Monday 30 January 2012

BGBW 2012

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth...

In an effort to accentuate the positive as regards having a rotten cold, my plans for Sunday were put on hold and I was available to take part in the RSPB's Big Garden Bird Watch after all.

The burning question this year has been where have all the birds gone? Although as this linked article points out, due to the mild weather, many species haven't had to resort to visiting town gardens, there being sufficient food in the surrounding countryside.

Having spent the morning blogging about our trip to the Ouse Washes, by midday I was huddled by a radiator and staring intently at the back garden. Though we'd not been putting out as much food of late, there was still a varied cast of feathered characters visiting Tense Towers. As ever, the tricky bit wasn't so much identifying the birds, it was calculating the number of each species.

Our Lass went to the bedroom window to monitor the treetops that were not visible from downstairs and between us we were just about able to cover most angles. All of the 15 species that we'd recorded in the preceding week put in an appearance during the hour, though sadly I wasn't allowed to count a flyover by a male Cormorant :o(

However, Eagle Eyes herself managed to spot a Reed Bunting sat in the upper branches of the Hawthorn tree, flashing white tail feathers to prove it wasn't a sparrow, so we were happy with our efforts on the day.

Having said that, less than a mile away, the Admiral (newly promoted once more) was watching a Red Kite and a Woodcock at HESC!

Sunday 29 January 2012

Star Trekking across the Ouse-iverse

As it's Big Garden Bird Watch weekend, I was supposed to be at home, concentrating fiercely on the seed feeders and staring at my fat balls. However, a lack of diligence to the calendar meant that Our Lass and I had agreed to journey to Welney with the Admiral, instead.

Out of deference to the RSPB's national survey, I did consider twisting ever more punning mileage into the title of this post, but "Picard in Warp Hitch" was too bizarre even for me.

So, following his demotion from Admiral, the Captain eased us out of space dock at 09.00, left Milton Keynes under impulse power and then went to warp once we hit the Bedford bypass. We knew something was wrong immediately, as a warning display showed a fault with one of the headlights photon torpedo tubes. Thankfully, as we were travelling at light speed, this was never going to be much of a problem. At least in daylight.

Arriving at WWT Welney, the Captain effected repairs and we then entered a watery alien world, deploying to one of the basic life support pods, north east of the visitors' centre. Probably the Friends' Hide, but I was too busy trying to calibrate my communicator to take accurate notes. The 3G signal was intermittent, a bit like England's batting ability.

We spotted a small flock of White-fronted Geese on long range sensors but had to settle for this view as, unfortunately, the tractor beam was offline. Most species of duck in the known universe seemed to be present, in a multi-cultural throng reminiscent of Quack's Quark's Bar. This far from the feeding station, the numbers of Whooper Swans were pleasingly low, which is probably why we had the time to notice an incoming Bird of Prey on the starboard bow. It wasn't Klingon, it wasn't grasping a Tribble in its talons, but it was a sight that gladdened the heart of this Starfleet cadet.

More power to forward shields!
Evasive manoeuvres, hard to port!
Oh?! It's only a Sparrowhawk.
After a pleasant lunch on the Mess Deck at Welney, we maintained a low planetary orbit and ventured over to Welches Dam on impulse power, to visit the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve. I say 'low planetary orbit' without any hint of irony, as the uneven road did offer some turbulence, aft shields totally failing at one point, and we were lucky not to lose a warp nacelle.

Long range sensors again picked up a Bird of Prey, seemingly motionless in space (a common plot device for luring in naive vessels from the United Federation of Planets) which we were able to identify as a Peregrine Falcon (definitely not 'Millennium'... you'll notice).

Er, the one on the post, not the big white one...
In the far distance, we could just make out the shape of a large building on the horizon. In comparison to the surrounding landscape, it was huge and outlandish. When we're not watching re-runs of Star Trek, we have been known to view the occasional episode of Time Team, so I believe that this structure probably has some ritual and religious significance, as the archaeologists would say. Possibly a once-powerful priesthood elite, wielding considerable influence and control over the indigenous population? Tricorder readings showed that this was life, but not as we knew it.

Ely Cathedral seen from Welches Dam
There were thousands upon thousands of birds in the Washes, both a magnificent sight and a wonderful site. Huge flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover, bazillions of ducks, a few Bewick's Swans and more gulls than you could shake a Type 3 phaser rifle at.

By now, I had contracted space flu, and in the absence of Beverly Crusher or Dr Pulaski, I had to self-medicate. As soon as we returned to Star Base Tense Towers, I deferred the offer of Tea... Earl Grey... Hot, and went into stasis in the Quarantine Bay.

Sunday 22 January 2012

January in Little Linford Wood

This might be the start of a monthly series, if time allows. It features the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) nature reserve at Little Linford Wood. This is located a few miles north of Milton Keynes, just west of the M1 motorway, and accessed via a farm track from the Haversham - Gayhurst road.

The wood has previously cropped up in several posts on 'Imperfect and tense', but normally in the context of a particular species of flora or fauna. Now I would like to give some background on the wood itself, as a home to some fantastic wildlife.

The BBOWT information board in the car park - it's a shame the dog walkers don't read it
From the car park, there are several paths that head off in different directions. You'll be amazed to learn that we normally follow the wildlife walk. Who would've thought it?

There's a small picnic table next to the car park, that overlooks an ephemeral pond. I have fond memories of seeing dozens of Ruddy Darter dragonflies here in 2008, but for the last 2 years, the pond has not held water through the Summer. In fact, even now in the depths of Winter, it is dry.

The habitat management of the wood is heavily influenced by one particular animal. The Hazel Dormouse. Rotational coppicing is carried out to maintain a mix of habitats for these wee creatures, which also benefits a host of other wildlife too.

Read, inwardly digest...
and then turn this...
into this.
Certainly, these 7-Spot Ladybirds seemed to appreciate the extra sunlight that was available, especially in January.

The various woodland rides have scalloped edges, which create sheltered glades that are good for both flowers and insects. Again, this is carried out on a rotational basis, so that there's always a mix of habitat.

Little Linford Wood is surrounded by arable fields and rolling countryside. And in the not too distant future, it is likely that it will have a wind farm as a neighbour. However, at least for the moment, there are unhindered views of the skyscape.

Rays from the winter sun, pushing through the clouds

Sunday 15 January 2012

Food, Glorious Food

I was interested to read on the BBC website about a custom, Hen Galan, practised in a part of south west Wales, where the inhabitants of the Gwaun Valley still use the Julian calendar to set their New Year. This had a bit of resonance for the occupants of Tense Towers, as over the festive period, we were not able to visit relatives in the north east of England, so found ourselves delivering Christmas presents this weekend.

Any excuse for a road trip with our newly-acquired second-hand vehicle.

And what a few days of food and feasting it was, with friends, family and feathered fauna all full, fit to burst. First stop was my parents' house in the Gaunless valley, where all manner of birds were visiting the garden feeders.

Periparus ater
Several Coal Tits, Periparus ater, were relishing the peanuts and a coconut shell filled with fat, whilst, on a nearby tree, we were pleasantly surprised to spot a Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, diligently searching the nooks and crannies in the bark for tasty morsels.

Then over to Teesside to my brother's place, where I was amazed to see a Bullfinch in the middle of a housing estate.

That evening, as many of our respective families as could make it, gathered in an Italian restaurant in Yarm (that's Y-a-r-m, California Katie), for a proliferation of pasta, Parma and pizza.

This morning, before our return south, we briefly visited the coast at Coatham Sands. It was minus 4 degrees Celsius, with the fine grains and many shells covered in an icy rime. A flock of Oystercatchers and Turnstones were busy feeding near the water's edge and a very cold-looking Seal made a half-hearted attempt to haul itself onto the beach. A few Eider ducks were bobbing about beyond the surf and a lone Redshank flew past.

Mussel shell with frost
There was still time to fit in one more meal, as Our Lass and I met up with First and Second Born and their respective partners, for Sunday lunch in a village pub nestled close to the hills of the North York Moors National Park.

It is quite possible that none of us will eat for a week.

Monday 9 January 2012

Disco no more

I'm probably on very thin ice here. As a guy brought up on prog rock, it's not really my place to comment on disco or any other musical genre, especially anything less than 20 minutes long. Whilst not as divisive as spouting forth on competitive religion or worship of a sports team, musical taste is a topic that can arouse huge passion. That said, a sift through my vinyl singles from the 70s would certainly unearth the odd dance floor number amongst all the dinosaurs of rock. So you see, I have been known to have a bit of a boogie to Lipps Inc's Funkytown or to occasionally whip out a 7 incher and allow Donna Summer to feel the love.

Let me put the brakes on and arrest the descent right there, this isn't about disco as in mirrorballs, strobe lights and a funky beat. Nuh-uh, we're talking 4 wheel drive, all terrain tyres and Land Rover. That Discovery.

Land Rover, as a marque, has been a small, but significant, part of my life to date. As a young Tenselet, I recall the arduous half mile walk to school in the village, up a very steep hill. If I was lucky, one of the farming family from lower down in the river valley would be passing in a Land Rover and offer me a lift. In those days, Landies were all of a sort, plastered with mud or worse, littered with straw and baler twine and with a backing track of sheep and dog.

After declining a university place (I never said I was sensible), I joined the Army, not because the Queen had more Land Rovers than anyone else, but an even worse reason than that. In truth, there were a lot of Solihull's finest in the British Army. I drove Series 2s, Lightweights, Series 3s of various flavours, then 90s and 110s. On one particular exercise in Denmark, I was delighted to hitch a lift in a 101 Forward Control with its groovy 3.5 litre Rover V8 engine. Towards the end of my brief military career, I developed a taste for navigational rallying and spent many a happy night being thrown around the inside of a Land Rover as I shouted out directions across various bits of the German countryside.

On my return to civilian life and with a young family in tow, the expense of maintaining the equivalent of a small 1940s tractor wasn't something we could afford. However, the firm I worked for did have a long wheelbase 110, which I occasionally borrowed for a weekend.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Our Lass gave in to the relentless pleading and I bought a 90 County station wagon which served us well on family holidays, with the girls sat sideways in the back, on top of all our luggage. As First Born grew up and wished to try her hand at navigational road rallying, this was the vehicle for our inaugural event. The new millennium saw an upgrade to a Series 1 Discovery, which was a little more refined and spacious. Indeed, we never did fill it to maximum capacity, no matter how much we took on holiday. In 2006, I swapped it for my current vehicle, an early Series 2 Discovery, recently featured in these pages and a veteran of several trips to Orkney. Its biggest triumph was the day it ferried Second Born and one of her friends (Dana from Hollister, where are you now?) from Swansea University back to Milton Keynes. With the contents of both of their rooms. My fiendishly-cunning packing ability was put to the test that day.

But this week, the Land Rover dream dies a little, as I'm trading in Taffy the Truck for another 4x4. However, it isn't a British one, it's not even a European one. After much soul-searching, you might even say Seoul-searching, the next Tense Towers vehicle of choice is going to be a Kia. But it will still have a ladder chassis, low ratio four wheel drive and an awful tendency to wallow in the shallowest of corners. So not that much has changed, then!

Farewell, faithful Disco, thank you for all the good times.

Monday 2 January 2012

The post in which a certain word doesn't appear

It seems like I've been gallivanting all over the place during the past week or so. But this morning I decided to spend a bit of quality time at home, staring wistfully into the garden.

In the 2 hours after dawn, we recorded 17 species, all feeding within the environs of Tense Towers (fly bys don't count). I tried to take a few photos of a Reed Bunting, hopping about beneath the sunflower seed dispenser at the base of the feeding stand. However, it was too shady for anything crisp, especially through two windows.

As the sun wearily dragged itself up into the sky, the shadows cast by our neighbour's house gradually receded. Eventually, one of the feeders found itself in the full glare of some golden wintery light and I brought a small arsenal of optics to bear on the fat block hanging from the Hawthorn tree.

It was fun having the time to try different gadgets and settings. I managed a few shots with my phone cam through a telescope, but then a Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, appeared and a less fiddly approach was needed. Good old Very Wrong Len was hauled out and plonked on the tripod, windows and doors were opened to improve the view and Tense Towers became much cooler quite quickly!

This male warbler only started visiting the garden during the last few days and seems to appreciate the fat block, as there aren't many insects about at this time of year. He's never still for a second, though, and as I amateurishly blundered about with ISO, F stop and exposure settings, a whole host of blurred images and muttered obscenities were created.

Male Blackcap with a... small blue bird of some sort*
Between the Blackcap's visits, various other birds queued up, or barged in, to enjoy a free meal. Here's a few more of this morning's cast...

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dendrocopos major
Robin, Erithacus rubecula
Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris
In case you were wondering, yes, that annoying branch did mysteriously disappear half way through the morning [whistles innocently, whilst averting eyes from the general direction of the secateurs].

* Author's note: A few days ago, whilst idly scanning a list of my posts from the last 6 months, I noticed that a few of them had much higher visitor numbers than the rest. A whole 50% more than the next highest. Odd, I thought... what could possibly be the reason? Were the topics related? A short investigation revealed that, yes, the posts in question were connected, being those pertaining to the ID mystery of Poecile palustris and P. montanus. And in which the short word beginning with 't' and ending in 'it' appeared rather frequently. Now it could just be that this identification question is one that does exercise the many great ornithological minds of the globe, but I suspect that the search engines of the world spend an inordinate amount of time looking for that particular grouping of three letters. In my quiet backwater of cyberspace, I had not even considered how peculiarly androcentric the internet can sometimes be. So the other bird in the Blackcap photo is Cyanistes caeruleus, also known as a Blue Cap.