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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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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It’s all relative, really.

In between the showers today, we managed to get out to Broadpool for an hour’s walk but the whole time we were there, I was watching the dark clouds massing over Cefn Bryn, waiting to drench us. No sooner had we got back to the car than the heavens opened again; we were fortunate to miss getting soaked.

The rain continued steadily for the next few hours but a few minutes ago, I noticed the sun shining through the curtains and sure enough, there was blue sky above and the sun was quite warm. So out into the garden we went, eager to take advantage of any break in the rain. Rufus explored the garden, checking for intruders, and I grabbed my camera and went in search of things in the tiny world.

Bored with photography, Rufus left me to it and headed back to the sofa. I found two spiders remaking their webs, and started snapping away. It got me thinking though. My thoughts when I saw the rain this morning were around avoiding the inconvenience and discomfort of getting wet. The big garden spider I watched remaking it’s web was more concerned about getting it’s source of food set up again after it had been destroyed by the wind and rain.

The last photo I took was just after the spider got fed up of me snapping away and retreated under a leaf. I decided to leave it alone after that, to give it a chance to complete it’s housework before the next shower.

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Rufus and Dave’s fortnight of fun part 2a: Webs

We had an earlier start today as it’s due to be a busy one. Rufus and I headed down to Broadpool to sample the early morning before anyone could spoil it. An amazing sight confronted us once we’d parked up; as far as the eye could see there were masses of cobwebs shining in the morning sun. Every one had tiny dewdrops hanging from them. The thorn bushes were white with fine threads. I tried to find the best way to take photos if it and struggled.

Rufus, of course, walked through them on his quest to find the source of all the smells he could detect.

We made our way slowly around the pool. I had hoped to catch dragonflies and damselflies warming up in the sunshine but they were all well concealed. There were plenty of midges, though, early risers like us.

We didn’t stay out too long as we both had to be back. Rufus has his hair stylist appointment this morning and I wanted to give him time to dry off. And I’m picking up my new car while he’s being pampered.

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This and that

What do you do with a week off and doctors orders to rest?

Today, I spent the first part of the morning doing mundane shopping things and paying in my insurance claim cheque. I was very pleasantly surprised at the speed and efficiency with which my claim was dealt with – thank you Direct Group. My heart usually drops at the thought of dealing with this kind of thing – last time it was a claim for damage to my car by someone trying to park where I was parked. It took the best part of a week of phone calls to sort out and in the end I did most of the arranging rather than the third party company engaged to do it on behalf of the insurance company.

Back home, I was out in the garden taking some portraits of the local Garden Spider when I saw a bit of a life and death struggle between a daddy Long Legs and a smaller spider. In the end, the Daddy Long Legs broke free of the web and escaped and I was secretly pleased. I know it’s all part of nature but it doesn’t mean to say I have to like it.

Then, for the rest of the afternoon, I was going though and editing video taken at last night’s band rehearsal. Rehearsals are so rare these days that when one comes along, I always try and record it in some way. I took a video camera last night and managed to catch the whole of ‘I wouldn’t believe your radio’, a Stereophonics song we’re putting in the set. It has ended up on YouTube  although there is some clever editing to make it look as if I’m playing – in fact, I was videoing and if you listen carefully, there’s no bass guitar on the soundtrack.

Last day of the holidays tomorrow – not plans as yet but I’m expecting rain.

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What’s lurking in the garden?

Life is hard. Not my life. I am mature enough to realise I have a pretty good one, as things go and I’m so grateful for that.  No, just life in general. And what has prompted this philosophical approach to today’s blog? Bear with me.

I’ve mention my ailments before. On top of that, last night we gigged so this morning at my usual waking time, I was fast asleep. I got up late, had a lazy breakfast and despite the sun, didn’t immediately rush out for a stroll in the countryside with Rufus. Instead, I caught up with some domestics and took a very short stroll in the garden. On a whim, I decided to take the camera and on another whim (and after reading an article in a magazine) I fitted the macro lens and a teleconverter. (That’s the only technical bit so you can read on in safety).

I found a bee and snapped a few portraits. I found a Meta Segmentata (spider) and snapped a few portraits of it, too. They were both warming in the sun so they sat still.  Then, just out of the corner of my eye I saw a sharp movement. I looked to see a huge specimen of a garden spider racing up it’s web to catch a bee that had landed and become stuck. As I watched, (and brought my camera up to my eye), it wrapped the bee up in silk – so quickly that I barely saw it. By the time the camera was ready (a few seconds) the bee was a white cocoon.

The spider was then able, at leisure, to move it’s prey down to a more secure spot.

Nature is cruel and fascinating and practical and always manages to surprise. When I turned around after watching the kill, there was my friend the little robin watching me.

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Barn 4: Pirates, play barns and Paradise Farm

Warning – photo of a hairy spider at the bottom of this page.

Although it was an early start this morning, we took it easy. The plan all along on this holiday was to take it easy. Previous holidays have been quite hectic and usually leave me needing another holiday to recover. This time, thanks to Bruce’s generous offer, we had an extra couple of days so we planned a leisurely itinerary.

Rufus went to Paradise Farm, the kennels we’d found and approved yesterday. He seemed happy enough to go and didn’t look back as he went into the kennel block. Back at the Barn, we took a stroll up to the top field where the pony was waiting for her carrots and some grooming. The hens in the next field down were out and followed us as we went to see if they’d laid any eggs. They looked like a procession following the regent. One hen was straining in the hen house so we didn’t disturb her.

After caffeine, we decided to go to Tropiquaria. It’s a small zoo with lots of other things to see and do. It’s a fallback for wet weather for us as it has a large indoor play barn, with castle and ball pit. What more could I ask for? The tropical room has a number of exotic birds and other creatures including a fine display of spiders, each one of which has been bred to look menacing and just a little too hairy for my liking. Despite the fact that both Em and I have held tarantulas in our hands, these made us nervous.

We  toured the outside grounds, sailed the seven seas on the pirate ships, found the raccoon that had escaped from its cage (and was trying to get back in) and slid on the cable ride. If only I could upload the photos of me being a kid again (and again).

Then it was time to go and pick up Rufus. We got to Paradise Farm and he was waiting. By the time we’d  got back to the Barn, I could see he was tired and not long after we’d settled, he was flat out and snoring by the big side windows. As I type, he has only roused himself because I’m eating a thickly buttered crust, and he knows he’ll get a bit.

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