Tuesday 29 April 2014

Stargazing – a Dream of Lighthouses

A number of years ago, probably in the torrid times around my 32nd birthday, a friend of mine presented me with a book. The cover was a night-time photograph of a lighthouse, rendered in such a way it looked more like an illustration, and the jacket announced it to be: “Stargazing – Peter Hill”.

I thought the cover was a shade twee, and the liner notes, explaining how a boy became a man on the Scottish Lights in the early 1970s, wasn't too promising either, it smacked too much of beards, tatty pullovers and Capstan Full Strength. Nautical cliches rammed down your throat at Cat'O'Nine Tails point

I can't deny that there is indeed a bit of bearding and pullovering in the book, but this is allowed because it is a work of such magic. Poetry, art, storytelling and manual work are described on these extraordinary creations, many of them built out of sheer impossibility by the Stephenson Dynasty (Robert Louis was a relative) on rocks that often barely saw the light of day at low tide – witness lighthouses like the elegant Skerryvore or the famous Bell Rock Light. Countless lives were saved by the characters who worked on these lights; career men, veterans overshadowed by war, those seeking escape, and a keeper who ritually removed all his clothes for the duration whenever he arrived on a light.

And amongst these men was thrown Peter Hill, an art student looking for something new and different to do for a summer; a place to explore the artistic and literary sides of his personality while working out what to do with his life. We read of him learning the ropes on Pladda, a light off the coast of the holiday isle of Arran much loved by Basking Sharks, and how he worked out how to cook huge meals for four hungry men and light the Light without burning all his hair off.

He then moves to Paddy's Milestone, Ailsa Craig, where he hears tales of war from the elder keepers and explores the giant rock where once upon a time all the granite used in the making of the world's stock of Curling stones came from. He dines off fresh crab and lobster, and swims off rocks the size of houses, sketchbook and notepad constantly at his side.

Finally he moves to Hyskeir, an island he finds is smaller than the dot of the “i” that marks its name in his atlas and is strictly run not by the senior keeper, but by the goats that lived there. His final trial in this summer is to survive two days on half a cigarette. Everything out of his system, he goes back to art school and eventually becomes a well known artist in Australia.

How little I thought of this book, cruelly, when it was given to me, since then I've realised it was a gift of the most stunning mile. It is a book for daydreamers, writers, artists and poets who wish they could spend time alone, undisturbed, yet in the company of fascinating, congenial people. It is a book for those who love the sea, and those landlocked surrounded by sterile arable farmland who wish they had a chance to.

It makes me wish I could have done, or indeed do, the same thing – never mind the clumsiness, the unsociability, the utter poisonous of my cooking, for I would learn, somehow, surely – finished my two year my stint looking after the seafarers of the world, and shining welcoming light across the waters, that the sun had painted gold at sunset a few minutes before.

And then clutching notebooks full of words of purple, silver, silk and barbed wire, I would return home, and set the world alight with words. If only, if only.

Copyright Creamcrackerednature 29.04.14

Monday 28 April 2014

At Last! Orange Tip Butterflies!

Today I took myself through hawton and along the river, listening to Radio 4 as ever, and wondering what I should see.

I initially started in Devon Pastures, and tried to photograph the green veined and small whites that were fluttering about by the pond - the riverside plants that the common blues and small coppers like aren't in bloom yet. As ever, whites of any kind are tricky to photograph, being very very twitchy and flighty, but I got a shot in the end.

I headed out into Hawton, and here was delighted to have my first close up view of an orange tip butterfly all year. I've been wondering where they are, perhaps forgetting to consider that although it feels like it has been spring for a good 6 weeks or more now, it's still early in the year.

Certainly last year, spring had only been going for a week by this time.

It may be they needed warmer temperatures, because in today's decent weather, there were a fair few about in their fabourite hedgerow habitat. And finally, I got to photograph one, something I've been failing to do for years.

Across to Farndon, and the wild garlic flowers are starting to emerge spikily in Willow Holt; soon the area of the holt next to the river will be white with them. Again lots of white butterflies around here, and like the bumblebees, they seem to prefer the flowering nettles as a source of food.

On the river itself, there wasn't a lot to be seen, but there were many herons out fishing, stabbing beaks poised motionless above the water, awaiting whatever migh be unwary beneath the water.

A weak sun began to lower in the west, but it had still been a better day than there's been for a little while.

Marsh marigold, devon pasture
Lesser celandine, Devon Pasture
Male small white, first flight, Devon Pasture
Unknown, above the A46 bypass
Orange  tip male, near entrance to Willow Holt
Wild garlic floweers, Willow Holt

Saturday 26 April 2014

Relief to be Outside in Nature

I've not been caring what I've been looking at. Just glad to get out full stop. In the cemtery, life evolves again. Now the hyacinths are over, and wood anemone and buttercup have emerged to join the beautiful bluebell-scapes.

I don't know if they are spanish or native, they are still beautiful.

Wood anemone
Wood anemone newcomers in front of bluebells
Refreshed buttercups
Bluebells en regalia
Hoverfly on dandelion

Friday 18 April 2014

All the Bees in the World

Unlike birds, bees and bumblebees are a far better photo opp for the cash strapped naturalist with only a mobile phone camera. Some bees are obliging, and will happily sit on a flower for a while allowing themselves to be photgraphed from all angles, while others are nervous, sensitive to human presence and barely settle for a second.

As with butterflies, the trick is to get as close as you can, as quietly as you can, and don't let your shadow fall on the insect, that seems to scare them more than anything. But, be prepared to be frustrated. A lot.

I'm no expert in identifying bumblebees, but I think the dark bee below may be a field cuckoo bumblebee male, which is a more uncommon specimen of these big buzzers!

First up, a honey bee of some kind
Field cuckoo bumblebee, male, I think
Magnficent garden bumblebee queen
Her Majesty
Tree bumblebee
Fabulous detail in this garden bumblebee shot

Thursday 17 April 2014

The Feisty Thrushes of Kings Mill Hospital

It is strange where animals set up home.

Hospitals are not places anyone would ever want to be, despite the efforts of the staff, and my mum has been suffering a while there now, watching the other patients come and go. We have tried to keep her spirits up, but it's hard.

Luckily, we found distractions today, in the shape of a pair of birds who have found a hospital a grand place to live.

I had already had an enlivening afternoon, because the hirundids have arrived in earnest on the water at Sutton in Ashfield reservoir. At the hospital end, the black silhouette of swallows are carving up the air into strips of molecule thickness, their powerful flight easy to admire.

But at the sailing club, it is the antics of the small, more fluttery, sand martins that really thrill. Standing on the slipway, they flash by in chains of two or three at water level no more than two metres away, before they execute a dazzling spiral turn, and come back the other way an arm's length above your head, little forked tails twisting in the air, wings beating.

But the real stars live in the hospital grounds, and have been entertaining the staff for years.

In this atrium at Kings Mill hospital, live a pair of thrushes. A solitary pair, in an area half the size of a football pitch.

Kings Mill. One of the thrushes is just visible on the "ladder" formation at left, near the bottom
 At times both will sit on the ladder formations on the side of the hospital wings, eyeing their empire. At others, one will perch on a gantry lower down, while the other feeds amongst the mosses on the lower roof you can see below. Their regular nesting site is at ground level.

They spend most of the time on lookout. And then when required they protect this space like flying tigers.

An inquisitive carrion crow swept into the space, perhaps looking out for food, perhaps just seeking the warmth the hospital must radiate out in abundance. Within seconds one, then the other, of the thrushes were on it, mobbing it clear out of the sky, back out over the building, into the wild unprotected space outside.

Mallards too, are no match for these ferocious passerines. Any passing green headed drakes are soon seen off with some fearsome flapping and calls.

And they are right to protect their space. It is warm, it has food in abundance, and no ground predators can get in, and any aerial invaders are seen easily, and early. These birds have earned the admiration of the hospital staff, and they certainly earned mine. 

And cheered up my mother, just enough.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Sunny Times in Newark and Mansfield

I will make as much use of the sun as I can while it is there, whether I'm at home, or at the hospital. Managed to get a run in this morning, and a walk around Sutton in Ashfield Reservoir in the afternoon. Butterflies fluttering, bees buzzing, flowers in bloom and mummy mallards taking the little ones for a walk.

Out of town, the warm weather has produced thermals for the buzzards to soar upon, mocking the pitiful earthbound humans tied to their microlights and gliding machines. Rabbit kittens watch from the roadside, and the cows cross the road to be milked by the oilseed rape field.

Bluebells in the cemetery
Forget-me-nots at London Road lake
Lesser celandine at London Road lake
First tree bumblebee, on a cowslip
FLowers at the castle (Azaleas)
Honey bee at work
Huge queen red tailed bumblebee, Sutton in Ashfield reservoir

Sunday 13 April 2014

Bees, Butterflies and my own Paris - Roubaix

No hospital visit today, so took advantage of the nice weather to relax, drink tea in various places, and not be made to feel nauseous by my stepfather's rickety smelly Peugeot 205 or the chemical stench of hospital.

This morning I headed off for Sconce Park and the fun little Rumbles cafe project. I took my tea outside and investigated the flower bed.

All sorts of goodies were present. Ranging up from tiny flies, through big buzzy bumblebees, to butterflies, there was a lot of life to take in amidst the colourful blooms. Potentially the most interesting, and the most impossible to photograph, was a large ginger bumblebee I took to be a carder bee. The all black specimen I have no idea about at all, in fact bumblebees are a very weak area for me. Hopefully readers of this blog will have an answer.

Small tortoiseshell at Sconce Park
Peacock showing wonderful subtle colouring and tonal changes in the eyespots
Bumblebee that matches the flower perfectly
Perhaps a non bumblebee species?
All black bumblebee
 After an enjoyable sojourn watching the famous cobbled Paris - Roubaix cycle race, I headed out for my own 15 mile bike odyssey, ostensibly to have a look at Cotham FLash to see if any yellow wagtails or wheatears have arrived, but really just for the love of being outside on a nice day. 


Cotham Flash paddocks was entirely devoid of bird life, and a little nearer Hawton, I had a great view of a malicious buzzard that watched me struggle to get my little field glasses out, and then flew off the moment I had done so. It would have been killing itself laughing when it was said field glasses fall out of my pocket, and smash themselves to bits on the road.

Not expensive ones, and there may be a spare pare, but an annoyance. THis prompted me to put some speed on, and head to Farndon to off road cycle back along the river, swooping past the peacocks and small tortoiseshells and occasional small white, and wondering where all the brimstones are all of a sudden.

The sun was low and shining bright. People were out walking the dog, cycling, sitting in beer gardens. It was just a lovely afternoon.

Friday 11 April 2014

Sutton in Ashfield Reservoir Sandwiches

Have had cause to spend time at Kings Mill Hospital, and while Mum eats in peace, we are kicked out to chomp down on our sandwiches elsewhere.

So, we have spent pleasant times by Sutton in Ashfield Reservoir, enjoying the singing (and inevitable these days) chiff chaffs; the antics of the swans, mallards and cutely tame great tits; the vigorous sexual habits of tufted ducks; a great crested grebe courship dance.

Best of all, we had a good chance to compare brown rats and water voles, and seeing my first swallows of 2014 - a flock of 20 that suddenly arrived to skim the waters for food.

Water vole
Water vole gets scared by mobile phone wielding hospital visitor
Handsome, always, male pochards
Loch Ness pochard
Swan makes nest alterations

Thursday 10 April 2014

The Cemetery Changes Again

Daffodils are over. Squill gone. And now blue bells and forget me not colour the low ground in shades of blue.
And in the air, small white and speckled wood have taken flight. Yet still no orange tips.

Energing bluebells
Forget me not
Cowslips on Sustrans 64
Fresh out of the packet Speckled Wood

Wednesday 9 April 2014

The World has Turned Yellow

An early run, and all-a-sudden the oilseed rape has blossomed, and the air is full of their cloyingly sweet oily smell which actually makes it quite hard to breathe. Brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshells still had the skies to themselves - no orange tips or holly blues in this part of the world yet. No buzzards around beacon hill, but others were seen over the river over the farmers' fields towards Kelham.

Later on, had cause to visit Kings Mill Hospital, and in the bit where they kick you out to let the patients eat in peace, me and my stepfather visited Sutton in Ashfield reservoir. I taught him the call of the chiff chaff, and we looked at the coots, moorhens and usual ducks. A trio of swans flew past, their wings swising audibly through the air, a slight whistle thrown in too.

There was an interloper or two; first up, a solitary and very dashing male pochard did his thing - his chest nut head noble upon the water, before he too gave us a fly past, showing off his smart plumage to even better effect.

And then, diving about close to shore, a couple of little grebes, or dabchicks, splashed about, diving in the water before energing covered in glistening droplets of water, flashing in the sun before it hid behind a cloud.

Looking North
Looking South
Peacock on dandelion in my garden. Beautiful

Thursday 3 April 2014

Coots and Moorhens. Some Birds are an Island

A very slow run today, after a fast 5km yesterday, with the prime intention of photographing some of the fascinating little "island" platform nests the coots and moorhens have built. The results are below, all pictures as ever taken with a mobile phone camera.

The weather was cold and grey; having the sugar factory here means we're all used to Sulphur Dioxide fogs and orange skies. No butterflies on the wing today, and definitely no hirundines yet. Still there were plenty of things to see; sporty mallards, the first spring cowslips, the "tseeeping" blue tits in the trees, and everywhere there was a tree of any kind, the sound of singing chiff chaffs.

Coot on a nest
Moorhen nest, the moorhen in question had just vacated
Hissing greylag goose next to Balderton Lake
A bower of sorts on Clay Lane

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Common Scoter, the Black Black Duck of Farndon

Today, feeling determined, decided to tackle the 9.5 mile hawton farndon home route. It was such a lovely spring day, I really wanted to make the most of it, so tuned into 6 Music (later Radio 4, I'm getting old!), grabbed a drinks bottle and headed out.

Early on, it was apparent that I wasn't the only thing enjoying the weather. Brimstones were plentiful on Boundary Road, let alone Sconce Park where today a chiff chaff could be heard singing in the oak wood. Peacocks and small tortoiseshell were also plentiful, but I still haven't seen a comma. Forget-me-not grew wildly from under garden fences.

At Hawton, oil seed rape is beginning to flower, and in Farndon Willow Holt, a number of chiff chaffs were singing loudly, and as ever, invisibly, in the trees. Either that or one bird was an expert ventriloquist. Still no sign of the lovely wood anemones of last year however.

It was at the end of the Holt that I first saw something that really caught my eye. As you leave the river path via the gate, I noticed that the little dyke that leads to the river near The Boathouse was full of toads. I haven't seen a live toad until today his spring, although seen plenty of lifeless unfortunates on the road near Coddington Pond, and this little dyke was full of them, some in mating amplexus too. There were also matts of frogspawn.

I had only been talking last night with a friend about how you never see frogs and toads by London Road lake in the ditch any more. She theorised it was disturbance by the ducks.

So, I carried on trucking, the longest run I've had for a while with my injuries, the sun warming my back. As ever the last few outings by water I've had, I was hoping to see sand martins or perhaps a swallow - they've now been reported in the county, but I saw something, actually two things, even better.

The first was on the power station reach. As I came opposite those big orange cylindircal buoys that perhaps mark the approaching weir to boats, I noticed three very strange ducks. Two were black, jet black, with rather pointed tails and a yellow beak. The other was a uniform dark brown with a pale patch on the side of the face under a dark cap.

A black duck? What could that be? I suspected at the time - for once, I didn't have my little field glasses when I actually needed them - that they might be common scoter. That certainly seemed to be the case when I looked them up back home, but surely these are marine ducks?

The answer is that indeed that they are a marine species, but make use of inland waterways when migrating. A proper birdwatcher confirmed my sighting later on. I was rather proud of myself.

As I came further round the river, I noticed a metal detectorist rooting along the bankside; it transpired it was a friend of mine who had a very old 2p as a poor result for his efforts. But his treasue hunting aided me, because as he approached, he flushed a dazzling kingfisher from a near side of the river bush; it then headed North into the reeds on the other side. It was a metallic turqoise, glowing like a jewel in the mid afternoon sun. It looked like a hummingbird at first.

Such a wonderful sight they are, and how rarely I get to see them.

Oil seed rape coming into flower at Hawton
Frogspawn at Farndon
The common scoter. Obviously.
Spot the cormorant
Small tortoiseshell
Peacock, slightly second hand