17 October 2019

· Wirral ·

A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. Lovely sunshine, with the marshes showing some subtle, autumnal hues. Very few birds, for a change: several squadrons of crows, a couple of little egrets, and a Cetti’s warbler singing invisibly from the greater reed-mace.

As I approached the point, I heard a raven cronking overheard. It was flying among some jackdaws. I thought they might have been mobbing the raven, but, if so, it was only half-hearted. Seeing a raven flying alongside its smaller cousins made me appreciate once again just how big they are: buzzard-sized!

Later, at Gayton Marshes, I spotted a large flock of knots twisting agitatedly back and forth just above the drainage channel, dark when their backs were towards me, flashing brightly as they turned in unison to reveal their lighter undersides. A few teal and redshank also rose in panic and headed off low up the channel. I wondered what had spooked them, and raised my binoculars in eager anticipation of a peregrine, marsh harrier or hen harrier. But the cause of the commotion turned out to be considerably slower and easier to spot than a raptor: a lone canoeist in hi-vis jacket paddling slowly up the channel.


9 October 2019

· Wirral ·

A visit to RSPB Burton Mere en route to Dad’s. Plenty of dragonflies around, including one pair latched together in flight, the male gripping the nape of the female’s neck with the claspers at the end of his abdomen—a prelude to a potential mating. I spent five minutes or so trying to photograph individual dragonflies in flight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring my macro lens, so had to make do with my ordinary zoom. Latching on to such small, fast-moving targets is pretty much beyond the capabilities of my camera’s autofocus system, so I switched to manual focus mode and resigned myself to lots of blurry images. But a couple of the shots of common hawkers came out all right.

Common hawker

As I approached the Inner Marsh Farm hide, a Cetti’s warbler exploded into song less than two metres away, deep in the path-side branches. I could see it hopping back and forth behind a maze of twigs—a situation which also confounded my autofocus. By the time I’d slipped the lens back into manual mode, however, the bird had disappeared.

From the hide, I could see hundreds of black-tailed godwits huddled together in the shallow water, with a smaller number of lapwings at the water’s edge behind. A few redshank squabbled noisily, and a moorhen played with a stalk of grass a couple of metres away. After a while, a little egret appeared, and began fishing right in front of me. I took some nice photos, including some action shots as the bird reacted to the arrival of another egret interloper.

Little egret

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In the evening, a text from neighbour John, saying he’ll have no eggs for us for the foreseeable future as a fox has killed three of his four hens. Very sad: I’d become rather attached to ‘the girls’, as I called them. The chicken-run looks like Fort Knox, but foxes are such resourceful creatures.


5 October 2019

Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for another drag around Crow Nest Wood. As we entered the beech trees, I heard what I took to be rain starting to fall through the leaves. But then I realised the sound was coming from a single tree. As I looked up, trying to work out what was causing the noise, about 20 wood pigeons exploded out of the canopy and headed off across the valley. I guess they must have been foraging for beech mast, in the process dislodging leaves and seed husks which pattered down through the lower branches like rain.


4 October 2019

There were eight mistle thrushes rasping on a power-line as I went to open the gate this evening. I spotted several more as I drove up the hill, and more still on Height Road. They’re likely to be recent arrivals from Northern Europe. Mistle thrushes are resident in the UK throughout the year, but their numbers are bolstered considerably during the winter months by birds arriving from Scandinavia and beyond. Their rasping calls always remind me of electric buzzers that haven’t been wired quite right.

Heading back from Halifax an hour later, I spotted three swallows perched on a telephone wire in Booth. You’re definitely leaving it a little late, chaps. Time to be off!


1 October 2019

A walk around the lanes first thing to get my head in gear. A pair of jays were gathering acorns next to the farm track. I managed to get to within 15 metres of them before they spotted me and flew off, white rumps bobbing. They have a strange, slightly undulating, ungainly flight when out in the open. I suppose it’s on account of their broad, somewhat stubby wings, which will be better suited for flying through woodland.

Jays always look much larger when you see them perched on branches, rather than flitting through the trees. They look more crow-like too, which should come as no surprise, bearing in mind they are crows.


27 September 2019

Buggered telephone line.

The joys of living almost 800 feet above sea-level on the side of an exposed hill… An unusually constructive stint on my ‘Darwin book’ yesterday was rudely interrupted, without any warning, by a bolt of lightning which took out a telephone line outside our neighbour’s house. The ensuing electrical surge fried our landline phone, wi-fi hub, data bridge, and rather expensive colour laser printer. Miraculously, our even more expensive iMac computer and state-of-the-art hi-fi system, which were both connected to the same local area network, remained unscathed. Unlike my underpants.

It’s almost as if Someone up there doesn’t want me to write a book about Darwin.


23 September 2019

At 08:50 BST this morning, the sun crossed the equator somewhere over the Indian Ocean, heading south, thereby making it officially autumn in the northern hemisphere. Official, that is, according to astronomical reckoning—which is the only reckoning that counts.

Equinox map
The position of the overhead sun (orange star) and moon (white circle) at the time of the autumnal equinox at 07:50 UT on 23-Sep-2019.

22 September 2019

Well, I certainly can’t fault the weather forecasters. For a week, they’ve been predicting today, the last full day of summer, would be dreadful. A distant rumble of thunder followed by a heavy downpour before breakfast. Muggy showers interspersed with muggy mist throughout the day. Lights on at noon. The perfect sort of weather for enjoying Mark Cocker’s latest, A Claxton Diary: short snatches of nature writing in the form of a diary. I wonder if it’s a format that will ever catch on.

As I headed out for the Sunday paper, I was pleased to see our hawthorn hedge loaded with red berries. It’s only a hedge in theory; in reality, it’s a line of trees which has got out of hand. Someone really ought to do something, but I fear it might be too late for hedge-laying. The trees in our ‘hedge’ began life as bird-seeded saplings that took root in various unwise places in our garden. Whenever I came across one, I dug it up, roots and all, and transplanted it in our proto-hedge. Then I forgot all about them and Nature took over.

Hawthorn hedge

We took a quick walk around the lanes mid-afternoon. The views were non-existent, and everything felt clammy. Rooks perched on power lines, looking miserable. A tractor was spreading muck on the fields, its distant chugs dampened by the damp. Dreich, the Scots would call it: a word I always assume, no doubt incorrectly, must be a portmanteau of dreary and bleak. And then an incongruous treat: a blaze of light at the side of the track, a white foxglove in full flower. You’re leaving it a little late, my friend.

Dreich weather

21 September 2019

Another glorious late-summer day. A handful of long-tailed tits drifted through the garden first thing: always an unexpected treat. I spotted another late swallow heading south at speed as I returned from the post office with the newspaper. Might this one really be the last of the summer?

Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a drag around Crow Nest Wood in the afternoon. Mushrooms were springing up all over the place. Most years, 21st September marks the proper start of autumn in the northern hemisphere, but, this year, the equinox doesn’t fall until 23rd. Unfortunately, today is likely to be the last of our sun-filled late summer, with thunder and heavy rain forecast for most of tomorrow.

Mushrooms

20 September 2019

A glorious late-summer day. Far too glorious not to head up to the Moor after breakfast.

There had been another fog-sea first thing, remnants of which lingered in the valley-bottom, slowly drifting away into the lower lands downstream. A waining gibbous moon hung semi-transparent in a cloudless blue sky.

As always, as I reached the stile on to the Moor proper, I inspected the new fence-post that replaced my beloved ‘Niche’—a former fence-post with a weathered, hollowed-out top, crammed full of plants (see my book On the Moor). I was delighted to see the new post was beginning to show signs of decay on top, and had a liberal covering of bird-shit. Perhaps it won’t be too many years before we have a Niche 2 post-top garden.

Sheep on the Moor

There were plenty of sheep grazing the moor-grass and browsing the heather, and I spooked a brace of grouse as I headed up to the trig point, then along the Edge, and down back along the wall at the edge of the Moor. No wheatears, but the meadow pipits were out in abundance. Little brown jobs. Such underrated birds. I have something of a soft-spot for them.

Meadow pipit

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