Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A few days in Nova Scotia

Jenny was invited to give a presentation at the opening of a new exhibition in the Joggins Fossil Cliffs centre in Nova Scotia on Saturday, so we've spent the past several days in Canada. We flew out on Thursday, landing at Halifax airport at about 1.30pm, hired a car and drove about 180 km to Amherst, where our hosts had booked us excellent accommodation in the Regent B&B, run by the delightful Jim Kerr and his wife Gwen.

On Friday, Jenny had arranged that we would visit Chris Mansky and Sonja Wood at the Blue Beach Fossil Museum, which they run, near Hansport, about 250 km away.  The fossils from Blue Beach are comparable in age to the ones we found in Burnmouth, so Jenny is looking to include Chris and Sonja in her mega-project if she manages to get the funding.  It was a long day and some of the roads were pretty rough, as Nova Scotia winters really hammer their highways.  Temperatures alternate between frozen and thawed, which allows water to penetrate the cracks in the surface,  then expand when it freezes, enlarging the cracks.  End result, you have to drive fairly slowly sometimes!

We ate in the Old Germany restaurant in Amherst, which was pretty good.  I'll spare you their website, which is dire.

The next day was Jenny's talk, which went down well.  There were about 100 in the audience, and the new building, opened about 3 years ago, is an impressive place.

In the evening we were invited to the director's parents house, along with about a dozen others, mostly staff and their relatives, where we were treated to a mountain of lobster, along with turkey, ham and a variety of other dishes. I'm not that keen on lobster, mostly because it seems to always come on its own, and I find a big pile of meat rather hard work unless accompanied by some sort of stodge.  Fortunately I was able to lay  hands on some mashed potato, so survived the ordeal.  The rest of the food was fantastic.

We also saw a pileated woodpecker, which obligingly landed on a tree not 5 metres away, and posed for me to take photographs, and this really brilliant child's swing made from an old car tyre.

On the Sunday, we took a scenic drive to Cape d'Or, where Jenny was a miserable killjoy and wouldn't let me play sideways games with the car on this most excellent dirt road.  Boo!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Bird life chez Clack

For the past several weeks we've had blackbirds nesting in one of our hedges, and it's been fun to watch the parents rushing back and forth feeding their young, and listening to the crescendo of cheeping each time a parent visits the nest.  Sadly, the other morning, I found one of the nestlings face down in the pond.  It had evidently decided to sample flight, but had misjudged badly.  The remaining three seem to have fledged successfully, though we've only seen one since.  I assume they're around somewhere and have seen at least one parent with a beakful of food, so that's probably OK.

Another bird event became obvious yesterday, too.  We have a brick-built raised bed in which we grow red alstromerias for cutting.  These plants die back during the winter, and had started sprouting a few weeks ago.  They're about 30cm high, perhaps half their flowering height.  Yesterday we found a big area in the middle had been flattened and there were collared dove feathers all around.  And the wings of a collared dove in the middle of the flattened area. 

This is typical sparrowhawk behaviour.  After killing their prey, they chop off the wings before flying to a feeding post, where they pluck and eat what they've caught.

I'm rather more in favour of sparrowhawks than I am collared doves, so am delighted to have physical evidence of a sparrowhawk feeding in our garden.  I'd be less enthused if it was catching blue tits or house sparrows, I think!  The alstro's will recover, I'm confident.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Blue tits in a sparrow terrace

When I put up this sparrow terrace (a row of three nestboxes in one), the idea was to encourage house sparrows to nest, but in fact it's only been used for nesting by sparrows once.  Within a very short time after I put it up, blue tits had moved in, and mostly since then, it's always been occupied by the tits.

For the past few days, I've been watching the female blue tit ferrying nesting material to the nest box and finally thought to take a photograph.  The fact that she's taking in feathers now, rather than moss and grass, suggests the nest is nearly finished, as the softer stuff is used to line the nest bowl and make it more comfortable.

The male is in much closer attendance now, too.  When the female dives into the box with nesting material, the male lands in nearby bamboo or a silver birch tree and waits until she reappears.  Then he follows her to wherever she goes for the next load.

What I'm not sure about is what else is nesting in the garden, apart from the blackbirds.  There are a couple of dunnock, which are likely nesting nearby, but I've not found the nest, ditto robins and great tits.  And I've not seen any evidence the house sparrows are actually nesting, though I've yet to spend much time on that.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Nesting garden birds

For the past few weeks we've been aware that a pare of blackbirds were nesting in one of our hedges - in early March I'd seen one collecting grass and mud and repeatedly flying to a particular point in the hedge.  This is a good clue.  Then for a good few days now, the parent birds have been taking food back to the nest and you could hear the young cheeping as the parents arrived.

Doug wanted to come and ring them, so I took a couple of photographs so he could see how far advanced the chicks were, but in the end, pressure of work prevented him from coming, so this brood will remain unringed.  I have reported the nest on the BTO garden nestwatch website, but there was nowhere for me to report the number of chicks, just their presence.  Answer: four.

So having entered the blackbird nest, I wanted to follow that up with a blue tit nest in a box on the house wall.  Yesterday I saw a blue tit, first cleaning stuff out, then later, carrying nesting material into the box.  But today I didn't see him her.  The lid of that box was not properly secured, so this morning I decided to latch it properly closed while there was no sign of bird activity.  Rather to my surprise, I found a dessicated, long-dead house sparrow in the box.  This could be why the blue tit decided against that box after all.

It might also explain why so few birds visited the fat balls I hung from beneath that nest, despite the long, cold winter.  I guess the smell of dead sparrow might have put them off a bit!

Well, since the sparrow is now in the brown bin, perhaps both feeding and nesting will resume.

Later:  There seems an obvious pair of blue tits hanging around and one is rapidly nest-building.  I'd assumed it would be the male that built the nest (no idea why I thought that!) but when I checked in the book, it's the female doing all the work.  The quickest collecting expedition I saw was about 15 seconds, though most are rather longer than that.  And it seems to take only about 10 - 15 seconds to add the new material to the nest, before the bird emerges once more.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Birding at Fowlmere

As usual on a Thursday, I was at Fowlmere volunteering today, and what a delightful day I had!  First, Doug told me there were wheatears in the field just beyond the reserve, so I went straight there and met a man who knows about these things.  He showed me a picture and pointed out where the birds were, so I got a reasonable look.  They were rather far away, so without the instruction, I'd not have been able to identify them, but was pleased to see them, nevertheless.

At lunchtime I sat on the bench at the end of the boardwalk, where I saw a chiff chaff, three buzzards, a reed bunting, two willow warblers and a green woodpecker.

After lunch, when the rest of the volunteers had gone home, I helped Doug install a window into the back of a blue tit's nest.  There is a small hole in the wall of the Reception hut, and the tits had built a nest between the inner and outer walls of the hut.  After blocking the entrance hole with a rag, to stop the birds entering while we were working, we removed the inner panel of the wall and installed a pane of glass Doug had had especially cut.  Then we cut the inner panel in two and pinned it back in place.  Doug will buy the necessary hinges and latch so that when all is done, the inner panel can be opened, exposing the window into the blue tits' private lives!  I'm guessing that's going to be interesting to visiting parties of school children, as well as to me!

Doug will also be able to count the eggs without disturbing the birds, and ring the chicks before they fledge.

Once that was finished, I went in search of some redstarts which had been reported.  Sadly, I saw none, but I did come across a couple of male blackcaps singing at each other, which was some compensation!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Diseased water boatman

I was just enjoying the warm spring sunshine and admiring our pond full of taddies, when I noticed this water boatman.  Before we had the pond rebuilt last year, we had only pond skaters, but almost as soon as the pond was filled, several water boatmen appeared.  I'm glad to see them, even though they do prey on tadpoles and small fish.
This one has a nasty-looking grey fuzz around it, which I assume is a fungal infection, so extensive I can't imagine the insect is long for this world.

I scooped it out and put it in its own bowl in the hope the fungus doesn't spread to the other insects in the pond, but I may be too late already.

I can't find anything about this on the net but am reluctant to constantly pester Jenny's entomologist contacts at the university.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Royston Priory Singers in York

Over the weekend we went up to York, where we sang four services in the Minster, and it was simply lovely. What a wonderful building; what a superb city!

Jenny and I set out early, so as to have lunch there, but were even earlier than expected, as the RAC route planner lied to us! 160 miles took only 2 hours 30, not 3 hours. Actually, I should have been able to work that out myself, but didn't engage brain at all! Fortunately, the Park Inn Hotel was willing to check us in early, so we could get that bit out of the way immediately.

I'd looked online for eateries, and The Living Room, which turns out to be a chain but of which I'd never heard, was just around the corner. It was slightly pricey, but the food (we both had eggs benedict) and service were so good, we went back for lunch the next day!  Jen had chicken caesar salad with bacon, while I had an extremely delicious slow-roast belly of pork on black pudding, rosemary and apple mash.  Yum!  Low cholesterol, of course!

The singing went well and we were pretty pleased with ourselves , receiving many compliments from members of the audience congregation.  The lower orders of clergy were very friendly and welcoming, but the higher echelons were distinctly snooty.  No doubt they didn't want to dirty the hems of their frocks by associating with us.  One of our sopranos also sings in another choir which has been to York, and she says they got much the same reception.  It would be nice to go back, but the look in the big knobs' eyes says it won't happen.

Somthing else noteworthy was that we were slightly short of tenors, so Phillip, one of the first bases, was elevated temporarily to exalted tenori status.  This was a cruel thing to do, as Phillip lives on the other side of the country and wasn't able to get to any rehearsals, so Saturday was his first sight of what he was going to sing.  As a headmaster and sometime organist, his musicianship skills are much better developed than mine, and he really did well, but even so, it was a bit of a struggle for him.  I tried to turn and sing towards him, to help all I could, and some of the time he was just a fraction behind me, which is what you'd expect.  I was deeply impressed, though forgot to say so in the scramble to get away after Sunday's evensong.  (A scramble only because, with evensong at 4 it was 5.30 before we actually left York, and we wanted to get home in time to hit one of the restaurants for dinner.)