Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas Rail Kill

Great Christmas day walk with Dougal, 1 hour along the Buckingham crossing section of the track with all trains stopped for the holiday and a bright winter sun. The once a year rare opportunity to explore the trackside without the risk of being mown down by a train. Found the time for a quick walk between morning stockings and afternoon Christmas tree presents and while the children distracted by chocolate and lego.

Evidence of dead creatures with every step, we checked, and a dead pheasant every 5 meters or so on average, either 'fresh' and to be avoided or mature to be considered or clean bones to be collected. A selective collection of finds are now laid out on my father-in-laws conservatory table and include many pheasant and rabbit bones, two partridge skulls, many train shattered pheasant skulls, 8 rabbit skulls and a grey squirrel skull. In this 500 meter section of track alone, and we only picked up a small percentage of the bones, so imagine the shear volume replicated across the country's rail system. Briticsh Rail, the seasonal gift that just keeps on giving, Q: What is the true cost to wildlife, if you combined road and rail ?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A pause and then...

As Dunc mentioned in his last post, it's an odd time of year. Last winter, our first since returning to Norfolk, was notable for a harsh December, which imparted a barren, dead feel to the land. I thought that this was due to the ice and snow, but this last few weeks, though lacking the biting temperatures, I have noticed this same feel; it is as if the world is holding its breath, after the incredible energy of spring has dissipated across summer and autumn, finally running out of steam in late November.

Bare trees aside, I cannot quite ascribe this to particular events; there are still plenty of birds to be seen (though other than the doughty robin they sing not) including exotic migrants, there are non-hibernating mammals and even stray insects, drowsy though they be, with evergreens and flowers like cyclamen still providing bursts of colour. No, it is just a feeling that I have, of stasis, of a caesura, a pause, as though the world was waiting for some unheard clarion call, a far-off bugle on the edge of hearing that will signal the start of next year's fecund roundabout of seasons and until then will wait, not breathing, not moving. It is as the moment when a wave has washed away from the beach and for the merest moment in time it holds itself unmoving, before tipping back on itself to accelerate once more towards the land. But in this pause, we enjoy such sights as the Redwing (Turdus iliacus) that alighted on the hedgerow, feasting on the last of the haws, providing a welcome burst of Christmas colour.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Its too dark to see.

Every morning I cycle to work in the dark, every evening I cycle back from work in the dark...I'm missing the daylight. Reading the wonderful 'Barley Bird' (Richard Mabey), thanks Ads, at the moment and I feel a genuine pining for summer evenings and spring mornings. Finding it hard to see creatures in the dark and difficult to make space between football practice, work, pantomimes, Christmas shopping and other seasonal commitments to get out and look at birds but plan to if I can tomorrow, while I can still see. The grim weather is of course as it should be in December, so I really can't complain, and a great deal of November has been unseasonably mild. The cold is now beginning to bite and the green shoots, hoodwinked by the warm spell are now paying the price for jumping the gun. My neighbour found her pet guinie pig and rabbit 'dismantled' across her doorstep last week and I assume it was the work of a fox, so its clearly not just me that's finding it hard to find wild life at the moment as I look out at my vulnerable chickens in the dim morning light.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011


In my week off work, I also spent a bit of time hiding in the local fields with a camera to see what came along. And what came along on a distinctly warm, un-Novemberish day (it felt more like spring!) was this Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis). As it hopped around, picking up ants, it seemed somehow 'sped up' and quite comical. Having filmed it, I rooted around in my archive of music I've recorded over years to find something that would work with it. Having tried numerous more pastoral and gentle options I found this distinctly angular piece which somehow seemed to fit the way that it moved:

I'm not sure that it's the 'right' music but it was an interesting exercise for me in seeing how a soundtrack imparts a mood to a natural phenomenon. I hope to explore this more over coming months.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Exploring Norfolk

Having had a week off work, we have had a chance to explore some of Norfolk's great wildlife sights. We launched our new canoe on the Yare on Monday, which was great fun. It gave us a tantalising glimpse of the fantastic wildlife one can see from river level - in about 20 minutes we saw a kingfisher, a marsh harrier, a great crested grebe, various incoming geese, kestrel and herons. It was a wrench to put it into winter store after a short trip, but when it comes out in spring, I'm sure we'll have some real adventures.

On Wednesday we went to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell Marsh. I may have been there as a child, but I had no recollection of its salt and freshwater marshes, beach and woodland which provide multiple habitats and therefore a great diversity of birds. At this time of year, there are masses of migrant geese, waders and duck coming in. Rob from the RSPB team took us round, pointing out more species than I would ever have recognised and we learnt and saw a lot in a couple of hours.  Here are some of the Teal (Anas crecca) that we saw. Highlights included seeing a reclusive Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), a relatively rare Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), and large flocks of Golden Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria) picked out in the autumnal dusk.

The highlight of the week for me, however, was Sunday's trip to the corvid roost at Buckenham Carr...but more of that another time...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Black and white Burglar

I had a really nice evening a the gallery ( in Bath this evening talking to people looking around the Bath exhibitions as part of the Bath Galleries Group show. I had lots of interesting conversations which included the following story: A lovely couple who live by the river in Oxford, I think, returned home from a three week holiday to find that their house had been broken into. The door was open and the kitchen and bedrooms were trashed and there was food everywhere so they phoned the police. The police came and confirmed that it was a particularly ugly burglary with much damage to the property. The police investigation continued to turn up more strange details such as nuts piled up under the duvet, things in shoes and food from the bottom shelves of the fridge all chewed up and spread about. As the couple sat in the dining room they then overheard the policeman say into his radio that he didn't think this was a burglary, but that it was the act of wild animals. As this thought sunk in they all became aware of the huge number of small paw prints around the house, through the congealed bits of food and on the duvet etc It was a badger. After the house was tidied up, with all the damage being limited to the bottom three feet of each room, strange collections of beans and nuts etc were found organised into piles inside boots and in the bed. Unable to sleep in the bed, as it felt defiled, they went into the spare room to find that dried beans had also been piled under the duvet in that bed, as though placed there to be warmed up or perhaps hidden for later. The couple are sure, having found paw prints half way up the back door, that a badger pushed the door open by shaking it perhaps and that in it's wake other small animals, perhaps squirrels and mice, entered the house to share in the bounty. I was left with a palpable sense of the creatures reclaiming the property in the absence of people and enjoying the luxuries of a human home much like that lovely story of the homeless man that got locked into a London department store in the 70's over Christmas and enjoyed the beds, foods and soft furnishings.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Honey Bee (you are my...)

I'm attending a talk this evening on the 'Secrets of bees and honey'. I'm sure it will be very interesting, but it occurred to me that one of the amazing things is how completely the honey bee has insinuated itself into our language, particularly the imagery of love used in poetry and popular song lyrics. I could immediately think of half a dozen examples from across genres, from the popular Victorian music hall number 'The Honeysuckle and the Bee' to Byrd's madrigal 'Sweet Honey-sucking Bees'. And this classic:

I suppose this is partly because of the intertwining of man and bee throughout history, but also because of their role in procreation of flowers, which in more prurient ages allowed for an overtly sexual metaphor to be deployed. The sweetness of honey also gives an added dimension to this, giving a rich lexicon of metaphor that has been in the arsenal of many a songwriter and poet. I've never used any bee-related imagery in my songwriting, but maybe after tonight I will be inspired!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Hunting the Hunted - New Artwork & Crayfish

Great evening at the opening of the Hunting the Hunted show at the Bo-Lee gallery in Bath. Long conversation with Patrick, artist friend who makes sculptures with birds, about all-sorts of natural history shenanigans and my new box of crayfish 'Eclection #1'. He says that the steam, or river tributary, at the bottom of his garden is positively swarming with crayfish. Apparently if you put a bit of fruit sacking into the river with a piece of bacon tied to it you only have to wait for 30 seconds or so for streams of bubbles to rise from the surrounding mud, which apparently indicates crayfish leaving their lairs. Within about 3 or 4 minutes you can have as many as 8 in the net ! Patrick says he can sometimes hear squeals coming up from the stream, when they are in the house, as families get excited as crayfish are discovered and apparently they are quite feisty and likely to nip. Another couple from Oxford said that they catch so many in a small trap they have, that it's all they can do to eat them all. Adam and I must try harder next year, and to start with perhaps we should visit Patrick in Bath for a Saturday morning by his stream with a picnic.

Hunting the Hunted Exhibition - opened this Friday

Friday, 4 November 2011

Found Art?

Another local find was this grand bracket fungus. I am quite ignorant on fungus, but it has a wonderfully meaty quality. Oddly, it looked like Dunc had been treating this with his copper dusting process, as can be seen from the surrounding foliage. I'm not sure if this has occurred naturally, or whether this has actually been dusted as a disease treatment. Either way, it's yours for £500 (if I can remember where it was)!

Monday, 31 October 2011

In the midst of life is death...

I thought Halloween would be a good chance to challenge Dunc for gruesome posts. Out walking in woods over the weekends, we came across this bizarre, Blair-Witcheseque spectacle.

The fact that both squirrels lay dead together would not seem to be coincidence; as it was clearly a well-managed wood, with coppiced areas and hallmarks of game-breeding I suspect they were killed deliberately by the gamekeeper (shot? poisoned?). Looking closer I could see that their putrefying flesh was alive with invertebrates, such as this Sexton beetle (Nicrophorus vespilloides or similar although you can't beat its common name!) This was no surprise, but it did get me thinking about the way in which the microcosm of the dead squirrel echoed the larger environment in which it lay, with man steering the cycle of life and death to his own ends, in this case woodland management for game rearing, ultimately to facilitate another round of managed killing. There is no avoidance  of the fact that as once as a species we became farmers, we put ourselves in this position of managing the cycle of life and death, and this is writ large in our landscapes. The beauty of estate woodlands, gently rolling arable fields, even the grazed uplands of the North are the result of position as master of all we survey, destroying and creating in equal measure. I do not judge, only noting that surely 'sustainability' can only come when that cycle is balanced between both? In this woodland this balance is more or less achieved (we could quibble about an excess of gamebirds...) as it is in the local fields with wide margins and deep hedgerows, but I suspect that this is increasingly the exception, as modern agribusiness drives us more towards the role of destroyer. I am not sure what the answer is, other than to consider how our own consumption patterns drive this process. I believe that the Gaia theory posits that man as part of a wider system must ultimately be subject to the corrective effect that will re-strike the balance. We will become the squirrel, the world, the wood, and sextons take us all - Happy Halloween!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Hibernation Information

My daughter Alice is putting me to shame with her autumn artwork.

See above - 'Hibernation Information Sheet' that she compiled with her cousin Sophie and her poem, that she is going to post to the young RSPB magazine although no birds actually feature in the otherwise excellent prose. I am however busy dragging my creative heels as I try to resolve more crayfish and bone cases for an upcoming exhibition. Gary, birding friend, says there are lots of bitterns down at Ham Wall at the moment so I am going to contrive an important reason why we all need to go for a walk there later today, well that's the plan anyway.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Long Eared Bats

In conversation with my brother Dougal it became clear that there might be bats in the outside boiler shed at my Mum's house in Norfolk as he'd seen one flying about last time he went in there. Hopeful that we might be able to again see them at close quarters we sneaked out to look, armed with a torch and camera. Opening the door of the boiler shed we didn't initially see any bats but then Dougal spotted three roosting on the wall above the door. Two were gripping on the rough block wall and one was hanging from the ceiling and all were looking at us, surprized by our intrusion. Not wanting to disturb them I held my camera firmly against the wall to get a few quick shots but within a minute of so two of the bats had dropped from the wall, flown around the shed and crawled out under the eves where they have clearly found a way in and out under the tiles. I read recently that the Long Eared bats have such long ears, not as I had thought to 'hear' moths more easily, but so that they can communicate with each other more stealthily and use quieter echo-location squeaks so that the moths can't hear them approaching. We left them to their roost and will keep an eye over them coming months in the hope that numbers develop as other bats discover this warm retreat and the cold of winter begins to bite.

The Long-eared bat.
Family: Vespertilionidae
Plecotus auritus

Monday, 24 October 2011

The right place...

We have been enjoying some beautiful sunsets over recent evenings. The wan sun shining low through trees and bracken has lit up the meadows and fields around us with a thick, autumnal glow. I went out to film this a couple of nights ago, and as I set up my camera, I was blessed with one of those moments for which one cannot plan. A familiar shade flew directly across the path of my lens, so quickly and quietly that I had to play the footage back to check whether it was indeed what my instinct said, a barn owl. I have slowed it down a little so that it can be seen more clearly in this footage, and added some suitably crepuscular music (the beginning of our track 'The Birds' from the 2010 album we recorded with Niamh Cavlan). I could not have set this up any better, with the light providing a perfect silhouette for this magnificent predator as it set off for a night's vole-hunting in the long grass that abounds in the adjoining meadows. It was definitely luck, but I suppose the more one puts oneself in the position to capture such moments, the more 'lucky' one becomes!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A couple of Greats and a small Murmeration

Really nice family weekend with Chris and the children staying with us, sunny and autumnal. Gary pointed out the call of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker on Saturday at football club in the park and on Sunday I saw one fly past as I took the boys down to the bird reserve. At Shapwick Heath we watched a Great Egret being mobbed by two angry herons, the Egret was slightly larger than the herons but slightly gangly and not as street-wize so after a few scuffles it stood rather forlornly in the deeper water away from the reeds. Watched gatekeeper butterflies and the last of the red admirals flitting about in the sunshine between the trees on the way to Noah's hide and watched people arriving to watch the first of the autumn starling murmerations. The birds are now gathering again in the reed beds after the summer away and numbering in the tens of thousands, if I head the RSPB lady correctly, and the spectacle and the numbers will now climb into the winter. Great to watch the first gangs of birds flying in towards their roosts over the house as we returned home.

Monday, 10 October 2011

We spent Saturday mapping local habitats with the South Yare Wildlife Group around our parish of Ashby St Mary. Understanding the diversity of habitats allows us to get a sense of how well (or not) local wildlife is provided with food, shelter and sustenance. As part of the exercise we were looking at significant trees, and it was pointed out that the name of the village is derived from the Ash trees that grew around the village. Not many remain but at almost the highest point of the parish stands this large and ancient ash. It seems to have been pollarded in the past, but has grown unchecked on the edge of an arable field for years, adjacent to a footpath I walk regularly. I had never considered the origin of the village name, nor its relation to topography. To do so is to be drawn into consideration of longer timescales than our habitual immediacy and short-termism.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien conjured the Ents, walking trees that considered the other creatures of Middle Earth to be always in a dreadful rush. One of them explains that 'real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language'. As I consider this venerable tree, I realise that this is true in our world as well. Taking a moment longer than usual to look, to see, to think, the world reveals so much more my normal rush hither and thither allows.

So what about Ashcott?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Copper coating insects in the sun

Alexander has been collecting many of the red admiral butterfly wings from the grass under the pear trees where they lie like colourful scraps of paper, abandoned and fading. He has also sellotaped them in a pattern onto a sheet of paper and inspired me to do the same in my sketchbook. I started coating my dead insects in copper powder today and having learnt that if I corrode them whilst pinned the pins themselves rust away so now I am tying them to thread and suspending them in jars. I plan to copper coat all of the dead insects I have found this year and although I am then oxidising the coating, this cases and mummifies the specimens and renders them more permanent and unified as a collection.

A beautiful day, apparently the third hottest of the year and quite extraordinarily sunny for October and after lunch we all went to Bath and collected my artwork at the end of the 'wunderkammer' exhibition.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Two seasons in one day

Oscar Wilde, in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, proposed that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’. My understanding of his argument is that art provides a structure and a way of looking at the world, and that the ‘perception filter’ that results is our only window on the world, hence to all intents and purposes is the world, at least for us. We understand objective reality subjectively and art plays a key role in revealing that reality to us but also colours how we see it. Taking the example of London fogs, Wilde explains that we see these as beautiful because ‘poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects’. I’m not sure I buy that entirely, but I do think that art plays a key role in 'making strange' or making us look again at what otherwise would appear quotidian and banal. This certainly is often the case with art that takes natural history as its subject, giving us fresh perspective on familiar animals, plants and landscapes. One of the things I like about Dunc's work is the transformative power of collecting objects together.

That act of making strange can also occur naturally. This morning, as we set off on our bikes, a thick fog limited visibility to 40 yards or so. Familiar shapes reared out of the mist, with trees, birds and hedgerows suddenly appearing silhouetted, forbidding and alien. Some miles into our ride, the sun suddenly broke through and the mist dissipated almost immediately, leaving a warm, blue-sky day. Such a quick transformation of the landscape, from autumnal mist to summer sun was slightly unnerving, but made me revel again in nature’s constant renewal. Although we cycle those lanes every day, there is so often something new, something startling, something strange to see or experience, I can’t imagine getting bored of it. I am sure that art I have enjoyed plays a role, but I am conscious as well that this act of writing encourages me to notice, to enjoy and ultimately to share my delight.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Rooks, butterflies and brambles.

The rooks returned on Friday. Having been aware of them consistently in small numbers in recent months, alongside the ever present carrion crows and jackdaws, I was alerted by the emotive cawing of a large flock for the first time as they massed around our house assembling at about 7pm to roost in the big trees next to the butchers. I wasn't particularly aware of their absence until they returned to these trees and suddenly the character of the local landscape changes again as we take the steady steps into autumn.

As a family, with Hamish and Tori visiting, we cycled and skated around the village this afternoon with baskets and jars collecting blackberries for pies. We returned from Whitley Lane with several pounds of over-ripe fruit, although just as many disappeared into the hungry purple stained mouths of my children. We then sat in the garden enjoying the late afternoon sunshine in the wood smoke of a dying BBQ and watched the huge numbers of red admiral butterflies feeding on the slushy fallen pears beneath the wind blown trees after a week of rainy weather.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Southern Climes

The Norfolk Hedgefinders have been in France for a couple of weeks. We were in the region of the Charentes, which is far enough south to have a noticeably different climate and wildlife than Norfolk. For one thing, you know it's warm if common lizards are indeed common. The warm sunshine also seems to encourage familiar species such as house spiders to reach considerable size and we saw a greater number of moths and butterflies that seem to have declined in the UK in recent years.
But one of the joys of foreign climes is seeing species that are rare or non-existent at home. And in that category one highlight was the praying mantis that startled us whilst sun-bathing. I've never had a good look at one before and I do wonder how much they inspired Ridley Scott's Alien? Other notable residents also included redstarts, hoopoes, hen harriers, egrets and kites. And kittens. But that's another story...

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Rather late in the day I managed to get my work into the Wunderkammer show with the Bo Lee gallery at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. Went to the opening on Tuesday and had a great evening talking to friends and looking at the work. So many excellent pieces of work in the show and I have attached some pictures beneath. (*Note: the bumble bee in the Tessa Farmer picture has one of her astonishingly small fairy skeleton figures riding on it.)

1: Sarah Ball
2: Tessa Farmer
3: Rose Sanderson
4: Patrick Haynes
5: Angela Cockayne

Friday, 16 September 2011

Crayfish and new students

Two weeks into the new college year and having got all of the level-3 first years to draw mackerel last week I decided to give them all a crayfish. I currently have about 60 crayfish, unromantically 'collected' from the Ikea freezer section and previously preserved in formalyn, drying in trays. My plan is to coat all of these in copper as part of a 'cabinet' artwork later this autumn but while I have them I thought they'd make good drawing subjects.

We had 2 great lessons this morning and 35 students have now all been alerted to the beauty of the crayfish and they did some wonderful work. All were encouraged to work on brown paper or collaged envelopes with pencil, then white paint in-fill and then to work over the original sketch with black indian ink using dip pens. Many of them also then added a bit of water colour or colour pencil and we did some background work with shellac varnish and I hope they left the lesson happy with their terrific achievements. One group however mistook a jar of yacht varnish for quick-drying shellac and so their sketchbooks are still drying on the shelves in the sculpture studio, but when the pages are dry they will be very waterproof and durable in a gale or storm.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Hazelnuts and Admirals

The wind is whipping the trees and the hazelnuts are everywhere. My children are collecting endless buckets of them ready for the squirrels but I'm not sure the squirrels need any help at the moment as there is a glut of hedgerow food available. Weekend evenings have been spent making apple and chilli chutney, sloe gin and bramble vodka and so it's all pretty seasonal. Trying to paint the door-frames and windowsills in-between rain showers and being distracted by the many red admiral butterflies that have appeared in the garden. They are feeding on the fallen pears alongside the honey bees which are also making the most of the sugar. I counted 8 honey-bees on one piece of fruit, dopey with rotten pair and happy to eat unconcerned while I sat watching them. The pears fall and become soft almost instantly and the butterflies sit on them, small dark triangles on the grass before all fluttering about as I approach and all red admirals, no tortoiseshells or peacocks. The butterflies then alight on the nearby rabbit hutch to sun themselves as if having to recover after their Sunday lunch, brilliant deep black and red against the wood of the cage.

On a separate natural history note, Steve, a friend of mine found a slow worm warming itself on the road last week and he lifted it up to save it from traffic only to have it shed it's tail instantly. Feeling guilty at this, as he was trying to help, he was then thoroughly distracted from the slow worm as it sneaked off into the verge, by the ejected tail which although no longer connected to the reptile apparently flipped about energetically on the road. Surely this flipping and jumping of the lost tail is designed to achieve exactly this distraction so that the animal can capitalise on this sacrifice and escape from predators.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

End of Summer

It's already, rather suddenly, more than just the end of summer. The turn in the quality of the light and the shift in the atmosphere was well underway in the later days of August but the days of sunshine are defiantly now in full retreat. The bushes are thick with blackberrys, I collected a jam jar full of sloes on Sunday and there are even shiny conkers on the ground next to the butcher's. I can't stop my bonkers bantham chicken escaping, through the windblown branches of the tree that protrudes from the run, as she thinks she has a clutch of eggs to brood under a bush in the garden but she is sorely mistaken as we have no boy chickens. The morning is dark today and my daughter stood in the garden a full 20 minutes early waiting expectantly for the school bus on her second ever day at High School, tiny and perfectly uniformed under a new umbrella in the rain. I then cycled to work and got the first wet shoes of the autumn but am still hopeful for a bit more sun as September progresses.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Birds on the cycle home

Only the second day back at work and on the way home this evening I picked up three dead birds. Sometimes I can go weeks and not see a dead bird and then three come along together. I don't know why and they were all lying by the roadside within half a mile of each other on a sunny late summer evening. The robin is so tiny when held in the hand and the larger black bird is a juvenile thrush I think while the tawny owl is little more than a shattered headless feathery memory of it's former self, the beautiful barred wing feathers waving sadly in the breeze. When I stop carefully to pick up dead birds the passing traffic must wonder what I'm up to, normally I can quickly pop one discretely on the bike rack but today I had another strapped to the side of the pannier and a third in my pocket.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Wharfedale Pt 2

Adding to Dunc's post about the wonderful weekend spent in Yorkshire, I thought I'd share this photo of the Wharfe, taken at the same time as Dunc's panoramic shot. It amused me that we both appear in each other's shot.

I loved 'Swallows & Amazons' as a child, and recall a scene in which Ransome describes a dipper, so I have always associated it with Northern waterways, but have never knowingly seen one - it's not present in Norfolk anyway. The quick flowing, rocky Wharfe is a very different river than those of the Broads with which I am familiar, but I shall always remember it with fondness for those moments of watching from water-level as the little brown and white dipper jumped from stone to stone, diving, bobbing and splashing.  For a moment, Ransome's description came to life, and I was submerged in river and memory.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The River Wharfe - Yorkshire

Had a wonderful weekend visiting family in Yorkshire. At the bottom of their garden, in Ilkley, the River Wharfe flows past through the trees with the level and pace of the water determined by the amount of rainfall on the moorland above the valley. Fishing with nets in the golden peat stained water with the children soon turned up a number of species of fish including the Bullhead (Cottus gobio), the only UK member of the cottidae family. (*The Miller's Thumb), many minnows and a few sticklebacks. The minnows and sticklebacks were easy to net as they could be reliably scooped out of the water downstream of your feet as they tried to find things to eat in the disturbed silt. The Bullheads were harder to catch as they stayed on the riverbed and had to be sought out under stones and, with the aid of a snorkel and mask, I could carefully chase them into my net.
Taking pond dipping to new depths I snorkelled into the deep hollows under the far bank and enjoyed swimming at speed over the river bed moving with the flow of the river and trying to spot hidden fish with my diving torch. Under water the light was considerably restricted by the clear but peat stained water and in the atmospheric gloom I was able to briefly chase a rather surprized brown trout but failed to uncover any of the elusive crayfish I was primarily hunting for.

Other creatures found included: Dragonfly and caddis fly larvae and several species of birds. It was wonderful to watch the wildlife from the level of the water surface out in the river and in particular to observe the bobbing and swimming of a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) as it sprang from rock to rock above the fast moving shallow water. Also watched an iridescent kingfisher flying fast along the river bank, an urgent blue jewel speeding past the dark shoreline foliage. Such a beautiful part of the country.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Osprey 'Pandion haliaetus'

Great little birding expedition with the children down to Shapwick Heath. We were down there to try to see the osprey which has been seen in recent days hunting fish over one of the lakes and is regularly to be found on a water-bound tree stump to the left of the hide.(*A regular annual visitor) On the walk there were a lot of bird watchers with large scopes trying to see a rare small brown/grey 'Spotted Crake' in some distant reeds but I had no hope with my inadequate binoculars. We did see the following bird species however: Grey Heron, Little Egret, Sandpiper, Lapwing and Buzzard. With the help of Gary's telescope I was also able for the first time to distinguish a Green Sandpiper from a Ruff and a Black-tailed Godwit, but I don't think I could positively identify the Wood Sandpiper or Spotted Redshank that others were watching.
Once in the raised hide above the lake we were able to watch the osprey for 10 minutes, sitting on it's distant perch preening and stretching. All of the children had a look at it with Gary's scope and I was able to take some rather blurred photographs with my little digital camera through the eyepiece. The value of decent binoculars or a telescope is again very clear as without them the osprey was little more than a distant brown smudge on the top of a brown stump. The osprey then took off to fly towards Shapwick, presumably to hunt, and for a brief moment I watched it airborn being tentatively chased by a rook and sharing the sky with a female Marsh Harrier and a Buzzard, not a bad morning then.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Diving with grey seals.

A short film of the Farnes and scuba diving with the wonderful inquisitive seals.

On almost every dive in the Farnes we were accompanied by grey seals. On some dives, like the Hopper, the seals were the most dominant feature of the dive and would swim around you almost continuously. On one dive a seal grasped the leg of my dive buddy with it's paws and closed its eyes with pleasure, much as a dog might, as he scratched it's side with his other fin. They would frequently sneak up behind you to paw and bite at your fins and would often be seen peering at you from the kelp or rather half-heartedly hidden from behind rocks. Also as we explored the cliffs and gulleys looking for lobsters and octopus, in 10-20m of water, you would come across a seal just lying on the floor or wedged in a crevice as if asleep and you could approach to within inches without the seal seeming to mind. Although quite bulky and barrel-like, the seals were astonishingly fast underwater and could turn on a six-pence. Gliding past they would roll on their axis so that they could look all around with their big eyes, weightless and streamlined in the water the rear flippers alternately splayed as they effortlessly drove themselves along.

Farne Islands - Under Water

Spent a great 4 days diving in the Farne Islands. Dives characterised by good visibility, steep underwater cliffs, lobsters and seals. we dived a number of wrecks but mainly focused on scenic underwater landscapes. The gulleys and cliffs were thick with life and amongst the dead mans' fingers and other soft corals and sponges, we saw nudibranchs, squat lobsters, shore and edible crabs, thousands of sea-urchins and short-spined sea scorpions. There were a huge number of lobsters of all sizes with many out and about on the ledges and rocks while the really big ones could be seen deep in rock piles safe from divers, seals and lobster pots. Fish were surprisingly scarce, no doubt because of the predations of the seal colony, but pollack could be seen on the deeper dives, the occasional cod hidden under the wreck plates, butterfish and other blennies and scorpion fish on the rocks and few congers deep in the crevices. We saw one beautiful octopus hiding in it's daytime lair but failed to find any of the elusive wolf-fish which can apparently be more reliably found further north at St Abbs.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


The last few days have seen a reawakening of the hedges, garden and fields around us. It has been notable how birds that have been absent have reappeared, active and evidently stocking up. Included in this are the kestrel pair that hunt around Ashby St Mary; today the male came down to the meadow opposite us to hunt. In lieu of his normal perch of telegraph poles, he used the trees across from our house, allowing me to get some shots:

Although kestrels are known for their extraordinary ability to hover, it is clearly less draining to perch watching the grass for a tasty vole!

Farne Islands - Above Water

Really enjoying walking along the coast from Sea Houses back to the campsite each evening after we have filled the dive air tanks for the next day's diving. The 2 mile path takes you through a golf course and along a cliff and then along the huge arching beach behind the dunes by the road and the campsite. There are many birds, particularly pipers and other waders in the shallows and on the wallowing reefs just off shore. Also lots of wonderful rock-pools and I have collected many discarded crab shells and feathers as well as finding time to sit on the steps at Sea Houses harbour and sketch the fishing boats. Learnt never to sit at 5-o-clock in a harbour and draw because, as fast as I could sketch, new boats came into harbour to moor up for the night and so everything changed. Saw a common lizard sunning itself on the afternoon rocks, and was able to get surprisingly close before it darted off, and also found a striking yellow and black caterpillar on the footpath which I think will become a cinnebar moth although the last one I saw was as a child at a bird reserve in Hunstanton in north Norfolk.