In January 2016 I did a short blog post on a pied male blackbird (Turdus merula) we’d been seeing around a lot. We’ve seen a pied blackbird intermittently since then, and yesterday it put in appearance after quite a period of absence. I snapped some photos on my crappy camera, so the quality isn’t the best, but it gives an idea of its markings. Click on all photos to enlarge.
We had thought it was the same bird, but from comparing the photos of the two, it seems that they are different birds. Our newcomer seems to have a ‘Z’ of white on the top of his tail by his body, whereas the 2016 one didn’t. I wonder if the newer one is perhaps the son of our other one.
We’ve had a few special bird sightings from our cottage this year, but sadly I can’t illustrate any of them with photos as my camera was not to hand …
The first was a strange occurrence indeed. In the 25 years we have lived here we have only once ever before seen a heron (Ardea cinerea) flying over the village. There is not a lot of water round us: we are on the chalk and a lot of the streams are winterbornes ie they only flow in winter, and the nearest lake is 2.25 km (1.4 miles) away and the nearest river about the same distance. So we were very surprised one morning not only to see a heron flying very low over the gardens near us, but to then see it pitch up on a telephone wire over our neighbour’s garden.
Grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Imagine this, but on a telephone wire … Photo by ErRu.
It perched there, swaying slightly, and it was the most amazing sight: such a massive bird, hanging around the cottages completely unconcerned. For such a huge, ungainly bird we were very impressed at its balancing act. It stayed for a few minutes, and then flew off, leaving us delighted.
The second lovely sighting was earlier this week: a lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor) on one of the telephone poles (I’m not going to call it a telegraph pole because we’re not living in Downton Abbey times any more), going up and down poking insects out of the drilled holes in the pole, and also banging away at the wood.
Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor). Imagine this, but on a telephone pole … Photo by Zaltys.
He flew off and then was back again, scurrying up and down the pole. We’ve seen both lesser spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers (Picus viridis) doing this, so there must be rich buggy harvests in all the holes.
The third sighting was last night, and a very exciting one: my first ever starling murmuration over the village. When we moved here we rarely saw starlings (Sturnus vulgaris): maybe one or two every now and then. Chap has been feeding our wild birds regularly for a few years now, and in this time we have noticed various bird species increase (and sadly, decrease – or at least, populations seem to fluctuate). One of the success stories is that of the starlings. In the last year the numbers have increased hugely – we now have a biggish flock that seems to stay around the village all day. This might well be to do in part with Chap putting out vast quantities of dried mealworms as well as sunflower seeds several times a day. The starlings (or stormtroopers, as we affectionately call them, due to their strutting walk and bolshy behaviour) come down in droves and hoover up the worms in no time, and I like to think that this regular supply of protein-rich food throughout the year has helped them thrive and breed and raise broods successfully. We regularly see twelve or fifteen juveniles perched on a television aerial or hanging round on the chimney stacks.
Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Adults left and centre front; juveniles right back. Photo by Daniel Plazanet (Daplaza).
The murmuration was so exciting to see. It was at about six thirty – so not near dusk, really, but the sky was very overcast (so overcast that we didn’t get to see the partial eclipse later on last evening, bugger it). I reckon there might have been several hundred birds, and they flew in a long, snaking, undulating group over the houses and perched in one of the large beech trees. Having seen with envy footage of huge murmurations over the Somerset Levels and elsewhere in the UK on the telly, it was magical to see one myself, and from our cottage. I hope this will be the first of many.
A starling murmuration. Photo by David Kjaer.
And here is the most wonderful video of a murmuration. Stick with it: it starts with some photos, and then …
We have found the cheapest place to bulk-buy mealworms is Croston Corn Mill: we buy a 12.55 kg (!) bag at a time and pound-per-kilo it seems to work out much cheaper than other places, both physical shops and online. We get through a bag every two weeks or so ….
1:25,000 map of the area. Each blue grid square is 1 km x 1 km.
Google Earth image with route marked. We started at Tollard Royal at the bottom of the image and walked the route anti-clockwise direction, going up the straight byway at the start of the walk.
Going up the long straight byway. A byway is open to all traffic: we met a couple of cheery off-road motorbikers.
Lovely vista of Ashgrove Bottom, one of the many dry valleys (coombes) on the chalk downland.
The path is still climbing, and on the left and centre you can see the tops of the wooded coombes in which Ashcombe House nestles.
Lovely meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense). It’s a much more vivid blue than this – the colour never comes out right in my photos.
If you just squint you can see a part of the roof and dormer windows of Ashcombe House in the centre of the photo, surrounded by the woods. It is in the most wonderfully secluded spot.
Looking down on the woods. To me, there is no finer sight than the English countryside in summer.
Not that you’ll be able to spot them, but there are two red kites (Milvus milvus) in this photo. The red kite has only colonised this area in the last 15 years or so.
A common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), just starting to go over.
Another common spotted orchid flower, slightly differently coloured (they are quite variable).
Ferne House, just to the north of the Ashcombe Estate, with its double avenue of trees. Despite looking like it has sat in its grounds for centuries, this mansion was built in 2001 for Lord Rothermere. It was designed in a Palladian style by architect Quinlan Terry.
Ferne House and grounds. I’m fascinated by the groups of trees that have been planted – squares, circles, crosses, triangles and even what might be a love heart! This is the highest point of the walk, and is only a few metres lower than Win Green, the nearby highest ground with a trig point and fabulous vistas over south Wiltshire and north Dorset.
Starting the steep walk down through the woods to Ashcombe Bottom. You can see here how Ashcombe got its name – valley of the ashes. There were also some beautiful beech trees in the woods, and luckily no sign of the dreaded ash die-back disease we’ve been hearing so much about recently.
It was a lovely surprise to see so many nettle-leaved bellflowers (Campanula trachelium) in the woods. The ransoms/wild garlic (Allium ursinum) leaves were dying off but the aroma was still pungent – delicious!
Walking down Ashcombe Bottom. Along with the estate trees (with their stock-proof cages) it was lovely to see the hawthorn bushes (Crataegus monogyna) on the hillside: such a classic part of chalk downland life.
Heading back to Tollard.
A rather crappy photo of a gorgeous comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) with its ragged wing edges.
Journey’s end: the beautiful wildlife pond at Tollard Royal.
Such a lovely walk: we saw some many wildflowers and grasses, including goatsbeard (Tragopogon pratensis), quaking grass (Briza media), pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), field scabious (Knautia arvensis), nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium), meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense), chalk milkwort (Polygala calcarea), lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild carrot (Daucus carota), greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo) and many others. The one plant I expected to see and did not was the harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), an absolute classic flower of chalk downlands.
We saw ten butterfly species: small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), small white (Pieris rapae), grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae), marbled white (Melanargia galathea), peacock (Aglais io), red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), comma (Polygonia c-album), meadow brown (Maniola jurtina), speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and gatekeeper (Pyronia tythonus). We weren’t really looking out for birds so much, but saw red kites and buzzards, plus a female blackcap and heard a beautiful male blackbird’s song in the woods. A blue damselfly settled on the drive in front of us as we walked along Ashcombe Bottom. It’s a wonderful walk in beautiful countryside, and we shall be doing it again before too long.
Yesterday was glorious – a brilliant, sunshiney spring day when all’s right with the world. We headed north for our day out, first to Great Chalfield Manor near Melksham in Wiltshire, an amazing Tudor manor house owned by the National Trust and most recently seen in the BBC’s wonderful Wolf Hall, doubling as Sir Thomas Cromwell’s home, Austin Friars. I’ll write about this in more detail another time; we went on from Great Chalfield for a walk around the By Brook in Box, Wiltshire. It turned out to be quite a special walk, for quite a few reasons.
Detail from OS 1:25,000 Explorer Map 156 for Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon. The squares are 1 km x 1 km.
Google Earth view with our path marked out in a rather wobbly white line. We travelled in a clockwise direction. The red dot marks the western portal of the Box Tunnel.
We parked up near the railway bridge and walked past some old mill buildings with a funky lead-clad modern extension which only today (Monday) I have found out were Peter Gabriel‘s Real World Studios, where such luminaries as Gabriel himself, Beyoncé, Björk, Pixies, Kanye West, Robert Plant, Amy Winehouse, Brian Eno, Jay-Z, Coldplay, Deep Purple and New Order have recorded. Had I realised at the time I would have taken some photos! Anyhow, no celebs were spotted, just a lad with a skateboard and other locals. We followed the footpath heading north-east along the western side of the brook, which in places was quite wide and deep: deep enough for skateboard lad and his friend to be swimming in it. Brave for this time of year, despite the sunshine.
Swan on the By Brook, Box, Wiltshire. The brook had narrowed by this point: further south it was wider and deep enough for swimming.
Unexpected moment number one came when Chap saw what he thought was a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)perched in the windy tops of a tree over the brook. Not the sort of bird you expect to encounter on a country walk through pasture land. But sure enough, a cormorant it was.
That dark speck at the top of the trees is a cormorant. Chap has decidedly better eyesight (and bird recognition skills) than me.
Closing in on the cormorant.
He or she didn’t seem at all bothered as we passed by.
A swan nesting on an island.
Beautiful orchard in blossom.
In the distance is the village of Colerne with its prominent church tower.
Unexpected moment number two: a fairy circle of St George’s mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). These are traditionally found round about St George’s Day (23 April), hence the name: mine are a bit early, I guess brought on by the wonderful weather. I picked some (Chap’s sandwich bag made a handy receptacle). They are good to eat, fried with butter and garlic.
St George’s mushrooms. Yummy fried with butter and garlic.
Unexpected moment number three: Box Tunnel. I knew of Isambard Kindom Brunel‘s magnificent engineering endeavour, but had never seen it. Our footpath and then a small road led us out on to the main road, the A4, and there it was! Built between 1838 and 1841 for the Great Western Railway (GWR), it was a considerable engineering feat, at 2.95 km (1.83 miles) long, and dug through difficult and challenging strata. It’s sobering to learn that around 100 labourers died during the tunnel’s construction.
The west portal of Box Tunnel.
Commemorative plaque for the restoration of the portal in 1986. The tunnel was constructed between 1838 and 1841; surveying (including the sinking of eight shafts to ascertain the geology) took place in 1836 and 1837.
The west portal of Box Tunnel: I don’t think many civil engineering projects nowadays would decorate their structures with carved stone balustrading.
Unexpected moment number four: as we walked back in to Box we passed a B&B with a blue plaque on the wall: the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, Reverend W V Awdry, had lived here as a child.
Blue plaque at Lorne House B&B for Reverend W V Awdry, of Thomas the Tank Engine books fame.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his time in the house, then known as Lorne Villa, and its influence on his future career as an author:
“[Awdry’s house] was only 200 yards (180 m) from the western end of Box Tunnel. There the Great Western Railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles. A banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline. Awdry related: “There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another.“ Here was the inspiration for the story of Edward helping Gordon‘s train up the hill, a story that Awdry first told his son Christopher some 25 years later, and which appeared in the first of the Railway Series books.”
Now I have a small but particular connection to Rev. Awdry. He was born in 1911 in Ampfield Vicarage near Romsey in Hampshire, and lived there until 1917. My mother lived in Ampfield Vicarage from September 1942 until some time in 1946: the vicar and his wife were the legal guardians of my mother and her brother while my grandparents were living in Borneo (and later held in a Japanese internment camp there). So this little blue plaque brought up all sorts of memories.
And then, across the road from Lorne Villa, came unexpected moment number five: a ruddy great steam thingamybob parked in someone’s front garden:
“the boiler for a portable steam engine of the type used for powering belt-driven machinery, typically threshing machines used in separating grain from straw and chaff. The wheels indicate that it was pulled from place to place by horses, and not self-propelled. The engine is gone, too; all that remains is the boiler that generated steam to drive the engine.”
At 18.04 pm on 6 April I can see there are still two eggs on the nest. I do hope she lays more. Last year’s brood had four eggs. (By the way, do use the ‘full screen’ facility for the webcam: it’s a tiny screen otherwise and the details will be barely visible if you don’t enlarge.)
A peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) on the beautiful stonework of Salisbury Cathedral.
Also great to learn is that one and possibly two other peregrines have been spotted around the Cathedral. These might be the juveniles from last year’s brood.
Five eggs. The webcam view on (a wet) 16 May 2017.
Apparently three or four eggs are the norm in the wild, but in urban areas where there is plentiful prey (read: pigeons) clutches can number as many as six.
UPDATE 22 May 2017: I’m not sure when it was born, but there’s a chick in the nest now:
The first hatchling!
UPDATE 30 May 2017: Great excitement while watching the wonderful BBC Springwatch programme last night as they are featuring the Salisbury Cathedral peregrines. The first part is here, starting at 49:25. They are doing a follow-up part tonight. I hope it’s good news: every time I have looked at the the webcam the adult is sitting on the nest, so I have no idea how many chicks there are. I guess I’ll find out tonight.
Beautiful shot of one of the peregrines from the BBC Springwatch footage.
Peregrine on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, from the BBC Springwatch footage.
UPDATE 31 May 2017: Well, the BBC is keeping us hanging on … another wonderfully-shot update last night on Springwatch, full of beautiful images, but so far no news of any chicks. The second instalment is here, from 24:26. One thing I did learn is that the peregrines are feeding on kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and greater spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major), among other prey. I guess the kingfishers come from the nearby River Avon with its watermeadows. One of my few ever kingfisher sightings was one darting across the road that enters the central car park by Sainsbury’s in Salisbury: a small tributary of the river runs alongside it.
UPDATE 1 June 2017: Finally we learn from Springwatch that a lone chick hatched, out of the five eggs laid – talk abut stringing it out! This is in contrast to four chicks (only two of which survived to fledge) out of four eggs last year. The non-hatched eggs have been removed from the nest for health reasons, because if the spoiled eggs break the chick could be affected by the rotten contents. The eggs will be analysed to see why they failed: worryingly the spectre of insecticides causing thin shells was raised as a possible cause. The upside is that the lone chick is getting all its parents’ attention and is being fed like a king, with consequent fast growth. The third instalment is here, starting at 49:41.
1 June 2017: the lone chick in its salubrious nest, surrounded by carcasses, shit and flies!
1 June 2017.
UPDATE 2 June: Just a brief update in last night’s Springwatch, with a live web cam view of the satellite-tagged female on the nest and film of the male eating a hapless green woodpecker (Picus viridis). The segment is here, starting at 8:13; it’s followed by a longer segment on some cliff-nesting peregrines.
UPDATE 8 June: Well, what a difference a few hours make! I checked on the webcam yesterday morning and it was down; I didn’t check back so got the surprise via Springwatch last night: a second peregrine chick has been successfully introduced to the nest and is already being happily fostered by the adults.
The new chick on the right; the original, Cathedral chick on the left. 7 June 2017.
The foster chick was one of three chicks in a nest in Shropshire; tragically last weekend the parents were found dead, cause as yet unknown, on the ground below the cliff along with a dead pigeon. Toxicology tests are being undertaken, but poisoning is suspected. Utterly shameful if that is the case. Luckily the chicks were unaffected. They were removed from the nest by RSPB experts, checked over by a vet, and rehomed in the wild: the other two have been fostered to another nest in the Midlands. The segment on last night’s Springwatch starts at 10:51. The male, 25-day-old foster chick was put in the nest at around 8.30 yesterday morning, and was accepted immediately by both the parents and the original Cathedral chick. He’s a bit bigger than the Cathedral chick, as he’s six days older.
Just after introduction. 7 June 2017.
The female (with her satellite tag) feeding the new foster chick. 7 June 2017.
Grumpy! Why aren’t you feeding me, mum? 7 June 2017.
7 June 2017.
7 June 2017.
7 June 2017.
Not long and the chicks were snuggled together, and being fed by both parents. 7 June 2017.
The new family. 7 June 2017.
Such a beautiful sight. The new family. 7 June 2017.
More food. 7 June 2017.
The new siblings snuggled together with mum. 7 June 2017.
Castle Ditches is an Iron Age hillfort. The Victoria County History of Wiltshire says of the site: ‘An Iron-Age hill fort was called Oakley Castle in the 14th century and later, its ditches and banks, enclosing 25 acres, were called Castle ditches in the 16th century, and the whole earthwork afterwards took the name Castle Ditches.’
A view from the public footpath of the boardwalk through the boggy gardens of Spilsbury Farm, complete with grab posts and marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris).
One of several man-made ponds in the area exploiting the stream and springs. You can just make out two swans, one of which (on the left) is bottoms-up, and the other (on the right) we think was nesting on the island.
We saw some brimstone and tortoisehell butterflies and heard a raven cronking in the distance. It was a joy to be out and about in the spring lusciousness and to see the sun again after such a drab winter.
Last night was very cold, and we woke to a heavy frost, the fiercest yet this winter. In the secret garden next door we were treated to the lovely sight of our first fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) of the winter, a new arrival from Scandinavia or points further east. He was flying between the tall beeches that surround the garden and the central, old apple tree, with its spread of windfall apples on the ground beneath, chasing off any blackbirds (Turdus merula) that got too close to his stash.
The secret garden, surrounded by tall beech trees and with its old apple tree in the centre. The fieldfare was in one the beeches when I took this, not that you’ll be able to spot it.
Our visitor two years ago finally left us when our neighbours on the other side of the secret garden started having lots of treework done, involving noisy chainsaws. The day that started, he left. We didn’t see him last year. It’s lovely to have him (or one like him) back.
And as a double bonus, this morning I heard the first song thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing. They sing through the spring and early summer, and then stop, starting up again in winter. It’s wonderful to hear.
Update: 24 January 2017: We have had several days of very hard frosts and sub-zero temperatures at night. Two days ago our lone fieldfare was joined by four others, and the blackbirds were down feeding on the apples too. It seems the greater number meant that the original fieldfare gave up on chasing everyone else off. Yesterday we counted ten fieldfare. We have been supplementing the apples with oatmeal, suet, sultanas, sunflower seeds, chopped up dates and figs: I think the birds eat better than we do!
Update 27 January 2017: The apples are now gone, and so too are the fieldfare: we started putting out extra apples just too late to keep them around (they didn’t eat any of the other offerings). Oh well. It was lovely having our loner and latterly his friends for as long as we did.
I was in Salisbury this morning for a dental appointment, and was very excited to notice the unusual skies: the high-altitude small cobbler-like clouds (I know they have a name but I don’t know it) had four or five oval ‘gashes’ in them, each of which was filled with a fluffier, whiter cloud. These are called fallstreak holes.
Not one of my fallstreak holes from this morning – this one was over Oklahoma City in the US in January 2010. It is very similar to what mine looked like though. Photo by Paul Franson.
‘A fallstreak hole (also known as a hole punch cloud, punch hole cloud, skypunch, cloud canal or cloud hole) is a large gap, usually circular or elliptical, that can appear in cirrocumulus or altocumulusclouds. Such holes are formed when the water temperature in the clouds is below freezing but the water, in a supercooled state, has not frozen yet due to the lack of ice nucleation. When ice crystals do form, a domino effect is set off due to the Bergeron process, causing the water droplets around the crystals to evaporate: this leaves a large, often circular, hole in the cloud.
It is believed that the introduction of large numbers of tiny ice crystals into the cloud layer sets off this domino effect of evaporation which creates the hole. The ice crystals can be formed by passing aircraft which often have a large reduction in pressure behind the wing- or propeller-tips. This cools the air very quickly, and can produce a ribbon of ice crystals trailing in the aircraft’s wake. These ice crystals find themselves surrounded by droplets, grow quickly by the Bergeron process, causing the droplets to evaporate and creating a hole with brush-like streaks of ice crystals below it. Such clouds are not unique to any one geographic area and have been photographed from many places.’
But sadly not in Salisbury this morning by me, because I didn’t have my camera with me. Buggeration. At one point I could see five holes. When I came out of my dental appointment 45 minutes later they had gone, and in their place were fluffy cumulus clouds.
I love Strange Weather Days. I still remember the excitement when Chap and I saw our first (and still only) ever mammatus clouds, in New Zealand in 2008. Well, we have to get our jollies somehow, don’t we?
I was awoken last night at about 11 (we’re usually early-to-bed merchants here) by a horrible noise I knew too well: a hedgehog in distress. Two summers ago, during a really hot and dry spell, we had several very upsetting nights when hedgehogs were being attacked by badgers in our neighbours’ gardens. Back then we were alerted by the awful shrieking calls of the poor hedgepigs in distress. Last night it was déjà vu – we’ve had a hot, dry spell; badgers can’t get at their normal prey food of worms because the ground is too hard and dry and the worms have gone right down into the deeper, moister soil, and so they turn to the hedgehogs for food.
Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). Photo by Jpbw.
So I threw on my clothes, grabbed my torch and went out in to the back yard, ready to chase off a marauding badger. What I found were two hedgehogs together, frozen in a sheepish ‘you haven’t seen me, right?’ attitude, but clearly in a state of, how can I put this delicately, interrupted love. So I turned the torch off, apologised to them, and came back to bed. As did they ….
For the next hour we were treated to not only the unearthly shrieks but also a heavy, guttural grunting. The hedgepigs were making sweet hedgehoggy love in among the plant pots. Fingers crossed there’ll be a good-sized batch of hedgepiglets arriving soon.
Lets’s hope lots of these little fellows are the result of last night’s festivities. Photo by Calle Eklund/V-wolf.
Yesterday was May Day, and despite the cold, grey weather we headed out for a walk round a small part of the 9,000 acre Fonthill Estate in south-west Wiltshire. The grounds of the Fonthill Estate are notably lacking in public rights of way. As the ruins of the fabulous Fonthill Abbey are in the grounds and normally inaccessible, a rare open day for charity yesterday gave us the chance to have a good old snoop (plus a lovely walk).
I’ve written before about Fonthill and its Abbey, built by the notorious William Beckford between 1796 and 1813, and very shortlived: due to its hasty and poor-quality construction, it fell down (for the final time) in 1825 and was later all-but demolished, apart from a part of the north wing.
Fonthill Abbey: View of the west and north fronts from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill (1823). All that remains is the part on the left hand side of the engraving: the low tower with the oriel window and everything to the left of it.
Fonthill Abbey ruins: all that remains, part of the north wing. A modern house has been built in the last year behind it and attached to some of the original cloisters / arcading.
It looks like the building work has mainly been completed, with just the hard landscaping (laying of flags etc) to be finished.
Fonthill Abbey ground plan. The small part that remains is at the very top (north) of the plan.
We walked around Bitham Lake, the smaller of the two lakes on the estate:
Ruined small building in the woods.
Beautiful old Spanish Chestnuts with their wonderfully twisted trunks.
The long drive leading up to the Abbey ruins.
There is another open day on Sunday 15 May 2016, from 10.30-5.00. Entry is via Stonegate Lodge (SP3 6SP) on the Hindon-Newtown Lane (Grid ref 390900 130650). Donations at the gate: all proceeds go to ParkinsonsUK and local charities.
2017 UPDATE: The walks take place this year on Sunday 30 April 2017 and Sunday 14 May 2017 (click photo below to embiggen/bigify for details):