3 February 2019

Jen was off all last week, so I had a much-needed week off decorating duties. It’s a running joke in her office that the weather always turns glorious whenever Jen is off. The whole of last week was bitterly cold, with an inch of snow on the ground. No doubt some would count that as glorious, but not us.

Snow, Hebden Bridge

We took several walks around the lanes, and I managed to take one or two decent photos, but our only off-the-beaten track excursion was down into Hebden Bridge via Nutclough Wood. Many of last autumn’s colours were still in evidence, looking incongruous against the snowy backdrop.

I wish Spring would get a move on!

23 January 2019

[ Wirral ]

Bitterly cold, but bright. En route to Dad’s, I decided to pay a visit to the RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands reserve. The volunteers there had recently been tweeting about new visitors at the reserve in the form of bearded tits. I had never seen a bearded tit, so thought a brief visit was worth a shot.

Frozen pool, Burton Mere

There were surprisingly few birds at the reserve. The scrapes and mere were covered in thick ice, forcing their usual residents to move elsewhere. But I made my way to the main hide to find a flock of woolly hatted birders gazing toward the distant reeds through impressive telescopes. After a few minutes, one of them explained to the rest of us how the best way to look for bearded tits was to look for movement in the reeds. If the birds did reveal themselves, it was usually very briefly. Then he spotted one through his telescope, and gave a very good description of where to look for it. Through my puny binoculars, I couldn’t see a damn thing. After a while, I spotted a minuscule dot flying off above the reeds, but something about its jizz cried out blue tit to me.

The chap with the telescope called out again a few minutes later. The bird had returned. It was a male, he said. Good grief, his telescope must have been powerful. I still couldn’t see a thing. Then the bird was gone. I waited for ten minutes or so, then headed back to the car.

I wasn’t at all disappointed at my failure to add a new bird to my non-existent life list. Indeed, I took an almost perverse pleasure in not seeing any bearded tits. Where would be the fun if rare visitors were always easy to spot? There’s always next time.

21 January 2019

The weather forecast for the early hours was far from encouraging, so I decided not to set an alarm and to leave things to chance. If I happened to be awake at around 05:00, and if the sky happened to be clear, I would get up and venture outside. Which is how I came to find myself standing behind my tripod on the front lawn at 05:15, photographing the lunar eclipse.

Eclipsed moon

As my mate Thony, an expert on the history of astronomy, tweeted a few hours later, ‘If you’ve seen one lunar eclipse, you’ve seen em all.’ My photos did indeed look remarkably similar to the ones I’d taken of previous lunar eclipses. But it’s always a thrill to see predictive science come up trumps yet again: here was the promised eclipse, bang on cue, just to the left of Gemini.

But this wasn’t any boring old lunar eclipse, you understand. As the media were falling over themselves to point out, this was a ‘super blood wolf moon’. ‘Super’ because the moon was closer to the earth than usual, making it almost imperceptibly larger and brighter. ‘Blood’ because, as with all full lunar eclipses, the moon turned red. And ‘wolf’ because it was the first full moon in January, when wolf courtship howls are supposedly at their peak. To maintain our interest, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every lunar eclipse has to have one more adjective than the last.

The rosy lunar glow is caused by sunlight refracting through the earth’s atmosphere and bouncing back at us off the face of the moon. Reflected sunrises and sunsets from around the world: a truly international collaboration. It’s not the colour I marvel at, but the way in which the moon is sculpted by the subdued light, revealing its true three-dimensional nature. On all other nights, the moon looks like a flat disc, with varying amounts bitten away. When the moon is in full eclipse, it is very clearly a solid sphere, hanging up there in the blackness, as if by magic.

I tried to contain my disappointment at not hearing any wolves serenading in the valley below. But I was delighted to hear the persistent ke-wick of a female tawny owl a short distance away, down near the Manor House. After a few minutes, her cries were answered by the more distant hoo-hoo-ooo of a male off towards Nutclough Wood.

As I lowered my gaze from the moon to admire the mist rising from the valley, a shooting star streaked towards Heptonstall. The icing on the cake. Elated, I began to dismantle my camera kit. Lunar eclipses were all well and good, but I was bloody freezing.

18 January 2019

The phrase tempting fate has always baffled me. Isn’t the whole point of fate supposed to be that it’s unavoidable? There’s nothing you can do to affect its outcome. Try as you might, you can’t ‘tempt’ it. It wouldn’t be fate otherwise. (Not that fate is an actual thing, you understand.)

I’ve been avoiding tempting fate for over a month now. Not once have I mentioned to anyone what a mild and snow-free winter it’s been so far.

Anyway, it bucketed down with sleet this evening, so I now feel it’s safe to say it’s been a remarkably mild and snow-free winter so far.

17 January 2019

[ Wirral ]

A quick visit to the Dee Marshes at Parkgate before meeting Carolyn for lunch. Several curlews piping, flocks of lapwings, a few little egrets, rooks and jackdaws, and a close encounter with a very friendly robin. As I was about to leave, a raven cronked low overhead, heading off across the marshes.

After lunch, Carolyn and I took her great dane, Minnie, for a walk in Burton Woods. She told me it has rapidly become one of her favourite walks. I was astonished to learn Carolyn was unaware of the two quakers’ graves at the edge of the wood, directly behind the church: a burial site as close as quakers were allowed to consecrated ground in less enlightened times. I took Carolyn to see the graves. As soon as we arrived, Carolyn heard a woodpecker hammering high up in a beech tree. It took us a couple of minutes to spot it among the branches: a great spotted woodpecker—always a thrill.

Carolyn and Minnie

14 January 2019

Heading towards the garage before first-light this morning, I spotted something dark and squat on the back lawn. My eyes strained through the gloom, but I couldn’t make out any details. My initial thought was bloody cat, but it was a bit too big for a cat. A badger, perhaps? If only!

I edged closer. I still couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t moving. It must have seen me.

And then the security light came on.

I found myself face-to-face with an errant snow-shovelful of leaves from yesterday’s leaf-flinging escapade.

13 January 2019

It’s been blowing a hooley the last couple of days: a strong, steady, surprisingly warm northerly. The perfect weather for making marmalade. But, before that, the annual ritual of clearing last autumn’s drifts of leaves from the driveway. I always wait for a strong northerly, then scoop up the leaves with the snow-shovel and fling them into the air. As if by magic, they fly out through the gate and head off across Russell’s fields towards Birmingham and beyond. I wonder if they’ve reached Africa yet.

We spent all afternoon making two batches of marmalade. As always, there was the big debate about whether we should use the (frankly rubbish) old trick of dropping a small blob of the molten mixture on to a cold plate to see if it would set. I, being me, prefer the scientific approach of boiling the marmalade to exactly 106°C, as measured with our preserve-making thermometer. Which means I’ll be to blame if the damn stuff doesn’t set. But it does look very promising, cooling down in all those jars.


11 January 2019

While replenishing the bird-feeders this morning, I spotted our first snowdrops of the year poking out from beneath the leaf-litter. They were already in flower. There was no sign of them at the same time last week. Snowdrops don’t hang about. They’ve established their niche by flowering before most other plants. One good way to avoid competition for resources is to strut your stuff when nobody else is trying to strut theirs.

To pull off their trick of flowering early, snowdrops have evolved a form of antifreeze to mitigate against the worst of the winter weather. Their leaves also have stiff tips to help them push out from frost-hardened soil and snow. Candlemass bells, they used to be called, being at their peak around the mid-winter feast of Candlemass on 2nd February. Or Groundhog Day, if you prefer the secular.

Our snowdrops came from my parents’ garden, whose snowdrops in turn came (before I was born) from the local wood: a practice which would be frowned on these days. Some of my parents’ snowdrops have also been transplanted to Mum’s grave. She always said they were her favourite flowers. Which is why she was so keen to have some growing in her son’s garden.


9 January 2019

[ Manchester ]

Called to see Mike D en route to Dad’s. We’ve been friends since our first year at secondary school, age 11. Mike, who works on trees, had promised me some sycamore logs. I’d promised Mike my old photographic slide projector, and a magazine about VW camper vans containing a multi-page article about the restoration of his parents’ former van, The Blue Bullet. Conversion rates don’t apply to mutual favours, so we both ended up net winners.

Mike had warned me the logs needed splitting, so I turned up with hatchet, steel wedges, and lump-hammer. Mike provided a sledgehammer for extra heft. The logs had been seasoned well on Mike’s patio, so splitting them turned out easier than either of us expected—although I could have done without the glancing blow to my left thumb with the lump-hammer. It took us about an hour to split a car-boot’s worth. Having the right tools for the job certainly helped. As did the celebratory bacon butties afterwards.

I’ll season most of the logs some more down in our cellar, but I’ll keep a few back for immediate burning, just to let Mike know how excellent they were.

Postscript: The logs really were excellent, and did not need any more seasoning.

8 January 2019

Venus shone like a spotlight high above our gate before dawn this morning. Slightly to the left and far dimmer, Jupiter, the largest planet by far in our solar system. A short while later, I spotted another planet in the glow of the rising sun. The astronomy app on my phone informed me it was either Mercury or Saturn, but I was damned if I could tell which. The smart money was on Saturn.

After a day of wind and rain, a day of perfect calm and sunshine. I was supposed to be decorating the back bedroom this afternoon, but the Moor beckoned. Not so much a dilemma as a total no-brainer.

There were plenty of red grouse around today. Two startled the hell out of me before I even arrived at the Moor gate. They shot off low across the heather, emitting their alarm guks. I spotted another eyeing me warily from a heathery hummock as I headed up to the trig point. He soon shot off too with his partner in hot pursuit.

At this time of year, the sun never gets high above the horizon, so the views to the south and west, over towards Stoodley Pike monument, were mostly obscured by glare. But there were marvellously clear views farther north, over towards Haworth and Top Withens (Wuthering Heights).

I spotted more grouse as I headed along the Edge, and more still as I descended and began to loop back. Rooks were dibbing in the fields directly below the Moor. Others were performing intricate aeronautical manoeuvres with some visiting gulls.

I took a photograph of the view over towards Stoodley Pike from the steep sunken track down off the Moor from Johnny House. It was into the glare, but after a lot of post-processing back home, I managed to salvage a pretty decent image. A location, perhaps, to file away for a future photo-expedition involving tripod and filters.

Coming down off the Moor

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