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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Broadpool

Rufus and I head off to Broadpool a lot. It’s within 20 minutes of the house (on a good day with little traffic) and it’s a beautiful environment. Occasionally we have to give it a miss if there are cows around and I tend not to stop there if there are horses or sheep as they can easily be spooked and end up on the road. But more often than not we can spend up to an hour wandering around the lake and over the common. The variety of wildlife there is surprising. Apart from the farm animals, we’ve spotted rabbits, ducks and a solitary lapwing. I try and avoid the pool when the heron is there as she gets a lot of visitors and is very nervous. There are swifts and swallows, tree pipits, long tailed tits and geese. I’ve watched a barn owl hunting at the end of the day and recently a kestrel has watched over us as we walk.

Last Sunday it was a beautiful morning and we were at the lake before 8.30. The sun was warm and golden, the sky cloudless and the water mirror smooth. In the distance, cows called as milking time approached. We set off from the car and I let Rufus wander. We were testing Rufuscam which you can read about in this post, and he got some nice photos. All the wildlife photos here are from that morning.

I was happy witch my photos too and you can see them below. But how things change. At around 4pm, I saw a thin sea mist coming in over Mumbles and I thought it would make a great photograph to catch it in the sunset light over Broadpool. So Rufus and I jumped in the car and off we went. By the time we reached the pool, the visibility was down to yards and there was no sign of the sun. We went for a short walk in the gloom, which sucked all the colour from the landscape. Although the photos I took were in black and white anyway, had I used colour the only difference would have been a slight blue cast.

For most of the walk the road was invisible and only the sound of traffic betrayed it’s presence. In the distance, the cows still called, along with sheep and horses. The familiar became unfamiliar. It’s what I like about Broadpool; there’s always something different.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A walk on the worm

Rufus had his physiotherapy walk early this morning, around a still and mirror like Broadpool. Apart from the odd car, the silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional call of a cow to it’s calf.

Back home, it was a quick turnaround for me as I had decided to walk out to Worm’s Head this morning. As Rufus is making his recovery, I am trying to get in some activities that he wouldn’t be able to join me on regardless of his state of health. The walk out to Worm’s Head is over jagged, rocky outcrops and there is scrambling involved as well and no matter how fit Rufus is, there are sections I wouldn’t make him tackle for fear of broken bones.

It was a perfect walking day as I set off from the car park at Rhossili. A coach load of young tourists had just emptied out into the car park and I was determined to get ahead of them in case they were also planning on crossing to the Worm, as getting stuck behind them on any of the rocky crossings would make it even harder going.

At the Coastguard hut, I checked the causeway opening times although I’d already figured out that I had until just before 3pm based on the high tide time. Sure enough, the figures confirmed it was open now and until 2.50pm. I set off down the well worn path of red earth towards the rocks and the start of the causeway.

There is no set path. You pick your own route based on whim. Last time I was here I remember seeing a large anchor seemingly embedded in the rock (although I guess it was partly buried by barnacles and other more modern detritus as it couldn’t have been there long enough to become part of the rocks). Sure enough, there it was  but a lot more prominent than I remembered it.

A few minutes of careful picking between pools, shells, rocks worn smooth by the action of the sea later, I was making my way up onto the welcome grassy slopes of the inner worm. The wind that was blowing was cooling without being cold and the sun was warm on my back. The views back towards Rhossili were already spectacular and would only get better as I went on. I climbed the short incline to the top of the little ridge and walked along with a sharp drop to sea on my right.

I could hear an occasional mournful sound and looking over and down to the rocks below, I saw several grey seals basking in the warm sunshine. Every so often, one would call to no one in particular. It was a haunting sound. In the dark of night it would sound eerie and otherworldly.

I walked on and down to the little causeway between the inner and middle islets. This is a difficult section as the limestone rocks are sharp and there are deep crevices ready to catch and unwary ankle or twist a vulnerable knee. Again, there is no set route and it’s best just to take your time and keep checking every few steps to make sure you’re on track. This is what I did and despite a few twinges from my left knee, I managed to negotiate the rocks and reach the next part of the route. Again, a short climb got me to the top of the middle part of the Worm. On the right as I walked along, a small archway of rock provided a glimpse of the sea to the north. Dropping down to a little natural platform beneath the arch I could see down onto the north shore and more basking seals. As I watched, a small seal dragged itself out of the water onto the basking rock, to the warning grunts from a big seal protecting her pup. All was resolved when the intruder settled on a different part of the rock.

The next obstacle was the sea arch, part of a collapsed sea cave. The route over is solid but narrow in parts and a gusty wind blows through here. It wasn’t too bad today but I’ve heard tell of times when it’s almost been enough to knock you off your feet. I managed the crossing with little trouble and found myself on the final stretch to the head of the Worm.

This becomes a steep but thankfully short scramble. I wasn’t worried by this prospect but the last time I scrambled up rock was at Little Lent Hill on the way to climb Kilimanjaro, 18 months ago. I needn’t have worried and a couple of minutes of ‘three points of contact’ got me to the top. And, of course, it was all worthwhile. the 360 degree views were magnificent.

I set the camera up to take a couple of selfies on the timer and then sat down to enjoy the views. Not long after, I was joined by a couple for whom English was not their first language. Nevertheless, I gave and got a cheery ‘morning’ and after they’d taken the obligatory selfies, they left me to my seclusion again.

It had taken me 90 minutes to reach the end of Worm’s Head and I had plenty of time before the causeway closed. Every year, people are stranded on the headland after leaving it too late and there are deaths as people try to cross when the tide is rising; there is a strong undercurrent that will easily knock you off your feet once the causeway is covered by water.

I strolled back, using the low level paths as the higher ones seemed to be congested with visitors to the headland. The wind was a little stronger as I reached the jagged rocks of the little causeway but for some reason travelling in this direction was easier. I could see a rough route that seemed smoother than the one I used earlier and so it was, although it took me quite close to the sheer drop on the north side of the headland. Then it was a simple walk down to the main causeway and the crossing back to the mainland.

Back on dry land, as it were, I stood and watched a group of people in the sea far below the cliff tops as they threw a frisbee back and forth. What fascinated me were the four  dogs in the water with them charging back and forth trying to get the frisbee. They seemed to be having enormous fun splashing and swimming around, judging by the barking and wagging of tails. On top of the cliffs, the path was filling up as more people spilled out of the car park and walked towards the headland.

I was glad to be going back to the car now there were crowds around as one of the draws of getting out for me is the solitude. I trudged back to the car, ready to jump in and drive off. But on my right was an ice cream van and I succumbed to the temptation of the siren call of the diesel generator keeping the ice cream cold. The perfect end to a walk on the Worm.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Heavy rain with a chance of getting soaked

The weather forecast said rain and that’s my excuse for having a lie- in. I say lie-in, of course I was up at 5.30am at the request of the boss for a quick sprint out into the drizzle before we both went back for another hour or so of kip.

The plan for today was to get some shopping done and then some chores around the house while the weather was bad. But as is the way with Welsh climate, when I got up for breakfast, the sun was shining. Breakfast and shopping over, there was no sign of rain so we had a brief discussion and Rufus decided we’d better head off to the hills to take advantage of the sun. Of course, as we left the house, it started to rain again but it’s only water so we hopped in the car and set off.

We went back to the river. We were there on Wednesday evening and as we wandered along the river bank, we were buzzed by an RAF Typhoon. This afternoon, there was no activity as we walked along the riverbank up towards Fan Brecheiniog. I had no firm plans for where to go and I thought we’d just wander and see where our noses took us.

Rufus’ nose took him into a deep pool and at first he was happy swimming about. But there was a strong current under the surface and I could see he was being swept off course. There was no real risk of him being swept away as the water left the pool in quite a narrow and shallow waterfall. But he wasn’t happy so I called him over to the bank. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it to the shallow bit as the current was strong, so he tried to climb a steep part of the bank. Between us, we managed to get him out of the water; I dragged him up and on to me and he kicked out with his back legs. I was drenched! Rufus was happy.

We carried on and with the sun shining and a breeze keeping the temperature comfortable, we headed up the hill towards Llyn y Fan Fawr. After the last day’s rain, the going was extremely soggy but we finally made it to the shore. We haven’t been there for a while and it was nice to see it in the sunlight. We walked around the shore and while I threw stones for Rufus to chase and catch, he splashed about in the shallow water. The level of the lake was much lower than usual even with the heavy rain we had yesterday; I don’t think I’ve seen it that low.

By the time we’d made a complete circuit of the lake, the cloud was heading back over the mountain. As we set off to the car, the rain started; light at first but getting heavier as we went. The only good thing was that I had my back tot he direction of the wind, which was gusting quite strongly. I was resigned to getting a soaking. Rufus was already wet from his dips in the river and the lake so he’d didn’t see the problem. About half way down the hill, the rain stopped and the sun came out again.

Back home, we both sat back on the sofa and there was much snoring!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

The boys are back in town

One of the good things to result from cancelling my trek is that I can get back to more sensible walks, and that means Rufus can come along again. So today, I picked him up and we headed off to Broadpool in Gower for a couple of hours of exploration.  Water attracts Rufus like a magnet, but Broadpool itself is hard for him to get in to and out of, so he treats it like an obstacle to be overcome. I can almost sense his frustration as he sees me stop to take yet another photos of some interesting bit of flora.

We skirted the north end of the pool, heading away from the road and towards another, hidden pool that we discovered a few months ago. While Rufus made his own way there, I stopped to take photos of the heather. I looked up to see that Rufus had disturbed a heron, which was flying over Broadpool. But he didn’t care and as I watched the laboured wingbeats as the heron gained just enough height to clear the road, Rufus was back on track. He disappeared behind some ferns and for a moment I wondered where he was. Then I heard the tell-tale splashes and I knew he was fine. By the time I reached, the water, Rufus was ankle deep, looking at me and waiting for the first stone of the morning.

Many stones (and some nifty catches) later, it was time to venture further west to parts of the common we hadn’t been to before. While I was distracted snapping away at a small grasshopper on an orange fern leaf, Rufus disappeared, lured by the aroma of something he had to roll in. The first I knew about it was when he got within 10 feet of me. It was the most appalling stink he’d ever managed to find, and he was so proud of it that he kept coming up to me to show it off. As I brushed the worst of it off with some dead fern leaves, I was gagging.

We went straight back to the pool for a bath. Stones were thrown to tempt Rufus deeper until he was swimming. Then I wiped him down again. Of course, it was all a game to him and there was much tail wagging and barking. When we finally got back to the car, the aroma was much weaker but I still drove home with the windows open and the air-conditioning blasting air from the front to the back.

Rufus had a long shower when he got home, which was punctuated by deep groans and sighs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.