Blackcaps and Bluebells or “What’s in a name?”

I’ve always liked those short pithy adages that sum up a huge experience or offer profound advice in a few thought provoking words. Things like; “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That particular one often comes to mind when I sit down to try and write something. The barriers to doing so many things in life can usually be brought down by making that first brave and daunting step. I thought I would have a go at writing my own saying to sum up what I did last week. It’s a bit rubbish and I doubt it’s destined to feature in the top ten memes of the twenty first century but here it is anyway:

“If you can’t sell your house and buy a boat, take a walk in a Bluebell wood.”

I have always taken a passing interest in birds and wildlife but working at Brockholes Nature Reserve here in Lancashire has fuelled that curiosity and given me a thirst for more knowledge. In particular I was keen to get to know the reserve better first hand and with that in mind and a certainty that getting close to nature is a sure fire way of putting things in perspective Gill and I decided to spend a day there. What could be more fun than poking around in the woods and gazing out over the River Ribble and the numerous lakes in the hope of spotting some of the rarer delights of the reserve and trying to identify them.

Brockholes floating village

It wasn’t long before we were staring hopelessly up into the now quite dense spring foliage of the trees desperately trying to pin down the source of a loud and stunningly beautiful bird song. It doesn’t help that in my case being deaf in one ear means that I have no sense of audio direction. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking in the right tree. We did eventually spot a small bird with a black cap as the source of the warbling and identified it as the unimaginatively named Blackcap. This led me off on a train of thought about all the people that spot birds and other wildlife and claim to have no idea what they have seen. Like the small seagull with the black head for example. That will be the Black Headed Gull actually. Or the dainty little white butterfly that I was watching just the other day. When I looked it up later on the internet it turned out to be called a Small White. I should have guessed. You see you probably know a lot more than you think.

Small bird with black cap. (Photo Wikipedia)

That theme doesn’t always run true though. The next bird we identified, the Garden Warbler wasn’t in a garden at all. A much better name for it would have been The Tall Trees by the River Warbler. Nice song though. After a couple of hours of exploration we made our way back to report our findings and add them to the sightings board in the visitor centre. There, one of the regular bird experts, Bill Aspin, undermined our growing confidence in song recognition by playing us a recording of a Willow Warbler (not always in Willow Trees I should point out) which was impersonating a Chiff Chaff. Oh well, still lots to learn I suppose. We paused to recuperate over a sandwich and a cuppa in the floating restaurant on the lake.

Re-fuelled we made our way along the reed bed walk and peered deeply in the reeds in the hope of spotting a Reed Warbler (makes sense) or maybe a Reed Bunting. What we did see was both a Large Red Damselfly and a Blue-Tailed Damselfly both of which live up to their names admirably.

Large Red Damselfly. (Photo Gill Pearson)

This was all beginning to make sense now and a small brown bird with a white throat turned out, predictably, to be called a Whitethroat. Everything was falling into place until we spotted a Kestrel and a pair of Linnets and and I realised the flaw in my new found theory of how to guess the name of everything. Then there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building a nest on Ribble Pool. They break all the rules; Grebe meant absolutely nothing to me but the great crests on their heads made some sense. It’s all very confusing. When I say they were nest building by the way that isn’t quite accurate. One of them, gender not established, was busily swimming all over the lake gathering reeds and twigs and laboriously bringing them back to add the the structure while it’s partner slept peacefully nearby. Occasionally the sleepy one would raise it’s head and open an eye as if to say, “you’re doing fine, just another couple of hundred sticks should do it”. I could sense a row brewing so we moved on and left them to it.

Grebes with great crests (Photo Gill Pearson)

Now we were in the Bluebell Woods.

Lots of bell shaped blue flowers. (Photo Gill Pearson)

In every direction there were thousands of small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. Who would have imagined. As we were watching a delightful little Bank Vole (a vole that lives in a bank) amongst some fallen logs a couple of visitors came by. Seeing our binoculars they jumped to the false conclusion that we knew a thing or two. They were wondering if we could throw any light on the identity of a small song bird they had seen. It was a pale brownish grey with a black cap they said. We tried not to sound too smug as we confirmed for them that what they had seen was almost certainly a Blackcap. They didn’t look particularly impressed and I think they may have thought we had just made the name up.

So there we go. A fabulous day of diversion therapy in a beautiful place. Oh, and if you were wondering; Brock is the old word for Badger. On the fringes of the reserve there are Badger sets and of course Badgers make holes don’t they. Which brings me back to adages and the particular one; “What’s in a name?” Quite a lot it seems.

Salthill Quarry – Clitheroe

As we retrieved binoculars and camera from the boot of the car the stale musty smell of refuse hung in the air, accompanied by the grinding metallic sounds of heavy machinery manipulating the discarded detritus of modern life. We were just about a hundred metres from a refuse and recycling plant and about fifty metres from a 360 million year old wonderland. This is Salthill Quarry, a nature reserve on the outskirts of Clitheroe.

The reserve is managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust and is a prime example of nature thriving alongside industrial activity. The smell from the re-cycling plant might be offensive to my nose but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the wide variety of butterflies, moths and insects that inhabit the woods and meadows of this delightful place. As the name says it is the site of an old quarry but long before the rocks were blasted apart by the quarrymen’s dynamite (the drill holes are still visible) they were laid down under ancient seas and the thousands upon thousands of Crinoid fossils (Sea Lillies) are plain to see on just about every exposed rock surface.

Crinoids

Crinoids

The area is a mixture of dense woodland, towering rock faces and delightful wildflower meadows and embankments which encircle the small industrial estate. It is divided in two by the road that services the various businesses but a good path with information points takes you comfortably around the whole reserve in a couple of hours. It’s a strange environment because one minute you might be completely entranced by the many species of butterflies that are busy amongst the wild flowers and the next you are reminded of where you are by the sound of a power tool or heavy machinery. Fortunately the industrial activity and factory buildings fade into the background because the combination of birdsong, insect life, flowers and fascinating geology dominate your senses.

Information board

Information board

We were just too late in the season to find any rare Bee Orchids which are often found here but the variety and abundance of wild flowers more than made up for that. Speckled Wood butterflies are everywhere, as are the six spotted Burnett moths gliding lazily from flower to flower.

Speckled Wood butterfly

Speckled Wood butterfly

The signage explaining what to look out for in different locations is backed up by numbered posts that carry quick scan codes which will reveal additional data when scanned with a smart phone.

For many visitors the highlight will be the profusion of crinoid fossils that cover the rocks. In many places it isn’t a matter of looking for a fossil in the rock, more a case of looking for a patch of rock that doesn’t hold a fossil. I ran my fingers over the copies of these strange sea creatures which can still be found living in our seas today and tried to take in that figure of 360 million years. It’s strange to be in contact with the ancient past in that way. One of those moments that puts our fleeting presence into some kind of perspective and leaves you feeling small and insignificant.

We picnicked amongst a dazzling blaze of colourful flowers accompanies by the buzz of bees and the beautiful tunes of a Song Thrush. We were intrigued by a strange growth on a young wild rose bush but had to wait until we got home to discover its origins. Apparently it’s called a mossy rose gall but also goes by the name of Robin’s pincushion. It is the home of a wasp called Diplolepis rosae the larvae of which modify a new leaf bud chemically causing it to distort and from the protective ‘nest’. Fascinating.

Robin's Pincushion

Robin’s Pincushion

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill

More dense woodland led out to another open area littered with fossils, flowers and huge rocks scoured by glacial activity. There seemed to be no end to the variety of things to explore in this small but captivating reserve.

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

We made our way back to the car scouring the grassy banks still hoping for a glimpse the elusive Bee Orchid but it wasn’t to be. That treasure will have to wait for the next visit.

Clitheroe is famous for many things including its sausages and its cement but I would suggest that perhaps its best kept secret is actually Salthill Quarry. It’s a little haven of wild tranquility surrounding a busy hub of industrial bustle, conveniently reminding us how incredibly important such wild spaces are when we spend so much of our time divorced from nature.

One third of #30DaysWild

If you are gifted in the way that snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is, i.e. you are ambidextrous, then this blog post may not be relevant to you. If on the other hand (sorry) you are like most people and have a dominant hand try this; clean your teeth with the opposite hand to that which you normally use. If it isn’t the right time of day to try it you can just pretend to get a feel for how difficult it is. (It might be better to leave it for now if you are on the bus or the train.) Now try this challenge; clean your teeth with the opposite hand for thirty days. At the end of the month something quite remarkable will have happened, well two things actually. Firstly you will become competent at cleaning your teeth with either hand, which could be convenient if your dominant hand ever develops an allergy to toothpaste. Secondly your brain will be fitter than it was at the start of the experiment. That’s because doing something like this is the equivalent of gymnastics for the brain. It forces the brain to do something completely different which makes it work harder and get fitter. Which brings me to The Wildlife Trust and the natural world; obviously.

You see this whole business of doing something different for thirty days is one that I have been fascinated by for several years and regular readers of this blog will both know that I have written about it before. It came to my attention again earlier this year when I came across The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign. The challenge is to do something every day that connects you with nature and the outdoors with the intention of changing your perspective on such things at the end of a month. That month is June and we are now one third of the way through the task. Despite thinking I knew all about this idea I realised yesterday when taking a photograph of a snail that I had actually failed completely to enter into the spirit of it all.

You see the clue is in the word change. The whole purpose of any thirty day challenge is to bring about change and I suddenly realised that whilst I may have been putting vaguely amusing posts on Facebook and Twitter about my encounters with wildlife I had completely missed the point. I wasn’t actually doing anything very different to any other month’s activities, hence the photo of the snail. You see I don’t normally photograph snails, or any other terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs for that matter, so yesterday was a bit of a breakthrough. Now the challenge really starts as I try to find new things to do that will give me genuinely new experiences.

Getting down with the molluscs

Getting down with the molluscs

Even our bike ride that started at the unearthly hour of four a.m. this week didn’t really count because we do such things at least once every year. Now if I had borrowed a unicycle and set off at midnight rather than dawn then that really would have been different. Possibly disastrous too I admit but at least it would have given me a whole new experience. I’ve got twenty days now to come up wild ideas that are nothing like my normal activities. The difficult task will be striking a balance between being truly imaginative and trying not to get arrested. Wish me luck. Or send me some suggestions if you like.

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Nice, but not very original

You can still join in #30DaysWild by going to the website for some ideas here. Go on, you might discover the new you.

 

Holy stones and dancing pigeons

I am conscious of my lack of blogging just recently but there are mitigating circumstances. The combination of starting a new job, travelling the length and breadth of England visiting family and not to mention the stress of trying to outwit a fat pigeon have just left no time for writing I’m afraid. They are feeble excuses I know; the job is only three days a week, the family visits did, in practice, leave me with time on my hands on occasions and the battle of wits between me and the pigeon is largely won for the time being so it’s high time I started writing again.

This was before I made him mad.

This was before I made him mad.

If you haven’t already worked it out from my social media posts, my new job is that of, “Wildlife Supporter Officer” working at Brockholes nature reserve for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Unlike the Ronseal tin, the job title doesn’t really reveal very much, but in essence I try to persuade people to become supporters of the Trust by engaging them in fascinating and witty conversation about wildlife and why we need to protect it. The visitors are intriguing, ranging from very serious bird watchers who are so well camouflaged that I don’t usually notice them unless they move, through to courting couples that have absolutely no idea why they are at the nature reserve other than it seemed like a nice romantic backdrop to a first date. What makes the job so interesting is that it turns out that the hipster and his vertiginously heeled beauty are just as likely to be interested in the charity as the telephoto toting twitchers, once you get into conversation with them. They all seem to be really lovely people including most of the children. I say most of the children because the one that told me his idea of a fun day out would be to hunt down everything that moves with a high-powered rifle and kill it was probably beyond even my powers of persuasion. The rest of the little darlings are lovely though and we have all sorts of fun engaging in earnest conversations, mostly about badges, stickers and dinosaurs but occasionally also about wildlife. I have also discovered that my owl impersonation is a real ice breaker with four-year olds.

It’s early days but I am gradually building up my knowledge of the nature reserves across the region so that I can enthuse about the best location for observing the buff tailed bumble bee or explain which varieties of native newts are to be found amongst the courting couples in the St. Annes sand dunes. There is a lot to learn it seems. I still can’t see any difference between the Black Headed gulls and the Mediterranean ones and most days when I get home I have to turn to Google to find out if some wag of a naturalist has been pulling my leg or not. (It turns out that there is a partridge with red legs actually. It’s called a Red Legged Partridge.)

Despite the ridiculous number of miles we had to drive on the motorways to get around the family we did manage to squeeze a few lovely walks into our grand tour and I am more than pleased that both of our grown up boys and their partners are not averse to a stroll in the countryside. Something must have rubbed off on them somewhere along the lines. It was an amazing example of how easy it is to find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and to connect with nature no matter where you live. A Somerset canal, a Dorset beach and a Hampshire water park all proved to be delightful places for a bit of casual bird watching and, in the case of the beach, the discovery of some really intriguing stones with holes in them. A little research revealed that the holes are made by Piddocks, a bi-valve mollusc that literally eats its way into the rock to create a home. I picked up a couple of them and they are proving to be a great hit with the kids when I’m working. You can’t beat a rock eating mussel to create a bit of interest.

Holy stones

Holy stones

And so, the pigeon. As you know we have been feeding an ever increasing variety of birds (you can add chaffinch to the list now) from our bird feeding station as it is grandly called and it’s all been a huge success apart from the pigeons. Well it’s been a huge success for the pigeons from their point of view because for them it’s like a free Michelin star restaurant has opened up in town. The problem is we can’t afford their appetites so something had to be done. Ten minutes work with a wire coat hanger and our bird feed station food tray, the one that contains the avian equivalent of a three course gourmet dinner, is finally pigeon proof. Don’t be alarmed, I didn’t stab the pigeons with the coat hanger, I just made a simple cage that prevents them from getting at the food.

My pigeon rattling cage

My pigeon rattling cage

I may have stopped them eating us out of house and home but they, on the other hand, have worked out a very effective revenge. You wouldn’t believe how much noise two dancing pigeons can make on a tin roof at four o’clock in the morning! I’m on the case though; I’m making them a pair of slippers each next.

 

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

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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.

 

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