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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

October 29th 2014 - Before dawn

 
I woke well before dawn today, before 5am if truth were to be told. It had been raining hard during the night. The rhythmic drip drip drip from the broken gutter above the bedroom window (which after 4 years I've yet to replace) always a tell-tale sound before even an eye is opened. I lay on top of the bed looking at an unseen ceiling, total darkness filled the room. Drip drip drip went the rain released from the gutter, my mind had focussed on this sound, returning to sleep would be nigh impossible. Something stirred in me like episodes of  unstructured but interconnected whirlpools; ideas, emotions, thoughts all collided with the physical sensory ink-dark environment my body now lay within. I got up.
 
Being English of course the first thing I did was to make a nice cup of tea, before switching all the lights off in the house, ventured onto the seating area in the garden.
 
There is a window, a moment, after heavy rain and especially in darkness when I am consumed by a sensory overload. Something stirs in me, possibly harking back to primeval DNA and a heightened sense of the environment. I find it fascinating that I can, should that I had the skills, trace DNA and carbon back through time. I had ancestors living and breathing as Neolithic people walked the earth. Who was my ancestor when Jesus preached? The Battle of Hastings happened, my great great times 20 grandfather would have been breathing too, who was he? Since childhood I've longed to know more about my ancestors. Not their names, or facts, but what made them human beings and how much of them is now lodged within me. There is a direct link, yet that link is as broken as the gutter attached to my home. I know it's there, I just can't reach it.
 
Steam rose from my mug of tea. I knew this as energy saving streetlights in the lane behind the house, timed to come on at 5am had begun to glow. Steam rising like an ochre ghost into the still air. Otherwise I sat in absolute darkness. No wind, the temperature mild my skin bristling to the morning air; a steady drip of exhausted raindrops, having succumbed to gravitational pull, falling from overhead trees. I listened, while watching the lights turn from the faintest blood orange to their resplendent sulphurous aura. Watching that glow increase without any real thought, my attention was drawn to a blackbird as it tik tik tik'd in the hedge across the lane, soon to be joined by a second in an adjacent garden. I sat, eyes slowly adjusting to the change in illumination grappling with the blackness of the day in a battle the rising sun in a couple of hours time would ultimately win.
 
 
Silence. I listened to my heartbeat, the sound my body made drinking my tea, all the while listening to that occasional tik tik tik in an otherwise silent world. Silence and the ability to envelope oneself in silence is important. I allows processes deep within our soul to become heightened. Today however that silence was rudely and abruptly broken by the staccato shrill of a robin on the wall. His modesty is put to one side while he exclaims his territorial possession. "I am here, I'm awake, this is my territory, enter at your peril". I could see his silhouette on the wall, tail cocked as he bobbed about whilst producing a cascade of liquid refreshment.  A crow 'cawwed' in the field, a pheasant too. A wren began it's powerful chattering. The world was waking, and I was privileged to be part of that process, my presence is but a heartbeat in a lifetime of process.
 

My eyes adjusted, my attention became drawn to raindrops on the washing line. Like linear glow worms, or sparkling diamonds, their ability to cling on to a thin wire fascinated me. The resulting photographs seem, much like my thoughts today,  to represent a connection between places. Like a fibre optic cable this humble washing line has become an instillation. It's utilitarian use far exceeded as it carried my creative thoughts along in a linear manner. I could, and should, have fetched a tripod. Do this properly Andrew or not at all, was a mantra drilled into me by my parents. Today however was about being slapdash. About being spontaneous. A handheld camera to captured the moment. That heartbeat moment, joy at being in dark surroundings, and alive with the illuminocity of life. Clarity was not important, creativity was.

 
And so I experimented - 10 second exposures and hurling the camera around like a madman. I like these images. They represent my way of thinking. Sort of chaotic, sort of structured, but always unfocussed. I respond to the moment well, not for me the process of endless planning.

 
It is almost light now as I write this. Passing moments, that is what these images actually represent. A brief part of my day, a part of the day that is no more. Outside before the world really began to wake up I let my inner senses, my inner mind take over my thoughts and this is what it made me do. It pleases me.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

October 25th 2014 - Last morning of BST

I've been up most of the morning it seems. Having woken up at 3.30am I struggled to get back to sleep, dozing on and off under the duckdown. Around 5am the birds began, robin first then a blackbird. As I lay there on what is the last day of BST 2014, I decided to get up and record the beginning of the day. 
 
I wasn't in the mood to don outdoor clothing and head off, rather sat in the office and stuck the recorder out the window. It took 45 minutes to obtain the attached 3 minutes of audio. Sound recording in a modern world has to be one of the most frustrating experiences at times. 6am and a constant stream of tractors, cars, vans and planes. Throughout all this anthropomorphic sound though, the birds kept singing.
 
A gentle reminder of the beginning of winter - click on Soundcloud link.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

October 22nd 2014 - Jackdaws again from 2012


Yesterday I posted about my quest to discover where 'my' jackdaws went in my area of Somerset. But that was not the first time that I'd done this. For the last 5 years I've been to and from a small part of deepest darkest Wiltshire, sandwiched between Hampshire and Berkshire; a land bedecked with the feeling of emptiness. Yet it is a landscape awash with abundant wildlife including corvids, huge drifts of which blow and tumble like black snow across the landscape, especially in the winter months. 


Today Jane a wildlife colleague of mine were discussing on-line my posting from yesterday. Why do jackdaw and rook flock together? Well it is a mystery, and as I said in 2012, I like a mystery, the natural world is all about mystery.

Research is on going, although the current thinking is two fold. Firstly rooks being the bigger of the two species are possibly acting as 'Big Brother' to the jackdaws; not in a reality TV sort of way you understand, more, looking after their smaller cousins.  Secondly, rooks posses sharp pointy bills with which they dig and probe the earth looking for worms and other invertebrates, something jackdaws couldn't do with any force. Thus the jackdaws could be following in the wake of the rook-like plough, much as seabirds will follow a tractor turning the furrow.

I like both theories. I like the fact that two species live and work as one unit. Not unique in nature, but something surprising. I have my own third theory. Given the intelligence of corvids, maybe, just maybe these two gregarious and flocking British corvids just like being with each other and are co-operating and communicating with each other in a way we'll never know. Whatever the reason, I'll keep watching and learning, and above all listening. For me, winter months mean bird spectacles, and like last night, tumbling black snow across a farmed landscape probably ranks above most things in my notebook.


Finally, to illustrate this posting, these two photos came from Jolle Jolles who is a jackdaw researcher at Cambridge University. The top image is us lot recording a living world on their work in 2011 for Radio 4, the latter is just one of the most evocative images I've ever seen of corvids. They're not my copyright nor for re-use elsewhere.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

October 21st 2014 - Chasing Jackdaws (again)

 
In an earlier posting this month I mentioned the jackdaws which hurl themselves over the house at or around sunset as they head towards their roost. Currently this is around 5.50pm, today it was slightly earlier. It was a blustery day down here near the Somerset coast as ex-hurricane Gonzalo drifted over and battered the landscape along the Bristol Channel. Exciting weather which brought along with it the 30+mph gusts and bright sunshine. Managing to get home with sufficient daylight to go outside again I persuaded Julie to join me on a quick visit to the village to see where they go. And we found them immediately, along with rooks that jackdaws always forage with (more on that in another posting), in the damp pastures around the village. Skittish though they were in the breeze I managed to get close enough for a few 'grab the moment' images from a few hundred metres away.
 
 
 
The blustery wind made them quite restless tonight, however that restlessness was a sight to bring joy to any birdwatchers heart as they wheeled and dived on the blustery gusts overhead. I stood in the gathering gloom watching the associated pairs dive at speed before turning fully into the wind and rising into the sky at speed, much like avian fighter-interceptors. I love the way jackdaws live in pairs, within the social cohesion of the flock. Tonight these pairs were tumbling, rolling and diving wing tip to wing tip in a way that corvids do, at leisure in the sky around them. Such a fabulous way to end a stormy day as the red glow of a Welsh sunset carried over the English fields.  

Saturday, 11 October 2014

October 11th 2014 - Blagdon, Somerset


I don't always have my camera with me. Which sometimes means images have to be taken with my Blackberry which isn't the best camera on the Planet. Yet a certain lack of clarity in an image is good, not least as this image is one I know rasonably well, but usually from the car, which affords just the briefest glimpse. Today after a coffee in the village of Blagdon a quick stretch of the legs allowed me to savour the view and listen to a while to the countryside at rest on a Saturday afternoon in October. Simple pleasures of the rural scene are the moment to savour in a busy life.

Friday, 10 October 2014

October 10th 2014 - Hopeless Jackdaws

 
Ohh I give up. Actually I don't, I just need to put more effort into this. Yesterday over the garden around 400 jackdaws wheeled and circled as they flew into their roost in the village, at around 6pm. I've been watching these birds come to roost all year, watching the few hundred dribble down to couples by mid April, then family pairs in the summer. By mid September the social cohesion which jackdaws enjoy saw these individual family groups noisily combine en route to the roost, then about 7pm. At 7am they noisily fly the other way from roost to their daytime foraging grounds. Sometimes at eye level past the bedroom window which overlooks the fields. Tonight I heard them, having the camera beside me I ventured into the garden. Tonight they drifted towards the sea, halfheartedly wafting about aimlessly en-route to the roost a good half a mile away. Hand held telephoto images are pointless, but it became a record shot of a Wessex Reiver standing in the garden trying and failing to capture a decent image for the record.  
 
Jackdaws (in fact all corvids but especially jackdaws and ravens) have enthralled me for years. Yet it was only a few years back that I began to really understand them after making a radio programme on cognitive behaviour. Jackdaws are almost unique in the animal world in that they have a pale eye, much like we have a pale eye and dark iris. The jackdaw eye is different to ours, yet the pale ring on its eye is now known to play a major part in their social interaction. Jackdaws indeed use their eyes to communicate fear, aggression, friendship and so on. Work is on going but the fascinating aspect of this to me is that these common, gregarious birds we live cheek by jowl with are supremely intelligent.
 
More information on this comes from the Cambridge Cognative Project especially this recent paper
 

That said, for me the joy is every night hearing the jak-a-jack calls coming from the south knowing they're on the move and about to fly over. I'm finding it difficult to photograph them at home so a trip to the roost seems the next logical step.

Friday, 3 October 2014

October 3rd 2014 - Great Tit and W Percival Westell

 
Working at home as I often do on a Friday brings with it many advantages. And of course many distractions to overcome. However today my ability to overcome this particular distracting great tit at the feeders was weak. It is a long time since I've used sunflower hearts at the feeders but the change in species has while not dramatic, been noticeable. Mixed seed, peanuts and fat balls are in constant supply here for the 40 or so house sparrows that make my garden (and roof eaves) home. Their antics are a joy to behold. However last weekend I decided to fill one of the feeders with sunflower hearts. Since then a number of blue and great tits have come back into the garden, providing a welcome (and much quieter) avian distraction.
 
 
It was lucky I had the camera to hand to snap that image of a sunflower pinching great tit. A moment caught forever. At this time I was taking a photograph of this book, bought for me by Julie yesterday from Great Bedwyn Post Office second hand stall. It is a great little book, well used it has to be said,  but it reminds me how far we have come in terms of identification aids. This reference works to British Butterflies and Moths by W. Percival Westell was first published around 1925 (I've failed to find an exact date) and I love books from that era. Simple black and white line drawings of the moths and butterflies he describes in summary detail, a far cry from the HD photographic images we can all access in 2014. Yet 90 years after publication these books are as valuable now as they were to the budding naturalist then. True some of the information has been superseded and updated, but these books provide a historical bedrock to what was happening in the British countryside between the wars, when the second wave of amateur naturalists swished butterfly nets across a meadow tall.

 
I'd heard of W Percival Westell but knew very little about him. So, after some internet research, I discovered that he was born in 1874 and was the first curator of the Letchworth and District Museum and Art Gallery in Letchworth, Britain's first Garden City. This Museum housed the artefacts of and was dedicated to the natural history of North Hertfordshire, including the famous Black Squirrel. Westell was appointed Honorary Curator in 1914 and remained there until his death in 1943. Whilst there he became a prolific author of nature works and in total wrote 84 books and gave over 100 radio talks on the BBC mostly covering the natural world.
 
For such a prolific author and naturalist there is very little information out there. I have though found his autobiography on-line from 1918;
 
 
I feel a winter project coming on to discover more about this Letchworth naturalist. It is amazing what happens following a £2 book purchase.