Archive for January, 2017

Twitcher’s Temptations

How the weather can alter, catching you out at every turn if you’re not prepared. And how blasé were we, getting used to easily-above-freezing overnight temperatures in January?

On the very days we have front windows and the patio doors that lead out to the back garden replaced the Midlands experiences a blast of Arctic wind and overnight frosts of some severity. All credit to the two cheerful guys sorting out the glazing, listening to Radio Two and joking about wearing shorts (surely only postal delivery workers do that in winter?) going about their business – great job by the way. (Sealed units in the previous windows had leaked and for two years (or more) we’ve been trying to see through layers of condensation as well as the leaded lights.)

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Water in the wheelbarrow, stupidly left in the right way up (usually I stand it up against the allotment shed door) didn’t thaw for three days straight. Giving me an idea:

We have been trying, unsuccessfully of course to get rid of the pondweed (“duckweed”) in our back garden pond. Ever since, in fact, a well-meaning fool (I see him every morning in the mirror) had the idea that it would encourage wildlife to visit the pond and cut out the process of eutrophication. But, by golly its persistent! But during these freezes its all trapped in a surface layer of ice so, using a handle less shovel I simply slid the panels of frozen water out of the pond and onto the lawn. Where they sat, un melted for a couple of days. Nothing is simple, needless to say and about a handful of the fast-multiplying plants evaded capture, but for a while at least I can pretend I’m winning.

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The cold weather had a dramatic effect on bird visitors too. And the amount of time they spent in the garden. Greenfinches came (absent for so long), a trio of waxwings, a single (male) reed bunting, a very speedy coal tit joined the regulars at the “service station”. There was a high flying flock of lapwings (one of my favourite birds as a youngster) and the return to our skies of buzzards.

Then it’s the first official day of the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch – and it is warm and raining!

Ridiculously, when you consider it, in reality it doesn’t matter. But I was psyching myself up to record a bumper list of visitors. Instead in the time I planned to do the observation – between nine and ten in the morning (this following the time when I add feed to the range of feeders about the garden – and birds being creatures of habit as well as opportunists it seemed to make strategic sense) – I sit in the upstairs bedroom (better view of the whole garden) and ponder. There was a guy on breakfast TV from the RSPB who broadcast some statistics/comparisons.

The Big Garden Birdwatch has been going for more than thirty years now (last year half a million people sent in their records). But the time-to-observe has been extended, its over three days now. I get it: it gives more people the chance to take part and, importantly organisations like schools (where grounds can be key to wildlife) but it also makes me wonder how valid comparisons can be. I’m not thinking this in a negative way: indeed I love the idea of the rise of “people’s science”.

Also the instruction are not simply tally mark every time you spot a species, and, rather harshly, I am not certain every participant will understand exactly what is needed to make the results credible. This swill, if I am correct mean dubious results.

But – and this is extremely snobbish of me – how accurate will observations be? How well do others (it’s always others isn’t it, because we all know that what we are recording is a hundred per cent accurate don’t we? Editor’s note.) There is what we know as the “pterodactyl factor” where gullible people have been convinced that here was a rare species in the vicinity. How does the RSPB deal with this?

I suddenly realise that there are wood pigeons feeding from the table –and I dash outside (very unscientifically) to rebuild the woven-from-canes roof I have put there to prevent the ungainly monsters snacking on the precious food. I have to confess my partiality here: wood pigeons are not popular with allotmenteers – and they gobble up the food so rapidly that other species must starve. Wood pigeons indeed remind me of Hercules cargo planes: big, grey, safe and heavy … and I prefer the helicopter antics of the tit family or the marauding style of the Spitfire-like starlings.

And then, I must confess I am sorely tempted to add some of the birds that have been here over the past forty eight hours (the waxwings: surely it won’t make a big difference – and they were definitely here ironically in the top of the rowan tree that was stripped of the looked-for red berries well before Christmas by redwings!). But I resist. Because this is the twitcher in me trying to take over, to show off, to have better results (because nobody is watching right? Nobody checking?) It would be pointless. I know that these other species have visited the garden and that should be enough. I smile; just a few moments ago I was casting aspersions on the integrity of others and look what just happened!

The whole bonus might just be, of course, the increase in the number of people joining in and being interested in what is going on in their own gardens! This should lead to engagement in the wider environment. It is well served by the number of people, I guess, feeding birds and the range and quality of bird feeds available – from almost every shop in the high street.

It is also fed by the wonderful RSPB website which promises additional tasks monthly that people can undertake at home to increase wildlife habitats/provision. And not all just about birds. Gotta be a good thing!

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Nature Red …

 

While I was busy playing Tarzan-with-a-camera last week our neighbour, Mr Plumber, popped over. He has managed to snag a whole garden full of pallets … and I do mean monster pallets, so long they only just fit into the rear of his white van!

We arrange a day to get some of them up to the allotment, the remainder he’ll use on his wood burner or for “projects”. We discuss the benefits of skip diving, but he’s one ahead; he has an arrangement with a local company and gets the choice of all manner of stuff they would otherwise skip: wooden boards, plaster board, soil pipe, timber …

His take away service helps him and saves the company the money they would have to pay to have it skipped. A win-win situation. And he is generous enough to include us now in the distribution of the swaggage.

We spend a long day taking a couple of loads up to the site, which he has never visited before. Duly impressed by the size of the whole site he is also – as people usually are – taken by the size of the plots. Some of the pallets we leave whole and some we disassemble: the eventual plan will be to use at least some of them to edge to middle of the three plots.

Work, if it can be called such, is steady, and accompanied by cups of tea, a tomato soup and Cheddar cheese lunch and a lot of chatter. Given that it is January the weather is comfortably warm (being busy helps, needless to say). Researchers are telling us that 2016 was the warmest on record; a little surprising as summer actually didn’t feel so hot, but I guess the average temperature during the other seasons was higher.

Residents and neighbours, compost techniques, the universality of pallets (real life Lego bricks in that they are easy to work with, physically manageable and truly versatile), tales of ski-ing holidays, the fact that a farm nearby is home to lions and tigers from Chipperfield’s Circus). And, apparently have been there for some time! This raises a whole range of moral questions about the role of performing animals, animal rights and animal welfare of course, but also about such animals living in such close (and secret) proximity to … well, to me!

 

 

Needless to say the hardest, heaviest part of our task is carrying the huge pallets and assorted timbers from the van all the way to our plot. Naturally they seem to get heavier and more awkward to shift as we move them. No pain, no gain eh?

But when we are done for the day I am satisfied that we have enough to get the job done – and it is all, now, exactly where it needs to be.

I spend the latter part of the warm afternoon on the plot taking the nails from the timbers with a “gorilla bar*” and claw hammer. I lay out the pieces and, it seems there are enough to edge the plot without actually dismantling any other pallets (which’ll leave some available for compost bins repairs and the construction, I hope, of a separate bin for storing useful items: wood, hoops, the hose, the wheelbarrow), maybe even some for the shed itself. The sun is heading quickly for the horizon and, at this time of year it gets chilly very quickly when the sun goes down, so I head for home.

Unfortunately, as I leave I realise the pile looks something like a bonfire heap and it is my fervent hope that nobody nips across the open space where the fence is still missing and sets fire to it.

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Things have been going on back at home: the disputed nest in the top of the silver birch, claimed and counter claimed by two pairs of magpies and a crow couple has been occupied by the larger birds, much to the frustration of the magpies who, even as I sit down to type are harassing the crows and kicking up a helluva fuss in the way that only magpies can manage. For a moment I feel for the magpies – it’ll be a whole lot harder to find a new site and build a nest to the same spec as this one – but then remember the way they terrorise smaller nesting birds. This is a taste of their own medicine then! Nature red in tooth and claw in front of my very eyes.

 

 *Is that the genuine name for this thing or did I imagine it?

Image result for gorilla bar image

A Chance to Catch Up ?

Friday morning and I’m not at work. A chance to catch up with things at home. Like getting the replacement nest boxes put up. One taken off the shed while I repainted the outside (of the shed that is, not the nest box), one on the back wall of the house that has a badly rotted roof. The need to do this swiftly was brought home to me last weekend when I noticed a blue tit popping in and out of the box on the front wall of the house. The warm winter so far is having an impact on the nest-finding season it would seem (though I still suspect, in some masochistic way that we will have a cold snap before winter gives up its ghost).

The nest boxes were put together from some old plywood left over from what is now known as the Worm Hotel (a container to keep the wormery in – and warm enough to encourage worm action in the colder weather). But inspiration came after I picked up a piece of silver birch on Cannock Chase. At first I thought I’d just slice it up for the fire pit but …

… looking at it later I decided to front the boxes with it. Just messing about with ideas, you know.

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But having painted them with a couple of coats of paint left over from the shed, they were now ready to be put up. I didn’t want to put the one back on the front of the shed: too accessible to cats. This cul-de-sac has an unhealthily high population of moggies, whose owners have, strangely seen fit to have their driveways and frontages hard landscaped, meaning our ground is toilet choice numero uno. Not pleasant in any language.

So I had been considering the idea of having a nest box in the small leaved lime tree (tilia cordata). Meaning dragging the ladder from the depths of a shed housing over wintering garden paraphernalia (benches, terra cotta pots, tables et cetera) and bending “found” metal rods over a branch and hooking the box into place. Once up the ladder, contorting my way beneath and between intervening branches, I had a brainwave.

What a great place to take a photo of the garden from, especially as soon the patio doors will be replaced with French doors: a kind of before shot to contrast with the view after the work is done. And I am unlikely to be up here again for some time. So I trick my way down the rungs, get the camera, re-scale the ladder and, as I am on my way notice that, in just those, what four minutes, there is a great tit clinging onto the box front, dipping its head in and out of the chiselled hole. Amazing! Now, our next door neighbour has a bird feeder just over the fence, but this is opportunism at its very best. Unfortunately the battery in my other camera (the one with a telescopic lens) needs charging (or there’d be attempted shots of the very bird in action. Maybe tomorrow?

Of course once the word “camera” has flashed into my brain I hear another voice;

“You could get an unusual shot of the garden from up here. Use the other camera; you never take enough photos. Stop thinking about it – do it. Now!”

Then I move the ladder. Up to the house, lever the old nest box, blimey it’s heavier than I thought – and set about putting the new one up. Of course it’s heavy: its chock-full of about eight years nests – and a grass that has literally rooted itself into the inside back wall of the box. I am able to simply break the rotting roof off and empty the contents into the compost bin (always there, that bin!). ten minutes later we spot a wasp crawling, painfully slowly up the brick wall. Far too early for queen wasps to be emerging surely? So I guess this one must have been inside the old nest box. A pity to have disturbed her I think a little guiltily … but then again that box did need replacing – and I put a new roof on the old one – just need someone to give it to now, because there doesn’t seem to be room here for another nest box.

Later, after a walk to the butcher’s we step into the kitchen to find a flock of long-tailed tits on and around the bird feeder. Add that to the tiny goldcrest we spotted earlier …

When is the RSPB Big garden Birdwatch?

Winter Mode.

 

The shed-at-home in winter mode. I am almost sure that I can find whatever I need …

 …most of the time!dsc03422

One’s Ladybird and One’s List

Partly spontaneous, part needed-to-do mission into Walsall this morning. To get armfuls of packets of seeds ready to begin the year (which, actually of course, never ends) afresh. In preparation for this we sat down last week and talked over what we plan to grow (or try to grow as I prefer to say) and made a list.

What did we do with that list?

We stumble about in the central heated warmth getting incrementally frustrated. It turns up: in the magazine rack. Of course where else would it be but underneath a week’s worth of evening papers and the latest magazine from the National Trust (complete with an article about local stately home now under the auspices of the National Trust, Shugborough)?

We both pretend – of course – we always knew that is where we had left it.

We head to Walsall, find a parking space and stroll down to Wilko, complete with list. Feeling less like traitors than might be expected (we are deserting the bulk buy/discount offers from the site shop this year: they haven’t been well promoted and nobody from the current committee seems to want to take a lead) we are soon flinging packet after packet into the basket-cum-trolley. Vegetable seeds, flower seeds. Seed potatoes? Why not? Shallots, red onions … it’s a real shopping frenzy! A couple of bags of bird feeder refills.

Oh and a solitary, end-of-line silver Christmas decoration heart (reduced to 5p at the till).

We limp to the Costa Coffee housed in the Art Gallery and order refreshment: cappuccino, tea and something sweet.

Great thing about the Costas is the chance to read a free newspaper: I favour the I usually or the Times.

Today it is the Times; full of important stuff like how President-Elect Trump will change the world, how Brexit will mean Brexit (or not) and a couple of items that catch my quirky eye.

Seems there is little or no rain falling on the plains in Spain, so Courgettes grown there and sold here are in short supply – and prices rocketing. I smile at the wonderful folly of being able to eat “out of season” items. (we are currently snacking on “in season oranges” bought from an old-stylee fruiterers on the edge of Cannock: evocatively scented and gorgeously juicy these oranges. I am drawn to consider the normality of the twenty first century in a developed nation, compared to the world in which my grandparents, indeed my parents, inhabited.

There’s also a big page spread about a Ladybird book on Climate Change being co-authored by none other than Prince Charles. I do a double-take: really? Seems he wrote to the publishers with the suggestion and they said yes …

Actually by the seem of it; they said “yes, but …”

The but being that it would need to be vetted by actual scientists to give it a different credibility. The Times article has an element of mockery about it. For those who don’t know, or have forgotten Ladybird books were a ubiquitous set of educational children’s books about all manner of things: Steam Engines, Airports, The Vikings, The Holy Land … and now issues like climate change. Well done Penguin Books!

Prince Charles has written a Ladybird book warning of the threat of global warming

On the way home we pull up on the pavement at the bottom of “our road”. The house on the corner is undergoing massive redevelopment and the builders have been kind enough to leave the timbers from the taken-down roof available for collection. We pile as much of it as we can handle into the boot of the car and, back at home stack it in the garage where it will wait until I am next off work.

In the garden there are the earliest stirrings of territorial disputes: blackbird v. blackbird, a pair of magpies versus a second pair* (both with their eyes set on an established nest atop a silver birch tree in a nearby garden. A tiny blue tit is investigating the front of house nest box … and I have to get a move on to put up the replacement nest boxes I have been building.

 

 

* Later in the day both pairs are out matched by a couple of crows who are also showing a definite interest in the very same old nest.

With an Axe …

On a recent run up to the allotment I am reminded of a song my grandmother would smile at when it came on the “wireless” when I was a lot, lot younger. Based on a dialogue between two characters (I always assumed they were married, for some reason), Henry and Liza the narrative is a humorous deadlock. Henry is asked to fetch water, asks how to carry it, is told a bucket, replies that the bucket has a hole in it radio. Liza tells him to repair it. But to fix the leaky bucket, he needs straw. To cut the straw, he needs an axe. To sharpen the axe, he needs to wet the sharpening stone, he will need  water. However, when Henry asks how to get the water, Liza’s answer is “in a bucket”. It is implied that only the leaky bucket is available, which, if it could carry water, would need no repairing in the first place.

My grandmother used to say, with a characteristic grin, that it was typical of men to try and get out of a task*, or to make it more complicated than it needed to be … but, back in those days I couldn’t see that complexity, just wondered how the singers could remember so many words.

So …

A recent e-mail from the Committee Secretary told us that the gate locks were going to be changed; that new keys would be issued on Sunday morning between early o’clock and sometime later.

For those uncertain about allotment protocol suffice it to say that security is important: some plot holders keep significantly expensive equipment in their sheds and theft and vandalism are, sadly, frequent interruptions. Every plotholder is provided with a key to the gates on joining the association. (we have two gates, same lock, one key fits both gates).

Apparently earlier this week the bottom gate had been found unlocked, the site container broken into, spare keys, cash gone missing and six or more (details not specific) have been raided.

Best solution? Change the padlock, give out new keys to all plot holders.

I put two and two together and get a number more than the total. I am curious: is it, for example possible that the intruders entered – or left the site by way of the house next door? The house whose owner has taken down the fence. It would take a few steps across his yard and out of his gate onto the road. Nobody on the committee seems to have even considered it. Nor thought of asking the owner if he noticed anything on the night it happened. Elementary, I would have thought.

However, smiling wryly we take our keys, check the plot and go about our January business.

Hmmm …

The following weekend I am taking up the kitchen waste for the compost heap and notice, attached to the allotment gate, just above the new padlock:

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Now, bear in mind that the said plots of “Colin” and “Mick” are both on-site. That to get on-site you have to go through the gates. Which are locked.

And

Your

Key

Doesn’t

Fit!

Any advice Liza?

*Phew: good job I got around to fixing the new lights in the kitchen this morning then.

Christmas TV ?

This is meant as an observation, rather than in the nature of a complaint – much too after-the-horses-have-bolted for that, this being the 15th day of January!

Over Christmas there was very little inspirational TV. A gap where once TV was filled (wasn’t it?) with programmes to entice and entertain the viewers.

There; now I’ve typed it. Opening my ether self up to all kinds of –perhaps deserved – criticism:

Yes we don’t have the latest catch up TV technology with three thousand channels that has a new premiere on every night, no wall to wall sports channels and …

Of course I know Christmas is not all about what’s on the box.

Oh and Dr Who was topically interesting in an age where most film blockbusters are either Marvel or DC superhero franchises.

But, bloated by too much trifle, turkey and tinsel I couldn’t get terribly excited over programmes I had been looking forward to.

Sherlock, for example, usually a fine re-working of the Conan Doyle character, re-imagined and definitely re-purposed and essentially nothing like the original but filled with allusions. Over Christmas I found this too pompous and overly packed with trivia: magnificent in a clinical way that had me caring little (or less) for the plot lines.

But along with the tosh was a glimpse of something that had me thinking. At least just a tiny bit. On one hand a bit of an ego trip (the sort that worked for me with characters like Billy Connolly stranded in the Arctic) with one Robson Green (actor of the Geordie parishes and sometime world fisherman) having a chance to fulfil his boyhood dream of being “marooned on a tropical island” – albeit with a chicken, mosquito net and outrigger canoe – in the style of Robinson Crusoe.  Hence the might-be cringe worthy title – Robson Crusoe. And, after all, didn’t the central character in Daniel Defoe’s book have to turn to self sufficiency, even gardening and livestock farming during his twenty something years stranded.

I missed the first part of it, but the last more-than-half had me, at least engaged. He decided not to hunt for animals to eat on the island (as Crusoe had done) but use the canoe, some ready-to hand fishing line and hooks and a few unfortunate hermit crabs: the bait.

He took to the water at sunset (gorgeous photography) but, credit to him, having failed to catch a single fish, was honest enough to admit it and go to bed hungry. Although he looked longingly at the single caged chicken he had with him.

Next morning he was predictably philosophical (though, to be honest these lines could have been written well in advance of the “shipwreck”):

“You know, we often confuse being alone … with being lonely …. It’s not the same thing … how often in the workaday world do we yearn for space and time … a chance to get away from Frantica* … and that’s just what this is … time away, so that once we get back to Frantica we can deal with it again.”

Now, just because we’ve heard this, thought it before, doesn’t mean its wrong when somebody like the earnest Mr Green says it on TV.

I believe he is spot on, nailed down correct.

And, for me time up at the allotment can be this dose of therapy. Making plans, bodging something together, wondering the what-ifs of life. Away from the mundane, often high pressure world of Everybody Else. A necessary time. Sometimes with others, chewing the fat (as we say locally) a chin wag, putting the world to rights – though nothing may change.

Just digging, tidying up, patching up the shed, waiting the right time to plant, to harvest … and not always getting it right. The skies may not always be the wonderful blue of Robson’s island, there are no pristine beaches and no camera to catch all the soliloquies, but I usually leave the plot heartened and bearing in mind a phrase I heard, first on the Beechgrove garden TV programme;

Gardening: work that works.

Do we need a Minister for Gardens?

Should allotments be available on NHS prescription?

It’d be cheaper than buying us all ten days on an isolated island eh?

 

*I’m paraphrasing all of this and, if there is any credit due to this name for Convention-and-Conformity it belongs to me. Just saying. OK?

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