Sunday, 27 February 2011

Live owl, dead owl and owl pellets.

Owls featuring large again. Had a wonderful half term in Norfolk visiting family in Claxton and Strumpshaw and enjoyed watching the local barn owl hunting along the hedgerows alongside the chapel. Managed to go out with the children and catch the owl sitting on a tree branch, alert and ghostly in the dimming evening light. It then launched itself silently up over the hedge before dropping into the grass by the track alongside the horse field. We waited for five minutes but on looking alongside the hedge we couldn't find the owl so it must have dropped low into the lane and headed away and down towards the stream. Used some of the time in Norfolk to catch up with my artwork in preparation for my exhibition in Wells Museum in a week ( - and so sat in the conservatory late into the night gluing mouse bones to a postcard, probably earlier victims of the very same barn owl we watched hunting earlier as the pellets came from the nearby derelict barn.
On setting off back to the west-country, from Loddon after a cafe lunch, I pulled over on the main road between Loddon and Claxton to investigate some roadside feathers. My long suffering family waited in the van while I retrieved a dead tawny owl, clearly the result of an unlucky meeting with a vehicle. It seems incredible that such observant creatures can be hit by a car but I suppose whilst hunting along the roadside they must get fatally confused by the headlights. On closer inspection it was also apparent that the owl has a deformed claw although I doubt this affected it's hunting ability as the other claws are needle sharp and the bird seems in fine shape, apart from being dead.

Other news, spring buds appearing on the fruit trees, Somerset slightly ahead of Norfolk in spring flowering plants and the pond now has ten clumps of frogspawn in it. My neighbour also tells me that there is a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) living in their garden and that it gets feisty with it's own reflection in their downstairs window. I have been looking out for it all afternoon but haven't seen it yet, not surprising perhaps as it's Britain's smallest bird, a crown I had mistakenly believed was owned by the wren so something new was learned today.

Friday, 25 February 2011


The competition for mates, territory and food is so clear in the garden at this time of year. The male robins and chaffinches are notably aggressive, but the blackbirds are most likely to come to blows. The whole enterprise seems ritualistic, as they pace up and down in parallel, before turning in opposite directions. There is sometimes posturing with leaves, but if neither is persuaded to back down, fights often ensue. These are usually brief comings together whilst rising a few feet into the air, in which the objective seems to be pinning the opponent to the floor before pecking and clawing at him.  It is startlingly brutal at times. Needless to say it is mostly the males who indulge in this posturing and squabbling; although females will chase a rival, they are mostly busying themselves in the hedge with nest-making.

Other signs of spring gather apace; the daffodils are on the cusp of flower and last night's cycle ride in mild dusk was accompanied by the first bats of the year, swooping low into the road to feed on drowsy insects attracted by our lights.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A fine start

Cycling through the Norfolk countryside, as I do on my way to work most days, is one of the delights of my life. One senses the ebb and flow of the seasons, the minute shifts in flora and fauna that unveil throughout the year. At the moment, the sound of chaffinch song is building to its spring crescendo, when it will be so ubiquitous and persistent as to be almost painful, but for the moment, it is a delightful fanfare for what is to come.

One also gets special moments and sights, and cycling past Hellington Church this morning was one such. A cold but bright morning, with a few flurries of very light snow across the fields. Flocks of rooks and gulls stood starkly out against the green cereal shoots, when from a ditch, not 10 yards away rose the spectral shape of a barn owl. Silently lifting to cruising altitude, a few feet above the road, it continued to fly just ahead of us before deviating to perch atop a small tree, peering back at us, the lycra-clad intruders. Although we are blessed with regular sightings of barn owls, the combination of setting, proximity and duration made us exultant.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Spring Flowers

Walking with the children in the woods in Strumpshaw on the family half-term holiday visiting granny back in Norfolk. No sign of frogs in the pond here but the wood is full of spring flowers. Snowdrops now everywhere as Mum splits up the bunches each year and also many groups of beautiful yellow aconites. Lots of large leaved plants coming through ahead of the wild garlic and I think these are emerging 'lords and ladies' but I'm surprised that there are so many or it may be that it just seems that way as without much other ground foliage they are particularly visible. Small shoots of early wild garlic are everywhere and it will soon dominate the landscape and cover the entire wood with a knee high recognizeably fragrant green carpet.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Frog 'Love Action'

Amphibians Everywhere in the West-country.
Not only was the school pond heaving with smooth and crested newts the other weekend but now the frogs are everywhere. Last night I was checking the chickens and was suddenly aware that I could hear frogs in the pond. Only saw a couple but I went out to count tonight there were 24 common frogs 'at it', with the first small clump of frogspawn already sitting at the pond edge. I might pop out later tonight to try to covertly photo the 'rogering action' (*You can only say that sort of thing and get away with it on a natural history blog). A friend in the village told my wife that the road at the back of our house was full of frogs at it the other night and her daughter had pointed out that they were all 'cuddling'. I suspect that they were toads as they seem to 'get together' on route more than frogs who get going in the water, a suspicion confirmed by a dead common toad that I found squashed on the back road as I cycled home this evening. I remember when I used to live in Bristol, and commute to and from Somerset, that on some early spring evening I could barely drive past Stock Hill woods as the road was so covered in toads making their way to the Priddy Pools. I stopped a number of times to lift them off the road as so many were getting run over but in the morning there were never any little bodies as I suspect the early morning rooks and crows had cleaned up. I must also go down to Shapwick Heath in the next few nights as someone told me that there were marsh frogs down there in the ditch by the footpath and I have never seen a marsh frog. Its all go !

Note: Ads, I hope you picked the mole up for my collections, wonderful little paws !
(*Remember there is a 'find = thank-you drawing' swap scheme)

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Holy Moley

Exhibit A is a mole that we found whilst ostensibly looking for newts at the reserve at Wymondham (it is a little early in February for these amphibians to be out of hibernation in great number but as we had a couple of hours we thought we'd give it a go). We didn't see any newts, but did come across this recently deceased chap. I've never really had a chance to look so closely at one; I was amazed at the superb adaptation to its niche. Huge front claws for digging, a ratio of eyes to nose that shows the priority of senses in its world and a body like a prop forward to help it push through the earth. Spotting animals that are dead is so much easier than live ones!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Drawing in Bristol

A sunny February day and I drove a minibus of art students to bristol Zoo to draw. Great 2 hours or so with the students trying to draw lizards, penguins and lions from life, and not from Google or from the screen of a mobile phone. Spent a great half an hour in the wonderful old Wallace aviary drawing the tropical forest birds from Papua New Guinea. the tiny little Roul Roul partridges were very inquisitive and kept climbing onto my clipboard to see what I was doing. Slightly concerned that they were trying to eat my pencil shavings. The partridges and forest pigeons all looked a lot more exotic than their UK cousins.

After the zoo we went to Bristol Museum for a quick hour to draw the stuffed animals, as they don't move around as much. A really terrific selection of UK birds although it's hard to believe that there was once a time when it was seen as appropriate to shoot and mount peregrine falcons and golden eagles. I sat and spent a happy hour drawing a grey seal skeleton, marvelling at the evolutionary developments that have shaped a mammal skeleton for life in the sea.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

New Camera!

Great excitement here as I have finally managed to buy a camera that will allow me to get some better wildlife photos. I have gone for the Fuji Finepix HS10 as it seems to be a good all-rounder which comes with a very powerful 30x zoom.

The first thing I did was get out in the garden to take photos of the various birds (like this robin) that seem to be really starting to ramp up the singing in readiness for the fight for territory and mates in spring.
And then on an excursion to one of our favourite pubs on the marshes at Geldeston there were multiple pairs of mute swans. Again presumably they are readying themselves as pairs for breeding. There seem to be lots of mirroring behaviour, with the pairs moving along dykes feeding in graceful symmetry, which is a gift for someone with a new camera to play with!