A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Garden in Early May

I am pruning the Dogwood, well some if them at least. I like to leave some until after they flower, although I know  that if I cut them back now I can plunge the cuttings in the soil to make new plants and the remaining stems with be deep red next autumn. I juggle what I know to be “gardening lore”, with my gut instinct to enjoy what I have in the moment. The air is filled with the buzz and hum of insects. There are dozens of orange tip butterflies, I think they must have recently hatched as I’ve never seen so many in one day. They won’t sit still long enough to photograph, which is frustrating and doesn’t stop me trying (and failing). There are dozens of St Mark’s Flies (named because they allegedly hatch on St Marks Day, which is 25th April), they’re not the most glamorous pollinator in the garden, but they certainly are the most numerous!

Last week the farmer ploughed the field and sowed seeds, this week there are dozens of wood pigeons feasting on the fresh young tips of seedlings. They swoop and soar overhead, occasionally landing, picking the green tips from the soil. As I write this, I can see twenty or thirty of them, field walking like overly keen metal detectorists, their eyes scanning the ground as they avoid each other’s patch of earth.

apple blossom

The apple tree, planted as a pip over 20 years ago is heavy with pink blossom, I hope this means a good crop of apples. It only began to bear fruit a couple of years ago and to our delight the apples are sweet and edible! The tree has grown wild, never pruned it has begun to twist and turn, a few branches are starting to rub against each other and I have resolved to read up how best to care for it (probably too late, but in the spirit of “always learning” I shall borrow a book on fruit trees from the library or fall down a rabbit hole of internet research).

fresh green leaves.jpg

All our  trees have burst into life, even the hornbeam hedge is greening up. Every year it slowly progresses from left to right, the shady end always waiting until mid May before bursting into life.  The hazel trees should have been coppiced, but we forgot / didn’t get round to it / didn’t want to risk losing a nut crop and so they have been left to grow tall and spindly. Some of the  ones we have coppiced are now a mass of thick young stems, a green hedge, the branches we cut are supporting sweet peas and criss crossed over the veg patch to deter birds from early veg.

clematis montana.jpg

 

The whole garden seems ripe with promise, the clematis montana has flowered, the aquilegia that self seeded every spare patch of earth are  bringing some much needed colour, this year we have deep crimson, a pale pink and the deepest purple. There is also a patch  with creamy petals with the palest pink tips which are yet to open. They will either be gorgeous or a sad disappointment. You never know what you’ll get with these self seeders (which of course is part of their appeal).

The past two weekends have been warm enough to sit out doors, which has annoyed the robin. He wants us to turn over the earth, revealing grubs and young slugs. Instead we sit drinking mugs of tea, or sipping wine. The grass needs to be mowed, slugs picked off young green plants, the last of the leeks have been left to seed. They look like the palest cream alliums and are so beautiful I always leave a few to go to seed. There air is filled with birdsong, and I can’t help being filled with joy and optimism every time I step outside – except of course the day after the slugs demolished my freshly planted lettuce – on those days even I struggle to love the pesky creatures!

Keep the Wild in You

on the rocksI had an outdoors childhood. I didn’t think that was unusual, Dad would take us for walks along the banks of the river Severn, we would fish for sticklebacks with our cousins in the holidays, spend hours wandering through fields (in the days when wheat grew taller than me). Summer holidays were spent on the beach, exploring rock pools and building dens. We knew the names of birds and wild flowers because we saw them every year, named them, remembered them. We knew where to find wild raspberries, to avoid the bitter elderberries and in spring there was great delight to be had in picking “sticky willie” and throwing at each other.

butterfly on blackthorn.jpg

It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realise how lucky we were to have family (and teachers) who knew the value of being outdoors. It constantly surprises me that people will ask “Can you really eat that?”,  or that they are unable to identify garden birds or wild flowers, that they don’t know the thrill of finding a slow worm in the compost heap or the joy of spotting the first butterfly of the year. Maybe, because we walked to school or spent long summer days unsupervised in the countryside around our home a love of nature and an understanding of the seasons was just absorbed by osmosis. I can walk in the woods and name the trees, I know when to look out for the spiky sweet chestnuts (and I know how to roast them and eat them), I look forward to the first flush of nettle tops and the early wild garlic. I didn’t deliberately set out to pass on this knowledge to my daughter, but I think she has inherited at least some of that knowledge and respect for nature. Right now, we have a batch of birch sap wine fermenting in the kitchen, I’m eyeing up the cherry blossom and watching my neighbour’s crab apple tree with plans for jellies and jams. Food for free, foraging, whatever you like to call it, being with and eating wild things is part of who I am. It’s true, the only reason we planted an Elder in our garden was an ambition to make elderberry wine and elderflower champagne.

elderflowers 2016

So, in a long and rambling way, if this was your childhood and you regret that  you’ve now forgotten more than you remember, or you never had the opportunity to discover your “wild side”, then the Wildlife Trust’s “30 Days Wild” is for you. Starting on the 1st June, you can sign up to receive a whole month of simple ways to go wild. You can take part as an individual, a school, or even get together with your colleagues and go a bit wild in the work place. There are plenty of resources and ideas on the Wildlife Trust website. Download a pack and start planning your month of wild. Even if you can only manage a wild weekend or a few minutes there are suggestions for you. I love the idea of sparking “random acts of wildness” and encouraging more of us to step outside, even if it’s only for a few minutes each day. As regular readers know, my moments outside are essential. I always feel happier, calmer and ready to face the day after a wander around the garden or a walk in the woods.

But, 30 Days Wild isn’t just about discovering the outdoors and ticking a box in a spotters guide. It’s about encouraging us all to find time to go wild at any time of the year, not just in June. It’s about finding ways to live healthier, happier lives through being in nature. That might sound a bit “new age”, but everything I read and research tells me that my instinct to throw open the windows, walk barefoot on the grass or just sit on a bench and watch the birds  is good for me. Download the app and wherever you are, you can find something to do, or send off for an activity pack or check out the #30dayswild hashtag on Twitter and Instagram for ideas. I’ll be sharing my wild adventure online too, so join in with me and we can go wild together!

 

The Japanese advocate “Forest bathing”, children are being encouraged to take part in Forest School days, as far back as the 1970’s research proved that  patients in hospital make speedier recovery if they can see the sky and the grass through a window.  Try some of the suggestions and discover the nature in your garden, around your workplace or venture further afield. All the local Wildlife Trusts run activities (many of them free) to help you discover your local area, so if you’re nervous about venturing out alone you’ll be in good hands.

What are you waiting for? stop reading and get outdoors, find the wild in you…