for a ditch or stream, 'rhewyn'.

Obviously, Somerset is fairly close to Wales, so that is pretty plausible. I've certainly heard Welsh words used in Devon to describe types of habitat, which is even closer to Somerset than Wales.

2. An old word

Back to the photo above and you'll notice that the Levels are low lying (below 10m) and flat (between the 10m contour and sea level), though I guess 'Level' rather explains that! If it was in the East of England it would be called a fen, or in the North West of England, a moss. So, my conundrum was the word 'Moor'. To a lad born and raised in the North East of England, who grew up walking over the Pennines hills of Teesdale, Weardale and Tynedale, a moor is a high, rocky place covered in heather, where only the hardiest of sheep can eke out an existence. Various holidays to Scotland through the years did little to dispel that notion, Rannoch Moor for example. Recent trips to Shropshire and hikes across the hills and moors of the Long Mynd only reinforced the idea. Moor = Over 500m above sea level, heather, rocks, sheep.

So how come it can also refer to a place that is almost as close to being in the sea as you can be without needing gills?

Here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject...

"Moorland or moor is a type of habitat found in upland areas in the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biomes, characterised by low-growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland nowadays generally means uncultivated hill land (such as Dartmoor in South West England), but the Old English mōr also refers to low-lying wetlands (such as Sedgemoor, also SW England). It is closely related to heath although experts disagree on precisely what distinguishes the types of vegetation. Generally, moor refers to highland, high rainfall zones, whereas heath refers to lowland zones which are more likely to be the result of human activity."

A-ha, it's both, then. Phew!

3. Glastonbury

This isn't about the Music Festival, this is about the town itself.

The town has been a centre of habitation since Neolithic times, but from the Saxon period into the Middle Ages was dominated by the Abbey. During the 12th and 13th Centuries, separate myths developed around the Arthurian legends and Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail. Ley lines and a landscape zodiac are more modern incarnations of these myths. So it's fair to say that belief and folklore have been Glastonbury's stock-in-trade for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, it is famous (or possibly infamous) for its New Age clientèle and religious tourism. The High Street contains a large number of shops described as 'alternative'. Even before you reach the centre of town, it is obvious that here is a place that's a little bit 'other'. More cynical minds would say 'fruitloop'. If a traveller from another galaxy made planetfall in Glastonbury tomorrow, his or her Directory of Time and Space might catalogue the period as late 1960s/early 1970s. There are certainly some groovy fashions on display.

All in all, taking onto account others comments on the place and my very first impressions, I was siding with the cynical view that Glastonbury is tacky and kitsch.

On reflection, however, whilst it does have a preponderance for emporiums reeking of incense and Patchouli oil, and possibly more pentagrams per capita than is strictly necessary, I rather liked Glastonbury. It has the usual High Street banks, a chemist/pharmacy from a national chain, other normal establishments like estate agents and shoe shops, but the remainder is fairly unique and independent. In a world where we constantly complain that everywhere looks the same and there's too many charity shops, Glastonbury is not like this.

We ate a fantastic lunch at the Rainbow's End, a vegetarian wholefood cafe, and browsed the pagan produce in a dozen or more 'alternative' shops. I almost bought cushions! That was very weird.

We managed to avoid a coachload of Austrian tourists who descended upon the Abbey ruins and also circumnavigated the muttonhead with a bull terrier, who didn't care that his dog had bitten a passer-by (which just goes to prove that even with a faster-than-light spacecraft, there's always one pillock who will spoil the party).

I only took one photograph whilst in the High Street, but I just had to record this...

Never underestimate the power of cacao.

Friday, 6 September 2013

More Level revelry

During the last few days, Our Lass and I have made several visits to Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve, a Somerset Wildlife Trust site set amongst a mosaic of wetlands, lakes and reedbeds.

Early morning and late evening, the place echoes hauntingly to the calls of Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail, whilst Marsh Harriers glide effortlessly but forbiddingly across the reedbeds like sharp-taloned security patrols.

But in the warmer, brighter hours of daylight, the air dances to a very different tune.

Emperor Dragonfly (f), Anax imperator
Larva of the Vapourer Moth, Orgyia antiqua
Common Darter (f), Sympetrum striolatum, totally wired
Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, feeding on Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum
Black-tailed Skimmers (m and f), Orthetrum cancellatum, and some afternoon delight
OK, OK, so the caterpillar doesn't have wings and isn't dancing on air... yet.

Thursday, 5 September 2013


Following the dizzying heights of our odo-tastic day in the Levels, we decided to spend a gentle Monday in a more meditative mood and quiet contemplation. Forsaking the old myths and New Age distractions of Glastonbury (for the time being), we journeyed a little farther afield.

In the afternoon, we drove to Wells, England's smallest city, and home to an impressive 13th Century Cathedral. The town grew up around several springs that er... spring from the foot of the Mendip Hills. Although the first recorded church on the site was Anglo Saxon, such is the symbolism of springs that I'm sure humans would have gathered at such a spot for millennia.

Wandering through the magnificent medieval buildings of the Cathedral, we came across an interpretation room, housed in an undercroft located beneath the Chapter House. This gave some history of the site and also a little geology of the stone used in the construction of the Cathedral. I find it most comforting that an Anglican order can discuss rocks that are aeons old; Oolithic Limestone (from 200 million years ago) and even more ancient Old Red Sandstone (laid down 400 million years ago).  

We then pottered into the grounds of the Bishop's Palace, where the afore-mentioned springs are located, and where our contemplative reverie was only occasionally disturbed by a passing dragonfly.

Earlier in the day, the morning had been spent in the town of Wincanton. Hence the 'pilgrimage' of this post's title. Wincanton is twinned with Ankh-Morpork, a city state on the edge of the Circle Sea, set in (Sir) Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Whilst town twinning doesn't usually incorporate fictional places, especially ones from another universe, Wincanton's association with Discworld is down to artist Bernard Pearson, otherwise known as the Cunning Artificer. Located on the town's High Street, his Discworld Emporium also doubles as the Ankh-Morpork Consulate. Additionally, on one of Wincanton's housing estates, several roads are named after Ankh-Morpork streets. It's all quite bizarre, really, even if you have read the odd book from Discworld.

I was particularly taken with the randomly-discarded banana skins on the book shelves*. A nice touch.

* The Librarian is an orang-utan.**

** A bit of a magical accident but opposable toes are handy for climbing book shelves.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Summer revels on the Somerset Levels

A while ago, Our Lass remarked that she'd never visited the Somerset Levels, so where did we end up for our anniversary weekend this year?

Cairngorm Westhay, deep in the Levels and surrounded by nature reserves. What a downer!

Whilst we were discussing which wildlife haven to explore first, our landlord appeared and informed us that he'd just been watching an Osprey at Ashcott Corner, turns up every year at this time. Er... decision made!

An hour later, after tramping our way around various bits of RSPB Ham Wall and seeing many butterflies and odes (but no Ospreys), we sat down on a conveniently-positioned bench by one of the reedbeds. We'd been there for less than a minute when a young Mink snuffled its way along the path in front of us, turned sharp left and disappeared into the undergrowth. We weren't even sure it had seen us.

So gob-smackingly amazed were we by this turn of events, that we almost missed a large bird sailing overhead...

As the day warmed up, there were even more dragons and damsels on the wing. In fact, it was time for the Dragon Whisperer to put in an appearance.

As well as Common Darters, there were also Ruddy Darters,

Brown Hawkers,

and Migrant Hawkers.

One particular Migrant was feasting upon an unfortunate damselfly,

which just doesn't seem like cricket to me.

Still, no regrets...

but plenty of these...

a pair each of Great White and Little Egrets.