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Sunday, 22 November 2020

Carrion Crow, Regurgitated.


This morning there was a lone carrion crow in the garden. Nothing unusual about that, though to be truthful although carrion crows are common around here, as elsewhere, rarely does one come into the garden and perch on the fence. 

Julie my wife alerted me to its presence surveying the garden.  It was one of those autumnal days when everything is sodden. Not quite freezing overnight but a heavy dew covered every available surface as the mist began dispersing with the strengthening sun. Earlier I'd seen the flash of a male sparrowhawk over the garden, though I was preoccupied in other things to concentrate on garden activity. The carrion crow however grabbed my attention, crows being an interest to me. I readily forget how large these corvids are when seen close too. Much like herring gulls when in the garden, who seem to fill it with their wingspan, this crow dominated the fence. That heavy black bill directing the observant deep set eyes to survey the scene, a crow seemingly at rest. 

Though highly intelligent carrion crows (Corvus corone) are the most wary of the corvids in my experience, never letting me get close to them. This year a pair successfully raised two (possibly three, but I'm unsure) young in the trees about 100m away. Squabbling magpies mobbing the crows each time they flew into the tree alerted me to the nest back in the spring. That squabbling was to continue all summer and well into September. The adult crows used the large fir tree in our garden as respite from this bickering it seemed, but they never came into the garden. Either one or both would sit on the top most branches preening and generally observing the world, before suffering the magpies wrath as they returned to the nest. Interestingly a pair of magpies had a nest in the fir tree this year, tit for tat maybe?

Whether the bird I observed preening its wing was one of the same adults I'm unsure, though logic decrees it would be and in its territory.  After a few minutes watching this crow it hopped off the fence and down onto the gravel. There on the path it flicked over a few stones before flying up onto the shed roof. Slipping and sliding down the shed roof, the crow then hopped onto the back wall and stood for a while. A perfect poised motionless corvid. I was tempted to get my camera but knew it would have disappeared before I returned. I therefore watched. 

It was while simply observing I saw the crow open it's bill and almost as if silently craa-ing, shook it's head while keeping its bill wide open. Again the bill opened, this time turning its head in the opposite direction. It then hopped slightly to the left and opened its bill once more, this time a pellet fell out of the crow onto the wall. I've known for years that crows regurgitate pellets but I've never seen this actually happen (nor have I been absolutely sure I've found one in the countryside). It is well known that birds of prey, especially owls regurgitate indigestible food remains, but a number of other bird species regurgitate too including herons, and dabbling ducks. And also crows; thanks to the work a century ago by Sven August Heintz a Swedish biologist. Post pellet regurgitating I read a paper reviewing his work [Green et al 2019].

In this recent article by Green et al they review the work of Heintz in the context of contemporary science and ornithology. A century ago Heintz suggested at least eleven corvid species were key seed dispersal species both through cache, hoarding, faecal droppings and pellet regurgitations. One of the species confirmed as doing this was the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), which in 1917 was then considered the same species as the carrion crow, with the former just more plentiful in numbers in Sweden.   

Heintz stated that "It is well-known that some members of the crow family (Corvidae) are important for seed dispersal either via frugivory (e.g., when feeding on berries) or by scatter hoarding (e.g., of nuts).....corvids are partly granivorous and have long had a reputation for causing damage to cereal crops"

[Heintz] "... carried out germination experiments of the contents of regurgitated pellets and excrements from Magpie and Hooded Crow. Most germination trials were carried out in early spring, of seeds that had been collected the preceding autumn or winter. Although many seeds germinated within a few weeks, trials were run throughout summer and autumn..... in total Heintze identified 157 plant taxa from 42 families which were dispersed by corvids by endozoochory (dispersal via ingestion)

Heintz concluded It appears that within these zoogeographic areas [the Holarctic and the Neoboreal] corvids are the most important seed dispersers among all landbirds.” 

All of the above I gleaned from reading Green et al after watching the crow on my garden wall. Which after regurgitating its pellet flew off, allowing me to collect it (image above).

At the time of writing I have not dissected the pellet though on external examination it is packed with what will be indigestible seed husks and what look like acorn remains. Which was interesting in itself, as the literature suggests most regurgitations occur when crows feed on beetles and other invertebrates with tough carapace or wings. A quick search on the internet drew a blank for grain derived pellets. Could it be that seed based pellets are less obvious as they fall apart and are dispersed by wind more readily?  More investigation needed I feel, although given corvids are very granivorous during harvests and in autumn, it is not surprising really what this pellet contains.

That simple act of watching a carrion crow in the morning opened me up to the work of Heintz which until today I'd not known about. I'm not alone it seems. A quick scan through indexes in various books I have on crows fail to mention Heintz, seemingly Green et al are correct in their own conclusion that the work of that Swedish scientist a century ago has largely been forgotten, but it stands the test of time and is as pertinent today as in 1917. 

Reference :

Green, Andy J, Elmberg, Johan and Lovas-Kiss, Ádám (2019). Beyond Scatter-Hoarding and Frugivory: European Corvids as Overlooked Vectors for a Broad Range of Plants. Front. Ecol. Evol. | https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00133

Sunday, 15 November 2020

November has a sound; silence


Is there a sound to November? Or do I mean the month of November has its own sounds? I'm not sure as for me the dominant sound in November is silence. The dominant feeling stillness. On reflection November has a sound that no other month has. It is hard to explain but then on one day I realise that November has arrived. 

In his book The Quiet Fields, the writer BB describes this beautifully in his entry for November 2nd. He begins: [page 175] 

"The sudden arrival of true winter has taken me unawares. It seems only yesterday that the sun shone with warmth enough to tempt a late tortoiseshell to the fading Michaelmas daisies...." 

 He continues [p177] 

" Standing on the lawn this early evening - watching the last sad yellow leaves of the birches drift down to the dark sepia brown of the pond, I had a sudden surge of excitement that winter is almost here again - maybe it was an almost animal awareness hard to explain.... "

This still silent sound of the eleventh month appears as if by osmosis. A time when autumn has almost forgotten why it exists. Is winter here yet? Not quite, but I've lost interest and need to slow down. The sound of silence is accompanied by stillness which provides the release of an emotional connection in me at this time of the year. It's an emotion I love so much. 

Even in late October, although the days are short, the sun may still shine strong and warm, the last of the summer migrant birds are heading south, too soon yet for their winter replacements. In October the remnants of summer bounty cling on in the hedgerow larder, keeping harsh winter at bay much as lichen does on the lee of an exposed mountain wall. Then, on a single day, a day no official diary will note, the feeling changes. November is still autumn yet it cloaks this season of mellow fruitfulness with a quiet veil of wintertide.

As BB himself did 40 years ago I found myself, just a few days ago, standing in the garden at dusk. The silence alerted me to the suggestion of stillness. In reality it was already there, it waited patiently for me to notice it. The countryside felt suddenly expanded, opened out, my hearing became distant, as if the ambiance of silence was coming from somewhere unseen in the far distance. Of course partly this is a lack of foliage in November. October storms have laid bare many trees, the air has less to resit its passing than in high summer when the rustle of leaves dominates. But there was not a breath in the air, not a bird song, nothing, just November's presence. 

Moments earlier a weak yellow sun falling towards the horizon shone beneath steel grey clouds which had dominated the sky all day. For a minute or so, just beyond the garden, the yellow leaves of a field maple were illuminated into a fire-glow of colour. But what a colour! As only witnessed in November pale buttermilk hues, with the intensity of a watercolour wash, lit every branch, before, as if by the flick of a switch, the sun fell to earth. The sky itself now took centre stage, creating its own emulsion of orange and indigo; the countryside equivalent of following the harmonious suggestions of an artists colour wheel. Larger trees were now silhouetted, contrasting with the vibrancy beyond. Slowly that hue faded as dusk advanced, indigo deepened and I observed all was quiet, all was still, all was very November. 

A few days later, a number of starlings are chattering on the roof. Not the urgent banter of spring when all efforts focus towards raising a successful brood or two. In November their toil is over, simply the relaxed contact calls of adults and offspring,  like a gaggle of gossiping farmers in the auction mart weighing up cattle. Wheezes, shwees, sqwarks, high pitched rapid fire rattling chat, responding replies, all cascade from the rooftop. They nest and roost in the eves of the house and though I can't see them, there may be half a dozen birds. Starlings chatter and bicker all year of course, but in November their constant communication throws me back to winters in Newcastle, a time when thousands of starlings would come in to roost high above the Christmas shoppers below in Northumberland Street. As a child I would listen to this deafening chorus in amazement, a sound way  higher than the passing traffic, not knowing I was witnessing something which no longer occurs. Today town roosts are a thing of the past as health and safety took over the cleansing of the streets via the netting of the rooves.

Winter has always been my birdwatching season. Maybe that is it, my November moment, my own animal awareness triggered possibly with the first seep seep of redwing flying unseen overhead in a starlit sky, their calls heralding the glory days of winter wildlife watching to come. 

A few days ago with the bedroom window open I listened to a pair of tawny owls somewhere beyond the garden. It was 1.30am, pitch black of course except for the bright moonshine of a waning moon. These two males were twoo-hooting their resolve to claim and hold a territory. Possibly two young males eager to stake their claim (tawny owls can lay their first eggs in February).  One was much closer, maybe they had negotiated their patch and delighted in confirming their prize. Whatever the reason this went on for a good half an hour, in-between times absolute silence in the still and surprisingly mild night air. In spring a little owl calls in the same field, summer too, but I have never heard them in autumn. Whereas tawny owls only tend to be heard in autumn and winter - owl dynamics at play.  While listening to their contact chat minutes passed and I was lulled off to sleep, only later to be woken before daybreak by a robin.

There's nothing unusual in that, robins are early singers, well before dawn, often starting in July, so by November they've got into their stride and most mornings perform their duty as dawn-herald. This particular morning was different. Maybe the moonlight, maybe the mildness of the dawn,  or maybe just because I'd not noticed before, a hesitant dawn chorus seemed to briefly occur. As I listened to the robin, the tik tik of a blackbird, maybe two could also be heard, a tuneless mallard flew somewhere in the night sky, a wren erupted into song in the hedge boundary. Herring gulls and lesser black back gulls flew noisily from their roost in the Bristol Channel islands. Inevitably a carrion crow barked its morning command and was replied to by a grey heron. I often hear grey herons at night as they move about the landscape, avoiding potential predators, sometimes I think it is a vixen if I'm half asleep.

It was by now a half light which in turn disturbed a dunnock whose contact calling somewhere beyond the garden added to this false dawn chorus. It was a mild morning, there was a stillness, sound travels farther in the leafless countryside. 

By the time the sparrows in the eves began chattering it was almost light. They are lazy in my book, nearly always the last to emerge to feed, like teenagers after a late night. I looked at my watch, 06.50am, and as I did so a redwing overshot the house. In twenty minutes ten birds could be heard calling at different times. As dawn choruses go it was paltry, obviously, but the sound of awakening avian species, chatting and communicating before the foraging day ahead was a pleasing start to a November day. 

As it became lighter, the daily flotilla of around 100 jackdaws passed over, noisily jak-a-jak-ing in their pairs or trios as they flew by. It amazes me how regular those jackdaws are, I can almost set my watch to their passing each day, heading south in the morning, and returning north in the evening at roughly 5 minutes earlier or later than the week before. Some days they fly so low over the garden, I'm above them if looking out of an upstairs window, today though they were high, noisily keeping the young birds in line. 

That hesitant dawn chorus is not the true November sound. What is are the myriad of contact calls as late afternoon merges into dusk. That is a favourite time of mine, to sit quietly and reflect on what is happening. Go for a walk across any farmland, ramble through a deciduous woodland, or sit on a hill at dusk and I can guarantee pheasants will call somewhere. There is something primeval in that pheasant call, especially if heard from a great distance. In the right habitat, blackbirds set up a continuous tik tik, or sep sep as they jostle and fidget before sleep. Robins of course who never seem able to sleep add to the melee, and wrens too. I recently watched the silhouette of a wren at dusk. Its diminutive plumpness shook with the effort of its song. Against a sunset sky this sound which has permeated down the centuries, spoke more to me of November stillness than I could imagine. But then it was off, into the hedge across the lane and out of sight, though not out of earshot.

I could suggest the November silence is also about corvids, rooks, carrion crow and increasingly ravens calling in the distant soundscape, their caws and chatter from an unseen stubble field, is of the season. If you are lucky on that wander, jays cackle alongside fieldfares high in the trees. It may be just here in Somerset, but I feel the once wary jay is becoming bold. I now see them flying over motorways with crops stuffed with acorns or in Bristol streets where they have always been a familiar sight and of course in the silent woods as they noisily fly away from you.  

It is the lack of other ambient sounds which heightens these and all bird calls. By November most insects have done their best, the woods and farmlands fall silent of their buzzing and stridulating. Summer migrants have left, taking with them their chattering and exotic song. Trees have mostly lost their leaves, hushing the gentle rustle of air through their branches. The ground is soft, footfall across grassland is mostly silent, the dry rustle of early autumn a faded echo. Sounds travel far, scent too in the all too still landscape.

At dusk there is that scent of November which is not replicated at other times of the year. Air inversions move moist aroma upwards from the still warm soil with the lightness of touches. It's a rich mix of earth-bound mycorrhizal, associations with dampness and the thousands of microorganisms decomposing the plentiful biomass of summer in readiness for the growth year ahead. There is nothing like it, especially if mixed with wood smoke from an unseen dwelling. That for me is November. To sit outdoors on a calm late autumn evening simply absorbing nature's bounty. Not every evening will have a robin sing, but I know it is there. Likewise the starling, sparrow and tawny owl. They'll be watching me, I am blind to them, and I simply watch the mist from my mug of tea, evaporating, spiraling upwards to oblivion, ever so quietly.

I began with a quote from The Quiet Fields by BB. At the end of his entry for November 2nd he references two giants of nature writing, W.H.Hudson and Richard Jefferies within the context and reflections on the changing seasons. 

[p178] "Certainly Richard Jefferies felt it, and Hudson also who was less of a dreamer than Jefferies, but with the same keen perception and with more literary skill"

BB's view is that to connect with this primitive 'outdoor' feeling, sudden and swiftly passing can only be felt by your true countryman - your sportsman - naturalist. That is the nub of all connection with nature, that connection, that primitive outdoor feeling none of us who feel it can really explain, it is simply primeval. Jefferies, Hudson and BB all came from that era of shooting game to becoming naturalists. It is a lost world to modern naturalists. Yet for centuries, longer maybe, people have listened to November's silence, watched the sun set and connected with the landscape and wildlife around them. It is thanks to BB and all those writers throughout history, who captured those long forgotten moments in November, that we the future reader can connect across time. As ever their writing stirs the soul into stillness, reflection and November.

Reference:

BB (1981) The Quiet Fields, illustrated by D.J Watkins-Pitchford. Michael Joseph. London 

Monday, 26 October 2020

Missed Opportunities

Sometimes a single thought inspires me to write, today that thought is simply lost or missed opportunities.

Out of the office window, I have this view. The camera, or at least my mobile phone camera never captures the intensity of colour. This purple beech tree looks stunning in the late October sunshine. As I watched the tree, individual leaves were falling to earth in the gentle breeze. Raucous jays frequent this tree regularly, their feathers perfectly reflecting this trees' leaves of many colours throughout the season.  It struck me that as I set off from home this morning, those leaves were on that tree, high, aloft, out of reach. Now as I dwell upon the view, they are shed, their work is done for this year. If I could only follow each leaf down I could pick it up as it landed, reflect in it's form, one single human contact in its short life. 

 

Observation struck me that I don't think I've ever seen a leaf detach itself from a tree. Countless are the times I've seen leaves blowing in the wind from the direction of a single tree, but never that absolute moment when the Rubicon is crossed, the attached detaches and is free, opportunities thereafter are limited much like a mayfly flying free for a brief moment in time. 

With this in mind I spied a single leaf, on one of the highest branches. Fluttering flag-like in the breeze I observed for five or so minutes. It clung on to its branch, waving its resilience to changing atmospheric pressure. Inevitably work intervened, however when I returned to my observation just half an hour later, the leaf had gone. I'd missed that opportunity, that final sealing of the abscission layer, and the ejection of the leaf by its parent plant. And my wish to see it fall.  Somehow this felt like a metaphor for life, look away however briefly, and you will miss those opportunities presented to your field of vision. 

I wonder how many leaves this tree will shed in the next 8 hours while I watch it? There is a steady confetti of movement. Three more in the time it took me to write that last sentence. I'm looking intently, the lower branches still thick with foliage gently sway in the gusty breeze. Suddenly there is a crackle of sound, branches oscillate to the gust, a dozen single leaves now fire off into the air like cadmium orange mayflies. Pirouetting almost as if the joy of freedom is too much, their hue is reflected against the intense blue sky, they dance higher before Earth's gravity inevitably draws them down, down out of sight, down to terra firma

It is a childlike fascination watching this performance. Simple yet memorizing; equally as I gaze upwards I see new buds, short dagger shapes clinging firmly to the rapidly defoliating branch. In six months they too will be allowed to unfurl in their moment of glory. It will be May, they will bring a burst of fresh citrus green before darkening to that rich burgundy tone. The winter to come, now being ushered in by the breeze, will be over. The falling of the leaves is therefore not the end, simply the beginning of the next cycle in the natural world.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

The condensed moisture of the atmosphere falling visibly in separate drops.


The Oxford English Dictionary describes rain thus : Noun : 

The condensed moisture of the atmosphere falling visibly in separate drops.

Drill into the scientific literature and rain, rainfall and related meteorological phenomenon are all caught up with the water recycling on Earth that sustains life. 

Or, as I did this October morning upon opening the curtains, the temptation is to close them again and return to the land of slumber, with an improving book. That though is missing the joy of rain. Sunshine lifts the spirits to many; for me rainfall energises. Why? I do not have the inclination to work that out, maybe a deep seated childhood memory, but for me rain and strong winds that often accompany these low pressure Autumnal systems simply energise something deep within, to be creative.

As I write this, the constant chatter of hundreds of raindrops drum out a pattern on the window, a constant musical accompaniment to my muse. For many damp weather brings to them the shadow of melancholy. I am the opposite, hot sunshine robs me of energy, creative energy. And while I do enjoy a summers day sunbathing by the coast, some of my best creative moments have been during tempestuous conditions outside. Whether they be paintings or writing, there is a wrapped up cosiness to rain that chisels inwards into my soul. It is sound. Those many raindrops providing the comforting jazz beat tenor, a rhythm, a beat, a swing to focus my dancing fingers over the keyboard. Wind driven rain blows a faster tempo to the rhythm, quiet moments times of reflective introspection. 

This commentary arose while standing in the kitchen watching Julie planting bulbs in the greenhouse. Waiting for the kettle to boil, that mundane suburbia activity of life support, I watched the raindrops dribble down the glass, reflecting on the scene. Imagery can never recreate this scene in its whole, the frailty of summer scenes being ruled by the relentless weather of change. Wind buffeted in many directions. Raindrops thrown against the pane one moment, silence the next in readiness for the following tumult of precipitative energy. So enraptured became I that I forgot to make my coffee.  This giver of life, a simple dual combination of hydrogen and oxygen elements, brings also the process of recycling. Without rain, all life would stop, birth, life and death, death followed by decomposition in the afterlife, rebirth and reflection.


Thomas Hardy had an almost obsession with this cycle and recycle of life during and after death. Take for example his marvellous poem An Autumn Rain-Scene;  

There trudges one to a merry-making
With sturdy swing,
On whom the rain comes down.

To fetch the saving medicament
Is another bent,
On whom the rain comes down.

One slowly drives his herd to the stall
Ere ill befall,
On whom the rain comes down.

This bears his missives of life and death
With quickening breath,
On whom the rain comes down.

One watches for signals of wreck or war
From the hill afar,
On whom the rain comes down.

No care if he gain a shelter or none,
Unhired moves on,
On whom the rain comes down.

And another knows nought of its chilling fall
Upon him aat all,
On whom the rain comes down.

On the surface here is an observer watching country folk about their business caught up in the machinations of the lead character, rain. Drill down under the surface and Hardy is here covering a lot of ground which creates walks of life. Merrymaking, medicament (medication or sickness), vigour, poverty and wealth, not forgetting melancholy and Hardy's favourite theme death. The poem ends with "knows nought of it's chilling fall". The poem is, for want of a better explanation, a scene from the grave. The six characters are dead and the rain allows the possibly recently deceased observer to assess his, or her own mortality, this day when - knows naught of its [rain] chilling fall.

Hardy repeatedly uses rain as a metaphor for melancholy and death, angst and lost love. It seems logical then that he too was inspired by this atmospheric precipitation falling to earth. I recall reading that triage of unrequited love Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time and being struck by a sub-scene which is one of the pivotal scenes to the novel. Bathsheba's servant Fanny Robin is buried in a paupers grave, however her erstwhile lover Francis Troy erects a gravestone, which overnight is destroyed by rainfall from the church gargoyle pouring onto it. Troy exits left, Bathsheba repairs the grave her ex lover erected for his former lover and diverts the gargoyle. Which love is it, Bathsheba for Troy, Troy for Fanny, Bathsheba for a wronged event the dismissal of Fanny, or just love based on doing the right thing. Powerful imagery the result of raindrops, lots of them.

Currently being repeated on Radio 4 is a factual-arts series called A British History of Weather, with the subtitle "During Wind and Rain". I have been involved with getting this repeat back on air through a little bit of fettling as we'd call it; the subtitle of this 2016 ten part series came from Hardy's own poem of the same name:  

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face ...
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee…
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Again we are in the mind of the observer, casting his or her mind back to a happy family. The final stanza is the catalyst to look back, remember those people whose names are inscribed on the gravestones in the graveyard. For that moment in time those who have departed are back with us, flesh and blood, alive and close enough to touch. Much as many of us do today with old family photographs.

Hardy was inspired by many things, with rain used as a metaphor throughout his work. To a much lesser extent rain allows my inner creative, albeit at a village craft tent level, to Hardy's Premier League National Treasure. I've not written for this blog since July, writers block or just laziness broken this weekend by Storm Alex and its thrashing tail of rainfall. That deluge of condensed moisture has recharged my little grey cells and the fingertips skip across the keyboard. The power of rain is amongst us all, I only hope the sun doesn't shine too soon, though when it does we may get a rainbow moment; rain is needed for this too.

Here goes.

There was a young man called Fred,
Through rain and puddles he tread
Wet through he was
Emigrated to Oz
In sunshine he now lays dead.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Allsop's Haggerdown Hill

From its summit on a clear day one can see all the way from Dartmoor sixty miles to the west around to the Isle of Wight sixty miles to the east.  In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Trumpet-Major Eggardon Hill is called ‘Haggerdon’.


And it is somewhere I have been visiting since the summer of 1982.

I've loved this part of West Dorset ever since as a teenager coming on a two week holiday to Toller Porcorum, with my parents. Before then we'd oft holidayed in Bournemouth (including the infamous hot summer of 1976). Despite the 350 mile 8 hour drive from our North East home my parents loved Dorset, but always gravitated towards the east, land of furze heath, sea stacks and long sandy beaches. Why we ended up at Toller Porcorum that year I know not. Though I'm pleased we did. Something clicked. If memory serves me down the years, I recall spending much of the holiday lying in the bath of this holiday cottage reading Far From the Madding Crowd. The huge windows were wide open, not a breath of wind, my view a heat shimmering steep hill hard by the hamlet. Birds sang, swallows swooped and as many a romantic teenager before I enveloped myself in a sepia mist of that imagined artistic self lost in a bedrock chalk landscape.  

Which is interesting as these days I take many sepia photographs such as this one of the view down to Maiden Newton with Eggardon on the far right horizon.


That holiday as a teenager was remarkable for a single moment. Most people have pivotal moments in life, moments which change life and direction forever. Mine was asking my father if I could go for a drive (I'd recently passed my driving test) on the last evening before we trudged back to the north. In the passionate musing of a smitten teenager, I dreaded going back. 

It was mid July, warm, the sun setting slowly, allowing a golden hue to caress the fields and I just drove out of Toller Porcorum with no specific plan in mind. I headed east, not west. Coming back to the cottage I found myself on the Roman road climbing steeply out of Winterbourne Abbas. Vivid remain the memory of excitement, this straight, but crooked, Roman road was bathed in late evening summer light. Tall grasses brushed by the car as I sped along, windows down, I was free, enjoying that freedom teenage boys love when being away from parents. And then I came to a crossroad. In front of me was a single lane track, curiosity bore down on my decision where to go. Ahead. 


Only on writing this piece have I discovered this lane is called King's Lane. For decades it simply was the track on Eggardon Hill, a track with a view which took my breath away on that summers evening.  I stopped the car, got out and stood memorised. Silence, a meandering lane grass growing up through the middle, a hill fort to my left and precipitously to my right a steep steep drop into what I now know is Powerstock Common and beyond. Northumberland had huge skies and empty landscapes, but nothing like this. Of course I was not the first to discover it.


For the last few years of his life, the late great countryside writer Kenneth Allsop lived under the shadow of this "arrowhead plateau" as he called it. It was to become the backbone to this Yorkshire-man's life, as it has become to me. It draws me towards it by unseen threads, once pulled taut resistance is impossible.  

A decade before I discovered this Wessex Height, Allsop in his book In the Country elegantly summed up what Eggardon, or Haggerdown as he called it, meant to him;  I understand fully - it would be futile to add to his words, 


"This rooftop of turfed limestone is a place for kestrels and orchids, for butterflies like flecks of the sky itself, the chalkhill blue and the Adonis blue, they waver among the scabious and harebells, vast angels against the miniaturized woods and barns on the unfolding tracts below"

Allsop continues..

 " On this last great limb, a domination of wind, cloud and turf, there is a sense of pure form and power of rock-formation which I have felt nowhere else. Ahead the vale of clay dissolves into the Devon border"


One of the absolute joys of moving to Somerset in the early 1990's was being able to visit Eggardon as a day tripper. Before my move south, living in the North East of England and despite the distance, I had visited and re-visited this rooftop of turfed limestone every year, sometimes more than once. During a mad moment when I was feeling especially low, I spent a solitary hour on the Hill, after the 16 hour round trip. Youth was on my side for the energy needed to stay awake that long. Luckily I can now head down there as and when the pull of the threads draws me in. As it did this week, only 6 weeks after my last visit. The two days could be no different.


On my visit in May, Dorset was (as indeed was most of England) in the midst of the sunniest and driest spring for decades. On that day the land was parched, 30 degree heat bore down on these turfed ramparts making the day stifling for the few specks of sky I observed fluttering along it's flanks. 



My visit six weeks later reversed the mood. Rain bearing clouds scudded across the vanishing clay lands. Uncoordinated raindrops threatened to, but failed to, materialise into more organised downpours. And the wind blew. It was exactly why I walked along the track. The energy remained from a dilapidated tropical storm which had barrelled over the Atlantic this week. Low pressure squalls added to the feeling of isolation. I had the Hill to myself, just how I like it, though I never feel alone here. I'm always aware that many feet have trod this way since Eggardon's hill-fort was created around 50BC. Each and every owner of those passing feet leaves a presence, unseen, though still felt today.


I'd come to take photographs. Eggardon is almost impossible to either paint or photograph and do it justice.  The landscape is simply huge, omni-directional and never-ending.  I took many many more than are visible here, they will provide reference for the winter months, for I will conquer this image on canvas.  


  Until then I'll leave the last words to Kenneth Allop.


"As ever the gigantic hulk of Haggerdown filled the sky...........to earn the right to love a place you have to learn about it bit by bit. Dear Wessex - 'that wondrous world of sap and leaves' of Hardy"


Reference:

Allsop, Kenneth. (1972). In the Country. Hamish Hamilton

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Beware of Dragons and Damsels

Can you see me?

"Your Azure damselfly could well be a female Variable Damselfly..they tend to look darker overall and show more blue than other female “blue “ damselflies.  "
And so rang through my mind the morbid seeds of doubt after reading a reply to a number of images I'd submitted to my friend and one of the UK's best naturalists Brett Westwood. I have a lot to learn!

Despite the country being in lockdown for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been working 5 sometimes 6 days a week throughout. Not that this was a problem, I have actually enjoyed the intoxication of working on my own in a building normally swarming with media rugrats. I am an only child. A phrase which explains everything.

Yet, during my free time, I observed a littering the posts from social media friends. A daily maelstrom of images, "we're having a fantastic time away from work", erupted confetti-like in my Facebook timeline. Everyone it seemed had time to stop and stare at the natural world on their doorstep (or Talking Pictures TV which has become a national institution). The Nation de-cluttered their gardens, built bird boxes, ponds, wildflower meadows, posted videos of sparrows on feeders as though this domestic bird was a rare migrant - What? We have all this nature in our garden? Never seen it before. This is great, and yes, it really is great. For years conservation has tried to get people to engage with wildlife, yet in 2020, it's taken a microscopic virus emanating from the natural world in China to kick-start the momentum. I hope it lasts and real good comes out of Covid-19

The penny finally dropped in late May when a great friend said to me on email - have you been enjoying the Self-Isolating Bird Club videos Chris Packham broadcasts live each morning. 

Me : "No, what is this?"

Friend : "Really great broadcast about wildlife goes out around 9 am, I have my breakfast watching it

Me "Ahh, Err I'm at work then"

The penny had dropped. While the nature watchers still in their pyjamas having breakfast were watching Chris and his step daughter (an excellent natural presenter) Megan pour forth tit-bits on well, all tits great, blue and coal, I was entombed in the office packing up yet another microphone to send to a contributor, presumably also in their pyjamas watching Chris Packham. Things had to change, and I'm not talking the purchase of pyjamas. 

I was missing out of what was becoming one of the best springs in living memory. Endless blue skies, no traffic noise, warm too. Wildlife flourished through lack of human disturbance.  I, like millions of others, had observed in the garden. However I needed to get out there into the social distancing landscape of nature. A memo from on high stating we all need to take 2 weeks leave before September made me request 10 days off - not in a lump, but Wednesdays in June and July. I had no plan other than to step lightly outdoors every Wednesday for 8 weeks. I polished my boots and woggle. Anticipation was rife.

Which brings me to Dragonflies and Damselflies. My first couple of Wednesdays didn't involve too much wildlife watching, though a glorious day on Eggardon Hill watching butterflies while having a picnic serenaded by yellowhammer song was sublime. But then a couple of weeks ago my good friend Rob and I headed to the mighty Shapwick Complex on the Somerset Levels. Social distancing ourselves on the swamps, the quest that day was a dragonfly hunt. And very successful it was too.

4 spot chaser 17th June 2020

Black Tailed Skimmer 17th June 2020

Female Common Blue Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Probably) Female Variable Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Possibly) female common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

Now that one above caused much debate and made me realise how little I know about these relatively common insects near my home in Somerset. After spending an hour or so on the British Dragonfly society website I incorrectly identified this as a white legged damselfly. The reply from Brett, and from Rob was.. "....probably a female Common Blue...if it was White-legged it would show broader flanges on the legs and look paler than this. "   Right must remember that.

Male blue tailed damselfly 17th June 2020

Male common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

A different form male common blue damselfly. 17th June 2020
So I was hooked. Three mosquito bitten hours on the Somerset Levels and an evening with various identification guides, I'd become a dragonfly hunter. 

One thing I learnt many years ago when starting out in nature watching was, don't try and fight ignorance. It's all too easy to think every naturalist on earth knows everything about everything. There are a few who know a huge amount - Brett being one, Chris Packham another, but I could count many times over the days I've spent recording a radio programme with an expert on say spiders, only to find out they can't identify butterflies. It made me relax, It made me comfortable in saying to people - what's that? After all it is the only way to learn. 


Thus as a newly formed dragonfly hunter, I needed a second outing, this time on my own. This quest a week later found me returned to Shapwick and during what was to become the hottest day of the year so far, the day was as we say down here "Proper job".

Returning to the car with my wife (who I believe only came along for the entertainment of watching me be eaten alive by bitey-things) we were a bedraggled and flagging pair despite having a fantastic time. No wonder - the temperature recorded at the car as we set off home at nearly 7pm was a chilly, 36oC. We'd been out in that for three hours all told. Dehydrated Dragonfly Madness!

But it was worth it!

Blue tailed damselflies mating - 24th June 2020

Male brown hawker - 24th June 2020

Male emperor dragonfly - 24th June 2020

4 spot chaser - 24th June 2020
But I still have a lot to learn. When I began writing this blog way back in 2008 smartphones and apps to identify wildlife were simply a technological pipe-dream. Yet on my trip out with Rob he produced a new app he'd recently uploaded, Seek. Very good it was too, here seen identifying peacock caterpillars on nettle. I tried to upload it onto my steam driven smart phone but the error message said 'please replace your phone with something that is newer'. It's only 6 years old, but having witnessed Seek in action, it's tempting to upgrade both the phone and my enjoyment outdoors.

SEEK and you WILL find!

There's still mileage though in good old fashioned identification books. This caterpillar intrigued me and after a bit of a flick through of my Boys Own Book of Creepy Crawlies, I thought it was a knot grass caterpillar. Popped it onto Facebook, and initially although some replies came back as a vapourer moth which I'd already dismissed in my semi-ignorant way, this hairy behemoth turned out to be exactly what I'd identified. A knot-grass moth caterpillar. Wow - I'm learning.

Knot-grass caterpillar - 24th June 2020

I have another 4 Wednesdays as leave during July and can't wait to get out again.  There is nothing like being absorbed for hours with wildlife. On that hot Wednesday as I slowly cooked myself a fetching shade of rouge,  I became enveloped in a soundscape of crickets, insect buzzing, birdsong accompanied by the regular zzzz zzzz of a big emperor dragonfly quartering the streams just inches from me. I'll be sad when Lock-Down ends, and may have to seek other avenues of adventure.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Gotcha - Celastrina argiolus

It is a hot Saturday in early May. Too hot for May 9th that's for sure. In the greenhouse the temperature is nudging 40oC, as I found to my cost while potting on some plants  - what's that phrase of Noel Coward's? Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It has been exceptionally dry too since the middle of March, save for a couple of wet days, blue skies have predominated.

I should maybe plagiarise that phrase and suggest Mad Cuckoos and Englishman today. For eight years the call of the cuckoo fell silent from the fields beyond the garden. Where once a regular harbinger of spring enlivened my waking slumbers, since 2012 that silence curtailing letters to The Times announcing its arrival. Spring; est arrivé!

Which has possibly been good news for the reed buntings and sedge warblers quietly at leisure in the rhynes (or water ditches) around this part of Somerset. Then around 11am the unmistakable call of the male 'cu-ckoo' to the left. Which was worrying. Ancient people thought upon first hearing the cuckoo to the left hand side was a portent of bad luck. However if it is heard from the right, good luck is sure to approach that day. Excellent. Then there is was again, with relief for my nervousness, louder, closer, over to my right. This male harbinger of spring was possibly on migration, as after maybe 10 renditions of the well known refrain, the quiet fields (incidentally title of a book by the author BB) returned. I shall however keep my ears open tomorrow and over the coming days, as no doubt the reed buntings will too. 


Two hours later, my good luck really did approach with reckless abandon. Post my heatstroke in the greenhouse and cuckoo calling excitement, I found myself at leisure with a coffee. Nature observation is about sitting still, observing and being inquisitive.  A male Orange Tip transfixed me for a while, seamlessly obsessed by feeding on one particular clump of forget-me-not. Then a flash of blue caught my eye.

Three or four years ago I bought two standard holly trees in a moment of reckless impulse buying. One languishes unceremoniously in a large pot by the house. The other fares slightly better in one of the borders. Neither is taller than 5 feet. Yet, since their arrival, holly blue butterflies Celastrina argiolus (pronounced  - sell-us-TRY-nuh ar-jee-OH-luss -) have arrived and more importantly remain resident in the garden. This was also helped by the fact the garden wall was covered in ivy. Until that is the council decided it was unsightly and cut it down. It slowly returns. You can find more about these fascinating blue butterflies elsewhere, but for the purposes of this narrative I'm interested in egg laying. 


I watched this female from a distance. Long forgotten knowledge stored deep in the darkest recesses of my mind creaked into action. Internally it said she's egg laying. "Oh great" I said out loud. And so a discourse of sorts took place within me, an unavoidable madness exhibited by many wildlife watchers. Her flight pattern made me stop and observe. Around the pot bound holly she lazily flew, round and around, back and forth slowly reconnoitering the prickly plant just coming into flower. I had my camera with me.


This lovely blue butterfly is increasing its range in the UK, moving north to the Scottish border. In-fact I observed a holly blue in my parents garden in South Tyneside in 2008, whose record was accepted as one of the first records that far north. Climate change is most probably having an effect in this expansion, coupled with a butterfly quite happily able to coexist amongst we humans, plus an ability to complete two distinct life-cycles a year. It's a positive time. 

Holly blue could just as easily be called Ivy blue, Dogwood blue or Spindle blue.

There are two subspecies of Celastrina argiolus. The one we have in the UK is subspecies britanna, the other argiolus is found in Europe, but not here.  The britanna subspecies of the holly blue  has a spring emergence which lays its eggs, as far as I'm aware, only on holly (Ilex spp.)  the food-plant to the emerging larva. That generation emerges in summer to lay its eggs predominantly on ivy (Hedera spp.)  but also dogwoods, (Cornus spp), spindle (Euonymus spp.) plus a few other plants that can play host. Re-engaging once more my long forgotten knowledge stored deep in the back of my mind, I concluded it was May (late spring) and so this was a spring female about to lay eggs on a holly plant. I moved in for a closer look.


Have you ever tried to watch butterflies lay eggs? It is like juggling bananas while cycling in a hurricane. Poised statuesque-like in sunbaked temperatures, camera in hand I waited; in she flew, settled, flew off before I could move a muscle, wheeled back over me, settled again, flew off, then returned, wheeled off flying out of view and then frustratingly deposited and egg out of sight and then left stage right to repeat this merry dance in front of and around an Englishman (mad or otherwise). 

I loved it, seconds became minutes, minutes became quarter hour, a half hour, and more. Wheeling and settling she came and still I'd failed to see an egg being laid. And that is the challenge, to observe requires patience. 

My female, I shall call her my female, laid 4 eggs, then rested for a couple of minutes on a leaf, before laying 4 more eggs, ahead of another resting phase. A repeated cycle of egg laying and resting. It is thought females lay around 50 eggs over a few days, so my female had already lain a good proportion of her allotted clutch. Time to manfully have a go at capturing this on celluloid.  


The gloriously pale duck egg blue-green eggs are lain singly on the stalk of the unopened flower. These eggs are tiny, maybe 3-5 mm and almost impossible to see. Even after watching her lower her abdomen and deposit an egg, it took me a few moments to actually find it on the flower stalk I was looking at intently. I've since added a marker to the stem and have highlighted the egg she laid in the above photograph in the image below. 


What larks. An hour had passed before I finally managed to 'almost' capture the egg laying process with the camera. In the image below she is laying an egg. She arrived so quickly I didn't have time to react with the camera even though I was as close as this image to her. The second image was taken moments later as I tried to adjust the angle, tried to get closer, before once more she flew off. The third image is identical to the second, only I've circled her flying off and the egg, circled in red. I love this image, the briefest moment in time which I shall remember for a long time to come. 

So far I've located a handful of the eggs, but I know they're on that holly. The egg should 'hatch' a larva in a fortnight, and the whole process will begin anew.  I can't wait




As Winnie the Pooh memorably said, "doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something.". That was certainly the case today. My sitting doing nothing foretold an hour of captivating wildlife watching; or maybe the cuckoo knew something I didn't? 

Wildlife watching, It's a kind of magic!

References.


Holly Blue on Butterfly Conservation.org - https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/holly-blue

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Now lend me your ears

Now lend me your ears. For the first time in years I've read a book. Bear with me, I do read books occasionally. This was a book which made me want to page turn at an unseemly rate (cover to cover consumed in a couple of days). But for reasons I'm unable to fathom out, it left me with a sense of bewilderment that of not really knowing what it was all about. 


Reading the dust cover of Under the Tump, I gleaned from the publishers prose the knowledge that this book is about finding community in the market town of Hay on Wye and how, as an outsider, Oliver Balch used his journalism skills to decipher that often impenetrable sense of place, many of us crave when arriving unannounced to pastures new. However despite the rapid page turning, probably 100 per sitting before nightly retiring, I felt empty. Why I wonder?  

Usually whilst skimming across some honed narrative, if a book fails to hook me like a dangling trout, I simply abandon it. Regularly I have half a dozen books half-finished after drifting off to a subsequent offering . Yet this book kept me turning the pages, I couldn’t stop, all the time while it failed to instil in me anything ground-breaking or new to say. That intrigues me. 

Neither geographical nor historical in purpose, both are covered in detail. Real life characters met along the way were detailed without overblown substance; whilst events passed by without too much fanfare. It was pacey. Balch adeptly used his journalistic technique to arrive at the point quickly, revisits his own perceptions of what and whom, leaving closure somewhat in the mind of the reader’s own interpretation. Clever writing. 

In the dim past I became a journeyman writer of natural history scripts for Radio 4, it is a similar technique to journalism - yet entirely different. For radio, the script has to allow the presenter to be both the peddler of the narrative, in an entertaining way, while sounding like the easy going orator and authority on that topic, as we absorb their every nuance. When we read off the page we self-adapt the words in print to our internal ear. A million individual ways to interpret how those words are being delivered. 

Writing scripts for the radio is a single entity. The person speaking is talking to you, the listener, one to one, personal and intimate. Nobody else.

If spoken word doggedly followed the journalistic chronological principles of Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? possibly this would lead to merry mayhem with this eye-ear coordination and if lain uncorrected ultimately lead to the switching off of the radiogram or writing a letter of complaint from ‘Disgruntled of Much Wenlock’. 

Whether spoken or read, the beginning though is a hook, it's always a hook. Once impaled through the subconscious of the reader or listener, then other important details, other subservient information can be exposed. Not before, not never. 

I've just looked back at some of the scripts I bashed out for Tweet of the Day - World Birds. An example of how facts are delivered in different ways depending on the intended audience struck me. 

The bird in question is a horned screamer (Anhima cornuta), the narrator, Sir Michael Palin.

We're off, 90 seconds of radio is about to be unleashed before the Today Programme on Radio 4. Starting sedately, 6 seconds of natural soundbites filter towards the listener... the line is cast, will it?, could it?, hook the listener. Then oration feels a bite and reels in from the seventh second... 

"It sounds as if someone is using a giant plunger in the Venezuelan marshes. But these are the mating calls of the Horned Screamer.  They’re sounds that only another Horned Screamer could love, but then screamers are very odd birds."

40 words, 22 seconds of spoken word as a most pedestrian rate of 1.8 words per second - somewhat slower than the 'standard' rate of 3 words per second normally aimed for writing for the spoken word. 

In radio waffle isn’t allowed, we don't have time, the listener has a well-educated attention span, boredom is a cancer. Yet by the time this opening salvo ends, the listener is possibly unaware 25 seconds has elapsed, nearly a third of the programme. My words spoken by Michael Palin. I can never replicate his or any other presenters’ delivery on the page; each script though is adapted to the person, their voice and timbre. Michael Palin is a slower narrator than some, but he knows how to peddle the narrative, he knows  how to deliver without undue rush. It is radio gold. 

In a ham-fisted attempt to illustrate the difference, I've just looked up horned screamer within the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Neotropical Birds website. I give you the first 44 words of that entry below; have a go at speaking what you read?

"The characteristic spiny appendage on the top of the Horned Screamer's head could rightfully earn it the title of "unicorn of the avian world." This bizarre relative of ducks and swans is found along rivers and freshwater marshes in northern and central South America."

Initially this works as I read it, my brain reformulating it into a spoken word in my head, but the second sentence is a struggle. It probably is me (I struggled as a radio reporter) yet the salient facts are there in both;  

A strange bird from South America. 

That is really all there is to glean from both the journalist born book and the spoken word. In Under the Tump, I’ve mostly got down through the first layer of the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of that corner of Wales. Further knowledge can if required be found elsewhere.  In the Cornell Lab entry for the horned screamer a short synopsis follows which further reading can increase our knowledge if required.  The radio script focus is on just a fact or two, delivered entertainment coupled with a little knowledge spinning around the mating behaviour of this odd bird, as the clock ticks towards the 6am pips on Radio 4. Before then an additional sound layering, that of giant plunger,  stage left.

Less is more. Radio gold.


Links: 

Tweet of the Day : https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04t0skg

Cornell Lab : https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/horscr1/overview