Saturday, 28 June 2014

An accidental birdwatcher

This past year I have been busy; very busy. There’s been lots of traveling, lots of training courses and lots of time spent studying or in the office. Trains and training rooms, flipchart paper and computer screens seem to take over my days. My binoculars have bumped around in my bag in the boot of my car or in and out of the office, and are in need to some ‘t.l.c.’; primarily re-alignment work as they are now rebelling against their poor treatment and not quite focusing properly.
There has been little chance to venture out bird watching, certainly not as the primary reason for a trip. I have become an ‘accidental birdwatcher’ where I just bump into birds now and then, when busy doing something else. I did discover a Treecreeper’s nest, in a crevice in an old Scotts Pine on my local patch, and deliberately visited this patch determined to see my first swallows of the year. I stayed late after work one warm April evening to spend a glorious hour listening to Nightingales sing from dense cover, and watching Avocets feeding in reflective pools.
But other memorable, birding highlights of the last 12 months are few and far between.
A Hobby versus Peregrine punch up, over the streets of Winchester when shopping with the family one sunny afternoon last summer and Sand Martins swooping over teams of rowers on Bedford River and nesting in holes and drainage pipes in the concreted banks, seen whilst walking from train station to hotel.  The long-awaited return of the swifts to the skies above my hometown was noted by hearing their unmistakable screams whilst crossing the road to the library. The numerous families of goldfinches that keep emptying my feeders of sunflower hearts this spring are disturbed by my appearance at the back grate as I stumble in from a full day at work.

In June, I turned 22. Now this might not seem much of a milestone to many people. For me however, it marks the point where in career and opportunities terms, I have passed the age where I can use the novelty of ‘it’s so good to see a young person interested in nature’, to my advantage, and instead rank as a low-experienced adult with plenty of competition. It also marks the summer when current projects come to an end, and I have some important choices to make and some doors to tentatively open.
One of these doors is the one back into serious birding.
Birds had become such a part of my life; both work and play, I had started taking them perhaps a little for granted; they were part of the furniture. This does not mean I wasn’t watching birds or enjoying them. My days have been filled with them, and with butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, moths and all kinds of fascinations, that nature has to offer. I just wasn’t always looking for them as often as I could.

Now it is time to get those binoculars fixed, and stretch under-used walking muscles. To retune the eyes and the ears, to spy that movement amongst the pine needles and to pick up that high squeak that reveals the tiny Goldcrest, or spot that tiny soaring dot and the pouring song of the Skylark in sun-glare skies. Time to enjoy the summer migrants before they leave for their winter homes, and to get ready to welcome the delights blown here by autumn storms. 

A weekend of simple things

In the distance beyond the estate, full throated engines whine as they wind their way through the town. Overhead small private helicopters dissect the clouded sky. Along the street, gardens are quiet other than the soft pitter-pat of refreshing dust-dampening summer rain, and the persistent coo of wood pigeons. It's the last weekend in June, the Festival of Speed is in full flow at nearby Goodwood. A bus lumbers around the corner of our street, taking life a little slower that the festival goers on the main road. We will do the same, spending the weekend enjoying the slower, simple things. 
Real butter, on crumpets for breakfast. A cup of tea, barefoot in the rain-fresh garden. Noticing how the leaves of the birch tree hang like triangular bunting, blown and tangled by the wind. Images created by a good book. Chuckling at a shared thought. Feeding the birds. Cheerful nasturtium flowers; a childhood favourite. Sun-ripened strawberries from the runner that escaped into the flower border and has happily grown wild between the buddleia and geraniums. Wrapping a gift. Sharing a meal. An evening walk in after-a-summer-shower-sunlight.  

Monday, 16 June 2014

Some of my favourite places... West Sussex

Today, June 16th, is Sussex Day. A celebration of all that the wonderful county of Sussex has to offer from food, scenery, landscapes and wildlife to community and individuals, history, culture and arts. As a little celebration of what I personally love about the county, I thought I would share some of my favourite places from West Sussex (in no particular order!). Some are popular with visitors and locals, others are hidden corners of countryside, but all have something special.

1. Lowland Heath
These photos are taken at Iping Common near Midhurst (managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust) In winter it feels a barren place, yet  crossbills call from lone pines,and dartford warblers chatter from the top of cobweb-strung gorse bushes. And just maybe, if your lucky, a hen harrier will float across the brown brittle heather. In summer, the heathland comes alive. The yellow flowered gorse smells of coconut, and its pea-pod like seeds 'pop' in the sun like miniature machine gun fire. Over dark mirrored pools, where the water is tinted black by the peat,  predatory dragonflies zoom on wings that glint in the sunlight. The hunter becomes the hunted when the aerobatic hobby arrives. 
A sound like two stones being hit together reveals the presence of stonechat, whilst a looping flight is the display of 'tulula' the woodlark. 
In June, tiny blue butterflies flit over the short mown heather, winged jewels of exquisite detail and beauty. These are silver studded blues, a rare butterfly of heaths. 
Late summer and the heath shimmers under a heath wave, insects scurry across the bare sandy soil, birch trees whisper in the breeze and the air is filled with the honeyed sent of heather and bracken.

2. Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

A cluster of historic buildings nestles amongst rolling downs and woodland. Thatched roofs and tiled roofs, chimneys and fires in the hearth. Gardens filled with flowers, herbs and nurtured vegetables. Beside the lake a watermill grinds as its great wheel turns.  Escape the other visitors by climbing the hill into the woods, past the charcoal burners camp, and roam the paths where autumn leaves aand bright green moss soften ground and fallen trunk. 

3. West Dean Gardens
West Dean Gardens, part of the wider West Dean Estate and College, is a gem of West Sussex. My favourite area is the walled garden. Here, old fruit trees grow between clipped box hedges, and spring flowers shelter around their roots. Peach blossom scents Victorian glass houses and through the year the beds and borders change from tilled soil to overflowing vegetables and flowers. Dahlias jostle for attention. Roses nod after a summer shower.  


4. Shepherd's Churches

Sometimes when walking along downland paths and drovers tracks you'll stumble across a tiny church. These places of Christian worship were built in times past for the shepherding communities that farmed the downland slopes. 
Quiet, peaceful buildings, some are lit only by candles and the soft light that filters through the narrow windows. I can't help but wonder how many pairs of pilgrims feet have past over the welcome cool of the church floor or bowed heads ducked beneath the fronts of the yew tree that guards the gate?

5. Country lanes

What can I say about the country lanes? It is hard to choose which is more special; the reflections in winter puddles, that gate-way-glimpse of furrowed field or farmstead, or the riot of flowers that spill down the banks in spring and summer. I love the way the wild clematis and bryony climb the hedgerow, and look forward to the first of the finger staining blackberries. The sweet song of the robin or the humorous clockwork run of pheasants cheers the heart on damp autumn days. 

6. Ancient woodland

 Standing in the green wood, I looked up at the chinks of sky where the sun slants through the canopy and felt a desire to hold my arms spread wide, slowly turn on the spot soaking up the wonder of the majestic trees as the branches and leaves moved above me like the patterns in a kaleidoscope.
Watching the wind blow through the leaves, just the same as it blew through my hair, it seemed as if the trees were laughing, were singing, inviting me to join them in their dance like the the wood dryads and faeries in stories of old.

7. The Downs

In the towns and cities we rush from office meeting to office meeting, loosening collars, rolling up sleeves and fanning paper. News of hose-pipe bans and record temperatures crackles through the fumes and hum of stationary traffic. Away from the urban bustle, up on the ridge of the downs, high, high in the bright blue sky, a lark sings its melody, so loud it seems it might burst with joy. Sheep and cows laze in the shade, or graze the sun warmed, thyme fragranced turf, unconcerned by groups of weekend ramblers that amble along the chalk paths of the South Downs Way.
Butterflies dance over wildflowers that bloom on the chalk slopes, cared for by sensitive landowners and sheep.

Sitting with a picnic and cloudy lemonade, on top of the South Downs somewhere between the cities of Winchester and Eastbourne, during those sunny summer days we are surely, on top of the world. 

8. My Garden
A 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 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!

9. Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve (RSPB)

Before the lichen-patterned bench flows the reaching, stretching marsh. A carpet of yellowing grey-green grass and in the distance a widening strip of shimmering blue. White birds glint in dancing haze.
The aspen whispers. The air feels soft, a warm touch to the skin. I can smell the unique scent of a saltmarsh harbour in September: tidal mud and salt and sea aster blooms. Grasshoppers chirp a constant electric buzz from yellowing grass. Two Moorhens are sparing, heads down, red eye glaring, white tail fanned. Their oversized feet trace a dot-to-dot picture across the mud. A slender Little Egret, plumes snowy white, stalks the shallows. Slowly, as the water ripples with the flowing tide, time ebbs.
It was only a short walk that led me to the harbour edge, along a winding channel; the mud bare and weed-strewn, concrete and wooden posts and structures jutting from the banks, marooned high and dry, and abandoned by the distracted tide that plays now at the harbour mouth.  A charm of red-faced Goldfinches, restless and constantly shifting, zigzagged the channel from seed-filled teasel clump to thistle head. Starlings were here too, their calls squabbling and harsh, jarring with the Goldfinches’ tinkling song.
A slight rise and bend in the path, a kissing gate, guarded by a late-season dragonfly, wings stiff and brittle lifting it from the warm wood like a harrier on vertical take-off from an aircraft carrier. His large compound eyes swivelled; I am of no consequence to him, it’s the flies he watched for so intently, waiting his chance. I gently closed the gate behind me and turned, expectant, eager, like a child waiting for the first glimpse of summer-holiday seas. My eyes greedily drank in the view that opened before me, of far reaching marsh, distant horizons and boundless skies. A Redshank ‘pip-pip-peeped’ from a hidden channel and a Curlew echoed it with a fluting call. Ducks, silhouetted against the reflective mud, dabbled and slurped saltmarsh soup.
A kestrel hovers against the lilac tinted clouds; she sweeps to the left, hovering again before suddenly dropping sharply into the yellowing grass. She lifts to the sky again a few minutes later, talons empty. Better luck next time.  

10. Pitsham Farm

Close to my home is Pitsham Farm. I have walked along the track many times over the years since I moved to the area when I was 8 years old and have come to know ‘the farm’ almost like a childhood friend. With cows peacefully grazing in the green fields and the rolling hump-backed downs providing a constant backdrop, it is a piece of almost uniquely ‘English’ countryside.
Spring and summer are my favourite times with their early morning mists and long evening shadows, but the autumn brings fruit, coloured leaves and puddles to splash through in wellies, and in winter the sun sets in glorious orange hues behind the hills whilst we collect holly, ivy and fir for seasonal decorations, serenaded by the red-breasted robin.
As a regularly used public right of way and access road, passing through a working farm and brickworks, it cannot be described as totally unspoilt by litter or machinery, but there is a certain children’s picture-book feel to the place and a comfort in its familiarity.
House sparrows gather in football-hooligan-like gangs in the hedges by the cottages, swallows swoop over the cattle grazed fields to perch twittering on overhead cables and nest in the barns by the farm house. I have seen little owl in the copse around the old sandpit. These days trees and scrub line the edges of the pit and bramble and wildflowers grow in the hollow, but many years before I knew the place, sand martins nested in the steep sand banks of the pit. At this time the old farm pond and ditches would have been filled with water, but now the hollow of the pond is swamped with nettles and brambles, whilst scrubby willows and bulrushes are the only sign of its wet history. Flocks of finches feed here in winter, whitethroats nest in summer, and wrens regularly fill the air with their incredible song. Grey wagtails paddle in the stream and their pied cousins strut along the rooftops where wood pigeons and stock doves perch, digesting a crop-full of maize. Linnets and yellowhammers are occasionally seen, perched on the top of the hedges, darting away if approached. Overhead, buzzards are a daily sight, soaring on thermals above the woods and fields.

Celebrate! It's Sussex Day!

Six golden Martlets flutter-fly high, against a true-blue sky. 
Lucky horseshoes arch their back towards the sun, and across flint-faced walls, the wild roses run. 
From the village green look up! 
Smell the heather-sand scent drifting from the lowland heath where bees dance around purple bells. 
Hear the whispering of wind in green leaves of ancient trees that sigh together in shaded woods. 
Feel the cool freshness of clear water giggling down chalk streams. 
See the rolling downs, rise up, encircle. 
See the sheep grazed turf, remember the blue flowers of rampion or the scent of sun warmed thyme, and go!
 Let the bustle of the town fall far behind, quieted, soothed. Climb the hills, the flint chalk where yew trees cling, the thorn tree dotted higher ground, to the bare whale backed humps of Kipling speak. 
Turn on the spot, feel the soft air all around, the sun above and the earth beneath your feet and drink deep of skylark song. 
Gaze across your county spread wide below, where six golden Martlets fly, on a background of bluest sky. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Army Life...

...World War 1 style

Saturday 8th - Sunday 9th June 2014; Horses at War Event, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (South Downs, West Sussex)

An army of re-enactors, display troops, and living history groups, set up camp in the fields of the Weald and Downland Museum this weekend, accompanied by authentic artefacts, vehicles, weapons and costumes. 
Visitors to the Horses at War event could step aside from the show ring fence, and wander back in time to the days of Britain at War. 
There was the Womens' Land Army and Timber Corps, a Padre, medical tents, recruitment, Remount Service and horse lines, and the Royal Armouries all informing and entertaining visitors with a taste of military life.