Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas Seals - Taking my children to see their children.

A terrific cold winter walk along the beach from Winterton towards Horsey, on the Norfolk coast, to jump off the sand dunes and to see the wonderful seals and their pups.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

New Hibernaculum

Made a large hibernaculum for Mum's 
Christmas present. The biggest yet. I do enjoy making them and have learnt a lot over the last year, on a sculptural level I simply enjoy the rather satisfying interplay between the containing box and the logs and cut off bamboo sections.

Monday, 22 December 2014

I must go down to the reeds today..

Busy making the most of a gap in Christmas activities and so raced down to the reed beds to see the murmeration this evening. Although the great swooshing rivers of starlings stream over our house each evening at 3.45 and back the other way out into the farmland at 8 in the morning, I hadn't actually watched them pouring into the reed-beds this winter and tonight I still managed to miss them. With my camera slung over my shoulder I walked hastily from the enormous new carpark, over the newly built footbridge and along the track by the old Glastonbury canal to the familiar  Ham Wall roost. It rapidly became clear that I was almost alone and after asking someone walking the other way I was informed that the roost had moved and was now at the Shapwick end of the Mere reedbeds. Feeling like a prize lemon I trotted the mile or so back along the path, soon the only person walking against the tide of other bird watchers heading back to their cars. Not prepared to accept defeat I watched the last flights of birds scooping in low over the trees and found myself standing alone again by the now still roost listening to the interference of many thousands of settling starlings chatting in amongst the reeds. As the daylight faded over the beautiful still marshlands I walked back and listened the familiar repeating call of a tawny owl over to my left. I don't know why I don't go for more walks at night, the bird calls are sometimes quite strange and unlike the noises of the day while other sounds are very recognisable, the muscular wheezing of low flying geese passing overhead as I get back to the car in the empty carpark built to accommodate the crowds now parking elsewhere, for this year at least.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Rodent dinner table

I cleared a pile of logs that had been drying on the terrace only to find that it has clearly been used by some rodent or other as a place to take nuts and shell them, leaving gnawed husks aplenty. I suspect it's one of the bank voles we often see dashing across from hedge to hedge.A reminder that leaving things alone in the garden is a sure way of encouraging wildlife.  Our piles of logs and clumps of weeds quickly become valuable habitat and shelter for something.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014


I return to College after half term and its now 'properly' dark as I cycle home and I wore my hat today for the first time to stop the ice cream headache as I freewheel down the long hill on the way to work. The clocks going back makes such a difference to the end of the day but it does mean that I can enjoy the light as I cycle in to work in the morning. The buildings are full of butterflies escaping inside looking for winter roosts, the apples have suddenly fallen en-masse from the trees and a lone foxglove stands blooming and out of place in the progressively frosty college garden.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Barn Owl

We are lucky enough to live somewhere with a reasonably high number of barn owls, so much so that one can become almost blasé about them. One particular bird is almost predictable, in that it tends to be found most mornings sitting on a post in a low lying meadow along our daily cycle route. There he sits, perfectly positioned to survey the surrounding tussocks for vole action.

I managed to get reasonably close to him recently to take a few shots. I used the classic 'wait until he looks the other way' technique, advancing a few steps at a time before crouching down again when he  (she?) looked back, like some dimly remembered childhood game. Periodically, the bird would swoop down from the post, presumably to take some prey, before returning to the perch.

And then last week, I got the chance to get even closer to a barn owl, this time to a tame bird. Myself and my brother spent a morning with Lavenham Falconry flying harris hawks, barn and tawny owls. Getting up close and personal with these birds was of course fabulous, but slightly tinged with the knowledge that such a packaged 'experience' lacks the element of chance and excitement of wild encounters. Hopefully, future generations will still be able to enjoy the thrill of seeing one of these special birds coursing over the fields like a spectre.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Scrimshaw Badgers

After several years of considerations I return to my plans to cast badger skulls in porcelain. Having completed the mould started before the summer I have now cast 5 skulls in varying thicknesses of porcelain and have been carving scrimshaw Somerset landscapes into the surfaces. Echoing the craft traditions of the whalers and the carved relics of their hunted prey, ref my sperm whale teeth work from 2012/13, I'm drawing parallels to the badgers current persecution under the pilot TB culling programme while linking landscape to subject. I'm having some trouble however with the fragility of the hollow skulls that are prone to shatter catastrophically at the last possible moment when I have completed the complicated carving and engraving. I am learning to now draw the landscape work prior to removing the jaw and other skull apertures that then weaken the form, before then firing the piece.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Beetles, bees and bites.

Whilst clearing an old woodpile on Sunday I disturbed two Lesser Stag Beetles (Dorcus parallelipipedus) that were buried in the soft rotting wood. I carried them in my hand to the shed to find a jar and actually got bitten by one of them. Its rare to be bitten, as opposed to stung, by a British insect and it demonstrated it's remarkable strength as its jaws slowly clamped onto my palm. Having got them safely into a jar I sat at my desk watching them in the evening and did some drawings, beautifully compact and symmetrical beetles, as they deliberately bulldozed bits of bark out of the way.

I had sketched the dead drone honey bees on the bottom of the page earlier in the week, having fished them out of the queen excluder in one of the hives whilst I retrieved varroa strips. The drones, larger and heavier headed than the workers, sometimes get stuck in the grid between the brood chamber and supers up top. The bees in one of the hives didn't take well to our intrusion and as we tried to secure travelling straps they rather set upon me. Safe within my suit I pressed on with the task in hand and was rather surprised to get stung several times on the wrists by a number of the bees that worked their way into the folds. I don't know why but they seem drawn to wrists. So it's 2:0 to the insects this week.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Hornet's Nest

I popped round to see some friends yesterday, and they proudly showed me this hornet's nest built out of an owl box on their neighbour's wall. This is not small. The sound of hundreds of hornets working away, a mixture of buzzing and a sort of crunching sound as they construct their paper walls is not to be forgotten. Fabulous.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Varroa Strips

Great session with Bob and the bees after work. Just working away in the apiary taking down all of the hives and putting in anti varroa strips. Having taken off the last honey before the winter, last weekend, we were putting in the strips to fumigate the hives and remove any varroh mites. When you peel off the covers on the strips the fumes are enough to make you wince and the bees clearly don't like it either, as you can see, with large groups streaming out of the entrance as you work although they soon settled down once we re-assembled the hive. When we retrieved the remains of the strips a week later the fumes had evaporated through the hive and the bees had stuck everything up with propolis so it was quite difficult to retrieve the bits of paper. The hives are all different, with some rather hot and buzzy and others much more settled and compliant. After the loss of several hives last spring, two of these colonies took up home here after bait hives were set up and they chose to move in.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Great Silver Diving Beetle

Cycled down to the Avalon Marshes centre and enjoyed some pond dipping with the boys. There were juvenile newts, frogs, boatmen and lots of beetles in the water. I was surprised at the size of the enormous Great Silver Water Beetles as I had mistakenly thought that the handsome Great Diving Beetle was our largest water beetle, but apparently not. 

We also learnt that you can tell the male beetles from the females as the males have a small flap at the front of their front legs that the females don't have. Beautiful and impressive insects.

The Great Diving Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis) 

The Great Silver Water Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus)

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Children and owl pellets

I was kindly asked to run my owl pellet table at the annual Ashcott Village Harvest Fayre. I didn't want to charge anything and wasn't selling anything and I am sure that it all bemused some of the parents, Q 'Are you the man letting children play with poo?'. I had to explain to many that it wasn't poo, it was more like sick or a cat's fur-ball, not everyone was re-assured. Many older village residents warmly remember the same activity from their childhood and in that sense I suppose it belongs to the same school of nostalgic country activities as tree houses, conkers and blackberry picking.

The children of  course loved it. If you present a child with an owl pellet, a piece of card, some glue and a pair of tweezers they will quite happily spend an hour finding all of the bones. The level of focus and interest was quite astonishing, I wasn't astonished but many were and some had to be persuaded to give it a go. I spent 3 or more hours identifying bones and talking about prey species and swapping stories about owls. I found out about two roosts in the village, 1 tawny and 1 barn, and helped identify innumerable bones and bone fragments. The children were soon explaining to other children about identifying shrews by their long noses and red teeth and calling out ' I've got another vole femur'.  As the bones were identified and compared to human equivalents there was lots of discussion. On finding two skulls in one pellet one child was very excited abut finding a two headed mouse, I didn't want to suggest a less exciting alternative interpretation. Parents often stayed to help but were also clearly interested and the children went off happily into the crowds with their bones stuck carefully to cards. Children are so naturally enquiring and as they focused intently on the task in hand I was keenly aware that these eager little minds will be the future conservationists, artists, naturalists or perhaps forensic pathologists.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The wonder of birds

Finally made it to Norwich Castle Museum's 'The Wonder of Birds' exhibition before it closes on Sunday. As well as reminding myself how much I like the work of Robert Gillmor I also came across a piece by the 16th century Indian artist Mansur. Just exquisite.

Sunday, 7 September 2014


A weekend camping on the North Norfolk coast at Stiffkey gave us the opportunity to explore the saltmarsh that lies between the coastal chalk ridge and the sea.

As we left the campsite with its late low-flying swallows behind, we came first across the marsh, a massive expanse of vegetated mud cut through with rivulets and creeks, which fill and empty with the tides. This habitat stretches for half a mile or so towards the sea, not quite dry land, not yet beach proper, a liminal zone yet a fully formed ecosystem in its own right.

Some of the creeks are wide enough to merit bridging, and at high tide navigable by boat; boats that at low tide remain marooned in the middle of the landscape as if picked up and abandoned by a petulant giant-child.
Although it seems a bleak landscape, closer inspection shows that it is thrumming with life. The waterways are living capillaries that abound with crabs, shrimps and tiny fish that scatter and shoot as soon as our step is felt. Wormcasts and shells are ample evidence of the huge seafood platter that provides sustenance for the myriad waders and gulls that flit idly across the landscape or pick away at the mud. These assorted birds provide the notable feature of the soundscape, their wailing ululations rising occasionally to piercing banshee wails.

As we tried to work a way around one of the waterways, a couple of other walkers arrive, one of whom turned out to be my erstwhile maths teacher. A brief conversation ensued, covering 25 years of biography, the changing face of North Norfolk, the joys of retirement, the balance between singing and dancing prowess in West Side Story and local chamber music. Strange how we can extemporise a polite drawing room in a wild backdrop.

A goodbye, a parting and we move on beyond the marsh proper over the lowest of dunes to the even bleaker sandflats beyond. At this point the pipleline that runs across the marsh stands out as the main feature of this alien landscape beyond which lies nothing but north sea and the end of Blakeney Point before the arctic ice.  On a sunny late summer day it feels like a benign wilderness in which to wander; what could go wrong? But as the long-stretching sky reflects in the wet sand and the absence of landmarks to anchor yourself starts to take effect, one can easily imagine becoming turned round, unsure whether one is heading back to land and safety, or out to sea-borne danger. Throw in some gloom, or even some autumnal mist with a rising tide, and this could be a lethal beauty.

And so we turn, back to the marginally firmer land of the marsh. Back across the creeks and crannies, the muted purples of the sea lavender amongst the green hues of salt-marsh grasses, pausing only to note the colourful washes in certain pools, and a bleached skeleton crab, whilst the redshank yells its outrage at a bullying gull. And then we are glad to be back; back to the land, back to the reassurance of chalk underfoot, back to our certainties.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Osprey returns.

Cycled down to the bird reserve at Shapwick Heath with the children. A beautiful late summer day and the air full of that end of season character that settles on the landscape imperceptibly. 

Watched a distant osprey from the tower hide, perched on a dead tree and briefly hovering high over the water but clearly unable to commit to a fish before returning to its post. We watched an osprey here two years ago, on the same dead tree and probably the same bird, as it stopped off for two weeks on its way south.  The children were more interested in throwing stones into the water, clearly thinking that ospreys are two a penny and only a cycle ride from our house.

Tawny Barn Owls

I am running an owl pellet dissection session with children at the village harvest fair next Saturday and I have a shortage of pellets. Well to be precise I have a lot of what were once pellets that are now trays of loose bones and bits. The pellets in the shed have been feasted upon by clothes moths and so much of the mouse and vole fur has gone and the pellets have fallen apart - so no good to give to children to look at. (* I read that it is now thought that clothes moths evolved to eat feathers and pellets before we evolved to use the fur of sheep to make the wool on which they have now adapted to feast also) Those owl pellets came from a barn in Norfolk which has since been wired off to prevent the doves from roosting in it, and presumably the barn owls also, but it also means I can't get in anyway as the site is now being developed, as with so many across the country. I had another tray of barn owl pellets but after foolishly leaving them outside in the rain they now form what can only be described as a very stinky fur and mouse bone soup and I certainly can't present that to the youngsters next Saturday.

After a tip off from a farming friend I climbed into a barn on Friday night to hopefully collect some new barn owl pellets. The beautiful derelict building had a huge upper story with two large rooms full of old hay and bits of wood. If you tried to imagine an ideal place for owls to roost then this would be it. Quiet, full of hay and foolish mice, open bits of roofing for access and lots of high beams to sit on at the edge of the levels and surrounded by farmland and cattle sheds. As I entered the second room I disturbed two owls, not barn owls but large tawny owls, which flew almost noiselessly from beam to beam above my head. They bobbed their heads, called quietly to each other and hopped about a little under the apex of the roof staring down at me intently. I carefully picked up some pellets from a midden beneath their favourite roost site and tip toed carefully out over the perforated rotting floorboards, with the gaping holes allowing me glimpses of dangerous-looking farm machinery in the room beneath. I managed to pick up a few beautiful barred feathers as I sneaked out and left the owls to settle down again. 

The pellets are smaller than those from barn owls and less rounded, with bones sticking out of many of them and evidence of beetle wings also. The warm buff brown feathers are a little moth ragged around the  edges with beautiful markings on the soft smaller feathers in particular. I drove back home as it got dark, past the fields that were all under water only a few months ago, quietly pleased that such secluded and abandoned spaces still exist and to have seen owls at such close quarters and not just fleetingly across the beams of my car headlights.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Butterfly Counting and Hummingbirds

In the last days of August we finally find 15 minutes to count butterflies in the garden. Alexander, Bertie, Freddie and I worked our way around the big buddleias and other butterfly friendly plants and did our best to count butterflies once. Lots of butterflies making the most of a late summer sunshine and pollen but only four species and very few Peacocks.

Pieris rapae - Small White: 11
Inachis io - Peacock: 2
Aglais urticae - Small Tortoiseshell: 13
Vanessa atalanta - Red Admiral: 24

On a related note. Whilst at the annual Ashcott Beerfest end of summer BBQ yesterday we saw a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Gary and I had been talking about them only this morning on the sidelines at the first of the children's football Saturday session. I have seen them in France, and Gary had seen them over the summer in his garden in Shapwick, but we hadn't ever seen one in Ashcott and then one almost flew into me while I ate my burger. Before I could shout to Gary it flew across the garden and into the conservatory where he was sitting, a bit weird, and we had an exciting few minutes trying to catch it whilst explaining to everyone what it was.