Here are a few photos to record yesterday’s exceptional weather when the cold air from Russia (nicknamed the Beast from the East) met Atlantic Storm Emma and large amounts of snow were dumped on the south west of the UK. Here in Totnes we experienced blizzard conditions for most of the day, many roads were impassable and a support centre had to be set up to help people stranded in the town.
I have concentrated on some of the birds I saw feeding during the blizzard. The photos convey the feel of the blizzard; the white-out is also shown very well in the featured image at the top of this post.
Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.
From I stood tip-toe upon a little hill by John Keats (1817)
I suppose it’s the time of year. Our neighbours have taken to decorating their garden trees. But don’t think Christmas lights, think bird feeders. Every imaginable variety of feeder swings merrily on the breeze offering an avian cafeteria that no right-thinking bird can resist. There are peanuts, fat balls, fat-filled coconut halves and several kinds of seed and don’t the birds know it. The feeder array is as busy as a city-centre fast-food joint with the main customers being house sparrows, blue tits and great tits. A few blackbirds and coal tits also muscle in occasionally only to be overtaken by opportunistic starlings and crows.
But the birds that have surprised and delighted me most are the goldfinches. They patronise one particular feeder containing black seed (nyjer seed) and the two perches are busy until the light begins to fade. Frequently one or more hopefuls will also be waiting above the feeder and when they try to supplant the incumbent this results in much twittering and “yellow fluttering”. They are not restful birds; while they are feeding, goldfinches continually look around checking for threats. Sometimes something spooks them and they all fly off to apparent safety. A pair of crows occasionally blunders their way on to one of the nearby peanut feeders and these swaggering adolescents invariably empty the tree of all other birds.
I thought I had a rough idea of what a goldfinch looked like but having an almost captive supply of the birds has been a revelation. I knew about the blood-red “face”, the black and white head and the signature lemon-yellow wing flash but I hadn’t realised how intricately patterned the birds were. Their eyes appear to be surrounded by black “goggles” making them look like jaunty bank robbers. The tan-coloured feathers on their backs contrast with white feathers on the chest and underparts although some tan colouration extends in hand-like protrusions on to the chest. Just as interesting, when the bird turns away, are the patterns of the folded wings. Above the yellow flash, each jet- black upper wing exhibits a regular geometric pattern of small white spots resembling quotation marks. And then there is the song. I watch through a window so I can’t hear their song but I can recommend a recording on the RSPB web site or Mark Cocker’s description: “a filigree music grained with joy”.
But I am still not sure why they are here? We don’t normally see many goldfinches in the gardens and I don’t think it’s because I haven’t previously been looking. I suspect it’s because of the availability of a popular food (nyjer seed) combined with a reduction in weed seed in the countryside, partly seasonal and partly because of agricultural intensification. Whatever the explanation, I must have a word with our neighbours and encourage them to keep putting out the seed.
It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
From River by Joni Mitchell
It’s only a week or so until the shortest day and, in the town, the Christmas lights have been twinkling merrily since late November. Shop windows struggle under the weight of gifts and expectation and there has been an outbreak of Christmas Fayres in local schools and nearby villages. Totnes will soon host its own festive late-night shopping events. Perhaps all this brashness and brightness is an antidote to the greyness handed out by the recent weather.
My overriding impression this November was a lack of sunshine although there must have been some to produce the rainbow captured in the photograph. We also had our first frosts, waking up to white roofs, and on other days we were buffeted by heavy rain and strong winds which finally disposed of the leaves. The view from my kitchen window changed during the month to one dominated by bare branches.
Down in the Leechwell Garden, November was a time of seeds and fruits. I remarked a month or so ago on the “almost perfect green spheres tinged subtly with red”, the crab apples. I wondered how these would mature and I now have my answer. By November they were looking distinctly worse for wear and the “green tinged with red” had transmuted to a sickly yellow-orange. Some fruits had fallen off altogether and some were rotting, having been attacked by predators. I discovered the identity of one of the predators as I stood under the tree with my camera. A blackbird landed above me, took a casual peck at one of the fruit and flew off in disgust.
The blackbird may also have been responsible for damage to some chunky overripe rose hips nearby. The same bird will probably be back, when the time is right, to sample the berries offered by a cotoneaster. The shrub already seemed to be spreading its arms to make the berries more accessible.
Beneath one of the flowering quinces I found three golden fruit lying on the ground near the old stone wall. Whether they were just overripe or whether the blackbird had been at them, I don’t know. They looked very tempting but I am told that to humans the fruit are unpalatably bitter unless cooked. I deliberately left the bottle in the picture as it highlights one of the problems faced by a public garden. Whereas most people enjoy and respect the Leechwell Garden, a few people see nothing wrong in lobbing a bottle over the wall as a means of convenient disposal.
Perhaps I am being too hard on the blackbird. It has to get its food somewhere and there is an interesting biological chain beginning with sunlight falling on leaves, this energy leading via photosynthesis to tree growth and eventually to fruit which are eaten by the blackbird. Pollinators have a role in there as well. These chains and their relationships feature strongly in the nature writing of Mark Cocker, recently compiled in a new book (Claxton – Field notes from a small planet). Cocker sees the calls of swifts and swallows as a transmutation of “insect protein converted through the birds’ digestive system into the music”. Should I see the chiding call of the blackbird as a transmutation of the photosynthetic activity in the leaves of the crab apple tree?
Down in the shadier part of the Garden, the spindle tree continued to light the way. In September, I commented on the shocking pink fruits. By early November, these fruits had opened to reveal bright orange seeds and more gaudiness. By the end of the month, only the pink seed casings remained, looking like tiny ornate lampshades. Another splash of temporary colour came from the ginkgo tree which glowed briefly as though a switch had been flicked and then promptly lost all its leaves.
Even this late in the year a few plants seem determined to try to give us colour. Among these survivors were the mullein, still painted in splashes of yellow, some rosemary showing new mauvish-blue blossom and a bloody cranesbill with its small magenta flowers . A borage also had a few blue flowers but they didn’t look properly formed.
The Leechwell Garden was, for many years, an orchard so it seemed fitting that three apple trees were planted late in the month. Two dessert varieties popular in the 19th century, Laxton’s Superb and Ribston Pippin were planted together with a James Grieve, “the classic Scottish cooking apple” but, in my experience, very good eaten raw. The three varieties seem to have been chosen partly to allow cross pollination but they will need the insects, especially the mason bees from the bug house, to do their bit in the spring.