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Had a gorgeously hot and sunny couple of days here, which in the last couple of hours has suddenly become that deep gloom that signals either a solar eclipse or a heavy rain shower. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be the latter.

Presumably this is because our cats have begun sacrificing mice to appease the Great Sky God. For some weeks now Pixie has been intermittently trotting into the house just after dusk with a tiny grey mouse clamped proudly between her teeth. I, in turn, have been rescuing said mouse, checking that it appears uninjured, and releasing it back into the wild where it runs off to forage happily (until its next impromptu trip to our hall carpet).

Last night however I was summoned to the hall by Pixie's plaintive cries, and discovered her patting her pet mouse indignantly. It had rudely stopped moving, probably on account of the gaping hole in its side. Sad. Even later last night I went into the kitchen to find our other cat, Charcoal, excitedly patting yet another small rodent in the hopes that it would rise from the dead and do a bit more scampering. This one had no injuries, but was just as deceased. Clearly it's time to keep the cats in of an evening, in order to spare the local mouse community any further atrocities.

On a positive wildlife note our swifts are once again nesting in the eaves of our house. Every so often they launch from the rafters in a high-speed parabolic curve and whoosh past your ear.

We also went for a nice walk in the local park on Saturday, which has some really big old trees, and came across a nesting pair of woodpeckers (possibly the same ones that visit our garden, but just as possibly a different pair). They were scouring the bark of an Ash tree, which had three neat circular holes drilled into its trunk. I've never seen an actual hole made by a woodpecker, so that was quite cool. I'm still amazed that a bird can drill-out such a large space. We could hear the near-constant twittering of what we assume were woodpecker chicks coming from the general direction of the holes.

Which reminds me - Springwatch starts again tonight. Bill Oddie has been replaced by Chris Packham, in what is almost certainly an improvement. I remember Chris from kid's TV, when he had the same hairdo as Limahl from Kajagoogoo.

Springwatch

May. 1st, 2009 08:17 pm
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No inhabitants in our bird box yet. Tantalisingly we actually saw a blue tit leaving the box a couple of weeks ago, but we weren't recording from the camera at the time. (Naturally.) Since then a couple of suspicious-looking feathers have appeared, but no actual sign of nesting. They're probably having trouble getting a mortgage.

On the plus side, last month we were pleased to realise that we have not one but two Great Spotted Woodpeckers visiting our bird feeders on a daily basis (they particularly like a hanging length of birch log plugged with bits of fat feeder). We've only seen them both together once -- if it weren't for that we'd have no clue it wasn't the same bird. The only difference between males and females is that males have a red flash on the back of the head, but we've only seen clearly enough to know that one of the two is female. If it turns out we have a pair nesting nearby that would be fantastic. Very pretty birds.

We also have several Dunnocks (aka Hedge Sparrows) hopping around our garden for the first time this year. They look a bit like a cross between a sparrow and a wren. The bird book reckons these are wee timorous birdies who are supposed to dart nervously from the undergrowth, but ours are bold as brass - all over the bird table and the garden. They've been fluttering around recently doing what we think is either Mortal Kombat or courtship displays; either that or they enjoy driving cats to distraction.

My wife still goes out for her nightly Newt Census. We're regularly seeing seven palmate newts lurking in or around the pond just after dark which is more than we could ever have hoped when we built the pond. Very gratifying. They don't actually do much, but it's the next best thing to having lizards in the garden.

Or maybe this is the next best thing to having lizards in the garden...

Easter

Apr. 14th, 2009 08:34 am
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Had a great Easter weekend involving no (count it) no work, and lots of relaxing. We had friends over for most of the weekend which was fun.

We did a pseudo-BBQ on Saturday (cooked indoors, eaten outdoors to ensure that Janet didn't get any undercooked meat) which was lovely. We did some potato and tomato 'curry' as a side dish which in no sense is a curry involving only some chopped potatoes, tomatoes and onions fried with mustard seeds, turmeric and coriander. Very nice, very mild.

Then on Sunday the sky was blue and the sun was hot so we pottered around the garden fixing and weeding things while Janet's brother carved a new paddle for his canoe. The cats helped, of course. Here's Charcoal helping:



More helping here. Pixie helped too, but in a more sedentary way.

On Saturday night we watched Doctor Who (what I thought), which included a nice shout out to Tom Baker's first story 'Robot', but was otherwise slightly dull.

On Sunday we also watched Skellig on Sky, in which John Simm continued to be as great as he is in everything not called Doctor Who. I was expecting something slightly twee and cosy, which it was in places, but mostly it was surprisingly honest, real and edgy for a kids drama. A bit low key and moody, but otherwise quite interesting. It's possible that the moral is to talk to scabby-looking strangers, but I'll let that pass...

It's a good job we had the nice weekend because the weather has been relentlessly foggy ever since. Yesterday with sea fret (but we had a nice pub lunch anyway). Today with full-on fog and low cloud extending well inland. Chilly, dank, and gloomy. But at least we had a lovely Easter.

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You're looking at the inside of the bird box in our garden. The so far uninhabited bird box in our garden, but we're coming up on that time of year when a young bird's thoughts turn to twigs and trying to impress Bill Oddie, so fingers crossed.

Here's the outside:
We invested in a bird box with camera and attached it to the side of our garage, and then I painstakingly laid the cable (just visible on the photo). The set up was very easy - plug and play, essentially. There are audio, video and power leads coming off the camera unit (which can be disconnected at the box end mercifully), and thankfully all three cables (bound with a single coating) run the whole 30 metres so the power can be supplied from within the house. The cable snakes along the garage, around the kitchen, into the house next to our patio doors, and around the wall to our DVD recorder.

(Or nearly all the way to our DVD recorder. The 30m cable sounded like a lot, but when you're hugging the contours of a house it gets eaten up pretty rapidly. At present it has to take a slightly more direct route under our armchair rather than hugging the wall all the way, but I'm sure I can get a bit of extension cable. We thought about wireless ones but internet consensus seems to be that the wireless bird box cams can be a bit flaky, and despite a bit of faffing the only real difficulty I had with this one was getting the cable through the wall and into the house.)

We're really happy with it. We now have a bird box with a live feed that we can watch on the TV and record from. The camera seems to be in focus, shoots colour in the day and infrared when light levels are too low, and has a built-in microphone which has already picked up bird song and the sound of birds hopping around the exterior of the box looking for insects.

We've been meaning to do this for years. We get hordes of birds in our garden and we know they nest all around us in the trees, and even in our rafters. You already get a fantastic view of them feeding from our kitchen window, from where the outside of the new bird box is clearly visible. We just want to go that one step further1.

On the downside it cost us a fair chunk of money. It's this one as endorsed by Simon King. There are many cheaper ones on the market it has to be said! Ultimately we decided that we may as well buy a decent one rather than risk it being poor quality. It also comes with a bird feeder that the camera can slot into if the little buggers persistently refuse to nest...

*waits expectantly for birds to move in*

*drums fingers*

To be honest we've had three sparrow boxes up on the back of the house for over a year now without any sign of habitation, so I have no illusions about how quickly we might get a lodger. On the other hand the new box is well away from the house and several blue tits and coal tits have shown an interest already while foraging, so I'm quite hopeful. Possibly a "room to let" sign next to the bird table might help.

Progress reports will follow as and when we, y'know, have any progress.

--
1 Also it gives the cats something to watch on TV. You should have seen Pixie's ears perk up when the sound of twittering started coming from the speakers.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Our newts are still here. Hurray! The pond froze over very convincingly several times over the last couple of months and I'd begun to fear the worst, but today Janet began cleaning out plants and gunge and general detritus and found both an adult newt and a baby newtlet1.



The little one still has gills but is much bigger than the last ones we saw back in September - at least an inch long now. The older one looks like a Palmate newt, which is the kind we thought we had last year. If it's been in the pond all winter it must be very good at holding its breath and own a thick woolen scarf. Maybe it hid in our woodpile and has just decided to pop into the pond for a quick bath. Who knows.

Janet is extremely pleased. Newts are one of the main reasons we built the pond.
--
1 Technical term.

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It's really windy outside, with autumn leaves whipping past the window and collecting in rustling heaps that creep around our drive like sand dunes. Very cool. Our three-legged cat Pixie has been driven into a state of nervous hyperactivity all day, dashing from window to window and trying to bat leaves with her paw through the glass. She was less keen on actually being outdoors, since it's quite chilly.

All the more surprising, then, that we couldn't find her in the house this evening. Being outdoors in the dark, windy drizzle seemed a bit intrepid. An exhaustive search finally located her, nestled in the cocoon of warm air between the sofa and the radiator. Snoozing. That sounds about right.

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It's been another bring-work-home-in-the-evening kind of week for both of us, and Janet is working on Saturday too, so we were very glad to have Friday off. We decided to head down to my native Yorkshire and visit the Harrogate Flower Show so that Janet could spend her hard-earned cash buying Even More Plants to squeeze into the garden.

How to tell you're in the North of England: On the way past York we found ourselves behind a Lorry transporting Mushy Pea Fritters (from Lockwoods, "the Mushy Peas Specialists"). No really. Take a look at that photo and tell me you don't want to throw up just a little.

At the show we picked up a 'wooden man carved into a tree trunk' sculpture, which is currently looking for a home among the tree ferns at the foot of our garden. I think it's possible to overdo this kind of garden ornamentation, but I have to say it looks pretty cool.

We were very lucky with the weather which miraculously held off from its scheduled pissing-it-down until we were safely back in the car and heading home.

I seem to have acquired a headache at some point during the day, but that's probably because our cat Pixie decided to try to find us at 7 a.m. this morning by deploying the feline equivalent of sonar - this involves sitting in the hall downstairs and miaowing loudly until you hear a response, then (and only then) trotting happily upstairs and jumping onto your owner's head.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
It had been a while since we'd seen any newts in our pond, having at one stage counted nine newts swimming around simultaneously. We'd more or less decided that the newts had left the pond, as newts are (so they tell me) wont to do.

Then, on the very day my wife declared that if we didn't see a newt she'd give up, we found the tiniest of tiny baby newts (okay, larvae). And then two more. These really are small: only just over a centimetre long, about the size of a 1p coin. They have little gills and four tiny legs. Awww.



I've no idea how many others there may be lurking in the depths of our small pond, or what the chances of them surviving are, but this is a very cool discovery.

Pond Life

Aug. 2nd, 2008 08:49 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Last year we built a pond. The construction process was fairly arduous for a soft northern shite like my good self. (There are various other pictures from the construction process here.)

One year on, I'm really pleased with the way it's naturalised in, something that owes a great deal to my wife planting lots of things, and very little to me watching her plant lots of things.

Pond pictures )

Best of all it's full of wildlife, something we only faintly dreamed of one year ago. I'm genuinely amazed at how quickly the local fauna have moved in. They include various frogs and newts, about a million snails, some strange wormy things, and enough insect larvae to stage a 1950s B Movie. Today we encountered this lovely frog which poked its head above water between torrential showers, and obligingly posed for me:



There's another picture of it here.

We also went out for our regular Newt Watch the other night and discovered a hedgehog quietly snaffling all the dried meal worms we'd put out for the birds. Awwww. Being very soft, we're now putting out meal worms every night for the hedgehog. EDIT: And it was there tonight.

EDIT2: Huh. The pictures weren't working with 'new' Facebook links, but it's all fixed now.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
As if by magic, a frog appeared!

Further to my last post about wildlife, I just snapped this extremely obliging frog by our pond this evening:



It hung around briefly posing for the camera while I snapped a few shots ("Give me more froggishness") then leapt under the surface in a single bound.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Lots of wildlife in our garden still. Here are a few pictures (which also link to bigger versions on my Facebook.)

Swift


Our Swift is nesting again in the eaves of our house, or at least has been making exploratory visits. The entrance to the nest is the tiny black square just to the right of the red lintel over the window. I snapped this picture quickly so it's a little blurry but I'm quite pleased with it. Its black belly marks it out as a Swift rather than a House Martin.

Newt )

Blackbird )

Starlings )

The Birds

May. 22nd, 2008 10:11 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
Our garden has been invaded by Starlings. More precisely, several local Starlings seem to have done very well this year and had large broods, so the Dawn Chorus has been transformed into the Dawn Squawk, and our garden is full of fledgling Starlings eagerly fluttering their wings and being busily attended to by their parents. It's very sweet, but also makes it difficult to sleep once the sun comes up. We have three coconuts full of bird fat-feeder: every day Janet fills them to the brim, and every day we get home to find them pecked bare.

Sadly today we found the half-eaten remains of one fledgling in the middle of the lawn. Since we lock our cats in during the day, and our two felines have yet to work out that if you successfully kill a bird it turns out to be full of cat-food, this can only have been the work of one of the local Toms. Sad, but the Starlings are doing fantastically well and I'm sure their gains are far exceeding their losses.

We also have a Blackbird nesting on the side of our garage, underneath a big trailing clematis. It's managed to have at least two chicks despite being right next to our garden gate, and frequently spotted by the cats who sit nearby staring at it greedily. At one point Pixie even clambered up the wire mesh frame that the clematis has been trained up, and wound up sitting in the nest. Thankfully the chicks hadn't hatched at this point, but with Pixie incubating them it's a wonder they hatched at all.

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A day of excitement, thrills, gardening and wildlife.

Today was the annual ceremony of the removal of bubble-wrap from Janet's greenhouse. We use the bubble-wrap as added insulation when there's a threat of frost, but the greenhouse is a much lighter, airier place once it's gone. It takes quite a long time because everything in the greenhouse including all of Janet's carnivorous plants and the aluminium staging have to be moved onto the lawn, then moved back in again. Naturally we had cat help.

At lunchtime I was startled by a noise - let's call it a squeal of terror - from upstairs. Janet had been sitting on the toilet when a large black spider had crawled over the top of her bare leg. When I got there she was in some post-traumatic stress, not least because she could no longer see the spider. I eventually located it by turning her trousers inside out in the bath. It was fairly juicy-looking. You can only imagine what would have happened if she'd put them back on without checking. :-)

Later on this afternoon we were standing on our patio when a bird crashed very inelegantly into the top of the huge Leilandii tree next door. The tree is home to vast numbers of birds so we assumed that an enforcer for the local Pigeon Mafia had fumbled its approach, but then a bird of prey launched back out of the tree and flew right over our heads. It was speckled on its belly like a thrush, and about pigeon-sized. We reckon it must have been a Kestrel or a Sparrowhawk. It's really good to know that there's one patrolling somewhere near our house. Janet was so pleased about this it nearly made up for the Spider of Doom earlier. However she wishes me to be clear that nothing could ever make up for the HORROR.

We also found a couple of frogs in our pond a few nights ago. The newts are still there -- we've counted at least three of them anyway -- but we had a fine pair of yellow-brown frogs lurking under the surface. We've seen them a couple of times since then, always at night. I love the fact that we live in a suburban semi-detached house and yet we can see newts, frogs, toads, hedgehogs, bats, birds of prey, spiders and a wide variety of garden birds.

Newts!

Apr. 27th, 2008 09:03 pm
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We have frogspawn in our garden pond! Not much, but it's there. More importantly, we were examining the pond today and saw not one but two newts swimming around in it... which may expain why the frogspawn is dwindling. Ahem.

Janet is over the moon. Getting either newts or frogs into the pond was one of the main reasons we built it. We knew we'd had newts in the garden at various points before installing the pond, but the pond has only been there since the middle of last year which is not long for it to naturalise in. Now not only are there the small snails we introduced but an entirely different species of snail, various insects, at least one itinerant frog who left the frogpsawn, and the newts we saw today.

CRAZY WIFE UPDATE: At Janet's insistence we just went out in a thunder storm with a torch to check on our newfound newts, and there were at least six in the pond, which has to be a thriving colony by anyone's standards. This is a rubbish photo of one. Then again it was dark, raining, thundering and lightning at the time.

We're very pleased.

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We got home today and decided to let our forlorn and head-coned cat out for a walk in the garden (having just learned from the vet that she can't have the cone off until next Monday. Por cat).

There in the garden, however, we were immediately distracted by the big heap of glass next to the greenhouse. Oh yes.



Cut for more photos and dubious forensic investigation )

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Christmas)
Today Christmas officially began. We're on holiday until 2nd January, we have all our presents bought (or at least ordered), the house is decorated, and several batches of cards have been sent. I even managed to get a proper holly wreath for the front door. Phear my l33t Christmas skillz.

It helps that while snow is notably lacking, today our garden was in the grip of a hard white frost of the kind that leaves the blackbirds pecking fruitlessly at soil which has the consistency of concrete. Our little pond was entirely frozen over, as was the bird bath, and everything looked very beautiful and very wintry. I felt so sorry for the small birds hopping around this desolation that I went out to break the ice and add some new fat-feeders to the ever growing number of peanut and seed feeders and hanging bird tables that festoon our apple tree. Fortunately for the birds we've been very lax this year in tidying up the windfall apples and the birds seem to be making a feast of them--either that or they're benefitting from the various insects and worms that are making a feast of them.

In fact it's been absolutely freezing for the last few days, with the kind of wind that makes it difficult to stand still at pedestrian crossings or bus stops without fidgeting from foot to foot. I know this because we went out for a christmas drink with Janet's office last night and the walk there and back was bloody nithering.

Anyway, to get you in the mood here's a little festive tune. Because nothing says Christmas like Tom McRae being a miserable drunk. I'm currently downloading carols from iTunes, something I've been meaning to do for a couple of years. Janet's enquiry desk at work has been playing Christmas pop tunes on endless repeat, and so to preserve her sanity the house has been declared free of any hint of Band Aid, Aled Jones, Wham or Slade. Carols however can be tolerated. Although I'm an atheist there's something about the sound of church choirs singing traditional carols that really gets me in the mood for Christmas. I'm sure it's partly the result of all those Midnight Masses at our local Catholic church when I was growing up. When you get right down to it what is that fuzzy Christmas glow if not nostalgia for all those childhood Christmasses?

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We have this week off on holiday. That's good.

So far we've spent it in backbreaking labour. That's bad.

The backbreaking labour is Janet's new Greenhouse. That's good.

We rewarded ourselves last night with our first fast food order of the year. That's double plus good. Janet had Chinese. I had Pizza Hut. It was great. The best thing is we have no need to feel guilty because it was low in sugar for Janet, and the fat's irrelevant due to the aforementioned backbreaking labour.

The greenhouse itself is Janet's new pride and joy. She already had a 6 foot x 8 foot one, but her carnivorous plants were beginning to complain about the lack of space. By "complain" I mean that several of them were quite grumpy and more than a few were developing into hunchbacks. The danger of them running amok and taking over the City was ever on our minds. Well, it was on my mind. Janet seems very blasé about the idea of her plants 'pulling a Wyndham', as it's almost certainly known.

Getting back to the story: plants big--greenhouse small. Janet's foolish husband suggested that we could make room in the garden for a bigger greenhouse, and suddenly there was a Janet-shaped cloud of dust dissipating beside him as she rushed to the internets. She ended up ordering a 6 foot x 14 foot one - nearly twice as long, and also the "High Eaves" version (meaning that the walls are taller before the roof starts).

We spent Sunday taking the old greenhouse down, two VERY long days on Monday and Tuesday assembling the new one, and today fitting all the staging and moving the plants back in from the porch (where they were, quite frankly, unnerving the postie). Thankfully the rain mostly held off despite the odd bit of drizzle, and we've even had some warm sun for part of it.

We had Janet's Mum and Dad helping us to put the greenhouse up, for which we can't thank them enough. Without them whole eons could have passed before we got the darn thing assembled. It's a lot trickier than it looks, even having built one a few years back.

Inevitably there are pictures, as with all our projects. Look, just be thankful you don't have before and after photos of me composing this journal entry...

Pictures... )

Oh, and we had Cat Help, but naturally Pixie was forced to retreat to shelter in the face of a light drizzle:

Gratuitously cute cat picture )

Of course we now ache in places that are only found in medical textbooks, but Janet's really happy with the greenhouse which makes it all worthwhile.

To cap it all, work starts on our fitted kitchen next week so we need to chisel up the kitchen floor tiles before the end of the week. Sob.

iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
When last we left our struggling hero he was attempting to build a pond. Thwarted at every turn by the evils of pond liner, water, and pretty much all the other things you need to make a pond, not to mention gravity, it would be fair to say that he was making a bit of a meal of it.

Now read on...

So over the last couple of weekends we've continued pottering with the pond, on and off. It's still not finished but now looks a lot more complete.

I must confess there was a stage after I'd done most of the rocks that I felt pretty fed up with it. We don't have the budget or heavy lifting equipment to throw great slabs of rock into the ground as if a mountain spring had coincidentally thrust its way out of the earth in the corner of our garden. As a result it's fairly small and stylised, and has an awful lot of cobbles and small rocks in heaps. However since Janet put some plants in I'm feeling much more positive. It looks like what it is: a nice, small garden pond. It's certainly tranquil.

Pics )

We've still got lots more plants to come, and a pump so that we can get the stream running. Hopefully some wildlife may move in. I found two more newts in the garden today (Palmate Newts I think), one tiny and one pretty sizeable (about three inches long) so you never know. Sadly I didn't think to get a photo, but if they do move in I'll take a few close-ups. Janet's got some pond snails in the water already who seem to be thriving and/or getting amorous, and the oxygenating plants are in, so we may yet have a semi-wildlife pond.

I'm quite pleased.

Pond life

Jun. 3rd, 2007 07:34 pm
iainjclark: Dave McKean Sandman image (Default)
As mentioned we're creating a pond at the moment, turning a patch of scrubby garden non-entity into a nice little water feature and, potentially, home to the occasional newts and frogs that visit our garden. So far it's occupied the best part of the last two weekends and it feels like it's taking a very long time to come together. There are a number of learning points emerging from this exercise:

1) Pond liner is composed of purest evil and refuses to lie snugly in a hole no matter which way you fold it.

2) Swearing at pond liner accomplishes little but feels good.

3) Pebbles may lie there blinking sweetly at you in a Miyazaki-type way, but no matter how many times you wash them they'll still turn your water a muddy brown colour.

4) My back still hasn't recovered from going "oh bugger-aieee-twang!" last year.

5) Water simply can't take a hint, even when you patiently explain where you need it to go.

6) Ow, my back. This one is worth mentioning twice.

Pictures... )

During construction we've discovered a couple of newts snuggling under nearby stones and we're hoping that they may decide to move in, once the oxygenating plants are properly established. The only downside is that the pond wasn't really designed for wildlife so we'll need to make sure that the pump isn't going to suck in the poor little things. At the moment the plan is to cover the pump with an upturned aquatic plant pot with a mesh small enough to stop a hapless newt from being pulled to its newty doom.

More pictures as and when we get the thing finished.

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