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.

 

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Rap-Tors

Dartmoor

With record amounts of rain so far this year, it is a rare occurrence to be out for a walk without waterproof outerwear covering every inch of my body.  I know on this particular occasion I am taking a small risk as the weather could change in an instant, back to punishing rains and winds, but my weather app is telling me there are a few hours before the rain sets in for the rest of the day and I am happy to take the risk.

As Roger, Sam and I head out onto the moors, the sky is a blue-grey and the tors look especially brooding on top of the hills.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, affecting sepia toned lighting akin to an old photo found at a flea market.  With the wind to our backs, we three march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

We sloshed through the boggy paths past Litteford Tor and Longaford Tor, and carried on towards Higher White Tor.  On route, we pass sheep that will be giving birth in a few weeks.  We hear the sounds of dogs barking as they work with the farmer on the other side of the valley to gather sheep.   After about forty-five minutes, we reach Higher White Tor, clamber to the top and pause taking in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.   The sudden flapping of wings turns our attention as a pair of Curlew fly away, low to the ground.  Looking up to see the parting clouds, we glimpse a Buzzard circling overhead.

We sit and watch, trying to determine where this magnificent bird will touch down.  Moments later, another Buzzard joins the scene and the two lazily drift arcs in the sky, either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something perhaps already lying dead down below.

To a bird of prey, the world is three categories: food, threat, or simply irrelevant.  The three of us are solidly in this last camp.  I’ve learned from many walks that coming upon a bird of prey sitting atop a fence post with its vice-like feet and solid long talons, fixing me with its steely expression of extreme indifference, I can safely watch back with curiosity and admiration.  That’s right, I am neither food nor threat.  In moments such as these, I would hate to be a vole, small bird, mouse, rat, fish, rabbit, or hey, even one of our chickens.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.

Birds of prey are powerful and fast, graceful and nimble as they soar above upland landscape.  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.  Almost anything can potentially tip the delicate balance of their ecosystem.  They are hunted, become accidental victims of attempts to poison other wildlife, or fail to thrive because of even a reduction in caterpillars upon whom the small prey feed.   I know many who do not like to see a bird of prey pass by the bird feeder, fearing the future of other garden visitors.   But, the presence of a bird of prey indicates there is ample food available, a strong indication of an environment in balance.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t see them at all.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

And who can deny that it is darn 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, Sparrowhawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger once spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are watching the Buzzards.  We have yet to see a Merlin.

Sometimes it’s not the seeing, but the hearing that lets us know they are in our midst.  The other night, we were awakened by a strange noise.  Still half asleep, I thought maybe we had mice in the ceiling.  But it was loud, too loud to be a nest of mice.  Roger went to investigate and announced that the sound, a pecking sound, was outside on the roof, not in the ceiling.  While instantly feeling relieved, I did stop to wonder what in the world is making that racket at this time of night on the roof?

It is too late in the season for Santa, but it had to be something nocturnal and something that could get up onto the roof.  That ruled out badgers, foxes, moles, deer, and presumably the Wisht Hounds from Wistman’s Wood.  This left us with the possibility of bats or birds of prey.  With sound as our only clue, we believe it was an owl eating its catch.  A mouse, rat, mole, rabbit or even a bird was likely being dined upon – whole! – above us as we attempted sleep.  Soon the sound stopped and we drifted back to sleep, content with the knowledge of a balanced and working ecosystem surrounding us.

 

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A Flight of Swallows

Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies.  Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California.  While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless.  (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/).

Consider the distance they’ve traveled from Africa, managing to negotiate their way back to their birthplace, here at Crockern, just to raise their young at our house.  Admittedly, I could use some of their navigational skills as more than a few times I’ve found myself lost down a Dartmoor country lane.  Once here, the Swallows roost under the eaves of the house; inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds; on top of some fencing we left propped up in a corner; and, among debris I was planning to take to the tip, but now must delay.

Swallow at Crockern Farm

Up on the roof

There is an old saying, “When the Swallows fly high, the weather will be dry.”  I remain skeptical as to whether or not one can accurately predict the weather by observing the flight pattern of a Swallow, but their busy nature does confirm a fine day in the making.  The warmer and dryer the weather, the more bugs and with them, more Swallows on the hunt.  We have had an extended run of clear days this summer and so have been outside addressing a number of projects.  In the past two weeks we have completed our track repairs, built a concrete base for a new oil tank, mended more of the stonewalls, and kept abreast with the growth in the vegetable garden.  Being outside for most of the day I am drawn to watching the zigzagging flight patterns of our Swallows.  I know we don’t own these Swallows, but I think of them as part of the gang of critters and creatures who consider Crockern their home and as such, they are part of our family.

Like any family member, they give great joy along with the occasional annoyance.  Take for instance their wonderful chirping calls as they dive bomb through the air feeding along the way.  Swallows have a number of songs to communicate excitement, attract a mate, or issue an alarm.  Typically, their delightful musical twitterings are comprised of a simple melody followed by clicking sounds.  But the call denoting “Feed Me!” by the young, that early morning demand and begging solicitation, is most uncivilized and wakes me up.  This is neither cute nor clever.

Despite this rude awakening, I find Swallows to be among the loveliest of birds with their graceful movements and bodies shining blue and black when the sun hits their glossy wings.  I like seeing their pale bellies, splashes of red at their throat, and those long tail feathers as they soar through the air.  Sometimes when the Swallows return up the valley, I watch their flying dance imaging if each were trailing long bits of fibre, how they could easily braid a rope.  Mostly, I find their flight agility as nothing short of miraculous.  It’s a noisy, busy, aerial display available daily confirming the most basic truth:  the smallest things make life wonderful.

There are few predators agile enough to catch a Swallow, but sometimes Sparrowhawks or Hobbies are able to do so in flight.  I love Sparrowhawks and cheer on their survival, but I do not want to be witness to the snatching of a Swallow.  Which side to choose?  While shoveling the umpteenth bucket of rocks (by the end of a single day, nearly two tones shoveled and moved) to make the concrete mixture, I looked up and saw a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with about thirty Swallows mobbing a Sparrowhawk near the trees by the river.  From the distance, I don’t know if the Sparrowhawk held a Swallow in its clutches, but I do know that the Flight of Swallows saw off this spectacular bird of prey.

I enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these elegant birds and happily benefit from their insect hawking expertise.  Mosquitoes, Midges and Aphids are among the Swallows’ food, captured and devoured almost constantly while in flight.  The Swallows may be helping our broad beans survival since our beans have a few aphids, despite the companion planting of nastursum (admittedly, planted too late) and leaving a patch of nettles nearby.  I recently learned that a Swallow consumes 60 insects per hour, based on a 14-hour day, that’s a whopping 840 per day!  At last count, we have twenty-three nests, with at least 2-6 Swallows per nest, so by my calculations, that is over 77,000 fewer insects, on average, when we are enjoying our bar-b-que.  How can you not love Swallows?

And so what if they are a bit piggish, aren’t they entitled?  These birds give new meaning to Puritan Work Ethic:  constantly catching food, repairing nests, singing songs, and coursing back and forth over 600 miles a day, at an average speed of 45 miles per hour, as they forage for bugs.  They spend most of their waking hours on the wing, more than any other songbirds in the world, and do this just to catch enough flying insects for their survival and that of their young.  When they aren’t swooping about, they rest briefly on tree branches or on our roof, the very one we had repaired in December.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

Swallows taking a short rest on the roof

When the Swallows returned in April, following our roof repair, they had some construction work of their own as some of their nests were damaged where we replaced guttering.   It took the parents about a week to build and restore their nests; working dawn to dusk with only brief rests.  Just outside our bedroom window is a cup nest tucked up under the rafters.  If I sit quietly, I can watch the Swallows zoom towards it, hover briefly and then shoot off in a new direction.  I can only view this nest from an odd angle as I hang out the window, so I am left to guessing the number of young living in it.  What I can see are thousands of small mud pellets used in its construction.  As Roger and I move onto the next round of projects, we may wish to observe how Swallows accomplish so much in the course of a day.  Whatever their secret, I draw the line at living off of bugs.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

A Swallow in the nest, one zooming in and I’m hanging out the window taking a not so great photo.

There is something comforting in the knowledge that each summer we can expect the Swallows’ return to Crockern.  And while they are here and I enjoy their beauty, their intrigue, and their bug-eating enthusiasm, I must also make a note — before they flock and begin their epic migratory journey away, crossing Europe, the Mediterranean, deserts and the equator — to locate some bells to ring in their return next year.

“When the Swallows come back to Capistrano

That’s the day you promised to come back to me.

When you whispered ‘Farewell’ in Capistrano

‘twas the day the Swallows flew out to sea.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUSC37bLuuU

Badgers? We Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Badgers!

I awoke, as per usual, in the middle of the night and fumbled my way through the darkness to the bathroom, negotiating stairs along the way.  We have a small window in this room and looking out into the darkness, I was presented with a nocturnal surprise in the shape of a short, stubby-legged, plumpish animal, ambling around the yard.  It was 3:00 a.m. and I was bleary-eyed and tired, so I wasn’t certain what I was seeing at first, but I knew it was not a sheep, a fox, a hare, a dog, a cow, or even a Dartmoor pony.  It was definitely low to the ground and as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight peeking through the clouds and trees, I noticed that it also had an elongated head and its little black face had white stripes.

Since we don’t have skunks in the UK it could only be its cousin, the Badger.  With this sighting, we get to add them to our ever-growing list of critters and wildlife that come to visit us.   I watched him and took in his splendor as he slowly made his way past the chicken coop.  The chicken coop!  While I was thrilled to have experienced this rare sighting, I laid awake the rest of the night worried about the safety and well being of our hens.  The predator and prey relationship is all around us and we are doing our best to improve the odds of the prey in our care, namely our chickens and vegetables.

Ecologically speaking, predation is all about the relationship where one party feeds on another and we are indeed in the midst of this condition.  The slugs are predators, targeting mostly our Tatsoi and Turnips.   The chickens like to eat the worms in the soil, but also pick at the leaves of the Kale. The ticks in the grass occasionally find Sam.   Those sheep will eat everything and anything plantlike should they get in beyond the boundaries of our yard.   Inside the house, the spiders are busy building webs to attract all manner of smaller insect into their arachnid kitchen.  In Dartmoor, and especially in the high moors where we are, most of the land is undisturbed providing encouragement for wildlife, which on a daily basis reminds us that we are in the midst of some serious predation.

Thanks to The Wind in The Willows, The Tale of Mr. Tod, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Watership Down almost all of us can identify a badger from pictures seen during childhood.  Sure, many of us have seen them squashed along the road by a car, or sometimes in the headlights on a country lane, but to see them in the wild doing their thing is almost exclusively the domain of a nature program with the aid of trip wires and hidden cameras.   To be looking out the bathroom window at this hour provided a rare and wonderful glimpse of this short-legged creature on his late night perambulation.

Badger from The Wind and The Willows

What timing, too!  The badger has been in the news a lot lately because in less than a month’s time a trial to determine if badgers can be killed humanely before extending a cull across the country to control the spread of bovine TB is about to begin.   The debate over culling badgers in England has opinions widely divided.  While most agree that bovine tuberculosis causes serious hardship to farmers and costs millions of pounds each year of the taxpayers’ money to control, there is little agreement about the science, policy development and wildlife conservation.

In absence of approval from the European Union for the use of the bovine vaccination, the British government has given approval for badgers to be culled in a pilot test in England this autumn.   This pilot cull is designed to exclusively examine whether or not badgers can be killed effectively and humanely, and is not about the scientific data of TB transmission since the carcasses will not be tested for signs of TB.   I find this problematic because on the basis of these results, government ministers will then decide whether or not to extend the culls nationwide.  In recent developments and due to public protest, the pilot cull may be delayed at least a year.

Seeing the badger that night, brought the controversy more immediately to mind, but these short-legged omnivores shouldn’t cause us problems, except where the chickens are concerned.  Badgers tend to eat earthworms, insects and grubs.  Hopefully, they aren’t averse to eating slugs, because we’d like to see those gobbled up on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, badgers can be a problem for the garden, as they seem to like to dig and eat roots and fruit.  So goodbye turnips!  They have an ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so fair warning to the rats.  They also eat small mammals and birds, including chickens.   And, herein lies my worry.  If they were to get hold of one of our hens, she would not stand a chance.   I currently inspect the chicken coop weekly for any breeches that might make the hunting life easier for local predators, but now I must up my game on my own bio-security and ensure that the badgers can’t dig under the walls into the chicken coop!

Badger Track Dartmoor

Badger track next to our veg garden. Just under 4 inches!

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are readying for winter, changing colour, dying back and dropping their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife a lot easier.  Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox or deer on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely.

While working in the garden the other day, I heard two buzzards screeching and calling as they circled slowly in the sky.  Something lay dead or dying on the hillside, and those buzzards were preparing for their meal.   More predators in our midst.   It was a beautiful sight to see these magnificent birds of prey float above the hill with the white on white clouds in the background.  The autumn light cast a low golden glow upon the trees that are beginning to change from their summer green, complimented by the reeds now swaying hay-coloured along the river.

Later that same day, Roger and I were surprised to witness, through the kitchen window, a Sparrowhawk drop suddenly from the sky and buzz through the garden, disrupting all the little birds at the feeders.  Failing in its attempt to snatch a bird, it took to resting on the fence.  For over ten minutes, we quietly watched from our own perch in the kitchen as it recovered from its failed mission, spreading its wings and flattening its body on the fence as if to cool down after the adrenaline rush that resulted in no lunch.  The chaffinches, tits, yellow hammers and nuthatches had all been put on warning.  For the next hour, there were no birds feeding in our garden.

Like any skilled predator, the Sparrowhawk marked this spot as easy pickings and returned the next day.  Again, no success.  But it was considerably bolder as on this occasion, Roger, Sam and I were all out in the garden when this magnificent bird seemingly appeared from nowhere, sending small birds in all directions to seek shelter.  It will be back and we may have to contend with one or two fewer birds at the feeder.

I appreciate that predation is just the order of things, but I still don’t want the badgers to get my chickens.