Thursday 30 December 2010

A Winter's Tale

Captain Sundial and I usually exchange Christmas cards in mid December, despite the fact that he doesn't go along with the whole interminable charade of Christmas. To be honest, I expect that if he ever broke into a Winter-themed song, it would sound something like:

"On the twelfth day of C-word, my true love gave to me,
12 bags of Humbugs, 11 bags of Humbugs... etc,
... 5 g-o-l-d Humbugs... etc,
... and a Humbug in a sweet shop."

Not very festive, is Captain S, though he does like a good solstice. So you can imagine that with the lunar eclipse in conjunction with the recent shortest day, we almost had to send out for more boxes of tissues.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, cards. When we exchanged envelopes this year, there was something about the look in his eye that though it couldn't be described as setting off alarm bells, it was certainly the trembling hand of a security guard hovering over a big button marked "Oh bugger!" as the JCB of Life came crashing through the front of the store.

"Can you open it now?" he asked, "I want to see the look on your face when you read it!"

O...K... in my mind, the guard had now pressed the big button and was running for the nearest exit, donning body armour and writing a will.

With enough trepidation to float HMS Nervous, I opened the envelope and gingerly removed the card...

Good old Captain Sundial, I should never have doubted him!

This card is entitled "Christmas is Coming" and is from a painting by Brenda McKetty. You can view more of her amusing and thought-provoking work on her website.

As relief radiated out from me, the security guard stopped writing his will, started giggling and scribbled "Goose... Geese... Goosebumps...Goosed!" Meanwhile, my smile was as broad as the snowman's grin.

All the best for 2011, Captain S, and thanks also to the serene Helene for making you go to art exhibitions.

Monday 27 December 2010

Another "That Was The Week That Was"

In Milton Keynes, the local group for members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is the North Bucks branch. Each Autumn and Winter, from the beginning of November to the end of March, this group partakes in a survey of birds feeding in their gardens, to build up data of long term trends and study species movements due to local weather and global climate change.

Regular readers will recall (pay attention, I did say there would be questions later) that I alluded to this in a previous post, and, for me personally, it does offer a welcome focus of attention through the lean months when there are no UK dragonflies on the wing.

Whilst we are very thorough in completing the survey and sending off our records, we do not tend to keep copies, so do not have accurate data for anywhere we have lived, or even Tense Towers. This is not a problem in itself, though the last week has highlighted that perhaps we should be more archival with our records.

Here at Tense Towers, we have a small back garden, perhaps 12m wide by 7m deep, and a tapering triangle of grass at the front of the house. There are a few tall trees, a small pond, bushes, borders and lawn, but like many town gardens, it is mainly hemmed in by panel fences shared with our neighbours. Over the years that we have participated in the survey, I would reckon that we average about 16 or 17 species a week, mainly consisting of the usual suspects with the odd unexpected visitor. The recent spell of prolonged cold weather, characterised by weeks of sub-zero temperatures and several inches of snow, has certainly proved the worth of both feeding the birds and recording their visits. During the big freeze, it has been difficult for wild birds to find sufficient food to survive the cold. This is evidenced by the presence of greater numbers of common species visiting the garden for food, but also by visits from birds that would not normally be seen this close to human activity.

I commented earlier in the week that Our Lass had seen a Moorhen visiting the garden for the first time. Other species too, were bravely risking contact with humans in their search for enough to eat. When we added up the number of species for the past 7 days, it was a whopping 29, far in excess of our average, even allowing for the Christmas week to be generally good as there will be more free time and more pairs of eyes watching out of the window.

In fact, if just one solitary bloody Magpie had showed up as usual, we'd have broken the 30 barrier. You just can't rely on 'em, can you?

For the record, our garden list for 20/12/10 - 26/12/10 was:

Black-headed Gull
Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Green Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Pied Wagtail (Stumpy!)
Robin (maximum of 4, eek!)
Song Thrush
Great Tit
Coal Tit
Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
House Sparrow
Reed Bunting

Thankfully, a thaw seems to have begun at last, but all our berry bushes are stripped bare, so I do not know what will happen if, as is often the case in February, we have another period of very cold weather.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Cold Caldecotte is a real hotspot

As this looked like it was going to be the last fine but crisp day for a while, we thought we'd visit Caldecotte Lake in the south of Milton Keynes.This water body is not normally on our radar, but it is excellently blogged by Keith, who puts in the hours and reaps the wildlife benefits.Some of his recent posts have included several sightings of a Water Rail.

Now, Our Lass has often heard the squealing call of the Water Rail, whilst out and about on our jaunts, but never had the good fortune to spot one. It's a rather secretive bird, mainly skulking out of sight, in the undergrowth by the water's edge. To be honest, I have only ever seen one of them myself, so this seemed like an opportunity not to be missed, as the big freeze meant that they would have to forage on the ice.

Other projects limited us to just an afternoon's trip, so we opted to make best use of the remaining available light and only walk around the northern half of the lake. As we set off from the car park at the windmill, there was very little open water to be seen. However, our first stroke of luck came at the flood defences by the river, the concrete culverts allowing us close views of a Grey Wagtail.

Moving on around the lake in a clockwise direction, I was surprised to see, in the distance, an animal digging in the snow. Even through binoculars, it wasn't immediately obvious what it was, as the hole was deeper than the creature was tall. What could it be?

Our patience was eventually rewarded, when the ice miner was revealed to be...

a Green Woodpecker. How the heck did it know what was under the snow? And if it was an ants' nest, how frozen would they have been?

At the next set of flood defences, there was a small patch of open water, where most of the local waterfowl had gathered, Mute Swans, Coot, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pochard and a few Mallard. Away from this, a group of Moorhens were busy foraging, scuttling about on the ice, dashing in and out of the marginal vegetation. Eventually it dawned on me that one them wasn't. Wasn't a Moorhen, that is. It was the mythical Water Rail of aquatic legend. It seemed to sense that it was being watched and headed for cover, so I was unable to bring my camera to bear without a branch or a twig getting in the way of the photograph. I may have uttered an inadvertent oath.

Just before we completed our circumnavigation of the north lake, another Rail appeared out on the ice.

Not the greatest pic in the world, but a life tick for Our Lass and by far the best view of one that I've ever had. Our thanks to Keith for the heads-up on this cracking bird.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Christmas blog

Merry Christmas, everybody!

We were woken this morning by the alarm calls of several Blackbirds. Hmmm, I thought, a squabble over presents? Trouble with the seating plan for lunch?

By the time I had opened the curtains to see what was going on, there was only one bird in the garden... a Sparrowhawk in a Hawthorn tree. Well, it is the first day of Christmas.

I'd best not stay online too long on this family day, so I will leave you with the slightly misquoted words of the Three Wise Men...

"I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave New Year. May all anguish, pain and sadness leave your heart, and let your road be clear."

Of course , Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Who'd you think I was on about?

Wednesday 22 December 2010

D' ye ken, hen?

I may have mentioned before in these pages, that Our Lass is not in the least bit competitive. No... no way... not even a smidgeon. Therefore it came as something of a surprise, when a repeated Song Thrush phrase alerted me to an incoming text on my work phone. Expecting a summons to some far flung corner of the kingdom to sort out a technological problem, I was surprised for a second time, when I realised that it was from my better half.

At this point, I was wondering what winter-related mishap could have befallen the skeleton crew at Tense Towers, and so nervously opened the message.

"Moorhen!" it proclaimed.

Now we don't keep a Garden List of birds seen feeding within our modest plot (not competitive, remember), but Our Lass knows when a species is being recorded for the first time. Despite our location about 100 yards from a canal, we had not previously experienced a visit from a Moorhen in the time we've been in this corner of Milton Keynes. This has probably much to do with the numerous wooden fences between the Grand Union and Tense Towers, plus a fair bit of lack of attention on our part.

OK, so they're not remotely rare in the UK, but when something common turns up in an uncommon place, it does lift your day.

With great presence of mind, Our Lass fired up my camera, as it was close to hand and Wrong Len wasn't in residence. She managed to capture a few images before the Moorhen departed over a 10' Laurel hedge.

However, I was oblivious to the fact that she was on an absolute roll. Her garden sightings today also included Green Woodpecker, Reed Bunting, Pied Wagtail (Stumpy's back!), Fieldfare and Coal Tit. Whilst none of these were first timers, it was a good collection for a short day in a small garden.

It certainly raised my spirits after missing yesterday's lunar eclipse due to low cloud.

Thanks, pet!

Monday 20 December 2010

Our patch of ice

North Buckinghamshire remains in the grip of some wintry weather, with temperatures well below freezing, and low cloud and fog adding to the gloomy mood. The prolonged period of ice and snow has made life even tougher for resident and migratory birds alike, but this does allow closer encounters than is usual. Whilst they concentrate on finding food, the presence of humans seems to become a secondary concern.

Waxwings have stripped this tree of berries
Blackbirds feed up on Pyracantha berries
Unexpectedly close flypast by a Snipe

Saturday 18 December 2010

Brrrrrr...ding at home

With the return of the cold weather and daytime temperatures below zero degrees Celsius, we've noticed, as I'm sure other folk have, an increase in bird activity in the garden. The feeders are busy from first light until dusk, as the birds seek to take in enough calories to see them through the next frozen night.

The first clue to the severity of the situation was the appearance of three Robins at once. Their frenzied chases across the lawn, through bushes and along the fences should really be set to a soundtrack of engines revving and tyres squealing. All high tempo stuff, when I'm sure that what they should be concentrating on is stuffing their beaks full of food.

Finch numbers have ramped up too. There are so many Goldfinches that they've been queueing up for the four port feeder, which for a feisty, impatient bird is a telling statement in itself. The goldies have also taken to exploring the rest of the garden, finding the seed heads on the various Lavender and Lemon Balm plants in the borders.

The bravest Goldfinch in the world
Yesterday there was even a brief glimpse of a Siskin, though it couldn't find room on the feeders amongst all the Greenfinches and Chaffinches, so presumably gave up and went elsewhere.

Taking a break from the garden activity, we decided to walk around Tongwell Lake for a breath of fresh air. Bearing in mind the temperature, it was certainly fresh! As we arrived at the lake, one or two tiny flakes of snow appeared out of the sky, and in no time at all, this became a flurry and then a steady snowfall.

Most of the lake was frozen solid, with only three small patches of clear water. Predictably, these contained a concentrated mixture of wildfowl, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Mallard, as well as many Coot and Moorhen, plus two Great Crested Grebes. On the edge of the ice, a few Shoveler sat huddled together, looking very forlorn and perhaps dreaming of warmer climes. Bizarrely for December, in a tree by the lake, a Great Tit was hammering out its "Teacher, teacher" call, as if it was perfectly normal to be thinking about attracting a mate in the run up to Christmas. Some office party that must've been!

On the way back to Tense Towers, we noticed a house for sale, and nosey blighters that we are, we stopped to figure out how big its garden might be. Behind this property was a large tree, bare of leaves, but sporting a fine crop of birds in its upper branches. For some reason, when it's cold, I have trouble with scale, so I assumed they were Wood Pigeons. Our Lass (promotion to capital letters for reasons that will become apparent) would never make so basic an error. Assume? I don't think so! She had also heard their calls, and, after a quick scan with her binoculars, pointed out that they were actually Waxwings.

There were at least 50 birds in the flock, but as smaller groups kept flying off and then re-appearing, it was difficult to be sure of exact numbers. This is a pointless quibble however, as we'd never seen this many Waxwings in one fell swoop, and especially as there's been loads of them in the UK this Autumn, all of which we'd failed to see. 

Suddenly, despite the falling snow, it now felt a lot less cold, warmed as we were by the glow of a rise in our fortunes. Nearer to home, we spotted some Redwings feeding in a garden, mere feet from windows and doors. Amongst these, there was also a male Bullfinch, looking impossibly scarlet against the snowy backdrop.

Back indoors, and another surprise awaited us, for waddling about on the lawn was a Pied Wagtail. I say "waddling" as it was missing a foot, so had a bit of a limp. Looking back at our garden records, it is traditional for a wagtail to show up at this time of year, but they're always welcome nevertheless, no matter how many feet they have. 

Now, as I prepare to publish this post, our area has had its first significant snowfall of the Winter, about 6" (15cm or one normal-sized Nac Mac Feegle).

Sunday 12 December 2010

Jack Frost at work

Proverbially, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

I'm sure this doesn't refer to the Jack Frost of folklore, as his work seems to be full of play, and it is anything but dull. Though not in a Shining sense.

So here are a few images of the recent hoar frosts, taken during work breaks, for no reason or rime.

Trousers eat fruit

So says the message scrawled on our kitchen noticeboard.

Hmmm, a previously unheard of rock band from the 1980s? The title of Lynne Truss's latest book? Or an oddly worrying euphemism?

That reminds me of a book project I had to shelve ages ago. It was about a giant House Martin that stole bed linen to build its nest. The working title was Sheets, Loots and Eaves, but my publisher could see complications and legal proceedings written all over it.

Back to the noticeboard. As is often the case, the truth is much more prosaic, the result of a tailoring crisis and a glut of apples and bananas. The message was written by our lass, and I have used it by way of introduction to my latest guest blogger... the wonderful lady herself.

During the recent cold spell, accompanied by her trusty pal, Nik, she was able to capture some frosty images of our neighbourhood. 

Grand Union Canal at Linford Wharf
Fire and ice on Beech leaves
Linford Manor Park

Sunday 5 December 2010

Potatoes in space

If you mention the words "potato" and "space" to a British person over the age of 45, they're likely to reminisce about the Smash advert for instant mashed potato from the 1970s, featuring a UFO full of metal androids having a right good chortle at our humble attempts to cook a spud.

This blog isn't about that. No sir, this blog is about an actual potato going to the edge of actual space. Yes, really!

I can claim no credit for what you are about to discover. Not only that, but this news is almost a year old, so you may already be aware of the lengths that a tuber will go to, in these celebrity-infested times, to get some attention.

This week, the newsletter with our organic veg delivery featured an article about an experiment conducted by the Riverford franchise to deploy a humble potato into the stratosphere. That's 20 miles up and, even more incredibly, safely back down again. Don't get me started on the pro's and con's of food miles, just work with me here.

In fact, there were two experiments carried out at the end of 2009, appropriately named Spudnik 1 and Spudnik 2. (I am not making this up!). They involved a weather balloon, a Blackberry, a digital camera and er... a potato.

Oh, and Spudnik 2's potato was dressed as Father Christmas. 

For more information, go to the Spudnik2 website, play the video and be very, very amazed.

Perhaps if a class of Primary School pupils and an organic veg company had been involved with the Large Hadron Collider from the start, we'd already be on first name terms with Mr Higgs' eponymous boson.

I can only hope that, eventually, there will be a Star Trek film where the crew of the Enterprise encounter a Solanum-based lifeform in deep space. 

Picard: "Are those blemishes on its skin, Data?" 
Data: "Eye, eye, Captain!"

Sunday 28 November 2010


Following yesterday's deathly blog, it was pointed out by those far wiser than me (thanks, Admiral), that it was likely that we had been visited by more than one Sparrowhawk. The theory being that with the first appearance resulting in the definite kill of a Starling, there would be no need for that hawk to feed again so soon. Therefore the second appearance was probably a different bird.

The theory was wonderfully demonstrated this morning when we caught sight of a male Sparrowhawk on the lawn, trying to flush a Dunnock from a small dense shrub. When landing on either side of the bush did not have the desired effect (for the Sparrowhawk, not the Dunnock), the hawk proceeded to crash down on top of the bush, wings outspread, in order to spook its prey into flight. The Dunnock wasn't about to fall for that old trick and cleverly remained in the densest bit of vegetation. This was a very brave thing to do, as it can only have been mere centimetres from certain death. Eventually, the sprawk's patience wore thin and it flew off to try its luck elsewhere.

All this activity meant that we were able to gain good views of the male raptor, clad in a cloak of slate grey on its upper parts and with a rusty orange underside. Definitely not the bird photographed yesterday, which was clearly female. So now the conjecture has moved on to whether this is a pair of hawks, and if so, how large is their territory. More research needed...

Saturday 27 November 2010

Sterner Sturnus Story

This morning, I was gently woken from my slumbers by the tell-tale sound of a mug of tea being placed on my bedside table. Our lass had braved the chill air and beaten me to the kettle.

As she opened the bedroom curtains, the first thing to greet my wife was a dusting of snow. Not a blanket, as some parts of the country had seen, but a lacy white veil, softening some features and highlighting others. The second thing to greet her as she stood gazing out into the wintry scene, was a flurry of activity as a Sparrowhawk flew into the garden, hurtling with undiminished speed into the Hawthorn tree and falling out of the other side into a Kerria bush.

Our lass's initial exclamation was sufficient to bring me to a full state of awareness and I struggled from my horizontal position in my own flurry of duvet and pillows. To the accompaniment of shrill and strident alarm calls from the local bird population, the hawk fluttered through the bush to the ground and landed behind the Hawthorn. In the low light, it was difficult to make out what was going on, but it seemed that the raptor had made a successful kill and was now hiding its victim beneath spread wings. A Magpie sat in a nearby Willow, firing out its staccato bursts of alarm, but the finches and tits were keeping well out of the way. 

The Sparrowhawk continued to struggle, turning this way and that, tumbling out onto the lawn, as it sought to despatch its prey. A pair of binoculars had miraculously turned up in my wife's hands and she was able to make out a very distressed Starling, bill raised defiantly at the hawk. Then, bizarrely, dozens of Black-headed Gulls appeared from nowhere, flocking above the garden, presumably drawn in by the possibility of some easy scavenging. The hawk now had a better grip on the Starling, minimising the threat of that stabbing bill, and was busy plucking the unfortunate bird, irrespective of its life signs.

A few Blue Tits emerged from their hiding places and bravely flew to the Hawthorn, presumably safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't be on the hawk's radar for a while. Meanwhile, the hawk was now satisfied that it had subdued its breakfast and sat, wings still spread, considering the options. It was out in the open, but near cover and the focus of a great deal of attention, so when a cat suddenly appeared on the fence close by, it took to the air and, with a few wing beats, disappeared from view.

We clambered back into bed, musing upon what we had just seen and contentedly slurping tea. Our lass was still holding the binoculars (i.e. in bed, which is a bit disappointing for a bloke's ego!), and from a warm comfortable position, she was able to peruse the flocks of finches in the tops of nearby trees. We pondered whether a successful kill was more likely to mean that the Sparrowhawk would return, but with the number of bird feeders in the surrounding gardens, I didn't think this was likely.

However, whilst cooking breakfast, another shout brought me rushing into the lounge, to see what was occurring. My wife had spotted the hawk again, as it sat on the fence at the rear of the garden. With a slight increase in daylight, this was a better view and we were able to identify her as a female. She looked about keenly, turning her head this way and that, as she scanned the hedges and bushes for prey, giving me enough time to rush for the camera and capture a few images. She flew a short distance to perch on a Honeysuckle, somewhat unsubtly directly behind our feeders! The diagnostic pale stripe above her eye and the grey barring on her chest were now obvious and we enjoyed a few more seconds of quality Sparrowhawk time, before she took off once more and was gone. Much to the relief of our more usual garden visitors.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Lakes, bakes and a Sunday roost

The Admiral and our lass are still walking wounded, so with the amount of injuries the Tense Towers Team are carrying, I may have to consider exchanging my 4x4 for an ambulance. Whilst our wildlife sojourns have never been particularly onerous on the aerobic exercise front, if our ambles become any slower, we'll have to start monitoring lichens. On each other.

Second Born needed some time behind the wheel and I needed a dash off the leash, so packing the invalids into our lass's car, we headed up into Northamptonshire to visit one of their Wildlife Trust sites, Summerleys. The plan was that Second Born and I would walk briskly around the lake in a clockwise direction and meet up with the Amblers in one of the hides. Exercise and nature. Perfect.

It was rather cold, that creeping damp cold that seeps into your bones, for which the British Isles is so famous. At least this meant I wouldn't be distracted into birdwatching, unless an Osprey flew past with a Red-necked Phalarope in its beak and Kate Humble in its talons. There were plenty of the usual suspects about, ducks, geese and swans, but our lass was particularly keen to see a flock of Golden Plover. Having had close up views of a breeding pair whilst on Shetland in the Summer, this would be the counterpoint to that experience.

The feeding station was devoid of Tree Sparrows, but harboured several Reed Buntings amongst the tit flock. We were able to see some Golden Plover, sharing one of the small islands with a flock of Lapwings. Every so often, they would all be spooked by some imagined or real threat and take to the sky in a wheeling cloud, but they were just silhouettes, pointy or rounded depending on species.

After the team reassembled, we walked the last bit of the route together, and found another mixed plover flock in a ploughed field. To the naked eye, the field looked devoid of life, but the odd flash of white alerted us to the presence of Lapwings. Looking through binoculars, the birds took shape and dotted amongst them were a few Golden Plovers, now appearing a little more golden against the damp soil.

The route home was somewhat convoluted, principally for the driving practice, but just happened to take in a Little Chef for a lunch that put some much-needed warmth back in to our souls.

Sunday dawned as cold and overcast as the previous day, but Phase Two of our weekend mission saw us journey to College Lake for another striding/ambling combination. Again, Second Born and I hared off around the site, whilst the medically-excused avoided being mown down by passing snails on their way to a hide. A Red Kite glided serenely over the lake, putting the fear of God into a flock of Wigeon and the berry-laden hedgerows were full of Redwing and Fieldfare. And if that wasn't proof enough that Winter's on the doorstep, a biting Northerly wind made sure we didn't hang about on our circumnavigation of the reserve. Meeting up again in the cafe, we thawed out with sandwiches, cakes and several mugs of tea. The Wildlife Trust were having a Family Autumn weekend, with lots of activities for children and parents. Not to be outdone, our lass and Second Born squeezed themselves into kiddies' chairs to make candles out of beeswax. Bless!

We dropped into Linford Lakes on the way home, for another helping of cold and cloudy weather. Just before hypothermia set in, a pair of Kingfishers flew past the hide, and as I followed them through my bins, I picked up a Goldeneye too. This certainly lifted our spirits, so when a fellow birder arrived with news of a possible Starling roost at Willen Lake, we decided to head back to Tense Towers for a brief swig of Hot Chocolate and then head on to Willen.

Parking between the Hospice and the Sanctuary, then pottering to the lake, we arrived just in time to see the assembling of a sizeable flock. As the light faded, Starlings poured in from every direction, in tens and occasionally hundreds, there were soon at least several thousand birds swirling around over the water, sometimes in a tight amorphous blob, sometimes strung out in a thin line across the lake. The wind wasn't too strong to hide the sound of their wings as they all turned in unison, a deep swooshing noise, that is just so undeniably pleasing to a ground-based mammal. As if on cue, a Sparrowhawk cruised passed, choosing to ignore such a spectacle as too mind-blowing for an aerial predator as well. We watched and smiled and watched some more, but all too soon the birds wheeled and turned for the last time. They suddenly descended like a feathery black waterfall into their reedbed roost and the show was over for another day.

Photo courtesy of The Admiral

Sunday 14 November 2010

Bossy Gladys and a sensory dusk

After a leisurely start to our weekend, we hastily plumped to undertake our postponed trip to Welney. Giving the Admiral very little notice, we picked him up and headed eastwards.

Purely coincidentally, we arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site on the Ouse Washes, just as the restaurant started serving lunch. So following a warming bowl of leek and potato soup, we headed over the footbridge to the hides.

Flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Wigeon and Starlings made linear patterns across the sky, a Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds at the opposite side of the Washes and I was amazed at the number of Pintail on the water. Our lass is still unable to potter too far or too fast, so the Admiral and I left her in the heated observation room taking photos of Whooper Swans and Pochard ducks, whilst we wandered along the edge of the banks to another hide. Here, we had distant views of Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Snipe and Curlew. 

Meeting up again, we all gently ambled in the other direction, and bumped into a chap who informed us that, "The Glossy Ibis is showing well from the Lyle Hide!" We were then rapidly overtaken by another birder, in a state of some excitement, hurrying to said hide.

O-oh, cue inadvertent twitch.

Arriving at the Lyle Hide, it was immediately apparent that, a. it was pretty crowded; b. all optics were pointed in the same direction; and c. "showing well" is a very subjective term. With our limited magnification power, and in less-than-perfect light, we struggled to make out the dark brown bird from the dark brown background that it was stood against. Fortunately, a kindly lady birder, packing the sort of optics of a size and price to make you nervous removing it from its protective packaginging, took pity on us and allowed views through her 'scope. Thank you, kindly lady, for my first Glossy Ibis. Our lass was a bit non-plussed, as she had assumed that "glossy" meant white (she's probably been watching too many home makeover programmes) and thought that "vinyl silk" might've been a better description. The trudge back to the Visitors' Centre was accompanied by much muttering of a disgruntled nature. Lighten up, my love, Bossy Gladys is a life tick!

Fortuitously, the mood was lifted as the mini-twitch and the mid-afternoon swan feeding session meant that the restaurant was suitably empty for a leisurely Tense Towers Team tea and cake break. Galvanised against the elements once more, we returned to the fray to watch and wait as dusk fell. Against a backdrop of glowing clouds, formations of swans, skeins of geese and flocks of ducks flew low over the hide, as the birds returned from feeding in the Norfolk fields to spend the night on the Ouse Washes. The evening air was filled with the bugling calls of the Whoopers, the whistling of countless Wigeon and the flight calls of Lapwing.

We sat, mesmerised by the wonderful sky and soundscape, until with the fading light, the chill of the air turned our thoughts to returning home. As is often the case on these occasions, the final treat was a Barn Owl, this particular one perched on a fence post, as we drove away from Welney.

Good times.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Clueless Wednesday*

It's Wednesday. There's a photo. I haven't a clue what it is. 

A further instalment on the "Is it, or isn't it, an orchid?" question.

Photo kindly supplied by the Admiral, who has thoughtfully included a 1p piece for scale.

For non-UK followers, this coin is about 20mm in diameter. That's about four fifths of an inch in old money (though for those of us who began our education pre-1971, this 1p will always be new money).

The small brown leaf can be safely ignored, it's Autumn and it's windy. I wish the not-so-careful accidental topiary of the big green leaves could also be ignored, but, to my eternal shame, it's my fault.

The Admiral is pretty convinced it's a Bee Orchid. But as I stated the other day, I don't have the necessary botanicalness to venture an opinion. I just hope it knows Winter's on the way.

* Apologies to Nature ID for the barely-disguised plagiarism of a brilliant title.

Monday 8 November 2010

Habitat creation at Tense Towers

Following on from a previous post, in an unexpected development, certainly with no awareness from the author, there's been a bit of a Ying and Yang situation occurring with habitat in these parts. First the destruction, now the creation. 

Whilst putting out the recycling and the rubbish for collection, I happened to spot an unidentified  plant growing in the lawn. After placing the bags, bin and box at the edge of our property, I retraced my steps to have a second look. Now I'm not a floral expert (as some of my frocks and dresses are atrocious), but I like to think that I can recognise the common or garden weeds that end up being commonly in our garden.

This plant was significantly different from anything that I'd seen growing here previously. It's situated near to where we removed the Pampas Grass last year and put in a circular bed for several species of lavender and a rose. There isn't much to see at present. It has a fairly tightly-packed rosette of broadish leaves chopped off at the ends, as some short-sighted buffoon had run the lawn mower over them. Oh, I wonder who that was?

Discounting Dandelion, Plantain and Teasel, I was at a loss, so threw the question open to our lass and the Admiral. After some deliberation, the consensus is that it may be an orchid of some sort. Which would be brilliant, but also a bit of a conundrum.

In all the years we've been here, there's not been any orchids on site (the bloke with the lawn mower was questioned very thoroughly on this point, and, no, I hadn't seen any). Had a seed been brought in by a bird? Or on our footwear? Or had it lain dormant for years and only germinated because of the particularly harsh Winter 2009/2010? Or is it something else altogether?

We will have to watch and wait and see what grows next Spring. And I'll start wearing my specs when cutting the grass.

Sunday 7 November 2010


Our lass (and I should belatedly explain that this is North East England dialect for a bloke's significant other) has been under the weather of late and not able to get out much. As the weekend forecast was looking bright though chilly, we wondered about a trip over to Welney to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site to soak up some migrating swan action. This pretty much ticks every box for her. Not far to amble from Visitors Centre to birds, restaurant on site, heated hide, shop with birdy trinkets.

My head was swimming with the thought of all the brownie points this would rack up, so I was a bit nonplussed when she thought it was too far to drive. Plan B involved a much shorter drive to College Lake, near Tring, and as we hadn't visited there since the new Visitors Centre went in (it's got a tea shop, but you were ahead of me there, weren't you?), it seemed like a good alternative.

Arriving not long after the gates opened for the day, it was still rather quiet in the Centre, so we ambled out to one of the hides for a look at the wildfowl in the recently re-landscaped chalk quarry. It all looked fairly standard, with the usual species of ducks, Mute Swans and Canada Geese. Not a wader in sight. We pottered along to some woodland and were rewarded with a brief view of a Tree Creeper amongst a tit flock, but it was chilly and the tea shop was singing its siren song.

Whilst sampling several slices of rather gorgeous ginger shortbread, we received news that some Bearded Reedlings had been seen at Walton Lake, back in Milton Keynes. We'd only driven passed this site on the way to Tring! Worse still, some Whooper Swans had been spotted at Linford Lakes, not a mile from Tense Towers! What a quandary. Should we keep the faith with College Lake or just return home and pretend that we weren't twitching our own patch? That phrase is just plain wrong, I do apologise.

Hmmm, what do you think we did?

Arriving at Walton Lake, we joined several other hopeful folk wandering around the perimeter path of the main reedbed, listening intently for the characteristic twanging "ping" call. Whilst the Bearded Reedlings may well have been there, they weren't about to show themselves. So we called time on our second site of the day and went to Linford Lakes, only stopping off at Tense Towers to take on reserves of tea.

No, we couldn't see any Bearded Reedlings either.
Safely ensconced in the Near Hide (cracking name, by the way, it isn't as far as the Far Hide), we proceeded to scan all the swans for the telltale signs of Whooper-ness. Now I must tell you that there have been a great many swans on this lake all year, all Mute, and indeed that was all we could see. Figuring that we'd missed these birds too, we continued to scan for other species and managed to spot a few Snipe tucked away in the undergrowth near the water's edge. What we should've done, was to count the swans and then count how many we'd been able to check. This was because not all of every swan was visible at all times, due to various behaviours like feeding or sleeping. After about 20 minutes, I spotted a group of three swans that were dozing in the shallows, one of whom was waking up to reveal a bill coloured with a large amount of yellow. Bingo!

Awful shot, but definitely Whoopers!
They were a very sleepy bunch and only briefly did all three show signs of consciousness together. They were too far away for Wrong Len to capture a meaningful image, but we were just so pleased to see these beauties on our local reserve, presumably resting up after the long haul flight from Iceland. And they saved us a trip to Welney!

Sunday 31 October 2010

Habitat destruction at Tense Towers

Sadly, I must report that, like billions of my fellow humans, I suspect I've been too "busy" with my own life to worry too much about 2010, International Year of Biodiversity. We're not very good at seeing beyond our immediate field of view (sometimes it is just a field), nor the greater landscape beyond, let alone a whole planet's worth of Nature.

My conscience is partly salved by the knowledge that in this little corner of the world, our lass and I have created tiny pockets of habitat to encourage as many species as possible to the environs around Tense Towers. But all the gardens on Earth aren't going to save those plants and animals that require a wider landscape or more specific conditions to live their lives.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has just ended in Nagoya, Japan, with a set of resolutions to protect more land and sea habitats and to lessen the rate of species' loss. Whether the leaders of the world have the will and the wherewithal to finance these proposals and to carry their electorates along with them, only time will tell. 

Meantime, I must report an unforeseen consequence of the latest trends in home improvement.

Whilst brushing my teeth yesterday morning, I noticed a "hairy bear" forlornly negotiating the barren wastes of the bathroom window sill. This small larva of the Carpet Beetle was a long way from anywhere it could call home, as tiles cover the walls and floor. If it made it to the lounge, it would discover that the vast plains of carpet, that once spread right across this room, have been replaced by wood laminate flooring. A whole ecosystem removed at a stroke. This would be one unimpressed invertebrate.

"You b******s!"
And this probably is the crux of the matter. Whilst we presume that there will be some species with which we'd quite happily not share the planet, we forget that Nature is a food web. OK, we're sitting pretty as a top consumer, but we're still joined to everything else by slender threads. How many species do you think we could lose before it's no longer a web and we're as doomed as the hairy bear?

Never mind carpets, it'll be curtains for us all.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Sensitive dependence on initial conditions

We had romanesco for our evening meal tonight.

This seasonal treat is normally a joyful time, at least for a fractal-loving, nature-nurturing, broccoli eater like myself, if not the rest of those around the table.

This zany vegetable, a pseudo punk cauliflower with dyed and spikey hair, usually fills me with a sense of wonder (hands up, who thought I was going to say "wind"?). Proof, if proof were needed, that a simple complexity, or possibly a complex simplicity, underpins the forces and processes all around us. Chaos.

From a single, green, fern leaf to the multi-coloured patterns seen on posters, chaos theory is a tantalising glimpse of how things came to be. For my generation, this was summed up and delivered into our lives by one image, Mandelbrot's eponymous Set.

With the great man's passing, earlier this month, the world is a poorer place.

Rest in peace, Benoit. With your album-art computations you brought more happiness into my world than it is reasonable to suppose a mathematician should. Thank you.

Thursday 21 October 2010

First meeting of the working day

Wildlife encounters have been a bit weekend-orientated recently. I've been too caught up in the hustle and bustle of the weekday travelling, back and forth, to work, not to mention the hurly-burly of office/workshop life in a small company.

So it was a real joy, this morning, whilst sat at my desk waiting for my computer to boot up, to hear birdsong close by. A song that was at odds with our preoccupation with the material world, that hinted at gentler, less stressful times, generally gave the impression that the singer was perfectly happy in his space and proclaimed that the listener should jolly well cheer up because it was a lovely day.

Initial investigations led to the small window in the door at the rear of the room, through which I could see a Pied Wagtail sat on the safety railing beyond. It was a doubly pleasant surprise as I had only just entered the office through this door, without the merest hint of birdy trillyness in evidence. Not only that, your average Wagtail call is a fairly brief affair, but this fellow was stringing together and repeating all the notes he could think of. He was probably a jazz aficionado in another life.

I'm afraid that the grubbiness of the window, the inadequacies of my phone camera and yours truly on the buttons, couldn't do this little scene justice. But it was a glorious sound for a brisk Autumnal morning and my new-found good mood was only slightly dented by the return to emails, phone calls, meetings and reports.

It might be cold out here, but my Excel spreadsheet hasn't just crashed.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Hurried potter and the Angel of Death

Following a morning trip to the dump, to add some hedge clippings to the green waste container, by lunchtime there was still quite a nip in the air, courtesy of a northeasterly breeze. 

However, ambling hurriedly between bird hides to escape rain showers, the Admiral and I were able to find a few sheltered spots on our local patch, where insects were bathing in the weak midday sun as if their lives depended on it. Which, of course, they do.

All of us, really.

A Speckled Wood butterfly basked on a Comfrey leaf, Common Darters and a Common Blue Damselfly found warm places to perch and a dozen or so shield bugs were being amorous in the long grass. Later research showed them not to be Forest Bugs, as first thought, but a species with no common name, Picromerus bidens.

In this sleepy little backwater by the River Great Ouse, there were few migrating birds about. We did see the occasional Redwing and spotted 4 Snipe on the bund. In fact, it was whilst looking for further Snipe, that we witnessed a harrowing event, at least for us and the unfortunate victims.

Those visions in purest white, herald angels of climate change, Little Egrets, are a well-established sight in this area and two of them were foraging on the edge of the bund. One bird seemed distracted from the usual "staring into the water" method of seeking prey (I very nearly wrote "pray" to continue a poor analogy) and was looking up in the air. Unsure as to what predator would cause this reaction or whether it was seeking divine inspiration, I continued to watch through my binoculars, as the egret then dashed along the shore and fixed its gaze above a patch of water by some reeds. There, to my horror, was a pair of darters ovipositing in tandem, oblivious to the impending danger. Now I realised what the egret had been doing. It had watched the dragonflies fly in from wherever they had mated, and saw the opportunity for a quick snack. One lightning quick stab of its bill and that was that, though I like to think that in the few seconds before their doom, the darters managed to sow the fertile seeds of a new generation. Life will rise again from the aquatic world and their sacrifice will not have been in vain.


Saturday 9 October 2010

The Ogress of Progress

OK, I'm not sure if Progress is a lady, but the words went together well and there is often a monstrous side to our technological improvements that we never seem to see until it's too late.

This may be Part 1 of a continuing, though sporadic, series, depending upon whether I can get this rant out of my system.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against Progress, otherwise I wouldn't be blogging on the Internet or taking photos of wildlife with a digital camera. And certainly, some Progress is to be positively encouraged, for instance Boro's ascending of the Championship table would be nice. However, and I readily admit that I might be in a minority of one here, I have less of a problem with spam in tins than I do with spam in my email inbox. If we're so bloody clever, how come we've let ourselves put up with the latter, when at least you can treat your taste buds and frighten the living daylights out of your arteries by deep frying the former.

Before you label me a Luddite, or some jolly decent Amish person invites me to a barn raising, let me elucidate.

Take illuminated manuscripts as an example. A monk in some drafty 13th Century scriptorium spends ages carefully crafting a beautiful work of art to add aesthetic wonder to a page. Possibly like this picture of a letter 'P' depicting Peter attempting to open a tin of spam with a cleaver.

I doubt if, these days, many of us could countenance the skill and patience required to painstakingly create such a masterpiece, by the light of a candle and with fingers numb from the cold. If there's any time-travelling monks out there who can corroborate this image of 13th Century working conditions, I'd appreciate it. Ta.

So how would an illuminated manuscript produced in the 21st Century compare? Well, I'm pretty certain that the sort of documents we're most likely to encounter would look like this...

Possibly without the worrying references to knives, but hey, perhaps opening tins of spam is a problem that sits outside our normal definition of Time. The point is (no pun intended), the bloody point is, that Progress has left us with a pale shadow of the creativity we once possessed.

And you can't open a tin of any vaguely meat-based products with a highlighter pen!

Sunday 3 October 2010

HESC Side Story

Parental guidance: the following blog has scenes of gratuitous violence and images of a sexual nature. If you or your kin are likely to be offended by these, it is recommended that you navigate away from this page now.

Your usual scribe is unable to bring you his centenary blog due to er... unforeseen circumstances, so here I am, kindly guesting at short notice. They call me Strio, they also call me a ne'er-do-well, but me and my flighty lady love, Sympetra, are living for the now.

An uneasy silence falls, broken eventually by the sound of clicking fingers...


I guess you could call us a gang, a bunch of unruly orphans, we're the only family we have.


Our neighbourhood is the Hanson Environmental Study Centre (HESC), a run down nature reserve on the North side of the city. It's a wild place, governed by the laws of tooth and claw, where it would never do to show weakness.


We're The Darts, always looking to defend our territory from The Hawks. Not afraid to fight and always ready to rumble.


Folks don't approve of our lifestyle, the way we pick on those smaller and more vulnerable than ourselves.


They say stuff like, "You're nothing but bloody common." Or, "Why don't you and your ruddy mates just clear off."


But the park bench is our meeting place, we don't see why we should move.


As kids, we had nothing, but once we got our wings, man, well you've got to fly, right?


My pal Rudi, he's a tough guy. You wouldn't want to mess with him. He likes to live life at the sharp end.

Jeez, there was one time, man, Rudi was beating up on this blue-job. Would've killed him too, if the Bigs hadn't turned up.

Here's some of the gang, just hanging at the bench.

And this is me and Sympetra, making out on the bench.

This neighbourhood won't be here forever. Live fast, die young, that's our motto. I guess when the Winter comes, that will be that. Like I said, we're living for the now.

You Bigs just don't understand.