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!"