Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Springtime in Middle England

For the last couple of years Pili and I have been pet/house sitting for clients up and down the country. After losing our beloved dog Barney in December 2012 and the deep grief we all felt I thought it would be very therapeutic to spend time looking after other dogs and animals. My mother took in a rescue dog (all our animals have been rescues) about a year after Barney's passing. Buster is a strong minded Bichon Frise with bags of character and he certainly keeps my mother on her toes.

Pili and I decided not to get a dog of our own basically because we travel so much and it wouldn't be fair on the dog or my mother as we would have to leave it with her while we were away. Pet sitting has given us the best of both worlds. We know are the adopted owners of over a dozen beautiful dogs, cats and even horses and rats. It's a great job and we love the freedom it gives us plus the income helps.

At the moment we're in a little village in the Midlands looking after a fantastic Labrador called Sammy. He's a real character and super affectionate; we love looking after him.

22nd May 2015

I woke this morning at just after 6am with a wet tongue on my face. Sammy was just saying good morning and letting me know the day had begun and that he needed to be let outside because nature was calling. He was right, nature was calling and bloody loud too.

The first bird I heard singing was the resident Robin. Such a melodic and distinctive song and even with my half asleep, fuzzy brain it made me peer out of the bedroom window to see where he was calling from. Robin's are very feisty and although they are very confident around humans a male Robin will not tolerate for a second another male in his territory. The male Robin will relentlessly attack any intruder and have even been recorded killing a rival. Fortunately most of the wars and conflicts between Robins are won by the bird with the loudest and most complicated song. This morning's vocal jousting was particularly intricate and powerful, no other Robin dared enter this red breasted brutes' domain.



The apple tree in the garden was full of young Starlings, all screaming at the top of their voices for their mothers to hurry up and return with food. The screeches, pops and whistles from the fledglings was deafening. I decided to make a coffee and sit in the garden with Sammy to watch the poor adult Starlings try to find breakfast to ease the ravenous appetite of their offspring.



Every ten minutes or so I'd see a flash of black, white and red swoop over the hedgerow and onto one of the many bird feeders hanging from the branches of the Apple tree. It was a stunning male Great Spotted Woodpecker. He's here for an easy breakfast of peanuts and suet. The other birds, the many Chaffinches and Sparrows give him space and perched in the bushes watching and waiting until he's finished.



The only disturbance to the avion activity is the arrival of a couple of Grey Squirrels. A none native to these isles and considered by many a pest. Yes they do damage young trees and they've out competed our demure, native Red Squirrel but I always enjoy seeing their intelligence and acrobatics when they find a troublesome bird feeder. The birds scatter and it was time to leave them to it and make Pili and I our morning Green Smoothie.


After watching all the feeding going on in the garden I was also ravenous. My recipe for this mornings smoothie is as follows.

1 stick of Celery
1 Stick of Rhubarb (thanks Paul)
1 Lemon with skin
2 Bananas
2 Pears
1/2 large Apple
4 leaves of Cavolo Nero Kale
1 large leaf of Chard
2 large leaves of Spring Cabbage
I chunk of Ginger (I like Ginger a lot)
1 tbsp Wheatgrass
1 tbsp Bee Pollen
2 pints of filtered water 

To be honest it wasn't my best ever mix, the fruit wasn't very ripe and therefore it was quite bitter. Pili had a bit of a moan but she still poured a pint down her neck. Personally I don't really care what it tastes like anymore, I drink them for preventative health reasons and it bloody well works like nothing else.
Being the pig that I am I had the rest of it, three pints in all.


Near to where we're staying there's a tranquil stretch of canal and expanses of farmland. In the winter it's a great place to see Lapwings display their acrobatics display. But today I'm eager to get out and see what new life I can find.

Sammy the dog is really anxious to get out. He knows that when we're looking after him he's going to get lots of walkies.

Dog biscuits in pocket, tennis ball in Sammy's mouth Pili and I walk out under springtime powder blue skies. Within five minutes we're on the canal towpath. It's 9am and the sun is already spreading its warmth across the land. The midges and flies are already in the air above the water and the newly arrived Swallows are feasting and feeding young at discreetly hidden nest sites.

The air is full of song of the Wren, Yellowhammer, Blue and Great tits and the sulky Dunnock (Hedge Sparrow). Occasionally I hear the cackling alien sound from a Pheasant hiding in the adjacent fields. Cutting through this choir of birdsong I pick out the distinctive melody of the Skylark, melodic and rising into the blue sky. Is there a more quintessential sound of the English countryside in spring? Fingers crossed I'll get some good pictures when we get to the farmland.


The edges of the canal are in full bloom, Forgetmeknots, Ragged Robin, Cowslips, Purple Vetch and many more.

As the temperature rises we start to see the lethargic flight of spring butterflies on wing. I see my first Green Veined White of the year and one of my favourites, the unmistakable male Orange Tip. At this time of the day butterflies are easy to photograph, they are cold  and need the sun to raise their metabolism to really get active. I pick my prey and settle down for a perfect shot.





My concentration is shattered by a Moorhens alarm call. She's been startled by Sammy plowing along the towpath to see why am I taking so long. I give Sammy a biscuit and he runs back to Pili who is trying to keep him distracted so that I can get some photos.

The butterflies take to the wing and so I set my sites on the Moorhen and her young. The male and female are tending to a newly hatched chick. Where the brother and sisters of this chick are I can only guess. Predation is high for waterfowl, this nearly born seems to be the only survivor of his brood. Watching the female gently tend and feed this fragile creature is wonderous. The poor little thing is so defenseless to the big and dangerous World. The little bird's naked and stumpy wings flap vigorously when the mother approaches, stimulating the mother to feed. I hope the parents are experienced in parenthood, there are so many dangers at the waters edge.


As I continue along the towpath of the canal trying to catch up with Pili and Sammy I hear the cry of a Buzzard above me, he's scanning the fields for young Rabbits or to use the correct term Kittens. The raptor sees me and comes in for a closer look. With my 400mm lens I get a good shot of him silhouetted against the blue morning sky.


Further along I come across a female Mallard with her ducklings. They are too distracted to notice me as they race around chasing flies and midges. The mother keeps a beady eye on Sammy and I, she's seen it all before and we're no threat so I take some quick shots and move on.


  

The morning sun is really starting to heat up now and my mind turn back to the Skylarks that I can hear in the adjacent fields. I walk along to the old stone bridge that takes me to where Pili and Sammy are patiently waiting when movement on the opposite bank catches my eye. A Terrapin is climbing out of the water and onto the bank to take in the heat of the sun. 

In the UK Terrapins were a native species approximately 8000 years ago but I fear this hard shelled reptile is an American import released into the canal by some bored pet owner. Like the Grey Squirrel it's a pleasant surprise to see them in the wild here but as a naturalist I'm aware that they do a lot of damage to our struggling populations of native fish, amphibians, Water Voles and nestlings. If they can capture it they'll eat it with no messing about. He's certainly not disturbed by me, he has some serious sunbathing to do.



Sammy is just stood staring at me. He should be used to waiting for me, as Pili has become accustomed. It can take me 2hrs for a 20 minute walk. I can't help myself, nothing gives me greater pleasure than being in and observing nature. It's a wonder I will never loose and it gives my life a layer of existence that I'm forever grateful for. Life is more vivid when you can appreciate the struggle for life that all other beings go through on our planet. God, I sound like an old hippy!


As I walked into the arable land that's full of bright custard yellow Rapeseed all I can hear is the lilting song of the Skylark. I scour the skies looking for a speck of a bird high in the heavens. Skylarks have a predictable behavior of taking off from their ground nests and rising high, high into the sky announcing their presence to all who care to listen. Then when they've finished their song and the bird has flown so high it can be practically impossible to see them for the untrained eye, they will silently glide back to Earth and disappear among the foliage or use it's amazing camouflage to vanish in a ploughed field. I never get bored of watching this amazing birds.


The Skylark population fallen by over 50% since the late 90's. The fall in population is thought to be the result of a shift from spring to winter cereal crops and well as intensive grassland management.

Today seems to be a good day for the Skylark, I count at least seven pairs in the immediate field, I feel we will have a successful breeding season.


We spend a good hour watch these delightful birds sind, display and just go about their business. The sun by 11am has brought the surrounding countryside to life. The air is full of flying insects, dozens of species. The sheep with the young lambs are bleating to their own tune. Sammy is looking tired so we make tracks and head back to the house. I one takelast photo of Pili before I leave the Rapeseed fields.



One last surprise catches my eye at the end of the lane by the canal bridge. I spot a dead Silver Birch tree with a hole near the top. I bring my camera to my eye and I'm met with a Great Spotted Woodpecker peering back at me. I manage to get a grainy shot before this common UK woodpecker retreats back into the depths of the hollow trunk, I wonder how many chick are in there.



Back at the house I prepared a salad for Pili and I full of SIRTFOODS (see my book) sorry I couldn't resist a easy plug.

Post Walk Salad

Watercress
Lambs Lettuce
2 leaves each of Wild Garlic (Ramson) and a couple of flowers each 
Cucumber
Red Onion
2 Radishes each
Broccoli
1 Orange Bell Pepper
1 Dozen Green Olives
New Potatoes
Dressed with Olive Oil,  Apple Cider Vinegar, Turmeric, Cayenne Pepper, Black Pepper and a little Rock Salt


All photograph by John Hodges
except this one by Pilar Bueno