Sorrow, Joy and the combat pigeons – tales from my sparrow farm

I’ve taken some time over the years to turn my garden from a chaotic mess to a planned mess. I don’t like gardening, so I wanted a low maintenance space where wildlife could find a refuge but that I could enjoy and move through without risking attack from wild animals. When I started, I didn’t know what was living in there and risked serious injury every time I ventured beyond the patio. Little by little (as I said, I don’t like gardening), I tamed the flora and catalogued the fauna. It took 5 years to manage a large patch of brambles and unidentified bushes and I discovered a small pond beneath the undergrowth. I removed old ornamental bushes, spent a few years growing apples before the apple tree stopped working and generally managed the garden back to something I’m happy with. It took 10 years altogether.

An important part of the plan was to create a space that insects and birds could thrive in. I also wanted to grow vegetables and continue to harvest the blackberries that appear every year. It’s only in the last couple of years that the plans have started to bear fruit (yes, pun intended).

And so to this year. After Rufus passed away, I decided to encourage the fox back into the garden and if you’ve followed my social media posts you’ll have seen that it was successful. I used to see her often when Rufus and I went walking around the houses in the evenings and before he lived with me she was an occasional visitor as a young vixen. But this year it was obvious that she was suckling young and I was rewarded when she started bringing her cub with her. It was playful and inquisitive and while she ate from the bowl, it would wander about looking into the bushes and under the spud plants. She would feed it from her mouth and it would have a snuffle around the bowl before they both disappeared again on their way to their next meal.

A couple of weeks ago I was attracted to the garden by the sound of several crows squawking and making a fuss in the sycamore tree. It was clear they weren’t happy and my immediate thought was that the fox cub was somewhere at the top of the garden. I chased the birds away and in doing so, disturbed the cub who darted into the garden and under some bushes. Not wanting to scare it, I headed back to the house but the cub almost immediately darted back to it’s hiding place in the rubbish at the top of the garden, where I let it be. The crows didn’t return and I avoided any unnecessary disturbance. The cub accompanied it’s mother that evening and I was happy.

Sparrows have come to see my garden as a sanctuary. I feed them ( I have to – if I’m a few minutes late filling the feeders they start to make a racket and flit about in the bushes to express their annoyance) and they’ve taken over an old bucket under a bush as their watering hole. Earlier this year, there was the faint sound of romantic bird song and I caught the occasional glimpse of candle lights near the feeders as the boys wooed the girls and not long after I was rewarded with a flock of little sparrows, all making a noise as they tried to fly between branches. You could see they were just learning to fly as their clumsy attempts to land gracefully on branch, bucket and feeder were comical. But over the next few days, they got better at it. For some reason, their gathering place was under the green canopy of my potato plants and I would often see a writhing mass of sparrows dusting themselves in the shade. Trying to count them was nearly impossible and the best I came up with was losing count at 20. I would guess there are between 20 and 25 sparrows regularly visiting the garden.

All those sparrows aren’t good for the spuds. I’ve had to re-cover them several times as their dusting and other antics have exposed the potatoes themselves. There are rows of little indentations in the soil where individual birds have dug themselves baths. I’ve watched them follow each other around like a gang of teenagers, one or two finding a perch and all the rest coming to joint them. Branches sag and birds fall off. There are often scuffles at the water bucket as they all vie for a place on the rim. And while they all fly off into the higher branches when I go out in the garden, they don’t go far in case I’m filling up the feeders. Recently, I have heard the romantic songs and spotted the little candles again so I suspect there will be additions of the flock before long.

Inevitably, where there are feeders there is grain that had fallen from the mesh to the ground. The pigeons prefer this grain and will wait for the sparrows to dislodge it as the youngsters crash into the feeder in their attempt to emulate the older, more skillful birds. I have also noticed that when the sparrows aren’t around to dislodge the seed, the pigeons will jump on the feeder to do it themselves. The pigeons (and a couple of doves) chase each other around the garden on foot, waddling along the lawn to make sure that everyone knows who the boss is. Of course, there is a different boss every day. One pigeon, not having any interest in all the fuss, just settles down in a little dip to sunbathe. But the real pigeon combat takes place out of sight in the sycamore tree. They go up there to loudly settle disputes and I wouldn’t be surprised if a little betting goes on as well. The pigeons love drinking from the water bowl I have set up on the patio wall. They dip their beaks and necks in the water and once one comes over to drink, they all follow. I watched five gather around the bowl the other day. There wasn’t room for all of them, mainly because one had decided to stand in the water.

Also inevitably, where there is grain there are small mammals. I’ve seen brown rats climbing the bushes where the feeders used to be sited, balancing out along the branches and reaching out to grab the feeder. I once surprised two who were dining on bird food and in their desperation to get away, they were climbing over each other. Recently, with the fox a regular visitor, I haven’t seen any rats. I did see a small bank vole though – I know because I’ve recently completed a mammal ID course for the National Trust.

I have two regular magpie visitors. I dislike magpies in general and refuse to give them the courtesy of saying the rhyme (“One for sorrow, two for joy etc”) as they used to torment my blind and deaf old stray cat (now long gone). But these two are little characters and have been named for the rhyme. This morning, they were both drinking from a bowl of water I’d set up for the purpose, and then they decided to explore the mostly dry pond. All I could see was the occasional head popping up to see what was going on.

I have a pair of blackbirds that have been regulars in the garden for years. They were here earlier in the year, gathering nesting material from the pond and taking advantage of the sheep’s wool I’d put out for the purpose. But the nest was elsewhere. They’re back again and today they have been gathering more nesting material, and feeding on the dried worms I put down in their favourite quiet spot.

I have seagulls – they steal the food that I put down for the fox. And today, I had a special visitor. I was sat in the garden reading and watching the antics of the sparrows, pigeons and blackbirds when I started to notice everything going quiet. The normally vocal sparrows were disappearing deep into the bushes. The pigeon fighting in the tree stopped. The blackbirds flew off and the magpies followed them. There was no activity in the garden. I noticed a few seagulls wheeling about high up and then a red kite flew low over the garden. It was at the same height as the tree and had taken an interest in my garden for some reason. I managed to grab the camera (it’s always to hand) and went out to get some photos. I expected the kite to fly off or at least climb higher but it continued to wheel and float about 30 feet above me. The gulls weren’t happy but weren’t interfering like they normally do. I had a full five minute flying display as the kite flew off and came back again. It was such a beautiful sight and I felt privileged to see this magnificent wild bird hunting. Ironically, I’d been at the bird of prey centre at the Botanical Gardens on Friday, watching kites on display.

Also in my garden, the visitor can see butterflies (my next project is to try and attract more) bees, wasps, plenty of flies, spiders and in recent years (although not this year) a frog. In the fading autumn evening light, bats can be seen flying over the garden. In the past I’ve had a hedgehog or two. a squirrel, robins, blue tits and starlings. It’s a lovely place to spend an hour or so just sitting and watching (and listening to) the world go by.

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Two trig points

As my leave drew to a close, I wanted to get one hill bagging walk in and today, according to the weather forecast, would be the best day. Not too hot, clear, and a Friday, which would mean fewer people out. I like that. Unfortunately, my walking buddy wouldn’t be with me as he’s still recovering from his knee injury so I decided to go for a route that would be impractical for him anyway. Stiles and fences are always a problem for Rufus as his enthusiasm to clear them leads to jumps and falls and swear words from me. This route has two and in the past I’ve had to lift him over both. I wouldn’t take him on this route again, so it seemed an ideal choice.

I sat in the car for a few minutes to let the rain clear. I hate starting off in the rain although once I’m walking I’m not too bothered by it. The route I’d chosen this time started off by climbing Fan Bwlch Chwyth, which we’d completed twice before (see here). Its a short but steep slog but the views north are spectacular and today there was the ‘whump’ of distant artillery firing on the Sennybridge ranges. From the trig point at the top, Fan Gyhirych dominates the southern skyline. The path is obvious and also obvious today was how wet it was. The drainage isn’t good here, which has saved this land from becoming enclosed farmland but made this part of the walk a soggy, muddy ordeal.

The sun was quite hot but it kept disappearing behind clouds and when it did so, a cool breeze blew. Before long I was at the far end of a ruined drystone wall looking down on the forestry track that formed the next leg of the stroll. I hadn’t really considered the distance involved today but when I checked I had already done 2.5 miles. I felt good, surprising since I hadn’t done any serious walking for several weeks, and none with a full back pack for several months.

This is sheep country and the stiles I knew lay ahead were around a whole complex of fences, gates and pens used to gather and contain the sheep during shearing season. When I got to the pens I saw that there was only one stile now but it was a difficult one, with slippery steps and deep mud either side. I managed to avoid falling in the mud (as if I’d tell you any different!) and headed off along the track towards the mountain.

Fan Gyhirych was one of my training mountains for the Base Camp treks so although I’d approached it from a new angle, it was very familiar to me. I was now heading along the curved ridge line that makes it such a distinctive sight from the road. In the winter this north face keeps the snow long after it has melted elsewhere. By the time I got to the second trig point, I had done just over 4 miles and I was beginning to feel the ache in my feet. A few yards north is a cairn of stones and here I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the views of the Crai reservoir and Fan Brecheiniog to the west.

Then, with some grey clouds threatening to soak me, I set off back along the ridge and down to the track. Quickly it was obvious that the clouds weren’t going to bother me and they cleared off leaving the late morning warm and pleasant. I had decided to follow the track all the way back to the road to avoid the worst of the marsh and mud. As I dropped down to the track, I stopped to chat with a fellow walker. His little dog was on a lead made of a belt. “I forgot his lead” said the walker, and we exchanged route information.

The track made the going quicker and I completed the four miles back to the car quite quickly. Passing a large plantation of conifers, I heard the  cry of a buzzard as it wheeled lazily overhead. It was later joined by a second and they used a current of warm air to gain height over the trees. The last few hundred metres were the hardest as although it wasn’t a steep incline, it was uphill and the tarmac was unforgiving on my feet. It was bliss to finally sit down in the car.

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The ones that got away

We had a lie in this morning to allow the bad weather to clear, so it was a relatively late 10am when we left the car to walk through Cwm Ivy woods out towards Landimore. The sky was still grey and there was a threat of rain, as the shower we passed through get here proved. It was humid, too, and probably the most uncomfortable kind of weather to be walking in, too. But we both needed a long walk to stretch legs, bust some stress and breathe some fresh air.

I always have a camera with me and this time it was a small compact that I could hide away if the rain came. But it’s slow to start up and so I’m prone to miss fleeting snapshot opportunities with it. Today, I’d regret that.

First regret was not getting a photo of the grey squirrel that ran over an overhanging branch while Rufus watched, open-jawed. He was aware that there were loads more around, judging by the nose up, stand still attitude he adopted several times. But from my slightly higher viewpoint, I could see them hopping and scurrying around in the vegetation, occasionally darting up a tree.

Then, as I was concentrating on the squirrels, I failed to notice the cow by the side of the path. In my defence, so did Rufus. But I didn’t fail to spot the thick copper ring in his nose. Finally, just before I chose retreat, I noticed the thin metal wire of a fence between us and the bull.

We wandered on, both a little more wary of our surroundings. Although there were a lot of leaves on the ground, there was very little Autumn colour in the trees, which was disappointing. But I was in a black and white mood with the camera, so I didn’t miss too much.

The sea wall path is still closed because of damage following the storms earlier this year. So today, we took a different path across the marsh and heading off towards Landimore. It was very muddy, as I expected, and there were great pools of water from rough trenches cut into the marsh. Of course, Rufus managed to explore most of them.

On the way back, we took more notice of our surroundings. I wanted to try and get photos of the bull, particularly the copper ring, and the squirrels. I was hoping to get a photo of Rufus and a squirrel in the same shot. But the bull had gone and the squirrels were camera shy. But as we neared the little village of Cwm Ivy, I heard a commotion over in the fields on the right and I looked to see a buzzard chasing a heron low across the field, just above the heads of curious cows. I was so surprised that I didn’t even reach for the camera until they had both disappeared behind a tree. There was more commotions but I would be surprised if the buzzard got the better of the heron, as herons are big birds.

Any one of those sights would have made a great photos, one I could be proud of. I missed the lot. Time to give up the camera and pick up the crochet needles.

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Chilled out Sunday

Sunday morning. There is already a ‘Groundhog Day’ feel as Rufus nuzzles my hand with his nose at 5.10am. I resist until 5.30 when we venture out into the pre-dawn morning so he can satisfy his need to clear the garden of all creatures. The birds were singing the dawn chorus and over the bay, a pinkish glow heralded the sunrise, which wasn’t due for a while yet.

Back in bed, I’m nice and warm again and Rufus settles back on his bed for a lie in until about 7am. Rufus scorns his breakfast until he has watched me eat mine and had his two little bits of toast. Only then does he devour his food.

I had originally planned to go to Whiteford but it would mean a 45 minute drive each way and as I had plans for the afternoon, we’d only get an hour or so there.  So Cefn Bryn became the new destination. 20 minutes to get there gave us more time to actually walk and enjoy the early morning. We had the ridge to ourselves and we walked unhurriedly along.

It was grey to start with but as we walked, so a break in the clouds approached from the west. In front of it, the clouds formed odd wave-like patterns that looked a bit like the patterns formed in sand by the tide. Between the cloud waves, the sky was a deep blue.

We spent nearly two hours on the common before most people had stirred. Birds foraged on the ground and only flew off as we got close. I watched three buzzards circling on air currents  and in the distance sheep grazed and some horses watched us walk by.

Back home, we chilled on the sofa for half an hour before I took Rufus back to his own house. Then it was off for Sunday lunch in a lovely old pub near Ewenny with a friend followed by a visit to Ikea. I was looking for a chest of drawers and managed to find one. But the box was so heavy and lacking in grip that it proved almost impossible to get it into the car. Only the laughter of my ‘friend’ fired me up enough to get the package into the boot.

Once I got home, I had to carry the box up the steps to my house. Once again the lack of anywhere to grip the box made it a nightmare to carry and it was heavy enough that I could feel my back beginning to hurt. Inside, I checked the package weight. 94lbs. Perhaps it should have been in two boxes! I left the assembly for tonight. I think it can wait while my back recovers.

All in all, a most enjoyable Sunday.

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