Thursday, 29 December 2011

Snowflakes, daffodils and still December

I'll begin this short posting with a photograph from last night. This is he hamlet of Wilton near Great Bedwin in Wiltshire. This is the next village to where Julie lives and we drove through it last night enroute to looking for owls (we found a wonderful tawny watching us in a tree as it happens). Anyway for a tiny hamlet of about 40 houses they do go to town with their lights at Christmas.

Anyway the main reason for the posting was a birding free day today, as a result we headed off to the Hillier Garden in Hampshire, one of Julie's favourite. The weather sadly was diabolical, rain both heavy and not so heavy, but that didn't stop us. What did surprise us though was that so many spring flowers were out, considering this is December 29th.

Like this camellia (above) and daphne (below)

or these daffodils, called January gold....

or these snowflakes.....

But what he Hillier Gardens are best known for is their Winter Garden the biggest in Europe. Because of the weather opportunities for photography were limited, but these dogwoods against a deep purple Tom Thumb pittosporum caught my eye.

Well worth a visit if you're near Romsey. Tomorrow I'll be back on the bird cup race. Currently I'm on 79 species (thanks to a pair of mistle thrushes on mistletoe and a nuthatch at the Hillier Garden). If the weather's good, a coastal trip beckons methinks. In the meantime I'll sign off with a robin at the gardens today.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Kauto Star returns home.........

I'm going to take a break for a while on the birding blog, as today Julie and I hopped down to Ditcheat in Somerset to welcome home Kauto Star who yesterday won the King George the 6th Chase for a record 5 times. What a wonderful treat to see him return home and be welcomed so warmly by his village.

First off a cup of coffee in the pub while we wait......

and then the rest of the photos speak for themselves....

Wonderful to see such a warm welcome in the village, a great atmosphere.

Monday, 26 December 2011

NHU Bird Cup - Day 1

Well I'm off and running to a good start with this years NHU Bird Cup. 8 days to see as many bird species as possible between Christmas Day and New Years Day. Well yesterday got me off to a blistering start, and I ended the day on 48 species.

After opening the presents, Julie and I headed off to Catcott Reserve on the Somerset Levels. It was lovely and quiet, it being Christmas Day and the highlight there was a black tailed godwit (in this picture but one of the many dark blobs.

From there we went to the Shapwick Reserve and the highlight there were many goldcrest, chiffchaff plus singles of a blackcap, great spotted woodpecker and a good number of gargany.

So this is where I've got to on day 1: birds in order seen or heard

  • First bird (always exciting to wonder what it is) - robin, in garden at 05.43hrs

  • +In Garden (incl flying over) : carrion crow, starling, magpie, house sparrow, great tit, blue tit, dunnock, herring gull, collared dove, wood pigeon, fieldfare

  • +On drive to the Levels (Julie drove so a treat for me to be an observer)buzzard, redwing, rook, jackdaw, chaffinch, mute swan, canada goose, grey heron, kestrel, lesser black backed gull, pheasant.

  • +At Catcott lapwing, wigeon, long tail tit, pintail, black headed gull, black tailed godwit, shovler, greylag goose, teal, cormorant, meadow pipit, stonechat

  • +At Shapwick great spotted woodpecker, goldcrest, blackcap, siskin, wren, cetti's warbler, chiffchaff, jay, coot, mallard, gadwall, tufted duck, raven.

Today we're off to the Chew Valley and then Wells. it will get a lot harder now to get more species on the list. Fun though.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The icing on the cake..... almost!

Well it's here, Christmas 2011. As I write this at 05.50hrs on Christmas Day, I'd like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and all prosperousness (is that a word) for 2012.

The following blog was meant to be written yesterday, on Christmas Eve, but for some reason the photos wouldn't upload, maybe everyone was last minute buying on-line so the systems crashed.

As a Christmas treat to myself, I have bought a feeding station. That's not quite true. It was offered at 50% off on the Crocus website in early December, but, after buying it for my parents, it arrived after we'd visited them for Christmas last weekend. So having arrived too late for them, as I'd bought something else in the meantime, I thought I'm going to have this for myself, as an early Santa present.

So mid day on Christmas Eve, I began the unpacking and assembly. I have to say I didn't realise there was as much kit. One of the reasons I initially bought it, was that my seed feeder had been damaged in a gale, so looking for a replacement, I found this which with the discount cost just a few pounds more (Scrooge is alive and well in Somerset). So having lost one feeder, I now have 2 seed feeders, a nut and fat block feeder, seed tray, bird bath and fat ball hanger. It's just missing the tinsel and Sat-Nav.

So after 45 minutes of top notch DIY skills (I only had to re-do the design twice), the thing was up, in a temporary position. While I was putting it up, I wondered how long it would be before birds began to use it. I was soon to find out......

...... because, well this is no word of a lie, this blue tit arrived on the feeder, seconds after I'd walked away, I'd not even reached the house when Julie said, look behind you. Fantastic, and followed in quick succession by a great tit and a robin....

This amazed me. I do feed the birds anyway, but in less than 15 seconds from erecting it in place they were using it. I assume they were watching me put this together from the wings, and eager to investigate, as in the blue tit photograph you can see a robin in the conifer, watching and waiting.

That done the next job was to put labels on the sloe gin. And here they are. I think I've got the marketing description perfect now........ click to enlarge.

And so the last job of Christmas Eve was the ice the Christmas cake. I've never iced a cake before, so Julie and I set to. The mixture was slightly runny, but by surreptitious use of Boyle's Law of equilibrium motion, we managed to make it look half presentable.

So it just leaves me once again to wish you all a Happy, Peaceful and Merry Christmas

And as I write this I can hear a robin singing in the dark, ....that's my first bird in the NHU Bird Cup. Bring it on!!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Twittering at Christmas

Well as the Winter Solstice has now past, it is time for new beginnings, so I've done just that and joined twitter. Not for personal reasons, but as a work tool. I've resisted for years having a twitter account but we're developing a new radio programme at work and looking to use tweet to get the message out. So I took the plunge. If you'd like to follow me it's @Wessex_Reiver

Speaking of work, we have a very important programme going out tonight at 20.00 hours on Radio 4. It's called Saving Species : Sustaining Life, link to it here...... Sustaining Life.

Finally it's nearly time for the NHU Bird Cup. Every year the fair people at my place of employ, run a bird cup, this year I'm on the committee, but we've handed the reins over to a younger more efficient organiser. This bird cup begins at 00.00 on Christmas Day and runs through to 23.59 on New Years Day. We've got 5 categories this year, Supreme Champion is up for grabs this year, which I'll have a go at but don't expect to win as usually over 100 species are needed to win.

I'll try and update what's happening each day.

Which leaves me wishing you all a Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quiet Woods

Last weekend Julie was at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dene for an Equine Psychotherapy workshop, which apparently from all accounts was fantastic. Anyway I thought as I don't know that area very well, I'll offer to drive Julie there and back each day and that will give me 4 hours a day to amuse myself, with a spot of walking-cum-birdwatching.

Safely dispatched on Saturday I headed off to a place called Tidenham Chase. I've had to look up some facts and figures, but this area of Gloucestershire sandwiched between the River Severn, and Chepstow in Wales was a real gem of a find. It had a real feel of isolation, yet as the crow flies, just 15 miles from Bristol.

Parking the car I headed into the woods which have recorded woodcock, nightjar, crossbills and other classic boreal avians. Today though, and as is oft the case in mid winter woodlands the birdlife was sparse and hard to see.

I didn't mind, the day was sunny, mild (for December) and I was just enjoying the walk, when all of a sudden I came across these free range pigs. This is how pigs should be kept, not indoors. The gentle snuffling and grunts told me they were happy pigs, if a little dirty.

There is something magical about being in a silent wood in mid-winter. There is a heady presence of silence everywhere, mainly as the birds are mostly silent at this time of the year. Yet this silence is just a smoke screen for life carrying as normal, if we just look a little harder, such as these flies, grabbing as much warmth from the suns rays as it is possible to do in mid December.

The views up here across the River Severn to "mainland Gloucestershire" were stunning, and if you are wondering that's Berkley Nuclear Reactor on the distant shoreline.

Tidenham Chase seems to actually be an amalgam of smaller woodland areas. This area, as was most of the Forest of Dene, was a mining region, so there is much evidence of past exploitation of the coal reserves underground. At an adjoining woodland called Parson's Allotments, I stumbled across this monument.

And try as I might I can not find out what this monument is about. The inscription said VP 1837-97 (or was it 1867, it had some damage to it). Was VP the Parson of the woods name? I'd be interested to know more.

I did see some wildlife of course. This buzzard idly flew up from the woodland floor and sat looking at me. Which helped me enormously as while watching the buzzard, I noticed a small number of marsh tits flitting about, 3 or 4, but on looking at one of them, one had a very sooty black head, was this a willow tit? It's so hard to tell them apart without song. The marsh tit's did call, but not this sooty black chap, so I can't be certain but my hunch was 3 marsh and a single willow. Quite possible as around these 4 birds were half a dozen blue and great tit. Mixed tit flocks are a very familiar sight in the winter, although long tailed tits, of which I saw many by the pigs, do not seem to be as sociable.
This active hole was also a nice find, woodpecker possibly, but given the damage to the tree around the hole itself it is more probably being used by grey squirrels as a winter site, but again maybe little owl, other birds, even bats, if abandoned.

And so I wound my way back to the car after a glorious 3 hour ramble in December sunshine; it wasn't spectacular, just a pleasant walk in silence.

Sadly the next day, Sunday, brooded dull and the threat of rain in the air. Again Julie safely installed in her Yurt, I headed inland this time to the area around Nagshead, the RSPB site. To begin with I decided to have a wander about the area before visiting the reserve. I have to admit something here, in that I just headed off without really having a clue where I was. Even carrying a map was pointless as I didn't really know where I'd started from. But that didn't matter I was following old forestry tracks so couldn't really get lost.

This hole intrigued me. Ashamedly I've done the classic faux pas of not scaling this. It was about 4-5mm across and on a sandy substrate. I wonder if it is an oil beetle chamber, or mining bee, though a bit late in the season for them. I asked a few colleagues and they're a bit stumped too. Any ideas out there?

No mistaking this jay. I'm a huge fan of all corvids, and jays just fascinate me. But (my incompetence not their ability) I've never ever managed to get a descent photo of one. They're off faster than I can get the camera ready.

A lot of lichen can be found in the Forset of Dene, such as this fairly common Ramalina spp. The forest semed to be good for lichen, presumably due to the ancientness of the area's woodland, and of course being on the west, slightly damper conditions. The forest's longevity is partly due to it's proximity between Wales and England, so, as with many border areas, they weren't developed. Also the low-impact mining which carried on here needed timber for the mine shafts, so there continued a continuity of tree cover rather than clearance for agriculture. You can read more about ancient woodlands and their epiphytes here.

Plenty of squirrel dreys around here too, sadly not the reds, and another interesting sight of some cracking Stereum spp. fungi on stacked logs, which was good to see being left here in a Forestry Commission plantation.

I finally made it to the RSPB's Nagshead reserve just as the rain began to become more frequent. But I was here and decided for one last push and so tramping again through silent woods, I reached the hide, in excitement of possibly seeing mandarin ducks. Absolutely nothing, not a single bird within 100 yards.

But on the way back a nice collection of sulphur tuft fungi on a tree stump. So again the woods may be silent with birdsong, but if we look, there's a lot to see.

So that was it, two days exploring a part of the UK I'm not at all familiar with. It is very hard work birdwatching in woodlands in mid-winter, I probably saw 20 species in 2 days, including some lovely nuthatch on the Sunday. But that's not the point. It's all about getting out there and looking for other signs of life. There are birds there, but they're silent and often hidden. But look closely and we can see lichen, moss, fungi, as well as signs and tracks. And on this last point I shall end this posting.

The Forest of Dene is well known as being home to reintroduced wild boar. While getting myself completely lost in the forest on Sunday, I stumbled across a wild boar area. Optimistically, I'm sure I heard a single grunt from a distance, but in reality I didn't see a boar. I'd love to and think they're a fantastic addition to the UK countryside. But in the area I stumbled across there were many many signs of very recent activity.

Wild boar slot (quite similar to some deer)

a chewing post, and of course the uprooting they do along wide tracks.

To see these it's best to be out there in the dawn or dusk, so I may just have to ask Julie to go and book herself onto another course in the not too distant future...........!!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Who invented decking?

Okay, who invented decking for the garden? I have loads of the stuff, it came with the house when I moved in 2 years ago. It had just been put in by the vendor that year so was in effect new, and I have to admit it looked smart when I viewed the house, and, along with a hot tub (oh yes!) and the 14 decking lights (which worked for exactly a week after I moved in) it did look stunning in the evening. But the hot tub was sold before I moved in (good) and the lights failed (water in the electrics and the cost of fixing is more than installing) and to be perfectly honest I'm not a decking fan, never have been. I did have a plan to rip it all up when I first moved in, but a mix of the cost of laying a patio and complete lack of time meant it has been left on the to-do list. And it looked okay, so why rip up perfectly good hard standing for the chairs and so on.

Anyway this decking is slowly becoming lethal. I wont use chemicals in the garden, so I try and keep the moss on the wood at bay by regular cleaning with a brush. However last week when going to top up the bird feeders I nearly came a cropper, it literally was like ice and only by clinging onto the silver birch did I avoid slipping down the 3 steps and into the shed, but in doing so pulled a muscle in my shoulder which still niggles. I could use a chemical moss cleaner, but don't like doing so for the birds and wildlife, or nail chicken wire everywhere which works well in a nature reserve, but looks a mess in a garden, so I think I will bite the bullet in the spring and rip it up. But what to do before then?

Well I'm ashamed to say I have relented and the decking has had a through scrub with Jayes Fluid. It's not the most environmentally friendly product on the garden but it works, and the smell takes me back to my agricultural days.

So after giving the decking a through coating of Jayes Fluid during the week, this afternoon I was out there with a stiff brush and the hose to give it a really good scrub.

Its sort of worked but it's not by any means moss free yet. But at least I can walk on it. Having the feeders over it is good in one way as the spoil is picked up by ground feeders, but their "after mess" is also causing a problem. I may have to go for a radical rethink with the feeders, but I like them being there as I can sit in the conservatory and watch the birds antics.

Speaking of which while writing this posting in the fields out the back a huge rook flock and carrion crows have been getting very restless. Can't see why but often if corvids start getting agitated by a hedge, there's possibly an owl roosting there.

But while spending a few hours in the garden it gave me the chance to have a mooch about. It's been a very hectic week and I've not seen much daylight since last Sunday. So it was very welcome to go and see what was happening. And, as many of you have mentioned, it's unseasonably mild and as a consequence, odd things are happening.

I'll begin with the paperwhites. I know these are not early, but they came into bud at the end of October. So I've had them in cold storage for a month but no longer can I keep them cold, as I always love having paperwhites on display at Christmas (alongside daffodils from Jersey - makes me think spring isn't far away). But today finally one pot has flowered, so I've brought it into the conservatory. 2 more pots are not far behind but I'll try and stagger them.

But out in the garden, strange going's on. A pair of great tits were calling their territorial call this morning, and in the plant kingdom.......... I have a honeysuckle out.

And lavender!!

One of the pots containing tere a tete narcissus is showing good growth too

All quite odd for the end of November, especially when one thinks a year ago today Britain was shivering in a very unseasonal snowfall which brought most of the country to a standstill. Personally I like a nice bit of cold winter, but not for too long. Just enough to sit in front of a log fire and while away the long winter nights with a whisky or two ........ mmmmmmmmmm!!

Speaking of winter, my last Living World of the year goes out tomorrow, a surprising take on the holly story. If you miss it at 06.35hrs, you can listen again HERE.