“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.

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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.

Bird feeder news – exciting update

There is a famous tea shop in Harrogate called Betty’s. It’s very genteel and renowned for its beautifully presented afternoon teas. When you look through the window you can see delicate and perfectly formed dainty cakes and sandwiches adorning doily clad silver serving stands whilst over attentive waitresses in crisply starched traditional black and white uniforms fuss over the customers that sip Earl Grey from fine china. It’s the archetypal perfect English tea room setting. Now imagine that scene of sweet charm and refinement and then imagine Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy sitting down to tea.

That’s the kind of image that comes to mind when I look out of the kitchen window at our lovely delicate bird feeding station. We have been thrilled to witness an increasing range of birds visiting the half coconut of compressed fat and the seed feeder over the last few days.

Blue tit

Blue tit

Tiny little blue tits and long tailed tits are delightful as they perch precariously to peck at the rich food source whilst the larger great tit (clue in the name) sits confidently on the perches and munches on sunflower hearts.

Great tit

Great tit

The blackbirds, both male and female love the special food that Gill puts in the small shallow feeder tray which suits their less agile nature. And of course, the super charged robin is still raiding the seeds like a small red breasted bolt of lightning. It’s exactly what we had hoped for when we set everything up apart from one thing. Just like those great burly wrestlers visiting Betty’s, a couple of great big, fat, loved up wood pigeons are hoovering up all the food like a couple of avian vacuum cleaners on turbo mode. They are enormous! They are like the silverbacks of the bird world and I’m worried that the feed station might be suffering from metal fatigue. And their appetites! No sooner have we filled up the tray and the blackbirds have eaten the equivalent of one quarter of a cucumber sandwich, sans crust, of course, but the oversized, over weight pigeons have cleaned up and they are stomping around and demanding seconds. I mean really! We’re not made of meal worms and fat pellets you know?

Fat git

Greedy git

Then there are the magpies. They have been less inclined to raid the food stores but they do take great delight in tap dancing on the roof, particularly early in the morning. We’ve only actually spotted two of them at any one time but when they decide to trip the light fantastic at five am they could give a line-up from River Dance a run for their money.

I suppose I should just be glad that the variety of visitors is growing and we are doing our bit, or lot, in the case of the pigeons, to help our native wildlife.

It’s funny really how we make these arbitrary choices between different species, blue tits and robins being almost universally fawned over whilst the poor old wood pigeons and magpies are castigated as vermin more often than not. But if some visitors are clearly loved or hated the next feathered friend on our spotting list definitely has the potential to divide the judges. I had seen this bird flash between our unit and the next one a couple of times and I had an inkling of what it might be. My hopes were confirmed the other day though when it actually alighted on a fence and sat still long enough for me to identify it clearly as a hobby. A small but lethal bird of prey and one that I have only ever seen on a handful of occasions. I would never have expected to find a bird like this making regular visits to our domain and I was sufficiently intrigued to do some background reading on its habitat and behaviour. It’s a small bird, somewhere between our blackbird and the pigeon in stature but what it lacks in size it can more than make up for in deadly accuracy as a hunter. Which raises a bit of an issue for birds such as robins, blue tits and great tits. Because for the hobby, they are a spectacular lunch. Not only can it pluck them clean out of the air with its razor sharp talons but it can then perform the rather neat trick of dismembering and eating them on the wing. Pretty cool eh? But maybe not if you are blue tit.

Just a random picture of a hobby

Just a random picture of a hobby

So it would appear that we may have created a bird feeder like nothing we could ever have imagined. To the tits, blackbirds and robins it’s like Betty’s tea shop. For the pigeons we seem to have put up a transport café serving all you can eat breakfasts while our newest visitor, the hobby, must be absolutely delighted to have found a new fast food drive thru’ in the neighbourhood. It’s not quite what we had in mind but I think it could be very entertaining.

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.

Dawn chorus

Usually when people set their alarm clock for 3am it’s because they have a flight to catch. More often than not the flight will be taking them to some warm and possibly exotic place to start their annual holiday so the pain of the alarm is quickly replaced by excitement. The cruel interruption to our sleep had an altogether different purpose. No sun soaked beach or lazing by the pool with a G & T for us. Our destination was a stretch of the Lancaster Canal and the dawn chorus.

Sunrise was at 5am and the first birds usually begin to sing an hour earlier so I was worried we might have cut it a bit fine as we made our way down to the tow path. I was also disappointed to hear the steady drone of traffic from the distant M55 motorway. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from road noise these days, even pre-dawn. The motorists were probably all heading for Manchester airport and a flight to some …. oh hang on, we’ve done that already haven’t we?

As we descended to the water’s edge the noise faded as this part of the canal is deep in a cutting and we were blessed with near silence. It was cool but perfectly still, not a breath of wind to disturb the atmosphere. The rich smell of damp earth rose to meet us, so much more distinctive this early in the day. We’d made it just in time because the silence was broken at that moment by the beautiful and distinctive sound of a robin announcing the start of what we had come to hear. It was still dark enough to require care as we walked slowly along the path listening to those first few notes. Robins are often the first to sing and this one was soon joined by others and the silence was gradually filled with their cheery song. These soloists were quickly accompanied by the blackbird and its flute like mellifluous tune cutting clearly through the crisp morning air. We startled, and in turn were startled by, a moorhen which skittered across the water calling in alarm, its cries of panic momentarily drowning out the early song birds.

Creeping past the live-aboard narrow boats so as not to wake the occupants we reached a bench where the canal passes through dense woodland and settled down to listen to the performance. By now it was possible to make out the outlines of the trees against the lightening sky and the mist that was forming at the edge of the woodland. A heron took flight just fifty yards down the tow path and settled under the arched stone bridge to patiently watch for its first catch of the day. By now the bird song was unbroken and first the wood pigeons and then the fabulous wren joined the orchestra. A bat was patrolling on a regular patterned circuit making the most of the final cover of darkness. It would soon be replaced by the swallows. There would be no respite for the flying insects today.

Heron's fishing spot

Heron’s fishing spot

We strolled on, passing under the bridge, forcing the heron to relocate temporarily and as we left the woods behind a spectacle of pure magic unfolded. Patches of dense mist clung to hollows and along stretches of the water creating a mystical feel to the scene. In places the water provided crystal clear mirror images of the trees on the canal bank but then the mist would swallow the image in its cold silky veil. The tranquil scene was broken as a male swan chased away a family of Canadian geese that were getting too close to his mates nest.  He flared his wings in a threatening gesture, swimming fast at the goose and letting him know who was boss. The female swan looked on anxiously then settled down again on the nest, fussing to ensure she had her eggs perfectly protected. Calm was restored.

Two trees for the price of one

Two trees for the price of one

Shhh, they may be asleep

Shhh, they may be asleep

The hedgerow was full of the song of wrens and the remarkably loud call of a warbler scolding us roundly for threatening her unseen nest. As the sun finally broke the horizon we turned tail and headed back towards home. The mist was clearing and the cacophony of song had now been replaced by the more familiar individual calls of pheasant, crow and wood pigeon. The performance was over for today and soon it would be over for this summer. For many of these early morning choristers the focus now will turn to raising their young and then preparing for another hard winter or a long flight home.

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Our experience was well worth the pain of that early awakening and we had the advantage of heading home now to tea and bacon sandwiches before climbing back into bed to catch up on the lost sleep. I couldn’t help but think about those early morning travellers, no doubt waiting nervously in their boarding queues checking and rechecking their passports and tickets. I had to admit to a tinge of envy when I thought of them soaking up the sun but then I reflected on the last two hours and remembered that sometimes the magic is right on your doorstep if you just go and look for it.

Tranquility

Tranquility

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