Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 29, 2017

The Big Trip

The Van

Our home for the summer. Ross Gardner 2017.

My first post for many weeks, but this time with a better excuse than simply not getting round to it.  On April 29th the big trip began!  A year’s worth of travelling, first of all touring the UK living in our camper van, and then heading out in the autumn to Borneo, New Zealand and beyond.  We have spent May mostly in Scotland, where coinciding decent Wi-Fi connectivity and electricity connection proved tricky than expected, especially being the smart phone luddite that I am.  A shall attempt to make up for lost time.

A swiftish journey up the east coast was the way forward, which took in the wonderful landscapes of the North York Moors and the Northumberland coast and hill-country.  The first experience of the former was at the very fine coastal scenery of Ravenscar, with its clifftops overlooking the famous Robin Hood Bay.  The plan was to walk up to and around said bay,  but for something of a distraction.  It turns out that there is something of a seal colony at Ravenscar, which we decided to investigate along our route.  Now, I have seen many a seal over the years and while I always enjoy a good seal sighting, this turned out to be something rather different.

Phoca vituline

Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) close-up. Ross Gardner 2017

Having come to the rocky shore at the foot of the cliffs you find yourself quite literally among the colony.  Within a few moments we passed within metres of one Common Seal and clambering among the rocks soon discovered that there were dozens scattered all over.  I frequently found myself apologising as blundered too close to a hidden animals which was quick to express its chagrin at my intrusion.  It felt rather wrong to be within such close quarters with these wild animals.  It just so happened that we bumped into a Marine Mammal Medic and very much an expert on his charges.  I expressed my concerns, but he put my mind at rest.  He explained that it’s about people experiencing things, being educated and passing on their knowledge.

We do though, need to apply some common sense.  He reminded us that the seals will soon let us know if we’re too near to them and that they should not be approached too closely.  This is for their benefit and ours; they are wild, predatory animals that are quite able to defend themselves.  There were both Common and Grey Seals present.  We were told that there is a problem with the tourists getting to close to pups of the latter.  Common Seals are born ready for the sea.  The Greys however, are not.  They must be weaned.  Folk often like to have their picture taken with a cute, white furry seal pup, but when tainted by the scent of humans the mother will desert the young, helpless seal.  Clearly not good!  Both species, just like anything else, deserve our respect.

It was a different and fascinating experience of animals I have often be fortunate enough to see, enhanced further by meeting someone so knowledgeable and enthusiastic to share what they know.

Halichoerus grypus

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) bull – not to be messed with. Ross Gardner 2017.

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 24, 2017

Duck!

The splendidly open landscape of West Canvey Marshes bears the change of season into the now firmly entrenched spring as much as any.  The thick thorny hedges belong now not only to the Dunnock, Reed Bunting and other small birds that stayed put through the winter, but also the Africa-returning Whitethroat bringing their scratchy but no less appealing warble once again to the soundscape.  The wandering trill of the Skylark may have been drifting above the open fields since the spring opened an eye during those bright days of late-February, but now they may be joined by the twitter of Swallows, swooping and scooping up the tiny insects that abound.

And the gatherings of wintering duck are no more.  The 700 hundred odd Wigeon have altogether disappeared and there isn’t a Shoveler to be seen, while Teal numbers are reduced to a straggling few.  It is easy to sound as if all this is somewhat regrettable, but not a bit of it.  Spaces and vacated just as others are filled.  The few Teal that remain might soon be gone to their breeding grounds, but the others may well stick around, or find some other corner of these of these Thames-side marshes that thankfully spread further even than the bounds of this RSPB nature reserve.

Anas crecca

Teal (Anas crecca) – male. Ross Gardner 2017.

A bright spring sun gleams the chestnut and green head colours of the little drake Teal dabbling on the open freshwater, as indeed it also does for the more uniform green of the Mallard’s.  More so in terms of the very familiar latter, this can be somewhat overlooked beauty.  A pair of Gadwall float by and the apparently duller grey plumage of the drake is given sharp relief, revealing a delicacy of texture belied by first impressions.  Once again, his (and indeed hers) are perhaps qualities easily overlooked, but lifted and brought more clearly by the easy warmth of the spring sunshine and the time and inclination to not take things too much for granted.

Anas strepera

Gadwall (Anas strepera) – male. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 12, 2017

Various Leavings

 

Various Leavings

Outside my door I sometimes find
A curlew gargling in some
Marshy corner I can’t quite see.
Or a woodpecker exchanging trees
For telegraph poles.
Or a time-machine and listening
For a World War bomb
Plummeting to earth.
Or just a starling splattering
Guano over my car.

Starling on aerial 3

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 29, 2017

The never humble bumble

Whilst walking the other day and enjoying the many and various delights of spring’s beginning getting into full swing it was the bumblebees, on this occasion, that caught the imagination the most.  To read the natural history texts of the late-19th/early 20th century would find mention of the humblebee, as was the term back in those days.  I am quite sure nothing derogatory was implied by the name.  Indeed, rather than being drawn from any perceived lowly position within the web of life, it has been suggested and without to much of a leap of conjecture, that it could have been derived from the Latin term humus (the earth, ground) or humi (on the ground) as an observation of many species tendency to nest under, on or near the ground.  It might even have simply been a reference to the loud humming sound they make when they fly.

Whatever is the truth of the matter, humble they are not.  They are, after all and like many other insects, the pollinators of many a food-crop.  And while they might not create quite the architectural wonders of the wax-sculpting honey bees and the paper-forming wasps, their own rather more homely jumble of waxen cells still allows the wonders of insect society to develop and flourish just the same.

The queen bumblebees are on the very pictures of seasonal diligence during these early weeks of spring.  Having mated the previous year before going into hibernation, they emerge first to feed and replenish and then to search out a place to found a colony.  For some this will be a hole in the ground, for others perhaps dense, grassy tussock.  Hence we see them scouring the ground and searching among the topographies of the landscape invisible to mere human eyes.

Bombus terrestris

The pollen-smothered Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) might seek out an old mouse-hole for a nest-site. Ross Gardner 2015.

Bombus hypnorum

The Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) prefers to nest away from the ground, such in the cavities of trees and even vacant bird nest-boxes. Ross Gardner 2009.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 16, 2017

The meaning of frogness

The frog rises to the surface

By the strength

Of its non-attachment.

Naito Joso, 1662-1704

Rana temporaria

Common Frog (Rana temporaria): a spring return – spawn and all – to the garden pond. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 8, 2017

Magpie

Nearly a whole month has passed since my last post on this blog.  Shame on me for my neglectfulness!!

I will return to my keyboard with what comes as close to controversy as I am ever likely to get on these pages. Magpies!!!  I have been watching one in the garden collecting nest material for the coming spring.  As has been the case in previous years, they appear particularly fond of the delicate, pliable twigs of our silver birch, selecting them with all the careful consideration that one might expect from a member of the crow clan, sometimes even snapping them straight from source.

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Magpie (Pica pica). Ross Gardner 2017

It got me thinking about this undeniably handsome and canny creature.  They are also, of course, that most scorned of our birds, variously described as “murderous”, “a menace” (as the Daily Mail once described them) and through the use of numerous other histrionically deployed adjectives.  As highly adaptable omnivores with taste for eggs and young birds among the many other things, it is the magpie that some say are single-beakedly exacting the decline in songbirds that has recently been observed in Britain.  This is an assumption that is often made without any real evidence and a reluctance to accept the very real and proven toll that habitat loss and modern agriculture has taken on our bird populations.

The maths don’t particularly add up either.  The UK magpie population is based on an estimated 600,000 breeding territories.  They might predate on such birds as the blackbird, song thrush (one of the much-declined species in question), or robin, with respective breeding populations of 5 million pairs, 1+ million territories and  6.7 million territories.  Assuming, for the sake of simple explanation, that a breeding territory implies a breeding pair, that’s already getting on for 13 million pairs (a ratio of 1:21) before raising young when populations will briefly as much as quadruple.  And then there are the likes of the greenfinch (1.7 million pairs), dunnock (2.5 million breeding territories) and others also potentially on the menu.  Even taking into account other bird predators, such as the sparrowhawk (of which, incidentally, there are only 70,000), there really is plenty to go round.

And as for describing them as ‘murderous’ or ‘a menace’, they are merely doing what magpies do in order to survive.  There is no malice of forethought.  That faculty is the reserve of another species who really ought not be throwing stones in glass houses.

There you go.  Campaign over.  Lets hear it for crow-kind.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 13, 2017

Blue tits and garden plants

It has been a winter in Southeast England that has not really got going.  A few dustings of snow of periods of cold. Looking back through my notes and the word ‘mild’ makes a regular appearance when describing the prevailing conditions on a given day.  Having said all of this said, the last week or so has been one of those decidedly cold spells.  All the more surprising then, was the sight of a blue tit taking a particular interest in our garden nest-box.

Nature though is rarely ever still in this temperate land of ours.  Something is always stirring in preparation for the next phase in its life-cycle.  The female blue tit won’t be sitting on eggs until April, the inkling will be murmuring within long before, as well it must.  Not that I’m trying to suggest at all that winter is on the wane just yet, rather to say that ours is a tendency to sometimes overlook the flow of life until the change seems immediate.

Elsewhere in the garden I have found the point made.  Clearing back some of last summer’s Geranium litter revealed the fresh, tender-looking shoots of the coming year already pushing through.  So to the Sedum with their tight clumps of curled leaves which had been emerging amid the stems holding up last year’s flower-heads.  What else is stirs with us ever realising it?

blue-tit-at-next-box-scaled

A blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus – taken through the kitchen window!) at the nest-box last spring. Ross Gardner 2016.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 29, 2017

Snipe

ditch-sneaker.

A keyhole creeper picking the locks

Of muddy tenements and teasing

Frozen hearts into a timely thaw.

From ‘Snipe’, by Ross Gardner.

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Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 15, 2017

Waxwing

One of those delightful quirks of the natural world – rare birds in the heart of town.  The birds in question are waxwings, the town Basildon (or Pitsea to be more precise), part of the urban spread of South Essex.

Waxwing are breeders of the far north.  Birds wintering in the UK would have bred among the coniferous woods of Arctic and sub-Arctic Russia and in Northern Scandinavia.  These are, generally speaking, not places to spend the winter and so on leaving their breeding grounds they decend southwards, largely into Southern and Central Europe.  Some however, will come further west and most winters will bring a couple of hundred birds to the east coast of Britain.  Some years though, are irruption years.  A good breeding season and insufficient winter food (berries) in their more normal haunts causes invasions which can result in many more hundreds, even thousands of birds crossing the North Sea on a quest for more food.  In the winter of 1965/66 a record 11,000 were estimated to have come here.

This winter seems like a good one for waxwing, to the extent that I was able to watch a flock of 20 or so in the middle of said town.  Urban wildlife in our gardens and parks is one thing, but being able to enjoy these birds outside a certain large outdoor equipment retailer’s store is quite another.  They were attracted by the bunches of scarlet berries clumped on some ornamental rowan, a tree often favoured to break the monotony of retail estates and the like.  And this wasn’t the first time.  A while back I was wowed by some 100 odd in the self same part of town.

The light was terrible on drizzly, damp day, but I did manage to capture the occasion for prospetity.

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Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). Ross Gardner 2017.

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Part of a waxwing flock in Pitsea, Essex. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 13, 2017

Winter

… away through the damp-glistened hornbeam,

The rusted ash and incongruous holly

The gloom is centring itself

Around a robin’s beak.

(from ‘Deep Winter’, by Ross Gardner)
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Robin (Erithacus rubeculus). Copyright 2009 Ross Gardner.

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