"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

Sunday, 29 January 2012

RSPB Garden Birdwatch

For more than 30 years the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has organised a Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place over a weekend at the end of January. Millions of people take part and the idea is to watch birds in your garden (or local park, school) for an hour and record the highest number of birds of each species seen during that time.

The RSPB uses the results to check population trends and make conservation decisions and, by comparing results with previous years, they can spot if any species are decreasing.

Its good fun and a great way to involve children in a natural history project - mine used to love it when they were younger!

So what did I see on this cold and frosty morning?

Blackbird 3
House Sparrow 6
Robin 1
Wood Pigeon 2
Blue Tit 3
Great Tit 2
Goldfinch 5
Dunnock 1
Long-tailed Tit 1 (not sure where the rest of the flock were!)
Carrion Crow 1
Magpie 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1

In the past I've seen more species than this but so far this year only 16 species have visited the garden. The mild weather in January and plentiful food in the countryside (seeds, berries, etc.) has meant that many species have not needed to enter towns in the search for food. Perhaps the predicted cold spell may change that?

I was watching the garden mid-morning so along with a cup of coffee I finished off the remains of this Chocolate and Banana Cake I made yesterday. The cake is scrumptious and well worth the effort (and expense!) - if you fancy baking it yourself check out the BBC Good Food website!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Snowdrops and Catkins at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens

I managed to "escape" to Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens for an hour or so yesterday afternoon. The weather conditions - cloudy, gloomy and windy - weren't ideal for photos but it was very quiet and peaceful there.

Even though its winter, the gardeners and volunteers were still hard at work.

The bare branches of the many espaliers make interesting "sculptures" against the bare walls.

The Gardens have many mature tree specimens - some with splendid gnarled bark.

Lady Bridgeman's Garden - which always has a display of seasonal plants

More daisies (Bellis perennis) were flowering in the stone trough in the Melon Ground

Daffodils are starting to come through in North Orchard

The Secret Garden

I was looking for a nearby wrought iron bench (I later discovered its been moved to the maze) but found another handy seat in a wall arch not far away.

Hellebores such as Helleborus foetides (sorry for lack of italics still can't seem to get them to work) or Bird's Foot are starting to flower

This looks like Rosemary in flower too!

And, best of all, the snowdrops and winter aconites are coming into bloom - there will be a stunning display in a few weeks

There are still lots of seedheads in the Extra Gardens and rose hips in the Upper Wilderness

In the Nut Ground I found hazel catkins (lamb's tails) - not a very good photo - the light was so poor I could only get a low shutter speed even on ISO 800 and it was very breezy there. The little female cones with red stigmas are also showing - I did get a photo but it was even poorer than the one below so I haven't bothered publishing it!

There are a lot of holly trees, bushes and hedges of several different varieties at the Gardens.

Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens blog (http://castlebromwichhallgardenstrust.blogspot.com - sorry I can't get links to work either! (think its something to do with security settings on the computer)) or see link on the right under "My Blog List" has a superb recent posting about Holly at the Gardens together with details of their Stargazing Event tomorrow night which looks as though it will be a great evening.

If anyone lives local to Solihull or Birmingham and wants to visit the Gardens they have a website at www.cbhgt.org.uk which has details of admission and forthcoming events including the Stargazing and a Snowdrop weekend next month.

Monday, 23 January 2012

A Field Full of Fieldfares and a Painting

I stopped off at Millennium Wood again this morning. I'd taken my camera in the hope that the redpolls might be about but there was no sign of them today. I did see a flock of mumruffins (long-tailed tits) but they were too far way to photograph. However, its the first time I've seen this species this year and a new addition to the Millennium Wood list of birds.

I went a quick drive this afternoon around the lanes near Wishaw. I was actually looking for Golden Plovers which have been seen in the area recently but there were none around. I did see a flock of several hundred fieldfare in a field - a superb sight. I did take a few embarrassingly poor photos (again they were too far away) which I'm not going to post!

Brian's recently retaken up painting after David bought him a new set of water colours and here's a photo of the result - a lovely reminder of our Isle of Wight holidays.
Unfortunately, the camera hasn't quite captured the exact colours but it will give you an idea.

I must admit I would love to be able to capture the natural world by this media. Brian says anyone can paint although I have tried to explain that I can still remember how relieved I was to be able to finally drop "O" level Art after receiving an absolutely abysmal mock exam result! I might have a go one day but I suspect it will make the paintings of a toddler look good!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Millennium Wood and a "Welcome" Sign

I'm still not having much time to go further afield but I did stop off at Millennium Wood last Thursday morning.

As I drove in the car park I was greeted by the sight of around 22 redpolls (still think they were all Lesser) feeding on birch seeds accompanied by the female bullfinch. For once, the sun was behind me and I did have the camera with me as I'd planned to photo the latest additions to the "fairy/gnome door" but, of course, I hadn't got the telephoto lens with me! So here is a distant view of the redpolls - if you click to enlarge you might just be able to make them out!

I saw the usual species whilst walking around and spotted a jay (new for year list and completely new for the Millennium Wood species list) again near the car park. The area of the wood around the car park and the part next to the entrance road and near mature oak trees is definitely the best place to see birds.

Just around the corner I stopped to take photos of the new additions to the door - a welcome sign and someone has left a fairy cake which has been placed next to the green wellies. Not sure if someone has left this as an offering to the tree's resident or whether it is part of the welcome!

A local paper - the "Solihull News" - has done a couple of short reports on the door so if anyone local (not sure to be honest how many locals visit my blog!) knows who is behind it please contact the paper or leave a comment on the posting.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Frosty Fields - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

"Back there in old Dunhallow the frosty fields are gray
And the wildborn birds are silent at the dawning of the day
And the chilly winds of January sough in the naked trees
And ice is on the dark pond from the hard overnight freeze......."

Lines taken from "Back there in Old Dunhallow The Frosty Fields are Gray" by Francis Duggan

Sadly, if I return to this very same spot this time next year or the year after there is no guarantee that I will be greeted with exactly the same view.

These ancient fields with their medieval ridge and furrows and fishponds are under threat from a proposed housing development.

As I stood at this peaceful scene watching winter thrushes looking for berries in the hawthorn bushes, I felt not only sad, but very angry and frustrated at the thought that, unless the Government has a massive rethink and redraft of their proposed new planning laws, many fields like these may disappear for ever leaving just row after row of houses.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Amber - a Moment Frozen in Time

I find amber (fossilised resin) very special and when it contains inclusions it seems like nature's very own time capsule preserving perfectly a moment in time from the distant past.

Amber formed from resin that flowed out of tree bark, often trapping organisms, such as insects, that were unable to escape from the sticky substance. Eventually the resin would have fallen to the ground and over time become covered with soil and sediments. Over the course of millions of years it eventually fossilizes into amber.

The oldest amber comes from the Upper Carboniferous Coal measures (323 - 290 millions years ago) but pieces containing insect inclusions date back to the Lower Cretaceous (146 - 97 million years ago).

Amber is often used for jewellery and because it is soft and, therefore, easy to carve it has been made into ornaments since prehistoric times. In the past it was used to make household items, for example, cups, bottles and snuff boxes and to make chess pieces.

This amber pendant measures about 3.5 by 2 cms and contains at least four insect inclusions 1 - 2 millimetres long. I'm not sure of the species - oh for a microscope rather than relying on a hand lens!

The insects can be seen on the right hand side - for a better look click to enlarge the image.

This piece of amber measures 4.5 by 2.5 centimetres and has four insect inclusions with wings - possibly fungus gnats?

This pendant contains moss

This small piece of amber measres 1.5 by 1.5 cm and contains a tiny arthropod about 1 millimetre long. Although not 100 per cent sure I think it may be a spider.

The final piece measures 2.5 by 1 cm and is baltic amber from Kalinigrad, Russia. It dates back to the Oligocene Epoch (33.7 - 23.8 million years ago) and contains an oak flower and 1.5 mm long cockroach nymph.

I'm not quite sure how this last photo will come out as I tried to scan a copy of the original photo that came with the amber.

Amber is found in many parts of the world but often in small amounts. Most high quality amber used in jewellery comes from the Baltic coast and the Dominican Republic.

In the UK amber can be found on the Isle of Wight and East Sussex coasts. I've certainly looked without success on beaches at the former location but it would look totally different to the polished pieces photographed above. Isle of Wight amber comes from the Lower Cretaceous (around 146 - 97 million years ago) and is around 130million years old. Some contain insects and are one of the oldest insect bearing ambers in the world.

Insect inclusions in amber reveal information about the ecology of forests of the past.

Copal which looks very similar to amber is just hardened tree resin which has not yet undergone the amberization process when hardening and loss of volatiles and polymerization occur. It is usually less than 2 million years old.


"Amber The Natural Time Capsule" by Andrew Ross The Natural History Museum

Friday, 13 January 2012

Barking up the Wrong Tree!!!

I couldn't believe my eyes this morning as I drove past the "fairy door" - there has been not one but two additions!

How cute is this a pair of miniature green wellies

I can't see a fairy wearing these can you? They look more like the type of footwear a gnome might wear.

And then right in the middle of the door is a tiny wreath made of leaves.

I'm not sure if this is just a door decoration or a late Christmas wreath but, according to a book on Gnomes by Poortvliet and Huygen (this is a must read for Gnome fans - full of the most delightful illustrations and facts), Gnomes do tend to leave Christmas decorations in situ for the whole year!

The door to "Mr Grumbleweed's Residence"!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Oh Yes!! - a Short Eared Owl!

It was a lovely mild sunny day today -almost spring-like - so as I wasn't going on a hospital visit, I rushed through the domestic chores this morning, and went over to the RSPB Reserve at Middleton Lakes this afternoon.

There were plenty of blue and great tits plus a robin on the feeders and several grey herons (new species for the year) on nests in the herony. A walk through woodland revealed blackbirds and a chaffinch (new for the year) and lots of mallard on a small pool seen from the viewpoint.

Pheasants were seen in a field adjacent to the canal - another new species for the year. Don't you just love January with all those new year ticks!

There was a work party on one of the islands on the first pool as I entered the wetland part of the reserve so there wasn't a lot of birds about but I did see coot, mallard, tufted duck, mute swan and great crested grebe (new for year).

I know that Short-eared Owls have been seen again recently and as I scanned the bunds on the other side of the river I could make out a creamy coloured bird quartering. I shot over (well, squelched my way through the mud!) to the meadow trail to get better views and, oh yes, it was a Short-eared Owl! What a beautiful bird even if the views were rather distant! For me this is a new species for the Reserve, a year tick, a Warwickshire tick and a LIFER!

Sorry no photos of birds - I didn't take the camera today (lack of hides at the moment on the reserve mean the birds are often too far away). The photos above are from a previous visit last May - apologies to regular readers of the blog as I keep recycling these photos!

A drake smew has been seen on the reserve recently which would be another lifer for me but I didn't have time today to walk around the pools looking.

One other bird today to be added to the year list - a kestrel seen locally.