Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Wee Tim'rous Beastie!

First of all belated Christmas greetings to all of you and very best wishes for the New Year. This post has taken much longer than I would have liked due to various problems. Obviously this is not the best time of year for anything to do with Nature photography and I have not been in the best of health recently, there are so many nasty viruses around at the moment and unfortunately I have succumbed to some of them as I usually do at this time of year. The biggest drawback regarding blogging and indeed photography at the moment though, is that I am waiting for laser surgery on my eyes due to difficulties caused by the side effects of long term medication for respiratory problems, therefore I find it a strain to use the computer at the moment and increasingly difficult to take photos :(

I have been very touched by all of you lovely blogland friends who sensed something was awry and have sent messages and emails with Christmas Greetings and enquiries as to my welfare recently. It is very, very kind of you all and much appreciated and I do hope to get round to thanking everyone personally eventually. I will try to post and comment as often as I can but hope you will bear with me until things hopefully return to some semblance of normality before too long.

Thankfully, so far, we have escaped the worst of the snow here although the sprinkling we did have in the week before Christmas quickly froze solid and turned the roads and paths into treacherous ice rinks! The garden has, of course, been very busy during the freezing weather with all the poor birds frantically trying to keep themselves fuelled against the bitter cold. I have had a large amount of Blackbirds visiting and they have been very aggressive with each other and also towards other species. There was a huge commotion a few days ago when one had another spreadeagled on the ground and was on top attacking and fiercely pecking it. The poor thing was screeching loudly, I banged on the window and all the other birds flew away apart from the two Blackbirds and I am convinced that, had I not run into the garden and shooed them away, the victim would have been killed! As I wasn't able to get a photograph I am including one I took some time ago.

Recently, just before the snow, your intrepid blogger risked life and limb in order to go on safari in the depths of the dark, damp and cold garden to hunt down the tiny mouse which has been observed feeding in the small mesh feeder within the Clematis ;) Night after night armed only with a torch and a camera and at considerable risk of being thought completely batty by any observers!! she stood in the pitch black dark with only the sound of the neighbour's washing machine humming on the night air for company!!!

It was very difficult to capture the little mouse in the dark but with a torch in one hand and camera in the other the following photos were the best that could be managed.

'Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.'

'I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!'

'But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!'

'Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!'
(Robert Burns)

What a pretty little creature it is! I think it is either a Yellow Necked Mouse or a Wood Mouse, probably the former but it is difficult to be sure. I was worried about damaging its eyes with the torchlight and it also became wary of me so after a few nights I decided to leave it in peace. I say it but in fact one night I saw two mice feeding which I suppose shouldn't be a great surprise! Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of them both together. I am happy to feed them in the garden but I have read that both species can enter houses in the Winter! I do hope that feeding them outside will keep them content and prevent any desire to enter the house where I confess they won't be quite so welcome!

The following photos of birds in the garden were taken in the last week or so, I am aware they are not very sharp but sometimes the light conditions weren't good and also I had to take all of them through glass.


I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the birds aren't eating the fat ball snacks. I found the ones I put out were not being eaten at all so I threw them away along with some I had bought at the same time but not used. I thought perhaps they were last years stock and had gone stale. I then bought some more and put them out and also some coconut halves filled with fat and seed. All of these have remained untouched despite the birds obviously being desperate for food in the icy weather. I have also noticed that one of the seed mixtures which I buy regularly looks different and is being totally ignored. I am wondering if the manufacturer is using inferior food in an attempt to cut costs. Personally I would rather pay a little extra and give the birds food which they like and which benefits them nutritionally.

This Starling briefly examined the fat balls but since then they have been ignored and in my experience Starlings usually eat just about anything!

Of course I couldn't do a post at this time of year without a photo of a Robin, this poor little thing was trying to find some water which wasn't frozen, as fast as we broke the ice in the bird bath it froze over again!

The only time I have ever seen a Pied Wagtail in my garden was back in February in the snow and in the last week, again in the snow. This time, as last, it was treated with great hostility by the Blackbirds but persisted and has visited for some days now, quite often just as it is getting dark. I wonder if it may be the same one which came last Winter.

'You have to believe in happiness,
Or happiness never comes ...
Ah, that's the reason a bird can sing -
On his darkest day he believes in Spring.'
(Douglas Malloch)

I was absolutely thrilled to be visited by a Redwing last week! I have never, ever seen one in the garden before.

It visited two days running and the following photos although still taken through glass and from a fair distance at least benefited from better light, a blue sky and my Winter flowering Cherry tree blossom!

Isn't it a beautiful bird?

'Flowers peep, trees bud, boughs tremble, rivers run !
The redwing saith, it is a glorious morn.'
(Ebenezer Elliott)

Well that is all for now and I will try to visit your lovely blogs when I can but hope you will understand if I am not as regular as usual. Enjoy the rest of your Christmas celebrations and have a wonderful, happy and healthy New Year.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A Mixture and Memories

The weather here for most of the past week has been dire! The days have been short, dark and miserable. Like much of the country we have had heavy, driving rain and very high winds. Because of this and because I still have a backlog of un-posted photographs this post will mainly feature more photos from the Summer and early Autumn. Incidentally, I have at last worked out how to resize photographs so that when they are clicked on they can be viewed in a more manageable way. Hopefully now I won't use up my quota in Picassa so quickly either!

There was an amusing incident in the garden, just a few days ago, when I went to top up the bird feeders ready for the following morning. It was early evening and getting dark and as I have a small mesh tray, tucked at shoulder height, deep within the woody stems of an old Clematis I took a torch to enable me to see inside the vegetation. As the beam shone on the little tray I saw a tiny mouse sat in it happily feeding on the remains of the seed I had put there the day before! It seemed completely oblivious to the torchlight and to me, it really was quite a magical moment and I would have loved to have got a photograph of it. When I first placed the tray there it was in the hope that Dunnocks and Wrens might find it but I had caught a brief glimpse of a mouse scurrying away from it earlier in the year. I knew the seed was still being eaten regularly but had not realised a little mouse had decided it was its dish! I think it was a Wood Mouse, hopefully I may get a photo eventually.

During a very brief break in the bad weather a few days ago we managed to check out our small local reservoir which is where I took the photograph (above) of Hawthorn berries. I was hoping some interesting birds might have been swept in with the storms, unfortunately there was nothing of particular note. This Magpie was perched on a post on the approach to the reservoir,


there were the inevitable Black-headed Gulls

Black-headed Gull

and six Cormorants flying over were quite an impressive sight.


'Then, from the wood, across the silvery blue,
A dark bird flew,
Silent, with sable wings.
Close in his wake another came,
Fragments of midnight floating through
The sunset flame.'
(Henry Van Dyke)

Earlier in the Autumn we visited a small local lake. We go quite often as it is only about fifteen minutes away by car. The Mallard Duck in the series of photos below treated us to quite a prolonged and amusing preening display.

'Now ! You look like you need a preening lesson!'

'This is what you do!'

'I hope you're paying attention!'

'This feels good!'

'Don't miss the bits at the back!'

'It stretches the neck a bit!'

'Ooh lovely!'

'Nearly done!'

' I think I'll audition for the new ballet, Duck Lake!'

'Back to pristine loveliness!'

This Mute Swan was hoping we might have brought some bread but I'm afraid it was disappointed!

Mute Swan

'When goodly, like a ship in her full trim,
A swan, so white that you may unto him
Compare all whitenesse, but himselfe to none.'
(John Donne)

The following butterfly photos were taken in the Summer, the first two in the garden of a National Trust property which we were visiting, in fact the same place where I saw the Nuthatch which I showed on the previous post.

Meadow Brown Butterfly

Gatekeeper Butterfly

Speckled Wood Butterfly

The appearance of the Speckled Wood changes from north to south. Individuals in the north are dark brown with white spots and those in more southerly areas are dark brown with orange spots. This has resulted in a number of subspecies.

It is unique among British butterflies being able to overwinter in two stages, as both larva and pupa. It is also unusual because the adults feed on honeydew which is a sticky sugary substance secreted by aphids.

Also unlike other butterflies, it favours dappled shade and is often seen when the weather is overcast. The male will patrol its territory looking for females to mate with and seeing off other males.

Red Admiral Butterfly

My deep love of Nature was first instilled in me by my Mother who used to regularly take my brother and I on walks in the countryside where she would point out everything we passed, she knew the name of every wild flower and tree we saw, I just wish I had retained all of the knowledge she imparted! I was never a child who enjoyed playgrounds, funfairs, amusement parks etc. I was happiest in fields and country lanes just enjoying the splendour of Nature. I remember I used to set up a Nature table in the garden where I would display any precious finds from our walks. I would also try to draw them.

The first Violet of the year would give me a huge thrill as would finding Catkins and Pussy Willow and my favourite wild flower of all, the Primrose. Then there were Bluebells, Cowslips and of course all the lovely Summer flowers too. At the other end of the year of course there would be Acorns, Chestnuts, Beech Nuts and Conkers which I especially loved finding, not particularly to put on a string and play the childhood game with, (my brother enjoyed that) but just to collect and admire their glossy brown colour and their tactile nature. I still can't pass them on the ground without bringing one or two home!

(the fruit of the Horse Chestnut Tree)

Something else I always looked forward to seeing was the Spindleberry

(Euonymus Europaeus)

'See the rosy-berried Spindle
All to sunset colours turning,
Till the thicket seems to kindle,
Just as though the trees were burning.
While my berries split and show
Orange-coloured seeds aglow.'
(Cicely Mary Barker)

and the

(Symphoricarpos albus)

Unlike the Spindleberry the Snowberry is not a native of this country but is a North American plant introduced here in 1817. It is an important Winter food source for Quail, Pheasant and Grouse and is also a food plant of the Death's Head Hawk Moth Caterpillar.

Another fond memory from my childhood was gathering Elderflowers and Elderberries for my grandmother's wine making exploits. Sometimes there would be a loud bang from her larder when 'something went wrong' and a bottle exploded! I never recall her or anyone else drinking it and indeed understood her to be teetotal so I'm not quite sure how that equated! I can't remember if she ever made Sloe Gin but it is supposed to be very good.

(The fruit of the Blackthorn: Prunus spinosa)

'And now is Autumn here, and lo,
The Blackthorn bears the purple sloe!
But ah, how much
Too sharp these plums,
Until the touch
Of Winter comes!
(Cicely Mary Barker)'

Well, I will finish with two more photos of a Heron taken on one of our visits to Draycote Water.

Grey Heron

I do hope all my blogland friends in the UK are staying safe in the atrocious weather we are experiencing and my thoughts are particularly with the people of Cockermouth and elsewhere in Cumbria who are suffering so badly at the moment...

Friday, 6 November 2009

Mixing the Seasons

It has been very quiet in the garden lately and I haven't had to fill all of the seed feeders daily, as I usually do. I think the Sparrowhawk may be around but of course there is also an abundance of hedgerow fruit to keep the birds happy.

I took quite a lot of photographs in the Summer which I haven't posted yet so I hope to include some of them over the next few weeks. Among the butterfly photos I was pleasantly surprised to find a Small Copper which I don't think I have ever seen before and which I didn't realise I had even photographed!

Small Copper Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

This lovely butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was almost extinct in Britain 100 years ago. It is unclear why this was but there were only one or two sightings in the southern counties of England between 1830 and 1920. Thankfully their numbers started to increase again around 1930. It gets its name from the small white comma or 'c' mark on the underside of its wings.

In Winter it hibernates on the lower branches of trees and with its wings closed it is perfectly camouflaged as a dead leaf! When Hops were commonly grown in this country they were the host plant for the Comma caterpillar, hence its nickname hop-cat. Now there are far fewer Hops grown they make do with Stinging Nettles. The black and white caterpillars resemble bird droppings!

Peacock Butterfly

'Fair Child of Sun and Summer! we behold
With eager eyes thy wings bedropp'd with gold;
The purple spots that o'er thy mantle spread,
The sapphire's lively blue, the ruby's red,
Ten thousand various blended tints surprise,
Beyond the rainbow's hues or peacock's eyes.'
(Joseph Warton)

Common Blue Butterfly

The next two photos are pretty awful but are of a bird I have always longed to see. They were taken in August in a small wooded area in the grounds of a National Trust property we were visiting. I suddenly heard a slightly muffled tapping noise behind me and taken completely by surprise I hastily fired off some shots. These two were the 'best' of a bad lot and I have been sitting on them in the hope of seeing another and getting a much better photograph but so far to no avail. I know some people are lucky enough to have them visit their gardens but I have never seen one in mine. I assume the slight tapping I heard was its beak as it probed the bark of the tree for insects.


'In summer showers a skreeking noise is heard
Deep in the woods of some uncommon bird
It makes a loud and long and loud continued noise
And often stops the speed of men and boys
They think somebody mocks and goes along
And never thinks the nuthatch makes the song'
(John Clare)

On one of our visits to Draycote Water I took this photo of a Lapwing and while it doesn't portray the bird itself very well I was pleased with the way the colours of the bird and its shadow are echoed in the ripples of the water.

Talking of unexpected effects the next photo almost looks like it is in black and white. It was taken in the daytime and I haven't done anything to it but I quite like its moody look!

On our last visit to Draycote I was thrilled to see another bird which I have never seen before (at least not knowingly) it really is a place rich in bird life. The Lesser Scaup is still there but has eluded me so far. Every time I hear of its current location, I find that by the time I get there it has been moved on to a different part of the water by the fishermen or boats and as it is about a five and a half mile walk all the way round it is not easy to locate one bird! There has also been a Black Redstart there recently but I have not been able to visit since it was spotted. It is more difficult now with the shorter days.

Anyway, back to my new bird, which I nearly missed as I was so busy scanning the water. I suddenly heard twittering sounds coming from the grassy bank, to the right of the path which runs alongside the water, and saw a flock of Meadow Pipits foraging amongst the grass, presumably for insects, and every time they were disturbed they would soar up en masse and land again a little further on.

Meadow Pipit

This lovely Robin posed beautifully for me near the feeders at Draycote on what had been quite a dull afternoon. I spotted it perched in a hedge with a sudden burst of late afternoon sun shining directly onto it.


'I wonder how a robin hears?
I never yet have seen his ears.
But I have seen him tip his head
And pull a worm right out of bed.'

This Black-headed Gull was showing off its acrobatic skills! Unfortunately the light wasn't good and the photos aren't very sharp.

I always find Pied Wagtails difficult to photograph probably because they are rarely still but this one posed long enough for me to get a half decent shot.

I think there is something delightful and rather elegant about the Great Crested Grebe although on land they are clumsy due to their feet being so far back on their bodies!

They get their name, of course, from the elaborate head feathers which appear during the breeding season. This lovely bird was almost extinct in the 1800s due to demand for the head feathers as decoration for hats! By 1860 there were less than 100 breeding pairs in the UK. Thankfully attention was drawn to their plight by conservationists and the Great Crested Grebe made a successful comeback.

They have a rather spectacular courtship display which involves beak to beak head shaking which enhances the appearance of their crest feathers and both sexes dive underwater to fill their beaks with pondweed. Then raising themselves out of the water they paddle rapidly breast to breast, heads swinging from side to side.

Young grebes are attractively zebra-striped and capable of swimming and diving almost as soon as they hatch. For the first 2 or 3 weeks of their lives they ride on their parents' backs but are soon discouraged and thrown off to fend for themselves!

While on one of our walks the Shield Bug in the following photo attached itself to the back of HLH's sweater!

Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes)

Finally two more photos from Draycote, the first is a Coot looking as comical as they usually do

and this one which shows that people go there for many diverse reasons, here is just one of them!

I hope he wasn't exceeding the speed limit!