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.

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Right to reply

I understand that elsewhere in this blog, Dave has written that I needed to have a rest after his pathetic attempt to climb Fan Hir? I have exercised my right to reply and here is the truth about it all.

We should never have started off on Thursday. The weather forecast clearly said it would rain around midday. We would have been fine if someone had managed to get up early enough, but no, Dave insisted on a lie-in despite my attempts to remind him we had a deadline to meet (I notice he didn’t mention that in his blog entry). By the time he’d faffed around and managed to get himself together, it was too late and we were running out of dry weather time. When he decided to turn around, I was still heading up towards the ridge and he had to call me several times before I came back. I love getting wet, as I demonstrated when we got to the river. In other words, Dave was the one that needed to turn back because he’s afraid of the rain.

Anyway, it turns out that he went off without me yesterday and found a great place for a walk. I should have been with him but he decided to leave me at home. Hmph! Well, I let him know how I felt by ignoring him and not sleeping on the bed. There!

He got the message because this morning, really early, we were up and off back to the place he found. And I have to admit it was quite a place. Of course, I had to be careful not to look too happy because he still has a lesson to learn about taking me with him, but it was hard not to wag my tail at all the new aromas and interesting sights everywhere. Of course, he waffled on a bit, explaining to me something about gunpowder, ruins, tramways and a mill. Yeah, whatever. When I saw the first squirrel (I knew they were around as I’d sniffed their trails out already) I showed him exactly how tired and aching I was by immediately chasing after it. It had a head start or it would have been mine. I chased or stalked several more before we left the tramway and went into the woods.

Dave likes this part of the world as there are lots of waterfalls for him to take photos of. It keeps him happy It’s fine for me too, as where there are waterfalls, there are rivers and stones to be thrown. Sure enough, we found a nice shallow bit of the river upstream of a weir (I know about these things, you know) and I could tell how guilty Dave felt by the way I didn’t have to bark to remind him to throw me stones. We carried on further up the valley on proper footpaths (I’d like to see a tram get over that kind of terrain) and once again I proved I could hack it. Tired, me? I had to keep looking back to see if Dave could keep up.

When we turned back, guess who made the decision? Yup! Mr Fitness decided we should go back to the car and once again, he had to call be back as I was all for going on. I chased several more squirrels, kept taking the lead, caught more stones and I still had the energy left to sneak into the female changing area near the car park (much to Dave’s embarrassment, although I knew there weren’t any people in there – you should have heard him trying to call me back!) Payback is such good fun.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ilston

This morning, we set off early for Ilston. Rufus has been there once before when his real owner took him. Ilston woods and the little 13th Century church has been a part of my history for around 30 years. I haven’t been to the valley for several years so when I heard Rufus had been, it set an idea in my head ticking away like a little time bomb. With the weather unexpectedly clear this morning, the bomb went off.

I love the village of Ilston. I can remember years ago thinking I’d love to live there and when I parked the care carefully off the road, I still thought the same thing. It was the first country village I really got to know, and it has always been the measure by which I judge other villages. I love the spread in both appearance and spacing of the houses here.

We crossed the bridge and entered the churchyard. St Illtyd’s church dates from the 13th Century but there are records of a church at Ilston from 1119AD. The ‘new’ version may have been built around a monk’s cell. When I was in school, friends and I were making a horror movie around the village. It started off as a proper horror movie but as we realised our limitations, it became a spoof. We shot a lot of footage on super 8mm film, but never completed the film. We had loads of fun doing it, though. Later, when I was in college, I sued to go to the church to photograph it and I always remember printing a black and white photo taken with my (then) new Pentax K1000 and it’s 50mm lens. The print was pin sharp and showed up the detail in the stone work of the tower. I was really pleased with the [performance of the lens and I wish I had that lens now.

Every summer while I was away in London, my mates and I would meet up during the holidays. Gower was a regular venue and Ilston woods featured heavily. They say smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories and as I walked down there today, the smell of wild garlic took me back to the mid 1980s. There were areas that were familiar and places where nature or my failing memory had changed things.

In the mid 90’s I used to hang around with a different set of friends and we used to go wild camping a lot. We spent one memorable night in Ilston woods, near The Gower Inn, and eventually my route today took me through the area. Although I didn’t recognise exactly where we camped, the little bridge that in the night we thought was miles away from our camp site, but which in the morning proved to be a few tens of yards away, was immediately recognisable.

Nearby were the remains of the Old Trinity Well Chapel, the site of the first Baptist Chapel in Wales, founded by John Myles in 1649. Myles (or Miles, it’s not clear what the correct spelling is) was installed by the Parliamentarians as the Cromwellian Minister of Ilston. The previous incumbent ejected him and so Myles founded the Baptist chapel here. When the Baptist practices were ruled illegal in 1663, Myles and his parish left for America, where they founded the town of Swansea in Massachusetts.

At the car park to the Gower Inn, we stopped and I threw stones for Rufus. A flash of blue and orange passed by low over the water and before I could fumble for the camera, the Kingfisher had disappeared back towards Ilston. I contented myself with snapping a yellow wagtail and a robin.  The weather forecast had predicted heavy rain and the sun that lit our path on the way down had disappeared behind a dark cloud so it was time to turn back. We set off and followed the river back towards Ilston.

Now for the first time I noticed just how muddy the path was. It wasn’t possible to go more than a few yards without having to step on, in or through mud and water. It was slippery and made the going harder as I had to be careful not to over balance. I hadn’t noticed on the way down. Rufus made light work of the mud but even he slipped a few times.

We stopped so that Rufus could swim and catch stones and slowly made our way back. There was no rain, and the sun showed itself again a few times. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Kingfisher again; not surprising as Rufus was crashing ahead for most of the time. Birds sang in the trees and as we made our way through the church yard, a squirrel chanced it’s luck and crossed the path in front of us., The first I knew was a mighty tug on the lead as Rufus made a bid to try and get it, but it scurried up a nearby tree trunk and left us standing, watching.

Back at the car, I let Rufus paddle his paws clean but when I got home, it was obvious from the muddy patch on the towels on the back seat that a shower was required. As I’m typing this, the leg of my jeans is drying from where Rufus was sleeping on it after his shower (it’s a form of revenge – I shower him, he soaks me) and he is finishing off the drying process on the sofa.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Waterfalls again

You’ve been here before, with us. I had a few ideas for photographs in my head and Rufus had stayed with me so we could set off early. I wanted to go to Ystradfellte again but this time for the woods and autumnal leaves rather that the waterfalls. We set off in the grey mist and low cloud in the hope that the weather forecast would be right and it would clear. It certainly showed no signs of doing so. The further we went up the Neath Valley, the more the mist turned to rain. But by the time we’d climbed up on to the Ystradfellte hill and parked the car, the mist had lifted. Perfect woodland photography weather.

We made our way down to the first waterfall and I found plenty of colourful leaves to offset the grey of the stones and the bright white of the water crashing over rocks. While Rufus investigated the water, I took some long exposure shots of the waterfall with golden leafed trees in the background. Then we made our way along the river, across the bridges and up on to the hill behind it.

I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find the conditions I wanted but it was an enjoyable walk. The clouds were lifting completely and there was enough blue sky to raise the spirits – ‘enough to make a sailor’s shirt’ as my grandmother used to say. Rufus spotted a squirrel and was off, sprinting up a hill I could barely walk up. By the time I crested the top, he was bouncing around the base of a tree trunk, staring up into the branches. A squirrel was calmly making its way along the upper branches and Rufus was trying to figure out how to climb up. It was never going to happen.

On the way back, we had some quality time in the river and then it was off back to the car. Unfortunately, on the way Rufus was attacked by another dog. One minute they were sniffing each other quite nicely and the next it nipped him on the nose. Poor Rufus wasn’t sure what was going on and I quickly managed to grab him while four dogs ran around, barking and yapping. Rufus has such a soft nature that on the rare occasions that other dogs are aggressive, he is always taken by surprise. I had a few words with the owner, who was clearly not in control of the four dogs she had, but she was only interested in whether Rufus was alright. Somehow, I got the impression it was not for his welfare but to find out if I was going to make a big deal of it. I’d hate to think what would have happened if it had been a child that the dog had nipped.

Anyway, the most important thing was that Rufus was fine and there was no blood drawn. He recovered quite quickly and was back to his old self by the time we got back to the car. He got a nice treat when we got home, too!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.