Birds, Ecology, Wales

Never Malign the Humble Starling

It could cost you an admirer!


Starling by John Quine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


I once had a very high opinion of a man for whom I worked, in a lofty Victorian hospital with what they now call ‘orangery windows’ in the roof of the long ward on the top floor. One day a bird that had strayed into the ward became trapped, flying up against the glass of one of these windows.  His frantic tweeting was disturbing the ward and distracting the medical students that my boss was trying to teach — it didn’t take much to distract a medical student.  Now, I knew he was an enthusiastic bird-watcher and early tweeter (nothing to do with Twitter — it was long before that).  Perhaps I thought I’d impress him.

“I’ll get the pole and let the bird out!’ I said and went to fetch the thing like a giant boat-hook that opened the sky lights.

“Good idea!” said he.

When I came back, they had moved along the ward, nearer to the bird and could see the flapping, squawking creature more clearly as it threw itself repeatedly against the glass in panic.

“Oh!  It’s only a starling!” said the boss ” Leave it!”

Crash!  There it was, shattered on the ground — not the window — not even the bird — but my shattered illusion — my respect, in shards on the floor of a paeiatric ward in North London.

Later, when the previously wise old patriarch, now demoted to a racist tyrant, was having his coffee, I went back and released the bird.

I remember this because it is the time of the year when flocks of these enterprising and social birds ‘graze’ our fields looking for something, I’m not quite sure what.  They alight (several hundreds of them), making a great stain on the hillside, chattering.


Then they lift in a swirling cloud and swoop low over the pasture scattering the sheep  who are scared, they are convinced that this murmuration of birds is supernatural. Suddenly the cloud swoops into a tall tree, all talking, so that the Douglas Fir twitters with an invisible din.


Then they are off again swirling, the ball of birds, tumbling up and down the valley, in and out of the morning mist, like a great ball of the lightest, flightiest, celestial dough, rolled back on itself and kneaded by an invisible force.  A splash of dough lands on the overhead electricity wires, then drips, bird by bird, back onto the grass.


All the time more and more individuals are joining the throng then, suddenly, they are gone.  All that remains is the throb of a thousand wings as they pass overhead, there is nothing like it — perhaps the sheep are right!


Starlings by Paul McGreevy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 Have a look at these murmurations:


Climate, Wales

The Year Rolls On

Unremittingly — can you smell that mintyness that rises from the damp litter of fallen leaves?


We’ve enjoyed a long and beautiful Autumn.  The beech woods have been aflame and the more sober oaks have held on to their russet leaves until just a few days ago.


But now suddenly, in one night, everything is changed!


The sky has cleared and the temperature has plummeted.  At night the stars in our black night are stunning and the all-day frost in the hill’s shade makes the morning seem moonlit. You can see the cold and smell the cleanness of the air (and stub your toe on a frozen mole hill).


As the low winter sun peeps over the hill and stretches over the ground, where it touches it brings back life and colour.


Ecology, Wales


It’s a miracle and like the birth of a baby (or a lamb) it brings tears to your eyes;  one day the twigs on the oak trees look strangely spikey, the buds at their tips are swelling and beginning to crack open, furled leaf points are starting to show.  There is heavy rain over night and, next morning — like a magicians bunch of trick flowers — every bud is open and every leaf-vein filled with sap and suddenly, where a lattice of branches divided up the open sky, our woods are a solid mass of billowing green.


Say goodbye to the shamrocks, engulfed in woodland shade; they’ll soon be overtaken by the grasses, ferns and brackens, all scrambling towards the remains of the light.


But first — enjoy the bluebells!


The spring comes late in the Cambrian Hills but when it does it’s explosive!



Birds, Hill Farming, lifestyle, Wales

Aerial Dog Fights

We are not in a war zone but over the undulating landscape of Mid-Wales fighter aircraft of the Royal Air Force rent the sky and intertwine their parabolas as they pass behind the hills to emerge and cross, one with the other with micro-second clearance — they travel in pairs, weaving like mating dragonflies on amphetamine, never quite making contact, thankfully — so far.

Photo: Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD [OGL (]

2 Hawk TMk2 Aircraft courtesy of Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD (OGL v1.0)

They use this area for low level training (I don’t think it’s a secret) and use our house as a landmark or perhaps we are located exactly on the intersection of the invisible lines of the virtual grid that is projected onto the land by a NASA satellite  (the eyes in the sky).  When we were slating our new roof the eyes in the sky were obviously interested, sending fighters to make pass after pass over our house, lower and lower in the sky, trying to topple the large khaki penguin, wrapped up against the elements (it was winter — we do everything late).  Were we part of a secret military exercise — a pretend enemy missile installation under construction — subject to constant aerial monitoring and due for annihilation when we fixed the last ridge tile?  Or was the intelligence officer just keen on DIY, trying to see how we feathered and leaded the valley of our new roof?

Anyway we enjoyed the attention.

We’re not paranoid, not even when a massive Hercules transport plane hoves over the horizon which, in these hills, can be just yards ahead.  Motorists on the mountain road swerve to avoid the huge alien craft that rears up as they approach the crest of a hill!

The remains of a fuel tank from such a plane was in our barn for years, jettisoned by a pilot who misjudged the height of our hill, and quickly squirreled away by conspirators to fill the oil lamps of this valley for a generation — or so they say!

The aerial activity recently has been more pastoral.  The crows that roost and build their nests in the wood do not like the buzzards, nor are they very keen on the red kites —


— that swoop down from great altitude to pick up the remains of pheasant carcasses left on the hillside for them by this lazy farmer’s wife who is fed up with making soup.


The buzzards are ever present,


mewing to each other and circling above the trees and crossing the valley.  The crows are intelligent and social creatures and resent this invasion of their airspace so have formed an air force of their own.  They  climb up high in ones and twos and swoop down on the buzzard from above and behind and the buzzard will twist and roll to face the enemy with his talons outstretched and they will engage and drop and spin in the most aeronautically alarming way — a real dog-fight.

They recover and the buzzard continues to beat his Herculean way across the field of combat as the crows re-form to attack again.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the plucky crows especially after the chicken incident — imagine our delight when a great bird of prey alights just under our bedroom window to consume its prey — we are honoured and watch and wait, enthralled, to photograph its every move and later rush out to examine the spot — only to discover the remains of our last bantam hen!

173Best Buzzard



Photo of Hawk aircraft by Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD [OGL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Ecology, Wales

Common things being common

The grasshoppers that jumped out and away wherever you trod in our field last summer were green and there were lots of them.  That might make you think that they were Common Green Field Grasshoppers but with talk of global warming, climate change and species in all the wrong places (A Dartmoor Blog  I have been inspired to have another look at my photos and to try to be more precise in my identification.


First impressions may well have been correct and this confirms me in the belief that things should be named for what they are, although in this case I had such difficulty in photographing him that Brown Kneed Elusive might be a better name.

?Common Green Grasshopper

If you recognise this creature please leave details otherwise he will remain Omocestus viridulus, the common green field grasshopper.


Brecon Beacons

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Call it serendipity, call it making the most of a bad job — this week-end we found ourselves, unexpectedly, in South Wales.  The rain cleared and the winter sun peeped over the hill blinding us with its reflection in the reservoir.

Pontsticill Reservoir

Pontsticill Reservoir

So we set out to explore this big splodge of green on the map of South Wales, north of the industrial Valleys and the metropolitan south.  The Brecon Beacons National Park stretches from Brecon in the middle of the country right down  to the Heads of the Valleys Road, along which you can drive and (if you want to) turn down each of the famous coal mining valleys that once fed the industrial revolution — that criss-crossed the area with canals and railways that turned the stone of the terraced houses, bridges and the tree trunks black and scarred the hillsides with mine workings and slag heaps.

All that has changed now but the Heads of the Valleys road still marks the boundary between valley bottoms of dense habitation and a wild paradise, though on the wild side there are still some signs of the human activities in the past — hillforts, burial mounds, quarries, mine workings and, of course the dams and reservoirs that still satisfy our needs.

Not a farm track but a hang over from a more industrial past.

Not a farm track but a hang over from a more industrial past.

Under the sward, the moss and the lichen the industrial history is written into the hillsides.

P1040670 (2)Now it’s all farming, forestry and tourism — watch out for the cyclists!


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To the north is Brecon, a garrison town — the first soldiers who stayed near here were probably Roman in the first century AD, now they  are Welsh and Ghurkas and that is why this sleepy little town has a Cathedral and Nepalese restaurants.

Driving along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons after visiting Brecon Cathedral we see the peaks in the distance

? PEN-Y-FAN (886M) and GWAUN RHUDD (746M)

? PEN-Y-FAN (886M) and GWAUN RHUDD (746M)


Within the National Park the River Usk separates the peaks of the Brecon Beacons from those of the Black Mountains to the east.  The sun, setting in the west,  bathes the eastern side of the Usk Valley in golden light, beyond is the Sugar Loaf. P1040705 Usk Valley skyAn epic sunset reminds us what a bonus sunny winter’s day we have had in the company of one of our children.

Sunset over Merthyr

Sunset over Merthyr


Merthyr Tydfil Pylon

Merthyr Tydfil Pylon


Doggy, Humour, Wales

Feelgood Friend

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I feel another half-baked theory coming on — pet owners live longer than other people, probably just because they are more active (getting up in the night to open doors, clearing up messes, taking long walks, searching for missing balls, disposing of bodies, washing duvets etc.).  This fits in with the bowls and ballroom dancing phenomenon —  any doctor will tell you that their oldest and healthiest patients are those who still engage in these strange physical practices.  The key, it seems, is activity — any activity.

Happiness is also supposed to be good for you and is definitely infectious — perhaps it is a zoonosis (something you catch from animals).

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All of this crossed my mind this week-end while on a camping holiday on the Gower peninsula in South Wales — we only went for a couple of days because it’s November and the weather forecast was appalling.  The timing was not negotiable as Alan had been invited on a brewery sponsored trip to see the Scarlets play rugby against Glasgow at Llanelli and Llanelli is just a knock-on from the Gower — I was to pick him up after the match.

He found me in the camper van, parked in Morrison’s car park outside the stadium — I didn’t recognise him, not because of the strangeness and unsteadiness of his gait but for some reason he had donned a flat cap and a muffler — a throw-back to his childhood, perhaps.  The rain was driving and the wind howled around the van  which became super-cooled.

I had booked into the camp-site earlier but it was already dark and stormy.  That was when I made the acquaintance of the owner of the adjacent livery stable — an animated man with a coat over his head who danced  around the camper van in the heavy rain and the glow of my brake lights as I exercised a 17-point turn in his cluttered yard.

As I drove Alan back to the Gower he was relatively oblivious to the idiosyncrasies of my driving style and we found the pitch again with ease, it was the only one with a crooked number which I had adjusted earlier with the near-side bumper.

Next morning I awoke under the pile of duvets and the survival blanket, I was warm– Alan was alive, despite the hot water bottle having fallen out of the end of our bed and into the dogs basket during the night.  The sun was shining through the cracks in the window insulation.  There is something rather wonderful about the quality of the light on the Gower.

Something about the light -- there should be a Gower school of art -- perhaps there is!

Something about the light — there should be a Gower school of art — perhaps there is!

If you like wide open beaches, the Gower is for you.

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The sunshine bought out the crowds — we must have seen eight people in the course of the day, most disguised as seals and frolicking in the surf —

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I think wet suits are quite sinister and expected our dog Pedro to pick up 0n this but it seems that they smell rubbery, like ball which is even better than stick and, it turns out, surfers are exactly his type of person.

A dog day that starts with a hot-water bottle is going to turn out well.

The Gower is his sort of place and I am left musing how strange it is that spending a day throwing balls for a wet dog can make a human feel so happy.