Tuesday, 15 March 2016

New season, new look?

After success of my local patch blog's move to Wordpress, (oakbytherifepatch.wordpress.com) this blog is following! Inspired by the new season, I too am emerging from the winter's monochrome months and decided it was time to bring a new lease of life to the blog as well. 

I am designing a new site at https://sophiecowildblog.wordpress.com/ 

Do let me know what you think! Which do you prefer, what features might you like to see? ...

The existing blog and all its posts here on Blogger are not going to be deleted - They will stay online as an archive for you to browse if and when the mood takes you. 

Sunday, 31 January 2016


I recently came across a blog/hashtag/initiative started by Twitter & Instagram inspirers @silverpebble & @_emmabradshaw encouraging the revival of the Nature Table  (see Emma Mitchell's blog here: http://silverpebble-jewellery.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/the-revival-of-nature-table.html and Emma Bradshaw's blog here: http://emmabradshaw.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/the-nature-table.html)

The Nature Table, do you know what we mean, remember having one, perhaps in the corner of the schoolroom? 
My Mum has often mentioned one that her Primary school class had, and how 'Nature Study' was her favourite lesson there. Must be where I get it from!
In my own childhood, these museums of mystery and marvel, these displays of delight and memories, carefully curated by small fingers and the guiding hand of a sympathetic teacher, gradually disappeared almost completely as my generation became more and more disconnected from the natural world and the nature table's space was required for the latest computer. 

I was lucky, my parents always encouraged or at very least gently allowed me to continually develop a fascination with all things nature, whether I was picking up feathers, pointing out flowers in the hedgerow or even torturing woodlice and snails I found around the garden in the name of 'farming'. Books were my other big fascination at this age, and they in turn fed my passion for nature. Many of these books still inhabit my shelves. 

One book in particular that made a big impression was "The Complete Amateur Naturalist" by Michael Chinery (Bloomsbury Books). The spine is a little faded, and one or two pages such as the ones on preserving small mammals or making insect collections may be a little out of kilter with today's world, but I am still enthralled by a flick through its chapters. The book came into our house via a GG-Aunt, the wisest person I have known, and whom, despite sadly passing away when I was approaching 9years old, has always been a valued mentor. 

My favourite of all the chapters in this book was the one titled 'The Nature Table'. This suggested many items, and the various ways of displaying them, that might be included from fossils to tadpoles in a fish tank to feathers and flower presses. The 'Nature Detective' chapter also held great appeal, showing how and where to look for signs and clues of wildlife, and how to interpret them. 

Although I don't have a grand display, or even a nature table as such, there are to this day a few feathers propped in the corner of my windowsill, along with a jam-jar filled with seaglass and shell, and a lichen encrusted stump of windblown stick. This childhood habit of collecting things has remained with me, although it has now evolved so as the items are more often photographs (although I am frequently known to put my hand in a coat pocket and discover a conker or crumpled leaf). 

'Nature detective' has metamorphosed into 'Naturalist' but the essence is the same - a curiosity about living things, or the signs and evidence they leave behind, and for figuring out how they are all connected and work. 

I am inspired to reinstate a nature table at home; I can't wait for my next adventure, perhaps I will find more treasure to bring home and put in pride of place to remind me of the wonder of nature.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Midhurst Martlets Bird Race

It is said that the old Sussex dialect had over 30 different words for mud, and I think we encountered most of types today, some of us more intimately than others! 

The Bird Race day started as per the past three years, with a robin singing in the darkness, on the edge of Midhurst. In a manner rather reminiscent of an episode of The Last of The Summer Wine the Midhurst Martlets team (Hugh Horne, Peter Plant, Peter Davis & myself) piled into the car and headed off with a carefully laid plan, a box of cake and a few grumbles about the early hour. 

Early morning proof! First light at Church Norton.

Arriving at Church Norton we were greeted by a song thrush belting out its song into the cold dawn air. Out in the harbour, the tide was nearly high, compressing the birds onto shrinking islands or else making them paddle! Grebes, geese, duck and gulls were unperturbed by the deepening water, whilst the waders shuffled and fidgeted, swirling in shining flocks. The flute-like calls of curlew came echoing across the waters. Herring gull, brent goose, shelduck, wigeon, and merganser made it onto the list, along with a number of waders; black-tailed godwit, dunlin, knot, grey plover, and redshank. Wood pigeons crossed the lightening sky, and the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker (my first of the year) hinted at the coming spring. We left Church Norton with a running total of 27 species. A roe deer led us down the lane, white ‘target’ backend bobbing brightly in the gloom.

Selsey Bill was our next destination, however as we approached the beach an increasingly sinking feeling fell over the group upon the sight of a largely empty sea.  Turnstones pottered on the beach and black headed gulls played catch-me-if-you-can with the booming surf. An eider duck drifted just off-shore, providing excellent scope-views, and a cormorant was also on show. Two unidentified divers tantalised two members of the team, but were alas unseen by the required magic number of three to make it onto The List. 

It is good to see the sunrise at least once a year

Selsey rooftops yielded starlings, magpie, jackdaw, and eventually collared dove. Usually a Selsey staple, this final species took some searching for, whereas every other rooftop seemed to have a wood pigeon atop and we wondered if there was a correlation between the apparent rise in wood pigeons and the struggle to locate the more slender collared cousin?

We decided to cut our losses and returned along the road to Siddlesham and the RSPB centre. With the help of the feeders and Ferry Pool we were able to muster up a handful of small birds and ducks before deciding we had enough time under our belts to allow for a muddy walk along the harbour edge aiming for a view of avocet. Red legged partridge gamely added their presence to the list, whilst a characteristic fleeting glimpse of a water rail dashing across the path was a welcome unplanned-for sighting. Out across the harbour our desired avocets were accompanied by grey heron, and golden plover, resulting in a total update of 51.

Oh deer oh deer...

By the time we arrived back at the car, we found it was essential to delve into the tea and cake in order to fuel our next leg of the journey. None-the-less, we still found that our eagerness meant we reached Dell Quay whilst the tide was still too high for many birds to be in evidence and a pathetic score of one species in the form of mute swan was all we achieved.

Does it ever really get light at this time of year?

Slipping and squelching through the mud at Apuldrum Church/Fishbourne Creek was more profitable, and with the sun emerging from the murk it was turning into a good-looking day. A golden eye was out on the water and a wimbrel was feeding at the edge of the vegetation in the mud. Stonechat, rock pipit, and reed bunting all resulted from a search for the elusive jack snipe. Peter Plant bravely ventured a few metres from the firm path and we were rewarded with a great view of this tiny wader rocketing out of the vegetation only for it to disappear back in a few seconds later. We turned back to the triumphant Peter Plant just in time to watch his balletic dive into the mud, from whence he returned to our concerned laughter looking slightly as though in fancy-dress as the mythical creature from the black lagoon!

Hero returns!

We distracted Peter from his muddy misfortune with views of kingfisher and bursts of song from cettis warbler, both in the reed-lined channel near the sewage outlet.

Time to head inland, stopping on route to collect pochard, tufted duck and gadwall. At Coldwaltham Sewage Works we saw chiffchaff and the paler Siberian subspecies, before a goldcrest in the hedgerow. Unbelievably it was only now that we finally located canada goose, house sparrow and pied wagtail!

At last we descended on RSPB Pulborough Brooks and met up with additional team member Gary Trew (an honouree Midhurstian for the afternoon!). Jay and redwing on the entrance drive raised our hopes. Fieldfare feasting on holly berries, a single barnacle goose and two Bewick swans on the far North Brooks were very pleasing as was the famously now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Dartford warbler.

We ended the day in the gathering gloom at The Burgh, only adding grey partridge to the list. We did attempt the now traditional pause at Burton Mill Pond to listen for tawny owl, and headlight search of Benbow Pond for Egyptian goose but to no avail on both counts.

All the species mention, plus a few others in the mix, resulted in a final score of 88 species, equalling last year’s total for the Midhurst Martlets.

A few frustrating misses included meadow pipit seen only by Peter Plant, bullfinch seen twice by myself but no-one else (I promise, I really did see them!), and those two aforementioned Selsey divers. 

An enjoyable day, a satisfying result, and perhaps better luck next year!

UPDATE: Breaking news... after cross-referencing our lists and holding a re-count, I am pleased to announce a correction to the Midhurst Martlets' Bird Race total! 
The final count is 90 species. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Sussex Field Notes - second edition, winter 2015 - spring 2016

I am delighted to announce that the second edition of Sussex Field Notes is now available! 

A collection of writings and photographs to fill the dark hours as we tiptoe softly towards the spring. 

This edition of Sussex Field Notes features walks on the South Downs, wintery wildlife, Sussex dialect and another seasonal recipe. 

So why not email 'yes please' to sxfieldnotes@mail.com to claim your copy. 

(If you requested the first edition back in the autumn, please check your inbox as I have sent out this new edition automatically to everyone on the mailing list.)

Here's to a happy, heathy and wonder-filled year to come, and best wishes to you for the festive season! 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vanishing Undercurrents

I recently read an article which suggested, judging by legends and stories and oral histories, that the South Downs are host to a far greater density of fairies and mystical happenings then the rest of the surrounding Sussex county. (see article here)
At the same time, I had a discussion via social media regarding ancient mystical meanings within nature and how there are layers of meanings within our landscape, much of which we have lost, but which would have been everyday understanding and language in past times. 

A simple view even, for example, is far more than shades of green and brown; each tree and plant species had properties and uses, each hollow or rise in the ground a name, an association. But a layer beneath the practical is the spiritual; a connection with land and place. 

Now we walk the trails, gaze at the views, live our lives working and playing upon the fields and streets, but how much do we allow ourselves to feel or see those layers, to understand them and make the connection? 
When I walk an ancient trackway I like to pause and feel my footsteps falling into the treads of those many who have walked the same route. I am intrigued to decipher the patterns of the view spread out before me and attempt to read it like a map. I embrace the moments when the hairs rise on the back of my neck at the sense of something unseen, but unforgotten by the woods or stones or earth. There is an undercurrent of knowledge and history within every nook and cranny and open space of our landscape, a treasure trove of language and dialect, culture and stories which is quickly and easily becoming lost and forgotten, but is part of our identity and heritage. 

It is these thoughts, and a view from the West Sussex Downs, which has inspired the following "Ode to Sussex", and a desire to look deeper, to explore, to connect with and to conserve these vanishing undercurrents. 

An Ode to Sussex – Sussex Born and Sussex Bred

The rattle of the gate-chain in the hilltop wind is the clink-clanking of sheep bells.
The bonfire smoke curling skywards from a wooded garden marks the charcoal burner’s camp.
Barrows slumber, dreaming of sword and sacrifice on the green sward; shadows march in the mist.
Below, on the dim coastal plain, streetlights flickering on make pinpoints of orange glow across the city; fires in hearths and night-lights of Roman children.
Beyond, it is hard to tell where land merges with the shifting edge of a blank glint of sea.

The drovers’ track deepens with every passing of onward feet.
The evergreen yew grows thick within the churchyard wall.
We gather on the levels, dash down the twitten, climb up the rolling Downs.
In dell and knoll the farisees still linger if we listen hard enough on moonlit nights or walk widdershins about the ring and keep our counting as we go.
As the flint is of the chalk, we are of the land, and its history and all that have gone before are distilled in the land and thus in us.

Sussex born and Sussex bred, we are sustained by the waters the Downs have shed, and to this place our hearts are wed.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Wild About Gardens - A Weekend Treat

After a few days of grey, wet autumnal winds and rains, I felt the need for some colour and brightness, and so have spent some time looking back over photos taken at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the August of 2014. It is amazing how much wildlife I managed to capture when not looking especially for it! 


More photography at: https://www.flickr.com/gp/131877433@N05/C8p594

Friday, 30 October 2015

Wild About Gardens Week - My Favourite Visitor

I am catching up with paperwork today; at least that’s what I tell people. Really I am sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table allowing myself to be pleasantly distracted by feathered friends beyond the back door. From my current position, I can see an enormously rotund wood pigeon strutting along the top of the fence, and blue tits, goldfinches and a pair of coal tits take it in turns on the feeders. A large flock of gulls is drifting across the sky overhead. 
These simple sights make me smile and as I gaze idly out the window I think how nice it is that these birds come to see me. Of course, whether I am here or not, has nothing at all to do with the garden birds’ daily visits but sometimes it is nice to think the feeders I hang, the crumbs I scatter or the water I keep free of ice during the winter might make a difference.

I had to buy some more bird food the other day, the greedy ruffians had gobbled it all! I stood in the shop, browsing the display of feeders, seed, suet balls, nuts and mealworms, and the thought crossed my mind; these birds eat better than many of us humans!  The book department revealed the same story; books of every shape and size and technical detail, dedicated to ‘common or garden birds’. What is it that makes them so special to us?

When chatting about wildlife to people I meet, birdwatchers and non-birdwatchers alike, from the nearly 100 year olds to the 4 year olds, the young mums with push-chairs and buggies, to the well-travelled twitcher loaded with telescope camera and bin’s, it is clear to see that it is often the creatures, birds or other wildlife, that come into their gardens which really capture their imagination.
The ones we watch whilst doing the washing up or eating breakfast, the squirrel that raids the peanuts, the tame Robin that comes to feed on mealworms from our hand or the Blackbirds and Thrushes that fight over apples in the snow, the fox that pops in for a midnight snack, the House Sparrows that rugby tackle each other in the bushes under the front window, or the Blue Tits rearing their family in the nest box by the back door.
Sometimes we give them names (there is a Duck on our local town pond called Donald, although whether he is aware of this I do not know). Many times I have heard people refer to ‘Their’ robin, or ‘Their’ pair of blue tits, and yet surely our existence is to them a matter of indifference; at times a convenience, at others a significant danger?

My favourite visitor came into my garden today; and brightened up my day. It was Jenny Wren; a rotund, cheerful bird, with bright beady eyes and upright tail, and such an attitude that she seems unaware of her diminutive stature.
Beneath the bushes where the rowdy Sparrows gather and the cheeky Blue Tits dash from tree to tree, between the flowerpots and discarded garden tools she hopped and crept, fluttering to pluck a spider from its web.
Lost from sight amongst the foliage, a quivering leaf or two betrayed her path and out she popped again, perched between the pink flowers of the rose, still flowering, that scrambles up the fence.
Suddenly the air is filled with sound, an explosion of song, crystal notes of pure joy and defiance; “This is me!” she seemed to declare to the world. She cocked her tail and flicked her wings and glared at me with a sharp eye. I glanced away, distracted for a moment and looked back to find the little bird had gone, hopping and creeping through the bushes and between the flowerpots, and over the garden fence.  
A little bird came today; she brought a smile with her.
I hope she comes again tomorrow; ‘MY’ Jenny Wren!

They say an Englishman’s home is his castle; perhaps it is by somehow finding their way into our gardens, our own private snippet of this land we live on, that these visitors from the wild also find their way into a special place in our hearts.

(From an article originally written for Sussex Ornithological Society's members' newsletter)