Monday, 31 March 2014

Pearly Kings and Queens, Tree Bees and It's Quite Tough Studying And Being A Mum.

Did you know Starlings have declined by 70% in recent years? As a result they are now an RSPB red list species.

We used to see them performing their brilliant displays in the skies in Sussex where I grew up, all twisting and turning like one enormous wave as the sun set. I haven't seen that for years, and then earlier this month one appeared in our garden.

And then this morning there were two...

They are glorious looking birds. We used to call them pearly kings and queens after the colourful londoners of the same name. I hope they stay (even though there is currently a particularly disgusting chocolate and banana cake (I am not responsible for- it was foisted on us by my father in law who  ate one bite and declared it disgusting) sitting on the bird table. If the birds have any sense at all they will turn their beaks up at it and give it the wide berth it deserves...

While gardening this weekend I saw a bee I was reading about only last week. Tree Bees are a new species which were first spotted on the Hants/ Wilts border in 2001. They are colonising the UK quite quickly, but are not considered to be a threat to native bumbles. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust are asking for all sightings to be logged with them, because the Tree Bee constitutes an 'unparalleled opportunity to track the spread of a distinctive new species across the country.' (BBCT newsletter).

They are really distinctive so you can't miss them- they have a huge shock of ginger hair on the back of their heads. Mine was too busy looking for a nesting site to hang about for a pic, so this is from the internet (hope it comes out). If you see one, email the sighting to as I shall.


L has options to take at school at the mo. As this means he has the chance to give up art and music, he is thrilled. He has surprised me by expressing a wish to do Food Tech (what we used to call home economics). He is, it turns out, rather a Brilliant Cook, although in the tradition of all Great Chefs he expects me to do the tidying up after him. Years ago I ran a pub and all the chefs I worked with were the same. Food was the creative bit- tidying was deemed beneath them.

Anyway, he's been making copious amounts of bread this weekend, which has been delicious. Granny got a load made for her for mothering Sunday. They were in various shapes, including this one which was my favourite. There was also a turtle which I thought was marvellously inventive.

He surprised me with a beautiful house jasmine for Mother's Day which he'd chosen himself and bought with granny (ie no prompting) and a card that has the kind of words in it there is no way he'd ever say out loud unless he'd a) done something appalling or b) wanted something.
'Did you chose this yourself?' I asked him.
'Yes,' he said, letting me hug him and plant a kiss on his head before he bolted for the computer.
 I have warned him he's set the bar Quite High this year....

Poppy got into trouble yesterday for going upstairs and fetching down a pair of M's socks. I thought it was Rather Brave of her, and not just the going upstairs bit. She also shredded a tissue I'd hidden in the sofa and ate some of M's hair when I gave him a hair cut. She seemed satisfied with all of that until this morning when she upped the anti by weeing on the carpet and eating a lump of Cleo poo on the ladybird door mat, leaving bits of it for me to tread on later. Ho hum. 

Butter wouldn't melt

Just to prove that you can occasionally Spot Moths without needing a hideously expensive box, I found this little chap snoozing on the sheets that were drying outside for the first time in ages yesterday...He's an Early Grey, and I had to move him onto this rose leaf for fear M would fold him up with the sheet and put him in the airing cupboard, which would not have been good.

Spartacus has taken to sitting on the small table I use for the moth box in the garden. He stands there for ages staring at me. I know Jackdaws are clever people so I'm wondering what he's thinking when he's staring at me like that?

'Why Spartacus?' asks M, when I was telling him this yesterday.
'Because there are lots of them and I'm never sure which one he is,' I say.

I'm feeling smug because I've just more or less finished off two essays that are due in over the next month for college. Studying with a family and work and the dogs and everything else is proving Hard Work right now and I am looking forward to term ending at the start of June.

There is a lot to get through and a lot to learn, much of it stuff I haven't covered for ages, some of it never and I feel my age some days! There's also an exam in May.... :-(

This morning I sat down at 9am to start writing this woodland habitat piece and I didn't get up again until 3 when I had to go and collect L from school. The dogs didn't get walked, the washing is still sitting in the basket upstairs, I barely managed lunch and I still have a list a mile long of things I need to do. I just about managed to remember a dear friend's birthday card this morning (her birthday is tomorrow).

I have always made sure that I am here for my kids if they need me - that's the most important part of life for me, so everything else has to fit around that. That is my rule and it is one I won't waver from. I want them to know that if they need me I am here, for the small needs as well as the big ones. But there is a general sense in the world I think that motherhood is somehow not quite as important as work, and that attitude both infuriates, saddens and wearies me.

We make a huge fuss of mothers on mothering Sunday- witness waitrose packed with people spending a fortune on bottles of wine and elaborate bunches of flowers all wrapped up with candy pink paper and silver ribbons over the weekend- but does the world as a whole support motherhood as much as it should?

It seems to me you still have to make a choice- either stay at home and raise your children or go out to work and experience the pressure to constantly put them second. I'm not sure there is much in the way of middle ground there.

To me, nothing is as important as my children's security, happiness and welfare, because secure, happy, well cared for children turn into capable, loving, secure adults. Parent's first and foremost responsibility is to look after their children, but I do sometimes feel like I'm having to fight for that more than I should be. 

My own great grandmother got pregnant and was an unmarried mother at a time when that was a really really tough thing to be, and I'll bet she had to fight and fight to keep her boy. She did eventually marry and she did manage to keep her family together, and I have HUGE admiration for her, because I suspect much of the reaction she got was either appalled silence or very vocal condemnation.

On my step-father's side of the family there is a relation from a similar time in history who had her child forcibly removed from her because she was unmarried. I have a feeling the mother was sent to Canada to cover the family's shame. How terrible that must have been for her and thank goodness things are better than that now.

I'm very lucky that I have a husband who feels exactly the way I do about looking after our children, while at the same time giving me loads of encouragement and help to study and expand myself career-wise into something I feel matters. I know there are lots of people who don't have that (I was one myself for a number of years), so I just wanted to say to all those mums (and dads) out there who love their children and are feeling under siege, as if the world is trying to make them choose between their kids and their work/ study/ other commitments: KEEP GOING! What you do for your children now will make all the difference to their lives later, and it is something only you can do for them. You are unique to your children; there isn't another person like you in the whole world to them, and bringing them up is probably the most important thing you'll ever do, so you have every right to make it the centre of your life and frankly, stuff anyone who doesn't understand that.

I'm sure it is possible to work/ study and raise children well, but I don't think we're quite there yet.

And speaking of that, I saw a sight in Romsey today that brought all those maternal instincts and then some out in me: a little chap who'd just started to walk (judging from the way he was moving: as if his legs were new and surprising things he hadn't fully worked out how to control) was wobbling downhill too fast towards his mum. You could see the fall coming long before he realised that toddling fast downhill when you don't have working brakes isn't a great idea. And sure enough he'd just reached her when he went over, flat on his little face. 

And d'you know what she did? 


Absolutely Nothing.
She just stood there, hands on hips, dispassionately watching him struggling to get up.

D'you know, I very nearly couldn't bare it. I'm not usually an interferer, and it was probably a good thing I was in moving traffic in the car, because if I hadn't been I very much doubt that I would have been able to just stand there and watch him lying on the ground and do nothing at all to help him. Surely most mums and dads would have seen that fall coming as I had long before it actually happened, and caught him before he went down?

Maybe she wasn't his parent. Maybe she'd been up all night with him and was exhausted, I don't know. All I know is it took every ounce of self possession I had not to stop the car, get out, go over and pick the little chap up and give him a cuddle to make him feel better. It upset me all the way home.

Anyway, I've got all of that off my chest: it has been brewing for a while.

I'll leave you with some photos of our wrens taken yesterday. They have been Singing Like Mad all weekend. Judging from their voices we have tonnes of them about. Did you know that boy wrens have to make lots and lots of nests and the lady wrens choose their favourite and all the rest are discarded? 
I told M who raised an eyebrow and grinned.
'Is that a cunning bird-related way of telling me there is something you want me to do in the house or garden?' he said.
'Actually,' I said, 'I do have a list....'

Presumably they are nesting NOW, so I'm not sure what all the shouting is about? But it doesn't matter, because they are Gorgeous and I love seeing them. They always remind me of my Granny.

Hope you're all having a good week?

CT x

Friday, 28 March 2014

Thank God It's Friday, and Moths and Garden Birds

Has anyone else had a flat-out week?

I was so knackered last night I went to bed at 9pm before L, who was upstairs watching Russel Howard's Good News (judging from the giggling that kept issuing from the study). This is an essential use of space if you have teenage children as it means you get to watch the programmes you want in peace and aren't subjected to Jimmy Carr's 9 out of 10 cats, for example.

I felt better this morning, refreshed and rested, and was up and out early to bring in the moth box before the sky opened and more rain fell. I had gone out to the check it last night, forgetting that wherever I go, Poppy goes too, and sure enough, she came along and started EATING MY MOTHS!!!!!

I had to explain (sternly, which she pretty much ignored), that the moth box was not some elaborate and expensive means of procuring her a selection of mothy snacks. Luckily I managed to rescue the moths that were fluttering (half-chewed and soggy by this time) about on the ground, but then had the problem of having several small damp moths sitting on the fingers of one hand, while with the other I tried to restrain a very excited Jack Russell puppy. It was not easy.
Ted learnt very quickly last year that moth are  not for chewing. I fear it is going to be a longer road with Poppy.

Anyway, despite the weather and coolness of temperature, the garden was alive with small fluttery people whizzing about the light and this morning the box contained 60 moths, which seems a lot for the time of year.

There were all the usual March suspects- Common Quaker, Clouded Drab, Hebrew Character, Small Quaker, Oak Beauty and March Moth. In fact, there were 25 Common Quakers and I now understand my mothing chum Martin's exasperation of a few days back when he said he would cheerfully scream if he saw another Common Quaker.

I am feeling much the same.

Common Quaker

Common Quaker

Common Quaker

Common Quaker

Hebrew Character (bet you thought that was going to be another Common Quaker, didn't you?)
The Garden Birds are fairing well and I have been making good use of my new birdsong app. After dropping L at school this morning I met up with Mrs M and we took the dogs out for a long walk across the fields. We got drenched of course, but that was by the by. While we were out we heard a bird I keep hearing here, which proved it wasn't a water bird as I'd thought. It makes a kind of high pitched rolling sound, a bit like if you roll your r's with your tongue.

When I got home I went back over all the species I know we have round about and listened to their calls on  the British Library's  useful recordings database until I found a match: Greenfinch, which was both satisfying and pleasing, because although I glimpsed them very briefly in the garden a couple of weeks back I haven't seen them since. But they are clearly still here. It demonstrates nicely what a useful skill being able to ID a bird from it's song is. 

I suspect the reason they've not been feeding in the garden is that the mild winter means that food is more plentiful than usual  (as per the RSPBs Garden Birdwatch Survey's findings).

Here are some snaps taken at home this morning....

Male Blackbird


Mrs Sparrow, off the nest briefly for some lunch

Lovely Robin

The other good bit of bird news here is that a male chaffinch has just arrived in the garden, so I am hoping he will be a Suitable Husband for Bumble. He is Rather Handsome so there's no reason why she shouldn't be smitten, even with her poorly foot.....

Potential Mr Bumble....?

The vole's been busy at work in the garden, scarifying the moss by the path to the front door (this makes it sound like he's a new garden employee). Anyway, M is thrilled about it, because patches of our lawns are more moss than grass. Let's hope I can off-set this Useful Behaviour against any potential Vegetable Chewing Allegations that may occur later in the year.....

 He seems to be pulling the moss out of the grass between the nettles on the right and the daphnes on the left in the pic below and dumping it on the path. I am wondering if it's actually being used for nest lining purposes, in which case perhaps Mr Vole is actually Mrs Vole and Vole Children are on the way? I'll keep you posted....

The green house is getting a good work out, with various seeds snug in their beds of compost. M's veggies are on the way and my wildflowers are starting to appear too. I did have a small fit this week when the white dwarf buddleia I'd ordered last month finally turned up. Fifteen Quid and honestly it's the size of a 5p coin. M couldn't stop laughing when he saw it, particularly since I found some in the local garden centre a couple of weeks back that are ten times the size and less than half the price. Grrrrr. It had better bloomin well not die (or be eaten by, say, a vole....). It's far too tiddly to survive by itself outside at present, so it has been re-potted into a plant pot and tucked in with compost. 
Every night I go in to the greenhouse and talk to all the plant people growing there. Perhaps it's just as well we don't have neighbours....

That's enough rambling for now so I'll leave you with a pic of Poppy. I'm a bit worried she doesn't have eyes any more as I can't remember the last time I saw them....

Sleepy Pop

  Wishing you all a Good Weekend,

CT :-)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Rats and Chooks, A Visit To St Cats, Introducing My Vole, An Apology To C.A.L.U.M. and, We Have I-Phone Lift-Off!

We are over run with rats.

It is not a nice experience.

So we have to do something.

The general wisdom is that the combination of a ready water supply in the form of the nearby lake combined with a ready and easy food supply in the form of the girl's chicken food means short of putting down some Very Nasty Indeed poisons (which we won't do) the rats will remain. And then multiply. And then multiply again. And probably again after that.

So, after much soul-searching, we have decided to give up our hens. They've been with us five or six years and I will be sad to see them go, but they are only moving down the lane to a (to be honest) far superior abode (in the form of ma's garden), so we will be able to visit them. Hopefully, that will sort our little rat problemo out.

I've been out at a college practical today- a field trip to St Catherine's Hill, an iron age hillfort and nature reserve.

It was cold. Does that show in the pics?

 But we are Brave and FoolHardy Ecology Students, and so we kept going....

 In fact, compared to our trip to Richmond Park to see the deer rut last autumn when we all got completely soaked, this visit was relatively comfortable.

St Cats is bordered by Twyford Down, which some of you may remember from the protests that went round the country 19 years ago, when the M3 cutting was put right through the middle of these ancient hills and trackways. I was at uni in the city at the time and a friend got his pictures of the demonstrations of what became known as the 'Dongas Tribe' into the national papers. The cutting is still an eye-sore and I suspect if it were required now a tunnel would be the preferred method. The motorway slices straight through the middle of the hills, cutting them off from Winchester entirely, which is not Great News for the local wildlife...

St Cats is chalk downland and part of the management plan involves the grazing of livestock to produce a mixed level sward. Sheep nibble it right down and the cattle leave it a little longer. This benefits all the invertebrates who call the hill and surrounding valleys home (including the increasingly rare Brown Argus butterflies who live on the slopes here).
The trust that manages the hill grazed British White Cattle here. The jackdaws were having a Great Time this morning pulling our their coats for nesting materials. There are gonner be some swanky-looking fur-lined nests round about....

St Cats (or the valley to one side of it) was used as a burial pit during the 14th C when the Black Death wiped out most of Winchester. There are still restrictions in place today that prevent disturbance of the ground around the graves. I've always found that section of the hill an eerie, sad place to be.

The ancient hospice at St Cross, about which I have written before, was visible across the still soggy water meadows as we made our way back to the cars....

Here is a picture of some of my Chums, squashed into the landy on the way home. And at this point I have to issue a Very Public Apology to Calum (see, only one "L") for miss-spelling his name in a previous post. I promised I would Cal, and I have!

I popped into winch for a spot of retail therapy afterwards, but forgot I was wearing my 'traipsing round the hills in very cold weather' kit and made the mistake of going into Jigsaw, where the shop assistants and the customers alike looked like they would very much have liked to call the police and have me forcibly ejected for bringing the tone of the place down. This is becoming a pattern. Sigh.

Back home and Scruffy Mucking About Clothes (as M rather endearingly calls them) are not remotely out of place, in fact they are de rigeuer. The birds didn't seem to care (or notice), probably because they are all too knackered to be bothered about what people are wearing, run off their feet (flown off their wings?) as they are, feeding small children whom they've hidden away in their nests strategically placed round the garden...

And as far as Pop and Ted are concerned, you could walk round the house naked and they wouldn't mind, as long as you put their fire on for them. Remember how this used to be Teddy's fire and Pop was lucky is she got half a paw on the blanket in front of it? Those days are long gone...Incidentally, don't you think she's grown? Nearly as big as Teddy these days.

Squashed up as close as close can be

I think I mentioned that we have a Vole (I think he's short-tailed, unless he's met with an unfortunate accident) living in the front veg patch? I first noticed him some time last week and have seen him a few times since. A couple of days back I noticed he has made himself a Nice Front Door in the form of a hole into a tunnel on the other side of the beds from where I first saw him. This suggests to me that he considers the whole of the veg patch as his stomping ground, something I have been worrying about, because M also consider the veg patch to be his stomping ground. I say have been worrying about rather than am, because today something happened that made me suspect the vole won't be remotely bothered about M being there. 

I thought I'd try and get a piccy for you. I expected this to be difficult (voley people being notoriously shy and fast and his hole being nearby), so you'll imagine my Complete Amazement when I went out with the camera and found him, not only sitting out in broad daylight by his hole, but remaining calmly there while the dogs crashed up and down the path in front of him like lunatics, battering themselves against his fence. I was desperate to wave them away but honestly thought he'd skedaddle if he heard my voice or if I moved. As it was his face was obscured by some blades of grass so I thought perhaps he didn't know I was there. 

In the end the dogs were driving me mad so I took the risk and waved them away and then took a step or two forward so I could see him properly. 

Did he bolt as expected?

Heck, no. He remained sitting where he was, looked calmly at me for a good few minutes, and only when he'd checked me out thoroughly did he turn round and amble off down his hole. Magic. I LOVE knowing he is there.

Properly Gorgeous

The latest Des Res chez Countryside Tales
He's chosen the spot well as it is underneath the Quince Tree (more or less), which is looking Very Romantic at present, covered as it is with pretty pink blossoms. This should stand him in Good Stead when it comes to serenading any Potential Mrs Voles. If I were a lady vole I would fall for a boy vole who'd built his house underneath a quince tree, suffused with blooms...

The only other thing of note to tell you is that the new iphone has arrived and I am already hooked, largely due to the fantastic wildlife-related apps you can get for it. This is going to prove Enormously Useful for college, where we do a lot of ID tests for all sorts of wild-related things...


I've already downloaded a goodly selection and had fun last night  testing M on various bird songs and wild flowers. This was gratifying because I can easily beat him at it, which makes up for all the University Challenge episodes....

These apps are great- the birdsong quiz one tests your knowledge of the calls of various birds, and I have another one which tests birds by sight. The wildflower one has got different settings for the quiz element, so you can choose to test your know-how against the leaf, flower or the whole plant. Its the same for the inverts one and the winter twigs. Happy Days! You know what I'm going to be doing for the foreseeable future.

I'll leave you with a pic of those two devoted doggy people trying to kill each other on the garden path, as you do....(Mr Vole lives just behind the fence on the right).

Hope your week is going well?

CT x

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Analysing Bird Song, Counting Deer and Photographing Waders At Keyhaven Salt Marsh

My mobile is geriatric. At very nearly three years old it is starting to slow down and display signs of gentle senility. I have resisted the urges of Vodafone to upgrade to a newer, flashier model because, on the whole, I can not get excited about mobile phones and don't like changing things until they have broken. It seems wasteful otherwise. They are useful things, but they are not, for me, a fashion accessory in any way so I tend to make do long after the model I have has become obsolete, and then the young person who serves me when I do eventually go in to get a new one looks at me with pity and incredulity.

All of which will make you shake your head and say 'rubbish!' when you read that I have succumbed to the charms of an I-Phone, and it arrives on Monday, and I am Quite Excited About It. You may be less inclined to shout 'rubbish!' though when you read that my main reason for i-phoning is that there is a very good bird-song ID app you can get for it (which we have on L's Ipod Touch and which I have been using all weekend) which records the song/s and analyses them and provides you with a long list of all the calls it has detected.

So, birdsong analysis. I've been out recording our feathery friends at home and an interesting mix returned in the results. All the usual suspects were there- Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Collar Dove, Sparrow- all those I know we have in the garden, but also on the list was chiff-chaff, black-cap, goldfinch and greenfinch, and although I have seen them about periodically I didn't know they were here in any permanent way, so that's exciting. I shall be recording birdsong wherever I go now for comparison purposes. Roll on Monday when I can have my own app and not have to fight L for his!

Last week, college's practical was surveying deer on a 1000 acre site in Dorset. We arrived at 3.30 and left at 7pm. In between we were stationed around the farm in pockets of woodland sitting high up in the trees on deer-related chairs.
It was freezing and Ben and I spent much of those 3 plus hours whispering (in case any deer were about) and generally catching up on what we'd both been doing. We didn't see huge amounts, and at 6pm Fi and Callum texted from a nearby tree to inform us they'd seen a grand total of 9 deer, a couple of squirrels and a buzzard, and were also freezing. At 6.40 we headed back to the landy, collecting Jack from his tree en route. He was also gibbering from the cold so he and I went for a run across the field to warm up: this was an interesting experience in wellies, hats, gloves, scarves and winter coats across lumps of chalk...

In the end Ben and I saw a grand total of 10 fallows as well as a Sparrow Hawk who swooped silently down out of the trees behind us and glided across the green ride in front. No photo sadly, but I did get one of this male pheasant...

A highlight of the evening for me was this beautiful hare, who appeared just as the light was starting to fade (hence the slightly blurry shot) and hopped right past the chair. I haven't seen a hare close-up in ages and it was a real treat.

There was also a badger sett in the wood. You can tell it's a badger house by the 'D' shape of the entrance holes....

The badger paths between holes and out of the wood were well-used....

Sunset was like a bonfire on the other side of the trees...

All in all a good and interesting, if chilly and slightly sedentary experience.

A walk with the dogs late yesterday afternoon took us through a farm where these gorgeous calves were as interested in us as Poppy was in them....

And these fantastic turkeys were also Quite Curious too....


The farm had 'dog gates' by every stile...

And the light was looking Rather Lovely on the dandelions and daffs growing in the churchyard...

More sunlight today so we headed down to Keyhaven and the Salt Marshes where there were a number of Waders wandering across the muddy shoreline, the tide being out.
My favourite was this Curlew- you could hear them all out in the marshes, such an eerie call. Isn't that beak amazing?

There were also Redshanks, both in groups and hunting solo....

Herring Gulls (correct me if I'm wrong)...

A Little Egret fishing....

A group of Busy Little Turnstones (for whom I have a significant soft spot)....I only realised they were there by the racket they were making flipping their stones over to look for Interesting Things to eat. They are perfectly camouflaged against pebbles and Very Friendly, the dear little things....

There were also plenty of Black-Headed Gulls....

I'll leave you with some shots taken around Keyhaven and Hurst Spit, which is now fully mended after the spring storms.

I love the sky in this shot

Boat across the Salt Marsh. It feels like a view that hasn't changed much in centuries....

Tide coming in

A lone Redshank looking for food.
Wishing you all a good week ahead,

CT :-)