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.


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


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.

Thursday 7 May 2009

More tales from the lover bank

Where were we? Oh yes, in the tea shop, preferred habitat of MGLW and I.

That's not to say we're always in hostelries whose main products are a hot beverage brewed from the leaves of a plant found in the sub-continent and large slices of fruit cake. Often, but not always.

OK, so on our rather-more-frequently-than-occasionally visits to these emporiums, the plot goes a bit like this. We find a table, I sit down with my back to the room, MGLW sits opposite me and we order the aforementioned provender. The sub-plot is that one of us gets to people-watch and I gaze adoringly at the love of my life (this isn't the romantic bit, it's going to get a whole lot rosier).

Over the years, I've become accustomed to the people-watching antics of my better half. It's not as lonely for me as you'd think, as now and again I am able to contribute with useful advice like "Stop staring" or "Close your mouth, you might catch a fly." If I think her attention is sufficiently distracted, I can always pinch the second complimentary biscuit. You can't imagine what an adrenalin rush that is.

Yesterday's pilgrimage to the altar of high tea and the circle of standing scones didn't follow the usual pattern, however. It began normally enough. Find table, check. Sit with back to room, check. Order huge pot of tea and slabs of cake, check. Gaze get the idea.

Everything's going along nicely, thank you, when suddenly, with a forkful of Victoria sponge cake halfway to sugary bliss, MGLW is staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed over my left shoulder. Before I can caution against further lapses in polite behaviour, it becomes apparent that someone is staring back, equally perplexed. Ah, thinks I, this is a different game. You see, I'm married to one of those kind souls who most of us meet when we're born. No, not the stork or the gooseberry bush, the other one. So every now and then, normally in the High Street or a garden centre, we bump into a family who are really pleased to see MGLW and we are amazed at how big Little Esmerelda has grown or how many years it's been since Armageddon was born.

Back in the tea room, it transpires that we've met 3 generations of a family; mum, grandma and a wee lass, fast asleep in her pushchair. This is mum's second-born, her first is off on a school trip and he is often told the tale of how MGLW saved his life when he was a few days old.

Now whatever occupation we follow, when there's a deadline to meet or an urgent request to fulfil, we tend to think its importance ranks as a matter of life or death. Well, I'm sorry, but no. When you live with someone whose job ACTUALLY involves life and death decisions, when you run the roller coaster ride of joy and despair with them, sharing their soaring happiness or the depths of their pain, then you can imagine how proud I was of my wife upon meeting this family.

Cynicism put on hold, folks. I am married to a truly wonderful person, and now the interweb knows, too.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Out of the mire

Worry not, dear reader, I'm still here. The interruption to normal service has been due to a big, black dog of a mood, born of frustration at my prolonged convalescence. If I could give you a hint as to the depth of the downer, let me tell you that I've been writing poetry. Yes, that bad. I can confidently predict that I wouldn't make Poet Laureate, even wearing a dress. But happily, you've escaped that particular torture. That's the poetry, not the wearing a dress...

Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the form of Captain Sundial, who suggested that for the quintessentially English bluebell experience, a trip to Everdon Stubbs was a must, and never mind all that Coton Manor Gardens palaver.

So to buoy my flagging spirits, my good lady wife and I set forth on a Spring trip to a Northamptonshire wood. Bless her heart, she's become rather good at avoiding pot-holes in the road to avoid unnecessary suffering on my part, but with the state of the roads these days, that doubles your mileage.

Everdon Stubbs is 70 acres of ancient semi-natural woodland owned by the Woodland Trust. At this time of year, most of it is carpeted in bluebells. The fragrance has to be experienced to be believed. The bits that aren't covered in bluebells are covered in badger poo. I can't vouch for it personally, but I imagine that this, too, has an unbelievable fragrance.

Inevitably, a place this special attracts many visitors, but we were able to wander its many paths in relative peace. Only occasionally did humankind interrupt Mother Nature and her sights and sounds.
Amongst the bluebells were other species of flower; red campion, herb robert, wood anemone, yellow archangel, stitchwort and dog's mercury. There were many types of tree; oak, beech, silver birch, sycamore, wild cherry, hornbeam and hazel. Birdsong permeated the wood, the blackbirds and song thrushes from within interweaving with cuckoo and yellowhammer without.
All in all, a jolly pleasant afternoon, especially as on the way home, we stopped off for tea and cake in nearby Upper Stowe.