"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Monday, 29 November 2010

Garden Update (and still no waxwings!)

Woke up on Saturday morning to see a sprinkling of snow covering the garden.

Temperatures dropped to - 7.8 on Saturday night and it hasn't got above 0 degrees centigrade since.

The cold spell has failed to bring any of the more unusual species to the garden so far although numbers of birds are increasing daily at the feeders. I've scattered apples on the lawn but only blackbirds have been eating them - we have had visits from fieldfares and redwings in the past but I think its probably too early in the winter as there is lots of natural food still around.

A collared dove has started to visit the garden occasionally - we used to get several collared doves feeding daily but a decrease in sightings in the last eighteen months seems to have coincided with an increase in feral pigeon numbers. There were 5 wood pigeons feeding today and goldfinch numbers are in double figures. A pair of robins are still having daily territorial disputes and blackbirds seem to spend more time chasing each other round the lawn than actually feeding.

I gave my son a lift to work in Solihull this morning and checked out a site where waxwings had been seen on Friday near the town centre. There were several rowan trees with berries but definitely no waxwings! It was worth the journey though as the countryside looked absolutely beautiful in the frosty weather with the fields and trees laced with silvery hoar frost. I wished I had taken my camera with me.

Later I took a drive out to the business park but although there were blackbirds feeding on the many berries there were still no fieldfares or redwings and again - you guessed it! - no waxwings. Reports of sightings in Warwickshire are increasing so hopefully I will get a glimpse eventually! I think you have to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens in Autumn Sunshine

I popped along to Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens yesterday for an hour. Although it was very cold it was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies.

I was hoping that

Windfall apples/pears + berries = winter thrushes (possible) + waxwings (remote possibility!)

Well, there were certainly plenty of apples

and berries

and something had been feeding on the apples

but sadly I didn't see any redwings or fieldfares and, of course, there was not a waxwing in sight!

I'm always surprised not to see more bird species here. Today's sightings were wood pigeons, carrion crows, magpies, dunnocks, blackbirds, great and blue tits and robins.

I found a few species of fungi in the small copse that contains a pond and a "stumpery".

I haven't tried to identify the white fungi but, looking at a fungi id guide, I think the very pretty toadstools in the third photo below may be Clustered Bonnet (Mycena inclinata). Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves

but there are still a few shrubs and trees with some autumn colour.

And I found a few flowers still lingering on.

It was a lovely walk in these tranquil, peaceful gardens and there's a few more photos below from my visit.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Garden Update and Local Birding

As mentioned in the previous post there isn't a lot to report bird-wise from the garden. Most recent highlight was a "charm" of twelve goldfinches perched in the whitebeam tree yesterday. They are still visiting the feeders daily and also eating the silver birch seeds. I am keeping my eye out for lesser redpolls as this species often visits the garden at this time of the years to feast on the birch seeds too.

I had to take my daughter to Coleshill this morning so, whilst I was in the area, I visited a few local birding "hotspots". Shustoke Reservoir was first port of call - unfortunately it started to rain as I arrived so I just had a quick scan of the reservoir from the car park. Birds seen included mallard, pied wagtail, cormorant, black-headed gulls, canada geese, coot, tufted duck, dabchick, pochard and great crested grebe. No sign of the red-breased merganser that was reported there several days last week. Makes mental note to herself again to get out to these places as soon as unusual birds are reported and not leave it!

I then visited a nearby churchyard which has a lot yew and holly trees and, as I had hoped, they were covered in berries. There were a lot of birds flitting around the trees and flying over - magpie, robin, great tit, blackbird, greenfinch, great spotted woodpecker and redwings plus a grey squirrel which also appeared to be eating yew berries.

I would have stayed here for an hour or more but the place was like Paddington Station in the rush hour - people on bikes, transit vans, delivery men roaring past and a couple who arrived in separate cars and who didn't appear to be interested in wildlife!!! Very strange as the church is situated at the end of a lane which is a dead end!

Memorial at the Church to commemorate the visit of William Gladstone, Prime Minister, in 1905, to Hamms Hall. Some of the yew and holly trees visible in the background

Before going home I stopped off at the business park - the berries hardly looked touched so at some stage this winter they are going to prove a magnet for wintering thrushes etc. But not a sign of any birds on them today and certainly no waxwings! But again I had timed it badly as there were loads of lorries on the roads and there was a constant procession of cars from a distribution centre as, I assume, a shift ended. Talking of waxwings there have been reports of several seen yesterday at Brandon Marsh. I had already been suffering withdrawal symptoms from not having visited recently too. This week is not looking good for a visit though as daughter is on holiday and I shall be on call all week as a chauffeur!

Theatre Trips and Stir-up Sunday

I will try and do a garden update later although to be honest there is so little to report I could have tagged it onto the end of this post!

I've been on several theatre trips in the last week or so and each was excellent in its own way.

First up was a trip to Birmingham Old Rep to see a stage adaptation of Philip Pulman's childrens' novel The Firework Maker's Daughter by the Birmingham Stage Company. I've seen productions of Skellig, George's Marvellous Medicine and Twelfth Night by this Company and all have been brilliant. This latest production didn't disappoint and was again excellent.

On Sunday, 14th November, we all went to see Lee Mack at Birmingham Symphony Hall. Least said about this the better really. Not that the warm up act and Lee Mack weren't good - they were both really funny. Its just that the seats were situated in what was grandly called the South Ledge, Grande Tier which meant they were very high up and you had to lean over a balcony to see the stage a long way below. For someone like me who hates heights it made for an uncomfortable two and a half hours!

Last Friday my son and I went off to Solihull to see The Wedding Singer, a musical comedy, at Solihull Arts Complex Theatre. This was another excellent production by St Augustines Musical Theatre Company. Before the play we had a meal at the Handmade Burger Company's restaurant. Everything from the burgers to chips to relishes is handmade here with a choice of over 40 burghers and it was great to find that there was a choice of 6 vegetarian options. The cheese patty with apple chutney, salad and mayo burger I had was delicious.

Yesterday was Stir-up Sunday, the day when Christmas Puddings are traditionally made. I normally have my Christmas puddings made by now but this year I have been trying to get hold of a mould which produces a round "cannon-ball" type pudding. I eventually tracked down a company on the internet which sells the mould but they don't seem exactly speedy in posting orders as I ordered it nearly 2 weeks ago and it still hasn't been posted! So I made the Christmas cake instead.

Not a very good picture of the finished cake as it looks burnt!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Fossils - Part 2: Orthoceras and Belemnites

Orthoceras (Phylum Mollusca, Class Cephalopoda) lived from the early Ordovician 495 million years ago) until the Triassic Period which ended 206 million years ago so the species was around for about 300 million years!

Orthoceras was carnivorous possibly even preying on trilobites and would have swum in the ocean or crawled on the sea floor. They ranged in size from a few inches to over 14 feet and their soft bodies lived in the last open-ended segment of their shell.

The name orthoceras means "straight horn".

It is the long conical shell that the animal lived in that is preserved as a fossil as can be seen in the photos of polished fossils below.

Belemnites lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods and were entirely marine being cephalopods that became extinct during the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago.

They looked very similar to today's squid and today their closest relatives are squid, cuttlefish and octopuses. It is believed they were carnivores and probably move through the water in a similar fashion to squid.

Very rarely whole belemnite fossils have been found but the vast majority are pieces of the bullet-shaped external skeleton which was made of calcite and called the guard (see photo below). The guard which was located at the rear of the animal may have acted as a counterbalance to the head at the front and helped keep the organism level in the water.

Belemnite fossils are often washed out of Jurassic and Cretaceous clays and occasionally large numbers occur together which may represent what was a mass mortality following mating, as happens with squid in current times.

Belemnites were name from the greek word belemnon meaning dart. During the medieval period it was believed that belemnites were thunderbolts which had been turned to stone.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Garden Update and (still) No Waxwings

I spent most of last Wednesday doing some jobs in the garden and planting up some pots for the winter and spring. Gosh, it was cold - I didn't thaw out 'till mid-evening. The flowers will provide a dash of colour in the winter and hopefully produce lots of blooms in the early spring providing nectar for any early emerging insects.

The tame robin kept me company enjoying insects and worms disturbed as I moved pots around. A grey heron flew low over the garden. We get occasional visits from herons - they usually land by the pond looking for fish and frogs. Not a lot else to report garden bird-wise just the usual species on the feeders although I did get a visit from a female chaffinch and I'm hoping chaffinch numbers will increase as winter progresses.

The Christmas tree,although still not looking 100%, is looking a lot healthier than this time last year when I thought I had lost it. My husband repotted it at the weekend.

I haven't put out the moth trap again either because the weather forecast has suggested a cold night or rain or I've been out in the evening. I have a feeling now that it won't get used again until next March unless we get a mild, dry spell.

I paid the Business Park a quick visit this morning - at least there were a few blackbirds feasting on the berries although not a fieldfare, redwing or waxwing in sight! There were the usual magpies and carrion crows around and highlight of the trip was a mute swan on the grass by one of the ornamental ponds.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Fossils - Part 1: Ammonites

I've been fascinated with fossils and the history of life on Earth for probably as long as I have been interested in natural history. Although my son went through the usual stage of being engrossed in dinosaurs and collecting fossils, its only in the last ten years or so that I have started to build up my own collection.

I find it absolutely amazing to be able to handle the remains of an organism that is millions of years old and its even more astounding when you find your own fossil and realise that you are the first person to have set eyes on the organism since it died all that time ago. Its estimated that between several hundred million and a few thousand million species have existed on Earth during the past 540 million years and of this number only a few hundred thousand species have been discovered as fossils. By comparison the number of species living today could range from between 5 million to 10 million species. The vast majority of species that have existed are now extinct.

Here's a selection of some of the ammonites from my collection

Ammonites which belong to the Phylum Mollusca and Class Cephalopoda were confined to the Mesozoic Era which included the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods (248 to 65 million years ago).

They were entirely marine and most were pelagic (living above the sea floor) and the majority were nektonic (active swimmers). It is thought many species were predatory feeding on plankton whilst others could have been scavengers. Ammonites ranged in size from 20 millimetres in diameter to well over 2 metres.

The ribs (and in some species spines and knobs) on the shell which can be seen on the photos below may have helped to strengthen it, provide protection against predators and may also have been used in sexual display.

The shell which was made of aragonite was a coiled tube which was divided into many chambers, the animal living in the outer open end of the shell. Chambers in the shell which had formed earlier would have been filled with gas and water acting as a buoyancy aid.

Ammonites were widely distributed throughout the oceans and evolved very quickly with each species having a fairly short life span and are therefore often used as zone or guide fossils to date Jurassic and Cretaceous sedimentary rocks.

Ammonites became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago during the same mass extiction event that killed off the dinosaurs. Representatives of Cephalopods which survive today include squids, cuttlefish and octopuses. The nautilus is probably the nearest living relative to ammonites.

The following are photos of polished cross sections and in the first photo the frilled patterns are sutures which reveal where each individual chamber wall joined the inside wall of the coiled shell.

Sixteenth century natural history books mentioned similarities between the ammonite's coiled shell and snakes or serpents and ammonite fossils were once believed to be the petrified remains of snakes and were called "snakestones".Snakes heads were often carved on ammonites by fossil collectors at this time.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Fireworks and Fungi

I haven't had time to go out birding and there's not been a lot happening in the garden so I am going to be "scraping the barrel" a bit with this posting.

Blue and great tit and blackbird numbers are slowly increasing and I've witnessed two robins having a terriorial battle on several occasions recently. Still getting visits from a flock of long tailed tits that like foraging in the herbaceous border but have ignored the feeders. Two coal tits have been visiting the feeders and one is still hoarding sunflower hearts in one of the hanging baskets.

Although I was hoping to put out the moth trap at least one more time rain most nights has prevented this. In fact on the only dry night recently instead of putting out the trap we enjoyed some fireworks.

Finally, a photo of some fungi growing under the silver birches at the top of the garden.

I've been sorting through and photographing my fossil collection this afternoon and, as its going to be a busy week and I am not sure if I will have time to go out birding, the next blog posting is likely to be on ammonites!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Successful Sparrowhawk

I glanced out of a house window this morning to see a male sparrowhawk on the lawn plucking a small bird. It stayed for several minutes before flying off with its prey held in its talons. I see a sparrowhawk in the garden several times a week but its rare to see it actually be successful in its hunting.

I did manage to get a photo - but please bear in mind this was taken through glass, at a distance of about 25/30 feet, with a 14-42 mm lens with flash and has been heavily cropped so its a very poor record shot!!

The rubbishy photo above has reminded me of a decision I need to make soon (my birthday and Christmas are rapidly approaching!!) concerning an addition to my photographic equipment. I really would like to be able to take some photos of birds and experiment with macro photography but my camera an olmpus e-420 digital slr does not have image stabilisation. I am, therefore trying to decide whether its worth spending several hundred pounds on an olympus 70 -300 mm zoom or possibly an 18-180 mm zoom or would lack of IS make these lens a waste of time. Alternatively, I could forget the zoom lens for now and buy a macro lens for insect, moth and butterfly photography.

I have also been looking at cameras such as the Panasonic Lumic FZ-45 or Fujifilm Finepix HS10 which seem to offer really good zoom lens and macro mode down to 1 cm. Would I be better buying one of these for possibly less money than just one olympus lens?

Decisions! Decisions! Any comments would be gratefully accepted.