Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas Blogging-Bird Competition

I wonder if any of you bloggers out there fancy an informal, not for profit, just for the fun of taking part, birdwatching competition over the festive period? I could collate the entries and publish in January. I'd prefer this not to be an out and out competition so there will be no winners or losers, just a list of those taking part (should you decide to take part). Read more here...........

In the meantime, may I wish all the bloggers out there who read and comment on my postings, a very Merry Christmas with this image above from a photo I took 2 years ago. Lets hope we can all do it again in 2011, when I'll be back to post some more, Tales of a Wessex Reiver

............. now where are those waxwings???

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Solstice Lunar Eclipse

Well I know this has been all over the news today, but for me it is a significant day. The Winter Solstice is THE most important day in my year. I celebrate the summer solstice when I can, but always celebrate the Winter Solstice with some quiet reflection by candlelight. As from today the sun begins to climb ever so slightly higher, the days get longer and the optimism for the year ahead mounts. And I get excited for the arrival of spring, snowdrops, daffodils and a bit of warmth in the sun, especially on days like this where I have hours of walking in snow to catch the train.

Linked to that with today's lunar eclipse being at around 8am (we thought 8.18 the media said 7.40) this morning it all boded well for the future. Well I think so anyway. Having the first lunar eclipse during the Winter Solstice since 1638 is absolutely mind blowing, especially as on June 25th of that year, the first ever lunar eclipse was recorded in America, and in 1638 the Scottish National Covenant was signed on February 28th which ultimately led to the wars between England and Scotland, then the English Civil War. Lets hope that doesn't happen again in 2011.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Somerset, deep and crisp and even

Well I know everyone is posting about the snow, but here along the normally sub-tropical always warm Somerset coast we've now had our share of snow. Last month when my parents had 2 feet in the North East, down here we had a dusting, it melted, but remained below freezing. Thankfully we escaped the worst of it.

Not by yesterday morning!!! It was forecast of course but at 5.30am when I got up and took this picture out the bedroom window we had about 2 inches, on sheet ice as it had been raining until about 4pm on Thursday. Anyway it didn't look too deep or bad so off I went to work, only to return 15 minutes later, limping the car home after failing to turn a corner on sheet ice, careering into a kerb and denting my tyre and wheel along the way. Given my Suzuki has a naff space saver spare I decided driving in ice and snow on one 15 inch 285mm wide and one 13 inch 80mm wide tyre on the front may not be a good option. Especially after what had just happened....so an enforced day off work then. And boy am I glad I did.

Bizarrely the snow was only really along the Somerset coast. Bristol had none, and Julie in Wiltshire had none. However, Weston super Mare, 6 miles from me had 5 inches by 10am and Wales 10 miles as the crow flies had chaos.

So I made the most of my day off, and decorated the dining room, with the odd visit to the garden to watch the birds who were now being fed industrial quantities of feed. And it was all quite pretty really, even the birds seemed to be taking it in their stride. But this photo of the wagtail was at 11am Friday. Not 10 minutes after this shot was taken, a humdinger of a blizzard came in off the Welsh mountains, across the Bristol Channel and my house was in the firing line. We hunkered down for the day and watched the blizzard rage....

........ to then awoke this morning to a real winter wonderland, Narnia had nothing on this part of Somerset on the last Saturday before Christmas.

First job then to clear the decking for the birds

And marvel at the scene in my back garden.

Next years Christmas card?

Or maybe this one....?

Stop taking photos..... we're getting hungry

But I have to say the view from my office window across to the Welsh mountains in the distance was absolutely breathtaking.

I've got my parents with me for Christmas, so had to go and pop to the supermarket for additional sprouts. Normally a 5 minute drive, but there was no way I'd drive today, especially with a dodgy wheel, so I walked with my backpack and wearing stout wellies; this meant I saw this view 20 feet from my front door, and.............

.... this one as I crossed onto the castle mound. Considering both these 2 photos were taken on my blackberry, I'm quite impressed how it coped with the exposure in the snow.

Julie was meant to be over here this weekend as we planned to go to the village carols by candlelight service tomorrow. She e-mailed me at 5.45am this morning to say the snow hadn't arrived. By 7.30 there was 6 inches in rural Wiltshire. Where she lives is high up, almost into Hampshire and very isolated. There was no way she'd get to me, or me to her. So to give herself something to do as the planned Christmas shopping was out of the question, she walked an 8 mile round trip to Great Bedwyn to get a morning paper (at the same time I was walking to the supermarket). Along her walk she sent me these 2 mobile phone images.

.....even if I say so myself, not a bad dump of snow in 2 hours!!!

Stay warm everyone

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

RSPB support number 1 and Somerset Arts

Here's a bit of festive cheer. The RSPB are joining into a campaign to get The Trashmen's 'Surfin' Bird' track to the number one spot this Christmas.

Staff at the RSPB's HQ have made a video, which is you would like some festive cheer, is well worth watching here.

On another note, TakeArt the Somerset arts website has set up a petition to send to Somerset Country Council after they have pulled the Arts Week funding following recent cuts. The petition has topped 6,000 signatures, but if you would like to support this, a link to the website is here.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Is Monty Don the right choice?

I've just been reading the barrage of comments on various websites related to the return of Monty Don to Gardener's world in the spring. Comments seem to be 50:50 wanting him back, and outrage that Toby Buckland is being dropped.

I'm not a fan of Monty Don's style of presenting, but can see the value of having him return. It is a shame he and Toby couldn't have fronted the show together, as with Toby we have real credibility based on vast experience, and with Monty a presenter who can deliver the "twiddly bits" as I like to call them.

What I do love though is that any change to Gardener's World offers up real debate and chattering from the back borders. And that can only be a good thing. Roll on the spring and the return of GW!!

Monday, 13 December 2010

2010 Christmas Birdwatching Event - any takes?

Every year in the NHU we have a NHU Christmas Birding Cup and it is great fun and a good excuse to get out of the house. 6 different categories from supreme champion (usually 100+ species seen) to most birds seen by a complete beginner. In 2008/9 I ran something similar, an informal birdwatching blog competition which was well received, I think.

So in 2010 I wonder if any of you bloggers out there fancy an informal, not for profit, just for the fun of taking part, birdwatching competition over the festive period? I could collate the entries and publish in January. I'd prefer this not to be an out and out competition so there will be no winners or losers, just a list of those taking part (should you decide to take part).

I'm keen that those new to birdwatching feel they have reason to take part, so even someone seeing 3 species in their garden will get an honourable mention. So I thought to make it simple, just 2 categories;

1) Highest garden list (that is, perched in, flying over or seen from a garden or urban park if you don't have a garden)

2) Total number of bird species seen over the Christmas period anywhere

Rules are simple too:

Count the number of different wild bird species you see or hear, between 00.00 on 25th December (i.e. midnight on Christmas Eve) and 24.00 on 1st January (i.e midnight at the end of New Year's Day). Escapes, cagebirds, birds in a zoo, the Christmas turkey, do not count – everything else does, so that would include for example free living pheasants or mandarin ducks.

If you'd like to take part, just leave a comment on this posting to say you'll have a go, then in early January send me numbers etc and I'll compile a list. Above all this is just a bit of fun so I'm sure we'll be interested in any anecdotes to freshen the list.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Mystery solved....

In my last posting on Wednesday (here) I posted a mystery photograph, something I found in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire on Monday.

Some good suggestions from other bloggers, but this morning I had confirmation from Professor Lynne Boddy at Cardiff University that it is a slime mould. Slime moulds were once thought to be thought fungi, but are now known to be not even closely related. Professor Boddy suggested I contact a colleague of hers for positive identification, but I'll leave it with just the general identification. Mystery solved.

And the thaw has set in in Somerset. Noticable how many birds were singing today, makes me realise that when the temperature is below freezing continuously, birds are just concentrating on feeding.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Friday to Tuesday in freezing ice.........

An eclectic posting today. I've just returned from a weekend at WWT Welney in Norfolk where as part of a team we recorded an episode of Saving Species in front of a live audience. This was broadcast yesterday and if you would like to be interested in the finished result, have a listen on the i-player, here. And as we worked over the weekend we have 2 days of in lieu, so I had mine on Monday and Tuesday. Therefore as the excitement mounts, go on admit it, you're on the edge of your seats with this posting, I shall recall the last 5 days, mainly in photographs. That way you don't have to read any of my scribblings.

This posting should have happened on Friday. And why? Well on Thursday lunchtime I pootled out into the snow capped streets of Clifton to have some fresh air. Passing the Oxfam book shop, in the window, this book. In a moment of extreme rashness and hot headed direct action, something said to me - just buy this book. And I'm glad I did.

Because passing £2.99 to the man in a scarf, I took the book unopened out of the shop and it fell open at page 12. Page 12 being a poem about Loders (in Dorset). But it wasn't. It was a poem about my all time favourite location in the British Isles, Eggardon Hill. So I wonder. What made me walk out at lunchtime for the first time in months, what made me walk past the Oxfam window, and what made me buy this book unopened, only for the page to open at a poem about Eggardon Hill? Some may say it is coincidence, but I wonder, is there something else going on out there, we just don't understand what fate can send in our direction. Before I move onto the rest of the posting, herewith this poem (apologies about the formatting, it's gone a bit haywire)

When frost lies thick on Eggardon, And every pool begins to freeze, From Mickleford to Nettlecombe, And hills are hung with sparkling trees.

O, then, to loders we must go, Before the world is drowned in snow, When mists fall low on Eggardon, And morning reddens sea and sky.

From Vinney Cross to Powerstock, The flocks of silent starlings fly, O, then, as evening breathes farewell, We take the rutted road to Bell.

When stars shine clear on Eggardon, And field and fold are hushed with sleep, From Yondover to Askerswell, The lanterns burn for wandering sheep

O, then, for us those lanterns burn, And, one by one, we shall return.

So that's got us neatly to Friday afternoon. Off we went to Welney, and well I can't really say much of note here other than in the photo below there's a bit of an eejit in the back row, on the left. It was a good weekend, the show went well and the real stars of the show were the birds.

It's my first ever visit to Welney and I loved it. A bit touch and go with this wintry weather whether we'd go, or make it in the snow, but in the end we did, and the audience loved it. Quite strange to be there with hardly any snow, while 30 miles away there was quite a bit. I popped out early on Saturday morning with my boss to see if we could track down some of the 2,000 Bewick swans on the reserve, but they'd already gone off to their grazing fields. But we did see a stunning marsh harrier quartering past the hide, and of course hundreds of Whoopers from the observatory.

Including this family of 7 cygnets who are on site at the moment. Apparently this same pair raised 6 cygnets last year as well. Fabulous to think they were in Iceland just a few weeks ago and now made it intact to Britain.

So by Sunday morning we headed back to Bristol, and after unpacking the cars, I then drove over to Julie's, where by 4pm we were heading out for a wonderful evening walk in the fields around East Grafton.

With of course a sunset thrown in to add to the walk (above) and a wonderful sight of corvids going to roost too (below). What these 2 photos don't show you of course is that it was bitterly cold by the time we got back to the house. Just in time for mulled wine.

Monday dawned cold, bitterly cold. in fact the temperature stayed well below freezing all day. So after some excitement of taking Julie's car to have 4 tyres fitted and buying a fleece in the agricultural merchants, we hoofed it to Waitrose in Marlborough, purchased maltesers and mince pies and headed to Savernake Forest with some nicely warmed mulled wine.

I think the maltesers must have been alcoholic versions, as there is no reason why the above photo would have been taken unless warming intoxicating vapours had been inhaled in my direction. I just hope you don't come across a wood nymph like that in the dark woods.....

Boy was it cold though. That damp, clawing cold only freezing fog brings. Very photogenic mind you.

.....it was probably a mix of mulled wine and hypothermia which meant I caught Julie talking to a pile of logs. She said she was sniffing the resin as she loves the scent of pine. Apparently that's more acceptable than talking to logs. I shall say no more.

But we did find a funny fungi in the forest. Is it a fungi? I'm not entirely sure what it is. At first I thought it was snow, but then realised it wasn't. It was quite delicate and broke off the beech twig it had erupted from quite easily, but was quite soft and feather like to the touch. Does anyone know what this is?

Or maybe why does this tree have feet?.... I'm sure if we hadn't had that second mulled wine this tree would have looked normal. Unlike my impersonation of Julie Andrews below........

I apologise unreservedly for this photo. It was the only way to keep warm. This was yesterday, December 7th and we were out for a 3 hour, 6 mile or so walk to Great Bedwyn and back. Blimey it was cold, with the temperature never getting above minus 4 all day, Julie couldn't work in this weather, I had a day off, but above all it was absolutely stunning out there, so off we went.

Molly wasn't convinced going out was the best thing to do on a day like this, so she positioned herself down in front of the radiator for the day. Over night on Monday the freezing fog had become thicker, and with the temperature hovering around minus 5 or 6 everything was covered in a film of ice-white. The Wiltshire countryside was stunning, absolutely breathtaking. so after a few chores in Marlborough (and breakfast for yours truly in the Polly tea room), we donned 5 layers of clothing and set off.

The first part of the walk is along the field edges next to Julies house and towards Wilton about half a mile away. It was so cold, the bridge of my nose was in agony, like a knife being pushed through it. But the scenery, even though foggy was fantastic. Julie couldn't wait for me faffing about taking photos, so she walked on. I can't blame her.

Literally everything was covered in 3 or 4 mm of ice. It looked much more like a heavy snowfall, but I assure you this was all ice, coating every surface possible. And with no sun in the sky, it wasn't melting either.

After a mile or two of fabulous walking in the bitter cold, we eventually made it to Wilton Brail. This is becoming one of my bird watching sites, and I was last here on November 16th (below). On my last visit we had had the first frost of the autumn, little knowing what the next three weeks would bring. But like on my last visit, a marsh tit was calling.

But this time, instead of heading up over Wilton Brail, we turned right and headed over to Bedwyn Brail, across the valley and across some rock hard stubble. Concrete wouldn't be as hard as that field was which made walking a bit difficult, but in the gloom at the edge of the Brail we saw a small herd of roe deer a quarter of a mile away. A good use then of my zoom lens.

.......you can tell Julie is happy to see the deer!! Is she telling me they're "that big"? Or is she telling me she's just heard a crossbill, of which one or two flew over calling. We never saw them, but that's the advantage of calling birds. One doesn't need to see them to enjoy their company.

Now there's a sight you don't often see, a footpath sign decked in Christmas lights!!

But eventually we arrived on the ridge of Bedwyn Brail, where the ice forms on the trees continued to delight us. With this cold weather, most people were sensibly staying indoors, so the countryside was eerily and delightfully silent. Quite comforting. There is something wonderful about being in total silence in the English countryside. I find it very spiritual.

I took a lot of photographs of the ice on the trees, but the images obtained are always a disappointment. Being there was like being enveloped in a Narnia-eske magical wonderland, something the photographs don't do justice to.

And so after 2 hours walking we finally began to head into Great Bedwyn, where I tried to recreate a moment from the last time I mentioned this walk on the blog, back at the end of August. Sadly this time there were no blackberries on the leaves. Surprising that.

For the return journey to home, we decided to walk back along the Kennet and Avon canal. And what a treat we had in store for us. Presumably the water in the canal added to the moisture in the air, and everything was thick with ice. At this point the canal was still running water, but eventually upstream it was frozen. Just after taking this photo, we flushed out a woodcock, presumably desperate to find food anywhere it could in this wintry landscape.

Bridges, ivy, trees, everything was just an artists dream

About a mile from Great Bedwyn, one reaches the Crofton Pumping Station, and by here the canal was very much solid ice. Dark clouds added to the dramatic scenery, as well as adding to the cold as the wind started to pick up.

But the scenic photos just kept coming and coming. I keep looking at the one below and can not believe everything you see is just ice; you will have to take my word for it, there is absolutely no snow in this picture. what you can't see well in the picture were large flocks of fieldfares and redwings foraging the berried bushes. Sadly no waxwings. A waxwing on a day like this would have been the perfect finale to a long walk in sub zero temperatures.

Just past the Crofton Pumping Station we headed back home past wilton Water, which is one of the few open water areas in Wiltshire. it is a holding pond for the pumping station and has a few birds on there all year round. Yesterdays highlight was a kingfisher which we heard, before we saw, and 5 little grebes. A few wigeon, teal, tufted duck and gadwall made up the other numbers.

But the scenery kept on being the star of the show. I'm lost for words now.

So lets leave the last word to firstly the flock of Canada Geese in the fields by Wilton water, and then a shot of Julie walking the last few hundred yards back to the village, it was only 2pm but boy oh boy, doesn't that look perishngly cold.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wintery musings from Somerset

Blimey, this is the second posting in less than 24 hours (here). I must have had a bang on the head or paid the electric bill. Something like that. Well the news is all about snow, wintry conditions and how we're all heading into months of freezing temperatures. I've long thought it was an interesting omission of the climate change journalists a decade or so back, in that they forgot to tell us in the middle of their sooth sayings that we'll all frizzle in the summer, that in the winter there'll be a lot more energy in our weather systems, and therefore more moisture in the air, which when the air turns cold could lead to more snow than we've been used to of late. I'm not complaining for one. I love snow. Makes life difficult travelling, but it's beautiful to look at.

Unlike this chap who was seen walking in the 1/2 inch of snow we had this weekend on the Somerset coast. Note the sartorial elegance of his baggy trousers, the raffish tilt of his bobble hat, and what is he wearing under that fleece? It is a smorgasbord of bulges and sticky-outy bits. At least I think it is what's causing that effect. Anyway just after this we were chased by a herd of frisky bullocks, obviously desperate to discover the source of those many bulges. Maybe they thought is was hay!

So far, as alluded to, down here we haven't had much snow. More of a dusting really as can be seen from the window of my house this weekend. Its enough to keep me happy at the moment, especially as we're all travelling to WWT Welney on Friday to make a radio programme in front of a live audience on Saturday. I hope we get snowed in, then I can indulge in some birdwatching on the fens.

The snow that fell on Friday night was unexpected, as the forecast said it would miss us. And so in fabulous sunshine on Friday morning, I put my weks washing out.... Oh dear this was the view on Sunday morning, a mere 48 hours later. Eventually it defrosted itself and dried and was put away. But it was well rinsed through, and smelt fresh. By the end of the weekend the snow had all but melted here, but the temperatures were freezing all day yesterday and today I woke to more snow, the lightest of powdery snow gently falling as dawn broke.

What is worrying me is that although I have all the feeders out and full, there are hardly any birds about. Its puzzling. I back onto open countryside as far as the Black Mountains in Wales. I've only been in this house since December 2009, but lived just around the corner for 10 years and used to have loads of birds there. But here all is quiet. I appreciate my garden is mainly grass and decking, but at the back of me are many thick shrubs, then nothing but classic dairy farmland of grass and hedges for 2 miles to the Bristol Channel.

There are cats about, but there always have been. So where are they? I noticed on Ragged Robins blog she mentions a lack of collard doves. Funnily enough I saw my first one for ages this morning. Collard doves are in a decline for reasons no one really knows, but this weather must affect them as they are birds of much further south in Asia. Last winter took its toll on many birds at the northern edge of their range. Luckily for many a good breeding season helped restore the population balances, but this cold snap, if it is prolonged could cause another population crash of this years juveniles, especially of the smaller passerines, such as wren, goldcrest and so on. I hope they come to the feeders soon.

One bird I shall not worry about is the Jay. This glorious bird sits most morning outside my office window. Today I had my camera with me and managed to snap this shot through the glass. I tried to lift the window but off it flew. Jays are common in Clifton and used to be very secretive. Now though they are becoming bold, or bolder. And I love the fact they are around these busy streets. If jays weren't crows, or so common, people would be desperate to take photographs of them. Just look at the plumage of a Jay the next time you have a chance and see how beautiful it is, with that lovely flash of electric blue along it's flanks.

Another beautiful bird is the goldcrest. Slightly harder to see in the wild so I was thrilled and delighted when, this afternoon as I sat dunking a kit-kat into a mug of tea, Julie e-mailed me with a sketch she'd just finished today. Being a gardener Julie is not working at the moment, so practising her art which she hadn't done much of for years. The photo I believe doesn't do it justice as it was taken on her mobile phone and I had to photoshop it, but I love it. I love all wildlife drawings which are what I call half finished. Just the two birds and some twigs in this case, it really doesn't need anything else. As a teenager I fell in love with a Danish painter called Mads Stage who produced fabulous scratchy evocative drawings, Julie's style is quite similar. Lovely

Well that's enough of this winter wildlife, it's time to head home into the Bristol traffic and then have a nice cup of tea.