A Stork Out

During the winter, one of my primary focal points is the wood burner.  Not just the heat it produces, but the hypnotic beauty of its dancing flames.  I am easily distracted while sitting in one of the chairs close to this stove.  Installing the wood burner was our very first project at Crockern, and since that time we have spent many fine hours enjoying it, both dogs curled at our feet.  I also proudly organise the store of wood in the barn, rotating our supply to season the latest arrival.  My wood store organisation paid off when Chimney Sweep Steve said, “You two should write a manual about how to use a wood burner.  This one is as if it is brand new.”  Like the Grinch’s small heart, mine too grew three times that day.

I won’t betray my love for our wood burner, but lately, I find my tendencies toward distraction are pulled in more than one direction.  I can no longer walk past the living room window without stopping to see what, if anything, is visiting the pond.  I’m like a hopeful teenager willing my crush to round the corner and catch my eye.  Each time I look out upon the pond, I enjoy the magic which tentatively creeps into the scene:  a sparkling glimmer upon the water as the sun pokes through the clouds; or perhaps, a rippling of waves as the wind whips up the valley.   Already, our new pond is attracting wildlife.  We have had the arrival of a pair of ducks swimming daily, and periodically making camp on the island.  I watched a Sparrowhawk preen its feathers on a nearby fence post, resting from a recent hunt nearby.

D1

But most recently, I spotted Roger gingerly wading out into the pond.  Roger is tall and slender, and the pond is very muddy at its edges.  I waited in anticipation for his probable slip and splat into the mud.   But Roger didn’t fall, instead he came to a spot and stood motionless, gazing intently at the water.  “What is he doing?” I wondered.  Hunting?  Attempting to determine the various depths of water?  Considering where we will be placing trees and any other plant life?  Looking for the muddy archive of animal print trails passing near the pond?  Or, trying to see the pond from the same perspective as the Grey Heron, one of our first and most frequent pond visitors.

It’s no wonder we’ve spotted this elegant long-legged hunter waiting by the water’s edge for a fish nearly every day.  Across the river and in the stand of pines, lives a colony of Herons.   Herons nest socially and usually at least 25 metres above the ground.  I’ve walked in these woods and looked up but have never spotted a nest.  Over the years, we have delighted in watching Herons sail along the river’s path with their slow-flapping wings and long legs held out behind.  They look almost prehistoric in flight, and comical as they attempt to gain purchase on a flappy tree limb.  From my own perch,  it is easy to watch these magnificent birds fly in and out of the pines.  And if I can’t spot them, I can hear them making their loud and raucous selection of croaking sounds.  Impossible to miss.

Until they started visiting our pond, I did not appreciate the size of a Grey Heron.  Some of the adults can stand up to one metre in height, with a wing span of about two metres.  I’m only about 1.6 metres tall.  This makes it one of the largest birds we will spot at Crockern.

Herons are usually solitary hunters, standing silently and patiently with that beautiful pale grey plumage.  Because they are still for so long, I can take in the beauty of the broad black stripe extending from their eyes to the back of their white heads and necks.  I like the extra feathers drooping down their necks, too.   They are dead on trend for eye-liner styles and may be the unknowing inspiration for a drag queen or two.  Lady Heron performing tonight on RuPaul’s Drag Race!    These natural killer good looks are accented by their long and pointy yellow beaks, perfect for spiking their prey.  That could spell curtains for some of the other small wildlife to visit the pond.  Fish are not to be found in our pond.  How long will they wait until they realise this?  There are plenty of moles in the fields, so perhaps those will suffice.

Most recently, I was driving up the track and glanced down towards the pond.  I wasn’t expecting to see much more than the direction of the wind on its water and the mud patches all around the perimeter.  But standing stock-still, scattered almost equally around the edge like numbers on a clock face, was a siege of Grey Herons.   Six to be exact.  I phoned Roger from where I sat in the car.  “Roger, quickly get your camera and go to the living room window.  Do not let the dogs out.  Take pictures.  You’re not going to believe it.”

Perhaps, dear reader, you’ll be equally surprised by the photos.

Across the Pond

We had an unusually long spell of dry weather last summer, prompting Roger to dig a test hole to see if we could have a pond. Sections of our fields are often soggy or flooded by the river.  They are only really good for grazing, or being turned over to create wildlife habitats with trees, wildflower meadows, and a pond.  We sought advice from Devon Wildlife Trust and felt a pond could work.

The pilot hole was about four feet deep.  We both hoped Roger’s digging might tap a natural spring to feed our future pond.  That didn’t happen.  Roger filled the hole with water from the river and then took daily measurements.  Our test hole mostly held, but through evaporation and lack of any additional rain, the water level dropped somewhat.  We were uncertain if a pond was going to work.

When we began our discussions of creating a pond, I never considered there could be so many different types.  Shaded.  Vernal.  Overgrown.  Stream-fed.  I can’t go anywhere without looking at ponds.   For selfish reasons, I’m especially interested in seasonal ponds, the kind that partially dry out in summers, as that is what we will likely have.  While on a mini-holiday in Yorkshire, the dogs and I were on an early morning walk through a foggy and flat landscape.  Off to my right I spied a small body of water in and amongst some gnarled old trees.  I’m only a visitor, but I suspect this is a seasonal pond and somewhat overgrown with leaf mulch.  It’s lovely.

0

When I think about our pond, I have visions of clear water, rich in wildlife, surrounded by a smattering of waterlilies and fringed with rushes, cat tails, and native tall grasses.  Caressed by a soft breeze and warm sun upon my face, I emerge from a grove of trees, fishing pole in hand.  I stop not too far from the house, yet far enough to be out of earshot and cast my line.  My “bobber” floating on the water.  I wait and then wait some more for a fish to bite.  Meanwhile, the mosquitos are biting at my legs.  Hold on!  This isn’t Crockern.  I’m at Aunt Jeannette’s farm in Yellow Springs and I’m five.

Meanwhile, back to Crockern when in September we hired a man and his digger to do some work for us.  After several attempts with my shovel to clear the overgrown drains along our track, I accepted defeat.  In two days, Matt cleared these long neglected drains, facilitating the passage of water into the culverts beneath the track, the flow of runoff water we get from heavy and extended rains.  Of course, the new and freely flowing drains revealed that three of our six culverts had collapsed or were blocked from decades of neglect.  We still have work to do once the winter rains ease.   Anyway, while Matt was here we had him dig our pond.

IMG_4835

Matt’s the kind of person you want doing this work.  He knows his stuff, engages in the discussion of ideas, has great problem-solving-insight, and works with a surgeon’s touch as he operates a 3-tonne digger.   Not only did he dig our pond in a day, he moved earth to create a raised edge at the deeper end of the pond, creating a windbreak, and shifted stones on the shallow side of the pond, making a slope for wildlife to be able to access with ease.

The day after we dug the pond it rained.  Two days later, our pond was full and has remained so ever since.  No surprise as we’ve had rain almost without break since September.  From our living room window, our new pond looks like a donut in the bottom corner of our lower field.  The ground surrounding hasn’t grassed over the mud, nor are there any native plants to soften its edges.  But standing next to it, it looks splendid.

During the past century, nearly 70 percent of ponds have been lost from the UK countryside.  For wildlife, adding a pond has increased importance.  I wonder, what delights lay ahead in this new haven?

We spotted a Grey Heron standing on the island.  There aren’t fish, but perhaps it knows of some other food sources present and will become a regular visitor.  Two Mallards were paddling in the waters in November.  Not much cover, but at least they could retreat to the island if they elected to breed here.  Before we committed to the pond, I saw a duck with eight ducklings paddling in a quiet part of the river.  I never saw them again.  Our river is, at times, torrential and populated with all sorts of predators along its shores, not ideal for rearing young ducklings.

Every spring, we have swallows and house martins.  Our pond will serve as a great place for them to use muddy areas to aid in their nest building.

Perhaps some grass snakes?  We know our field has snakes, having spotted more than a few Adders.  Who knows what they may hunt near the water’s edge?

Having “constructed” our pond in the autumn, this spring and summer is our time to plant.  Roger has ordered 120 trees for the field and around the pond.  We have some naturally growing lilies and fox gloves, so I may do some transplanting.  In time, plants and wildlife will colonise the pond, but we want to help establish it.  I read placing some dead branches into the pond can enrich the habitat considerably.  That’s easily done.

Our pond, our seasonal pond.  Unlike my childhood memories, this pond most likely won’t have fish and that’s okay as they themselves can predate on insects and amphibians.   In our pond, if you’re not being eaten, you can thrive!  Bring on the newts and water beetles.  Welcome frogs and toads!  Caddis flies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, pond skaters, snails and water beetles get your groove on and breed in our pond.  And you ducks?  Come back and raise your duckling brood.

 

A Little Bird Told Me

Thirty minutes of looking through binoculars made me feel nauseous, but I couldn’t stop as I watched an elegant bird, cloaked in grey, white and black feathering above unmistakably long legs, hunting for fish.  I can appreciate the Grey Heron’s studied quest in the West Dart River, because each time I spot a small brown trout dashing from cover to cover, I feel happy.

West Dart River, Dartmoor

The West Dart River, where I did not capture a photo of the Grey Heron.

It’s nearly May and I’m still waiting for the leaf buds to open unfurling the new foliage.  While I bide my time, our visiting birds are returning.  Two weeks ago, we put in our asparagus bed and as we buried the root crowns, we noticed light catching the long tail of a small bird diving and swooping overhead.  Once again, this familiar, but long absent bird, was in our sights.  After nearly six months, we welcomed the return of the Swallows.   Miraculously, the Swallows appear to have no loss of energy or grace as they carry on hawking for insects, after their long travels from Africa to navigate back to their ancestral homes, under the guttering of our house.   I can’t help but wonder how do they travel these incredible distances with such ease?

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

The dawn chorus is fully amplified now with Blackbirds and Robins waking up first.  A bit later, the sounds of the Dunnocks, Wrens and Blue Tits layer in additional voices.  Recently, I’ve made a challenge for myself to learn our local birds by their call.  This is no easy task as I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type.  My learning tool is the RSPB website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/) with its recorded birdsong library.  When I see a bird I recognize, I look it up on the website to listen to its song.  I then try to commit to memory the birdsong with the bird so that I might one day ID the birds without seeing them.   I may never fully achieve my goal, but that doesn’t stop me reveling in the privilege of bearing witness to all this singing.

There are a few sounds that I comfortably recognize:  The syncopation of the Great Tit or the cheery songs of Skylarks, Robins and Blackbirds.  A distant laughing call from the Green Woodpecker in the trees across the river is easy to identify, though I’ve yet to see this happy bird.  In any community choir there are likely to be found those voices that carry the melody, the counterpoint harmonies, and sadly, the “honker” who lets out a sound that only family can love.  In our bird song chorus, this unpleasant barking noise is incongruent with the striking beauty of the Heron who emits it, one of whom I watched wade up the river in search of food.  Each time I hear them, I am reminded of the cry made when missing a nail and instead accidentally hitting a thumb with a hammer:  “Ow!” (Pause)  “Damn!”

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Lately, the air is filled with another easily identified sound, that of the Cuckoo, who returns in spring and summer for a short stay.  This dove-sized bird, with its sleek body and long tail, makes a familiar call and I am instantly taken back to my childhood home, which was filled with clocks.  Over the years my Dad has amassed an impressive collection:  Grandfather, Banjo, Grandson, Regulator, Anniversary and, of course, the Cuckoo clock.

One of the Cuckoo clocks hanging in my Dad’s house has family history.  In 1907, my maternal grandmother, Pauline, her sister Louise, and their parents immigrated to the United States, through Ellis Island, from a small village in South Western Germany near the Black Forest.  Pauline and her mother kept in touch with their extended family in the village, sending care packages of food, clothing and small toys to her cousins who were experiencing food shortages during the war.  As a thank you years later, Pauline was sent a handsome Cuckoo clock made by craftsmen in The Black Forest, near her birthplace.

Pauline’s Cuckoo clock is made of dark brown wood in the shape of a chalet with a peaked roof and is decorated with intricate carvings of leaves and animals.  Its most distinguishing element is the Cuckoo bird that jumps out of a trap door to sing its song on the hour, belting out enough calls to denote the time.  There are two pinecone-shaped weights hanging on chains beneath the clock to wind its cog-driven timing mechanism within the chalet.  An additional decorative touch is a carved oak leaf hiding the regulating pendulum swinging below.

Like the Swallows, House Martins and Cuckoos, we all return to our ancestral homes, those places that gave the initial shape to our way of understanding the world.   It may be a return to the actual place where we can touch the walls, smell the air, and in the case of some of the birds around Crockern, repair nests and hatch young.  Or perhaps, our migration is nothing more than a return journey through memories triggered by a simple sound.  “Cuckoo.  Cuckoo.”  I’ve moved a good distance from my formative years in Ohio, but can quickly be enchanted and transported back to the familiar when I hear the song of the Cuckoo in our valley.  The call of this highly secretive bird declaring its territory and hoping to attract a mate, makes me feel as though I will soon see my Dad, as I did every day when I was a child, winding his clocks and coordinating their chimes as he sets to conduct his own dawn chorus.

Chaffinch at Crockern

A little Chaffinch at Crockern.