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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Tits and secrets

Ok, lets get the tittering out of the way. The tits are, of course birds. Feathered birds. The court order doesn’t allow me to keep any other kinds of tits in the garden any more. This morning after I’d had breakfast, I watched as a number of Blue Tits, Great Tits and House Sparrows flitted back and forth between the bushes and my bird feeder. I managed to get some photographs of them too.

After yesterday’s walk, Rufus was struggling a little with his knee. So today, I decided that he should have a rest from walks. I explained this to him but he didn’t seem that impressed. So I had to tell him a little white lie. I said that I was going shopping. Which I sort of did, but then set off to explore a couple of parts of Gower I haven’t been to before. He still doesn’t know and thinks I’m a particularly hesitant shopper. Don’t say anything. It’s our secret.

A book on local history I have been reading intrigued me about a few places on the Gower Way. The book is ‘Real Gower’ by Nigel Jenkins and is worth a read if you’re interested in little histories of Gower told through anecdotes by a local writer. A friend had mentioned Carmel chapel, a ruin near Cilonnen, as being potentially photogenic and I read some of the history of the place in this book. So that became my first point of interest. I thought I knew where I was going and I headed off the north Gower road , past the place where my car was broken into, and on through the anonymous, tree-lined little lanes towards Cilonnen.

At the T junction, I headed west, wondering if I should have turned right instead. About a mile later, I wished I had as I had to negotiate a partially blocked road where a lorry was unloading scaffolding. Helpfully, they had put corrugated iron and wood in the ditch to allow vehicles to crawl past. Unhelpfully, the corrugated iron was ready to slice into my tyres. Helpfully, one of the guys offloading the scaffolding came over and rearranged the wood and I managed to get past. But it quickly dawned on me that I had gone the wrong way. Rather than turn around and risk my tyres again, I drove on along through new parts of Gower and enjoyed the drive despite ever narrowing lanes and pot-holed roads. Eventually, I emerged into familiar territory near Llanrhidian and turned back towards Fairwood Common again.

I left the north Gower road once again and this time stopped at Gelli Hir woods. Here, the book said, were the remains of an old colliery, also called Gelli Hir, which in its last year of production, 1948, brought 15,000 tons of coal to the surface. Spoil heaps lie on the common around the colliery site but trees ease the view. A brief walk through the woods reminded me of how lucky I am to live so close to such an abundance of unspoilt countryside as I listened to the rustle of leaves, the multitude of song birds and the gentle crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Back at the car, a Robin was checking out my wheels and wary of the previous theft from my car I wondered what it’s intentions were. I soon found out as it flew away into the branches of a tree to watch me leave.

Back on the search for Carmel, I turned east at the T junction and within 100 yards, there was the ruined chapel at the side of the road. This chapel was built in 1885 for the workers of the nearby colliery and was considered a satellite chapel of the main church in Three Crosses. I stopped to take photos as it was, as my friend had suggested, very photogenic.

Then it was off through Three Crosses to Dunvant and a portion of the old Mid Wales line that ran through Clyne Valley and which has no been turned into a cycle path. Here, the book told me, we were wandering through an industrial landscape of collieries and brick works. Several paths left the main cycleway, which is also a bridle way here where horses have the right of way over cyclists. I followed one signposted for the brick works, which climbed eastwards out of the railway cutting. In the distance I could hear horses neighing and all around birds continued to sing. Above me, a squirrel lost its nerve and scurried from a low overhead branch onto a tree to my left, where it stopped to look at me watching it. It darted across another branch, demonstrating it’s agility for me and then stopped to check I was still watching. It continued this stop start show off routine until I moved on.

The clouds were gathering now and I was conscious of the forecast of rain for the afternoon, so I turned back for the old railway line. Walking back tot he car, I noticed the old brickwork support for the cutting. Below it an orange stream flowed, where iron ore from the coal seam stained the stream bed. The wall was bulging and in several places trees and bushes grew from gaps in the brickwork.

Back home, I didn’t mention my adventures to Rufus and he seemed content to chew on a couple of carrot sticks and roll over for me to tickle his belly. Normal service has resumed then.

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Breakfast visitors, bubonic plague and disturbing behaviour

I’ve mentioned my wildlife visitors before on this blog. This morning, after a very early stroll around Broadpool, Rufus and I headed back for breakfast. I put out the seed for the birds and almost as soon as I had gone indoors, the feathered guests arrived. I was able to get some nice photos of the sparrow and the wren, and later the fat pigeon. The blackbird family stayed at the top of the garden, and the magpie was a wuss and flew off every time a blade of grass moved. There was no sign of the frog, but he usually only pops his head out of the water at dusk.

Imagine my surprise and the innovate vocabulary that shocked even Rufus, when on returning to the kitchen to wash up I saw a rat on the wall, eating the remains of the birdseed. My first thoughts were of the camera (I am a dedicated photographer – I will probably photograph the inside of my coffin come the time). My second thoughts were of the imminent plague that was sure to start, and the buboles, and the sneezing, and the carts of corpses and the cries of ‘bring out your dead’, all of which were guaranteed to happen because I had a rat in the garden.

My next action was to let the rat know I was there and as soon as it saw me, it ran off towards the neighbour’s garden. I finished washing up and made sure Rufus was in. I started to think rationally, moving from how exactly I’d make a flame thrower to how much ammunition I had for the air rifle and finally to finding out more about Rattus norvegicus (the brown rat – I have to admit to being a little disappointed that I wasn’t faced with Rattus rattus – the black rat – as I’ve always loved the name). I looked out of the window again and Norvegicus was drinking from the bucket of frogs. I grabbed my camera for a great shot but, of course, it disappeared before I could get focussed.

I went searching on the internet for advice, fully expecting to have to get vermin control in.  I’m no amateur at getting information from the web. And I am not naive enough to take the first thing I find as the gospel truth. But the first site I found was entertaining in its panicky postings. It was a forum, and the original poster had seen a rat in her garden. The resulting responses ranged from ‘man-up’ to ‘shock and awe’ with many inventive (and highly dangerous) options in between. I finally settled on a combination of the Royal Horticultural Society site and the Animal aid site which seemed to offer level headed advice and some background information.

Apparently, the brown rat lives outdoors, hates anything new and almost all ‘infestations’ are as a result of humans feeding wild birds; birdseed is a favourite diet of the brown. It is neo-phobic; that means it’s intolerant of anything new. In other words, change it’s environment and it becomes uneasy and uncomfortable. Change it often enough and it will go away. The brown rat is not a plague carrier (that’s the black). You wouldn’t want to come into contact with it’s urine (but that’s true of any critters), but it isn’t the scary bringer of death that rumour and scaremongering would have you believe. And no, you probably are not within 20m of a rat as this is a myth.

If you’ve read my blog before, I hope you will have picked up that I don’t like to kill things out of hand. After all, spiders (I am an arachnophobe) are not out to deliberately harm me. So I always try to seek the least harmful solution to these situations. Rat poison was not an option, particularly with Rufus, next door’s cat and a fox to consider. So I decided on a programme of change.

First to go was the obvious rat run where I put the bird seed. There was a pile of bamboo that I was using to make fence panels as and when required. This was where the rat had disappeared into when it saw me. so they had to go. I wondered whether there was a nest there but I decided there wasn’t, as Rufus would have detected it long ago. It took me 15 minutes to clear them away and there was no sign of rat activity. Next to go was the big pile of pine branches and other trimmings that had accumulated near the house. This was waiting for disposal with my next door neighbour, who has a rubbish collection business. I had left it alone over the winter and in the spring wrens and a blackbird had nested there. Now they had flown the nest, I was happy to disturb the pile.

I was convinced I’d find something beneath the pile as Rufus had shown a lot of interest in the base of it recently. As I moved the branches to the side of the house, ready for collection, I found one of the nests still intact. It was made mainly of moss and grass and was quite solid, even after it had been abandoned for a while. It took me nearly an hour to shift everything through the side gate so that it could be picked up. And underneath – nothing.

During all of this, Rufus made sure the house was guarded against rat infestations by dozing near the front door. We all play our part in this house!

 

I ended the afternoon’s work by cutting up some logs for a friend’s wood burner. I think I managed to change the rat’s environment quite drastically over the two hours I spent in the garden. Combined with not feeding the birds for a while,  expect that the rat will not bother with my garden in future. But if it does, once I’ve got the photos, I’ll be dreaming up some more disturbing behaviours.

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Something wicked this way comes…

I have mentioned previously that I’ve let part of my garden grow wild to encourage the wildlife. I count it as a success as this year I’ve seen ladybirds, frogs, butterflies, a squirrel and I fully expect to have a range of spiders again. This year, I have house sparrows and wrens nesting as well as my returning blackbirds. Pigeons, crows and a magpie have been feasting on the food I put out for the birds too, and I have an occasional blue tit visitor as well.

There is a fox in the area. A couple of years ago when she was young,. I was feeding her but with Rufus now living with me I’ve had to fence off the garden, which has curtailed the fox’s activities there.

Yesterday morning, when I let Rufus out for his morning stroll around the grounds, there was an almighty fuss going on in the garden. Even before he’d gone onto the patio, I could hear the distressed calls of birds. I’m no expert, but I could tell they were warning calls. So I kept an eye on Rufus just in case. He shot off to the top of the garden and I went after him to see what was going on. I found him trying to force his way through a thick jumble of branches and undergrowth, the one point I had not fenced off as it was too overgrown for him to get through. I don’t think he would have made any progress, but I didn’t want him hurting himself in the attempt so I brought him back. That sort of reaction usually means he’s smelled something and I guessed it might be the fox, as I suspect despite the fencing it has found a way in tot he garden again.

Very quickly, Rufus spotted something else in the bushes further down the garden and by the time I’d got to him, he’d found a small fledgling blackbird. Rufus is not used to such things so he was looking at it with some curiosity but not making any move to attack it. I got him away and went back to the little bird, which was trying to force it’s way through the chain link fencing I’d put up. It was going no where and I decided to pick it up and move it somewhere where it’s mother, calling frantically to it, could see it. That done, I left them to it and watched from the kitchen window as the fledgling hopped into the bushes on the other side of the garden, followed a few minutes later by its mother.

I looked up what I should have done on the RSPB website and found that I should have left it alone completely. However, handling baby birds doesn’t cause the parents to abandon them, as bird’s sense of smell is very poor. We left them to it and went for a long walk on a nice high mountain.

On our return, I accompanied Rufus in the garden to be sure he didn’t find the fledgling again, and a good job too as he spotted it at the top of the garden, with its mother near by. Poor Rufus was locked in the house and we left the birds do their own thing. All afternoon and evening, every time Rufus went out he was on the lead so I could keep him away from where the birds were. As I was going to bed, I looked out of the window and saw the fox, now grown much bigger, boldly crossing the road towards next door’s garden. I watched for a while, suing the bathroom light to illuminate the garden, but there was no sign.

This morning, there was no sign of the bird on the ground but there were several blackbirds in the bushes and trees. Rufus didn’t seem too concerned by any foreign smells. Nevertheless, I spent some time making a section of fencing to cover the patch I’d ignored previously. I await events with interest.

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Tipi

It was a grim and grey morning as we left base camp on our latest adventure. We were heading East to the Welsh Marches and the River Wye. Our aim was to spend the night in a Tipi. A tent in the rain can be cosy, or unbearable. Which would it be?

Over the last year or so we’ve had a loose plan to try out new places and activities. This has resulted in 4×4 off-road driving, a short break to Iceland, zip wires in West Wales, a brief raid on York and the North Yorkshire Moors and the relaxing Caer Beris hotel amongst others. The point is to experience a wide range of things. We can then choose to go back for a more in depth visit if we like them.

The Tipi sounded like a great idea. Originally a Native American dwelling, the modern ones differ very little in design from those recorded in the 19th Century. Why change a proven design? It is solid and yet portable; easy to set up and break down for the nomadic lifestyle of some of the Plains Indians. I was looking forward to it.

We reached the site early so we headed off to Hereford, only a few minutes away, and had a wander round the town. It was a mix of old and new but was spoilt in my opinion by the presence of a large and sprawling modern fun fair. The garish colours and lights and the booming 70s and 80s pop music detracted from the history and grandeur of the nearby Cathedral. Fortunately, inside it was tranquil and we were in a different world. We’ve visited a few of these buildings now and it’s interesting to compare them all. Hereford Cathedral was similar to other English ones but scaled down; not quite so tall, not quite so big inside etc. Brass memorial plaques on the wall commemorated notable folk from the area. On in particular stood out for me as very telling of the times. A large plate was dedicated to the officers and senior NCOs of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry who died in India between 1863 and 1875. There were about 30 names on it. At the bottom, as an afterthought was written ‘also dedicated to the 346 NCOs and other ranks who also died during this time’.

After coffee and lunch in ‘The Imperial’, we drove back tot he Tipi site in time to meet Mike, who explained the situation and then drove us in his 4×4 across very muddy fields to the Tipi itself. Apparently, the week before one of the fields had been flooded. There was no sign of that in our field and Mike said it never flooded. Then we were left to our own devices.

The Tipi was about 20 feet high and around 15 feet in diameter. 15 tall wooden stakes formed the frame and canvass was wrapped around. A second inner skin rose about 4 feet to provide some insulation. There were several futons placed around the edge of the inside and there was a central open fireplace with a frame to support the essential kettle. It looked fantastic. The setting was gorgeous too. We were on the inside of a bend in the Wye. The river was a few yards away at it’s closest point so we went to have a look. Two swans were sheltering at the bank as the river was flowing quickly and quite high. Looking back on the site I could see that the Tipi was between the river and the flood dyke protecting the farmland beyond.

Back in the tent, we got the fire going to get a brew on. We’d been shown how to use the smoke flaps, which were intended to allow smoke to chimney out of the top of the Tipi without causing drafts in the tent itself. But the wind was blowing from the wrong direction and the flaps were blowing open and closed randomly. The fire caught and burnt quickly and the heating effect was almost instant, but as the wood heated up and before it started to burn, it smouldered, sending thick curls of smoke upwards to the vent. Some of that smoke was blown back and our eyes started to sting as it swirled back down again. It took a while to get the flaps open and working effectively but part of the trick was to get the wood burning quickly rather than smouldering away.

The kettle took a while to boil and in the meantime we got settled in. Once we’d had a coffee, we set off on a stroll along the river bank. It was clear there had been a lot of water in the river recently; across on the opposite bank there had been a lot of landslip and one massive tree was clinging precariously to the top of the bank, half it’s roots exposed to the air. It wouldn’t last long.

We planned on barbecueing our food so being a barbecue virgin, I set about getting the fire started early, to learn the ropes. I tried to use common sense and logic and sure enough, we had hot charcoal before long. The weather was clearing and although there was a wind blowing, it wasn’t too chilling. We guessed the cooking times and were pretty much spot on. Food over, it was out with the beer and some good old fashioned TV free entertainment (well, a game or three of Trivial Pursuit) until it got too dark to see, Then it was out with the portable DVD player for our piece de resistance – ‘The Blair Witch Project’. 80 minutes of being lost in the outdoors and camping, hearing unidentified sounds from the surrounding trees and woods in the distance. So atmospheric in the tent. If we hadn’t been so tired from the full day, we’d have been awake all night listening to the various unidentified sounds from the surrounding trees and woods in the distance.

I woke early the following morning. It was daylight, just. My watch said 5.15am. I was desperate to go to the loo in a way that reminded me of my first trek in Nepal. Lying in my sleeping bag, bursting to go but reluctant to venture out into the sub zero temperature. There I learned that if you turn on your side, you gain an extra five minutes before you have to go. I don’t understand human biology, I just know it works. I tried it again here and sure enough, it worked again. But eventually I had to go. Outside it was a glorious morning. Blue sky, golden sunrise, huge half moon and the sounds of the birds waking up. I stayed out after my loo break as the sun was warm and there was no cooling breeze. I wandered over to the river. creatures were stirring and a few fields over the farmer was spraying his crops and it wasn’t 6am!

Reluctantly I went back into the tent and climbed into the sleeping bag. I needed another hour or so of sleep as I was tired. But for a while I lay dozing and listening to the dawn chorus. It was so relaxing and reminded me of camping trips I’d done in the past.

Eventually I fell asleep, to wake an hour later ready for coffee and breakfast. We got up, freshened up, cleared up and decided to have breakfast in Hay. We left the site early and drove through rolling countryside until we reached Hay and the big car park. Delicious coffee and a sausage bap was procured at the sign of the Blue Boar and then we went book shopping.I love Hay and could spend days and hundreds of pounds there. But we were fairly restrained (you can’t see the pile of books by the sofa as I type) and after some lunch, we set off for home. It was such a lovely day that we took a break at the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre near Libanus. I had a coffee and a scone and we were very soon joined by a number of sparrows, on the table, on the arm of the chair and all around on the low walls surrounding the patio. One even pecked a few crumbs from my outstretched hand. After I’d finished, another one climbed on to the plate to peck it clean.

All too soon we were heading home. I’m not sure I could do the Tipi again because of the smoke. It was comfy and warm and had the wind not been so strong I think it would have been better. Nevertheless, it was a great experience and one I wouldn’t have missed.

(I would have been happy to miss out on the clinging smell of smoke that attached itself to everything in the tent, including the notebook I write my journal in!)

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