Sunday, 16 July 2017

Other people's wilds - somewhere old

For several years we lived  within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. We left our hearts there and visit often. Excitement rises as we get closer - those first breaths of mountain air are (nearly) better than champagne. Some places just feel like home; we breathe easily and sleep deeply there. And we wake to the sound of the swallows chattering under the eaves. Normal, daily attire is walking boots and waterproofs. I love that.
It feels like a place to stay fit in; it feels like a place to stay fit for. During the first few miles we feel our calves and thighs burning. Hearts thud and then steady as we find a rhythm. Boots slip and grip: peat hag, gritstone path, close-contoured climbs and breezy, springy tops. Amid the much loved names and places we try some new peaks. We climb Great Shunner Fell in the cloud, quickly eating a picnic in the windbreak with cold, damp fingers. Great Whernside is a gorgeous steep climb out of Kettlewell, we are quickly on the top and then rewarded by a meandering return and spectacular descent. From Nine Standards Rigg there is a 360 degree view: we see Blencathra in the Lakes and as far as the Northern Pennines. We stretch our eyes and unravel our minds.

Smartly black and white, with vermillion lacquered bills and legs, oystercatchers are nesting. They feed in the high pastures and line up on the stone walls to call a warning. Curlew cry in the wind and lapwing dip and dive. There are red grouse and sandpipers too. Yellowhammer, skylark, wheatear and ring ousel complete our upland itinerary. Along the tea-coloured rivers, we look for our favourite locals: a dipper, a grey wagtail; and is it too soon for goosander?

We talk away the miles. The stomp of boots on the ground seems to free the tongue and the mind. We remind ourselves how much we love it here. We ask each other why we left. We plot and plan our return.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Local patch 12

An early July day dawned bright and sunny. But by the time the yellow coach arrived at the car park, the sky was many shades of grey and the air was wet. Everything was wet. But none of this dampened the enthusiasm of the fifty-three 6&7 year-olds who scrambled out of their school bus and crunched across our wildflower-filled car park.

They were dressed for the occasion: sunhats served as rain-visors and they unpacked waterproofs from their bright backpacks. Year 2 was here for mini-beasts and pond dipping and a rainy start was not going to put anyone off!

In the mini-marshes they sat under a temporary event shelter and heard about the basic needs of plants and animals. They agreed that animals needed food, water, air and shelter. They used words like habitat, herbivore and predator and thought about the best places to find their mini-beasts. Then, armed with beaters, trays, magnifiers and identification keys they were off. 'The big question, guys, is has it got legs?' and then 'has it got 6 legs?'. They learnt how to identify insects and molluscs, beetles and spiders.

After a quick picnic lunch they reconvened at the dipping platform on the pond. Under the watchful eyes of teachers, volunteers and adult helpers they learnt how to kneel sensibly by the pond and dip their nets without flicking each other. Nobody fell in. Again, beasts were collected, observed and identified. The children concentrated hard. They asked lots of sensible questions and were respectful of the environment, although mild hysteria did break out when a large harvestman spider crawled across the groundsheet at lunchtime.

There is great environmental work going on in the Schools on Reserves programme. Sessions are carefully and appropriately planned with strong links to learning objectives in the curriculum. Key vocabulary is reinforced, being used in practical situations, and new skills are learnt and rehearsed. But more than this, the children get to have huge fun outdoors. Wonderful Ham Wall cast its spell and wove its magic once again. Come back soon Year 2!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Local patch 11

In June, when the days are as long as they can be, RSPB Ham Wall hosts its annual yoga evening. Last year we were washed out, postponed to a chilly July evening when we creaked our way through the exercises and wrapped up in warm fleeces at the end.

This year we unroll our mats under a blistering sun and quickly seek out the shadier spots. We meet in a small clearing between the elder and alder and willow. Our gentle-voiced instructor suggests stretches and shapes and we put some of the movements together into routines. It is a quiet and peaceful activity. We focus and breathe deeply and let our minds spin. There is the fresh, green smell of plants and leaves and, once on the ground, the warm, mineral scent of the black earth. Beneath our feet the ground has a forgiving, flexible feel. Peat retains water like a vast, vital sponge. We are standing on precious ground. The peat is the remains of ancient mosses and sedges, laid down thousands of years ago. It is formed very slowly and torn up in a heartbeat, and so the reserves of the Avalon Marshes protect it as an endangered habitat.

The sound of the breeze in the reeds is Ham Wall in an earful! It sighs and scrapes and hisses; there is a rustling in the secret depths as the creatures settle for the night. Watery birds gabble and cluck on the pools and in the rhynes. Coots and ducks are fussing and splashing. A cuckoo calls in the distance and, from time to time, a single booming bittern punches the air. The sedge warbler's rambling conversation is the soundtrack of the evening, with Cetti's warblers joining joyfully. Marsh frogs warm up their voices and start their croaky evening song.

We turn our faces to the sun and concentrate on our senses. I visit Ham Wall often, always keen to know the latest sightings: what is about? What will we see today? Visitors ask, 'what can I see and where can I see it'? We fuss with our binoculars or cameras or telescopes, aiming for better views and sharper pictures. How marvellous, then, to spend time with our eyes shut and our ears and hearts open.

Ham Wall is a feast for all the senses.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Local patch 10

A large green woodpecker was yaffling from deep within our walnut tree yesterday. Welcome friend - we haven't seen you here before. More secretly, a huge family of wrens were being acrobats. In the morning they were winding through the stalks of the broad bean plants, picking and pecking. Later in the day I saw them trapezing in the rampant rose on the old wall. I really must cut that back once the flowers have gone ... and the wrens ... and the hips.

Saturday, 10 June 2017


Thank you BBC Wildlife magazine: Blogger of the week this week! There are so many gorgeous local patch blogs to choose from, it's nice to think someone is reading this one!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Local patch 9

On duty this week at ravishing RSPB Ham Wall. We open up the visitor centre and brew a pot of coffee. The hot drinks are popular, as are the flapjacks and brownies.The car park is full early. The mini marshes area is bristling with long lenses, hopefully scoping for the exotic red footed falcon which is hawking among the hobbies.

Ham Wall is marvellous for all kinds of beasties. Dragonflies emerge as the morning warms up: hawkers and chasers and darters. It is a stronghold of the four-spotted chaser, large and easy to identify: all golden wings and those big black spots. During the morning, I have conversations with lots of dragonfly people and determine to learn more.

The new sightings board makes exciting reading at this time of year. The water rail has chicks on the nest, marsh harriers are commonplace as they dip and tip in the soft air, quartering along the edge of the reeds. And everyone has good views of bitterns today. The great white egret plies backwards and forwards across the car park all morning and our beautiful glossy ibis is a regular tick for lots of happy birders. The cattle egret completes our trio of white egrets; smaller than the little egret, he is much rarer. The yellow legs and yellow beak are distinguishing features.

The warblers continue to make their presence known, Cetti's and chiffchaffs shout loudly from the trees around the car park. There is a cuckoo calling regularly all morning. Goldfinches shimmer and tinkle from the feeders behind the visitor centre.

For many people, the presence of our exotic species is overshadowed by one much loved bird - showing regularly all morning. The barn owl is hunting in full daylight along the rhynes and meadows on the reserve.

Halfway through the morning, a visitor approaches from his car,
'I don't say this often,' he says, ' but you have the most stunning car park!' It's true, the meadow planting between the bays is marvellous; right now full of waist-high ox eye daisies.

Ham Wall is simply the best place to be ...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Local, local patch

After weeks of planning, it was a weekend of preparing and cooking and hospitality as we celebrated 80 years well-lived.It was a privilege to mark the milestone with Mum. Last night we slept deeply and woke slowly.Time today to breath quietly, count our blessings and take stock of our own local, local green patch. 

The new pond is wilding nicely. Very gradually the water is clearing, as nature finds her balance. We have planted with native, or near native, species and taken a step back. Already there are pond skaters, lavae and diving beetles. It is a magnet for the birds. Young starlings, softly brown and speckled, are splashing and dipping in the shallow end, washing their brand new feathers. They clamber on the rocks and hide under the leaves like toddlers at a picnic.

Later this afternoon, I noticed a satisfactory conclusion to a little midweek drama! A pair of great spotted woodpeckers have been constant visitors to the peanut feeder. They must be raising a brood, but I can't find the nest. They are aggressive on the nuts; their stabbing beaks chase off the starlings, finches and tits. But they can't bully the rooks. During a rook-full moment, the GSWs waited in the walnut tree and looked for alternative food sources. The great tit nest in the old ivy drew their attention and I watched as they explored the nestbox, tapping the underside and reaching in through the entrance. 

However, today the great tits had fledged. The walnut tree was full of little birds, pale imitations of their parents. They sat, blinking in the bright light and slightly bemused. But the GSWs were only interested in the peanuts.

I stretched out, briefly, in the late afternoon sun and let the garden do its restorative work. The air was vibrant with noise and movement. Insects zummed and thrummed their busy paths. Sparrows and starlings jostled and chattered in noisy groups and the swifts screamed overhead. 

No time, this weekend, for long walks and big views, but our local, local patch has cast its spell. There is plenty going on right here.