Our Kitchen Window

Our kitchen window looks to the south over land dropping down to the valley’s river.  Underneath the waving of tan reed bushes, where I imagine once were green pastures, the land lies crinkled and rocky.

There is an endless magic show outside this window.  The sun poking from behind clouds and the riotous birdsong in the trees and hedges surrounding the house.  This past week, we heard the return of two more of our migratory birds:  The Cuckoo and the Grasshopper Warbler.  Almost overnight, the leaves on the trees are beginning to unfurl.

And, the swallows are back.  We saw four flying about earlier this month.

Most of us are perpetually short of time, but now we are bathed in it.   By the close of the day, I wonder how the hours flew past so effortlessly?  No doubt I lost track of time observing ripples crossing the water of the pond or birds splashing in the bird bath.  Have we always had so many bees on the Willow catkins?

Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I have busied myself intently observing the happenings beyond these panes of glass.  Unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, I do not have a broken leg.  I’ve recorded in my journal a week of kitchen window observations and remind myself that each of these details happens just once, like an introduction or a death.

 

Dartmoor

Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

Monday

Today I spotted a small Tortoise Shell butterfly landing on the catkins of the Willow tree.  This very tree self-seeded itself about five years ago.  Things grow slowly here, so it is currently the size of a tree half its age, but it is coming along nicely.  This gives us both hope as Roger recently completed planting 120 trees in our fields.  I did not help.  Instead, I finished filling the certainly-more-than-a-mere-120 potholes along the track.

Next, we have the veg beds to complete before planting out in a few weeks.  And there sits 16 tonnes of rocks to shift as we build up our gabion wall to protect against erosion.  We’re busy.

 

Tuesday

While chatting with one of my brothers, I watched a solitary ant roam about the window ledge, then up and over the screen of my phone.  It paused, perhaps taking in the image of my brother as he laughed at a joke.  I wonder, when will we get our annual ant invasion?  Every spring, for one-day only, the ants come marching into the kitchen from the window or under the cabinets.  For a few hours, they are everywhere.  A proper horror show invasion!   We throw open the windows and the door and within about an hour, they are all gone.  It’s as if they have a nest deep in the stone walls of the house, emerge when conditions are just so, and then head off on their summer adventures.  Was this first ant on a scouting mission, distracted by the conversation between me and Peter?

 

Wednesday

Tonight there will be a Pink Moon, the full moon of April.  Last night we saw the preview of this Supermoon casting the most splendid shadows across the land.   But, as this day has rolled on, the clouds have increased, giving a hazy effect to what had been otherwise a clear blue sky with sunshine.  There will be no lunar observation this evening for us.

“It’s happening Reg, something’s actually happening Reg!”  In the distance, a thick cloud of smoke is filling the air, adding to the haze in the distance.  I hope it is my neighbours having a bonfire, the result of a lot of gardening work, but I will call to confirm.  It’s been so dry lately, a fire could easily travel.

In the upper right-hand corner of the window I watched a spider cast her web.  I am captured by her design and abilities to hang, drop, hang, attach, leap, hang, drop, attach, hang, knot…..

 

 

Thursday

Oh my!  The spider’s web trapped a plump fly.  She’s feasting on it but I can only see this from a distance.  Too close and she retreats, her meal safely wrapped in her web.

There’s a light frost covering the ground and most of the daffodils are blooming.  I had planted an extra 150 bulbs last autumn.  The small white flowers on the Blackthorn have emerged.  We put the hedges in almost four years ago and this is the first flowering we’ve had.  They are finally establishing themselves.  Small daisies are appearing in the grass, a cheery presence.   Seemingly overnight, the nettles are growing in and amongst the hedge plants.  I will go out and cut them to make soup and pesto.

 

 

Friday

What madness!  The chaffinches just chased the Great Tits off of the bird feeders.  Our hens just chased the rabbits (yes, more than one.  Little buggers!) and Jackdaws from the bird seed laying on the ground.  A big rat poked its head out from under one of the shrubs.  Of course, all I need to do is say “damn rats” and off Millie and Brock go to issue their barking orders to who is permitted to gather socially at the feeders.  Rats are not on their accepted list.  Of course, all the other birds fly away too, but are now returning.

Ah, two Siskins!  We haven’t seen them in ages.  Green Finches and Gold Finches are joining the crowd too.

 

Saturday

Those nettles have grown.  I must get busy and do something about them before they become too big, too tough and bullish to confront.

Atop one of the dead trees on the other side of the river a buzzard is perched.  Earlier I watched her circle above and then drop like a rock to the ground.  I wonder what she’s caught?  She’s busy now preening and sitting comfortably with a full belly.  I do love birds of prey and their “top dog” pecking order.

 

 

Sunday

In all of this quiet, it is shocking to see three separate helicopters fly over.  Where are they headed?  What are they transporting?  I don’t think I’ve ever given this much thought before.

Bold as brass, a Stoat ran past before diving in between gaps in the stone wall.  Is this what was attacking the baby rabbit the other day when I heard those horrible cries from the wall?

 

 

Any day

All this activity outside the kitchen window.  The living room window offers a view of the pond and different observations.  Meanwhile, the radio plays the news in the background of my hide.  The daily release of stats with the humanity behind it incomprehensible.  I get up to turn it off and resume my perch.

As the evening begins to creep in, there is a silence like sinking into sleep.  A calm and settled place.

Ooh, there went a bat!

COVID Quiet

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Not that many summers ago, a friend was visiting with her two sons.  We enjoyed the warm summer evening in the hot tub, watching the sun’s light slipping lower in the sky and casting long shadows, briefly providing a filter of flattering egg-yolk lighting.  Laughing at our own dim-witted jokes, her youngest son put his hands up and said, “People, can we please stop talking and listen to the sounds of Dartmoor?”

That’s us told.

And he was right.  To pause.  To listen.  To hear the sounds that are all too often muffled by the busy buzz of our lives is a gift.

With this global shut down, the usual drone of cars and people chattering have all gone COVID Quiet.  Even in a remote location like Dartmoor, we are all once again hearing the “singing of the real world” as Virginia Woolf once wrote.    Energetic bird song pulsating the air as the gang claim territory, attract mates, and twitter the beginning, middle and end of each day.  The rustling sound of the breeze sifting its way through trees newly in bud .   Sheep and cattle calling in the distance.  Our chickens proudly announcing the laying of an egg.   And once, the puttering sound of a tractor engine across the valley.

Nature boosts my mood, possibly more so now in “lockdown times”.  There is a smell of spring in the air as the earth warms up.  Oh, if only we could bottle this scent!  After a long winter, the landscape is waking up and stirring the senses.

All of nature is having a different time of it.  Migrating toads enjoying their breeding season since they aren’t likely to be squashed by passing cars.  Birds, foxes, badgers, and the lovely hedgehog may all welcome a respite from the effects of human activity.  I recently read there is a precipitous drop in air pollution, noise pollution and even surface seismic activity from trains, cars and busses across the globe.   A big change.

I’m not certain if I am imagining it, but the sheep seem less on guard.  They know Millie and Brock, so barely give a glance from their grazing when we pass.  But unknown dogs are rightly viewed as potential predators.   To look out upon the hillside and down the valley is to see sheep keeping their distance from one another, enjoying a patch of spring grass, rather than being clustered together.  Safety in numbers.

Our COVID Quiet is giving rise to the sounds of a newly settled landscape.  We’re not hearing hundreds of people each day who noisily walk along the foot path near our house.  We’re not hearing cars rumble over the cattle grate a mile away.  No calls to misbehaving dogs.  No arguments between couples.  No crying children.  And a quieter Brock who is no longer barking at people walking past with their dogs.   All of this is the stuff of life, but not the natural sounds of Dartmoor.  With damping of our collective human noise, I am certain I heard a giant sigh as the moors relaxed themselves like a tight muscle easing.  No one walking across her land.

With the old noises gone and the new sounds resonating a new choral song, I am determined to learn more bird songs.  I know the chipper tittering of the sky lark when we are walking through the reedy grasses.  The outrageous squawk of the Grey Heron and the yaffle of the green woodpecker are familiar sounds.  And at some date in the future the well-known coo-coo, coo-coo of our most mischievous migrant birds will fill the air. But deciphering the calls of the Great Tit from a Chaffinch challenges me like remembering someone’s name at a crowded party.  I can hear it, commit it to memory, but when the time comes to introduce this new person to Roger, I’m at a loss if her name was Christine or Caroline.

With nothing more than birdsong and hearing Millie and Brock sniff the ground on our morning walks, I am beginning to tease out a few different sounds.   I now head out with the dogs and my binoculars.  I am working to hear a unique bird call and then locate the source.  If I can identify the bird, then I can link its call.  I can happily say that with greater confidence the Great Tit, the Chaffinch, the Skylark, the Black Bird and the Robin are almost easy for me since I set out with this project.  I, a complete novice, am growing in confidence and soon hope to decipher the sounds of some more recent returners to our garden:  The Green Finch and the Goldfinch.

This COVID Quiet is not the same for everyone and has underscored the inequalities of life across the globe.  I recently heard from a friend in New York City who wrote me, “We’re well and so far so is all our family.  We hear sirens constantly though.  All day and all night.

Here at Crockern, we’re grateful to have one another’s company, technology to connect with friends, the energy and happiness of Millie and Brock, fresh eggs from our hens and the unfolding secrets of Dartmoor.  And through our different experiences of this new sound scape across the globe, I am reminded we’re all in this leaky boat together.

Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

A Brief Resolution

 

 

I’ve never been keen on making resolutions for the new year, largely because I have always broken them. Why set myself up for failing to get fitter, drink less, eat healthier, or fold my clothes like Marie Kondo?   I’m not alone.  It’s estimated over 80% of us who manage to make resolutions lose resolve by mid-February.   I get it. The very thought of a resolution nags “I must” or “I should”.  And if I don’t, I have failed, which is a lousy feeling.  It’s simply too much pressure.  What’s with all the hype if they so rarely work?

My resolution failings are in with the majority, but I wonder what percentage misses the mark within the first few hours of the new year?

Rather than making a list of resolutions, Roger and I have a slightly different tradition on the last night of the year.  We sit by the fire and explore the question:  “What are the areas we want to bring into focus in the new year?”  To do this, we each write on a piece of paper those things from the previous year we’d like to let go.  Sadness.  Anger.  Stress.  All the biggies which can get in the way of having fun.  We then burn the paper and with it, those burdens.  It may be a little new-agey to do this, but admittedly, it is very satisfying.  It’s symbolic and we both privately say goodbye to things that have been weighing us down.  We don’t discuss our regrets; we just burn them and then switch gears to forward thinking.

Next, we make a little list of a few items we’d like to do in the new year.  Again, these aren’t so much resolutions, but more guidelines.  We both agreed that we wanted to be more creative, tart up Crockern with specific projects, increase our travel, address fitness levels (okay, a little more exercise and less drinking come into this, which sounds perilously close to resolution territory), go to an Exeter Chiefs game, and try to go to the movies from time to time.  While we came up with these ideas independently, our 4-5 items where completely in synch with one another.  We’re off to a good start!

As we sat by the fire, discussing some of our plans for the new year, we both confessed that we wanted to be more patient about the things which make us nuts:   People driving up the track, climbing our stone walls, blocking our gate, or leaving poo bags in places  along the track that mean we either continue to look at them, or we have to clean them up.  It’s a big ask for both of us as our tolerance for what seems like completely oblivious behaviour on the part of the general public reached an all-time low last year.  Still, it’s not making us happy or stress free to focus on it, so we both agreed how we might go about “letting go”.

When I mentioned this intention to a friend, he quipped “I suspect it is easier for an addict to give up heroin than it is for any of us over a certain age to become more tolerant.”  Hmmmm.

Alas, he may have a valid point.  Day one of 2020.   It was a foggy holiday morning and we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast.  The morning air is chilly and there is a moody fog across the valley.   I’ve already built a fire and we are both looking forward to a long walk with the dogs after we finish a few chores.   It’s a lovely start to the new year and so far so good with our non-resolution resolutions.   Traditionally, on this day many people set out on a walk.  Eight-thirty a.m. and we could see we were in for a busy day on the footpath past our house.  Still, we were feeling positive about the new year ahead.

Suddenly, Roger flies out of his chair and shouts, “There’s a dog running in the yard!”

We are outside faster than imaginable.  Millie and Brock bark with excitement but are quickly stunned into silence when Roger roars, “NO!” at a black springer spaniel who had captured and killed our Wee-Cockerel Tommy.

We rescued Tommy several years ago.  He was a Bantam Cockerel, and about half the size of our hens.  Never once did he miss crowing his start of the day at 4:30 a.m.  Never once did he get up and about before 8:00 a.m., having woken everyone else.  When first introduced to our flock of hens, he stood his ground despite his size disadvantage.  A twenty-minute power struggle ensued between Tommy and the top hen.  After much chest thumping and chicken growling, the challenge ended.  Not clear who was the winner, but Tommy earned his wings and respect from the existing flock and us.  He was graced with black and iridescent green feathers, which upon first appearance rendered him rather drab – yet when the sunlight hit just so, he shone resplendently.  Always friendly toward us, the dogs, and our flock of hens, he never bullied, and was a sensitive little chap.   We always knew when we had a chicken who wasn’t feeling well as Tommy would not leave her side.  He was courteous and served his duty to his flock of hens with honour.  He also was fun to watch when he ran, swinging his feathered spurs left and right from under his body in a pirate like swagger. He has been a friend to all of us and to our hens and we’ll miss him terribly.

The encounter with the couple and their dog cut short our tolerance goal for the new year.     We had no patience for endless apologies.  We had no patience for explanations about how they were “unaware we had chickens,” their dog had “never done anything like this before,” and “we had no idea he could climb a fenced wall.”   No, we plummeted into resolution failure.  Our newly resolved patience as measured through limiting the use of colourful language was a fail.  We out Samuel L. Jackson-ed the man himself.

It’s true, eighty percent of people lose their resolve to making changes within the first six weeks of the year.  Some of us in less time than that.  Tommy the Wee Cockerel was murdered by our front door by an unsupervised dog who jumped our fence.  Roger and I failed with our first effort at improving our tolerance.  Given the circumstances, it was a big ask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

Hoo’s Looking for Birds?

At a recent party, I heard three separate conversations about Barn Owls. “Oh, we have one living in our shed.” “I have a Barn Owl roosting in my stables. ”  “You know, we’ve got a pair mating in our barn.”  And to each of these, I gave an acknowledging smile and grudgingly contributed, “Roger and I have spotted one once or twice on a standing stone along our track.”  Doesn’t compare, does it?

I love owls and spotting them is different from other types of birds.  Most are fairly elusive during the day, enjoying the nocturnal and crepuscular way of life.  This definitely doesn’t correspond with my behaviour.  I’m up with the sun, busy during the day and then ready to hunker down when the sun sets, particularly in winter when it is colder. Nothing beats sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night, good book and glass of wine to hand.

Our wet and rainy December has given way to a less wet, but certainly colder January and February.  We had our first snow flurries the other week, but not much accumulation.  Then these past few days, the temperatures dropped to an angry cold, the clouds moved in and we have a proper eight or so inches of snow.  Currently, when the news isn’t about Brexit, it is all about the Polar Vortex gripping the Mid-West in America.  Less newsworthy, we’re having our own wild winter on Dartmoor.   The dogs go crazy in the snow, following the fresh scents and animal tracks on the surface.  They love nothing more than diving into a snow drift to chase a snow ball.  While Millie and Brock are busy sniffing newly laid scents, I am moved by the pure resonance of the dawn chorus.  This layer of snow dampens ambient sounds leaving a still backdrop for the songbirds.  Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing.  Likely, right after any owls have decided to call it a night.

With this much snow, we presently have the moors to ourselves, except for a brave few photographers. This solitude won’t last long as no doubt, the weekend will bring all the madness of people coming to go sledding.  They will leave their cars parked all over, block gates, and leave behind a trail of litter.  This is the part of the snow fall I do not enjoy.   But the roads are not fully passable at the moment, so they haven’t arrived yet. This gives us a chance to fully embrace our own little winter wonderland and the thrill of laying our own fresh tracks in the snow.

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Roger andI head out onto the moors with Millie and Brock, the ashy coloured sky reveals an occasional patch of blue.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, lighting the clouds in a pleasing combination of pink, purple, and grey.  The tors look especially brooding on top of the hills in this light and with their dusting of snow.  With the wind to our backs, we march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

Trudging through virgin snow, we pass sheep who keep a watchful eye on Brock.  We do too as he is still working through his instinct to herd them.   After about forty-five minutes, we clamber to the top of some rocks, pause, and take in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.  We catch sight of a bird of prey quartering low over the moors beneath our vantage point.  We watch it either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something already lying dead below.  Roger is certain it is a Hen Harrier, which we don’t often see.

It’s thrilling to spot a bird of prey.   They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace.  Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures.  Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger has spotted a Merlin, too. He once observed a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are standing now.

Owls are part of this elite top bird group of predators.  And like all birds of prey, they are powerful, fast, graceful and nimble.  And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile.  I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means.   They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them, an amount so easily disrupted by climate and people.  With curiosity and admiration, we happily watch the Hen Harrier.

As we move on, I bring up the conversations at that recent party.  “Roger, why is it almost everyone seems to have a nesting Barn Owl?” “Roger, why don’t we seem to have nesting Barn Owls?”  “Roger, did you believe everyone’s comments about the nesting Barn Owls at the party?” “Roger, could there be that many nesting Barn Owls living in such close proximity?”  Clearly, my envy was getting the better of me because while many of our friends and neighbours are able to report Barn Owls living in their out buildings, all we can confirm are Jackdaws, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, toads, and a million spiders.  In the spring, Swallows and House Martins will join the crew.  And, Pied Wag-Tails will make nests in the cracks in the mortar of the building’s walls.

In the meantime, if I can’t see a Barn Owl, I’ll darn well listen out for one.  Unlike the hooting sound of the Tawny Owls living in the stand of Pines across the river, I will need to listen carefully for an eerie screeching and hissing sound.  I’ll also have to keep Millie inside as she enjoys nothing more than conducting a night time perimeter bark to warn off foxes and badgers, in order to keep our chickens safe.   I doubt we’ll get a resident Barn Owl anytime soon, though I may sign up for a Nest Box workshop at the local Barn Owl Trust.  It’s important to encourage new critters to Crockern.

Dartmoor

 

Spring Into Action

The Vernal Equinox, that day which holds hope for a turn in the season, came and went like a drift of snow.  We may have recently experienced the astronomical beginning of spring, heralding the start of longer days, new blooms and warmer weather, but much of Britain is still shivering.

As I write, the fire is ablaze in the wood burner, and my feet feel like ice cubes.  Just outside the window, a pair of jackdaws are busy collecting fallen twigs to build their nests among the rafters in the barn.  They seem to be getting on with things despite the wind and now hail, but this is still not the weather to be starting a brood.  I am thinking twice about suiting up in fleeces and waterproofs to take Millie for an afternoon romp across the moors.  I feel as if I’m in a state of limbo waiting for an extended period of sunshine.

Long celebrated as a time of rebirth in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox is associated with spring time festivals and holidays.  It holds the promise of fresh starts, spring cleaning, flowers, long days and sunshine.

But there’s no sign of settled weather ahead and my twitchy green fingers want to get things done in the garden.  Our potatoes are busy chitting on the window sill, and in about a month’s time our plug plants will arrive for planting out into the vegetable garden.  My February hopes of pruning the various rose bushes, hedges, blue berries, and other shrubs is delayed by weeks.  I did managed to lightly clean the greenhouse during a downpour, but it isn’t ready for planting.  With the cold and grey, even the strawberries are delaying the start of their spring growth.

It’s frustrating to not be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold and sodden.   When the last of the snow retreated into dark hedges sheltered from the sun, the land may have thawed but it was once again saturated with the deluge of heavy rains.  We must be patient.  Experience tells me to wait to put in the carrot and radish seeds.  Still, I would like to get out and prepare the soil, prune, and tidy.

Instead, I watch as the channel I dug to protect the track from runoff has been destroyed in places by the cattle.  The potholes are growing, despite a mini break in the weather several weeks ago when we filled dozens.  The moles, rats, and rabbits have left us with some ankle turning land.  Repairs to some of the outbuildings remains on hold as it is too wet to make the needed interventions.

At this time of the year, it is hard to focus on anything other than the cold and wet.  But, there is a beauty in this seemingly dead of winter.  The grass is not simply green, but accented with colours of gold, brown and red.  Layers of cloud upon cloud cover the sky in multiple tones of grey.  Gone for the winter are the summer migratory birds and it has been months since the Swallows and House Martins have been here dive-bombing about the house feasting on insects.  I know their return soon will announce the arrival of spring, so too the Cuckoo.

The wildlife is different during this time of the year as much of it is in hibernation or just lying low until spring.   Much, but not all.  The earthworms are being tugged out of the ground by our chickens as they seek foraged delights.  The Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws are taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   And none of this winter rain, wind, or mud has stopped the walkers.   Why should it?  If we waited for fine weather, then we would never go outside.  These intrepid souls have been out in huge numbers loaded with their binoculars, cameras, maps and walking sticks.

At the end of last year, Roger planted 150 hedge plants as we are trying to create a border which is friendlier to wildlife than simply stock proof fencing.  A mixture of viburnum, maple, blackthorn, hawthorn, and alder to join the 120 we planted the year before.  Our diverse hedging should – in several years to come – provide a thick, messy growth of native species for birds to nest and hide.  Ideally, it will also provide a good natural hedge to keep unwelcome critters out, namely the sheep!  Thankfully, those bare root saplings seem to have escaped the harshness of this winter and the weight of the snow fall we experienced.  A close examination shows early budding.

One sure sign of the impending turn of the season is the recent return of the sheep.  We have had almost two months of them being away on their reproductive winter holiday.   But these ewes are of a hardy stock and will not be cloistered for long, returning pregnant and wearing thick fleece for the remaining months of cold and wet.  Soon they will give birth then we will be surrounded by cute little lambs, lots of noise and a new generation to dissuade from jumping onto our stonewalls.

As we changed the clocks, the light is lingering later into the evening, bringing with it the promise of warmer days and softer breezes.  Our chickens are laying a daily bounty of eggs.  The daffodils are standing tall with their trumpet flowers and I’ve made a note to plant several more bulbs in the autumn.  Yesterday, I heard the lovely melodic song of a blackbird, letting me know that the mating season of this favourite bird is soon to commence.  As I await the true change of the season – not just the day when the sun shines directly on the equator – and its call to action, I will soon spend more time outside rather than inside.  Today isn’t that day.  Perhaps this isn’t that month.  But it’s coming.