Pardon? Yes, really.
Although no spectacular sunrises and the weather has oscillated, as usual, from minus 8 frosts with feathered, blue-from-cold, greenhouse windows, and the first ice spike of the year……and the nights have been so clear that the stars seemed to dance patterns in the sky…… and dense muggy mists have choked the valley’s depths, the start to 2017 has been hugely reinvigorating in almost daily new seasonal sights, sounds and smells.
Never mind the media hype of the annual Las Vegas tech show which symbolically falls in this first week of the New Year, promoting the latest must have electronic gadgetry (click here for more, and ask yourself how in tune with the natural world are the folk who design all this “stuff”, and what are the consequences of such detachment for the other species that cohabit with us on this planet?)
The familiar simple bright, repeated single whistle had me gazing up into the mossy boughs of our big oak. Even leafless, it took a while to spot the distinctive shape working its way round and down the branches probing and flicking. It wasn’t until later that I realised the slate grey backed Nuthatch was hiding, not seeking.
And is that a peanut in its beak? If so, it’s flown across the valley with it, since we don’t put food out for the birds – enough get caught as it is by the attack sparrowhawk that periodically steams though the garden. Unlike the Hercules planes which at least give you a few seconds advance warning of their arrival, the sparrowhawk just weaves through the garden at low level high speed on pre-planned routes. It passed within 5 yards of me as I was pruning apple trees below the slate topped terrace wall, dipping over the capping stones and banking sharply South, hugging the cowshed wall.
And as the Nuthatch moved on, with perfect timing a Tree Creeper arrived at the base of the same big Oak, and began working its way up the mossy trunk, seeking insects. No insects, no bird life, as John Lewis-Stempel makes clear in the excellent “The Running Hare – The Secret Life of Farmland”, which I’ve just finished reading. Fortunately we have an insect rich garden, even at this time of the year, so Goldcrests, the UK’s smallest bird can still survive winters by tirelessly combing the twigs and branches throughout the garden, whilst constantly keeping a lookout for the sparrowhawk.
On Saturday, several classic January delights as I worked in the garden… The first deep rose lilac buds of Daphne bholua, which we’ve been carefully watching for weeks, have now opened to palest pink. And, as always, I knew this before I walked into the copse since the sublime perfume on this grey mild morning drifted through the air.
The next two months will be olfactory bliss. Every year we move more of the layered suckers into different parts of the garden.
Hamamelis “Robert” is now firmly established as our favourite Witch hazel. Not only the first to flower in mid December, but now, like the Daphne, suffusing the still air of the mossy croquet lawn close to it, with an intriguing Witch Hazel scent that even I can actually smell. And never mind those orange red flower hues, banned from the garden for much of the year. They perfectly mirror those of the Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) mushrooms growing from the stump of dead ash just across the lawn. Click here for more on this hardy, and apparently healthy, edible mushroom, with a generic name giving a clue to its flaming orange appearance, even surviving that severe frost.
Not in the same league, but still exciting is my experiment at sowing saved parsnip seed from last year’s flowering roots, in the Big Bag Bottle Bank in November. Really good germination by January 7th, and again surviving the minus 8 degrees C with no protection other than the water filled bottles.
Pruning the apples and Hydrangea panniculata is a great way to enjoy the garden as the light gradually fades, particularly with a robin for very close company, but even this experience is topped by the seasonal starling rush. For the first time, on a mild Sunday, our East facing hay meadow was attractive enough, and frost free, for a small group to descend and quickly work over the shortish mossy turf, probing for grubs. The slightest, and entirely unobserved by me, scare sends the whole flock into the air, before quickly wheeling round and landing on a different patch.
However it’s when the light has nearly gone, and I stand beneath the oak with the only sound an occasional water drop hitting the slates behind me, in dank, wind free, grey mist, that suddenly a rural Doppler effect kicks in.
Always I think it’s a sudden gust of wind.
Or a breaking wave.
And by the time I realise that it isn’t, (since there’s no wind, and I’m not beside the sea), the sound has changed, and the whooshing beating of thousands of wings is clear, overhead, as they fly in numbers too great to count.
4 or 5 times this repeats, over maybe 15 minutes.
You just have to wait.
And look and listen.
But trumping even this experience, and surely this has to be the word for the New Year, have been my occasional walks down into our wet meadows at dusk.
The sheep are counted and quiet.
The starlings have already flown past, judging it best to be back at their roost with time for a little murmurating before settling down for the night… and I stand beside one of our hay “yurts”, scarfed, beanied and duffled against the chilly air, and wait, camera in hand.
Each time I’ve done this, the prelude to the main “show”, is the flap, flap, flap, glide of a large bird, black silhouette, broad wings, raptored beak. From the stream wood behind me, heading West, low over the ground, just clearing the overgrown hedge tree tops.
A buzzard, or a goshawk? Surely too big and slow for a sparrowhawk. And at dusk? Click here for a very good BTO guide to difference between Goshawks and Sparrowhawks.
Then singly or as a pair, I pick the form out, 60 yards or so away to the South of a hedgerow Oak. And as I swing the camera up to try to track it, it’s already moved halfway along the field’s margin. The shutter burst is silently doing its stuff, and I pan the camera round. In its direct flight and size, it looks to my naked eye in the ISO 3200 light like a pigeon. In a few seconds it’s gone. Up beyond the top pond.
Maybe beginner’s luck, but the very first time I photographed this, I captured usable silhouettes of each bird. The second time, a little gloomier, and nothing but fuzzy blurs. And there they are, a couple of Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), with distinctive straight beak, and different flight pattern to the zigzagging snipe which we occasionally disturb from our ditches.Not being a birder, I knew little about this secretive bird, but it seems that like many other agricultural birds its’ numbers have declined to maybe 50,000 breeding pairs, which each winter are supplemented by much larger flocks from Russia and Scandinavia, flying in for the better feeding in our milder maritime climate.
Interestingly the best information I could glean on this aspect of Woodcock ecology was on the site of the Game and Wildlife Conservation society’s woodcock tagging project. Click here for more. As one of my Carmarthenshire Meadows readers has pointed out to me, this organisation has an interesting history having been established in 1931 by Major Eley, a shotgun cartridge manufacturer, who established a prototype organisation to investigate an outbreak of strongylosis worms in Grey Partridge. The Woodcock Watch project clearly has produced some fascinating data, yet as is also pointed out by Phil Read of the RSPB in another excellent link on these birds (click here), it’s strange that people who like to shoot woodcock as game birds seem to know more about their habits than the average ornithologist!
But do look at the RSPB article to see the review of documented cases of woodcock seen carrying their young in flight. There have been cases where the youngsters are seen carried between legs and body, between the claws, partly supported by the tail, and even on the back. It’s also now generally accepted that Woodcock do this not just to escape danger with their chicks – sometimes they have been seen carrying, and even dropping several chicks at once in flight – but also as part of their routine behaviour transporting chicks from drier breeding areas to damper land where they feed nocturnally, typically on earthworms, snails, beetles and other small invertebrates by probing below ground with their stout beak.
Personally I can’t see why simply watching these birds at dusk isn’t enough pleasure. Keep the shooting to a camera, or if guns are more your thing, try it in virtual reality and spare the birds.
I’m sure someone is selling something that will let you do this in Las Vegas!
(Oh and to own up to a bit of hypocrisy, all the above images were taken on a new Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ1000 camera, which I’ve waited 18 months to get. It’s brilliant. So maybe some free things need a bit of expenditure to help share them?)
Thanks for reading.