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


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!