Just because an animal is common, doesn’t mean you see it very often. Bertie and I had been wondering if we would see any small mammals on our morning walks and he spends a lot of his time with his nose in the hedges which means ‘walks’ are not usually quick things, but it does give me more time to enjoy the countryside. We hadn’t gone far however, when he sniffed at a rustling beside the garden wall and a small brown rodent appeared and disappeared quite quickly. I thought is was probably a wood mouse but it came back and surprisingly stared at us. Then I noticed its short ears and rounded snout. It was a Field Vole- also known as the short -tailed vole and this chap’s stumpy tail was a giveaway.
There are evidently more field voles than people in Britain (75m at last estimate) but they all have brief eventful lives with three main aims: to eat, reproduce and avoid being eaten This one was not in any hurry to go however so I snapped it before we moved on.
Our luck didn’t stop there for the Bertie nose led us to a spot where the stream bed was just a damp trickle and another darker furry rodent was scurrying along just long enough to notice a longer tail, very small eyes, short legs and a long pointed nose. A Common Shrew, but not wanting to stay around, so no chance of a picture. Life is fast for a shrew, it is said their heart can beat up to 20 times a second, a faster heart rate than any other mammal on Earth. This is why they are all of a twitch, with busy jerky movements to fulfill their need to eat their own body weight in food each day to survive.
With the slow flowing river and pond nearby we have had visits from Damselflies, looking like multicoloured matchsticks, commomly sky blue and black bodies on the male and green and black females. There is also a red bodied variety. These are much daintier than the true Dragonflies who rest with their wings outstretched, whereas the damselflies wings are folded together over the body.
It was nice to sit out as the afternoon drew into evening and that lovely word ’twilight’ came into its own. That time of two lights, the fading sunset as the sun illuminates the earth’s atmosphere even though it is below the horizon, and the emerging light of the moon and stars. A time to set your eyes on the sky and watch the last of our avian summer guests arrive. Jet black and scything, lightening fast through the sunset, a screaming flock of the unmistakable anchor shaped Swifts, chasing each other as they catch flying insects for food. They are masters of the air, having spent the winter months in sub-Saharan Africa they place their nests in man-made structures when breeding, often in loft spaces and church roofs. Otherwise they are not creatures of the earth, but mystical dwellers of the air spending their entire life on the wing, feeding, sleeping and mating and at night spiralling upwards miles above our heads in the dusk, until they can no longer be seen or heard, for a gliding sleep in the thermals. They have claws on tiny feet which enable them to cling to walls, but their legs are useless for walking and if grounded, the bird stands little chance of getting airborne again without assistance.
Moths are about at this time, responding to the enticing tricks the plants employ to get the free service of pollination on which they depend. During the day bees and other insects are attracted by flowers bright colours, fragrance and the promise of sweet nectar to lure them in. The inadvertant dusting of pollen in the process is taken on to the next flower where it fertilises the egg cells to make seeds. Moths continue this mutually beneficial relationship in the evening. I have a job identfying butterflies so I will not attempt to describe the minute scales which camouflage moths in daytime when they are at rest. I know the antennae of butterflies are clubbed whereas those of their noctunal cousins the moths are not, so I will wait for more advice from my lepidopterist friend at St John’s before saying more!
Around sunset is also the time for Bats. You have to stand still and let your eyes adjust to the light. From the shadows, if you are patient, the distinctive shape of bat wings will flit past your head and back into the shadows. These harmless flying mice are scooping up the night insects and tonight they are Pipistrelle. I don’t really know that for certain but they are much the commonest and faster than the other breeds. Earlier this week whilst bat watching there was a slightly larger bat with a less jerky flight and fluttering wings, moving closer to the ground. This I believe was a Daubenton’s bat, a species that is associated with water and the Winterborn flows in front of the house to the village pond. Bats use high pitched sound pulses to navigate and find food but you need a bat detector to hear their short squeaks of sonar that enables them to fly at such high speeds without hitting anything. They do identify the night insects however. Do you think this is why the moths I mentioned come into the house at night -or are they just attracted by the light? Or then again are they just disorientated?
I have now moved my self isolation base back to Shirley. The past nine weeks in Dorset with Bertie has given me time to look closer at nature and share my observations with “blogs”. As my daily exercise allowance has now, inevitably, taken me through St John’s Churchyard I realise what scope exists to continue ‘blogging’ around the Shirley environs and, in fact, readers may feel able to seek and explore more easily what has been written.
Just as a starter: head to the church lych gate. Scrambling through the hedge under the notice board is a wild flower giving you that glorious fragrance. It is ‘Woodbine’ or wild Honeysuckle , the ancestor of the garden trellis rambler. We could go on about Woodbine cigarettes and the Anglican Priest, Geoffery Studdert Kennedy, who was nicknamed “Woodbine Willey” during World War I for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers. But perhaps that is a November “Blog”.
Bernard’s Blog No. 8
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;”
From Sonnet 18; William Shakespeare 1609
For a brief while the landscape is bathed with white May blossom from the hawthorn. The smooth and shiny, tooth margined lobes on the leaves are now adorned with dense fragrant clusters of flowers. Some flowers are infused with a subtle hue of rose, like the last drop of juice in a bowl of strawberries and cream. It is assumed that the gene causing this pink effect has been cultivated by growers to give the coral-flowered hawthorn cultivar beloved by town councils. The countryside trees are growing in thickets, hedgerows and at the edges of woods. It is also planted as windbreaks and boundary hedge.
The cow parsley is still screening and softening with foaming bluish -white flower lace, the raw edges of the hedges where they have been flailed, rising above the nettles and cleavers.
Now the view along the hedgerows is bursting with bold splashes of bright rose colour.
The Red Campion, (although more deep rose coloured) is springing up along the roadside and is interesting in that it is unisexual, having separate male and female flowers. Red campion interbreeds readily with the white campion and the offspring has, unsurprisingly, pale pink flower. They open in the evening when they are slightly scented to attract moths as pollinators.
Nest building and emerging baby birds are all around. The pair of Mallards, reported in an earlier blog, on the stream by the fish farm have reappeared with eight ducklings. It is happening all over the country and I imagine Millers Pond has its share too, together with tufted ducks and goslings. It is lovely to have the opportunity to see and watch these birds in Shirley and other nearby ponds. Where I am at present the only water fowl I have seen locally so far are the moorhens on the pond and the mallard family. The mallard, an ancestor of the farmyard duck, is the best known and most widely distributed. Ducks nest on the ground or in holes and there are three main groups: surface -feeding or dabbling ducks living in shallow water where they feed on water plants by upending and leap into the air to get airborne; Diving ducks dive from the surface for water plants and animals. Their legs are set further back so that they can swim underwater, and they run along the surface to take wing. The third group of ducks are sawbills, also divers.
The drake (male) has an unmistakable bottle green or purple head and white collar and a little curly tail. After breeding in the late summer, the ducks moult and replace their old worn out feathers with new ones. The males lose their bright body feathers and look similar to the brown females. At this time, having lost their wing feathers, they cannot fly and become very vulnerable to predators. This process is called Eclipse plumage, and is why in mid-summer it appears that all the drakes have gone. Once the flight feathers have regrown, the birds moult again and by October the full colours are back. The female quacks loud and hoarsely, the drake being restricted to a low murmur or a thin whistle, something you may notice in some human households.
Ducks by F W Harvey
When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones; Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then He made the comical ones in case the minds of men Should stiffen and become Dull, humourless and glum, And so forgetful of their Maker be As to take even themselves – quite seriously. Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns: All God’s jokes are good – even the practical ones! And as for the duck I think God must have smiled a bit Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it. And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill!
The swallow I saw earlier this month has now been joined by several more swooping to-and-fro after insects with their mouths gaping or swooping low to sip water from the fish farm or pond. I always marvel that a few weeks ago these tiny migrants were sunning themselves in the skies around southern Africa and have flown all the way here to raise a family this summer. Our other summer visitor has remained elusive until today. We wandered back through the woods hoping to see another deer or two, when the distinctive call of a cuckoo rang out. They are becoming rarer now and having spent his winter in the Congo he was determined to find a female who will go on to do her stealthy egg laying in the nests of other birds to be raised by foster parents. The adults will head back again in July, leaving their children to navigate alone to their winter quarters guided only by instinct and the Earth’s magnetic field. Incredible! We tracked the calls around the wood for a while and the persistent call was quite loud, but unfortunately, we didn’t see him.
I want to mention something however that amused me over the past few days which gives me a link*.
I have noticed over the past few years at St John’s how we regularly host families of Blue Tits in the gap within some of the flint faced wall at the east end of church. They may be there now! On our regular morning walk we pass a flint face building called “The Flintstones”, right opposite the fish farm. This building has a row of three decorative air-bricks with holes just large enough to allow access for a little bird. Each morning a constant coming and going through these vents are a large number of House Sparrows. They arrive like Exocet missiles and straight as a Van Gerwen dart but depart more cautiously as the little brown heads peep around before coming out like a cork from a bottle. Watching in anticipation is like waiting for a row of Cuckoo clocks to announce the time. That’s my link*
Bernard’s Blog No. 7
All creatures great and small…..
I sometimes wonder when I complete one Blog and think how/what/where on earth can I start another and I step outside and the words of John Galsworthy become appropriate.
“It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what.” – John Galsworthy
Bertie the dog is keen to go on his usual morning ‘comfort break’ and I was hoping to go further afield to look for deer. It is now May and a glorious sunny morning and we start the ‘usual’ walk. As we pass the fish farm the trout seem to be even more lively than usual and the ‘plopping’ is more noticeable where the river is wider. The main chalk rivers of Dorset are ideal for Mayflies but you have to be there on one of the few days in May when they hatch to see the spectacle and we were lucky enough to see this on the River Winterborne this week.
Mayflies are common around freshwater wetlands, from fast-flowing rivers to still lakes, where the larvae spend their lives underwater, feeding on algae and plants. In the summer, the adults hatch out – sometimes simultaneously and in their hundreds; they have very short lives (just hours in some cases), during which they display and breed. Many species do not feed as adults as their sole purpose is to reproduce, dying once they have mated. Adult (winged) mayflies have no functional mouthparts and cannot eat. they have evolved to spend a year in the nymph form, taking on nutrients and growing, and then to pass on their genetics to a new generation in a very short period of time. The trout are very pleased to see them. Fly fishermen are aware of this and spend lots of time trying to tie feathers to hooks as clever imitation ‘flies’, to lure the trout onto their lines. Example below
Ask Gerry Hobbs about this, he is an expert!
The Yellow Flag Irises are in bloom along the river bank and yellow seems to have become the in-colour for the area to where we are heading on our deer hunt
About half a mile away from our temporary home is an area of woodland with copses and scrubland bounded by agricultural fields. ‘Haydon Plantation’, Ideal deer hunting territory with a camera. The Gorse is in full flower, familiar to us on Shirley Hills where the spiny evergreen shrub with its golden, scented flowers are favoured by bees and dog walkers alike. On being touched by insects, the flowers explode pollen on to visiting insects.
Here the adjacent field has been planted with Rape joining the fashionable yellow theme we noted earlier today.
Making our way into the open woodland the terrain becomes more difficult with the tangle of growth underfoot and the uneven ground dotted with stumps. Not helped by one of us with short legs and another with dodgy hips but we were not in a hurry. We stopped to watch a Buzzard overhead soaring and seeking prey and looking like a small eagle but with a broad rounded tail. We had previously seen a buzzard from the garden, being mobbed by a group of crows, but here he was allowed to hunt in peace.
As we made our way deeper towards a copse there was movement from the groundcover and a deer slowly rose and looked in our direction. It had seen us before we saw him and we gazed at each other. I read up what to expect before we came out and realized it was too small to be a Red deer and too large to be a Muntjac. Fallow deer would have a longer tail and probably have a lighter colour with white spots. So, I had to decide between a Roe Deer or a Sika. I only confirmed its species when I got home.
It was our most common native deer, the Roe deer, it tends to be solitary in summer, but forms small, loose groups in winter. The males have relatively short antlers, typically with three points. They begin to grow their antlers in November, shedding the velvet from them in the spring. By summer, they are ready for the rutting season. After mating, they shed their antlers in October and begin to grow a new set. Roe deer live in areas of mixed countryside that includes woodland, farmland, grassland and heathland. They eat buds and leaves from trees and shrubs, as well as ferns, grasses and heathers.
A male roe deer is called a ‘buck’ and the female is a ‘doe’. Mating occurs in July and August, but females delay implantation of the fertilised egg until January of the following year, so that the young are not born during the harsh winter months. Two or three, white-spotted kids are born in May or June. This deer was joined by two others and they skipped away before we could get any closer pictures. Bruce, my son took the photo and the camouflage is good. There is more to venison than I realized.
I started in a poetic frame of mind, let me finish in the same way:
“‘Tis like the birthday of the world, When earth was born in bloom; The light is made of many dyes, The air is all perfume: There’s crimson buds, and white and blue, The very rainbow showers Have turned to blossoms where they fell, And sown the earth with flowers.” – Thomas Hood
Bernard’s Blog No. 6
The colours are gradually changing in the hedgerows and fields. Much of the vivid springtime yellow is being overtaken by an abundance of white. The Ramsons or Wild Garlic makes its presence known not only with lanes, hedges and fields of white spiky stamens but a strong garlic smell as you walk by them. Less prominent but with a similar name is the taller Garlic Mustard, sometimes known as “Jack by the hedge” with its heart shaped toothed leaves. Together with the Cow Parsley, White Dead Nettle, Wood Anemone, Hog weed, Stitchwort and many more I struggle to identify, white seems to be the colour. Even the fields so recently swamped with bright yellow dandelions alive with bees are now a sea of the familiar white ‘clocks’ of children’s games, and the trees are blossoming above us.
The mini heatwave over the past few days has brought out some more butterflies. Thanks to some guidance notes from Neil P. I can with more confidence tell you that there are definite Common Blues, the smaller Holly Blues, Peacocks, Large White and unmistakable petite Orange Tips (the females I discovered have black tips on the wings), both have mottled green and white underwings which helps them blend into the foliage when they are at rest with wings closed vertically above their backs, wonderful eye -fooling camouflage. Probable sightings include Small Heath, Wall Brown, Skippers, Small Tortoiseshell and other “little brown Jobs”! The Brimstones are certainly still around and it is them we have to thank for the word “Butterfly” it being a distinctively “butter-coloured fly” fluttering by. As summer approaches I will get even more confused but hopefully be home and asking Neil for a tutorial in the churchyard.
A short walk away and along a little incline there runs a path beside a horse’s field which leads to “Rose’s Orchard”. The trees are coming into blossom as the bees have discovered. Rose has put a few hives in the corner of the field and provides pots of local honey for the village. Not only that, Rose’s Cider has become legendary and it is marketed as “Cider by Rosie”
It is approaching the month of May but the usual Maytime festivities will not be taking place this year in Rose’s Orchard due to the Coronavirus. Usually a May Queen, ‘Toast the blossom’ drinks, music and a barbecue with cider. All usually low key as it’s a small village event but not happening at all this year.
The birds and bees won’t worry, nature carries on. Our stroll along the bank of the stream offers some more activity in the water. Closer inspection shows fish amongst the water plants. Another puzzle for me, as if I didn’t have enough problems with butterflies. There is a local publication ‘The Valley News’ which helps me. It seems the Winterborne river at this point has become a haven for Rainbow Trout. These are not indigenous species, more likely escapees from the fish farm, but they are making the most of deeper, fast flowing water. We have just passed the spawning period and around the trout I spotted are scores of tiny fry (baby fish). The newly hatched trout are called alevins, and they live in the gravel, feeding off the remaining yolk that is attached to their body for 14 – 30 days, again temperature influencing their rate of development. Once the yolk has been eaten, the alevin become fry, emerge from the gravel, move towards the light and start to feed on tiny insects in the water.
Mortality rates at this highly vulnerable stage are very high. The fry are just a few centimetres long and consume a lot of energy, so they need to find food quickly, and plenty of it. They also become territorial – they want to be out of sight of other fry, so need habitat that has plenty of stones and plants to enable them to hide from the neighbours. And they are still very tiny, so they need shallow water (1 – 40cm) that isn’t too fast flowing.
The transition from living off the yolk to independent feeding is a critical life stage, and the one at which the majority of mortality takes place.
The mild and wet weather has encouraged the growth of Ranunculus fluitans, or as I mentioned in the last blog, Water Crowfoot (buttercup family) a month or so earlier than previous years. Ranunculus holds much beneficial nutrition for healthy rivers.
Back at the house we had been noticing an untidy pile of sticks and twigs on the thatched roof beside the chimney stack, some of which had slipped down the side. Our suspicions were confirmed when we watched a pair of Jackdaws coming and going. They were nest building in a warm, dry spot where one of the chimneys had been capped. They stayed for a few days but luckily seem to have moved on. If they had raised a family there, they may have stayed for a month. Jackdaws are smaller than rooks or other crows and can be recognised by a dark grey hood and pale grey glassy eyes and high pitched metallic tchack call, after which it gets its name. They have a jerky walk but are much quicker than the rooks. Like the other crows they are renowned as clever birds, ignoring scarecrows and farmers traps. They may store food for the winter and have been known to open snails by dropping them onto stones.
Much more delightful in the garden we were visited by a pair of Bullfinch. Although a British resident bird, I hadn’t seen Bullfinches for a long time. It is a shy bird, usually in pairs but this male was in the open showing his glossy black crown and blue-grey mantle and thrusting out his bright red breast like a Grenadier Guard. It is a small but bulky bird with a bull like head which, I suppose is where it got its name. The female is a much paler brownish pink. I’ve never heard it referred to as a “cowfinch”!
Bernard’s Blog No. 5
I think it was Emily Dickinson that wrote:
“To be alive is so amazing, there’s hardly time for anything else”
I know how she felt when I woke to bright sunshine and the morning bird song chorus today.
I’ve always had an interest in birdwatching, I would never describe myself as a ‘twitcher’. Any serious birdwatcher will take great exception to being called a twitcher. There’s a world of difference between the two. Birdwatching entails making careful observations about the birds one sees, even if it’s the most common, boring bird imaginable. Twitchers are only really interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen.
Today our visitors from Africa have arrived. A slender dark steely-blue bird swooping in to its traditional perch on a telegraph wire. A swallow, chestnut-red throat and forehead and creamy white underparts his long -forked tail confirms what he is. I wonder how many more will be sweeping to and fro after insects over the coming days.
It is really busy with all sorts of bird life.The lack of vehicles makes the sound from the hedges and fields seem particularly loud when I rise in the mornings and is still there when I go to bed. One regular though can easily be overlooked. Often confused among the sparrows, it is the little Dunnock, its plumage is an inconspicuous streaky brown colour with a grey head and breast. It also has inconspicuous habits at is shuffles through the hedge or shrubbery, hunting for insects, worms or seeds. They are quite common in Shirley, often confused with the sparrows and are sometimes referred to as a ‘Hedge Sparrow’ but are, in fact, not sparrows but ‘Accentors’ and never seem to venture on a bird table.
By contrast a pair of what is arguably the most exquisitely coloured of our British birds has flown into the tree just in front of me. Goldfinches, with strikingly banded black, white and ruby-red head and brilliant gold and black wings. It is no wonder that the collective noun for a group of goldfinches is ‘a charm’. Our usual walk, be it in the morning or afternoon seems to manage to provide new sightings, even when not searching. As we are passing the fish farm the motionless figure of a grey heron is standing by one of the tanks. Not the most welcome visitor the owner has when it helps itself to a free breakfast, but the tanks are full and the heron, almost silently lifts himself effortlessly into the air to land again amongst the cows and calves in the field a short way off.
It rained yesterday and drizzled this morning and the little stream is filling again with water from the fields. As it drains through the chalk, the water is running quite fast but is crystal clear and sparkles as it dances over the stones on the river bed. I love bankside flowers but never usually take much note of the waterweed. Today however the stream is blanketed by a plant with submerged thread-like segments and leaves bearing masses of solitary, tiny white flowers. It is Water Crowfoot.
Over Easter week Jane sent me a photo she took in Selsdon of a Yellow Archangel plant.
I had been longing to see one last year when we did a survey of the wildflowers in St John’s Churchyard. An Archangel at St John’s would have made a great Newsletter report and Jane has found one in Croydon. There are lots in the hedgerows here.
Christine also drew my attention to the Radio 4 programme “The Passion in Plants” broadcast at Easter which was written up in the Guardian and I am still searching for the Alleluia plant. It is the Wood Sorrel, called the Alleluia plant because it blooms between Easter and Pentecost when the psalms which end in ‘Alleluia’ are sung
The Radio 4 programme also mentioned a plant I spoke about in Blog No. 1, The Wild Arum or Cuckoo Pint or maybe, Lords and Ladies, whose leaves are often speckled, said to represent the blood of Christ that fell when the plant was growing under the Cross.
I have since heard it called locally ”Jack in the Pulpit”. You may have heard other names but here it is showing its spadix exposed from its sheath. (botanical terms I assure you).
Another that appears at this season is the little, bright blue Speedwell also called ‘Veronica’, named after the woman who wiped Jesus’ face with her handkerchief on His way to Calvary. It was said the likeness of His face miraculously appeared on the cloth.
The Greek translation of ‘Veronica’ is Honest Image
14th April 2020
Bernard’s Blog No. 4
I’ve not heard an owl since I’ve been here but I am assured there are many residing, both tawny and barn owls. They breed early in the year and their hooting is less frequent at this time but there are a lot of owl images around the village. People born in the village are known as “Houghton Owls”, there is a story here that a villager got lost in the woods. When calling for help, she mistook the calls of owls for answering human voices, she followed the calls and they led her home. There is a theory here that Thomas Hardy used the story as inspiration for the scene where Joseph Poorgrass gets lost in Yalbury Wood in “Far from the madding crowd”. There are numerous signs around depicting owls, some on house names and some as models in their windows, others carved into the wooden benches in the village and within St Andrews church and even woven into some of the thatched roofs. Notice one owl is winking in the carving, but I’ve not heard a hoot yet.
This is a bird watching ‘twitcher’ paradise and the fine weather encourages me to take my time on my daily walk, today following the stream to the lower part of the village where there is an established fish farm.
Houghton Springs Fish Farm, the only source of farmed Arctic Charr but also the ’Winterborne’ rainbow trout strain. Usually supplying hotels and up-market restaurants, the coronavirus took away the market so the Danish owner has increased his takeaway service for ‘locals’ from cool boxes. The tanks of splashing fish have been established where there used to be watercress beds and a borehole supplies the farm and feeds the stream. It has become a visiting site of a pair of Mallard and a moorhen. The moorhen has been there every time I passed, identifiable by the red face shield and yellow tipped beak, green legs with red ‘garters’ and long yellow toes, lobed not webbed. The loud ringing ky-orrk picks him out and I wondered where his mate was. Today as I returned home there was a commotion behind some reeds at the village pond and a pair of them appeared putting the final touches, I assume, to their nest concealed by the bank. I look forward to seeing the shiny black chicks soon.
Around the tanks at the fish farm it is common to see one or two little egrets. These used to be uncommon vagrants when I was younger but are becoming more common now. Small snowy -white herons with long slender necks, with black legs and bizarre yellow feet conspicuous when they fly. They have long, thin, white, hanging plumes from their nape for which they were hunted.
The bluebell season seems all too short and the British bluebell is associated with ancient woodlands, something that is abundance here in Dorset. They are iconic, a favourite with the fairies and a sure sign that spring is in full swing. Just a short way behind the house there are woods managed by the Forestry Commission and today are carpeted in deep-violet blue. The flowers are unmistakable bell-shaped perennial herbs, six petalled with upturned tips. They droop to one side of the stem sometimes up to 20 on each inflorescence. Do not confuse these native British plants with the upright growing Spanish bluebells which flower around the stems and I am told, are not so popular with the fairies! There are countless folklore tales surrounding bluebells and in the language of flowers they stand for humility, constancy, gratitude and everlasting love.
I took some photos before I made my way home and to prove we were there Bertie and I were captured looking for blog material.
And, here is the resulting photo.
12th April 2020
Bernard’s Blog No.3
We saw a hare today.
Bertie and I took our daily exercise allowance in a different direction. We took a walk uphill until the road came to an end, then turned right up past some stables towards another village. A gorgeous view over the valley to our right and the hedgerows both sides twitching with birdlife nest building. Chaffinch was the busiest this morning too preoccupied to be worried by one man and his dog but birdsong all around as we climbed further up the road. The blossom in the hedge is beginning to shield some nests. It is on the blackthorn*. Easily confused with hawthorn which blooms about the same time. Both trees have creamy-coloured flowers with five petals and support hundreds of insect species. Blackthorn blossoms before its leaves appear, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves emerge. Blackthorn hosts one of our better-known berries: sloes. Around September onwards these blue-black fruits are about 1cm across and are used to flavour gin. They are also popular for making wines andpreserves. At the brow of the hill we stop to get our breath back and decide to return before we reach another county and pass a piggery on our left when suddenly there was a disturbance from behind the hedge. A hare! Larger than the rabbits we had seen earlier in the week bunny-hopping amongst a herd of cows. This chap was on his own and his longer hind legs and longer black-tipped ears gave him away as he moved across the farmland. No other humans in sight until we were nearing home when a man in a tractor came up behind us and kindly slowed down until we found a gap in the hedge to let him pass.
Back home we sat outside for a coffee and Bonio, I chose the coffee, and gazed across to the black birds circling the trees on the edge of the neighbouring farm. Quite a small flock and with untidy nests at the top of the trees beside St Andrew’s church assumed they were rooks. When they come closer and land, I can confirm they are rooks, they are distinguished from the carrion crows by their grey beaks, the bare patch at the base of the beak and throat and their baggy ‘trousers’. Whereas the crows hop, these rooks walk with a rolling gait rather like an onshore shanty man! The RSPB have a saying “if there is more than one crow, they are rooks. If there is only one rook it’s a crow”
It goes without saying the noisiest bird in the garden today is one of our commonest British birds, the blackbird. Rivalling in persistence pheasants crowing from their covert, but the blackbird’s mellow, musical melody may end in a jarring screech. Have you noticed how they distinctively lift their tails over their backs when they alight?
1st April 2020
Bernard’s Blog No. 2
Another bright spring morning the birds are making their presence heard protecting their territory and trying to attract a mate. They time their breeding season to the warmest part of the year when there is plenty of food and lots of daylight in which to find it. As winter gives way to spring the longer light hours switch male songbirds into breeding song mode. It is the Robins and Blackbirds, what is that old saying about catching worms? But the Robins and Great Tits are now out. These smaller birds are more sensitive to cold and anyway the insects are up later and singing is hard work so it is the fittest, well fed birds that produce the strongest, most impressive song. Females therefore choose a mate that sings best because he is more likely to be good at raising chicks and passing on his genes.
There is a lot of activity under the thatched eves as a pair of great tits are constantly nipping to and fro. We hope they will raise a family there for a second year and we have managed to provide some fat balls upon which we are watching their feeding. There are a lot of musical additions to the morning chorus and they are abruptly interrupted by the harsh korr-kok of a male pheasant who, with a whirr of wings lands on the lawn like a chicken. Pheasants are reared in this area and they seem to know that it’s the closed season as four males arrived yesterday out of the hedgerow with two females (no sense of social distancing!). Their ancestors were Chinese, introduced in the 18th century and are really attractive. The males have a dark green and purple head, scarlet wattles round the eyes and usually a white (clerical?) collar. The plumage has a fiery copper colour. The female is a plainer less coppery – colour brown.
Bertie is agitating for his walk so I share my daily exercise allowance heading along the lane towards the small village pond. Ahead of me is an unmistakable pied wagtail with his black crown and sooty back and white bars on his wings. I often see these birds in Shirley recreation park or supermarket car parks and they do not worry about human company. Suddenly, however he is joined by a grey wagtail, a really beautiful bird, with its blue-grey head and back, sulphur yellow underparts and a contrasting black throat. It attracts its attention by the constant dipping of its very long tail before dancing off in a shuttle-cock flight in search of insects. They nest on fast flowing streams in the hills and visit ponds and streams so it is no surprise to find it here.
I am walking beside the Winterborne river, a little fast -moving stream really, but still carrying the flood water from the hills earlier this year. It has been explained to me that the origin of the name comes from the Bourne river appearing above the ground in this area at winter and drying up in summer. Hence the names of the villages, Winterbourne Stickland, Winterbourne Houghton, Winterbourne Kingston and several more. I am heading towards St Andrews Church in the centre of the village but, like all others, closed at present. Just beyond here at the time of the millennium the waterway was diverted to create a small village pond and won a Dorset design award. Loads more blog material here including these kingcups.
We return without meeting anyone else, just a wave to a man on a tractor. The sun is out and I promised to do some more weeding but I’m now distracted by a couple of butterflies. I’m not a lepidopterist but confident about the bright yellow male brimstone, they overwinter here and are one of the first to appear in spring. The other fluttering by confused me, the orange, black, yellow and white made me think it was a tortoiseshell. When it settled and opened its wings though the four “eye” shaped pattern suggested a peacock. Another overwintering butterfly whose colour pattern of the upper side possibly scares small predatory birds away. I wish my friend Neil was here to help me sort them out!
From the border emerges a fuzzy white -tailed bumble bee with its bright yellow bands. It is probably a queen who has emerged from hibernation possibly in an old mouse hole and sets about starting a colony by laying a few eggs that hatch as workers. They take over the building and foraging work. Males emerge later and mate with the new females who are prospective queens. The males and the old queen die in the autumn but the new queens hibernate.
Bernard’s Blog No. 1
Notes from Isolation
“Dad, at your age you’re in a Corvid ‘at risk’ group. We can self-isolate you in Dorset” I wasn’t given much choice and ended up with my family in a little hamlet near Blandford Forum. “you can bring Bertie”.
That was a week ago. Actually, I am in a village, a ‘hamlet’ does not have a church, there is one here, and a pub but unfortunately both have just closed. There are no shops but a few more thatched dwellings and we are near the top of a cul-de-sac. It is certainly isolated but absolutely delightful. My room looks out over the garden and Dorset countryside. A perfect location to watch nature evolve into spring and write about it to share, hopefully raising the spirits bringing a realization that God’s world exists despite Coronavirus and will be here for us all.
The birds are busy nest building. A male wren flying into the hedge with stalks of grass, doing a distinctive cocky tilt of the tail as he lands. The hedge is not yet in leaf but last year’s twigs give cover to his construction. He may well build other nests, which he will display to any female that enters his territory. If she likes this one more than the others she has seen she will move in, decorate and bear his children. Mind you he is no moral example. As soon as he has ensconced one female, he will try to tempt another into one of his spare nests, where she too will give birth to his progeny. The little bigamous bird will travel between his families raising both families.
The wild flowers are in abundance. Springtime yellow everywhere, the daffodils have reached their prime and are beginning to die back but the banks of primroses are competing with the celandines just as I imagine they are in our churchyard. Last year we spotted the first pink flowers of Lady’s smock, or cuckoo flowers in the churchyard. I imagine they are back as they are in the hedgerow here. Many wild flowers have local names and these are sometimes called milkmaids. ‘Cuckoo’ is often shared, whether it heralds the arrival of the bird I’m not sure but it is not to be confused with the swathes of wild arum which are filling the banks too, their shiny arrow headed leaves will soon be making way for the flowers surrounding the spadix which will eventually show through and in autumn the orange and green berries will give the plant other names, cuckoo pint or lords and ladies and other mor saucy country names which I won’t mention here.
Next blog more birds and butterflies.
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