27 June 2019

Nearing the end of what the Met Office will no doubt declare ‘the shittiest June on record’, a day of glorious sunshine.

At lunchtime, I took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk around the lanes. The bridleway at the bottom of the field in front of our house was looking magnificently overgrown, with only a narrow path winding its way through the grasses, nettles, and brambles. Butterflies and less pleasant insects were everywhere.

Jen, Rosie and I repeated the walk this evening, only to discover some public-spirited soul had passed through during the afternoon and strimmed down most the nettles and brambles. For good measure, they had also clipped back a number of nearby tree branches.

When will people get it into their heads the countryside is not supposed to look like a bloody garden?

25 June 2019

Heavy rain relieved much of the humid tension left over from yesterday. I waited all morning for it to stop before taking Rosie for a walk. The second we stepped outside, of course, the downpour resumed. But we were out now, so, to Rosie’s consternation, I opened my umbrella and took her for a drag down Burlees Lane.

The rain had brought the swifts low. There were two or three dozen of them circling in a tight group overhead. I’ve been concerned about their numbers this summer, but there were plenty around this lunchtime.

I paused for a while to admire a clump of foxgloves at the side of the lane. I’ve been writing about them recently for my Darwin book, and wanted to double-check I’d described bumblebees’ foraging technique correctly. (Well spotted, once again, Mr Darwin!)

Foxgloves at the side of the lane

24 June 2019

Thunder and lightning had been confidently forecast for a week, so, of course, there was neither thunder nor lightning. There was, however, hill fog, and the atmosphere was almost unbearably humid, which made walking Rosie the borrowed cocker spaniel sticky and unpleasant.

Hill fog
Hill fog

Foxgloves out in abundance. Cuckoo spit. Vetch. Tormentil. Clover. Magnificent plate-sized clusters of elderflowers in full bloom.

But really, really sticky.

23 June 2019

Took our houseguest, Rosie the cocker spaniel, for two walks around the lanes today. Approaching home along the bridleway during the morning walk, I spotted something shining electric-blue from a shaded patch of nettles: a topaz treasure in the form of a jay’s feather.

Jay’s feather

We had the patio door open all day so Rosie could go into the garden whenever she liked. This enabled us to hear curlews burbling from the nearby fields throughout the afternoon. There seem to be more of them about this year, unlike the lapwings, swifts, and swallows. And I still haven’t seen a wheatear.

Finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s very entertaining Underland. People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. It’s bad enough going down into our cellar for some firewood.

Reading Macfarlane’s book brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better.

Clickimin Broch
Sightseeing at Clickimin Broch, 1985.

The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine visiting the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through an escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of fitting the entire ship’s complement in there seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.

21 June 2019

This year, the summer solstice coincided with the annual visit from the chimney sweep. I seem to have acquired a stinking cold from somewhere, so kept out of his way.

In the afternoon, I glanced out the study window and saw a young rabbit hopping about on the freshly mown lawn. Make the most of it, Bugs: Rosie the cocker spaniel is coming to stay tomorrow.

It’s been a lacklustre June so far, but the solstice sunset over the garden wall was pretty idyllic. It’s all downhill from here.

The summer solstice.

19 June 2019

I opened the curtains at Dad’s first thing this morning to find a male sparrowhawk perched on top of the bird-feeder with its back to me. Such angular birds, especially across the shoulders: the stealth fighters of the avian world.

Back in Yorkshire, I found three more furniture beetles on the frame of the large mirror in the downstairs loo. Like God (if JBS Haldane’s famous inference was correct), I have an inordinate fondness for beetles. But woodworm is intolerable: thanks to our lazy predecessors, we lost our previous dining room floor to the vile grubs. I squashed the three latest offenders, and added woodworm treatment to the shopping list.

18 June 2019

A trip to RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, in search of spoonbills, cattle egrets, and bearded tits, none of which deigned to show their faces. I did, however, see lots of avocets and godwits, a couple of Cetty’s warblers, and a greenshank, along with hundreds of black-headed gulls.

I took a walk up to the Iron Age hillfort at Burton Point to take in the magnificent view across the marshes to Wales. The scene will have been very different for the people who built the fort, long before the River Dee was diverted to the Welsh side of the estuary, and the marshes began to form.

Moel Famau and the Dee Marshes from Burton Point

Before leaving, I decided to pay a quick visit to the Bunker Hide. On my way there, an unexpected thrill: my first ever bee orchids.

I’ve just bought Darwin’s snappily entitled On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects on Intercrossing (1862). I was thinking of maybe including a short section about orchids in the ‘Darwin book’ I’m currently working on. I’ll take my first bee orchids as a sign that maybe I indeed should.

Bee orchid
Bee orchid

17 June 2019

I went to bed too early and couldn’t sleep, so eventually got up to read a book in the study. A red full moon hung low in the sky above my friend’s farm. A ‘strawberry moon’, apparently. Not on account of its colour, but on account of its being strawberry season.

Slightly above and to the right of the moon, a planet shone like a spotlight. I checked the astronomy app on my phone: as I’d guessed, Jupiter. It really was astonishingly bright. So I opened the study window and trained my crappy binoculars on it, using the swivel chair as a totally ineffective tripod. The image darted about, but I eventually managed to steady the binoculars sufficiently to make out three small pinpricks of light close to the planet, at about eight o’clock from it. After a while, I spotted a fourth pinprick on the opposite side, slightly farther out, at about two o’clock. I was looking at the Galilean Moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, first spotted through a telescope less powerful than my binoculars by Galileo Galilei on 7th January 1610 (and second spotted by German astronomer Simon Marius just one night later).

Contrary to popular myth, the observation of four satellites orbiting another planet did not immediately prove the newfangled Copernican heliocentric system to be correct. There were numerous other rival models that allowed for orbits around other heavenly bodies. But Galileo and Marius’s independent observations did disprove the ancient and already somewhat discredited Ptolemaic system, which held that everything in the universe revolved around the Earth.

An entire world system refuted by some simple observations you might make in the comfort of your own study. How cool is science?

(I never did get round to the book.)

15 June 2019

[ Berkshire ]

A weekend at Bill and Angela’s. As usual, red kites were everywhere. A real conservation success story. I’ve only ever seen a single red kite at our place, two years ago next week, but they are also gradually re-establishing themselves in the North, so I’ll continue to keep my eyes peeled.

As I sat on the bench beneath the wisteria, enjoying a brew first thing, a robin shot into the foliage above. A chorus of plaintive, high-pitched cheeps immediately erupted. I’d been sitting five feet from a robins’ nest without realising. Time to withdraw into the house.

13 June 2019

As I walked towards the garage first thing this morning, I spooked a wren fledgling that had been hunting for insects by the wheely bin. It tried to fly over the garage roof, but couldn’t gain enough height, and crashed into the coal-hole door. It then flew off low, past the garage and outhouse, and disappeared into a crack in the drystone wall by the compost heap.

I wouldn’t mind betting the wren hatched in a nest somewhere very near its hiding place. We often see wrens by the compost heap. Rotting fruit and veg attract insects, and insects attract wrens.