Friday, 19 April 2019

Bluebells along the bridleway

It seems that spring has properly arrived this week and we're in for a lovely sunny long Easter weekend. Perfect!

I regularly run along the bridleway to the neighbouring village, and I've been keeping an eye on the progress of the bluebells that flower here. So, on a warm afternoon this week I decided it was time to get the nature journal kit out and go do some observing!

These bluebells are the native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta. The Woodland Trust's bluebell page has some useful info. These have the classic English bluebell nodding flower stem with the flowers mostly on one side, and curled back petal tips. The one thing I can't verify is the scent, as I'm blocked up with a cold at the moment!

The bluebells are flowering under the trees along a narrow strip either side of the path, only a few metres wide either side, with arable fields beyond. I'm wondering if there was once a bigger area of woodland here.

I'm lucky to have some lovely woodland nearby that's spectacular for spring bluebells. Pictures from previous years, Papworth Wood and Waresley Wood, in Cambridgeshire:

Papworth Wood bluebells

Waresley Wood bluebells

If you get a chance, I recommend you visit your local bluebells!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The magic spell of sitting still

I've just finished reading the excellent Rewild Yourself written by Simon Barnes, in which he proposes 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible and reverse our disconnect with the natural world.

Many of the spells I know already - I discovered the Spell for Making Birds and Beasts Come Closer (binoculars!) when I was a youngster (I still remember being given my first binoculars, and I now own a pair with very close focus that are excellent for insect watching too). Other spells are on my wish list to cast - How to Turn into a Swan (hiring a canoe for an afternoon, yes please!), or How to Breathe Underwater (snorkelling or, much more likely for me, using a bathyscope or aquascope to glimpse the underwater realm).

One of the spells gave me particular pause for thought - The Bottomless Sit. It's basically sitting still and keeping quiet. I've done this often enough; one memorable time I was just sitting on the patio late one summer night, and a hedgehog came ambling along and literally snuffled around my bare toes (while I held my breath!). But I do have a tendency, when I visit a nature reserve for example, to try to see everything, which entails doing a lot of walking and not much staying still. So I've decided that every now and again I'll find a spot - be it a hide or just somewhere quiet - to sit and spend an hour or more just watching and listening.

So this was the spell I cast when I visited my local nature reserve at Paxton Pits the other day. It's a place you could spend all day exploring (and it'll be getting even bigger as the current working quarries become part of the reserve). I always have a walk around here; there's so much to see, so much ground to cover. But this time I headed for the Cobham hide and just sat and watched and sketched a bit, for about an hour or so (nature journal page finished off later - click to embiggen all pics).

Nature journal page in progress

There wasn't very much happening - the usual moorhens, some ducks (teal and gadwall), and a pair of long-tailed tits flying back and forth, gathering nesting material. Fairly unremarkable, you might think; but the longer you sit and take it all in, the more you are drawn into the quiet rhythm of the place.

Drake teal

Drake gadwall

Long-tailed tit

It'd be nice, you think, to see something special, but as Simon Barnes puts it, "Not every sit ends in a rarity. Many a sit will bring only the ordinary everyday wild things - but you find that you have moved a little closer to all wild things than you were before. You are becoming less an observer of the wild world than a living part of it - and that's as good as seeing a kingfisher, maybe even better... the truth of the matter is that it's wildness that you're seeking... the wildness in you... The wildness that comes in the waiting. In the sitting."

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Walking at dusk

A short post today, I just wanted to share a lovely walk I had on a less than lovely day (cold and cloudy, but dry). I'm not really a morning person (it's a big effort getting up and out for sunrise!) but I do enjoy walking at dusk, and there's often lots to see. I left about an hour before sunset and dallied around the fields, just noticing what was happening. Binoculars are essential - it's hard enough to spot things in the failing light and any help you can give yourself will definitely pay off. I'd have missed the partridge and probably the fox without binoculars, and the hares were rather distant too! Images are all clickable for a closer look.


Roe deer tracks

I was hoping (but not really expecting) to find a hare or two, and ended up seeing a fair bit more!

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Mild weather and bumblebees

I am rather enjoying the current warm spell, though I'm wondering how much longer it will last... I've already seen a butterfly (though it flew by too quickly for me to identify it, maybe a small tortoiseshell), and the birds definitely seem to be in springtime mode, with various individuals flying around with nesting material.

The problem, of course, is that insects that have been dormant in the cold of winter become active, and if they can't find enough food they will struggle. So it's a great idea to have things in your garden that will help them out - mahonia is one. It flowers from January through to about March, and provides an early supply of nectar and pollen when there's not much else about.

Bee-friendly mahonia

Bee-friendly mahonia

It seems to be a tough enough plant - in my garden it lives in front of a row of tall conifers, with all the shading and moisture problems they bring, and still thrives. In the sunshine there were at least half a dozen honey bees visiting, plus a couple of buff-tailed bumblebee queens.

Bees on the mahonia

There's lots of information online about pollinator-friendly plants for the garden, including this from Friends of the Earth.  With a little planning you can have wildlife-friendly flowers all through the seasons!

Saturday, 9 February 2019

A visit to Welney WWT

Having checked the weather forecast (which was looking surprisingly good!), I decided to take a day off this week to visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Welney. The reserve is on the Ouse Washes, washlands which take up floodwater from the River Great Ouse and keep safe vast areas of farmland and settlements. The WWT manages about 3 of the 22 miles of the Washes, and the visitor centre and reserve are well worth exploring.

Ouse Washes

The Ouse Washes is an SSSI and a Ramsar site, and is a massively important area for wildfowl. The WWT staff gave a short talk about the reserve and the organisation (in the comfort of a very nice heated main hide), and according to this there are currently around 76,000 waterfowl present across the Washes. Amazing.

WWT Welney

My main reason for visiting Welney - other than it having been on my list of places to visit for such a long time - was to see Whooper swans. These swans breed in Iceland and overwinter in the UK and Ireland, making the journey across the North Sea in one non-stop flight (nearly 1800 km to the Ouse Washes); counts here are generally up in the thousands. The swans feed in the surrounding fields during the day, and fly back onto the washland to roost and, at Welney, for a top-up of grain provided by the WWT, who also ring and monitor the birds. As well as the Whoopers there are Bewick's swans: smaller and shyer, and fewer in number.

Whooper swan

Whooper swan cygnet

Feeding time

Another must-see bird for me at Welney is the Black-tailed godwit - the species here is the focus of a project to increase their numbers. They were present, but the flocks were too far away for me to get a good view, other than the spectacle of them all in flight, put up by a passing marsh harrier.

I had great views of the Whooper swans on the lagoon in front of the main hide, and an absolute bonus for me was the huge number of Pochards that were there too - I have never seen so many all in one place! Most were males - the females fly further south and overwinter in France and Spain. This is yet another species in decline, and the WWT are undertaking research into this. For my part, I just loved watching, drawing and painting them - they are perfect little blocks of colour.


Swans and pochards

 Sketching from the main hide

Nature journalling

Nature journalling

Swan family

I could have spent all day drawing the wildfowl here - maybe I should have! Next time...

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Snowy tracks

Well, we had some snow here but not much! Just enough to cover the lawn while still letting the grass to poke through. And it didn't last long - it had mostly melted away by lunchtime. There was enough, however, to show some interesting tracks across the driveway...

So, out came the nature journal, along with my little three-legged fold-up stool in an attempt to keep me out of the snow. I measured the tracks so I could draw them life-sized, although a certain amount of melting was already happening...

The track-leaving culprit is a moorhen. Although we're not near a river or lake, there are ponds in the village (including one next door), as well as ditches and drains, and we have at least two resident moorhens that we see quite regularly.

Drawing this reminded me of some sketches I made a few years ago, when I looked out of an upstairs window and found a moorhen at eye level, perched up in the conifers!

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Big Garden Bird Watch 2019

Last weekend saw the annual Big Garden Bird Watch, organised by the RSPB. You spend an hour counting the birds visiting your garden, or other open space - could be a park, or school grounds etc. It's a huge citizen science project and has been running for 40 years, revealing some interesting trends over that time.

The week leading up to the BGBW weekend had been fairly busy for birds in my garden - a constant flow of visitors to the feeders in the cold but calm weather. However, the weekend saw that come to an end! The weather turned windy and the birds hunkered down.

I had planned to try some sketching - I find sketching garden birds tricky at the best of times, as they tend to be fast moving, but I'd hoped that having a good number of them about would help me get some poses down on paper. In the event the birds tended to pop up for just a few seconds before vanishing, and they tended to arrive all at once then disappear again, so I found the whole thing really difficult - need more practice!

Nevertheless, I ended up with a reasonable list even though I was watching an empty garden for most of the hour!



My final list was: 6 long-tailed tits, 3 blackbirds, 2 chaffinches, 1 great tit, 2 blue tits, 1 robin, 1 dunnock, 1 fieldfare, 5 house sparrows, 1 woodpigeon and 1 coal tit. No sign of the regular starlings, collared doves or stock doves!