Monday, 30 March 2015

Toads and bones.

Great walk through the Stourhead Estate today with the children running ahead to explore the grottos and temples. The beautiful lake, set in it's manufactured landscape and dotted with coot and grebe and  supported by the giant earthworks that retain the water. In the up-stream pond amongst the tangled water plants I could see a dozen or so toads mating, no sign of the strings of spawn but several females besieged by amorous males. I don't often see toads and certainly not mating. The last time I think I saw mating toads was in a shallow pool near the beach in North Norfolk some years ago and whenever I see them I am still reminded of my childhood obsession with them and the many hours spent in Brundall trying to fish them out of drains. I also recall the excitement of feeding them worms and watching their eyes depress as they swallowed and the pawing of their little clawed hands as they grappled with the worms  unsurprisingly reluctant to be eaten.

Yesterday evening I romped up Street and Pollard hills with the boys and after being buffeted by strong spring winds on the edge we clambered down into the wooded areas to look for skulls and badger sets and other possible excitements. We found several sheep bones, the children soon learning that if you find one bone you are likely to find others if you just stop and look around carefully. We found some spoil dug out from a badger set and sure enough the skull of a long dead badger, chewed and abandoned in the heap of soil and mine workings and also a rabbit skull in the leaf litter by the fence. We walked home with our finds, vowing to return to look for the deer skull that must belong to the lower jaw that we were carrying, buzzards wheeling high above the slopes enjoying the updraft from the darkening levels beyond.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Windmill Hill City Farm - Really Wild Day

Great day at Windmill Hill City Farm dismantling owl pellets for 4 hours with keen young amateur naturalists. Found a lot of bird parts, lower fledgling beaks, and particularly enjoyed showing the children how the miniature vole femurs fitted neatly into the pelvis sockets. Within half an hour many of the children could be overheard talking to each other about how to identify shrew jaws by their red teeth and how mouse pelvic bones have a thinner aperture than a vole's, they love it. Mike Dilger, the wildlife presenter, was there also with his family and we had a good talk about owls and voles, unsurprisingly he clearly knows his stuff and it was good to meet him briefly.

CSI Somerset

Work has been rather consuming in recent weeks, however in-between-times, moments in lunch breaks and after work, I have continued with my track casting experiments. I have so far cast prints from a stoat, polecat, blackbird and moorhen and have experimented with clay(*first firing in kiln), plaster and pewter. I had also collected a badger from the road a few weeks ago but then got distracted and by the time that I got around to opening the dustbin bag in the garden it had 'turned', that is, natural processes had made the collection of prints more challenging than even I would attempt. 

As I pack up my boxes of tweezers, magnifying glasses and latex gloves, for an owl pellet dismantling workshop that I am running at the Windmill city Farm in Bristol today,  I realise that my work has more and more in common with the world of forensics - as to be currently seen in the wonderful 'Anatomy of Crime' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London where I enjoyed a fascinating, if rather unsettling, afternoon with my students this week.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The tadpoles are growing.

The goldfish bowl is now full of sizeable tadpoles, ahead of their cooler siblings still in the garden pond.

Made a good deal of headway at Strode College this week with the pond in the sustainability garden. I'm going in next week over the holiday to continue filling the pond and to get the marginal plants in as we develop the surrounding bog garden area, great to get on top of this at last.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

More birds and music

In my recent reflection on birds in music, I realised that I had used birds as an image of the rural in my own song 'The Birds' from the first Nobodaddy album:

Oddly, I hadn't remembered this use, as to me the song is primarily about urban alienation - but in exploring that theme I had posited a rural idyll of connection to nature with birds as the embodiment of that. Now living rurally, it seems hugely quaint, but it seemed to work at the time! I actually prefer the version that we recorded with Niamh Cavlan on her album but I can't embed that here - it is on Spotify should you be that way inclined.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Stoat footprints and spring action.

I have cast the feet impressions of a blackbird, moorhen and stoat this week in my ongoing quest to record animal tracks. The tiles are now drying in the kiln room at college ready for firing. There are more bumble bees about now, the crows are all jumping about with mouths full of dry grass and moss and the pond is full of tadpoles. I am working on three empty hives, cleaning up frames and queen excluders in readiness for anticipated spring swarms and a summer of bee-keeping.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Birds and Music (cont'd)

I've been thinking more about the ways in which folk songs make use of birds, and it occurred to me that there is also simple observation of birds in some songs, which I guess if one assumes a pastoral or rural genesis for a lot of folk music is not surprising - it's simple reportage. An example is the Appalachian standard 'The Cuckoo' (aka The Coo-coo bird') which is a song I picked up from the singing of Clarence Ashley.

Here's a version I recorded with mandolin maestro Nic Zuppardi:

The first verse contains the lyrics 'the cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies. She never will say cuckoo 'til the 4th day of July'. Which may be true in the US, but would very late for the British cuckoo which is normally returning to Africa by then.

The song seems to be of British origin, so presumably the Clarence Ashley lyrics are a variant as discussed on 'Mainly Norfolk'. In some versions of the song, the lyrics include a story which plays on the bird's association with cuckoldry (which word I've just realised the derivation of!) whereas in others it's simply a song about the cuckoo and its heralding of spring. As ever, there is a huge amount of slippage and borrowing of lyrics and verses between folk songs, as the song evolves and is adapted by each singer, making it impossible to identify an 'original' or pure version. But in this case, given the subject of the song, that seems quite apt!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The pond is still full of frogs.

The frogs have now laid a great deal of spawn in the pond and whereas previously they were 'shy' in the daylight, diving for cover if you approached, they now seem quite relaxed, perhaps pleased with themselves. The males are still clambering, en masse, over the females that have anything left to offer but eh croaking is reducing and in a few days it will be all quiet again with the developing spawn the only remaining sign of this seasonal event. I have also seen a number of toads crossing the road this week,  on my cycle home up the back lane each evening.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

First 2015 Bumblebees in the West Country.

Today the spring sun was shining and we had our first, rather optimistic BBQ. I saw brimstone and peacock butterflies and two bumblebees, the first that I have seen here in the West this spring. A tired tree bumblebee, I think, that in-spite of medical care (sugar) died in our porch. Also a large queen early bumblebee (ID checkAds?) moving from promising looking nest hole to hole along the bank at the back of our house.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Birds and Music part 2

Back to the theme of the role of birds and birdsong in music, particularly my area of interest in 'folk' music. I know as a songwriter myself that, like other songwriters, I use birds as symbols and metaphors within songs. The most obvious example of this in my work is my song 'Little Robin':

In this, the robin, one of the few birds to be heard singing throughout the year and even in darkness, is both literal in that an actual bird is the subject (topic and addressee) of the song but also stands as a symbol of the absent lover, as well as almost an emotional 'objective correlative' for the abandoned 'I' of the song.

In writing this I was deliberately drawing inspiration from 'Blackbird' by Paul McCartney. Again, in that song, the bird is both literal and a symbol of something else (apparently racial tensions in the USA). And that symbolic use also seems to be quite a common category of the use of birds in song, and is primarily literary rather than musical. However, a cursory look in the New Penguin Book of English Folk Song suggests that the use of birds is not necessarily always as symbolic as in these examples, rather more a literal observation of a bird and its behaviour, or as added context or scene-setting for a ballad. I am starting to do some digging to see what other examples I can unearth of these uses and see if I can detect any particular trends or categories.

The other category I want to explore is examples of birdsong itself being used as inspiration in genres other than classical music, as the latter, as per my previous post on this subject, seems reasonably well-trodden ground. I'll be back...

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Birds and Music part 1

A friend of mine is a Fellow of the Linnean Society which is the world's oldest extant biological society, dating back to 1788. As many will know, it was at a meeting of the society that Darwin and Wallace's theories of evolution by natural selection were originally presented, so it occupies a significant position in the annals of natural history.

So it was with great excitement that I attended their recent lecture on 'Birds and Music' delivered by classical violinist Paul Barritt (Halle Orchestra).  As both a musician and wildlife enthusiast this was of huge interest to me. I have heard this subject explored before in depth by Peter Cowdrey and his fascinating work with 'The Conference of Birds', but the added appeal of the Linnean Society setting was enough to draw me to this lecture.

He outlined the ways in which classical composers have been inspired and drawn on the 'natural music' of birds, as well as alluding to the centrality of birdsong in even very early forms of human music making. He played various notable examples of the ways in which composers have drawn on birds in 3 ways; as mythic inspiration (e.g. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite), to channel the feelings evoked in the composer on hearing birdsong (e.g Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending) and as a literal musical inspiration (e.g. use of the cuckoo's call in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony amongst many other examples of that bird's call in the classical canon).

There are also more extreme examples of using transcriptions of birdsong (Messaien) and even recorded birdsong alongside more traditional instruments (Rautavaara). And again, Peter Cowdrey has undertaken some fascinating studies of birds calls using modern digital recording techniques to slow their song down to a more human speed and pitch to allow easier examination and transcription. In doing so, it reveals the fact that many birdsongs obey similar features to human music, making use of diatonic scales, repeating motifs and phrases, as well as a blend of 'composed' and 'improvised' elements (I am aware that this is somewhat anthropomorphic language, hence the apostrophes...). All of which raises the question as to whether birdsong is music. Which is not a question I feel I can answer, well not here and now anyway, but happy to chat it through over a beer!

However, this lecture as well as Peter Cowdrey's work (and in fact the passing mentions in Mark Cocker's 'Birds and People') are mostly drawing on classical music examples.  As more of a folk (for want of a better word) musician myself, I am interested in how birds and birdsong have inspired and informed folk and other roots music...

Monday, 2 March 2015

Polecat Artwork

Enjoying exploring ways to capture 'evidence' of the polecat. Several clay paw-print tiles are in the kiln currently and I have cast a series of plaster and pewter paw print casts from the various clay impressions that I made last week. I had a tip-off today that there may be another roadkill polecat on another section of road and I'm going to drive that way tomorrow morning on the way to work to check. I enjoyed drawing it on Sunday and now its immersed in a bucket of water so that I can retrieve, and hopefully re-assemble, the bones later in the year.

It feels very spring-like today, we woke to wet snowfall, I cycled through partially flooded roads to work and then it was beautifully sunny this afternoon and still light enough to see on the ride home at 6.30, so great after months of darkness. The rabbit warrens along the backroads to work are all spilling underground excavations down the banks as the tunnels and burrows are being cleared for the spring. I saw honeybees on the heather yesterday enjoying the sunshine but I haven't seen any bumblebees here yet although the blackbirds are now really going for it and there seem to be more wrens about than usual.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The first

Spent the morning out in the garden, enjoying the late winter (early spring?) sunshine and having a burn up. Yesterday I heard the first skylark of the year and today brought another first, the first emergent bumblebee queen. Although unlike previous years she wasn't basking and letting me get a good look to ID her, but just buzzing past, intent on replenishing her energy levels in order to start the cycle of nest and colony building. I saw a distinct white tail so probably a white-tailed bumblebee but couldn't be certain. A little later than some years (2014 - 22nd February, 2012 - 28th February) but not as late as 2013 (7th April!) which may be just that I've not been outside as much, although I have been looking in the likely places. Anyway, always a good sign for me that spring is underway.

I also cleared out the nest box by the kitchen door (is one supposed to clear them out? Is this good housekeeping or does it just mean more work for the birds??!) As you can probably see from this photo, there was a single unhatched egg in there; great tit I think as that's what nested in there last year. The nest itself was mostly moss and grass, but at the bottom there was a lot of what I think was horse hair (there are horses in the field opposite) which seemed to act as the base layer around which other material was weaved. The spider was a bit miffed to be disturbed but I'm sure he'll get over it. So now that's ready for the next occupant.

I'll be looking and listening out for some of the other familiar signs of the seasonal shift; daffodils, frog spawn (always later here than Somerset), chiff-chaff song and then the returning swallows. But not to get ahead of myself, I shall try to enjoy the transition, the gradual gear-shift before the acceleration in a few weeks. Each year I wonder whether I shall feel that moment of fierce joy at simply being alive to experience spring, and each year it comes again...why would I ever doubt it?