Sing a Song of Sixpence

Four years ago, when we elected to give up a comfortable and familiar life and take on a lengthy renovation project in the middle of a high moorland wilderness, our only question was “Will we regret it if we don’t do it?”  Knowing our answer, we sold up and moved, confronting adventures and mishaps along the way.  We did not know what was in store for us, but somehow, we knew the journey was going to be worth it.

And it has been.  Each time we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home.  This old house, complete with its three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects left to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, like a fine host who offers a comfy chair and a warming drink.  On a windy, wet evening — of which we’ve had more than our share this winter — we feel snug and dry.  And nothing beats a warm summer’s day, when we can bask in the beauty of the landscape.

It hasn’t all been Bordeaux and vistas though, and we’ve faced some steep learning curves:   Maintaining Generators; Replacing Oil Tanks; Building Concrete Plinths; Repointing; Addressing Damp; Refilling Potholes; Dry Stone Walling; Keeping Chickens; Keeping out Badgers, Foxes and Sheep; Death; Predation; Smashed Fingers and Scratched Corneas; Determined sheep; Leaks; Floods; Rats; and, Rabbits, to name but a few.  We’ve also put to use some of our known skills like mixing cement, hanging ceilings, refinishing floors, basic plumbing and electrical work, and gardening.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

At the same time, I have been observing and learning more about our local birds.  I’m not a twitcher, nor do I proclaim to know much beyond identifying the birds at our feeders, but my desire to uncover a few ornithological abilities has taken on a new dimension:  To locate where the blackbirds are nesting and to observe their broods.

We have friends who have a nice little nest at eye height in the hedge along the edge of their garden.  My search will not be so easy.   To focus, I need to look for the Blackbird’s nest in the kind of real estate these birds prefer:  Deciduous trees with dense undergrowth.  Hmm.  We have a number of trees around the property, but the undergrowth isn’t exactly what I would call dense.  Muddy and pocked with mole hills perhaps, but not dense.  Blackbirds tend to favour evergreen or thorny bushes such as holly, hawthorn or honeysuckle.  We’ve planted these, but the hedge plants have a few years to go before they offer up any real protection for nesting birds.  And sometimes, they might build nests in sheds or outbuildings, making use of a ledge or cavity.  Oh, and back in the day, you might find four and twenty of them inside pies.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

My skill of spying nests is not great, so I intend instead to stalk these birds to see where they come and go.  And like any good birder, I must do this with a bit of stealth.  Something else I seem to lack.  Walking outside usually means I send birds flying.  Sam jumps and barks in anticipation of a walk, while the chickens come running up in hopes of a bit of apple or some corn.  The grazing sheep and cows all stop what they’re doing to assess me.  In short, I am easily observed.  Following a bird, with its rapid and evasive flight pattern to its nest will be no easy matter.

To get started, I thought I’d read up on Blackbirds.  I already know how to identify the male Blackbirds with their slick, black plumage and a splash of saffron ringing their eyes and covering the bill.   It’s the kind of look that says, “I know how to go out on the town, and yet am not at all stuffy.”  Sophisticated and yet, whimsical.  The female birds are “dressed” more to my style; nothing particularly impressive and that’s okay.   Fortunately I also can comfortably recognise the lovely songs of Blackbirds among our community bird choir.  This may help me locate them when my visuals fail.

What I hadn’t realised is the lunar symbolism attached to these pretty birds.  There are plenty of people who see Blackbirds as dark and mysterious creatures, keeping their secrets safe.  Well now, that upped the ante on finding their nests!

While I’m hopeful, I’m not what you’d call driven.  I’d like to find the nests and observe the breeding cycle.  A few years ago we found a nest of Pied Wagtails in the wall of one of our sheds.  Their hidden home had a front and rear exit and I must have walked past it for weeks before I ever noticed it.  What drew my attention was the attack flight of a protective parent when I moved too close and paused near their homestead.  This well concealed residence was home to seven babies who soon learned to fly.

Last year, we had nearly twenty-five nests for Swallows and House Martins, which isn’t our highest number.  I can see the Great Tits bomb into the stone walls tending to their hidden homes.  There are probably wrens and Robins nesting in these walls, too.  Since moving here, I’ve hoped to find the Blackbirds setting up camp nearby.  I’ve spotted two males and one female.  One of these males likes to sit outside the window where I work.  Could any of them be living within a short distance to our front door? Or, are they just stopping by for the afternoon to observe the chickens and resident Jackdaws and sing us a happy tune?

Crockern captivates and enchants, providing a deep sense of place and belonging along with a peace and quiet that befalls one upon arrival.  I can think of no reason why at least one pair of Blackbirds wouldn’t make their home here.

Returning from putting the bird feeders away and the chickens to bed, Roger said,  “You’ll never believe what I saw in the shed.”  As it turns out, there was a pair of Blackbirds flying about where we store the bird and chicken feed.  Perhaps their nest is in there?  I go into this shed a half dozen times a day and haven’t thought to search here.  Instead, I’ve been preoccupied looking around the yard and area gorse bushes.  Have I missed the obvious while I singularly search for one thing?   And then it hits me, like so many answers to unasked questions which stare us right in the face:  Despite  all my efforts, I may or may not locate the Blackbird’s home anytime soon, and it doesn’t matter as we found ours.

Falling into Autumn

Dartmoor

Morning fog to start my day.

Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground with browns, yellows, and the occasional tinge of burnt orange creating a tapestry of mulch. I adore walking through fallen leaves with their lightness and crunch, but I remain mindful that these same leaves must be cleared from the gutters and drains. When the wind comes from a particular direction, fallen leaves catch upon the electric fencing protecting our chickens, causing it to short out, rendering it ineffective and necessitating some fiddly removal of this fall foliage.

The return of autumn also brings with it morning mist covering the valley until the sun has a chance to burn through. Just out of bed, I put on my wellies and a light fleece over my P.J.’s and Sam and I head out for his first walk of the day. It is now early dawn, and in a few weeks, it will be dark at this hour, but the cool and damp air helps to freshen and awaken me.   With the earliest glimmer of light from the sky, the birds respond in elation to the coming day. For Sam, it’s the smells at this hour that seem to bring him joy, and they appear to be different from those on summer walks.  Rather than bouncing down the path, Sam begins his charge only to suddenly turn on a dime heading toward a stone, bush, or gap in the dry-stone wall. And there he remains, inhaling with renewed focus, the scents of a nocturnal animal that recently passed by this spot.

With the shortening of days, our encounters with wildlife will change. In the morning, I now see more rabbits and an occasional fox.  During autumn, I hope to catch a glimpse, or the sound, of the rutting behaviours of resident deer in the stand of pines across the valley. Meanwhile, Sam follows a sent between some flowering gorse bushes, and I wait for him – they say a dog taking in scents is similar to reading – and look closely to the gorse bushes. With the morning mist, the spider webs covering nearly every surface inch of these prickly bushes are revealed. I never see spiders out here — they seem to live among the nooks and crannies of our house – but the evidence of their webby-work is strong.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

A few weeks ago, the last broods of Swallows were chirping in the nests scattered around Crockern. To enter the barn, was to receive a warning chorus before they flew out waiting for us to leave the space they’ve claimed as their own. But in the blink of an eye, the Swallows left and are now making their way back to parts of Africa for winter. With luck, those born this year will return here in spring to their birthplace, to build nests, roost under eaves of the house, inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds, and just about anywhere which feels accessible and protected. They will return to dive-bomb about the house feasting on insects and singing their happy songs. But, as one migratory bird heads away for the cooler months, another arrives: The Fieldfares are starting to make an appearance flying about the gorse bushes and reeds.

One constant remains: the scene of endless activity at our bird feeders with the Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   As soon as the sun is up, the collection of birds make an appearance at their “local”.

Chillier weather, shorter days, fewer eggs, a lower angle of the sun casting longer shadows, and our daily watch for coming frosts, necessitating a nightly covering of the vegetable beds with fleece, are some of the markers of the autumnal transition. Despite the winding down this time of the year represents, it also is a last big push before winter. In the coming weeks, we must ready our firewood for winter, clean the greenhouse of its last remnants of summer beauty, clear drains, rake leaves, mow the lawn one last time, turn and bag our compost, finish weeding, lay mulch, and straighten the barn. With this list of maintenance, should I consider planting more bulbs?

Last year, I planted 350 and thought that was plenty, until spring rolled around and I longed for even more snowdrops and daffodils to bravely announce a seasonal change. With the new oil tank in position and the Aga Saga chapter finally – and hopefully – closed, I’ve got more flowerbeds to construct. We will shift rocks, create drainage, fill the newly made beds with manure, compost and soil, and finally transfer plants. What an ideal location for more bulbs!

Autumn is a season of transition where our surrounding landscape and we switch from industry and activity to a quieter introspection. In a few weeks, we will begin to spend more time inside by the wood burner.  We may take on a few smaller projects inside the house: There are floors we hope to sand, and three more ceilings to repair, among the many projects. Of course, to do any of these will not be straightforward, it never is, as there will be wires and pipes to relocate, blown plaster to repair, and all manner of surprises to address. And, we will need to move furniture out of one room and into another before putting it back again. Then again, we may look more closely to an extended period of introspection.

The Great Outdoors

Magically, recent weather has been on our side. Not always warm, but at least mostly dry which has allowed our spring and summer work to commence.  We may have only recently turned our attention to projects outside, but Mother Nature hit her stride weeks ago.

The leaves on the trees are unfurling, the wildflowers are poking through grass and amongst the stones, the Redstart has resumed his curious habit of tapping at our window, and there are more than a few bees zipping about pollinating flowers. There must have been a dozen on the blueberry bush the other day, which gives me hope that this year we’ll eat more than 3 blueberries a piece for breakfast!

The Cows are watching.

The Cows are watching.

A week ago, Roger and I planted out the vegetable garden: Potatoes, beets, onions, radishes, carrots, lettuces and still more lettuces. In the greenhouse we have cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and this year, aubergines. Our Rhubarb, while not exactly huge, has already seen its way into a crumble. And after a three-year wait, we have been delighting in harvesting our asparagus. Nothing beats the taste of asparagus picked moments before eating it. I am filled with memories of being sent to the garden by my Dad to bring back asparagus and the flavour that captured spring. Years of the store bought stuff hadn’t put me off enjoying this seasonal veg, but having it so fresh has certainly made me a food-snob about buying it in a grocery ever again.

The most noticeable seasonal transformation has been among the local bird life. About six weeks ago, one or two Swallows made their way up the valley to take up residence in their summer home at Crockern. Now, the skies are filled with several dozen as they conduct their dive-bombing flight stunts to catch insects on the wing, return to build and tend to their nests, and periodically rest to chirp, chirp, chirp their very happy songs. Their sound is like a recording of dolphins.

The scene at our bird feeders is also back in full swing with a diverse gathering of birds: Nuthatches, Green Finches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Siskins are joining the regular crowd of Chaffinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Robins and Jackdaws. I’ll look forward to seeing the Yellow Hammer again, as there wasn’t a single visit last year from this lovely little bird. On the ground, below the hanging feeders, is the nursery of baby birds being fed by their parents. Their downy feathers all puffed up as they twitch in place and open their mouths as wide as they can to receive a perfectly selected seed from their parents.

The sounds of the valley are alive too. Baby lambs call to their mothers, who answer back until both are reunited. The colony of Herons is alive with raucous squawking from their nests in the boughs of the pine trees. Throughout the day, we hear the Cuckoo calling for a mate. The one who has returned this year to our area of Dartmoor has a distinct throat condition. The first “cuckoo” sound is melodic but the next few are off-key and horse, as if rather than spending time exploring his territory for a mate, he’s been down at the pub drinking and smoking for several hours.   Along with the unique utterance of our local Cuckoo is the sharp loud call, much like two stones being tapped together, from the Stone Chats. We can see these pretty little birds flicking their wings while perched on top of gorse bushes. What we can’t see, but definitely hear, are the ratcheting sounds of the Grasshopper Warbler. We suspect there are a few nests among the reeds in the fields below.

In addition to tending to the vegetable garden, we have been repairing stone walls, pulling weeds, moving fallen branches and building new stone walls to re-establish flower beds outside the house. This is an act of determination and strength, peppered with craziness, as these stones are heavy and often partially buried below ground in the same sort of ratio as an iceberg is in the ocean. The walkers past the house take little notice of us exerting our energy toward an immovable object, but we are being observed. In the meadow beyond our house there is now a herd of cattle, and the calves watch us with bemused eyes. So too, the two Dartmoor ponies who have laid claim to this patch of land, observe our madness between bites of fresh spring grass. The most mocking, however, is the Green Woodpecker. His laughing call somehow perfectly timed and delivered moments after we nearly get a stone into place, but not quite, frustrated as it rolls elsewhere.

The Ponies are watching us.

The Ponies are watching us.

Heading into the barn the other morning, the three Jackdaw nests were alive with a chorus of high-pitched sounds. The chicks hatched in recent days and they now announce any movement near or inside the barn, either as a warning or a lively and cheerful, “Hello!” Not wishing to cause stress, I move carefully in the barn as I try to put some order back to it. I was getting a big load of firewood delivered and needed to be ready to stack it so to season it for the fall and winter. The baby birds got used to me being in the barn, but if I got too close to the nests (within 5 feet!) they all started singing out their “Oh no you don’t!” call.

Most days Roger and I are busy planting, weeding, watering, or harvesting the gardens; repairing, building, or moving stone walls; or, clearing branches, building debris, and a recent land subsidence, which we will need to address sooner rather than later. We carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. No doubt, the foxes and badgers are making their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley picks up his turn to riff musically.

Stanley Comes to Visit

Early one morning, I walked into one of the sheds and there he was, sitting on the ground. His small dark eyes glancing up at me as he turned his head to assess danger. Unlike other birds that quickly fly away, this one remained quietly on the ground before giving a little shake of his feathers as if to settle into position. I passed gently, carrying on with my morning routine and trying not to startle the bird. Of course, my faithful hound and shadow Sam was not far behind me and as he came trotting into the shed, there was a quick flapping of feathers and the pigeon was soon perched on high. Sam, who could not care less about birds, remained oblivious.

Why did this pigeon appear in our shed in the first place? We don’t see many pigeons at Crockern, and certainly if we do, they don’t hang out in our shed. Was he blown off course?   Dehydrated? Injured? Sick? Roger and I opted to provide some bird food and a deep bowl of water on the ledge where he was perched. I left the shed, returning at regular intervals to monitor his progress.

With each visit to the shed that first day, I thought I would either find a dead bird, or one who had taken some rest and carried on with his trip. Instead, I was met with blinking bright eyes, which observed me with care before turning to eat, drink, and rest some more. This bird is healthy and unusually tame, clearly used to people. We have not wanted to cause any stress, so have not approached too closely, but a look at his legs reveals both have been ringed. We think he must be part of a racing club.

By the second day of his visit, the little guy was taking short flights to the top of the barn, then the top of the house, and into one of the Sycamore trees before returning to the shed. It was watching one of his flights that we realized why he was hanging out at Crockern. He’s not sick, but instead, missing half of his tail feathers and needed to recover some before flying any distance. To do so, he opted to make a safe haven in our shed. That’s when we decided to name him Stanley.

Racing Pigeon

Racing Pigeon

Once you turn your heart to the well being of another, there are choices to make and questions emerge. How did he loose those tail feathers? Was he shot or did a bird of prey attack him? Either scenario, Stanley managed his escape. Will those tail feathers grow back? When our chickens molt and loose tail feathers, they grow back in time. Provided there is no damage to the follicles, those feathers should grow back.

Each day we freshen his water, provide more bird food, and check to make certain he is okay. We watch him fly to higher and further points before gliding back after a few hours to his safe perch in the shed. We’ve introduced him to our friends and neighbours. We talk to him each day and encourage him to grow tail feathers and return home, or make a new home here. His choice.

Does he understand? Do birds make choices? I haven’t a clue, but I rather like the idea that Stanley is considering his options while he convalesces.

Visiting racing pigeon web sites, we learn more about these lovely creatures. There are blogs, tweets, and detailed information sheets on the care, feeding and handling of the birds. There are photo galleries, awards, and upcoming meetings! It is, in fact, a whole new world of which I knew little until Stanley flew into our shed and prompted our curiosity. On every pigeon racing website there is a section addressing what to do if you find a lost pigeon. I read with interest and then stumbled upon the following: “Before we can notify the owner, the pigeon must be contained and held for collection.”

Catch the bird? Read and report its ring tags? Put Stanley into a box and keep him there? These all seem like good citizen things to do yet, I can’t help but think Stanley’s racing days are over, and thus his value to his owner. Some wildlife pages caution reporting injured racing pigeons, as they are likely to be dispatched. Others assure there is a kind and worried owner waiting for their bird to return. How are we to know? Like Elsa in Born Free, hasn’t Stanley had a taste of something bigger (our shed) than his cage? Could he manage to live a life in the wild? Or, in our shed? Roger and I have moved house before, is it okay to let Stanley do a similar thing? Or, are we obligated to contact an unknown owner? What will happen to Stanley if we do? What’s his fate if we don’t?

By day three and then day four, Stanley’s flights were getting longer and more acrobatic. He’d circle the valley, visiting the colony of herons roosting in the stand of pines across the river. Our racing fly-boy would swoop and dive and soar out of sight only to return to the shed a few hours later. We suspected he was readying himself for a return to his home.

I know he’s a pigeon and many might say, “Hey he’s just a pigeon, what’s the big deal?” But somehow, Stanley found his way into our shed and thus our hearts. We feel responsible. For the time he may be with us, we will keep an eye on him; provide food, water and shelter. When Stanley is ready to make a choice, he’ll do what he needs to do to return to a life he wants. Staying here as a formerly “domestic” bird may put him at risk from any of our local birds of prey. But, flying back to a racing life may do the same.

At the start of each day, we find him in the shed and say, “Good morning Stanley.” At night we wish him, “Sweet dreams old fellow.” Yesterday, after he picked at seed in the grass and took a little dust bath, he took to the skies once more and we watched him fly expertly at top speed above the treetops. This morning, the shed was empty, Stanley had made his choice.

 

The Sound of Music

Just a few days ago, the air temperature was crisp and damp and the winds continued to howl a gale. It did not feel at all like the promised turn of the season. While I may be disappointed, the Jackdaws couldn’t care less. They are busy, busy, busy gathering twigs to build their rather untidy nests in every corner of the barn roof or available chimney pot they can find.

I like the Jackdaws with their raucous calls and high-pitched yelps. They are not overly musical, but seem to enjoy making music and conversation as they go about their business.

It is not dissimilar to our own style of music and conversation during projects. Roger walks through a room, singing a random song. About 30 minutes later, I am wondering “Why am I singing this hit from the 1970s?” I maddingly embrace this earworm; carry on with this implanted song in my head, only to have Roger pass by with yet another tune. We will often sing songs relevant to our current circumstances. “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO is always a favourite when the sun is shining and we are working outside.

The front door of the Jackdaw's nest in the barn (this roof is a future project).

The front door of the Jackdaw’s nest in the barn (this roof is a future project).

Messy nest.

Messy nest.

A Jackdaw getting ready to put in some decorative touches to its nest.

A Jackdaw getting ready to put in some decorative touches to its nest.

Our own renovation project is in its home stretch, moving from a messy Jackdaw’s nest to something we can soon enjoy and reveal. Still, we have a few more things to complete and rather than do them, we’ve embraced yet another distraction: we’ve rescued a piano.

When I moved to the UK, I left my piano in the USA with a friend. Moving it across the ocean was not an option at the time. Her children have taken lessons on it and it continues to be played, so that makes me happy. And yet, I’ve missed not having a piano.

I’m not a great player. I can read music and figure out some challenging musical pieces, but I’ve never been great at memorizing; nor, have I enjoyed performing for others. I’m a Jackdaw and not a Robin when it comes to my musicality. Happy to just make a racket and have a great time.

So, I found a piano.  There was a house clearance and it needed a home, our home perhaps? We went to look it over, struck an agreement with the man getting rid of it and set about making plans for moving this hulking musical instrument. We next secured a moving van and a few friends to help. Five of us – all in our 50’s with dodgy backs, sore shoulders, and any number of conditions that you’d think would have made me hire professionals – showed up and moved the piano.

Taking small steps, periodic lifts and regular pauses, we got the piano out of the house where it had sat comfortably for over fifty years. Making use of its little wheels on the flat, we inched it toward the van. Heave! Ho! And up into the van! Thirty minutes after it was secured in the back of the van, we were then faced with off loading it and getting it into our house.

“It must have a cast iron frame!” Roger offered as explanation of the hard work of everyone. This piano is heavy. It may be an upright, but it only just fitted through our very narrow front porch with a rather tricky tight turn. And, yes, I measured it before hand.  Having done so provided me a margin of confidence, a very tiny margin.

The piano is in place.

The piano is in place.

The piano is now in place. It needs a little TLC, so a piano tuner and restorer has been called. Sitting at the piano, I can’t read the music without my glasses, which is a new development since last I played.   But, the view from the piano stool, down the valley, allows for playing music while watching the birds weave their flight paths over the bright yellow gorse.

Of course, the piano will need to be moved again as the corner I have selected has blown plaster which needs repairing; and, the walls in this part of the house haven’t been painted yet. These projects are on next year’s list.

For now, I can rifle through my piano music and accompany the Jackdaws as we all get about our noisy, chaotic, music making.

Old Man Winter

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a few friends visit, but none more wild and disruptive than Old Man Winter. Carried into town on gale force winds from the north, he arrived full of bluster, hail, snow, and disruption. It’s been terrific!

After being blown sideways on walks, the weather finally settled and left a beautiful covering of snow. Not so much to cut us off for any length of time, but enough to change the atmosphere. Snow dampens the ambient sounds, while at the same time lifting the various bird songs to a purer tone. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Sometimes I imagine myself a skilled animal tracker as I follow where the fox has been in the night. From the size of his prints, he is a large chap and no doubt would take all our chickens if given half the chance. We also know the route of our visiting badger, who seems to circle the house, the vegetable beds and bird feeders, and then end up down near the horses. The good news is our electric fence is working a treat, as there are no tracks inside its zappy perimeter.

 

Snow just beyond Wistman's Woods.

Snow just beyond Wistman’s Woods.

 

If only these winter scenes were this simple: to enjoy the landscape and note animal tracks in the snow. But as the day unfolds, this snow invites crowds of people who approach it as if it is some sort of drug. They tried it once and can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff! Hundreds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas, which received rain rather than snow, arrive en-mass to go sledding, build snowmen, and enjoy it all. In their joyful frenzy, they leave behind litter, block our access gate with their cars, and this time, remove stones from the stonewall in order to climb over into the next field. It’s hard to imagine going to their houses and doing the same without invoking genuine rancour.

At such times, it is important to turn our attentions to our house and stop fretting about all of the playground behaviours outside. Given the renovation work we’ve accomplished, the house keeps us feeling snug and dry during these cold winter days. And we still have the downstairs to complete. But, we’ve had a few troubles of late: The Aga went from working okay to not working at all. We have a boiler, so this just means no heat in the kitchen, or the ability to cook or have hot water. In this situation, I enter a state of despair about no coffee in the morning. Ever quick to solve the problem, Roger appears with a camp stove. Hurrah!

Yet it took Roger three days of cleaning filters, bleeding fuel lines, lighting and relighting the Aga, before it finally stayed lit.  We know the problem and are replacing the troublesome bit of pipe in the coming days. Still, we are back in business with hot water and the ability to eat warm food. This just in time as we have friends arriving for the weekend.

As sledders, and snowman builders and photographers and hikers and birdwatchers pass by, we were hoping to rest on our laurels, before turning our attention to finishing the bathroom tiling. Never rest on your laurels is the message of the season because as soon as we did, almost to the second, the boiler decided to go on holiday. As it is only a year old, we hadn’t had any troubles and couldn’t help but think all the problems encountered while fiddling around sorting out the Aga were now manifesting themselves in like fashion with the boiler. A quick read of the owner’s manual and we locate the reset button. Depress it for a few seconds, release it, wait a nail biting second or two and, hey presto, the fan begins to whirl. The red light changes to green and the boiler is back.

 

In the meadow, you can build a snowman......

In the meadow, you can build a snowman……

 

“Roger, we really need to set a deadline and stick with it.” is my haunting refrain. The downstairs remains a close-but-no-cigar project as the devil is in the details, and there are more than a few details. The largest one is finishing the tiling in the bathroom, which has been delayed due to all of the above heating fiascos.

With the house now warm, what’s our excuse? That’s easy; it is nicer to go out, walk the hills and soak in the beauty, even in this seemingly dead of winter. The exposed grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red. The sky often seems mostly grey, but there are variations in the clouds and the colours poking from behind of blues and yellows and oranges, depending on the sun.  Lately, there has been a full moon and clear star-filled skies at night reflecting off of the snow. To walk along listening to the sounds of my boot on the frozen ground is one of my simple pleasures. And if I stop and look, I am often greeted with a flock of several dozen Fieldfares flying about the gorse bushes and reeds, or a bird of prey taking a break on a high branch, before pursuing its next meal. Most recently, we spied a pair of Goldcrest feasting on seeds in the pine trees near the barn.

At the end of the day, the snow tourists will eventually return to their cars and make their way home. Those of us who live here will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And when Roger and I sit by the fire, contemplating the tiling to do below, we will be easily tempted and then simply adjust the deadline to some future date.

I see a bad moon rising.

I see a bad moon rising.

More fabulous skies!

More fabulous skies!

A (Red)Start of Spring

Roger and I were recently in the States, joining family and friends, to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday. It was a grand old time filled with endless laughter, stories told a hundred times before, and the addition of new tales which will soon be worked into the tapestry of family lore. Before we made our way to the airport to head to this auspicious gathering, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to Crockern. Sure, we have had a few signs, but what we wanted was something greater and more profound than brave daffodils and hopeful snowdrops popping up through the grass. And yet as we left, the leaf buds on the trees teased and taunted us, displaying no more than tight buds of much anticipated foliage unfurling.

My Dad is 90 and loving it.  We are a big family and don't all fit well in this photo.

My Dad is 90 and loving it. We are a big family and don’t all fit well in this photo.

But what a difference a week makes: spring has finally sprung at Crockern. Everything is verdant with those previously mocking trees finally showing their full and proper leaf along with the rhododendron in a showy bloom. The Swallows and House Martins are busy competing for nest materials, while the Jackdaws seem to be applying the finishing decorating touches to their nests. Recently we saw a pair carry in their beaks some fleece along with flowers to accent their homes. We’ve also spotted nest-building activity between stones around the property: in the dry stone wall fences and the side of the barn and sheds. These well-hidden and newly built nests are home to future broods of Pied Wag-tails and Great Tits. It’s all happening!

While all this activity is exciting, it sadly cannot offset the fatigue brought on by a long trans-Atlantic trip. The best way forward is to indulge in a little nap as nothing else surpasses this effortless way to maintain health and well-being. But as I slipped into my noble and restorative siesta, I heard a “tap, tap, tap” on the window. Roger had warned me about this sound. He and Sam had heard it earlier and thought at first it was a bird or small animal trapped in the house. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tale Tell Heart, the sound grew and grew. I am not suffering “an over-acuteness of the senses” because Roger and Sam had earlier staked out the window and watched a Redstart fly from one of our sheds to the window and commence its tapping. Presumably for insects, but possibly warning off its own reflection assuming it to be a rival male.

Naively, I thought I could sleep through it all, but that wretched Redstart is persistent. He awakens Roger at about 5:30 in the morning. He interrupts my return-from-travels-nap. And he is still tapping as I write!

Redstarts are easily identifiable especially when they shake their bright orange-red tails. The males look dressed up for a night out with their slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange chest and bottom. Very smart, indeed. It’s exciting to see a pair at Crockern and know they are nesting so close as they are in decline across much of Europe.

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

The Redstart also has a beautiful song, joining the amplified dawn chorus that greets me each day comprising, among others, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Stonechats, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type. Yet there are a few calls I can distinguish. In and amongst the reeds in the meadow along the river a ratchet-y sound, not dissimilar to a fishing reel spooling out its line, can be heard. A quick assessment confirms there are no anglers making their way in search of trout in the river, so it can only be the most impossible of birds to spot, the Grasshopper Warbler. And there is the call of the Cuckoo, who has returned for the summer to its ancestral home in our valley. Last year, Dartmoor National Park, along with Devon Birds, participated in a national satellite-tagging project conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology. This project tagged four Cuckoos in Dartmoor to study the migratory patterns of these birds and gain an understanding behind their alarming decline. Hearing its call among all the bird song adds to the wonder and privilege of bearing witness to so much singing!

But seeing is believing and Roger spotted the cuckoo in the pine tree near our barn. With its sleek body and long tail, this dove-sized bird is often elusive to spot, despite knowing it is near due to its easily identifiable call. If you visit the Devon Birds Cuckoo Watch Map, you’ll see our blue dot denoting a recent sighting.

Yes, we're the blue dots between the road and Wistman's Wood.

Yes, we’re the blue dots between the road and Wistman’s Wood.

With this arrival of spring and the longer days and longer grass, the chickens are all happy. The asparagus crowns are showing, though we must wait another year before we can harvest. The rhubarb is up. The blueberry bushes are looking healthy and the strawberries are kicking out berries. Our potatoes are in the ground and in a few weeks we’ll plant out the rest of the summer vegetables. Oddly, for the first time ever, I’m excited about the nettles growing all over as it is now time to make some nettle ravioli. It’s somewhat labour intensive, but the payoff in flavour is oh-so-yummy!

Still to come, harkening the arrival of spring will be the return of the newly born lambs and their mothers to the upland moors for a summer of grazing. Their James Brown call and respond sounds will fill the air, not in a melodic dawn chorus I hasten to add, but more likely as an effective means to drown out even the most persistent tapping of our resident Redstart.

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