Monday, 29 April 2013

The Aftermath of the Birthday Party and Videos of the Blackcaps on the feeders

Well, we survived the dinner party. M was post-too-much-whiskey-grey-and-orange-looking and feeling rather fragile for most of yesterday, much to the boys' delight as it meant dad wasn't up to going on a long walk through the woods as previously threatened. I was smugly hangover-free, although I have discovered my ability to stay up dancing after midnight and not need to go to bed at nine o'clock the following evening has deserted me completely. 

The floor by the dinner table next morning was an interesting shade of sparkly silver - copious quantities of glitter was shed by various fairies, and I'm still finding the odd wand along with bits of wings in unexpected locations about the house. 

Ted tore off his hot pink feather boa collar in disgust as soon as he'd said hello to the guests and could make good his escape. I later found it mauled behind the sofa - it looked like the particularly violent death scene of a strange and lurid bird. He took some of the feathers outside and left them in the garden. Half have disappeared and I've been giggling over the thought that several nests are now probably lined with bright pink feathers!

The theme of the party (which was to celebrate my 40th) was magical creatures and I had planned initially to go as a fairy (something to do with not having done enough dressing up as a child probably) but my husband stole my costume so I ended up as an imp. It was largely agreed that M carried off the fluorescent pink footless tights, blue tutu, silver earrings, wings and shocking pink wig well (possibly better than I would have done), so I didn't mind.

A crowd of our friends headed over from the nearest town in a shared taxi. They'd neglected to warn the driver they were going to a fancy dress party so quite what the poor man thought when he arrived to pick them up I don't know. In the end we had an invisible man, a six foot dwarf, a haggis who looked a lot like a brown cow, a Paul Daniels with his lovely assistant Debbie McGee, a witch and three brightly coloured fairies, not including M and I. Apparently the taxi driver didn't say a word when he drove round to pick them all up. Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time in rural Hampshire and he's just used to it. On the other hand I expect he had a good old laugh when he got back to taxi HQ and told them what he'd just witnessed.

Slightly against my better judgement, here are some photos for you to giggle or shake your head sadly over.

Colourful lot aren't we?

Right, on to more sensible things...

Ted (who was microchipped yesterday at a "Pooches in the Park" event run by the Dog's Trust, an experience he did not enjoy) and I have just got back from a lovely walk through the bluebell woods near Mottisfont Abbey. There were a few bells out but mostly the woods were a carpet of white and dusky pink anemones. I'm looking forward to the blue coming in the next few weeks.
When I got home the Blackcaps and our Woodpecker were enjoying the fat balls and I managed to get some videos. Here they are...

Friday, 26 April 2013

Presenting Mr and Mrs Blackcap...

At last! Photographic evidence....

If you look closely at the top left quarter of this photo you will see her mate.  Mr and Mrs BC feeding together must surely be proof that we have a breeding pair.Yippee!

She then decided to move into the back garden where she spent ages on the fat balls and I got some better pictures, largely because those feeders are faced by the kitchen and I've cleaned the windows so you can actually see out of them. The rest, which don't offer the same level of interesting views of birds, are pretty much foul pits of doom, but I've been caught out now so will have to clean those too :-(
Mrs BC is very beautiful and brand new to the garden this year (well, actually brand new this week). I'm thrilled she's here and that they are obviously in lurve with each other so roll on baby Blackcaps! (Blackcaplets?)

Reluctantly sharing with a Blue Tit

Mrs Blackbird apparently shocked by the appearance of Mrs BC in her garden....

Couldn't leave her boyfriend out...

And finally, here is what you get when you mix Ted with mud....


The less said about that the better!

Have a good weekend all.

CT x

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Skylarks Sing and Walking On The Chalk

So I'm very interested in geology. 

There is a section in Gone with the wind (which is a great book and you should read it if you haven't- it's far better and much more thought-provoking than the image the film has) which has stayed with me since I read it several years ago. I have found myself revisiting it in recent days.

Margaret Mitchell explores how landscape affects, draws and produces people. The section in the book (if I recall it correctly) uses swamps to make an unfavourable comparison between swamp people and mountain people. Perhaps it has political overtones but that didn't resonate with me. Instead it found an echo inside me which is about how we respond to the underlying geology of a place without necessarily realising or indeed being aware of it. And more than that- how we are drawn to certain places because the rocks beneath the earth there are of a particular type that suits us.

In my heart, I have always known I am a chalk person. I am happiest on chalk. It's a simple thing. The land drains properly and I do not feel stagnant or congested. My energy is clear; I can think and focus quickly and without complication, and more importantly I can breath. M, being a geographer, is very aware of landscape and usually notices the change when we move from one type of bedrock to another before I do. I get the feeling first and will say to him "there's chalk nearby?" and he will grin and say "yes."

So when my friend Hilary texted me this morning and said "I fancy walking somewhere different" I knew exactly the place we would go. We clambered into the landy with the three dogs and drove to a friend's farm which is high on the chalk, and as we got out and started walking up the track peppered with lumps of crumbly chalky whiteness I felt the breath lift and sing out of my lungs and the energy whizz up my spine in a way it only does when chalk is nearby.

Out in the vast open fields and the slopes which are so characteristic of chalk landscapes we paused to enjoy the song of skylarks, keeping a look-out for but not expecting to see them. We did though, tiny brown specks hovering above the green shoots on the brow of the hill with the sky duck-egg blue behind them.

There were bluebells in the woods, and anemones like white stars against the bright green. Wild daffs peppered the woodlands, most now on their last legs but we were grateful and appreciative of them nevertheless. I have found myself in need of yellow this week: some chrysanthemums in Sainsbury's called out to me: I tried to tell myself it was a waste of money but they wouldn't let me go so I went back for them and now they are sitting on the kitchen table reflecting yellowness in the house. They are the colour of Spring moving into Summer and their vibration is positive and life-affirming after this long, draining and dragging winter that has held on to all of us for so long.

The new green leaves of hawthorn were unfurling on the branches of the woods and hedges, and the fields inbetween the copses, unbroken by house or road or indeed any sign of people at all, looked liked whipped chocolate, perfect and smooth, waiting for the crops to puncture the surface and festoon the earth in its green habit of Summer. Tiny rabbits scooted across the verges as we tramped along the lane past the churchyard with its long disappeared chapel, and then, in a new field, a skylark rose up, and up, and up unexpectedly at our feet- I've never seen one so close before and we had to check it in the book when we got home to get a clear sense of who it was. They are bigger than I'd thought, thrush-size, with white bars on either side their tails. 

If the blackbird is the song of summer at home, then surely skylarks mark summer out in the deeps of the countryside.

We came home along the green lane, coats tied around our waists, dogs happily panting in the sun as they trotted in front. This ancient roadway is long forgotten now, except by those of us who look for and are drawn to and enjoy moving through old ways and places. We were accompanied by a bumble bee, and whispered a blessing to the lady of the lane who's presence I always feel when we walk this way.

It's a magical place, the Chalk.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Mr and Mrs Blackcap have taken up residence

Well - at last I can write a joyful post. A male blackcap arrived in our garden last week. I've been enjoying watching him on the feeders as he's been back and forwards most days. Up until this afternoon he has been solo. I spent a lovely couple of minutes earlier today watching him taking grave exception to a couple of long tailed tits who had the temerity to land on the fat balls he was eating. He opened his beak wide and stared threateningly at them which did seem to work, making them check initially at least.

It was while this furious posturing was going on that I spied his wife in the hedge behind him. I only knew who she was because Shy Songbird had very kindly told me what lady blackcaps look like - they wear russet brown caps instead of the ebony ones their husbands sport.

Of course by the time I'd got the camera out she'd vanished, but it's enough to know that she is there. Hopefully we have a breeding pair and there will be baby blackcaps in the garden before too long.

Here he is in all his glory...



Sunday, 21 April 2013

RIP Robin and Rennie

This is the absolute worst part of sharing your life with animals. We've lost two of our family members within 48 hours of each other this weekend. L's beloved guinea pig Brave Sir Rob died on Friday and our characterful cuckoo maran chicken Rennie went this afternoon.

Both had reached a ripe old age for their respective life-expectancy and in Robin's case I'm pretty sure his heart just stopped and there was no suffering. Rennie hadn't been well for a few days and I was better prepared for her passing - I dreamt last night that we'd lose her today so it wasn't a shock as Robin was. Both of them will leave behind significant holes where they should be.

I suspect if you do not have animals the loss of a guinea pig and a chicken is probably quite hard to empathise with, but I spent most of Friday evening in tears over Robin and found the emptiness in L's bedroom when I tucked him up that night almost unbearable. Robin has been part of our family for five years; he's marked L's transition from little boy to teenager, which is emotional in itself. He's lived in L's bedroom all that time (apart from summer days spent outside in the garden) and been his constant companion. He's made his bedroom safe from monsters and chatted away whenever anyone's gone up to see him. He has been an absolute part of bed time routines and lay cuddled up  against L while he was learning to read. Later on when L got into bed Robin would lie down on his side in his house, close his eyes and listen to the story. If I stopped reading he would crack open an eye as if to say "I'm still awake" so I would continue to read and he would shut his eyes and go to sleep. When he stayed with my mother while we were on holiday he would come out of his house on their kitchen table whenever they ate a meal and eat his food at the same time they had theirs. If anyone brought the wrong greens upstairs of an evening he would squeak indignantly. Mostly it was the lack of cucumber or grape that brought this reaction and many's the time I've trudged back down three flights of stairs to get the correct vegetable quota complete with grape/ cucumber from the kitchen while a furious squeaking followed me.

I will miss him.

My one comfort at the end of this weekend of tears is that these two have gone together and are not alone.

Despite the sadness that losing them inevitably means, I wouldn't be without our animals. They bring something indefinably good into a home. They love you whatever mood you're in and however you are looking. They are friends and companions no matter the season or time of day. Their absolute reliance on you for food, warmth, shelter, good treatment and survival, teaches you something you don't get from anything else in life and gives you back so much more. The fact they don't talk English matters not at all: you find a way to communicate, you learn each other and a bond is formed so that when they pass your life is less rich than it was with them in it, and you mourn them. For me personally I'd hate to live in a world populated by people alone.

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Ghandi

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.” A A Milne



Friday, 19 April 2013

Egg hunting and the girls are in the garden with Teddy

I let the girls out this afternoon. We try to give them "garden time" whenever possible- they love scratching about in the grass (and non-existent flower beds) and I think it makes them happier. Friends ask how we get them back into their run when they've been "free-ranging." The answer is simple: I have a call that they all come running too. I taught them when they were babies and now they come hurtling from whichever bit of the garden they happen to be whenever they hear it, wings flapping, legs pumping. M tried to replicate the call (a kind of high-pitched "chuck chuck chuck") once and rather deliciously they all ignored him. It was a moment worthy of a video but he's refused point blank to repeat it since (he relies on a bucket of bird seed instead, which gets results but in a much less impressive I-can-talk-to-the-animals way).

This afternoon the sun was shining, the birds were singing, Teddy was by me on the wall licking my nose in his version of a kiss while the girls roamed about chatting softly and eating grass. All was peaceful. I had the camera and the video camera to hand (ten points for organisation). Here are the results... (you should be able to hear the blackbird in the background and at some point the robin sings in the hedge. I was as still as a statue - I think he and the blue tit forgot I was there. Magical!).

I'm a bit concerned about Ren, our Cuckoo Maran. All the girls are getting on and although she's still laying she spends much of her day sitting down. Her breathing is heavy but I don't think she's in any pain. I suspect she is just getting old and is more comfortable taking the weight off. I know you shouldn't have favourites and I do love all our girls, but there is something special about Ren.

I always love collecting fresh eggs from the hen house, particularly once Mavis is laying- her blue eggs contrast nicely with the paler ones. We've more than we need now so I will start selling them at the gate again soon. This usually pays for the feed and we have a loyal circle of egg-buyers who enjoy the chicken's names being written on the egg so they know who to thank! I have to master my fear of spiders every time I go in the hen house. There is a copious quantity of webs growing there...

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Breaking news

As it turns out turning forty has prompted some unexpected soul-searching. I've watched many of my friends approach the big "four O" with dread over the years and seen them become unsettled by the attainment of this milepost, as if somehow life were from now on an inevitable downward spiral of reducing horizons. I wondered whether it would be the same for me.

Not, as it turns out.

Becoming 40 has had the opposite effect, sweeping out old outdated things and releasing the future.

In the last couple of weeks I've made some major life-changing decisions: I've sold my horses, cleared out my cupboards, got rid of useless stuff I've been carrying around for years, thrown out clothes, packed stuff off to charity shops, put things I don't want on ebay, cleaned the house (now that is startling) revamped finances, thought about changing the car for something less expensive and started looking at university courses for this autumn.

I want to study Ecology and Conservation Management with an emphasis on wild birds, although part of the point here is to begin and see where it takes me.

I am fortunate to be married to someone who is a bundle of energy and has a "go gettum" attitude to life that refuses to accept ordinary limitations (he's a marathon runner which says it all). He supports making changes that are beneficial even if they are momentous and that helps me enormously. We are currently enjoying a robust debate about who will attain the highest academic qualification if I return to uni. M currently leads with a Masters; I am countering by threatening a PhD, something that is unfinished business for me from twenty years ago and now seems possible again. I'm sure he won't let it rest at that but that is good for me- it spurs me on.

So I'll keep you posted. If it's to be this autumn I need to enroll by June. 

It's all rather exciting- life has opened up again. It has a habit of popping these surprises when you're least expecting them and I appreciate the salutary shake up. It's easy to get stuck in a rut doing the same things the way you have always done them and not noticing when the thing or the doing of it no longer suits you.

To anyone reading this contemplating change but feeling uncertain or nervous about it I would simply say take your courage in your hands and see where it leads you.


Monday, 15 April 2013

Our blackbird sings in the magpie nest, and can you hear the cuckoo?

Here he is, sitting in last years' abandoned magpie nest, singing his heart out this afternoon. It makes me smile and my heart is glad every time I hear him.

I apologise for the shaky quality of the video. Perhaps its time I invested in a tripod to hold the camera still so you don't all feel sick watching the results....?

And secondly, I have a hearing test for you all. I can just about make out the cuckoo singing in the background, but wasn't sure whether it was particularly audible to anyone else? Let me know. PS the cuckoo isn't actually visible in the video, in case you thought it was also an eye test. (M: "why on earth did you shoot a video with no cuckoo in it?" Me: "because I didn't know how to do an audio without the pictures. Obviously.")

Finally, here is  my second favourite cuckoo poem. My first is the 13th century one, which M reliably informs me is very important in terms of tracing the development of the English language. 

I suspect this one is less valuable in that sense, but on the other hand it tells you everything you need to know about cuckoos in England, which makes it useful in its own right.

"The Cuckoo comes in April, He sings his song in May
In the middle of June he changes his tune,
In July he flies away."

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Singing in the rain

First Cuckoo of the Spring heard this morning

They are late this year (isn't everything?) but at last the cuckoos have arrived.

I've been listening out for them since April started and this morning I finally heard the first one as I was getting up. I shot outside with the video camera and recorded it but it was too far away and the song was barely audible over the other birds when I played it back. Never mind, they hang around here for weeks and sing in the trees around the lake behind the house so I will get a clearer video and post it as soon as I can.

I've become quite good at identifying them in flight but have so far not managed to get a photo. Hopefully this year will be the year. We get so many that after a few weeks they drive me nuts with the constant calling. Sometimes it goes on for minutes at a time. A couple of years ago I learnt that  their numbers are in decline so now I try very hard to breath quietly and not get cross!

M finds the whole thing hilarious and discovered this ancient 13th century poem which he likes to quote his own version of at this time of year. Here it is in Old English with M's adjustment.....

 "Sumer is i cumen in –
     Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
     And driveth mad
          poor Sue!"

Very apt! 

Friday, 12 April 2013

Ted gets a bath

This is not one of his most favourite pastimes. 

On the whole, being a dog, Ted is happy being smelly. He is not concerned when Dougal (my mother's Westie and his best friend) appears looking silver and gleaming (which is most of the time) and the comparison is less than flattering (Ted usually looks yellow beside him).

I am less happy about him being smelly for two reasons : 1) he leaves a horrible and probably best-not-know-what-it-is smell on your hands after you've carried him to the car (don't ask- he's taken to sitting down in the porch when we go out and waiting to be air-lifted to transport ever since Dougal came to stay and did the same thing), and 2) my friends (the non-country elegantly dressed clean ones) look askance at me when he enters the room but politely refrain from saying anything.

The final straw usually comes when he starts to look orange and small children hold their noses in his presence.

In our house dogs are not allowed upstairs. This is my husband's rule (along with the sofa being a no-go area and it being bad manners to sit on people's feet staring at them from under the table while they are eating). I don't disagree and in fact it makes it more of a treat when Christmas Eve comes round and Ted gets his annual sleepover in L's room. They wait for Pa Christmas together ("I know it's you mum!" L said with some exasperation last year as I kissed them both goodnight and reminded them FC wouldn't come if they were both awake. I got round the thorny issue by leaving the stocking at the bottom of L's stairs). The problem with this rule is that the bath is upstairs and for that reason to get Ted clean in a warm environment instead of shivering underneath a cold tap in the garden as M would have it, I am forced to practice some mild deception and give Ted said bath while M is away at work.

Two days ago things had reached the orange fur and small children holding their noses stage. The hour of the bath was carefully chosen to coincide with M being at work and Ted, who the second he heard the bath taps running and saw me coming back down the stairs knew exactly what was afoot, froze and was carried, shaking, upstairs.... L, my willing accomplice, was sworn to secrecy and invested with photographic responsibility (Btw, what on earth has happened to my neck/ chin in this picture? I won't be nominating L for any "flattering angle" shots any time in the near future...).

This is not the first time Ted has had an illicit upstairs bath. M thinks each time has been out in the garden. I thought it was kinder to let him remain in contented ignorance and haven't disabused him. As a result Ted is getting better at baths, or at least, he submits more quickly knowing that the stiller he stands the faster the whole distasteful experience will be over.

The use of the shower was new for this bath. It cut down the soak and rinse cycles dramatically, although it did nearly result in an escaping dog rampaging wetly across the carpet the first time.

He'd got the point of the shower by this time and conceded I wasn't actually trying to drown him but rather introduce some efficiency into the whole procedure. I'm not sure the dejected stance with ears down and chin on bath edge really supports a thesis of bath enjoyment, but never mind.

The best bit of any bath is getting out, because then he gets his own covering the entire bathroom with water....

Afterwards he looked at me as if to say "well you put me in it, you can't have expected any other outcome, surely?"

 He still gets the towel treatment....

As soon as he'd been released he rushed out into the garden (despite his best efforts I managed to keep him firmly away from the heap of dirty old chicken straw - I learnt that one the hard way last year). Once on the grass he indulged in a spot of grass rubbing to get the disgusting clean smell off.....

 You can tell from the expression he is not at all amused by the new clean look and is planning to  sneak off somewhere smelly as soon as possible. To be fair he does look a bit like a Christmas tree decoration with those ears, but at least you can stroke him now without feeling sick. 

Better still, when we compared him against Dougal that evening he was definitely the more silver of the two. It won't last long- mum was heard to tell Dougal she'd be whipping him off for a bath as soon as we'd gone home.

Have a good weekend all. CT x