image_pdfimage_print

Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

Problems, perspective and Pigeons

A little bit of perspective.

Gill has been getting arty with the camera

After my self-indulgent moan about not being able to buy our narrow boat right now I was reminded of how trivial a problem that is when I read a friend’s blog. His subject deals with life after the loss of a loved one, his partner and mother of his young children in fact, and reading it made me realise that perhaps I was getting things a little out of perspective. It’s worth a read by the way.

It’s easy to do though isn’t it?

“There’s always somebody in the world worse off than you”, people say to you. Of course there is. It doesn’t matter how bad your circumstances are there will be somebody somewhere in a more difficult situation. Pondering this might put some perspective on your own problems but it doesn’t make them go away. What it actually does is make you realise that not only do you have a problem that is less enormous than somebody else’s but that you should also feel guilty about your problem because it is inadequate. So now you have two problems!

It was also pointed out to me that struggling to sell a property is only a problem if you have a property to sell in the first place. Very good point. That really is perspective isn’t it? So, time to move on to other subjects I think.

There is something that I need to get off my chest. I suppose it’s a bit of a confession or at least, an admission. I’ve kept it quiet for a while but I feel that the time is now right to open up and share with you. I’ve become a bird watcher. So has Gill. As you know we have been feeding the birds in the garden all year but now we have taken it to another level. We have been visiting wild places at strange times of the day armed with binoculars, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea. I’ve always had a passing interest in birds ever since I used to nick their eggs as a boy but I’ve never actually gone bird watching before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a twitcher at this point although we did go looking for Waxwings in Preston the other day because I’ve never seen one. We looked for them on the Rowan trees in Morrisons car park but we were disappointed and had to settle for a cut price bottle of Gordon’s Gin instead.

The fabulous but illusive Waxwing. (Photo by Janet Stocks)

I suppose there was a certain inevitability about it once I started working at Brockholes nature reserve.

Not a bad place to work really. (Photo by Gill)

Conversations with the bird enthusiasts there about what they had seen left me intrigued and wanting to go and look for myself. By happy coincidence Gill acquired a bit of unexpected cash at around this time and very kindly bought me a new pair of binoculars. She also borrowed them and enjoyed herself so much she bought herself a pair. Added to these things we found we could go bird watching without walking too far which fitted perfectly with my gradual recovery from Plantar Fasciitis. Before we knew it we were sitting in draughty hides misidentifying all manner of small feathery things and discovering that 99% of all birds are actually pigeons.

Indoor Pigeon. Handy for bird watching in poor weather conditions.

For all I have a basic knowledge and we are both learning fast we are still capable of providing much entertainment amongst real birdwatchers by mixing up our Dunlins and our Sanderlings or getting told off for talking too loudly in the hides. Also, Gill’s hat is pink, which is not the colour for any self-respecting ornithologist to be seen in and I suspect we aren’t always being taken seriously. We don’t really look the part. The real bird watchers are all in green.

A rare sighting of the fabulous pink hatted smiler.

They even have green binoculars. You wouldn’t think there would be much danger of injury from such a sedate pastime as bird watching but tripping over a well camouflaged birder is a genuine hazard. I spent five minutes scanning a small bush for thrushes the other day when it picked up a tripod and walked away! Some of them are harder to spot than the birds.

Anyway, it’s all a bit of good clean fun and the perfect accompaniment to life on a narrow boat but we are trying not to think about that at the moment. For now we will be doing our observing from dry land but it should be a good excuse to write nonsense on this blog which is something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. You have been warned.

“Are you crazy?”

The song of the blackbird is a complex and beautiful thing, but not necessarily at 3.25am when it is just outside your open window. On this occasion, I was prepared to forgive him because this was the day of one of our annual dawn adventures and he was only five minutes ahead of the alarm I had set on my phone. I used the extra five minutes to listen to the seemingly infinite variety of beautiful calls that a blackbird can make and even smiled to myself as he seemed to try one or two that didn’t quite come off. If you have never listened to a blackbird then you should. It’s a sound that lifts the heart and is guaranteed to banish the saddest of feelings. I have read that the males sing like this to reinforce their territorial claims which seems a bit odd to me. Most animals spray urine or defecate to mark boundaries and many will openly fight. The blackbird sits on a post or rooftop and declares; “Just one step closer and I am warning you I will sing something even more beautiful than the last bit.” Rambo of the bird world he certainly is not. But this isn’t a blog about blackbirds; it’s a blog about going on a mini-adventure.

Ready for off

Ready for off

“You must be mad”, “Are you crazy?” or “Rather you than me” are the usual responses when I tell anybody that we plan to rise before the sun and head off for a walk or a bike ride, but these are knee-jerk reactions with no thought for what such an experience is really like. I’ll save you the bother of thinking it through for yourself and tell you what it’s like.

For me, at least, a good walk or bike ride in beautiful surroundings is a bit like a lovely tasty meal. That is to say that these things are satisfying in their own right but when you add a sprinkle of salt and vinegar to fish and chips or a generous handful of parmesan cheese Bolognese they really come to life. They are lifted to another level of sensation and choosing to set off on a walk or a bike ride before sunrise has the same effect. It adds spice. It turns just another outdoor experience into a mini-adventure. There is an enchanted short period before the sun rises when all the pleasures of being outdoors are intensified. The light is magical; the sounds are amplified and the smells are more distinct. There is a feeling of being part of a secret escapade simply because the majority of people wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing. It’s as if the world is briefly yours and yours alone to explore and to indulge in. So that is why we crawled out of bed at 3.30am and put on our cycling kit.

Empty road, promising sky

Empty road, promising sky

The dual carriageway to Preston is normally a road we dread but at this hour it was a joy as we cycled side by side soaking up the passing sounds of the birds as they announced another day. After ten minutes we stopped in a layby for a quick breather and gasped at the beauty of the rapidly brightening eastern sky silhouetting the distant hills and the two hares that frolicked around in the field besides us. It was hard to imagine that just a few hours from now this road would be packed with speeding cars and lorries, their occupants totally unaware of our other world that had recently existed in another time.

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Our destination was Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve about twenty miles from home and in the time it took us to get there our two worlds of calm and chaos had been bridged. As we arrived in the village of Rufford at 6am the traffic was already starting to build and it was a relief to escape into the peaceful sanctuary of the woods and be enveloped by the sounds and smells of nature once more. We crept into one of the many lakeside hides and tucked into a well-earned breakfast sandwich before taking in the scene before us. The early morning light was as sharp and clear as the mist on the lake was ghostly, and the sound of an owl reminded us that the brand new day was only just beginning. A heron flew towards us from the far shore and landed just twenty yards away to patiently await its own morning snack while a small duck (Pochard we thought) with two youngsters in tow glided back and forth just in front of our viewpoint.

View from the first hide

View from the hide

Now it was time to be still. To look, to listen and to breathe in the complex cocktail of aromas that surrounded us. The deep damp woody smell of the hide itself enhanced by the subtle fragrances from flowers and woodland plants all around us. The periods of complete silence broken by a tiny splash as a fish took a fly from the surface of the lake or the sudden surprisingly loud call of a moorhen amongst the reeds just below our viewpoint. Gradually our senses tuned in like eyes getting used to the dark as more and more of this magical scene was revealed. The incredibly subtle movement of the heron as it watches with infinite patience for a fish or frog in the shallows by the side of the lake. A huge bug clinging to a reed just inches in front of our eyes that we didn’t see until it moved and made us jump. It was like a secret magical world that would only be revealed if you were prepared to wait and let it come to you. This time of the day is something that is precious and deserves to be savoured and given space, it’s not a time for rushing around to see what can be seen. Let it come to you and the rewards are enchanting and will stay with you forever.

Inevitably the transient early morning had to come to an end and we prepared for a very different experience as we knew all along that this would be a trip of two halves. With some reluctance we pushed our bikes back out of the woods and taking the memories with us we took to the roads once more for the journey home.

We took a more circuitous route to get away from some of the heavier traffic and there was a little added spice as we progressed further and further along a road that we had been told more than once was “closed ahead”. Turning back at the first warning sign would have been like eating the fish and chips without the vinegar. This was a perfect opportunity to add that little extra zing as we gambled that we would be able to get through. I’m pleased to say that on this occasion the wager paid off.

We rode along quieter roads with names like Long Meanygate and Wholesome Lane and all the time the power of the sun grew steadily stronger reminding us of yet another reason for our crazy early start.  Sadly, in the crossing of a roundabout these quiet roads were but a memory as we plunged back into Preston and all our attention was immediately focused on the fast and heavy traffic around us. We weren’t quite finished with nature though as on the city marina there are dozens of pontoons supporting nest boxes for visitors from Namibia in the form of common terns. We made a small detour to see how these noisy but spectacular birds were getting on.

P1030910

City life

The population had boomed since our last visit and hundreds of birds are now sitting on one, two or sometimes three speckled brown eggs while their partners dive for fish to keep them sustained. In contrast to the peace and tranquillity of the woodlands this was a scene of noise, aggression and fast, furious movement. All the birds seem to be continuously at war with each other, squabbling over space and stealing food from the very beaks of other birds in random acts of ambush.

Just another argument

Just another argument

They screamed at each other and pecked furiously at their neighbours, keen to maintain their small precious share of the available space. It occurred to me that life in the city is pretty much the same whatever the species.

We arrived home in the middle of another hot day. The blackbird was still singing away from his high perch but now I looked at him a little differently. Now we shared a secret, this blackbird and me; we both knew what it feels like to experience a new day from the very, very beginning. That blackbird isn’t crazy, and neither are we.

Mere Sands Wood

There is a nature reserve not that far from where we live called Mere Sands Wood. We took a stroll around it in the spring sunshine today and discovered a magical mixture of woodland and mere, (the clue is in the name) alive with water fowl and one particularly cheeky robin. Armed with just a mid range digital compact camera I tried to capture a little of the wonder of the place. I’m afraid the digital zoom leaves a bit to be desired but hopefully you can get a flavour of the reserve. It was very quiet there today and most of the hides we visited were empty. Apart from the one with that we barged into whilst talking very loudly only to find it occupied by very serious and very quiet photographers who were less than amused. Very sorry.

 

Bird feeder news – a feathery ménage à trois.

Well I was planning to bring you some stunning photos of the ever-widening range of birds that have been visiting the feeders lately. Sadly, like most plans, this one hasn’t really gone the way it was supposed to and it’s been a very frustrating weekend.

To be fair we are probably getting a bit over excited about the two new species that have turned up lately because that still only brings our total tally to less than ten but it is progress of sorts I suppose. We can now boast fifty percent of the resident British tit family which I admit does sound slightly disturbing when taken out of context but in practice means that coal tits have joined the other varieties of blue, great and long-tailed. That only leaves willow, marsh, crested and bearded to give us the full set but as they have fairly specialized habitats we aren’t holding our breath. The crested and bearded ones are probably just blue tits in disguise anyway. The other new addition is a dunnock. This small brown/grey bird is often mistaken for a sparrow and even has the common name hedge sparrow but it isn’t actually related to them at all. It hasn’t made it to the feeding station yet but has been singing it’s heart out on top of the hedge behind the house. What it lacks in spectacular plumage it makes up for with a song to melt your heart.

The elusive long tailed tit

The elusive long-tailed tits

And talking of blue tits, it’s been like watching a feathery version of East Enders over the last fortnight. It’s hard to tell the ladies from the gents in the blue tit world so I have no idea whether we are talking gay, bi or heterosexual but for a while we were definitely witnessing a ménage à trois as three of the little blighters pushed in front of each other to check out our neighbour’s nesting box. After a fair bit of argy-bargy and some serious sulking it seems to have settled down into something that has all the hallmarks of a beautiful romance. One of the pair spends most of its time in the box while the other one, when it isn’t perched high on top of the hedge gloating over the loser that didn’t quite cut it, visits its mate with flowers and the occasional bottle of wine.

The winner

The victorious suitor

Well I may have imagined the flowers and wine but it definitely visits and we are sure it won’t be long now before it stays the night; if you know what I mean.

Loser

The sad loser

So, we have all this entertaining activity going on and I thought it would be nice to try to get a few better photos for you. (Those of you whose minds just turned to lurid sex scenes from the nest box well shame on you.) I have tried sitting in the bedroom partially obscured by the curtains waiting patiently with the camera, but it hasn’t been very successful and most of the time I just feel like a sneaky press photographer at a private garden party. So I have turned to technology.

We bought a reasonable quality compact digital camera in preparation for our trip around Britain and two years later I’m still trying to work out how to use it. Amongst other things I recalled from my initial exploration is that it is supposed to be possible to link it up to our Nexus tablet computer and operate it remotely. This sounded like the perfect set up for candid bird photography, so out came the manual and in just a matter of hours, well OK days, I had it cracked. With the camera mounted on a railing opposite the feeders I can now sit discretely in the lounge or bedroom monitoring activity on the tablet and taking photos of our unsuspecting visitors.

Remotely controlled camera

Remotely controlled camera

Armchair wildlife photography

Armchair wildlife photography

It’s absolutely brilliant and all I have to do is sit with my finger over the shutter icon and pounce whenever something comes into shot. In theory I should have got a whole collection of stunning action shots and close-ups to show you by now. But I haven’t. The first reason for this is the fact that the birds that have visited have tended to do so just as I have been taking a sip from a scalding hot drink or while I have been unavoidably detained in the loo. The second is that there haven’t been any birds.

I have never spent such a lot of time actually bird watching, albeit remotely, and I have learned something about bird behaviour which is fascinating. It seems that, just like humans, birds go away for the weekend. Well ours certainly seem to. Either that or they have found somewhere where they can watch the rugby through somebody else’s window with a ready supply of crisps and beer and no sleazy photographers to bother them. Our garden has been like the aftermath of bird apocalypse all weekend. At one point I resorted to taking candid photographs of a neighbour as he rooted through next door’s recycling bin, looking for an old copy of the local paper. He said there was an advert in it that he wanted to look at which struck me as a dubious explanation but who am I to pry. Or speculate.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that the few shots that I did get were quite disappointing apart from the very blurry one of our super-fast robin as he made yet another commando raid on the sunflower hearts. Fortunately he appeared moments after I had put my tea down otherwise I may well have been typing this from my hospital bed and nursing a red breast of my own. Such are the trials of a dedicated wildlife photographer I suppose. Don’t worry, I’ll keep trying.

That's a robin. Honestly

That’s a robin. Honestly

Bird feeder news

Bird Feeder News sounds like the kind of obscure publication that might feature on ‘Have I Got News for You’. If there isn’t such a magazine already well there certainly should be but in the meantime I will do my best to fill the cultural void.

The end of this month, January 30th and 31st to be precise, sees the 2016 Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the RSPB. They run what amounts to the biggest wildlife survey in the world every year and this year over half a million people are set to take part. I won’t be one of them I’m afraid. Well, not unless things improve considerably between now and then.

The last time I reported on the birds that had been attracted to our new feed station the species count was a fairly disappointing two. Things haven’t improved very much. I wasn’t expecting to see a ruby throated humming bird or flocks of parakeets on a weekend break from London. I don’t long for a glimpse of something rare and exotic or a windblown migrant from the arctic. I would settle for a blue tit blown from the blackthorn bush thank you very much, but alas no. Up until this morning our variety of birdlife still consisted of the beautiful male blackbird and the Exocet robin. The blackbird has definitely relaxed a bit and now he will sit for a minute or two on the food tray stuffing his face with garish red and yellow pellets. How he knows they are not poisonous is a mystery to me; I certainly wouldn’t eat them. The robin still makes lightning raids on the seed hanger but I think I caught him looking at me in the kitchen the other day. It was only a split second glance as he took another seed on the wing but perhaps his curiosity will outweigh his nervousness eventually.

Speaking of nervous birds, there has been one exciting development in the last week. I’m not one for too much anthropomorphising but indulge me for a moment. You see our Mr. Blackbird is a handsome fellow. He is always immaculately dressed all in black with a bill that looks like it has been freshly dipped in a pot of Dulux Sunshine Yellow each morning. It was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the local ladies and sure enough he turned up last week with a date. She was a bit drab in her plain, chocolate brown onesie but maybe what she lacked in dress sense she made up for with potential egg bearing capacity. I don’t know I’m not a blackbird am I?

Anyway, it wasn’t the greatest success as far as dinner dates go. He spent most of the time sitting on the feed tray stuffing his face while she, presumably due to first date nerves, hardly ate a thing. In fact she spent the whole time hopping around on the ground under the feed station occasionally picking up the odd crumb that Mr. Greedy Guts had dropped. It wasn’t the most romantic love scene I have ever witnessed and the robin popping in from time to time like a laser guided gooseberry probably didn’t help. I haven’t seen the blackbirds together since so maybe things didn’t work out but I am sure our regular visitor will find a mate soon. Blimey, if an 84 year old bloke with an extended paper round can attract a stunning 59 year old super model, I’m sure our dashing blackbird can find himself a girlfriend eventually.

There has been an exciting development since I wrote the above. To my great delight a wood pigeon landed in the garden just now and briefly eyed up the feed station. He didn’t stay long but if I can entice him back at the end of the month our species count could rocket by 50%. I might enter the Big Garden Birdwatch after all.

birdwatch

Life on the park, the bird watching experiment

We don’t have much in the way of a garden around our new home. Just a space occupied mainly by gravel, flagstones and a few pots that we haven’t yet planted up. It’s a bit barren. We do however back on to a large field and a thick hedge between us and the field provides a potential home for all manor of wildlife. Gill is keen to attract birds to entertain us and with this in mind she has set up a bird feeding station consisting of a tray with pellets of food and meal worms on it. A dish of water serves the dual purpose of thirst quencher and bathing facility and a hanging seed container and half a coconut shell full of fat provide for the more agile of our feathered friends. So far it hasn’t been a great success.

Dinner is now served

Quiet day on the feeder

We have seen a timid male blackbird taking food from the tray once or twice but the only other visitor has been a robin. The robin has targeted the seed feeder but not in the way that provides a lot of entertainment. His technique is to sit in the hedge protected from predators (he probably doesn’t realise that one of the park rules is ‘no cats’ or he might be more relaxed) and from there he launches his attack. I say attack because it’s more of a raid than a visit. He appears out of the hedge like a small heat seeking missile. Without missing a wingbeat he manages to grab a sunflower seed and is back in the hedge in about five nano seconds. It’s very impressive but it doesn’t really provide us with much in the way of bird watching. It’s more a kind of bird glimpsing, which isn’t really what we had in mind.

We have also glimpsed a kestrel and a hobby which was very exciting but doesn’t bode well for the prospect of exotic songbirds lounging around on the feed station and performing entertaining acrobatics for us while we are doing the washing up. I have noticed a profusion of small birds and animals around the park but they are entirely made of stone or resin and tend to be not to scale. (Some of the butterflies are terrifying!) We really don’t want to go down that road.

I suppose if the birdwatching experiment isn’t successful we could always join the majority of the other residents and just resort to watching each other. It seems to be quite a popular pastime.