Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Reed Warblers, Tufted Ducks, Reed Bunting And A New Challenge

I paid a visit to my friend, the river, after walking the dogs this morning. The fishermen will be back from May 1st so my time of unrestricted wandering is drawing to a close. I will still have access, only less frequent. I was hoping to see water voles but despite good field signs the voles themselves remained hidden. 

The river took pity on me and shared some wonderful things in their place. The reed warblers are now back from Africa and out in force. I sat on a bench and watched one displaying. He flew high up above the reeds, singing like mad, then dropped back into the base of the stalks, only to hop back to the top in stages and zoom up into the air again, singing his scratchy song all the while. He repeated the process several times while I sat and admired him. Presumably, the robustness of the display was necessitated by the fact his arch rival for this pristine patch of reeds was sitting singing in the willow tree nearby. I wonder who will win? If possession is nine tenths of the law then he's there.

Reed Warbler (male)
A little further along I came across a male reed bunting. I've never seen one on this stretch of river before. He was hunting caterpillars, which the adults eat in spring although their more usual diet is seeds. It's possible he was also finding food for his children. Reed buntings have suffered a 30% decline since 1970 but their population has stabilised with around 250,000 territories in the UK. Interestingly, birds that utilise wetland habitats (such as  this one) breed more successfully now than those using farmland. Good old high intensity farming is likely to be the culprit there.

Reed Bunting (male)
I headed up to the other beat, which is more wild in many ways, and found a pair of grey wagtails bobbing in a tree. There are 38,000 breeding pairs in the UK following a 40% decline since the 1970s and they can be hit very hard by bad winters. I felt a bit seasick watching the constantly bobbing tail and after a while moved on to see what else I could find.

Grey Wagtail (male)
The cetti's warbler has set up a territory at the top the river near a bend in the water where a thicket of trees provides excellent cover. These are shy birds, restricted to a few sites in southern England, East Anglia and Wales. They look like an over-sized wren and have an enormous voice with a short but loud burst of song. They arrived in Britain in 1961 and were first confirmed to be breeding here in 1972. There are thought to be over 2000 males holding territories here now but, like the great wagtails, these birds really suffer from cold winters, and also from wetland drainage. This is my photo from last year because they really are impossible to see!

Cetti's warbler

A flash of blue caught my eye at that point; a kingfisher, whirring away up river towards a group of ducks. I had to look them up when I got home because ducks are not my strong point id-wise. These are Tufted Ducks and there are over 16,000 breeding pairs in the UK. Unlike many other bird species, their population increased during the 20th century. They are colonial, often nesting in groups. There were six of them on the river today...

Tufted Duck (male with crest, female without)
Back home and it is all go in the garden. I've located the nests of great tit, blue tit, tree creeper, sparrow and goldfinch, and suspect we've also got coal tits somewhere nearby because they're back and forth from the feeders all day. Coal tits nest in the ground in mouse holes. The nuthatches are also feeding babies- their nest is in the tree creeper's oak. 

Oak trees can hold a number of nests of different species at any one time. Last summer, a local oak I know had jackdaws, kestrels and a barn owl all nesting in it at the same time!

We've already got two baby blackbirds being fed by dad on the lawn, and a baby dunnock visiting the ground below the feeders. The bullfinch male was busy stripping the seed heads from dandelions we've let grow in the lawn. We're trialling a new grass-cutting system this summer: the whole thing gets cut on a longer setting, but half the lawn keeps its daisies and dandelions one week and we rotate that with the other half the following week. So far it's working as you can see from the bullfinch using the seed head.

Male bullfinch

baby dunnock
I'm hearing the cuckoo most evenings now, he calls close to the house at around 7pm. Last night I was thrilled to hear two of them. There was one on my morning walk and one down at the river as well. The females should be arriving any day which may account for the increased calling of the males.

Finally, in Running News, after Sunday's road race and the musing that followed I have entered an off-road half marathon which takes place this June. I've got eight weeks to get fit for it. I'm really pleased to have something new to focus on. Although I've got a couple of halves booked in for the autumn I felt I needed something significant to tackle before that. This one goes over the Downs so it will be hilly (yay!) and most of it is away from tarmac (yay again). It's run by a running club so there won't be too much razzmatazz (another yay). The prize is a beer tankard and some local beer to go in it, so all in all I think it will be right up my street :o)

I'm also contemplating entering the ballot for the London Marathon which opens next week. M has a good for age qualification which means his place is assured and he's planning on using it to enter for 2018 so I thought I might as well give it a go too. That t-shirt mix-up last Sunday has a lot to answer for!

Hope you're all well?


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Southampton Marathon Weekend: 10k Race

Half Marathon start

The finish

Runners coming in on the big screen

Race medal

We were up at 6.30 this morning having an early breakfast in preparation for the Southampton 10k (me) and Half Marathon (M).

It's the third year the revamped event has run and the first time a marathon has been added to it. Several of our friends were running in each event so there were a few familiar faces at the start, out on the course and at the finish, and more still were spectating in various places around the city (although I didn't see them, M did). Over 5000 people ran across the three events with 30,000 supporters lining the streets of Southampton cheering everyone on.

It's the first big city road race I've done, and at times the crowd noise felt a little over-whelming, probably because most of my training is done on my own with the dogs through countryside empty of people. I tried to keep my focus on my breathing which helped, but couldn't resist clapping the cheerleaders who were doing a grand job bouncing up and down and waving pom poms while shrieking encouragement to everyone who'd come down off the Itchen bridge, and high-fiving some of the little kids who were standing with their hands held out hopefully as the runners went by. 

At key moments (the long, up hill slog over the Itchen bridge, and the last mile in particular) the crowd support was fab and just what was needed to carry flagging energy levels forward. This was helped by the fact you could opt to have your name printed on your race number so lots of people I didn't know were yelling me on by name. People are so generous towards one another - complete strangers - at these events. It's good for the soul.

I kept a steady pace all the way and watched my gps so I knew when the last k was starting and managed to sprint it to the line, setting a new 10k PB which I was very pleased with. I was knackered (although as it turned out only briefly) at the end, so reckoned I judged the pacing about right.

M came in soon after and we collected water, bananas, beer, t-shirts, medals, found our two eldest children who'd been cheering us on, and stopped to chat to some friends. You get cold quite quickly after a race so we put the t-shirts on for warmth, which was when I realised that while M has '13.1 miles' on the back of his, I have '26.2'. 
I went back to swap it for a 10k one and discovered there'd been a mix-up with the labels on the boxes and all the 10ks had gone. So now I have a totally fraudulent 'well done: you've run a marathon!' t-shirt when all I've done is a quarter of that distance. I wouldn't feel right wearing it so it will sit quietly in the drawer until such time as I muster the aptitude to run a full marathon and then it will be deserved. I just hope people who ran their first marathon today didn't end up with a 10k shirt! 

While I enjoyed the run and I had no energy left to go any faster at the end, I think on reflection I should have run the Half. The 10k distance isn't enough of a challenge anymore now that I can run it comfortably, and as the average times for the HM today were 2:20 hours and I should be able to get round in 2, I think it would have been a better bet. When I compare how I feel after today's race to how I felt after the Cub and the West Wight Challenge, I don't feel I've especially tested myself. Still, this year of racing has always been about finding these things out and I will take the learning from that, so it's All Good.

Hope you've all had a good weekend?


Friday, 21 April 2017

Wildlife Gardening: Nectar Sources and Food Plants

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus). Male (the females are brown).

B over at Coastal Ripples has penned a very interesting post on the results of Jersey's first ten years of butterfly monitoring on the island. It has nudged me to do a post about wildlife gardening, specifically about nectar sources and food plants. 

Although these sound the same, they are two different things. While filling your garden with wonderful plants that provide nectar for insects and pollinators is undoubtedly a good thing, unless you also provide the food plants in an area where they can lay their eggs and the young feed and grow undisturbed, you're only giving them half what they need to survive. 

Large Red-tailed bumblebee queen nectaring on apple blossom in our garden yesterday (Bombus lapidarius)

A lot of attention has rightly been given in recent years to encouraging people to provide nectar sources in their gardens but we also need to provide food plants and to be prepared for these food plants to be eaten and to look nibbled. This may go against the grain for many gardeners, but if we want to support the continued survival of our wildlife (and through them our own), we need to look after them properly and shift our aesthetics a little bit as a result.

Brown Argus (Aricia agestis). Female (the orange spots on the borders of the upper wing reach all the way to the top. In the male they stop half way).

A nectar source is a flower that the adult insect takes nectar from to convert into energy for their own survival. Things like penstemons, lithodora, scabious, ribes, apple blossom all provide nectar for insects. A food plant is one the adult insect lays its eggs on, and where the resulting larvae feed until big enough to pupate. Things like nettles, cuckoo flower, grasses are all food plants for different species. Food plants are more complex than nectar sources because they aren't universal. Often a species has a preferred food plant/s and won't lay their eggs on anything else. This is the case with butterflies and sawflies. Butterflies know which is the correct food plant to lay on because they have taste receptors on their feet. As soon as they land on something they know whether it's what they're looking for. In addition, some butterflies also have a preference for a certain colour of flower to nectar from. Marbled Whites for example seem to prefer purple or lilac plants.

Small Blue (Cupido minimus). Male. (note the stripy stockings!).

Some insects make nests in the ground that they fill with pollen to feed their young (bees do this), so for them a good nectar source is all they need. Others are parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of host species; the parasite larvae eats all the pollen left by the host species and ultimately eats the host's larvae too. A good example of the latter is the rather beautiful bee-fly, which is a parasite of andrena mining bee nests. They are on the wing now, so if you have small heaps of powdery soil in your lawn (which are the nests of the andrena bees) it's worth keeping an eye out for these amazing-looking insects nearby as the females will be egg-laying near the bee nests round about now.

Worth bearing in mind too that these creatures have evolved to live together this way. It may not be pleasant to us but it is how their life cycles work.

Dark-edged Bee-Fly (Bombylius major)

Another parasite species is Ephialtes manifestator, a type of ichneumon wasp. The long tail in the pic below is not a sting as some folks might at first sight assume. It's actually an ovipositor, used for laying eggs on or in the host species larvae, so this one is a female. They are parasites of solitary aculeates (bees, wasps and ants). I took this photo yesterday, so they are on the wing now and will remain so until September. Amazing creatures. Incidentally, ephialtes was an Athenian politician and an early leader of the democratic movement. I love the connections some species have!

Cuckoo bees, which lay their eggs in the nests of specific bumblebee species (the Field cuckoo bee is a parasite of the Common carder bee, while the Hill cuckoo bee lays its eggs in the Large red-tailed bumblebee nest) are different again, in that they don't spend as much time foraging for food as the other bumblebees because they don't need to provision a nest with supplies of pollen. For this reason, cuckoo bees don't have pollen baskets on their legs. For them, a reasonable nectar supply is enough.

Right, onto butterflies, who are a wee bit more choosey than the bees when it comes to food. In the UK we have a number of specialist species, one of whom (the Small Blue) is so specialist it only has one food plant associated with it, Kidney Vetch. This makes it prone to colony wipe out unless the habitat is preserved in a condition that allows kidney vetch to flourish. Another is the Purple Emperor: the adults feed on honeydew from aphids at the top of oak trees and the larvae hatch out, overwinter, feed and pupate on goat willow. Silver washed fritillaries are creatures of ancient woodland who lay their eggs on trees close to clumps of violet: the young hatch out, crawl down the trunks, feed on the violets, crawl back up the trunks and pupate on the trees. As most of us won't have Chalk or oaks or goat willow or violets growing under old trees in our gardens, we needn't worry about trying to get kidney vetch to grow or attracting Purple Emperors or silver washed Frits. They may pass through your garden of course (the Emperor in particular is noted for its fondness for dog poo). 

Clockwise from top left: Large Skipper (male), Silver Washed Fritillary (male), Ringlet, Marbled White

What we will have is the more generalist flutters, and those we can provide for. Here is a list of nectar source (NS) and food plants (FP) for the more common UK butterflies. Plant a few of each in your garden and they will love you for it. Remember with the grasses not to cut them back until the following spring, March/ April time.

FP: nettles, hops, elm, currants, willow
NS: wide variety- buddleia, scabious etc

FP: common nettle
NS: buddleia, hemp agrimony, teasle as well as many others.

Small Tortoiseshell.
FP: Common nettle, small nettle, hop
NS: wide variety: cornflower, corn marigold, buddleia etc

Painted Lady.
FP: thistles
NS: wide variety: Daphne, scabious, nepeta, buddleia, jasmine etc

Red Admiral.
FP: common nettle
NS: wide variety as above

Large, Small & Essex Skippers
FP: areas of mixed grasses left long over winter, especially Cock's foot and Yorkshire fog.
NS: field scabious, red clover, bramble, red Campion, thistles

Small Copper:
FP: common and sheep's sorrel
NS: wide variety (daisies, dandelion, cornflower, scabious, bird's-foot trefoil)

Dark Green Fritillary
FP: violets
NS: knapweed, red clover, purple and mauve flowers

Common Blue
FP: bird's foot trefoil, white clover, black medick
NS: wide variety (bird's-foot trefoil, daisies etc)

Holly Blue
FP: Holly (1st brood early spring), ivy (2nd brood late summer)
NS: bramble, forget-me-nots, holly

Orange Tip
FP: lady's smock (also called cuckoo flower), garlic mustard, jack in the hedge, bittercress
NS: bugle, honesty, Daphne, scabious

Speckled Wood
FP: grasses
NS: aphid honeydew on oak, ash and birch

FP: grasses
NS: bramble, fleabane, ragworts

Meadow Brown
FP: grasses
NS: thistles and wide variety of meadow flowers

FP: grasses

NS: Bramble and others

You'll see that many of the plants they need for both nectar and food plants are what we call 'weeds', the sort of plants people work hard to eradicate from their gardens. One solution is to have a few wild patches dotted about where the insects can benefit from plants we don't always choose to grow, leaving space for people plants in other areas.

Other plants I've observed of particular value to pollinators as nectar sources in our garden here include:

Nepeta (covered in bees and flutters by day and by moths especially Silver Ys who've just flown in across the sea at night).
Fuchsia (especially for moths)
Willowherbs (food plant for elephant hawkmoths)
Viper's Bugloss
Star Jasmine
Poached egg plant
Bird's-foot trefoil
Ox-eye daisy

Hopefully that's given you some pointers. I'd love to know what you see in your garden as a result of putting some of this into practice this year. Even a few small changes make a significant difference to our wild cousins.

Hope you're all well,

CT :o)

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Monday's Race: Isle of Wight 3 Hills Challenge

The Finish! (note the cyber pants, for those who wanted a photo)

The ferry to Yarmouth

The Solent

Here we are in the middle of the sea!

Two well-earnt bottles of locally brewed beer

We left the house at 9 this morning with our bikes attached to the back of the car, caught the ferry out of Lymington to the Isle of Wight, disembarked half an hour later at Yarmouth and cycled three miles along cycle paths and lanes to Race HQ at Freshwater.

It's easy to get intimidated at the start of races. You look round and think everyone looks fitter than you, leaner than you, more capable than you, faster than you. Normally I'm not too bad, but this time my pre-race nerves weren't helped by us meeting a very fast runner on the boat out who, when M explained I hadn't been running competitively for long pulled a face and exclaimed and you've entered THIS race?! We then met another friend who asked M whether I was going to be alright running it. By that point I was really questioning myself and fully expecting to come in last, which isn't a great mindset to carry into the start of a tough race.

M, noticing my worried expression said in his reassuring way, you'll be fine: you've done the Cub! You won't come in last which was exactly what I needed to hear. Feeling a little better but still a bit nervous, I placed myself at the back of the field while he headed to the front. 

I took it steady as we set off across the sport centre playing fields and out onto the roads of Freshwater. Barely half a mile in we hit our first hill and that's pretty much how it continued for the next five miles. The race is billed as challenging, which M translated as lumpy. However, I've known him for a long time and I am very aware that lumpy in M's book means big hills in anyone else's. I'm also becoming aware that because my regular training runs all take in hills over rough terrain and I force myself to run up them no matter how exhausting they are, I'm not as troubled by hill running in races as others are. Sure enough the hills were where I started to overtake folks and where my confidence began to recover.

That's pretty much how the race continued: picking people off on hills, my confidence rising each time I left someone behind. And there were some huge hills- we climbed onto Tennyson Down and the ascent was more or less vertical in one place. Certainly steeper than the steepest hill on the Cub. I and everyone else walked it, but once we were on the cliff top with stunning views opening over the sea and round the coast I found my energy returned quickly and I was able to pick up the pace. I set my eyes on three people some distance ahead and slowly picked them off, one by one. 

Soon we were back on a hill: the climb up to Tennyson's monument. I'd been tailing a chap in front and suddenly realised that I was going to be able to overtake him so I pushed on and as I went past he said well done, which was so nice of him and typical of my experience of a lot of the runners today- a generous bunch congratulating and encouraging one another. Once I'd got past I could hear him staying on my heels and he grunted you're doing a grand job of getting me up the hill. By that point it was taking its toll and I was slowing, but I can be a stubborn old git and there was no way I was going to walk, so I told him we'd both make it running to the top together, which we did. 

I was soooo pleased, as it's a long, steady incline and very draining after over five miles of hill running. He overtook me at the top, so I chased after him and we chatted briefly as we galloped down the hill together, agreeing that these kinds of tough, cross country runs are the best. I realised my energy was back and I shot off, leaving him behind with a shouted promise that he'd buy me a cuppa at the end. I did the next two (downhill) kms in just over 4 minutes each. I was flying and loving every second of it.

The final stretch was back along the road and it went on a bit, so I slowed down a bit, but no-one overtook me. In the end I finished in under 1:20 hours, which I was thrilled with. I felt I'd learnt a lot again and, more importantly, banished the feeling I wasn't good enough to compete here. 

I met the chap I'd chased down the hill at the end and we shook hands and congratulated one another. That camaraderie, sharing a tough but exhilarating experience with strangers, is one of the nicest things about running competitively. Everyone is genuinely pleased for everyone else who's survived running it.

The finishing prize was a bottle of local ale, which we're having with fish n' chips tonight. M had a great race too and was really pleased with his time and race position and we agreed it was a fab way to spend Easter Monday. We'll be back next year I'm sure. I'm feeling tired now, but having run 8 miles over cliffs and cycled 6 I think that's OK :o)

Hope you've all had a great Bank Holiday and Easter.

CT :o)

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Wild Life

Life is flowing here. Plants are growing; leaves are unfurling; birds are nesting; insects are pollinating. In the woods, bluebells, lesser Celandine and wood anemones carpet the earth, and in the garden, the springs beds are in full flow providing a regular supply of blooms to bring indoors....

Anemone Dr Fokker (thank you, Sam, for the tip last year)

Anemone Bride
Up at the pond, a three-legged frog tucked under the bird's-foot trefoil leaves yesterday...

I have checked and three legs isn't an automatic death sentence for amphibians, which is a relief. Also nice to know frogs do use the pond.

My heron has taken to sitting at the top of a very tall ash tree. Here he is being joined by a small friend, one of the collared dove pair who are usually inseparable....

The siskins have stopped coming to the garden now. They have moved back out into the forest where they prefer to nest in conifers. I won't see them again until winter draws them back to the cones on the alders beside the house. From there it is only a short hop to the feeders, which they share with the goldfinches. Mr GF has fallen quiet in the last couple of days, which must mean the nest is complete and eggs are being laid and brooded.

Orange-tips are having a good year here. A male visits the garden most days to nectar on Daphne, muscari and scabious. I've yet to see the female here, but the cuckoo flower and jack in the hedge are out so there are plenty of preferred egg-laying plants available for her in the garden...

The orange-tip is the first true spring butterfly as it overwinters as a pupae rather than hibernating as an adult. The second is generally the holly blue, and third for me this year is the speckled wood. I have seen good numbers of these beautiful butterflies at home and out on walks this week...

One of the speckled woods was flitting among the elm trees that line the track into one of our favourite walks. The ground was peppered with their seed, so I brought four home and planted them in pots. No idea whether they'll germinate but as I have two oaks I've grown from acorns I thought it was worth a punt....

Down by the river, life is flowing along nicely. Lots of evidence of water voles, lots of lovely spring wildflowers, a couple of Kingfishers chasing one another, nine buzzards circling overhead (never seen so many at once before), reed warblers returned from tropical Africa to chatter in the reed beds by the river, and a red kite who swooped down in front of me and landed in the tree...

I bumped into River Keeper Neil who told me, grim faced, that a dead mink turned up on a lane near the river this week. I think I drove past and saw it and am now kicking myself for not stopping to check. I'd assumed it was a pole cat. We fear for our water voles as a result, but he is on the case so hopefully the population of small brown furries who call this stretch of river home will be safe.

At the top of the river near where it passes beneath the road a pair of grey wagtails are nesting. They are one of my favourite birds, so graceful. The population fell by 40% after the 1970s, currently there are about 38,000 breeding pairs in the UK. Compare this to blackbirds, who have 5.1 million breeding pairs here (and that includes a population decline of 15% in the last forty years) and you get some sense of the rarity value of these little birds. 

Yellow archangel are flowering now. According to Oliver Rackham (expert in all things tree, especially ancient), these wildflowers are often associated with ancient woodland and wood-relic hedges. They grow on the Mottisfont estate near where the bluebells bloom,and on the lane here at home. They won't sting you, although, like the white dead nettles, they are part of the same family as those that do.

On the way home from seeing the bluebells and the archangels yesterday, I collected a goodly dollop of sheep's wool from the fences to take home. It's been stuffed in the roof of the bird table. Sheep's wool makes a great nest lining and already it's been tugged at and bits and bobs of it removed. I like to think of the baby birds in and around the garden being safely snuggled into a bed of warm, soft wool. It also makes me smile when I find the nests at the end of the year with the wool entwined in their construction. It's a little bit of everyday magic.

I'm thinking it's probably time to get the moth box out, when it warms a little. This week, a pair of Ruby Tiger moths visited the lawn. Their russet colouring caught my eye as they buzzed an inch or two off ground-level. When I finally caught up with them they were busy mating. They remained locked together for the best part of four hours. I've only ever seen them in the trap before (humane, light-gathering rather than anything nasty). I checked the book, and sure enough they are known for mating by day, usually in the afternoon. It's good to know they are here.

One final bit of lovely is that Selborne, the satellite tracked Hampshire cuckoo we've been following via the BTO website, made it back home last night after an epic flight up from Western Africa. He's just down the road from us, which is very exciting. Also, the swallows are home and the male pipistrelles who live in our roof have woken up and are busy out flying a little after sunset. I watched them a couple of nights ago hunting over the lakes for midges, the bat detector translating their rapid clicking calls into sounds my ears could hear. It's all go.

I've started work on my wildlife book. It isn't work at all- it's a complete pleasure to spend the days with my notes spread out all around me and various wildlife books piled high on the table. I've caught up with April so it's now it's really writing itself in real time. I'll let you know when it's finished.

Hope all are well?

CT :o)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

First Cuckoo Returns

The Cuckoo Flower is in blossom and so since yesterday, when the blooms first opened, I've been listening out for the first Cuckoo of the year. Their arrival from Africa is inextricably linked with the country name of Cardamine pratensis, which is the food plant of the Orange-tip butterfly and is capable of growing from a single basal leaf laid in soil and kept gently watered (as the ones above did).

I've been tracking Selborne, the New Forest BTO tagged Cuckoo, and he's been pootling about in Spain for most of the week, but yesterday he flew up into France so I was hopeful ours were also on their way. 

I woke up at 6 this morning dreaming that I'd heard the Cuckoo and then realised that I had heard the Cuckoo. There he was, cuckooing away in the distance. He hasn't sung again but more will come in the following days and usually I see them displaying over the trees here and hear the females bubbling once they've laid their eggs. Thank goodness they're back. Long may it continue, eh?

Hope all are well?

CT :o)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Salisbury Ten Mile Road Race

Here is this morning's offering- ten miles along the roads and lanes around Salisbury. It was Hard Work. Probably because it was so hot (about 20 degrees by the end). There were 850 competitors and several dropped out over the first five miles, some with injuries, some with heavy legs. The rest of us carried on, exclaiming to one another every now and then how Very Hot Indeed it was. 

The water stations (at miles 2, 5 and 8) have never been more welcome. I drank/ chucked water over myself at each opportunity and was very grateful to have it. The marshals as always at these events did a marvellous job of keeping everyone's spirits up with encouraging words and my fellow racers were a generous bunch too- everyone encouraged everyone else, checked up on everyone and cheered when you did well.

The route was beautiful- the lanes around Salisbury run through beautiful countryside and the final two miles have fabulous views of the Cathedral, so it really was a pleasure to be there.

I met a couple of friends en route and ran beside them for a bit. One I last saw at the start of the Grizzly and is doing the London Marathon in a fortnight, so was taking today relatively easy, another (a daughter of a friend of mine) was running her first ten mile race today and she ran it brilliantly, including up both the hills (which I walked most of the way up). She finished a little ahead of me and I was very proud of her.

I took it steady most of the way and felt reasonably strong at around 8 miles so pushed on down the hill overtaking quite a few runners which is always nice, BUT, by mile 9 I was really starting to feel it and had to pull hard on my sternest 'keeping going' reserves not to walk anymore. By the point my GPS told me I had a kilometre left I was more than ready to finish. 

I knew it wasn't far but goodness I felt every footstep of that final K. At last I turned a corner, saw M and the finish and steeled myself to run the last bit round the athletics track to the finish. From somewhere I summoned the energy to sprint the final hundred metres or so and crossed the line in around one hour thirty, fifteen minutes faster than I thought I might have been, so even though my bum and legs were telling me for heaven's sake stop! I was really chuffed with the result.

We have all the children, aunts, uncles and grandparents here this afternoon as F has turned 18, so when we got home I cooked up a huge meal and pudding for everyone and now I am about ready to fall asleep, only I can't because we're all off down the pub to celebrate F's 18th! I shall keep going till 8pm then that'll be it :o)

Hope you've all had a good weekend?

CT :o)

Friday, 7 April 2017

Spring In Badger Wood

Badger Wood is an ancient place and the sett hidden within it is also old. I know this because

  1. The plants that grow in the wood are all ancient woodland indicator species (ransoms, wild daffodils, lords and ladies, primroses, bluebells, dog's mercury). They've not suffered the plough and their ancestors were in the wood in all likelihood since the last great Ice sheets retreated ten thousand years ago
  2. The Badger Paths that run through the wood are all well-defined, meaning that countless generations of badgers have trod them through the centuries.
  3. The earthworks that surround the sett are significant in size, because over the centuries the badgers have dug up more earth to put on top of them and created these huge structures rising from the woodland floor.
  4. I've seen the maps and know that, up until fifty years ago, the wood that is now reduced to a thin strip between mono-culture fields,once covered all the land here as far as the eye could see.
Greater Stitchwort blooms in the banks
I started off walking up the Green Lane, and at the top decided there was so little to see out in the fields I'd be better off inside the old wood, so the dogs and I crossed the hedge line and stepped into a magical world full of life.

The badger paths run right through the wood. I followed the main one and soon came across a fallen tree which crossed it. I hoped it would reveal the sharpness of badger claws as the path continues on the other side, meandering through the wood.

Hopefully you can see the scratch marks in the surface of the wood. The badgers have to climb over this tree to continue on their way and badger claws are razor sharp. This allows them to peel the skin off hedgehogs so effectively. Not the nicest of thoughts perhaps, but this is the reality of nature. If we hadn't got in the way so completely the balance would work itself out between predator and prey quite happily.

All along the path were scuffed up areas of bare earth where stripy folk have been rubbing off their winter coats.....

Now is the perfect time to find these patches in your local woods. The badgers rake up the greenery so they can scratch against the earth more effectively. There are lots of these badger rubbing places in evidence this week, many of them with piles of these in them...

Badger hair is quite long and brittle.Sometimes, although not always, with grey bits in it. Most of the stuff I find is white.

Walking through ancient woods always shows you something interesting. Apart from the badgers, in my walk I found this.....

It's a bowl of wood growing out of a silver birch. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors would have known where all these natural bowls were growing in their local environment. They harvested them and used carpentry skills far superior to my own to hollow the wood out and turn it into bowls for storing grain in. 

There was also this...

It's a hazelnut that's been nibbled. Birds and squirrels split nuts open and leave jagged lines in the shell, but mice, voles and dormice make smaller holes. You can tell which is which by the pattern of the tooth mark on the edge of the hole. I'm fairly sure this is a mouse, although the hole is a bit bigger than others I've seen.

We reached the sett and discovered the badgers had been hard at work spring cleaning. Old winter bedding had been brought up and chucked out. Huge piles of these dried collections of vegetation were left strewn about the entrances. 

There was also evidence of recent renovation work with fresh chalk spoil heaps piled up outside the front doors. 

I'd lost track of time wandering along the badger way and was jumped back into modern life by my plumber ringing my mobile, so we ended the walk there.

Back at home and the andrena mining bees have moved in to the lawn....

You can just see the little bee inside the hole. I've rescued four from the house already this week, with my usual problem of trying to persuade them to get off my finger once I've picked them up. Yesterday I sat for twenty minutes in the garden with one on my finger, waiting while the bee had a good old clean of her antennae with her legs, watching me as I watched her, before she'd decided she was spick and span enough and sufficiently devoid of carpet fluff to fly off. I'm glad to have them back. I don't really understand why some people classify them as pests and kill them. Having mining bees in your lawn is so good for the soil as the burrows aerate it. They aren't there for long and the small spoil heaps are very quickly absorbed back into the grass, plus the bees themselves are pollinators.

One other quick thing before I go- listen out for goldfinches perched in trees singing non-stop over the next week or so. They are nest building and the males sing from trees close to the nest to help the females locate it when she return with twigs etc. They will sing when she's incubating too, but less forcefully. Ours are in the wisteria and he is singing his little heart out from dawn to dusk at present. 

Hope you're all well and enjoying this gorgeous spell of warm sunny weather if you're UK based.

CT :o)