For many years I part helped organise a Christmas Bird Race in the BBC's Natural History Unit where I worked. It was just a bit of fun but did involve some serious competition between half a dozen top UK birders. The highest total was 136 (if my memory serves me right) by Mike Dilger who sort of had an advantage as he was in Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England and scored some blinders of species from the Irish Sea Ferry.
In most years though the race was between myself (I never won, always the bridesmaid), Stephen Moss the author and top birder, Brett Westwood, possibly the best naturalist in the business and Rob Collis an excellent birder. The last official race was competed in 2014/15 and won by Rob Collis. Sadly since then the BBC and the Natural History Unit reorganized, many staff have flown the nest, including myself, who found my world of wildlife radio disbanded as the NHU moved over to a commercial business model.
But like they say all good things come to an end - or do they?
I've taking it upon myself to resurrect the Bird Race on Facebook for those friends and friends of friends of mine who are up for a spot of avian fun over the festive period. I think so far about a dozen or so are up for either the supreme challenge (highest number of species) or the garden challenge (most species seen, heard or flying over a garden). I have a slight advantage here as I can see over 2 miles of farmland to the sea from my garden - is that a rock pipit at Sand Point???? No I'll not cheat, but on Christmas Day I got off to a goodly start, with 46 species.
However the highlight of the day had to be an otter cub swimming by the bird hide at Canada Lake on the Somerset Levels. Maybe I'll talk more about that in a later posting.
There's still time to enter... for those of you who are not on Facebook as one of my friends. Rules are simple. Two categories, highest number of birds species seen between 00.01 Christmas Day and 23.59 New Years Day, or most seen in a garden during the same time frame. Sent the results to me an on this blog there'll be a Twitch of Fame. Keep-On-Birding.
That feeling of the strength of the summer imperceptibly
starting to wane comes stealthily every year through the back door of long late
First it is the subtle arrival of an earlier sunset from Mid
August. August is for me more a moment of changing seasons than a main fixture
in the school holiday rota. For many and I count myself amongst them the first
week in August is akin to the warmest and longest of summer days, yet, by its
end August feels decidedly autumnal, cool evenings, a creeping damp air and much
shorter days. I've just looked up some facts to near where I live. On the 1st
of August there was 15 hours and 19 minutes of day length, and of course much
longer twilight. The sun rose at 05.37 and set at 20.57. As someone who spends time
outdoors I can remember only a few weeks ago looking at the sun setting over
Wales at 9pm. By the end of the month, there will be just 13 hours and 33
minutes of day length, close to a 2 hour difference. By then the sun will set
before 8pm and not rise until 6.30am.
Why am I saying this? Well today was the
first morning I have risen and it was dark enough to need a light. Admittedly
it was a cloudy start to the day, but not until near 6am did it feel as though
the day had begun. I know this as I was sat in the garden. Unable to get back
to sleep, I made myself a cup of tea and headed onto the patio. Time, 5.30. All
was still without. Overnight we had had heavy rain and through the gloom jewels
of rain were across many of the leaves and flowers hard by. There was a glorious
earthy aroma around me, mixed with wood smoke, from where I know not. Most noticeably
however was the absolute lack of wind. It has been like this for a couple of
days. Nothing stirred either, it was as if all sound had been switched off by
some unseen hand.
Not long however the call of a wren erupted from the
undergrowth closely followed by a robin. The robin I'm used to who has been
calling his territorial scone for about a week now, a song that will continue
into mid-winter. The difference in August however is that just a few minutes
later the soft chittering of house martins was overhead and mixed beautifully
with the robin song. At first I could not see where this was coming from, but
then high high up in the sky a half dozen dark spots zig zagged around the sky
in crazy circles. The day was waking.
The time around dawn is possibly the best
time to be outdoors. From a near silent landscape, no matter the season, the
landscapes offers subtle changes in sound and motion minute by minute as dawn
breaks. Today was no exception as by 6.30 I'd been privileged to be under the
flightpath of around 100 jak-a-jack jackdaws off to forage somewhere to the
south, herring gulls coming inland from their roost to the west, and alongside
a few other species such as blue and great tit, the comic circus of house
sparrows cascading out of the eves and creating both a deafening din and a
cartwheeling mass of brown splodges across the garden. I love these birds which
have chosen to live alongside us in the roof space. Regularly we have 50 by the
feeders and today it was no exception. They were everywhere and as I have often
observed the males were gently feeding juveniles, who with gaping mouth and
shimmering wings were attended most dutifully by dad with a soft morsel of worm,
bug or grain.
I've been to many locations around Britain looking at wildlife
but an hour or so in the garden matches many a trip to far flung areas. Despite
the lack of sun drenched warmth there was still a feeling of summer joy
listening to the martin’s overhead, but the autumn season was much in evidence,
waiting in the wings. Aside from that scent of earth, the hedge behind the
garden is now covered in red berries. Above my head a few gnats jostled for
space but other than a single buff tailed bumblebee no other insects came into
view. Turning a little too cold in the morning maybe and many will have
finished their sexual phase thus larva are hidden from view awaiting their
entrance in the years to come. I don’t mind autumn creeping through the back
door, but as the day length shortens, I shall miss the long summer nights with
screaming swifts around the house, those screams ended on July 23rd
this year. May the 4th and they’ll be back.
July 30th 2016 will go down as one of my most amazing memories. A cornucopia of Massey Fergusons beneath the Coventry ring-road is most definitely a first and possibly a sight that will never happen again. I volunteered myself to head off at 5am on a Saturday morning to record a short report for Radio 4's Farming Today (of which I'm still trying to find a farmer who listens at 05.45 each weekday morning). Even though it was a Saturday, as a Massey fan myself it was a simple calculation, to go or not to go. I arrived at 8am.
The drive up the A46 was the beginning of my own journey, coming up behind a low-loader carrying three vintage Massey's near Evesham, that vision to be replaced by a convoy of 8 Massey's on the three lane highway just south of Coventry, amber flashing warning lights ablaze. Terrific. As was the sight as I peered down from the elevated section of the ring-road. Even as early as 8am, more than 20 Massey's and Fergies were assembling off the back of low loaders, in preparation for today's main event. And that main event was wonderfully named 70 at 70, a celebration the 70th anniversary of the Ferguson TE20 tractor being produced at Coventry's Banner Lane works, once Europe's largest tractor factory. Sadly this closed in 2002, Massey's are now manufactured in Beauvais in France thanks to huge resistance to keep Massey production in the UK by the French government. The site is now a housing estate.
More than half a million Ferguson TE20's were produced over the decade they were in production before their replacement with the Massey Ferguson 35 following the merger of Massey-Harris and Ferguson. Better known as 'The Little Grey Fergie' these machines did arguably more than any other aspect of agriculture to modernise farming and make it more efficient, a dream of their founder Harry Ferguson. Harry Ferguson's dream was to feed the world with efficiently produced food. Beginning in 1919 he worked for over a decade to perfect his 'Ferguson System' which remained in production for decades before being replaced with modern electronics in the 1990's. However even today his 3 point linkage system is used on most tractors to attach mounted implements. It is a remarkable achievement that 70 years later, many of these simple 20hp tractors are still working.
This event organised by the Coventry Transport Museum was to celebrate the seventy years since the TE20 was produced but tractors from all ages were part of the day, including this flagship of the current range the mighty 400hp MF8737. Yes it is black, and that was a sprayed this colour in celebration of Coventy's bid as a City of Culture, and will remain that colour as it travels about on the exhibition circuit.
A huge difference from the oldest machine in the parade this 1947 TE20 driven by the wonderfully jolly Mr Dodds who was second in the convoy after the 8737.
So to the parade. At 09.45 we were off (Mr Campbell Scott head of Massey PR on a blue number) I'd been promised a seat on one of the MF's in the parade but as it happened seats were in very short supply, so I bagged a lift in the Coventry Transport Museum's land rover making up the rear. Not as atmospheric, but a lot more comfortable.
We chugged through the streets of Coventry, quite slowly, as can be seen from inside the land rover.
Before amassing at the Millennium Square for the official presentation and cake cutting.
It was amazing to see so many members of the public taking photographs along the route. As Will my driver from the Museum said, the tractor exhibits at the Museum are a huge hit especially with children, more so than cars apparently.
Obviously there for work I did a number of quick interviews with some people there but the most interesting was with a David Walker, the chap in the above image with the baseball cap on. He worked for Massey's for 21 years as a technical writer and was involved with the 100 series right through to the 3900 series.in the late 1980's. Now retired he has written a very readable autobiography of his life. Sometimes these niche autobiographies can be a dry read. Not so Mr Walkers who has the wonderful ability to lift a technical career into a readable gambol through the world of agricultural engineering. He was as entertaining on air too.
Like all good things the day came to an end, for me at least. Switching off the microphone I metamorphosed into a member of the public for half an hour, strolling around the now static displays.
This beautifully preserved and still working MF135 had to be photographed by me as this was the model of tractor I first drove, in fact the first vehicle I ever drove at the age of 14 or so. This model even has the ploughing light on the back which I remember so well. I caught up with its owner later, from Newbury in Berkshire and he explained that it has been restored but like all tractors needs to be worked regularly so continues to do light work around his mostly sheep farm.
I took this image inside a cabbed 135, just for nostalgia reasons....its all so familiar even 30 years after I last drove one.
Unlike electronic mail, there is a certain excitement of expectation as a white envelope flops onto the doormat; what will be revealed inside? I'd just returned from a recording trip in Wales, reporting on sheep shearing when seizing the post I noticed one from the Richard Jefferies Society. Opening up the envelope inside the Summer Journal.
I'd known of Jefferies writing for years, though to my shame never became familiar with all his output. Then a few years back having been asked to be a Trustee of his Museum near Swindon I joined the Society... a steal these days at only £12 a year. For that members receive a newsletter and the Journal on a regular basis.
I love receiving the Journal as it gives an insight into Jefferies I would not have been able to educate myself on otherwise. Jefferies was a journalist at heart, who wrote in a way that his words passed down the generations long after the scribbling's of other journalists of his day have been forgotten. Partly because he wrote in a more creative way than a news hack, partly his works were then bound up into books for public consumption. Many Victorian novelists serialised their work prior to book publication; Jefferies though wrote from the heart, often campaigning against agricultural or rural ways. Not in a sentimental way, but always looking forward by understanding the past and present.
The summer Journal above contains an insightful summary of Jefferies the Journalist, by Barry Sloan, a printed version of the Jefferies Birthday lecture he gave last year. In those 10 pages, a life in précis, I feel closer to Jefferies than ever before, and though sadly no longer able to fulfil a role of Trustee for the museum, feel my understanding of Jefferies the man is increasing, over and above Jefferies the author. Yet the words of Jefferies the author have as much a clear message today and they did over 100 years ago. For as many don't realise who come to Jefferies through his countryside prose, Jefferies was one of the first, if not the first environmentalists.
Today it's capacity for failure has been aptly demonstrated by the abandonment of the blackbird nest I wrote of recently. Two weeks ago I sat in the garden enthralled by to-ing and fro-ing of the female blackbird building a nest in the garden. Two weeks ago the promise of new life into this corner of Somerset was all around us. Today after not seeing any activity in the garden or around the nest by either the male or female blackbird I checked it with my camera on a pole - 5 beautifully marked eggs but no bird. I gently felt the eggs, stone cold and they plus the nest were soaking wet after the frost we had last night. Having not seen the female around the nest for 4 days now, I fear that's that. There will be no new life in this corner of the West Country this year.
In a way I'm not surprised, just saddened. On Tuesday, the last day I saw the female an unknown black cat had come into the garden and was looking up at the nest hidden in a clematis. It then walked along the fence the clematis is attached to and peered in before leaving the garden following my protestations. But I have often seen this and another cat in the garden by the bird feeder. Was she killed by a cat maybe? I can't say the cat had anything to do with the abandonment but the female blackbird was especially tame and would hop around the garden while we worked in it. She'd happily fly into the nest too seemingly unaware we existed. Too trusting possibly?
We also have regular visits by magpies and carrion crows, in fact a crow has just arrived on the shed as I write this, all sleek and glossy, a killer king in a black mantle? Maybe but often they would rob the nest of eggs, rather than attack the parents. The eggs are still there, cold as stone, jewels hiding their macabre story of abandonment. We do have a regular sparrowhawk too, but there is no evidence of blackbird remains. Why then the nest was abandoned? I just don't know.
I've long loved nests and eggs. Since a child that joy of discovering a nest and peering carefully inside to see perfectly formed spheres of creation. In many ways finding nests in the winter is just as thrilling. I remember discovering a long tail tit nest in a dense blackthorn hedge in the middle of a snowy walk in December. That beautifully crafted tennis ball dome stood out as a reminder of warmer days which felt a lifetime ago. Gently pushing my finger inside the dome I could feel the soft interior, which possibly housed ten or 12 pompoms of life all squeezed in tightly vying for space as the warm spring sun warmed within.
Rooks nests out of season fascinate me too, they look so precarious on the outer branches of trees, just a ragtag and bobtail structure of sticks swaying in a winter storm; but no matter the weather they remain relatively undamaged all through the year often to be repaired and used again in the following March. Even in the height of nesting season, winds can whip the trees into a flagellating frenzy but the nests remain; although in severe gales at this time of the year young can be hurled to their death below. The illustration below from The Collins Guide to Nests and Eggs I have mentioned before fascinated me as a child as it simply illustrates the differences. Rooks, social and build on the very edge of the tree, which is of course why the nests are stable as the branches are a vertical foundation structure to the nests. Carrion crows build lower down, singly and usually in the more stable Y or fork of the branch - their nests being more of a platform. And magpies. I love magpie nests one of the few instantly recognisable nests with it's mezzanine floor above the main nest to protect eggs and young.
The complexity of nest building in the birds world is fascinating, and all from a beak and a bit of avian design flair. Not all birds build nests of course, the cuckoo just pops by like a difficult older sibling while you're out, raids your nest, leaves a present you didn't really want and disappears until next year. The guillemot and many other seabirds just lays an egg on a rock, the egg itself is the wonder, designed to roll around not off the cliff face. But as with the unhelpful term seagulls to describe anything white and flying along the coast, the term nest fails to enthral the casual observer.
Rightly nests and eggs are protected by law from destruction, harm or wilful disturbance during the breeding season, I only checked this nest being certain it had been abandoned and after days of discrete distance observation. But later in the year when rebirth has been completed on that country walk, if you find a nest, stop and take a closer look at the miracle of its building, it's form, structure, shape and function is unique. As is every species' nest.
All is maybe not lost. As I sat here writing this memorial to avian abandonment a dark shape caught my eye. It is a female blackbird carrying nesting material from the garden and over the wall into a shrubby area next to the lane. In the time it has taken me to write this she's been back and forth half a dozen times. The male blackbird is perched on a shrub beside where this female is flying in and out of. To be honest this female looks darker than the one nesting in the garden who had a distinctive pale ruff across her chest. Is this male blackbird one with female blackbird 2? Only one thing for it, to stop writing this, make myself comfortable and as all naturalists do, sit quietly and observe.
Observation is what enriches our understanding of nature, and, maybe there will be new life in this corner of the West Country this year after all.
As I write this posting a female blackbird is wearing herself out building a nest in the garden. I've been in Northumberland for a few days for work and pleasure (sat in the garden of our house there watching more greenfinches than I've seen in years - the males almost lime green in their breeding plumage) and have returned to witness the building frenzy of a blackbird in our clematis. Blackbirds are such wonderful birds.
On Thursday I stayed in Julie's house in the Northumberland National Park and having a quiet half hour sitting looking at the stunning view of the moorland which is just the other side of the fence, I was joined by a very friendly female blackbird. I had some Aberdeen Angus sandwiches with me so threw her a morsel. That was gratefully accepted as were the other half a dozen beef crumbs. It was fabulous to be accepted by this animal and although we had never met, she accepted my presence and I felt a bond developing. She'd chink chink, I'd throw a bit of beef, she'd land and take it, fly off to the fence, and the whole process began again. To my right a neighbour feeds the birds and there were a couple of dozen sparrows, chaffinches, the aforementioned greenfinches, cola tits, blue and great tits and a pair of courting dunnock who entertained me with their mice like run and hop pairing behaviour. Beyond the field a woodpecker drummed and a raven cronked overhead. Absolute bliss. A man needs nothing else.
Aberdeen Angus morsels loved by this female
Our neighbours garden and the feeder with Harbottle Crags beyond.
But back to the main story. This inconspicuous piece of foliage hides the beginnings of new life, or will do so soon. On Saturday morning I kept seeing this female blackbird on the lawn but couldn't see where she was going. Armed with a pint mug of tea I watched her. And to my amazement into the clematis she flew, then again two minutes later. I had a quick look from a distance and sure enough a half saucer of dried grasses was beginning to be built. Fantastic. We worked in the garden yesterday and she made no attempt to avoid us, in fact she just ignored our activity often flying over our heads to get to the nest construction site. Once again I'm amazed at how nature is trusting of us humans if we just leave them alone.
Having the camera to hand I tried to take some telephoto shots of her activity. They sort of work but it was a dullish day and so getting the ISO levels high enough made it a bit grainy. But a nice sequence of images nonetheless.
I like this shot as it was as she was about to leave so just caught her.
Watching her antics for an hour is one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a while. On average she came to the nest about every two minutes. Between nest visits, hopping over the garden wall to a bit of unkempt land behind which is full of straw, grasses and twigs. I could almost predict her behaviour. Out the nest, perch on the wall, a quick cheep then drop down the other-side. Two minutes later she'd land on the wall, beak crammed with nesting material, hop along the wall, drop down onto the grass, then fly up into the nest from there. Often she was only hidden by the clematis for 20 seconds then out she'd fly, onto the wall, and away we'd go again. Occasionally the male appeared, sang a short 'pink pink' refrain and then flew off somewhere. He'll be watching her somewhere out of sight but for the moment keeping out of the hard work.
I've left her to it and will keep a close eye on the next phase which will be lining of the nest with mud before the final soft grasses are lain down prior to egg laying.
According to my beloved Collin's Guide to Nests and Eggs, after laying, incubation by the hen is 13-14 days and fledging 13-14 days later. So by my calculations if the nest is finished next weekend, we should see fluffy blackbird chicks in the garden by the first week on May... can't wait.
It's been a cold grey old weekend, ideal for staying indoors and watching the rugby yesterday. Today however I began to develop cabin fever, just as the clouds parted. Blue sky began to eradicate the grey blanket and sunshine filled the early evening sky. Thus just as the clock struck 4pm I headed over to the village for an hour.
I've been meaning to do this for a week or so as the rooks are in full nest building mode now. They're moving about the village this year, not sure if they've been disturbed or just fancy a change, but some quite young trees are being colonised quite rapidly. Driving through every day to work I've watched five nests occur in trees over the road in just a week and a couple of singles now occupy outlying trees, like sentries to the main garrison. I have a soft spot for all corvids and in those brief minutes as I cycled around the village, camera and binoculars swinging precariously, I managed to spy a good number of rook and jackdaw, carrion crow, 6 magpies together in a flock and a raven, which took me by surprise. We don't get many jays in this part of Somerset as most trees are ash and sycamore on the wet moor grassland but no matter, I was in my element.
There have been two rookeries around the village for years, about half a mile apart. One by the village hall (above and below) and one by Cedar Farm. A lot of activity today, jostling, calling, flying in with twigs, back out again to plunder, with about half and half rook and jackdaws in the trees. I was surprised to see so many jackdaw pairs in amongst the rook nests but they offer mutual protection and as the jackdaws aren't nesting yet, why go elsewhere. Conserve your energy.
There were ten nests here and it was lovely to see the jackdaws noisily wheeling over the rookery too.
Just a few hundred yards away the new nests are being built and as I stopped my bike underneath the trees which can only be 20 years old, they noisily chastised me for disturbing them.
I cycled on into the village and passing Cedar Farm I hear a strange guttural sound, almost like someone is being strangled call. I recognised it instantly over the rooks relentless caw cawings... a raven. I watched a pair of ravens repeatedly barrel rolling last weekend over a copse at Tyntesfield and can therefore only assume they are nesting more frequently all around this area now. Ravens were always present in winter as they loafed about the coast a couple of miles away but in spring usually disappeared to the Mendips of South Wales both about 15 miles away as the raven flies. Anyway this one was in the huge cedar that stands guard over the farm. As I listened the more familiar cronk cronk emerged from the dense foliage and it was off over the fields - just time for a quick record shot before it headed over to the coast. I heard it again ten minutes or so later but didn't see it. That cedar would be a perfect nest platform for the raven, whose nest is absolutely huge. My fingers are crossed.
Cedar farm is to the left of this image and the rookery, if that's the right term for a succession of nests that straggle out over three trees in the hedge line to the right (one of which as seen in the second image below)
What a lovely way to spend an hour on the Sunday of the Spring Equinox. In total I counted 33 rook nests. Back home I quickly sketched a map to show their location. The two single nests intrigue me as they are both about a quarter of a mile from any other nests. Outliers? young birds unsure of their position in the flock? I hope they do okay as one in particular had a carrion crow observing it. It's safety in numbers now that spring has arrived.
It has been many years since I have posted a blog entry like this. Pure indulgence having visited somewhere. Although this set of images is as a result of a purposeful visit. The location in question is the National Trust property Tyntesfield, located a few miles outside Bristol. Home to four generations of the Gibbs family it was saved for the nation by the National Trust in 2002 and after many years of conservation, not least to make the roof watertight (over £4 million was spent there), this property is a jewel in the Somerset portfolio. And I have begun to volunteer there.
Having looked for an outlet for my energy and having long loved the work of the National Trust, in November 2015 I applied for and was accepted by the Trust as a "visitor services" volunteer. Still early days but my Sunday mornings are a treat as I meet and greet the public before sending them on their way to purchase a ticket and visit the house. Although I'd visited Tyntesfield for work, I'd never done so for pleasure and so it was recently that I pootled over there as a 'paying guest' to learn for myself what made this estate so important, what makes it tick now and what I could learn myself of the house history to aid my meet and greet persona. I learnt a lot today from the lovely house stewards, especially some of the not in the guide book facts that make a visit extra special. All stored away now for my next volunteer day but for now some photos taken on a glorious early spring day when the estate was almost empty.
Robin on the steps
South View - formerly a Renaissance/Georgian mansion massively extended in neo-gothic Victorian splendour. And as used in the BBC drama, Sherlock
Walking towards the ha-ha and garden
Not a weed in sight
Does what it says on the blackboard... so I did go for a walk..
....... into the newly planted orchard and pregnant sheep.
The way to look after tools
Rhododendron in flower in February !!!!
Back to Home Farm where I work/volunteer
Newly sawn planks
Loved the timber, tree, solar panel combination view
After all that time for some apple crumble and lashings of custard.