Sunday, 28 April 2013

Raindrops on roses...

and snowdrops on steroids!

No, we haven't any roses in flower just yet, though there may be some drops of rain later.

However, we do have 'snowdrops on steroids'.

Whilst not strictly speaking snowdrops (they are a variety of Leucojum called Summer Snowflake), at this time of year they do make a fine display in this particular border of the Tense Towers garden.

Why 'on steroids'? Well, here's a photo of the whole clump, with a pair of my boots shown for scale.

Yep, definitely not snowdrops.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Seasonal schizophrenia

A Saturday mid-afternoon visit to Hanson Environmental Study Centre brought neither the hoped-for Swifts or an ode of any sort (dragons or damsels, as opposed to saucy limericks or rhyming couplets). A bitter wind continued to blow from the north west, the last vestiges of Winter spitefully hanging on, as if to taunt the land for its hope of a warm and pleasant Spring.

The lake was rather sparsely populated by a meagre assortment of wildfowl, though a growing throng of warblers were singing from the reedbeds, scrub and trees surrounding the water. The sky was either dark with heavy showers, or brightly lit with an assortment of sun-drenched fluffy clouds, like non-identical twins jostling for control of the heavens in a meteorological overture of alternating themes.

The Cowslips were having no truck with this indecision and duality, choosing instead to throw their all into a fecund explosion of colour.

We returned home to discover a pair of Mallard sat on the lawn, in a leisurely repose, following their feeding frenzy amongst the aquatic plants of the Tense Towers pond. The air was laden  with rhyming couplets, most of which featured the word 'duck'.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Garden Bird Survey Winter 2012-13

In a previous post, I mentioned the survey that we carry out during the Winter, as part of local RSPB branch project. It's tailor-made to help an odonatist see out the lean months of the year! Here's my submission for Tense Towers, Nov 2012 - Mar 2013.

RSPB North Bucks Local Group Garden Bird Survey 2012-13
Another fascinating five months of very local birding. Numbers fluctuated with the temperature, weather and recorder effort, but I would say that the weekly and cumulative totals were down on previous years.

Below is a brief, highly unscientific, synopsis of each species, in no particular order:

Good attenders

1. Blue Tit – ubiquitous as ever, and a real challenge to count their abundance during the Big Garden Bird Watch. Too damn quick!

2. Blackbird – constant presence and as squabbly as a room of MPs.

3. Starling – recorded every week but not as many present at a time than in previous years.

4. Robin – during one cold spell, we ended up with 4 at a time.

5. House Sparrow – a pleasing full house of attendance and in greater numbers this year.

6. Collared Dove – not as many as in previous years.

7. Chaffinch – the biggest flock we see all Winter!

8. Greenfinch – omnipresent but less in number.

9. Wood Pigeon – too many!

10. Great Tit – not as abundant as their Blue cousins.

11. Dunnock – the obligatory three.

12. Goldfinch – four fabulously feisty and fun finches.

13. Great Spotted Woodpecker – at least two every week, a male and female.

Occasional visitors

14. Coal Tit – much less visibility, only seen during 3 weeks of the survey.

15. Wren – always hard to see in our garden, though annoyingly often heard just over the fence! Only recorded during 4 weeks of the survey.

16. Carrion Crow – a growing presence due to a pair nesting in our neighbour’s garden that have raised a brood in the two preceding Summers.

17. Magpie – much more visible this year and has finally figured out the seed feeder and fat block.

18. Jay – again, much more visible this year, though this was mainly due to another neighbour putting peanuts on her bird table!

19. Long-tailed Tit – we’ve never had much luck with these cuties, but this Winter was the exception. Fat blocks, that’s the secret.

20. Blackcap – at least 2 birds present off and on through the Winter, one male and one female, though never at the same time.

21. Reed Bunting – nearly 50% attendance! However, we are near the canal. Again, male and female spotted, often at the same time.

22. Sparrowhawk – only seen during 4 weeks of the survey, but the sight of an empty garden and a small pile of feathers would point to a greater presence than that.

23. Green Woodpecker – as in previous years, only a very occasional visitor (recorded in 2 weeks) and never seen by me!

24. Grey Heron – put in a late appearance, tempted by a neighbour’s pond, which, unlike our wildlife one, contains fish.

25. Fieldfare – just a couple of sightings, but welcome nevertheless.

26. Song Thrush – a bird that we’ve always struggled to see, though they’re heard often “just over the fence”. However, sightings were up this year and I can only conclude that the wetter conditions in 2012 increased the amount of snails. And the fact that the blackbirds left it alone, for once.

27. Goldcrest – amazing Autumn visitor in the first week.

28. Siskin – as usual, turned up in March, so likely to be due to migration.

Fly overs

Black-headed Gull – again, always around but never in our garden. We discovered why when…

Red Kite – seen two gardens away and scared the life out of the crows, gulls and everything else. Investigations revealed that one of our neighbours puts out roadkill!

Jackdaw – always around, but too timid to venture into our small garden. I couldn’t count the one with a broken wing that walked in under the gate during October!

No shows

Redwing – either they didn’t put in an appearance, or we didn’t spot them.

Pied Wagtail – the first Winter when at least one hasn’t turned up.

Brambling – not this year, unfortunately.

Bullfinch – another puzzling omission, despite better numbers in the surrounding area.

Now that I've sealed the envelope, affixed a stamp and posted it off, I'm ready for Odo season (he said, hopefully).

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Well, what do you know? Spring has finally arrived!

After we had each endured a hectic week, Our Lass and I went out for a meal on Friday evening. Nothing too exotic, a local restaurant, a chance to talk, time to unwind. Foregoing a dessert (we were being good!), we settled up with our waitress and pottered off into the dusk. We walked down to the river, along the bank and then into a cemetery, following the path until we reached the confluence of the Rivers Lovat and the Great Ouse. We stood here awhile, listening to the last of the evening chorus, happy to catch a glimpse of a Kingfisher in the fading light, as it disappeared downstream piping its frenetic high-pitched call. Leaving the graveyard and climbing up to a road bridge, we paused again to take in the last of the light, marvelling at the pink and grey reflections of the sky in the water by the weir. A white shape floated across the grazing meadows and revealed itself to be a Barn Owl, silently portending the imminent death of some unfortunate rodent.

And so began our weekend.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, the night's frost soon disappeared and warm sunshine greeted us on our short journey to the local nature reserve. On the off chance of an early damsel or dragon, we tarried by the pond-dipping pool. Sadly, there were no odes, but frog and toad spawn was much in evidence. Indeed, throughout the day, toads were calling and occasional splashes hinted at further romantic activity.

High above the water surface, the reed mace was busy shedding seeds in a gentle breeze. It was admirably helped in this endeavour by a small squadron of Blue Tits, which we presumed were busy gathering nesting material.

Suddenly, a churring sound jolted us from this fluffy reverie, as a Grasshopper Warbler began singing from a bush at the back of the pond. Sweet!

We wandered on a few yards further along the path to a handy bench. Sitting here, looking over the lake, we spotted a tern sat on a post. Bill colour, wing length and short legs hinted that this was an Arctic Tern, pausing on its way northward. Indeed, when a few Common Terns landed on adjacent posts, it was easy to see the differences between the two species.

Plants were making up for lost time too, Cowslip and Dog Violet now joining the Primroses and Coltsfoots which lined the path. Some yellow Gorse flowers were looking particularly splendid in the morning sun, but more abundant were the male catkins of Willow trees.

Having spent all Winter watching small finches at the top of Alder trees, I was pleasantly surprised to find this Redpoll feeding on seeds at ground level, on a branch blown into the water by some strong winds the preceding week.

We returned to the pond-dipping pool several times during the day, but remained ode-less. However, the amphibian antics kept us entertained and then Our Lass capped a cracking day by pointing out a Cuckoo as it flew by.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Not sure if this'll work....

                                                     out that
                                                 it's the 4th
                                          anniversary of
                                       my blog today!!!
                                   Imperfect 'n' Tense
                                is four years old and
                        celebrating this milestone
                  in typical I 'n' T style by going
                         to a cafe with Our Lass for a nice cup
                    of tea and a slice of cake. A Very Happy
                                                        sary t
                                                        o me!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

You know it's nearly dragonfly season when...

After the coldest March in the UK since Lord Kelvin discovered that his favourite number was -273, I'm not expecting any huge fanfare in the next week to herald the beginning of the dragonfly flight season.

However, there can be no doubting that it is on its way, because today the postman delivered these...

The Spring 2013 edition of Dragonfly News and the BDS Journal, plus the yearly Darter magazine.

Now that is a sight to gladden the heart and is perhaps just cause for a small snifter by way of celebration?


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Wide-eyed and listless

Questions were posed by a fellow natural history blogger a while back, "Do you list?" And "If so, what?"

Before I could even begin to answer, I had to think long and hard about what my nature focus was on. Am I an enthusiastic dragonflyer who birdwatches a bit, or a rubbish birder who doubles up on dragons in the Summer? Or perhaps just someone who appreciates most, if not all, of the flora and fauna around me?

In truth, none of the above and all of the above. This isn't going to be an easy post to write, is it?

Undoubtedly, my first love is Odonata, so it would be safe to assume that I would have a list of all the species I have seen in my local area, the county, the UK and globally. Nope, none of those. However, I have logged all my sightings since 2006 and forwarded these records to the British Dragonfly Society, as my small contribution to citizen science. My fondness for odes has nothing to do with numbers, but everything to do with being wherever they are. I'll admit to having travelled to areas of the UK where there are species present that aren't found around Milton Keynes. But these are resident species, rather than twitchable vagrant species.

As far as birds are concerned, I do have global life list, but as I don't go very far from these shores, it's pretty pointless and is probably smaller than some of my friends' county lists!

When I go on holiday, and only for the duration of the holiday, I keep a list of the birds seen. But should I return to that area another year, I don't compare the numbers, so again, what exactly am I recording, other than writing a short term list?

Perhaps the most useful things I do, together with the rest of the household, is contribute to several surveys at home. The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, every January, has been a staple of the Tense Towers team since our children were old enough to count and recognise feathered  stuff. One hour every 365 days isn't asking a lot, though.

This year, and also in January, I took part in Foot It, a month-long challenge to estimate how many species of bird could be seen in a given radius from home, but only by walking there. No bicycles, cars, buses or trains. It was fun and made me take more exercise than I would've done without it, so it did have health benefits. But hand on my heart, towards the end, the continual focussing upon numbers was definitely taking the shine off the whole endeavour. 

So I would have to say that the list that gives me the most pleasure, that consumes vast amounts of nature watching and is a useful bit of science, is the survey run every Winter by the local North Bucks branch of the RSPB to catalogue all the species of birds that feed in our garden from November to March. I have mentioned this scheme before, I took part off and on prior to 2006, but from that time on, Our Lass has been involved too, which has made it a shared pleasure. Whilst researching this post, I have discovered that I still don't even keep copies of the survey. Every April, I simply post off the list to the lady who kindly crunches the numbers and who reports back to the group several months later. Like the Big Garden Birdwatch, this is all about monitoring changing trends rather than any particular year, which species is doing better or worse across 5, 10, 20 years of recording.

Within this survey, for Tense Towers, one particular statistic does stand out, the week of 20 - 26/12/2010. This seven day period, in the middle of a very cold spell and covering a time when recorder effort was at a maximum (it being Christmas, we were all at home), produced 29 species for the week. To put that into some context, this Winter, which I'd say has been as cold, we've only seen 28 species in the whole five months of the survey.

So I'll probably keep surveying and counting, but not listing and competing. This is all about the wildlife, not about me.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Marvellous Minsmere

Whilst staying in Norfolk, we spent a day a short distance away at the RSPB reserve of Minsmere in Suffolk.

Our previous visit had also been on a Bank Holiday weekend (June 2012), and once again we were pleasantly surprised by the visitor numbers.

Late morning cuppa
The plan was to meet up with JD, and his friend Laura, for some quality natural history observation, only first, JD was detouring to Aldeburgh to buy fresh fish. And then we both discovered that the mobile phone signal in much of the reserve is rubbish, which made finding each other somewhat tricky.

Whilst we waited, Our Lass and I wandered along the embankment to the coast.

Our Lass gettin' arty with it
Looking north towards Dunwich Heath
Still unable to hook up with JD, we had a spot of lunch and then wandered off towards the Bittern Hide. Here at last I found some phone signal and discovered that we had somehow crossed paths and missed a possible rendezvous. However, tracking anti-clockwise around the scrapes, we finally met the fish-purchasing crew. Phew.

Returning to the Bittern Hide, we were not fortunate enough to glimpse the bird after which it was named. But as we sheltered from the east wind and basked in some sunshine, we certainly weren't complaining!

View from Bittern Hide, with Sizewell nuclear power station in the background
After an afternoon tea break, we said our goodbyes to JD and Laura as they headed back to Bedfordshire. We made our way to the Island Mere Hide and settled down at the opposite end to the feverish ranks of photographers who were busy snapping a pair of Garganey, feeding right in front of the hide. The noise and commotion wouldn't have been out of place during a Formula One pitstop, with machine gun bursts of shutters firing and much jostling to secure the best viewing angle. At one point, the ducks moved in front of where we were sitting, and the Alpha Camera rushed over to grab the seat next to me, almost falling off it backwards in the process. In fact, the assembled throng was so engrossed in the whole Garganeyfest, that it took Our Lass some time to make them aware that they were missing a pair of Otters out in the mere.
A rapidly-departing Otter, exit stage right
And what all the fuss was about...

Male Garganey
Mr and Mrs Garganey
When all the fuss had died down, we were finally able to hear the calls of the ducks, the Garganey sounding for all the world like someone slowly dragging their thumbnail along a comb.

As the sun set, we were treated to the sight of several Marsh Harriers quartering the marsh, their backlit plumage and silhouettes floating silently above the glowing reeds.

Hare volumising tips for changeable weather

The Easter weekend saw Our Lass and I take a trip over to Norfolk to stay at the delightful Tithe Barn in Sisland. With the festival falling early in the year, there would be no possibility of seeing any Odonata or even much flora, but hopes were high for some quality Hare time.

Arriving late on Friday afternoon, we took a walk from the B+B around a short 2 mile route, across fields and back through the village. The bitingly cold east wind and the occasional snow flurry left us in no doubt that it wasn't Spring yet, despite what the date and the Sun's passage along the horizon indicated.

There were plenty of Hares and Red-legged Partridges to be seen, one particular field with over a dozen brown furry bundles of Lepus-ness [Sigh]. On the down side, we found it impossible to approach to within a decent camera range of any of them. However, we counted ourselves fortunate to also see a Little and a Barn Owl on the return journey to the Tithe Barn.

From the window of our room, we looked out over the owners' garden, passed the Shepherd Hut (available for rent!) and on towards the fields behind. This gave me an idea for early the following morning. If the sun put in an appearance and it didn't snow, there was the possibility of using the hedge, which bordered the garden, to provide some useful cover from which to photograph any wildlife. It was a cunning plan with, predictably, several small flaws!

The weather was sunny :o)

But it also snowed :o(

This wasn't entirely conducive to hare photography.

Don't worry, this isn't my lens, it's the window of our room.

So all I had to show for my hedgerow efforts were some hastily-garnered shots from distance, between flurries of snow.

But not to worry, our cooked breakfast of local produce banished all glum thoughts.

Unchained mallardy

Long term sufferers readers of I&T will recall the Springtime angst of His Tenseness which has been apparent from almost the beginning of my foray into blogdom.

Wait! Spring? Really?? Oh yeah, it's finally dragging its weary self into view despite the tiresome prolonging of Winter, at least in this neck of the woods. A few hopeful signs have augured the onset of better times ahead. Yesterday, we had a visit from a couple of pairs of Siskin, feeding merrily on the sunflower seeds and filling the air with their burble. Records show that we only ever see these diminutive finches in the garden at this time of year, presumably on their journey back north. Further evidence of the unfreezing of Mother Nature's heart was provided by a Dunnock, busy nest building in the Ivy which is clinging to the fence at the bottom of the garden. Yay!

But back to the angst. Tensions are raised and security forces are on high alert as the threat of potential conflict rears its ugly head. The fragile and precarious peace that has balanced on a knife edge for so long is under grave threat of being broken.

This is because the Dunnock isn't the only species whose thoughts have turned to nest building.  Remember 2009? The danger of untold carnage to a precious habitat containing priceless wildlife? Thank heavens I'm not over-reacting, eh?

This is Mrs Mallard yesterday, perched atop the Laurel hedge as she ponders the aquatic attributes of the gardens on either side. Tense Towers? It has never been a truer definition.