Monday, 31 October 2011


On Saturday morning, having finished our shopping, we decided to visit Scotsdales Garden Centre near Cambridge, to buy a Fatsia japonica which we'd decided we wanted for a bare spot in the garden.  We regard trips to Scotsdales as a bit of a luxury, but it was a beautiful day, so we just said "What the hell!"

While there, we got details of gabions, as the spot for the plant actually needs to be terraced a bit, to stop the soil just slipping down the slope and onto the path.  Gabions are those wire mesh cages you see with cobbles in, forming retaining walls.  We fancy using those, so were costing the exercise up.  Rather more than we'd imagined, of course!

Coming out of Scotsdales, I just felt like taking the scenic route, rather than driving directly home, so turned left and headed for the coutryside.  That idea quickly changed into plans for lunch at the Cricketers Arms in Clavering.  The Cricketers is run by Jamie Oliver's parents, and I've been there several times and always had excellent food, but somehow, I've never taken Jenny, so this was my opportunity to rectify that.

Sadly, when we arrived, both car parks were completely full, so we didn't even go in.  It's not a vast pub, and with all those cars, there was little chance we'd get our lunch any time soon.  We headed towards home, but then saw the Three Tuns in a little village called Great Hormead.  I had a memory of having eaten there once, long ago, but it was completely unfamiliar, so I guess I made that up.

Anyhow, we had an excellent lunch, Jenny drank a pint of Old Hookey and I had a decent glass of sauvignon blanc.

After a cup of tea at home, we decided some birding was in order.  I'd heard there were red kites not far away, and had read a blog which suggested where we might see some. We didn't see any raptors, but did see skylarks, and hords of chaffinches, which made the walk worth the effort.  A very pleasant way to round off the day.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I wonder where the time goes...

Yesterday afternoon, after riding into Cambridge to pick up a power tool that had been repaired, and then to Stevenage to collect some motorcycle overtrousers, I went straight to Fowlmere Nature Reserve to do a spot of birding.  I've added a decent-sized topbox to the bike, so can easily store my crash helmet, boots and overtrousers while I wander around the reserve.

When I got to the main hide, standing on stilts overlooking the mere, the sky was very dark and overcast, with deep blue clouds threatening rain, and making it really hard to see the birds.  There were lots of corvids, mallard and tits of various flavours, of course, but I could also see teal and eventually, a couple of snipe, and there was a cetti's warbler calling in the background.  Cetti's are secretive birds that we often hear on the reserve, but I've yet to see one.

After about half an hour the clouds had moved away somewhat, and sunshine brightened the mere, and I was very pleased to take a half-way decent shot of the snipe, brightly lit by the sun, low in the sky.

There wasn't much happening, and I was beginning to think about going home, when I became aware of a flurry of avian activity in the reed beds that surround the hide.  Quite a few small, brown birds had started flitting about amongst the tops of the reeds, evidently feeding on the seed heads.

After looking them up, I concluded they were reed buntings.  This is not quite as straightforward at this time of year as in the spring, when the males are in their quite distinctive breeding plumage.  Easy to tell a male reed bunting in the spring, and if there are less obvious brown jobbies around with him, they're probably females, but they all moult in the late summer, and at this time of year, the males are much more similar to the females.

Anyway, at that moment, Doug, warden of the reserve, arrived and confirmed my ID, so that was OK.

We watched for a bit, then saw the resident kingfisher, perched obligingly on a post, and then, to our amazement and delight, a sparrowhawk settled on the cattle gate not 10 metres from the hide, and sat there for several minutes.  I took quite a few photographs, but it was coming on dusk by now, and none of them was any good.

When he flew off in pursuit of someone small and tasty, he quickly returned to the gate, sans dinner, but over the next 20 minutes he treated us to a stunning demonstration, mostly done within about 30 metres of the hide, and most of the time when he perched, he was within 10 metres, once within 3!  It was fabulous!  We get sparrowhawks in our garden, and we've seen them catching small birds, but never so close, nor for such an extended, uninterrupted view.  Magical!  Disappointingly, he failed to catch anything before I left.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Messing about on the nature reserve

This morning's Spanish class was cancelled and I rather wasted the whole morning, so was determined to make better use of the afternoon.

I spent the first part working on the wooden carving I'm preparing for exhibition in Curwens, the local High Street solicitors, in November.  On a sunny day like today, it's good to get the piece out into the sunshine where I can see the imperfections better, and the end result was that I think the piece is actually ready for final sanding, followed by French Polishing.  Hoorah!  It's taken over two years, but I'm really pleased with it.

So at about 3:30 I decided to reward myself with a wander around Fowlmere, and I'm really pleased I did.  I didn't walk all the way around, just went straight to Reedbed Hide, and quickly realised that had been a good decision.

A pair of greenfinches glowed in the sunlight as I approached the hide, their yellow breasts much brighter than in this photo, and once I was installed, I was delighted by a merlin, obviously in hot pursuit of something small and tasty.  It flashed across from left to right almost at eye height, a blur of grey, with pointy wings, phenomenally fast.  It veered sharply left, gained height, then turned right, finally vanishing from sight before I could tell whether or not it had caught its supper.  None of the pictures I've found on the web show the grey tops of the wings the way I saw it, so you'll just have to take my word for it!

Soon after that I got a brief glimpse of a marsh harrier, mobbed by corvids.  It disappeared beyond the reserve and that was the last I saw of it.

There were 10 teal on the mere, and I just love watching them.  Resplendent in newly-moulted winter plumage, they were pin-sharp pretty.  I apologise that the link is to an American hunting website, but their pictures are much better than all the birding ones I found.  The second of the shooters' photographs is rather unlike the birds I see, but the other three match quite well.

There was also lots of activity in and above the reeds, with reed buntings and warblers flying back and forth, mostly too quickly for me to positively identify them.  I tend to think that if it's small and brown and has white outer tail feathers as it dives into the reeds, it's probably a reed bunting, but if the tail is shorter and lacks the white outers, it's probably a reed warbler.  With such a vague ID, I don't actually tick them off, of course.

As the gloom increased and I started to feel a bit chilled, I headed off, but did spot a few starlings circling ready to dive into the reeds to roost.  Too few to be worth waiting around for, even though sparrowhawks are known to lurk, waiting to pick the odd one off.  One day soon there'll be a few hundred, and that will be more worth watching.  It would be nice if we got thousands, but we don't.

Global warming confirmed

Of course, most of us already thought global warming was a real phenomenon and sighed and cast our eyes skyward whenever we encountered deniers, but it's nice to have a new, independent study which confirms the data published by other workers.  Here's a link to the BBC report of the preliminary results.

It's particularly gratifying that the Berkeley Earth Project, headed by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, was partially funded by organisations which lobby against action on climate change.

This graph shows how closely their results match those of the other three major studies.

What they don't say is anything about what's driving the temperature rise.  Ah, now that's a whole different opportunity for speculation and argument.  I still stick with the "our fault" side, but I do realise the argument is still raging.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Roasted tomato passata

In my greenhouse I grow tomatoes, amongst other things, and this year I had three growbags with three plants each of Gardeners' Delight, a small, red tomato, Sun Gold, an orange cherry tomato (and a stunning little taste-bomb into the bargain!) and Black Cherry, a small, dark-skinned tomato.  The main motivation was to be able to make good-looking tomato salads, and we were very successful there.

As usual, they produced far more fruit than we could deal with, and during the summer, as has become my wont, I made and froze tomato soup on a number of occasions.

As we get towards the end of the season, the red and orange tomatoes had more or less stopped growing, so we tore them out last weekend, leaving the Black Cherry plants, as they still seems slightly active.

That left us with deciding what to do with the fruit we'd picked off the discarded plants.  I opted for passata rather than soup, as there's already some soup in the freezer, but then pulled someone else's suggestion out of my memory and first roasted the tomatoes before sieving them.  I can't remember who suggested it, but it seemed like a good idea.

I halved each tomato, then gave them half an hour in a roasting tray at about 180°C.  When cooled, Jenny pushed them through a sieve (I was cooking the dinner) and as we cleared up, I sampled a teaspoonful of the passata.

It is just gorgeous, and I'll definitely be doing that again next year.  Sweet and rich, with a real "Wow!" factor.   What I'll also be trying, is roasting the tomatoes before making the soup, as the flavour of the roasted fruit is so intense. Watch this space!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Robot that flies like a bird

The other week when Jenny and I were in Spain, I was idly daydreaming about how one might go about making a model bird that would fly by flapping its wings.  I knew that imagining I might be capable of doing this was fantasy, but little did I realise that it had already been done!