The Great Outdoors

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

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

The Cows are watching.

The Cows are watching.

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

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

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

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

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

The Ponies are watching us.

The Ponies are watching us.

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

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

Advertisements

It’s Just The Place For An Ambush

We’ve started our next renovation project. After addressing the damp on the walls by installing a curtain membrane and channel for any moisture from the stones to drain away, we’ve fitted a replacement window and started the studwork. Next we will fix insulation, lay the floor, hang walls, and address electrics and plumbing.

The first time I looked out of the newly fitted window, I was greeted with a wondrous sight. Not just a stunning view through clear glass; there was something especially cheery about the landscape.  The Gorse bushes, which are everywhere on the hillside around us, had burst over night, as if by magic, from evergreen into their golden floral display.

Gorse lining the track to Crockern Farmhouse.

Gorse lining the track to Crockern Farmhouse.

In late autumn and into the harsh winter months, there are always a few flowers dotted about the moors, but it is April and May when these plants erupt into their full flowering. There is an old saying, “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion.” So, it’s always a pleasure – nay, a thrilling relief — to see these little yellow flowers in and amongst the snows of winter. At this moment, the showy flowers are everywhere, so pucker up!

The bloomin' gorse.

The bloomin’ gorse.

Gorse blooming in winter snow.

Gorse blooming in winter snow.

What an impact this plant has on the landscape, both in colour and scent. There is a distinctive coconut smell, fragrant to some (Roger) and weak to others (me). Along with heathers, these are the plants we think of on wild, windy, and open moors and this landscape certainly would be lacking something significant without them. It characterizes the scenery, and with its spiny, needle-like leaves, provides dense shelter and food for insects and birds such as Warblers, Stonechats and Yellowhammers, the last of which will return soon to our bird feeders. Even the wild Dartmoor ponies forage gorse, eating the thinner stems especially in winter.   Since the flowers are edible, I may throw a few into a salad.

In addition to this first bloom of gorse, and completing one major project only to start the next, we have kicked off the warmer seasons by firing up the hot tub. We gave the hot tub a little clean, filled it up and had our first soak of the year. We sat in the warm water; occasionally feeding logs onto the fire to heat the water, and watched the light fade over the hills. The bats emerged from their roost zooming past with such speed the insects didn’t stand a chance.

To bring the hot tub up to temperature and maintain the warm water for several hours takes about the same amount of wood we would use in an evening in the wood burner. But unlike the need to burn seasoned hard wood, we may consider using some of the dead gorse to heat the hot tub. Before the Industrial Revolution, the highly flammable gorse was used as fuel firing traditional bread ovens and kilns. So, why not our hot tub?

After two years of living at Crockern, we’ve discovered a few things that are predictable, namely the weekend parade of tourists. Every Saturday and Sunday we witness people miss the footpath running next to the leat on the other side of the valley. Rather than make their way along this gentle path into the dark woods, they seem to choose what, at first glance, must appear an easier path, if only because you can see the road in the distance.

We watch lost hikers spend time negotiating their way down the very steep hill covered in reeds, gorse, followed by low lying bog water. We watch them encounter the river, which then needs to be crossed. We watch people contemplate false trails through minefields of ankle twisting ground. We watch as arguments commence, despite the blooming gorse that permits kissing. We watch as some return back up the hill and start over. We watch as others throw their packs across the river and then take their first step onto a slippery rock surrounded by cold water. We watch the occasional splash.

On one occasion out in the yard, Roger was sanding a door and I was planting potatoes when we spied a couple with their dog clamber down toward the river. “It’s just the place for an Ambush.” remarks Christopher Robin as he leads an expedition in Winnie The Pooh, along a similarly steep, rocky, and treacherous non-path. Winnie the Pooh, who believed an Ambush was indeed a Gorse bush, was sternly rebuked by Owl “My dear Pooh,” said Owl in his superior way, “don’t you know what an Ambush is?” But for Pooh, the true meaning of Ambush is the gorse-bush, the very one which sprung up suddenly when he fell from a tree. The man in this couple may well agree with Pooh, as a prickly gorse bush following his rather unfortunate, yet spectacular, misstep ambushed him too.

Later, as Sam and I walked down the track, surrounded by very old, tall thickets of yellow gorse and budding Rowan trees, I heard a familiar sound. Looking up, I saw the first of our returning swallows. They are back and we are looking forward to their summer visit. I joined Roger at the picnic table. We sipped our wine, watched the swallows and Roger worked on carving a spoon out of a piece of oak. Perhaps his next spoon will be from gorse?

Roger's latest creation.

Roger’s latest creation.

Gorse in bloom, and not, on Dartmoor.

Gorse in bloom, and not, on Dartmoor.

Enhanced by Zemanta

I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels.  Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches.  Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape.  However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.

There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified.  They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer.  Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees.    I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution.  A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through.  Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change.  I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging.  Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape.  I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.

We’ve made seasonal shifts, too.  I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam.  My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner.  I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring.  This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox.   Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.

Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house.  When was it built?  Who lived here?  Were they cold?  Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past:  “I heard a witch once lived here.”  “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.”  “Oh, I used to go to parties there.”  “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.”  “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.”   Witches.  Farmers.  Children.  Wood Workers.  A Potter.  On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay.  If only the lichen could speak!

Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon.   We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed.  No such luck on that front.  But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident:  Mr. Mortimer.

On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres.   In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm.  He died in the mid 1940’s.  But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.

These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land.  In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood.  During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers.  After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.

We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area.  Not so with Mr. Mortimer.  Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles:  Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded.   While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park.  (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)

Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor.  His farming methods were considered “hopeless.”   In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls.  Laughable and yet, inspired!  If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs.  J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”

Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours?  Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.

As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden.  We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub.  We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night.  The birds change.  The days grow shorter.  But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

Rosie’s Big Adventure

Whether or not we’re ready, summer is beginning to ease into autumn.  Crisp morning air, earlier arriving sunsets and a bumper crop of late summer vegetables are just some of the signs.   We all know it too:  the swallows are organizing in preparation for their imminent departure south and our chickens are heading to bed before we encourage them to do so.  Just the other day, there was a discussion on the radio about when one should turn on one’s central heating.  Our own recent discussion on this point, is when will the plumber arrive to install our new boiler?

This turn in season is marked also by the drop in visitors, both to our house and along the footpath toward Wistman’s Woods.  Over the summer, we were abuzz with visits from friends and family.  There was a range of ages, and every one’s kid helped with walking Sam, feeding the chickens, putting out bird feeders and even working in the garden.  Our youngest visitor was Rosie.

When Roger and I met in the Canadian Arctic, we met several other fine people, including Greg.  He, his wife Anita, and their daughter Rosie returned again this summer for what is now an annual visit to Crockern.

Rosie, aged 2.5 years, spent a full day exploring Crockern and its surrounds.  After a stiff walk up on the Moors, she got stuck in with some gardening and animal husbandry.  She helped walk Sam, fed the chickens, and looked for eggs before turning her attentions to the garden.  Like anyone at that age, she is tireless and I’m not certain there were enough potatoes to keep her busy as it took four adults just to keep up!

Thanks to Greg, the following blog is a photo essay of Rosie’s big day out at Crockern.  As soon as she learns how to plaster and swing a hammer, we may have a few more projects requiring her assistance.  Then again, she’s very handy in the garden, so we might just leave her to that!

Meet Rosie and how she takes a walk on the moors.  She rides on her Dad's shoulders.

Meet Rosie and how she takes a walk on the moors. She rides on her Dad’s shoulders.

Taking care of Sam and showing him the river.

Taking care of Sam and showing him the river.

Feeding the chickens before looking for eggs.

Feeding the chickens before looking for eggs.

Finding Eggs!

Finding Eggs!

Learning how to find potatoes.

Learning how to find potatoes.

Rosie perfecting her digging technique.

Rosie perfecting her digging technique.

Taking inventory on the newly dug potatoes.

Taking inventory on the newly dug potatoes.

Rosie and the Onion

Selecting the perfect onion.

And when it's all said and done, who doesn't love a nap?

And when it’s all said and done, who doesn’t love a nap?

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

Summertime

Summertime view from Crockern

Not that long ago in May and June, we began to release our reluctant and extended grip on the memory of winter, all the while continuing to keep a watchful eye for last minute frosts on the garden.   By late spring and the subsequent arrival of a few weeks of sun and warm weather, everything seemed to erupt in a bout of growth and fertility:  eggs hatched, flowers bloomed, and the leaves on trees finally gave shade.

Now, in the height of summer, and in the heat wave in which we currently find ourselves, all of that activity has slowed and it appears July is a time when there are to be no dramatic changes.  The garden is growing steadily without sudden surges.   The dawn chorus is quieter and while the birds regularly visit the feeders, they do so with less noise than in the spring when they were busy attracting mates, building nests, and raising families.  Even the way Roger walks down the track has a quiet to it.  Unlike last year, we are experiencing days of full sunshine, warm breezes and a pace that is reminiscent of the summers of childhood:  Long, lazy days, seemingly without end.

The sunshine, heat and soft breezes have life around Crockern hiding in the shade.  The chickens like it best under the car or the rose bush.  The horse has a shady spot by the wall.  Even the sheep seem to be in hiding, with only the occasional bleating noise from some faraway stand of trees.   However, what we have in abundance are butterflies, moths, bumblebees, dragonflies and loads of other insects.  They buzz, hum, flit and flutter, pollinate, bite, get eaten by birds and know no difference between the inside and outside of our house.

Chickens in the shade of the Car

Two of the chickens keeping their cool in the shade under the car

Chickens in long grass

Our chickens enjoying the long grass of our Slow Gardening efforts

Once we finally managed to keep the sheep out of the yard, we had to address mowing the grass around the house.  We elected to adopt a Slow Gardening approach and keep the grass long in some areas.   No close-cropped, emerald green lawn for us.  Instead, we have longer grasses, ferns and reeds, and with them, wildflowers such as buttercups, clover, speedwell, cow parsley, violets, daisies, stinging nettles, poppies and dandelions, among others.   The Foxgloves and Thistles, with their purple heads, stand tall and spiky and accent, along with yellow gorse flowers, the green landscape.  One might say we are being lazy, but we would argue that we are embracing the essential premise of a Slow Gardening approach where less intervention helps create an environment of wildflowers and grasses for all those beneficial insects that are helping with pollination around the garden.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly in the Reeds

Slow Gardening

Slow Gardening and its benefits

Despite our slower pace, we have recently received a 20-tonne delivery of road plannings to repair the potholes, which developed with the torrential rains of winter, along the track to our house.  We set aside two hours a day on this project in order to preserve our sanity and our muscles.  From one of three large piles, we shovel the rocks into a wheelbarrow, which is then carted down the track to the next pothole in need of filling.  We dump the contents into the pothole, rake it smoothly, and then return to the large pile and repeat the process on the next pothole.  This is a labour of love and cheapness.   My achy muscles have me wondering if we shouldn’t just learn to embrace the potholes?  But admittedly, my vanity lights up when people notice the improved track.  Either way, when I stop to take a drink of water, the beauty around me momentarily transfixes me and I’m happy to be enjoying the summer, forgetting my suffering shoulders and arms.

We still have an unending list of things to do, and the next big project is the downstairs and all that it entails:  central heating; new floors, walls, and ceiling; replacing windows; installing stairs and a new bathroom.  Oh my!  But in this seasonal low activity of hot summer days, we appear to be settling into a nice slow pace.  However, we do have another item on the “To Do” list and that is participating in The Big Butterfly Count in Britain next week.  On the national count map from last year, there were no reports representing the middle of Dartmoor.   How can this be?  We have spotted Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admiral, and a few that I can not identify as they flitted past too quickly during my practice observation.  I am positive the day we do our count; we will add some numbers to the national tally.

I admire butterflies, with their highly coloured wings, and since they are unable to bite or sting like some of their insect relatives, namely the midge, I think they are marvelous!  Sadly, butterflies and moths are sensitive to environmental change and in the past few decades, have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in the UK as their habitats have been destroyed.  Sir David Attenborough said, “The Big Butterfly Count should be great fun.  Butterflies are extraordinary, heart-lifting creatures – visions of beauty and visions of summer.  Butterflies in profusion tell us all is well with nature.  When they decline, it’s a warning that other wildlife will soon be heading the same way.  So with the big butterfly count we will be doing more than just counting butterflies, we’ll be taking the pulse of nature.”

http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

It couldn’t be easier to participate and does not disrupt our summer pace:  Fifteen minutes of watching for butterflies, counting what is spotted and all this from my garden chair!   So serve up a beverage and snack, hand me my notebook, and let me take a seat and register numbers while I delight in seeing the butterflies flit about from flower to flower, doing all the hard work in our garden.

Life can be so expansive and yet we still return easily to the elements of childhood.  On a recent trip to Montana with a group of childhood friends, the smells from a backyard grill in the air, we sat on a deck reminiscing about our days growing up in Ohio, and I was instantly transported to a time when life slowed, laughter erupted, and we watched butterflies and clouds with carefree abandon.   After a day of work outside, I admit to a weakness for the ordinary pleasures of the end of a day:  a shower, a gin and tonic and a book.   In the evening, while sitting in the hot tub, we are grateful for the diving patterns of all our resident Swallows as they feed on the midges that are in pursuit of our pliable, edible skin.   As the evening draws in and the last of the Swallows head to their nests, the remaining million or so midges set about their full attack on us.  We retreat, hiding deep in the water until the bats begin to sail past and pick up the Swallow’s abandoned feast.  As the stars finally emerge in the night’s sky, we know to experience a long summer’s day is well worth a few itchy bites.

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.

Tempus Fugit And A Lot Of Other Things, Too

The other night, there was a bat in our house.  Not just any bat, but a Greater Horseshoe Bat.   Roger identified it and our friend Richard, who is an ecologist and holds a license to handle bats, confirmed.

Greater Horseshoe Bat

Greater Horseshoe Bat in our Kitchen

There are 17 types of bat recorded in Britain and the Greater Horseshoe Bat is one of the rarest.  In 2001, there were 11 confirmed species of bat living in a variety of habitats within Dartmoor National Park, which is one of the largest breeding roosts in Western Europe for this type of bat.

Bat roosts everywhere are suffering due to human activities such as modern farming methods, conversions of buildings, woodland mismanagement, the sealing of cave and mine entrances and the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in the countryside.  The mismanagement of hedgerows, or their loss altogether, can affect foraging for bats.  Since 2004, Dartmoor National Park, along with other conservation groups, has worked to survey the bats and educate farmers about how to maintain bat friendly land and animal management.

Bats aren’t the only things that fly about Crockern.  Inside the house, we’ve also had a couple of birds, lots of moths, flies, and more than a few flying Daddy Long Legs.

Outside, we see an assortment of birds.  Roger has dutifully kept a list of those flying about our home:

Blackbird, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Cormorant, Crow, Curlew, Dove, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Grasshopper Warbler, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Grey Wagtail, Hen Harrier, Hobby, House Martins, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Kestrel, Magpie, Meadow Pipit, Nuthatch, Pied Flycatcher, Pied Wagtail, Raven, Red Kite, Redstart, Robin, Skylark, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stonechat, Swallows, Treecreeper, Whinchat, Wood Warbler, Wren, Yellowhammer, and, Yellow Wagtail

We’ve also heard, but not seen, a Cuckoo and a Tawny Owl.

Bird watching is a popular activity for many walking up our path.  We’ve met several “twitchers” and “birders”.  There is a distinction.  My friend Carolyn was very clear that twitchers are bird watchers whose goal is to collect sightings of rare birds and will drop what they are doing, drive to some destination to see said bird and add it to their life list.  Birders, on the other hand, are those people who have a general interest and knowledge of birds and wildlife and like to watch birds.

A casual bird watcher, like myself, may easily give myself away by saying something like “Wow, look at that bunch of ravens!”  A twitcher is likely to give him/herself away with a snort and comment, “Don’t you mean that unkindness of ravens?”  As far as I’m concerned, the dead giveaway of twitchers is that they are likely to refer to birds using only their Latin names and will comfortably use archaic linguistic groupings.

One day it was pouring down with rain when I heard a knock at the door.  There stood a man dressed head to toe in waterproof clothing and hanging around his neck were two sets of binoculars.  “Oh, hi.  I was just wondering if you’ve heard a unique sound in the meadow?” he asked.   An odd greeting.  Nonetheless, I knew the sound as Roger had pointed it out to me just a few days before.  Unfortunately, my recall was a bit off and when attempting to sound knowledgeable about the Grasshopper Warbler, I said, “Oh yes, that would be the Cricket Shaker.”  I did not impress this twitcher with my bird watching ways.   He gave me a look that suggested I had just said, “Why look at that flock of crows!”  I accept that I will never become a serious birder, but I am motivated to try and commit more to memory.

And who doesn’t like a list as a way to get started?  Here’s how to sound more in the know when encountering a twitcher when one knocks on your door:

Brood of Hens;

Cast of Falcons;

Charm of Finches;

Descent of Woodpeckers;

Dole of Doves;

Exaltation of Larks;

Flight of Swallows;

Herd of Curlew or Wrens;

Host of Sparrows;

Kettle of Hawks;

Murder of Crows (not Flock of Crows as above);

Murmuration of Starlings;

Party of Jays;

Parliament of Owls or Rooks;

Siege of Herons;

Tidings of Magpies;

And of course, Unkindness of Ravens

I may not go so far as to use all of these in sentences, but if nothing else, I think I can at least manage to use the obsolete “Dissimulation of Birds,” rather than the more easily understood “Flock of Birds” next time I have the opportunity.

It’s true; I have become a bird watcher.  Each morning I will sit looking out the window at the birds at the feeders while I drink my coffee.  I can spend an enormous amount of time thinking my thoughts while watching the arrival and departure patterns at the feeder.  Regularly, there is the little Chaffinch who has a missing leg, and the two Great Spotted Woodpeckers who like to hunt insects in the rotten post at the fence.

Now that summer seems finally to have arrived in the middle of September, the bugs outdoors are in full force.  Midges being among the many. According to the dictionary on my computer, a midge is “a small two-winged fly that is often seen in swarms near water or marshy areas where it breeds.  The families Chrionomidae (the nonbiting midges) and Ceratopogonidae (see biting midge). “    I need look no further than the red marks on my arms, we have the biting midge.  Not as aggressive as the ones found in Scotland, but they are tenacious and determined and, if the air is still, out in full force to feed on us.

Also feeding in full force are the Swallows and House Martins, who dive-bomb about on an insect binge!   As they fill the sky in aerial pursuit of their bug meal, it is not a hard stretch to imagine the skies during the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers defending the southern coast.  It is no surprise, that they are known as a Flight of Swallows.

Elephant Hawk Moth

Elephant Hawk Moth on our Bright Pink Towel

We also have general houseflies, butterflies (Brimstone, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshell, and Small Heath), the occasional bee, and one day an Elephant Hawk Moth resting on a towel on the line.  It may have been using the bright pink towel as camouflage.  This is the first time I’ve seen this beautiful moth up close.  I’ve seen the caterpillar stage, and still have a few nightmares about it.  If interested, one can easily find a home video on YouTube and watch how its proboscis nose moves in and out.  Impressive, but honestly, I didn’t have the stomach to try to film when I saw one of these in our garden.  I went inside and left it to its prehistoric moves.

Last week we were putting the finishing touches on our raised vegetable beds, which involved moving a ton of veggie compost from the top of the track down to the beds using a wheelbarrow, buckets and our determination.  We were just finishing when we heard a thunderous roar followed by the visual spectacle of nine Red Arrows flying past in strict formation.  The Red Arrows is the aerobatic team of the Royal Air Force who promote and recruit for the RAF as they do many fly-pasts at major events.  Such events include the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and the lesser-known completion celebration of our raised vegetable beds.

Red Arrows from the RAF Waddington Airshow (found on internet)

There is an MOD training area just over the hill so we often see military planes.  Occasionally, we will see the Dartmoor Rescue helicopters looking for some lost or injured hiker on the moors.  Since walkers are permitted to wander all over the moors, it is not uncommon for some to get lost, especially if the fog or mist moves in, sometimes making it difficult to orient yourself beyond a mere three feet.

We once spotted paragliders floating above the hill, and almost every day, there are anglers wading in the river using their fly rods to try and catch brown trout.

But, let us return to the twitcher who knocked on our door.  A few weeks later, he came knocking again.  This time, he had a friend with him and the two were hoping to see a Redstart as the one man had never seen one.  While listening to this conversation — I had opted for eaves dropping rather than answering the door — I found myself feeling righteous because the day before I spotted a Redstart sitting on our wall.  Roger identified it for me but all the same, I saw it.  Sometimes it just pays not to make so much effort.

In contemporary use, the Latin term Tempus Fugit means “time flies and we’re letting it pass us by, so let’s get moving and do something important!”  The poet Virgil first used the phrase when he wrote:  Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile temmpus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.   Or, “But meanwhile it flees; time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.”

I like this bit by Virgil.  Why do I need to move quickly to accomplish something?  Instead, can’t I just drift off into my thoughts, sometimes without much to show for it, except for the details I maintain?  That delightful moment on a walk, or the beauty of the light changing as the clouds drift past, are the memorable features I retain no matter how much time passes.

Each time I stop to look and listen, I discover something new.  There are of course, the Parliament of Rooks, Murder of Crows, or in our case, the Trio (okay, Brood) of Chickens.  They have names now:  Judy, Mabel and Fey.