Sunday 30 October 2011

A personal wildlife calendar

If you're ever stuck for an idea to kick start a post, it's amazing how inspirational one's fellow bloggers can be. You've got Katie at Nature ID to thank for the seed corn of today's offering. I can only hope that my small corner of the blogosphere is half as good at germinating the tiny shoots of a thought and nurturing it towards maturity.

A couple of months ago, our good friend JD went on holiday to California, principally to go whale-watching with a bunch of like-minded cetacean folk, but also to soak up the general wildlife flavour of the area. I am smiling as I write this, remembering his excited description of finding a rattlesnake in the road as their car rounded a bend. Not long after his return to England, one of his American acquaintances mentioned a trip to the UK, and as one of the planned destinations for the trip was Orkney, I was asked for my thoughts on travel, accommodation, wildlife hotspots etc. It was very difficult to narrow down all our favourite places in the archipelago to a Top Ten, it felt a bit disloyal to some of the spiffing archaeology and scenery that I had to leave out, but rules are rules.

Through the Comments section of a recent Nature ID post, a similar question was raised, along the lines of " When is the best time to visit the UK?" Now that shouldn't take long to answer, I mused, thinking that a swift trawl through the Imperfect and Tense back catalogue would provide the necessary information. Well, it's been several days now, and I don't even know where to start. Talk about painting oneself into a corner. I guess the bottom line is that there is not just one answer, it will be different for everyone, so I will have to use a broad brush and produced a generalised, if personal, picture.

The quick answer is "Summer!", so chronologically that's June to August. This guarantees the most daylight during the summer solstice in late June or, theoretically at least, some hot weather in August. But that is likely to be when everybody else is on holiday too.

Autumn is great for all that mellow fruitfulness (September) with hedgerows resplendent in their sweet harvest, whilst the slowly-changing leafy palette of October can be a spectacle all in itself. The light can be gorgeous first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. November often brings the first hard frosts and huge numbers of winter migrating birds from Iceland, Scandinavia and beyond.

Thinking of Winter, I can only recall that snow is more or less guaranteed in early February (though now I've said that... ). However, the last two winters have been colder than the norm, so it is possible that the frozen fractals could settle at any time. The landscape is softened, sounds are dampened and the crump, crump, crump of footfalls in the snow always gladdens my heart. Especially if there's any chance of a glass of mulled wine.

But regular readers will know that good ol' Tense can only recommend one time to visit the UK. Need a clue? It begins with 'S...' and ends in '... pring'. Just think of all the new life that emerges from the icy remnants of February and gathers pace through March and April. It hits the ground running in May, and by careful application of chasing it north, can last until the end of June. The arrival of summer migrating birds to swell the orchestra of the dawn chorus, the precious meadows where wild flowers can still be found and the fluttering roll call of colourful winged insects [contented sigh].

Certainly in this area of England, the last week of April or the first week in May will be optimum bluebell time (at least, that's what my posts reveal). Again, the beginning of May is when the dawn chorus is at its peak, especially those prima donnas the Nightingales! Through the month, the green hue of the landscape is at its best and I have to send for sedatives if I wander into a beech wood and experience dappled shade. Towards the end of May, the first broods of Great Spotted Woodpeckers are noisily emerging from their nest holes and in the glades and fields, the orchid season is well under way. June sees an increase in the numbers of dragonflies on the wing and the heartache of watching that agile falcon, the Hobby, as it swoops and turns above a lake in the evening light, feeding upon their bounty. I do have a very strong Spring-centric bias, I'm afraid.

Honourable mentions must go to February and March for boxing Hares and dancing Great Crested Grebes. And to November, for huge flocks of Starlings performing amazing aerial displays before roosting for the night.

I am sure that these wonders are not limited to the UK, but as my time abroad has not had a wildlife focus, I cannot say. Best come and check for yourself!

Monday 24 October 2011


The Admiral and I have been on a boys' weekend in Devon, ostensibly to attend the British Dragonfly Society's Members' Day 2011, this year held at the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust's Seale-Hayne campus, near Newton Abbot.

During our journey south on Friday, we were fortunate to spot an Osprey flying over Dyrham Park, a National Trust property near Bath. The return trip was even more eventful with a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge. I've undoubtedly whinged before about this being nothing short of a duck zoo, but it came up trumps on Sunday, with some proper wildlife in the form of a Spoonbill, a Peregrine Falcon and flocks of Black-tailed Godwits and Barnacle Geese. Shame I didn't have Very Wrong Len with me, really. Oh, and three Migrant Hawkers, for good measure.

The staff are also creating an imaginative wildlife garden, of which I was able to capture a few images, before I was enthralled by the siren song of the tea shop.

Excellent use of a redundant shipping container
Ingenious bug houses/wildlife stacks

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Fox "unconcerned" by latest report

The last morning of our stay in Shropshire was a story of ever-changing light. Setting off from the village of Hope Bowdler in cold, damp, overcast conditions, we drove the mile or so down into Church Stretton, where patches of blue sky were evident. By the time we were negotiating the steep hill up onto the Long Mynd, the car was bathed in bright sunshine.

As the single track road wound its way steadily higher, Our Lass suddenly stopped the car and pointed to my left. There, a few metres away, was a fox, busy hunting prey in the grass and heather. It wasn't too sure whether we were a threat or not, and would start to slink away but then return to whatever it had found.

As my camera was in the boot and our car was blocking the road, we continued on over a slight rise and found a parking spot. Now out of sight of the fox, we decamped, grabbed optics and I made my way cautiously along a sheep track back in the direction we had come.

Fortunately, the sun was now behind me, but not such good news, so was the breeze. Once in roughly the right area, I risked a peek over the ground where we had seen the fox. Sure enough, it was still there, rummaging through the vegetation in search of a meal. As it turned out, it wasn't important whether I was in lupine eye or nose range, when my camera shutter fired, my cover was blown. I managed two images before the fox, now alert to my presence,  lazily wandered off, between some equally unconcerned sheep.

The country air obviously suited him. He was a very healthy individual in comparison to the urban foxes we see in MK.

After all that excitement, we returned to the car and continued to the top of the Mynd, which was rather busy for 10am on a Sunday morning. It is a popular place for ramblers, joggers, mountain bikers and horse riders, as well as those soaking up the natural history. Walking north along the ridge, we spotted a Red Kite, a few Buzzards, many Ravens and a flock of 200+ Golden Plover. These waders continued to circle overhead, their plaintive contact calls drifting in and out of earshot as they wheeled around and around. As the light continued to change with the amount of cloud cover, bright and blue one minute and then dark and foreboding the next, the plumage of the plovers seemed to dazzle and sparkle, allowing the birds to stand out against the sky, and then suddenly they were tiny grey dots, hardly detectable unless you knew where they were.

Looking east from the Long Mynd, we could make out ridge after ridge all the way to Abdon Burf, one of the Clee Hills, on the horizon. The mist and low cloud in the valleys added to a sense of otherworldliness, though the wild ponies in the foreground weren't too bothered at all.

It was with heavy hearts that we reluctantly headed back home, though I am sure it won't be long before we return to South Shropshire and its secret hills.

Monday 17 October 2011


That post header would make a great title for a book, eh? Ho hum.

But this tale is one of kindly kidnapping, when Our Lass whisked me away for the weekend as a  birthday treat. She discovered a great B+B in the village of Hope Bowdler, near Church Stretton in Shropshire, and we spent a few days enjoying the scenery and wildlife in a previously unexplored corner of these secret hills, even though we've been visiting the area for nearly 20 years.

Our host, Patrick, showed us a footpath that would take us into Church Stretton, so that we didn't have to set foot on a tarmac road. As well as the opportunity for relaxed walking, this also meant that we were able to leave the car behind for the day.

With Our Lass not ready for the big ascents and descents that this region offers, we meandered our way between the hills at low level and down into the town. This allowed me the chance to take a few landscape shots on the way, something that had never been a priority when our girls were young and the subject of most photographs. With the introduction of Wrong Len, followed by Very Wrong Len, my focus then switched to close ups of wildlife, so it was about time that I stood back and looked at the wider picture.

Looking west to Church Stretton and the Long Mynd beyond.
In pre-Roman times, there were several hill forts in the area, perhaps the most famous being Caer Caradoc, to the north east of the town. However, after the local tribes were subdued by Rome's finest, a road was driven through the valley, and in later times a settlement built up beside this route, including an Anglo Saxon church.

As you'd expect, the church of Church Stretton has plenty of history associated with it. After the Norman conquest of 1066, the new masters had the church rebuilt. Interestingly, the Anglo Saxon building workers, who presumably still had some pagan beliefs, were able to insert a fertility symbol into the wall above the North door. This took the form of a sheela-na-gig, a female figure carved in stone.

Wisely, Our Lass promptly dragged me away from the churchyard, before any ancient vibe began to resonate through the mixed bag of emotions that is her husband.

Our return journey to the B+B passed along the southern foot of Caer Caradoc and then across a saddle between Helmeth Hill and Hope Bowdler Hill. This gentle 400' of climb, through open woodland, was enough of an ascent for the pair of us, so during the subsequent catching of breath, I had the opportunity to photograph Caer Caradoc to the north.

Back in the village, we explored its churchyard, finding a gravestone from 1751 and an avenue of Yews (an avenyew?), before pottering to the B+B and enjoying the late afternoon sun in the garden.

Fifty, not out...

Last week saw a bit of a milestone for Yours Truly. I had a birthday. One of those where work colleagues take great delight in decking out one's work space with banners and balloons. And inserting the word 'old' into the conversation at every available opportunity. It really isn't cricket.

To mark this reasonably large number of years, our First Born, with clandestine help from her younger sibling, organised the selection of some words and photographs from the Imperfect and Tense blog, had them printed and the resultant book delivered to Tense Towers.

To say I was surprised and delighted would be an understatement.

Here's a picture of said book, appropriately enough with Cameron Binns...

Though for the life of me, I can't work out why a photo in 'landscape' mode on my pc should upload to Blogger in 'portrait' mode?

Monday 10 October 2011


Following my Saturday morning blogpost, the weekend turned into something of a roller coaster ride, with more ups and downs than a bouncy thing using a pogo stick on a trampoline. To be honest, I didn't think I could face writing about it, without using up my weekly allocation of expletives in the first two sentences, but so far so good.


Discovering the hides at our local nature reserve had been vandalised. Locks smashed, contents thrown out of the windows, logbook ripped up.

Cleaning up the excrement left by one of the above weak-arsed vandals in the Near Hide.

Removing from the Far Hide, the detritus and sundry used items left after an evening of carnal passion between consenting vandals.


The eleven wonderful folk, who care enough about Nature to spend a Sunday morning cutting down Willow, Hawthorn and Brambles to help restore a butterfly bank for wild flowers and insects. And who helped me find my broken glasses when a branch made a bit of a spectacle of me.

Spotting a roosting Migrant Hawker dragonfly on the trunk of a tree that was about to be felled. Needless to say, I still had intact specs at this point. The dragon perched on my hand for a while, wing-whirring to gain heat in its flight muscles, before taking to the air and disappearing from view.

The fact that the consenting vandals were using condoms. With any luck, there'll be less of the ignorant fuckwits around in the future.

Oh, poot! I nearly made it to the end without recourse to profanity.

Saturday 8 October 2011


As a change to last weekend's exercise route, this morning I walked the same paths but in the opposite direction, tracing out an elongated figure-of-eight along the Railway Walk, a length of the Grand Union Canal and through Linford Manor Park.

But, jings, was it different.

Whilst it was essentially mirror-imaged geography, the feel of it was much altered. For a start, the temperature was about 15 degrees Celsius cooler from the dizzy heights of last Saturday, with today's forecast predicting a maximum of only 12 degrees C. The wildlife was responding to this change, too. Gone was the sound tapestry of layered bird song, instead there were the harsh rasping calls of Jays as they foraged in the woodland for acorns. Then there were the sudden headlong dashes of scared Squirrels, scampering through dense drifts of dried leaves. Tiny Goldcrests piped their pin-sharp calls from the tree tops, as they searched for food amongst the pine needles.

A few hardy bees battled the cool morning air and two unidentified butterflies struggled against the westerly breeze. Of dragons, there were none.

In the lee of canalside trees, the water was calm and still, reflecting the sombre clouds. Against the opposite bank, a Grey Heron stood motionless in the shallows, concentrating on finding a meal and unconcerned at my presence. That wouldn't have happened if I had been carrying a camera, would it? The marshy ground by the canal was still home to the Meadow Pipit flock, so they must be finding sufficient food and shelter there, despite the ever-nearing housing development. They can't be aware of how soon this area will become a manicured park with tidy shrubs and uniform trees.

And now my mood is reflecting the heavy clouds and chill wind. I am almost glad to return indoors to the warmth of a mug of tea. What a difference a week has made.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Unaccustomed to introspection

A recent post by a fellow blogger got me thinking, as all good blogs should do, why do I write a blog?

I know why I started posting, as an aid to convalescence, but why do I continue with it, now that the initial impetus has ceased to be a factor? I'm sure there are as many reasons out there as there are bloggers, so what's the Tense rationale, though that's too grand a word for it?

This evening, a comment by Lena Rafael in Phonebox, a local magazine, caught my eye, "If you want to write, you are not a writer. If you have to write - keep a pen and paper to hand, at all times; wake up to scribble dialogue at two in the morning - then you are probably a writer."

I'm not sure I fully go along with that, as inspiration may come in the pouring rain, miles from civilisation, with hands full of optics, whilst I witness some spirit-lifting moment of wildlife behaviour. But I know what the author meant.

I've always read much more than I've written. I never kept a diary as a child and probably wouldn't have known what to put in one in the accepted sense. I don't think that "Woke up, went to school, did homework, fell asleep," is quite what was intended for a supposed expression of personal feelings. Mind you, as as a British fellow and from the North East of England to boot, I'm pretty much hamstrung in that department anyway. I did develop a bit of a writing style in my mid teens, thanks to the tutelage of the inspirational Mrs Gates, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense English teacher. But then came late teens and my nascent creativity found other, less cerebral, outlets!

Many years later, I would succumb to the occasional literary urge, but these would be for local club magazines and not solely a vehicle for His Tenseness. A birding tale here, a meeting report there, and always with an eye for the audience rather than full-blown free expression.

So here we are, up to date, with an opportunity to write what I want, at my own pace. However, I blithely assumed that I was writing to be read, but now that I've had a chance to ponder on the concept, I suspect that the stream of words that sprout from my fingers and appear on the screen are something more primal than that.

Sure, it's great to have followers and receive comments as a vindication (or not!) of the output, they are both the lubricant for the moving parts and the regulating governor of the mechanism. But the engine is pure me, natural history is the fuel and the suspension settings are programmed for off-road. 

I write to express my thoughts, because I believe that the words, like the wildlife I see, are better off running free in their natural habitat. I write to satiate some creative urge that I don't understand, and don't wish to understand, lest the knowledge spoil the experience.

Some days the muse is invisible in the fog of our complicated lives, lost in the turmoil of a multitude of inputs. However, occasionally, when the goddess finally appears out of the gloom and the phrases start to form unbidden, it's a little akin to having a Merlin-engined Spitfire strapped to the keyboard. A veritable 12 cylinder harmony of resonant sound, frequency-shifting with the Doppler effect of words travelling across the page. So in that sense, it is a need to write, rather than a want. Perhaps that's not far from describing it is as a drug?

[Gathers oneself for a moment and breathes out slowly]

Ahem, I appear to have mixed my metaphors and modes of transport a bit there. Sorry!

Sunday 2 October 2011

Autumnal amble

Following yesterday's record-breaking October temperatures in England and the fact that, bizarrely, Our Lass is full of cold, this morning I decided to go for an early morning walk on my own.

Escaping the heat of the day and also unshackled from Cameron Binns, allowed me to maintain a more consistent, and hopefully healthier, pace. That's not to say that I was ignoring the wildlife, I just wasn't stopping to look.

Almost immediately upon leaving Tense Towers, I was surrounded by gentle birdsong from a Robin and a flock of Long-tailed Tits. I nearly trod on a Blackbird that was foraging by the path and decided to ignore my approach. Perhaps it was the green t-shirt, olive drab trousers and sunglasses that disguised my presence?

Once over the canal and striding through Linford Manor Park, I was aware of more birds joining in the audioscape, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, plus more Robins and Long-tails. Walkers and cyclists exchanged pleasantries with me, but joggers were single-mindedly focussed on the task in hand, burning off calories through their ears, to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps I'm being unkind, they may have been listening to a soundtrack of ambient mood music recorded one Autumn morning in the English countryside.

Using a road bridge to cross to the other side of the canal, I headed out of the park and along the towpath. The sun was becoming hotter and a few Red Admiral butterflies were venturing towards the hedgerows to gorge upon nectar amongst the Ivy flowers. A Moorhen clucked its annoyance at my approach and disappeared into the bankside vegetation, possibly to rant online about how, these days, humans spoil even the simplest of Autumnal pleasures.

As temperatures rose, the blue sky was reflected in the still water, with only a few con trails to mar the idyllic scene. A mooring of colourful barges and narrow boats could well have been a scene from several hundred years ago, were it not for the satellite dishes and TV aerials sprouting from their cabins. The backdrop, too, was changing, as a new housing development pushes ever nearer the canal.

Amongst one of the shrinking canalside habitats, a flock of Meadow Pipits took to the air with a chorus of shrill calls, then settled back down again after I had passed by. A few fishermen were sat motionless, staring at the mirrored surface of the water, and I wondered which came first, the angler or the garden gnome?

It was definitely very warm now, but I pushed on, rather than lazily sit and savour Mother Nature. Going under, and then over, another road bridge, I was able to access the Railway Walk that runs from New Bradwell to Newport Pagnell and entered a shadier, cooler world. The birdsong changed too, as I was surrounded by the turbo-charged piccolo calls of Wrens and a bass beat of rattling and grumbling Magpies.

Once I had crossed over the canal on the old railway bridge, the bells from St. Andrew's Church  began to peal, and I momentarily lapsed into a jogger-inspired Pink Floyd soundtrack in my head. Nearing the old platform, at what had once been Great Linford railway station, I metaphorically alighted from that train of thought and returned home via Linford Wharf. Here I discovered that the faithful were indeed being called to worship, as Our Lass wished to visit the cathedral of commerce that is MK shopping centre. Oh well, back to the realities of 21st Century living.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Fog 'n' idiots

Ah, Autumn mornings. 

Hearty helpings of bright sunlight, with lashings of ethereal mist and a cool, damp jus. Accompanied by a crisp, fresh, green salad with mixed leaves of gold, bronze and russet.

The journey to work is a joy in these circumstances. Valleys shrouded in ghostly blankets, tendrils of mist threading their way from water courses and then, suddenly, the vibrant colours of the trees lit by a low sun. But also, there's the pillocks in silver cars, who are immune to the necessity for lights when driving through fog.

One of my colleagues phoned in to report that he would be late into the office.

"Country road. Fog. Silver car. No lights. Accident," was the brief statement.

Conclusive proof, were it needed, that evolution is alive and well and weeding out the hard of thinking.