Fieldfares

Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud.  Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh.  Occasionally we get snow.  All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address.   On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy.  I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair.  I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t.  They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February.  I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed.  We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well.  I examine with pride our young hedge.

In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants.  The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness.  We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden:  Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder.   Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants.  A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south.  Attractive and purposeful.

Hedge Planting

Part of our hedge in 2016.

The other day we had a much needed break from the rain.  A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky.  It was a short lived reprieve.  The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind.    The ground remains saturated.  The mud is everywhere.  And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.

Today promises a mixed bag.  Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse.  Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley.  Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites.  No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south.   We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through.  We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn.  The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through.  The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation.  The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.

And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions.  No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating.  Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast.   Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again.   As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks.  Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature.   As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight.  Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.

I like Fieldfares.  They stand upright and move with purpose.  They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks.  When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter.  In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us.  Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found.   They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries.  We’re glad our hedges are thriving.

Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead.  When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute.  Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.”  However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock.  They are part of the winter scene.

Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food.  We keep food and water out for the birds.  Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees.  They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on.  Almost all will likely leave before they breed.   This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.

We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill.  We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern.  We hope they have a brood this spring.

Wickipedia photo 800px-Fieldfare_flock

Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

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.