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.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

October 2nd 2014

It felt strange last night not writing an entry on my blog. Not this blog, but my year long project blog, 365-2-50 which I completed on September 30th.

I've enjoyed writing about my life over 365 days immensely, however it meant that my long term countryside blog, this one, Wessex Reiver has been neglected. I thought I'd like the rest after being forced to write every day yet as I supped a tea this image made me want to say something about it. Just leaves of course but the powerhouse of nature, providing energy through their chlorophyll after having converted it from sunlight. the tree from which they fell is host to a myriad of wildlife, in fact there was a late ladybird larva on the trunk. Now spent and fallen, the leaves once again provide nutrients as they decompose to recharge the ecosystem with a few goodies. And so, a long winded way of saying that I am returning to the Wessex Reiver and my love of the rural way of life, not just nature, but customs and anything of an idiosyncratic nature. My mind is interested in many things, but always returns to my passion and first love, the natural world.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Orkneyinga Saga - part 2

I can't believe it's now two months since I took these photographs, in my mind it's just last week. It goes to show how when we're back in the thick of it time flies. But I must get this posting finished, a posting which has languished in my draft pile for 3 weeks.  Behold a selection of images 'wot I took' in April in Orkney. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with the incessant wind, but now looking back from on a humid hot June day in Bristol, a light freshing north easterly would be most welcome. Shall I write some prosaic reference to my time there or just blurt out a caption or two for each image...... Mr Pickwick, fetch me the quill, I shall caption with abandon.......

Why have I photographed my car on an empty road. This is no ordinary road this is the road used in the cover photograph of  the amazing album, 'Road to Hammer Junkie' by the Orkadian band, The Chair. It is my homage to a most uplifting and quirky album cover - sadly I can't find a link to the photograph in question but it involved a 1920's car and some disreputable characters thumbing a lift... I think the wind has blown them all away in this image.

These three images were taken at the Broch of Gurness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broch_of_Gurness  I loved it here, arriving in the teeth of a gale, as I pulled into the empty carpark there in front of me was a man from the Council trying to paint a sign. Lets say they're a hardy bunch up here. The Broch itself is on the tourist trail but unlike its better known cousin Skare Brae, this site is open acess (for a small fee).  As I wandered about looking at the fortified centre and rooms radiating off I tried to think of what it would have been like 2,500 years ago. Harsh yes, life expectancy low, but a simplicity we have all but lost in our modern cluttered World. And the view is canny too as we'd say in the north.   

I was fortunate in that in all my time on Orkney I only had half a day spoilt by rain, not that rain ever spoils anything. This gave me an opportunity to head into Kirkwall and their magnificent St Magnus Cathedral http://stmagnus.org/ I absolutely loved this ancient, built by and for Norwegians place of worship. Walking into this echoing dark place after having my ears battered by the wind can only be described as the arrival of snow on a frosty night, everything was silent. In total I sat for over an hour just listening to the silence, which as a sound recorder is a precious commodity these days in Britain. 

The Italian Chapel. http://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/the-italian-chapel-p253741 By now the weather really was closing in with low cloud and rain, although the wind had eased. small mercies indeed.  How far south could I get then using the Churchill Barriers? Of course I knew the southern tip of South Ronaldsay but on the way I deviated into this well known landmark. Built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940's it was a focal point for a large P.O.W camp here. Remnants of that exist in the turf, with only the Chapel remaining, which was restored by one of the artists in the 1960's. I'm always sceptical of visiting 'must see' site on a holiday, this one however was stunning. As I left the Chapel I met a musician called Rick Redbeard as I discussed in my oher 1 year project blog http://365-2-50.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/april-9th-2014.html

Newly opened in April, with a view to die for over the Pentland Firth, the Tomb of the Otters bistro. Lovely coffee and the cheesecake was........... yum! 

The Smithfield Hotel, Dounby. My HQ for the stay. I loved it here. It is absolutely bonkers, but nonkers in a way which makes me want to return time and time again. Take for the fact that to reach the restaurant from the hotel, one either has to walk through and behind the serving part of the bar, or walk outside and around the corner, entering from behind. It's not the current owners preferred route of choice but the previous owners added an extension without much care as to points of access for the paying guest. The owners Ali and Lyn were superb - Orcadian going back centuries, nothing too much bother and I learny more about the island from them than any guidebook. I'd recommend this hotel to anyone as long as you don't want posh and a sea view. A family hotel with character.http://www.smithfieldhotel.co.uk/

One of the surprising things of my time on Orkney were the mile upon mile of daffodils. Every roadside verge is at this time of year lined with nodding yellow - I asked Ivy why there were so many and she said 'because they've been planted' Now that is a good answer. 

A couple of nice views.............

Right here we go, the Kirbuster Farm Museum was the all time highlight of my visit. I recomment everyone who visits Orkney avoids the tourist trail and heads here. http://www.spirit-of-orkney.com/contents1a/2010/04/kirbuster-farm-museum/ It is centred around the oldest house in Orkney which is where the first 2 photos were taken, known as a firehoose. I walked into here and it felt like revisiting a Neolithic monument, yet it is only 500 years old. At a time when grand mansions were being built around London, landowners in Orkney still lived and slept with their cattle around a central hearth.

Lunch with a friend at the farm museum!

Maes Howe - which though spectacular was not as exciting as I'd hoped.

The equally impressive Standing Stones of Stenness

Many visits were made here in all weathers, Ring of Brodgar

The one disappointment was my visit to Scara Brae - I'd expected a wander around the site but not it's is all cordoned off, rightly, but as a foil to the visitors, a 'visitor experience' trail has been installed. Great for the children or those who don't know much and are juts casual visitors. But walking along concrete paths and passing timeline signage only then to stand behind a barrier is all a bit too Stonehenge for me. But that is a personal view. What Scottish Natural Heritage and Museums face to preserve this site is immense.  

Finally juts before I left as a force 10 gale began to arrive some images of the hotel owners Helly Aa shields and axes he has used over the years both in Orkney and Shetland, plus the 2 Orcadian chairs he made a few years back.

Nice to be back on the mainland - especially by 2pm after this image was taken the wind was at 60mph.