British history

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The best adventures are unplanned. Yesterday on our way past, we called in to RAF Coningsby for Bill to do a bit of goofing at the end of the runway. It is where the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is stationed — where they keep planes that survived the Battle of Britain in 1940, that still fly and do the memorial fly pasts on special occasions such as the coronation — though the weather prevented that. We were offered a tour but our guide Julian Maslin apologised because the planes were out — it was the day of the display pilots annual re-accreditation — if we stood outside the Hangar he would tell us about them as they flew past!

At that point, what he had to say was drowned out for a moment as the memorial flight hove into sight from behind the trees.

Well, that was interesting — but what’s this?

Creeping up on the 80 year old Avro Lancaster bomber — it’s one of the display typhoons whose pilot is also due to be re-tested.

Flying along behind at almost stall speed.

He kept his distance as they flew up and down in front of us, and the examiners.

Then along on top! Once the Lancaster had peeled off and landed the Typhoon showed its power and manoeuvrability.

Afterburners firing,

the Typhoon with a banshee wail climbs almost vertically

and loops the loop!

Before streaking past us one last time.

Here’s is her sister, on the ground from 29 Squadron. And a chance to see the Lancaster as she taxies home — a very big bird.

She disgorges her regular RAF crew, who come and greet us, standing on the tarmac. They seem excited by their exercise and relieved to be good for another year.

Time to have a proper look at the Supermarine Spitfire, in desert camouflage.

This one is painted for the invasion in 1944, the stripes to prevent it being shot down by friendly fire.

The Hawker Hurricane that was flying is painted black as for night flying as they did over London in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’

W Churchill

Red Squirrels

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgare) are hard to find — they are almost extinct in England. They survive on Anglesey, North Wales and in parts of the Highlands and islands of Scotland, where isolation has saved them from the scourge of squirrel pox, carried by the successful grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) that raids our bird feeders but it’s not as simple as that.

Last week we visited some in Abergaty, Stirlingshire, Scotland. They are agile, lively creatures.

Happily their populations in Scotland are stabilising, despite one problem — poor memory — I sympathise.

When they have too many nuts, like this one, they hide or bury them and, more often than not, they can find them when times are hard. The grey squirrel has better spatial memory and finds far more of his hidden caches of nuts. The squirrels we saw were busy burying theirs.

Another problem for them is predators, we saw a goshawk over their wood and several buzzards. That is why these have developed to be so alert, they do no have eyes on the back of their heads but you can see from this one that the position of the eyes right at the side of the head (like a sheep) must give 300′ plus vision.

One great positive for the red squirrel is that in recent years, with increased protection and understanding, there has been a resurgence of the pine marten. These ferocious predators evidently have a taste for grey squirrels or perhaps they are just easier to catch than the red, being less nimble in the tree tops, and lighter.

Thanks to Dani Kropivnik, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons for his picture of a pine marten. We were not fortunate enough to see a pine marten — perhaps next time.

So these busy little creatures are doing alright!

Birds, Ecology

Black Grouse — a last look?

When we first moved to Wales, someone told me that there were still black grouse on the Gorn Hill, East of Llanidloes — I have never seen one there. We have been to the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland to find them.

The females are grey, often called greyhens and keep themselves tucked away, camouflaged and out of sight in the rough.

The blackcocks have no such inhibitions during the mating season when they are seen in their traditional display grounds lekking — that’s the best time to spot them, posturing and showing off their spectacular plumage, strutting their stuff, tails flared, while calling with a bubbling pigeon-like coo. They meet on traditional grounds, clearings on tops of rises — here we were lucky enough to see about 8 males but there may have been more on the other side of the hill. We could view them with long lenses from a public road — a lot of the previous leks are so threatened that visitors are actively discouraged. This is about as far West as they live but the species is distributed in a wide swathe across Eurasia as far as China. In Russia leks can attract 200 males.

Here they are confronting each other in pairs, like a knock-out competition where the winner gets to mate with the females who have been watching from the scrub, assessing their strength and fitness to breed — not that they take any part in rearing or protecting their offspring! Once mated the females fly off and hideaway to hatch and rear their young alone. I wonder if some females select for intelligence and mate with the cunning young blackcock who sneaks around the margin of the lek and woos the greyhens while the macho males are busy trying to impress each other?

See Wimoglen video published on YouTube

From what we had been led to expect we felt very lucky to see black grouse this year — let’s hope it won’t be the last time.


Redstarts in Mid-Wales

Spotted yesterday at the base of Fan hill by the carpark at the Bwlch-y-gle dam, this beautiful common redstart, singing his heart out.

Last week a black redstart was spotted in Carno. Rare in this country, on the continent it fills the same garden niche occupied by the robin here. There robins remain a woodland bird. Perhaps we will see more black redstarts if the summer temperatures continue to increase in the future.

The summer migrants are piling in, the male pied flycatchers have arrived and are claiming their territories including the nest box that was so successful last year — they are furiously defending potential nesting sites, squawking at any intruders while awaiting the arrival of the females.

Here is our noisy pied flycatcher waiting for his mate.


Good News! Pied Flycatchers have Returned!

Spotted in Gwernavon woods, Llawr-y-glyn, Powys yesterday (13.04.2023) the first pied flycatcher to make it back from Africa through the gales and rain — the day before that it snowed and hailed here. The male bird looked in very good condition, plump and lively — probably fluffed up trying to keep warm.

No sign of last years swallows returning yet but some have been seen in Y Fan, just over the hill

Where are our babies? The swallows from the beam in the barn.

Last years pied flycatcher fledgelings were ringed so we might be able to spot them if they make it back — here’s hoping.

Tomorrow the rain will stop and we will look for the northern wheatears — I shall feel very much better when they are all back in their summer quarters even though I know many individuals will have been lost!

Cornwall, Ecology, Urban environment

Seals on the Balance of Nature.

Seals are doing well around the United Kingdom since we stopped persecuting them, like these common seals seen earlier this year on a beach in Cornwall near to my daughter’s home. The common or harbour seals are smaller than the grey seals and, I think, look cuddlier although don’t get too close! Their faces are concave, more dog shaped than the grey seal below.

Grey seals are larger, often darker, greyer and with a more aquiline profile to their muzzles and their eyes are set further back. The greys tend to lie close together in groups when hauled up on the beach.

Here is a mixed group, some lying like bananas to keep their extremities out of the surf as the tide comes in. You’ll often see them doing this perched on a rock as the tide comes up to eventually lift them off and remind them that it is time to go and hunt.

As their numbers increase their distribution is becoming wider. My other daughter took this photo in Peterborough, 40 miles inland.

Two common seals by the lock on the River Nene in Peterborough. Man is no longer the top predator of seals here, but killer whales keep down their numbers in Scotland and hunt them in shallow water, and the inlets of sea lochs, David Attenborough said so — will they eventually follow them down the coast and up the Nene? That will give us something other than sewage to worry about when we do our wild swimming and canoeing!

Urban environment

Follow the Music Man

in time to the throb of his African rhythm.  He’s tall and lean, stylishly frayed, fist bumping the man in the sleeping bag propped against the wall by the old cinema and the girl sitting cross legged on the pavement – but on he swerves, swinging – things to do – people to see.  He looks ahead but sees all around. The large plastic bag, for-life, slung over his shoulder matches his trainers.  The rest of him is swathed in black and he rocks… Side to side he rolls to the beat. 

Past the logjam of bins, suddenly he’s gone – slipped down the alleyway behind the restaurants. 

This town is changing quicker than I can keep up — a grown up female of ample proportions holds forth through the plastic hole at the post office, hair jet black and dyed, held back by an Alice band sporting kitten ears on which the queue behind her fix their impatient attention.  At the other till the woman with a tattooed face tries to answer unanswerable and unconnected questions from a customer who must have ADHD.  Outside a striding woman screams obscenely into her phone to the accompaniment of a placatory man, conveniently on speaker, but to no avail. I open the door to the chemist for an elderly couple to dash in with their buggy, taking their grandchild out of this uncertain world – we sigh.  I browse £400 tooth brushes – one has Bluetooth – I wonder why.

Homeward bound, Edward East, famous son, RA deceased, raises an eyebrow from his plinth.   The chewing gum has been cleaned from the pavement outside his gallery, long closed, but he is as bemused as I…  And now, behind I hear the music too – it follows at an uneasy distance.  I can’t outrun the music man – I am old – he is the future.  His music drifts forward from the other side of the street and is getting louder.  I look straight ahead but see all around.  I keep to the pace of his rhythm and when a lorry passes, I slip down an alleyway like a fox.

Books, History

Llanidloes — a microcosm of British History!

It’s satisfying to read history that you can fit into your own known world, that talks about the way national and international events affected people living in your own area, that mentions the streets and buildings that figure in your own town! It brings the history to life and should definitely be used in local schools where it will render history more relevant to students. But you don’t have to live in Mid-Wales to appreciate this intimate perspective on history — looking at events from the point of view of one small area can increase ones understanding dramatically and, in a world that focuses on centres of government and is skewed by other agendas, it is brilliant to realise that there are patriots, innovators, captains of industry, revolutionaries, artists, religious philosophers and politicians everywhere, in all communities. It seems Llanidloes is a microcosm for what happens in the whole world!

Published in 2010 by the Great Oak Bookshop, ISBN No. 978-0-9524653-1-7

Meteorology, Wales, weather

Not there yet!

Yesterday we went looking for the Spring.

Finding only catkins blowing in the breeze which was ominously easterly.

Deep breath — one sneeze.

No yellow stars twinkling in the hedgerow —

ranunculi, the true harbinger of Spring — keeping their heads down.

We’re not there yet! We awake to 8 inches of snow. The fine stuff that clings to the trees who flex their sinews as you pass to dump it on your head — it’s their only pleasure.

Scenery, unrelieved by scarlet berries

Long ago eaten by hungry birds but not long to go now

It’s starting to drip!

Birds, Ecology


It has been snowing hard all day but yesterday I had lunch with my friends. All three who live here, in the country (rather than the town) agreed that they were starting to have qualms about their bird feeders. Seems we have all created sparrowhawk feeders.

These small, fast predators whizz around the side of the house and bowl over their victims in a whirl of what seem pointed wings — an arial dogfight. The unfortunate tit will be consumed on the grass or caried off. If lucky, or quick, it may drop into the dense foliage of a protective shrub like our box bush. The little birds — the tits, sparrows, robins, siskins and finches — will cower there until one sounds the all-clear.

Every day we see buzzards and red kites, silhouetted against the sky as they soar above us.

Occasionally we see a kestrel.

The peregrine falcons, thicker set, which are common place in Kettering are conspicuous by their absence in Mid-Wales although we saw this one on the flood plain of the Dyfi estuary and have seen one in the Elan valley.

Photos are a boon to bird identification — do you remember this one — I published it years ago. So blinded by rage was I that I failed to notice the most sought-after bird of prey in this area — the majestic goshawk — eating my last bantam cock under the bedroom window! Goshawks live in the woods and whistle in and out, weaving between the trees, gone before you know it! Much bigger than a sparrowhawk and much less commonly spotted — at least this year.

This year is the year of the sparrowhawk.

Prospering from the largess of the kind pensioners who fill up their small bird feeders — Nature red in tooth and claw!