31/12/20 It’s not so easy as you might think to identify a buzzard-sized raven in flight simply by size, unless there happens to be a crow mobbing it. And then you have to be certain that is a crow rather than a jackdaw or rook.
It has taken me a few years of experience and research to become confident in my identification of ravens. The first time I saw them must have been on a primary school trip to the Tower of London. As far as I know, I never saw or heard one again until I started walking the Southwest Coast Path. Making slow progress over the steep Cornish cliffs, I was alerted to the presence of an unfamiliar bird by a cronk: a deeper, gentler, altogether more beautiful and friendly sound than the caw of a crow.
Its voice is distinctive, but its pitch can vary, and this confused me at first. Sometimes the cronk is unmistakably low and sonorous; sometimes it is higher and sounds more like a gentle version of a crow. This is still the most reliable method of identification, however, along with its tail – if you manage to get a look – which is diamond-shaped (usually described as wedge-shaped), in contrast to the crow’s fanned tail. It has taken me many sightings and hearings, both at home and in the surrounding countryside, to be sure – absolutely sure – that the visitors to my garden the day after the winter solstice were a pair of ravens.
Walking up the river from Looe Harbour in south Cornwall, I saw a green sculpture of a seal on the rocks. I stopped briefly to read the plaque, feeling no more than mildly curious.
A distinctive ‘one-eyed’ scarred bull Grey Seal […] who was a familiar sight in the harbours of south Cornwall for over 25 years. Eventually he settled on the rocks of Looe Island as his home and made Looe Harbour his dining room where he was fed and his company enjoyed by local fishermen, townsfolk and countless visitors.
‘A Grand Old Man of the Sea’ and a great favourite with all.
In life, Nelson was a splendid ambassador for his species; now, in bronze, he serves as a potent symbol of the rich marine environment of the area and a permanent reminder of the need for it to be cherished.1
As I moved along to allow others to pass me on the walkway, I saw a bunch of wilting red and yellow roses lying beside Nelson’s left flipper.
12/8/20 After I got back from Wiltshire a few weeks ago, I made a list of things that might help me to keep up my spirits and think positively. The break had done me a huge amount of good, but I could already feel that it wouldn’t solve the problems of being at home again. I was going to have to work hard at maintaining the change in mindset I had experienced in those few days away. I had already identified one thing that would give me that sense of wellbeing and excitement about life which had been so lacking in recent weeks: to go looking for chalk streams in Norfolk. But at least a whole free day was required for that kind of adventure, and I needed things I could do every day, at home, even on busy days.
I looked back at the list yesterday. Even though I had already implemented many of the items, I had forgotten it was so long. As well as obvious things such as planning to see friends and getting out regularly, the list read as follows:
Sit in the boat on the pond
Swim in the rain
Walk at dusk
Write at the reservoir
Sleep in the garden
Make a campfire & seat area at the top of the garden by the moat
Get up early (walk/bike ride)
Go into the hedge/stream area beside the meadow
Go for a new walk twice a week
Seeing this list again, it is clearly all about new perspectives: seeing and doing familiar things in new ways, and taking advantage of novelty available close to home.
30/5/20 Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend, her first outing alone since lockdown. She asked me if I thought it was true there was more wildlife and more birdsong since lockdown, or whether we were simply noticing them more. I have heard many people say it, and seen many videos of wild animals wandering care-free down empty high streets, but the question of there being more wildlife, objectively speaking, needed logical consideration. It was probably a subject for the radio programme More or Less.
When she began describing the things she’d noticed, it was clear to me that most of it was just a matter of hearing birds where traffic noise would normally drown them out or encourage them to move elsewhere; or birds and other animals being happy in places they’d usually avoid. Fewer people, less traffic and less noise all mean that animals may be considering raising a family or looking for food where they never would have before. People have also slowed down, are spending more time at home and probably more time walking and cycling in their neighbourhood; therefore they are most likely seeing and hearing things that usually pass them by. But I don’t really see how there can be more wildlife already. Perhaps there will be at the end of the season, if nesting is more successful or more widespread this year. Perhaps some plants and animals that are sensitive to air quality will also benefit, though I can’t imagine the effects would be noticeable just yet.
This summer has been full of excitement and activity, and, sitting in a sunny garden listening to bird song while I write, I am glad to feel it is not yet over.
With only a few small pauses between B&B bookings – all of which were occupied by visits from family and friends or short musical trips away from home – and averaging 5 concerts a month since April, I feel happy to have made it to mid-September without having to hide in a darkened room (more than once or twice, at least).
There have been so many highlights it would be hard to choose between them. One, of course, must be the many lovely people I have met and the joy with which they have shared my house, garden and creatures during their stay. Many of the other highlights are of course creature related. A kingfisher flew over my pond – I’m not sure what he was doing here as there are definitely no fish in it, but I was very happy to see him all the same – and I have seen hares in my garden almost daily. One crossed the bridge recently, which I as a result I now consider a magic bridge. Leia the chinchilla, who sadly lost her friend Solo earlier in the year, found a new friend and it only took a few days before they were snuggled up together. Malteser and Dusty the rabbits… well, cute, fluffy and funny pretty well sums them up. The goaties have, surprisingly, refrained from too much mischief this season but continue to rule the garden and the chickens with their usual self-assurance.
19/6/2019 Last time I looked it was April: I’m not sure where this spring has disappeared to. I have been willing it to rain so that the irises in my rapidly drying pond might have the chance to flower before the goats ate them all. My wishes were in vain: but somehow a few flowers managed to escape their jaws nevertheless. The rain came too late for the irises, but the vegetables and fruits are thankful, as am I, for having far less watering to do than last year. And for the absence of moral dilemmas: my water butts are being filled regularly, so the hose is rarely called for.
After a slow start with bookings, this spring has been all about B&B, vegetable gardening and music, to the neglect of my new bathroom which has been waiting several months to be painted. But that is a winter job, and it will just have to wait: I have learnt that ruthless prioritising is the only way forward in spring. Meanwhile, the vegetable beds were mended and cleared in February with the help of a friend, and I finally got round to repairing, cleaning and goat proofing the greenhouse – only two years late. So both are in full green swing, prompted and encouraged by my friend Steve, who has been passing on spare seeds and plants and acting as my vegetable growing consultant. ‘What do I do about the potatoes which have been squashed by a crow that got stuck in the vegetable enclosure?’ ‘Will my Brussel sprouts recover after having nearly all their leaves broken off?’ (The rabbits and goats were happy with their dinner after that mishap.)
Meanwhile Dusty and Malteser have been specialising in cuteness; Winnie the Wood Pigeon is as gorgeous as ever and will soon celebrate her 2nd birthday; the goats took full advantage of their one opportunity (and I shall ensure it is their last) to break into the beautifully fenced rhubarb bed and leave a scene of devastation behind them; and my new rescue chickens, Cheeky and Monkey (Monkey is below centre) – no need to say more – have settled into Crossways Farm life as though they never knew anything else.
I accidentally left my walking boots at Nick’s house, so I went to fetch them the following morning and was easily persuaded to stay for a cup of coffee. I was driving back towards Westleton Heath for a walk afterwards when I saw a sign for Darsham Marshes on my right and changed my mind.
It wasn’t a large nature reserve, so my walk was short, but I was glad to discover it. As I was nearing the end of the loop I met a group of three women looking at something on the ground and talking excitedly. I stopped and asked them what they’d found.
It was otter poo, they told me. ‘It’s not often one meets people getting excited about poo,’ I said. The lady who had identified the droppings held up a piece and put it under my nose: I was slightly taken aback, unsure how I felt about sniffing poo, and certainly never having had any presented to me at uncomfortably close quarters by a stranger before.
She reassured me. ‘It doesn’t smell bad! You can tell they are otter droppings from the smell.’
‘They apparently smell of jasmine,’ one of the other ladies explained. I could only detect a very faint fishy odour, but I was amused by the idea. ‘What a very lucky creature to have poo that smells of jasmine,’ I said, feeling our conversation was getting more surreal by the second. I asked where the path led across the boggy ground, said goodbye and continued on my way.
Holy Trinity, Middleton
Outdoor temperature: 10.9˚C; indoor temperature: 8.9˚C, humidity: 78% It was another glorious morning. Middleton was the neighbouring village to the south of Westleton, which I had left until now because there were fewer churches in the vicinity, and I had visited most of them already. Today, I only had time for two church visits on my way home. I was looking forward to it: I didn’t know Middleton at all.
So I thought, but when I arrived, it looked familiar: I must have driven through once or twice before. It is odd that I didn’t remember its name, because it is a distinctive and friendly-looking village, with pub, church, and many houses clustered around a village green of just the right size to give a sense of both space and community.
23/12/2018 It took me months to attract the first goldfinches to the garden with nyger seeds. When they did arrive, I would see one, and then have to wait several weeks to see the next one. Still, I was thrilled with the odd sighting, and wished I could tell my father they were here. Like kingfishers, they look too exotic for England; and also like kingfishers, it only takes a glimpse to know which bird you have seen.
(The embedded audio player may not work on some browsers: download audio file here)
10/12/18 The sound of tawny owls isn’t restricted to autumn, or even to night time. They are usually not far away at any time of year, and a few years ago there was a period when I would hear them in the garden more often at about 11am than any other time of day.
Recently I noticed I had been missing them. Autumn nights are not complete without that most magical of sounds: a sonic reproduction of alpaca wool. It is a sound I could snuggle in. What a contrast to the bird that produces it! Loose-feathered and beautiful as tawny owls are, I am under no illusion as to their cuddliness. One glimpse of those piercing eyes and deadly beak and claws instantly corrects any mistake on that front. Their babies are another matter, however. Perhaps the sound is of owlet fuzz rather than alpaca wool. It certainly has the same effect on me as looking at a photograph of a baby owl.