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!
This is to put all you keen gardeners in your place.
It should be reassuring to see what happens if you do absolutely nothing. We dug the pond because we were fed up with having to evacuate the tadpoles every year as the puddles dry up and their wriggling density becomes alarming.
Here it is 4 months later — despite the drought!
There are fishes too, very tiny super-sonic ones. This is promising:
A frog wondering where her favourite puddle has gone. There are water boatmen and the southern hawker was patrolling all summer, though we haven’t seen the female laying eggs we live in hope that soon the mud will be teeming with insect larvae.
Encountered by chance at Plas Newydd in Anglesey — reminded me of the power of rain and light.
These specimens seem so much more robust that the ones in pictures from California but I suspect this has to do with the wonderfully consistent rainfall in North Wales and careful arboriculture since they were planted in the 1950s — just look at the carbon they have sequested in my lifetime!
When we planted our 7000 trees in 2006 we didn’t really realise we were replanting a rainforest — but all the clues were there.
Here is some of the evidence of the rain forest potential of one of the wet western parts of Britain in which we live:
Ferns and lichens and mosses taking advantage of every surface.
Shamrocks, violets, wood anemones and blue bells scrambling to catch the light before it is stolen by the bracken or the tree canopy.
This cool, damp, verdant place bursts with life — these boletus fungi appeared all along the path between aspen and oak in the few days we were away, does anyone know what sort they are?
If you notice an ordnance survey plane making passes over our valley, I can tell you that they are checking on the previously overlooked body of water below the ancient earth works on the hill.
You might remember that we got our friend to dig us a pond at the suggestion of the ecologist who came last summer. It has an en-suite compost heap and wood pile.
Well, it filled up in no time from ground water during the driest period anyone remembers.
The septuagenarian who ventures down the bank to plant water mint and forget-me-not and flounders in the slippery mud will now be rendered unconscious by a heavy and over-engineered life-buoy chucked in after him or her by an over-anxious grand-child. As the grand-parent is likely to be heavier than any number of grand-children, a winch may also have to be purchased!
As always though, I can’t help interfering, We have planted hornwort, water lilies, frogbit, yellow irises and bog bean, the latter primed to take over in no time, but it is beautiful. Already much of the pondweed escaped down the overflow and had to be rounded up and marched back — it should have been weighted which we realised when we found the little weights in the bottom of the bag!
Fishes, a mixed blessing, have been spotted, tiny and darting about with their shadows.
To increase our biodiversity we have long wanted to dig a pond in our woodland — we have tried before — it is not easy manoeuvring a heavy digger in waterlogged mud — what you need, we have learned, is an expert.
We know where to dig from the rushes and willow saplings that grow there (and the dents from previous attempts). In the past, discretion has always forced us back onto solid ground, occasionally with great difficulty! Today the weather is dry and sunny and the nearby stream is the lowest we have ever seen. Meurig, a man at one with his machine — he could use it to peel an orange, has come to help us.
By lunchtime we have a big hole and as he predicted water is appearing all by itself.
The one larger willow will be on its own island — ducks welcome,
By teatime its definitely a pond and filling up fast and I’m looking on the internet for life-belts!
We have uncovered a cache of thick, antique Welsh slate — haphazard sizes, mainly broken that were buried in the mud — they might help waterproof the clay banks — if nobody wants them — does anybody want them?
Don’t worry — it will all green up in no time but we might help a bit with some native pond weed and maybe some yellow flags and buckbean.
Our friends from the Species Habitat Protection Group have turned their attention to the sad lack of properly constituted tree holes in our woodland — a flaw underlined in our recent ecology survey.
They are particularly keen to promote the habitat of pied flycatchers which already nest in our deficient holes — the oak trees are just too young (unlike the humans involved) — not gnarly and creviced enough!
We have it on authority that the pied flycatchers are due back from Africa tomorrow so, as always on our land, there was an imperative! Jan, Jon and Roger arrived this morning with 12 new nest boxes and got them up in the nick of time.
Ready for the arrival of our little avian orcas.
On their behalf I’d like to thank Jan, Jon and Roger and we look forward to more of these beautiful little birds nesting here in future.
The trouble with Nature is that it runs away with you!
You give her, Nature that is, a small area of hillside to play with and, before you know it, she has barricaded herself in with thorny thickets and hidden earthworks, molehills under layers of slippery bracken and ankle breaking, knee jarring pitfalls made by rabbits and badgers. (Did I tell you I’ve just had a new knee.) The whole area is now dense undergrowth, criss-crossed by looping, flailing brambles and willow whips.
Ah, you say, that’s nice — good for diversity!
But is it — it’s not as simple as that!
So concerned were we that we called in an expert — Super-eco-man, a conservation hero —
He’ll know what to do.
And he did — we slithered and scrambled up and down our precipitous banks as he introduced us to species of which we had been oblivious. Pleased to meet you! He showed us how to distinguish between our six common ferns, and to start to make sense of some of our mosses, not easy as they mainly have Latin names, now recorded in my roughly dried notebook — it will be fun giving them proper English names — shaggy christmas tree moss and less shaggy christmas tree moss.
Most importantly he showed us what we might lose. In our emerging woodland, already we are losing the avenues of open ground for butterflies and moths, insects and bats. The paths that remain are steep sided — like canyons through the trees without the gently sloping edges needed by butterflies and pollinating insects — there is a lot to do.
The overgrowth of bracken is alternately shading and insulating the great anthills on the sunny bank so that our ancient neighbours, the huge colonies of yellow meadow ants cannot so efficiently control their temperature as they have done for thousands of years.
Our carefully placed owl box overlooks dwindling areas of decent hunting ground for barn owls as the vole habitat is being eroded by blackthorn — probably the reason they haven’t used it of late.
Our mature oaks, it turns out, are only 100 years old, adolescent almost, not nearly gnarled and hollow enough to provide adequate nesting for all the bats, like the ones currently breeding in the bathroom ceiling and the pied and spotted flycatchers that come looking for nest sites every spring. Our new barn will need a large well insulated roof space to deal with the housing shortage! A new owl box is planned for the old barn and a safety rail for the swallows and martins as the roof purlins are too steep — the nests tend to fall off.
Seems I’ll have to start production again. Did you know that spotted flycatchers like to nest near buildings.
Now I’ve got to go and plan the new pond, we know exactly where to put it and its adjacent compost heap and en-suite woodpile. Our lizards need somewhere to bask with an air raid shelter, we’ve got just the rocks we need.
Seriously we found the exercise very helpful, now we realize that managing an area for wildlife is not a passive exercise. Those who think that any form of re-wilding threatens the rural lifestyle had better think again — even though we might only be cutting some of our hedges every other year (to get more berries) we will be generating lots of other activity.
We’ve been asking ourselves increasingly what we can do for wildlife.
Yesterday a neighbour caught me interfering with the bank of withering meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) outside the Presbyterian Chapel. Public spirited, he came to investigate — my sins had found me out. No, no, he reassured me… Helping ones self to seed is acceptable foraging — recycling and green.
Armed with this intelligence later in the day I foraged a few red berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis from Ynes hir — all in a good cause. As I passed I remembered the deafening buzz of honey bees that emanated from the Cotoneaster that climbed over our shed in London and where my elder daughter, then about 5, opened her first Bumble Bee Hospital. It was she who made me read the books of Dave Goulson, evangelical champion of bees and the planet generally.
We have been thinking about pollinators, insects, food chains, berries and burrs and, of course, birds.
As far as providing for the birds is concerned, we seem to be doing quite well in the berry department, especially this year.
A very good year for Rowan, and plenty of blackberry and elderberry, though the birds have already made great inroads into the latter.
We have copious sloes on the blackthorn, haws on the whitethorn, hips on the dog rose that rambles in the hedges and sticky honeysuckle fruits on the woodbine and the birds are already harvesting the large crop of tiny apples — they are welcome. Not so to the few damsons — I need those for my gin.
The ivy is coming into bloom to produce lots of berries for the winter.
According to Mr Goulson we could do with a firethorn (Pyracantha — not strictly native) which I have always thought more appropriate for a suburban garden though Bill tells me one once saved his life when it enveloped him in its bouncy, interiorly-sprung prickles when he fell from a ladder!
Less alien might be a wayfarer tree and I know where there is one with lots of berries — at Rutland water — must go and find my balaclava!
The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.
As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.
There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.
There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.
The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.
Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.
They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.
The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.
On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.
As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!
It may look like Cornwall but you can tell it’s not Cornwall because there aren’t any people, police, naval ships, radar installations, helicopters or motorcades. And no G7 demonstrators — a beach near my daughter’s Cornish home has been piled high with the undead bodies of middle aged ladies dressed as dead mermaids! All very artistic. No, this is Wales, this week at Cwm Tydu and I had no idea that this part was so beautiful.
One or two midges by the stream and butterflies in the meadow. Best of all (you may remember how long I hunted these last year) there are choughs! Spotted by chance and very active probing for ants on the grazed sward, just as they like it, courtesy of wild ponies.
Its a shame their bills and feet are so muddy, you can’t see how vibrantly red they are. Never mind — the news is good about these rare birds because the previous day we saw a chattering of them swooping above Bird Rock, north of Aberystwyth showing the splayed, finger-like feathers at the ends of their wings– seems their numbers may be on the up.
Mud is the order of the day — here one of the many house martins at Aberaeron harbour is collecting mud to build his house.
The common whitethroats are displaying.
Everywhere there is the hum of bumble bees making the most of this years blooming of the dog roses.
This one has so much pollen in her sacks it is a miracle that she can still fly — but then wild life is full of miracles.