Saturday, 1 August 2020

Back Yard Damselfly

A quick blog this evening but I wanted to share the news of our first Damselfly in the back yard! (for those of you reading this in the US, this is a concrete yard with walls and a large gate, not a garden - we have a garden at the front!)

Just before lunch this Blue-Tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) spent time in the sun on various plants, including the fig tree before going to investigate the lavender and a plant pot! I think it is a female of the species.

I do wonder whether it has come from the school pond down the end of the street. At the moment we're fixing more long flower pots to the wall to increase the number of flowers we grow which will attract more insects into the yard and so then any more damselflies or dragonflies that come in will have more potential prey. 

Monday, 13 July 2020

Cycle Ride - Small Skipper Butterflies

On Saturday we cycled over to Askham Bog in the hope of seeing more dragonflies and damselflies. At the moment in the verges there are a lot of wildflowers, it shows what can happen if these are left to nature, and there are lots of Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies taking advantage of these.

The pool at Askham Bog, which two weeks ago had dozens of Azure Damselflies  was deserted apart from a few flies, but there was a Reed Warbler hopping around and singing like it wanted to imitate a children's wind up toy!

Across the road from the car part is a patch of wildflowers which extends across the other side of the A64 and up the road towards Copmanthorpe. Normally at this time of year we have seen Six Spot Burnet Moths here but maybe they haven't emerged yet. However, these past couple of weeks there have been plenty of Small Skipper butterflies (Thymelicus sylvestris) flitting around the flowers and grass stems.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Cycle ride - Comma Butterfly

I needed to go into York today for some ingredients for the Kimchi we are going to make from cabbages that are pretty much ready to eat in the allotment right now. There's an excellent Oriental supermarket on Rougier Street called Red Chilli (next to the restaurant of the same name) which is fascinating to browse round for the wide selection of interesting foodstuffs you have never heard of! I have never seen a Mooli before today, they look like radishes from hell, size of a rounders bat!
I picked up some Korean red chilli flakes, fish sauce, ginger and rice vinegar for the kimchi and tins of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots and some gluten free soy sauce for the store cupboard.

Anyway, along a lovely quiet road near Bilborough I watched a Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) singing on a telegraph wire, they give a brief burst of slightly scratchy song before moving a short distance to another perch and repeating the song (Lesser Whitethroats, which I haven't seen yet, live more in bushes). There were plenty of Meadow Brown and some Ringlet butterflies and lots of wildflowers in the verges.

On a patch of thistles I discovered this Comma Butterfly (Polygonia c-album) feeding on the flower heads. After severe declines in the 20th century, this butterfly is now quite widespread, we've had them along the path through the allotments from time to time too.
When the thistles go to seed, I'll be picking a few for the wildflower patch I am trying to start in the garden, there's a lot of them flowering on roadsides at the moment and plenty of insect life on them too.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Holly Blue Butterfly in the Allotment

Today started off very wet and has now got very windy. Quite unseasonal for the time of year to be honest, feels like late September with a gale like mid October! 

So, I popped up to the allotment this afternoon for an hour to pick more raspberries and the first of the blueberries, the latter of which have swollen up pretty well with all this rain, they love the damp conditions. 

Anyway, just before I came home I noticed a small blue butterfly flitting around the nasturtiums and with the new phone I have that has a much better camera on it, managed to get the following picture of it and have been able to identify it as a Holly Blue butterfly (Celatrina argiolus) 

Holly Blue butterflies are the type of blue butterfly most likely to be seen in urban gardens, although I have seen Small Blue butterflies at the allotment before now. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Lockdown Day 100 - The end of the beginning

This is the final blog of my lockdown series, little did I know that when I started these on the 24th of March that I would be still on lockdown and furlough at the start of July. The dreadful COVID-19 virus has claimed many hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide and the UK has had around 65000 of these. This high death toll could have been avoided here in the UK if lockdown had happened earlier and been stricter and if many elderly and vulnerable patients had not been discharged without being tested from hospitals to care homes. No doubt there will one day be Inquiries, Reports and maybe one day those in charge will be held to account, but as happened with the Hillsborough disaster, it may be that the true story is covered up for years.

I hope that my readers are still safe and well, and continue to be so, and I extend my sympathy and condolences to anyone reading this who has lost a loved one or friend to this awful virus.

We have been lucky, no one I know personally, no one in my family to my knowledge has been affected by the virus (although I have heard about others on the grapevine) but that does not mean we will stop being vigilant and taking what precautions we can for months to come. There is also the looming No Deal Brexit here in the UK which has the potential for serious disruption to supply chains just as maybe the UK economy is recovering and I will be continuing with actions and preparations as outlined in my small steps and prepping blogs, as well as of course the allotment and preserving the food we grow.

Whilst I spend a lot of time out in the countryside, this lockdown has given me a chance to identify more plants and wildlife, to spend "slow time" out in nature, to enjoy the peace and quiet with no traffic noise and just birdsong for company. We are lucky here compared to many people with countryside all around a few minutes walk or cycle from home, but even in the cities and former industrial sites there are many places where nature finds a home and my Edgelands blogs are an insight into that world in the margins of the urban sprawl.

It has also been a chance for me to delve into my photo library from many trips and holidays and my "Remembering" blogs have been a chance to relive many special wildlife experiences we have had in countries around Europe.

Whilst in many parts of the world, and indeed in the UK, there are many places where nature is protected, there are serious threats to this biodiversity all over the planet, whether through human destruction, pesticides and other chemicals and pollution, climate change, microplastics, road building and many other threats. It is so important that the recovery from COVID-19 is a "green" recovery, an attempt to "build back better" and a chance to change the whole economic model from one of excessive consumption and a throw away society to one where our needs are met through environmentally sustainable methods of production. There are unfortunately, many people, often excessively rich or with vested interests (such as fossil fuel) who seek to undermine this transformation for their own gain, who seek to influence governments and indeed the fabric of democracy and accountability itself. My "Road to Recovery" blogs were based on a letter I wrote in response to a request for feedback from a civil servant in the Cabinet Office in the UK Government. These are an attempt to show what needs to be done to achieve that more sustainable, democratically accountable and fairer society that we need if we have any hope of keeping our small blue and green world a habitable place for all the people and wildlife on it. (There is of course a particular focus on the UK in the blogs)

The allotment has had a lot of love these past few months and the fruits of this are being realised, quite literally, with now at least ten punnets of blackcurrants picked, several punnets of raspberries and strawberries, with blackberries and blueberries to come, along with apples, pears and damsons for later in the year. We've tried to create a home for nature too, leaving some nettles and wild poppies to grow, keeping the marigolds and nasturtiums and comfrey going and planting more lavender. At home we are trying to expand the number of flowers good for pollinators even though we have quite a small space to do this in, and given that today yet another front garden down the street was concreted over, more important than ever that we create that haven in our locality.

2020 will be regarded as one of those defining years in history where everyone can remember what they were doing when lockdown started and everyone will, unfortunately, end up knowing someone who has suffered or died from COVID-19, and everyone will have a lockdown tale to tell to a future generation when they are much older. I hope that the beneficial shifts we have seen in behaviour, whether such as more cycling and walking, using more local businesses and food, more home working, online meetings and collaboration to name but a few, will continue post lockdown. The desire for equality and freedom for discrimination for BAME people, and the toppling of statues has also been a defining moment in history and this fight will need to keep being fought given that there are many in our society both here and in other countries that are racist and intolerant, and this extends into positions of power too.

We need to move quickly in de-carbonising our energy supply and supply chains. We need to urgently reduce the amount of plastic being used and move to a more circular economy without excessive consumption. Deforestation and other environmental harms need to come to an end and habitats restored, there are already climate and environmental tipping points being approached or reached in the Amazon, Arctic and Siberia and serious harm being done in our oceans.

Our own contribution to improving the environment and making more sustainable choices may seem miniscule in comparison with the challenges we face. But consumer pressure works - the plastic bag tax has substantially changed behaviour, campaigns on fair trade, palm oil and many other things have changed the operations of big companies. Many governments have responded to the challenges of de-carbonisation and campaigns such as the opposition to fracking here in the UK have effectively brought a halt to this destructive form of drilling.

Everyone has local representatives, whether in local or national government. I've written to my MP on several occasions and had letters back from two different ministers via the MP. There's so many different charities and campaign groups out there for different human and environmental issues. For the next few months at least it will be even more important to support the vulnerable in our society and those that care for the environment in which we live as many charities have a very steep loss of income at present and the needs are still out there and increasing. Over the next few months pressure needs to be brought to bear so that the recovery from coronavirus, particularly any infrastructure spending, is sustainable and is in keeping with meeting our climate change mitigation commitments.

Auditing our own spending is worthwhile, whilst it is good to have a treat or two for time to time, do we really need the latest phone or computer, or spend a hundred pounds or more on an item of designer clothing made in a cramped factory with poor working conditions in the Far East? A lot of my clothes have come from charity shops in perfectly good condition, some even still new, we've bought crockery, books, furniture and many other things from charity and secondhand shops, supporting good causes and local businesses in the process as well as re-using goods that may have otherwise gone to landfill. Over time we've donated many things we no longer have use for to feed back into the circular economy and allow more money to be raised for charities.
There's many local craftspeople and local businesses that can supply new sustainable goods, again keeping money in local economies and the "fair trade" movement extends this out to many parts of the world to support particularly third world producers in a decent living.
There's many "green" energy tariffs out there and if you can afford it, the switch to electric vehicles or bikes, and perhaps your own household renewable energy generation is a possibility.

I hope you have enjoyed my blogs as much as I have enjoyed putting them together. I've learnt quite a bit about nature these past few months and had some lovely wildlife moments, as well as reliving some special occasions from the past. Everyone can do something for our environment, everyone can grow something for themselves, everyone can buy the things they need more sustainably, everyone has a voice in the debate and collectively we can change our world for the better.

Best wishes, stay safe and well and good luck!
1st July 2020

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Lockdown Day 99 - Blackcurrants

I spent the morning again picking blackcurrants. Now that we have enough in the freezer for our jam requirements I have taken to bottling them in syrup for use on my porridge on a morning and perhaps on ice cream. There's still loads on the bushes to pick but it was lunchtime by the time I had picked two punnets, as well as a punnet of raspberries.

For the blackcurrants, I wash and take out any stalks and leaves from the crop. Then I boil up my sugar (350g sugar to 600ml water) whilst sterilising the Kilner Jars. The blackcurrants then go into the jars and the syrup poured over them. They are then heat treated in an oven at 150 deg. C for 35-45 minutes.

Tomorrow will be the one hundredth lockdown blog and, as it is likely that my furlough will be ending in the next week or two, it will be the last in this series and I will put together some thoughts and reflections on this rather strange and worrying period and some thoughts about the future and how we can produce a better, more sustainable world in the recovery.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Lockdown Day 98 - Rhubarb and Pumpkin Compote

Another rainy and grey day today, so I have been inside catching up on a few jobs. As we pick the berries we need all the freezer space we can get so I did a little digging and found a bag of rhubarb and some pumpkin from last year! It seems to have kept fine, albeit a little longer than expected so I have boiled it up with some sugar and some ground ginger to make a compote which I can use on porridge over the next couple of months.

I've planted some more pumpkins and expect to be able to do quite a bit of chutney later in the year, either ginger or spiced up with cumin and chilli powder. Ideal for putting on cheese or cooked meat sandwiches or as an accompaniment to spicy Indian dishes.

I also do courgette and onion chutney if the courgettes get too overwhelming!

I have two "go-to" books when it comes to preserving:

The Complete Book of Preserves and Pickles by Catherine Atkinson and Maggie Mayhew published by Anness Publishing Limited


 The Preserving Book by Lynda Brown published by Dorling Kindersley in conjunction with the Soil Association

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Lockdown Day 97 - Yet more soft fruit!

Just a quick blog today. This morning was spent picking yet more raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants. That's at least eight grape punnets of blackcurrants picked so far! There was nearly another punnet full of raspberries, maybe that's at least three punnets full, maybe getting on for four in total. The strawberries are, I think, nearing the end of the season in the allotment although in the yard in the pots on the wall they are still going well.

I've preserved the blackcurrants in syrup made with 350g of sugar to 600ml of water, boiled and then poured onto washed blackcurrants put into two sterilised Kilner jars and then heat treated in the oven for forty minutes or so.

The weather has been very showery this afternoon and incredibly windy for the time of year. The rain is of course welcome and has swelled the blackcurrants and the blueberries are nearly ready to pick too.

Jobs for this next week include taming the grape vine, I will have to look up whether it is time to give it any pruning and indeed the minarette fruit trees may need pruning soon too. There's the potato patch to weed and very soon our first cabbage will need picking, not sure at this stage whether we will use it as is or pickle it or turn it into a kind of kimchi. There will be peas and beans to pick midweek and there's still several punnets of blackcurrants and more raspberries to harvest!

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Lockdown Day 96 - Rainy Day

At time of writing I am trying to chill with some really nice Rioja but being bothered by small flies that seem to have got in the house and are really interested in my face for some reason!

Today has been a really rainy day, with frequent heavy showers and some thunder at times. I've finished pickling some cabbage but otherwise have been doing jobs inside the house.

However, this morning I popped out to take some photos of some of the plants in the yard, heavy with raindrops.

Poppy growing at the end of the yard

Pansies in one of the pots in the yard

Close up of a fig leaf on the 
minarette Fig tree 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Lockdown Day 95 - Garden and yard update

Living in a terraced house, we don't have a big garden and have a concrete back yard with walls either side. This was one of the many reasons for getting an allotment!

The garden has a beautiful hawthorn tree with pink blossom at the far end and we brought some ivy with us from the old house which covers the fence. There's a holly bush which the blackbirds love eating berries from in winter! We also planted a buddleia and a fuschia as well as some bulbs soon after we moved in. After we got the allotment we got a small plastic greenhouse for the yard which one day got caught in a gust of wind and collapsed. We use the remaining shelves (without the covering) for storage of plant pots and for hardening off seedlings. We then got a wooden lean-to greenhouse for the front garden against the house wall. However, over time we have gradually grown more in both the front and back, including a miniature fig tree - which at time of writing isn't producing any figs although did produce two last year!

At the far end of the yard we grow sweet peas in tubs by one of the big gates and some wild poppies have decided to take up residence next to the tubs too in soil that has accumulated in the gap in the concrete between the end of the yard and the road. The potato wasn't a deliberate planting either, we think it is one we have accidentally put into a compost bag at some point so we have decided to leave it as it is growing healthily and see what we get!

 On the left hand side of the yard we have more pots - there's strawberries in planters on top of the wall, along with a tub with lettuce in, covered in a mesh frame so that the local sparrows don't turn up and have a party again like they once did - they do try their best to peck through the holes when the lettuce gets big! We have a minarette cherry tree which did start producing cherries but I think the late frost didn't do it any good so we'll have to wait until next year.

The peas were an accidental planting too - we had bought some pod peas from a greengrocer before ours were ready and found that inside one pod they had started sprouting, so we planted them! They are looking really healthy right now and have flowers! Behind them are some nasturtiums transplanted from the allotment (as they get everywhere up there!) and there's a lavender plant too along with some more sweet peas. The peppers were evicted outside after they got aphids in the house and seem to have recovered as there are insects outside that will eat the aphids. It gets very warm in the yard until about two in the afternoon before the sun is round the other side of the house and then there is a bit more sun in the late afternoon/evening time onto the top of the wall at least. The wall retains the heat and the wall temperature gets up to at least 40 degrees Centigrade in summer. We've got a few pansies in pots and some antirrhinums too. 

This is in the garden looking towards the lean to greenhouse with the fuchsia in the top left of the shot. In the greenhouse are peppers, gherkins, yellow courgettes and a tomato plant, with all the seedlings now in the allotment for the summer. Some wild poppies have also arrived in the planter that used to have a grape vine in it (which died suddenly one late summer, we don't know why) and we've popped a gherkin plant in there as well to climb up the trellis. 

We're going to be growing a pumpkin up the old swing frame - we hope! There's a few more antirrhinums in the same pot too, the pumpkin is being trained away from those. 

Our recycle bins were replaced by the council for bigger ones recently and so we have used one of the old ones to grow gherkins in! 

For the future I want to expand the range of pots and wall mounted planters as well as try and get some wild flowers to germinate in the grass - I hesitate to call it a lawn now! I have planted some seeds for two years now but nothing is coming up, and the yellow rattle last year hasn't germinated. I have got some seeds from a roadside ox-eye daisy and will scatter these the next time it rains to see what happens. I am also going to get some foxgloves next year to create some height in the border, along with the existing peony.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Lockdown Day 94 - Cycle ride to Askham Bog

Another very hot and sunny day today, so while it was still bearable I cycled to Askham Bog for a walk round before it got busy.

Walking down through the reserve there was a Blackcap and a Chiffchaff calling. It was quite shady under the trees. A few minutes walk along the boardwalk is a small pond which is a superb place to watch dragonflies and damselflies, but they never stay still for long and so are really difficult for me to photograph!

There were at least fifteen, maybe twenty of these Azure Damselflies (Coenagrion puella) flying around the pond, only rarely alighting on the leaves of nearby plants. I think I may have caught a glimpse of an Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator) which the sign board said are present but it was too fleeting to be sure. 

Also near the pond, singing from a tree all the time I was there was a Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). It was a very repetitive and quite loud song but the bird was obviously keen to stake out his territory!

It started to get quite busy so I headed out of the reserve and across the road to the wild flower area to see if there were any Six-Spot Burnet Moths but I think it is still too early for them. However, there were plenty of Meadow Brown and Small Skipper Butterflies flitting around the grasses, Ragwort and the Knapweed ((Centaurea nigra) shown below

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Lockdown Day 93 - Allotment update

Although today is a shopping day, yesterday I spent around four hours during the day in the allotment. It would have been far too hot for any work today to be honest, I really don't cope very well with heat and the thermometer in the shade was 29 Celsius in early afternoon today. Yesterday was cloudy at times so a fair bit cooler and I was able to get plenty done.

First job was weeding the peas and beans, there's around thirty pea plants now producing quite a few peas and around seventy borlotti bean plants, some of the early ones of which are now near the top of their poles! There's a few broad bean plants too. In the same patch I have also planted some pumpkins which will trail around underneath the beans.
The second job, a regular task at the moment, was to pick some soft fruit. We are eating the strawberries and raspberries as dessert with ice cream at the moment and the blackcurrants are going in the freezer to ultimately make jam from.

Also ready at the moment is the calabrese (headed broccoli) and this is the second really good head we've had with more to come soon.

The final cauliflower seedlings have gone in, it was a struggle to find room for them as our brassica patch has been so successful this year! I also weeded that area, especially around the mini sweetcorn.

The whole allotment then got a good watering with the hosepipe as I knew I wouldn't be up there today to do this.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Lockdown Day 92-Trip to the seaside-Part 2

In yesterday's blog I recounted the trip we made on Monday to Flamborough for a socially distanced trip to the seaside.

Having heard today about the relaxation of lockdown rules and social distancing we are very glad we were able to go this week as it will be the case that there will be so many more people there over the next month or two and probably not much social distancing going on, especially once people have had a few drinks in seafront bars and restaurants. Yes, we have to get back to normal living eventually, but this seems too much relaxation of the rules, and too soon given the number of cases and continuing number of deaths from Covid-19.

Anyway, as promised here are a few more pictures I took of seabirds on the cliffs at North Landing, Flamborough.

Guillemot striking a pose! 

Kittiwake chick still quite young and very fluffy!

Razorbill and a growing up chick, starting to get flight feathers. 

The Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) nest on such precarious ledges and there were a few broken eggs at the foot of the cliffs which suggest not all nest sites are that secure! The Razorbills (Alca torda) were often gathered in large groups and one Razorbill was determined that the Puffins (Fratercula arctica) would not steal its patch of cliff! There were plenty of Guillemots (Uria aalge) out at sea but most of them seemed to be nesting further round from where we could see from the cove. Further up the coast is Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve which has one of the largest colonies of Gannets (Sula bassana)  in the UK. There are at least 22000 Gannets on the cliffs around Bempton, and I remember going there in the late 1970s/early 1980s as a child when the number was just in the hundreds, this has been an enormous success story for the RSPB management of the reserve. 

Monday, 22 June 2020

Lockdown Day 91-Trip to the seaside-Part 1

We have been very reluctant to take trips further than our local area, and especially to the seaside given the pictures we have seen of crowds on beaches during the first easing of the lockdown.

However, we love going to the coast and now that the general risk of coronavirus is lower, we decided to work out how we could safety go and enjoy a day at the seaside.

One of our favourite places is Flamborough and there's several possible coves on the headland to choose from so any visitors would be spread between them. We set off early so as to be there when the beach was relatively quiet, which turned out to be correct, and we had plans to move on when the beach got busy, which again was the case from about half past two in the afternoon. Given that cafes and pubs are also closed (apart from some takeaway options) this again was a factor as once people are able to go and have sit down meals and drinks at the seaside it will increase the number of visitors, so we figured that now - rather than in two or three weeks' time, would be the time to go.

At this time of year, lots of seabirds are nesting on the cliffs and at North Landing you can see them above your head at either side of the cove, and the noise was constant from them, Kittiwakes especially. There's also the strange growling noise of the Razorbills, in fact there were a lot more Razorbills there than I had ever seen before at this location. In total we also saw nine Puffins.

I'll pop some more photographs up tomorrow but for now, here's a Puffin!

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Lockdown Day 90 - Quick Allotment update

After some early morning rain had cleared, we went up to the allotment to plant borlotti beans and pick blackcurrants.

There were lots of blackcurrants, in fact more than the two punnets I brought with me! These were the fifth and sixth punnets that I have picked this past week or so and there are still plenty to come.

For the past couple of days we have also been picking raspberries, enough to have with a few strawberries at teatime with ice cream (there are four of us at home at present)

The borlotti beans already planted are doing well and with the addition of the ones taken today that will be around seventy plants in all. We are putting plenty in as we have found that dried beans have been really difficult to get hold of during lockdown, and although we've managed to get a couple of packets now, we want to have plenty of our own in store over the winter and into next year.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Lockdown Day 89 - more photos from cycle ride yesterday

As mentioned in yesterday's blog on my way back from seeing the Red-Footed Falcon (which apparently is still there today!) I cycled along some winding country lanes and stopped every so often to look at the wildlife and flowers. We are very lucky where we are in that within a couple of minutes of cycling or walking we can be out in the countryside even though we live in a terraced house on the edge of a small industrial town. We can take many cycle rides and walks into what I call the "deep countryside" well away from villages and towns and can find quiet lanes and plenty of wildlife.

Red-Legged Partridges (Alectoris rufa) is a gamebird which was first introduced to the UK in the 18th Century, and has become naturalised, in fact often more frequently seen than the native Grey Partridge (Perdix Perdix) (photos of the latter in my blog here ) . Usually when I have encountered them, they are very skittish and will run or fly off low as soon as they see people but the one pictured above had decided to sit on top of a barn and wasn't bothered with my presence. Somewhere in the cornfield I could hear at least one other making quite a peculiar, almost electronic sounding, calling.

Having left the partridge, I cycled a bit further and came across a goldfinch eating seeds from what looked like some kind of plant of the brassica family that had flowered and gone to seed. Often I will see goldfinches feeding on the seeds of teasels and thistles and they are a very social species with flocks of a dozen or more frequently visiting my parents' bird feeders.

Over the fields are skylarks and I also saw yellowhammers, chaffinches, a couple of meadow pipits, swallows and swifts.

There's been a lot of talk online recently about leaving verges uncut to allow wild flowers to flourish, and of course then all the associated insect life and so on up the food chain. Certainly around us, most of the verges are left uncut or just cut to a small extent near the actual road and coming up from Ulleskelf there were dozens of Red Campion (Silene dioica) plants flowering by the side of the road.

There was also lots of Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) along the same lane (in fact I have discovered some at the end of our street too!) but I had to wait until today to take a photo of one in a much safer place to pull over whilst cycling. 

Also today - although I couldn't safely stop and take a photo, we saw the edge of an oil seed rape field covered in red poppies, again by leaving a small area for nature it will respond and produce beauty and a much more environmentally beneficial landscape.  

Friday, 19 June 2020

Lockdown Day 88 - Red-Footed Falcon!!

I am not one of those birders that dashes across the country in the hope of seeing some kind of rare bird, but very very occasionally one is close enough for me to cycle to it on a day when I have the time to go and look. Three years ago on a cycle ride I saw a Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) near Acaster Malbis former airfield and a couple of years before that a Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) on Rufforth airfield.

Today, having read online about a Red-Footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus) near Biggin (near Bishop Wood), I decided my cycle ride would be out that way in the hope I could see this bird, a rare visitor from Eastern Europe and the western part of Asia.

Red-Footed Falcons migrate from Africa to their breeding grounds and it is only when they are driven off course in their migration that they end up in the UK. This year several have arrived in different parts of the country, perhaps because we have had quite a lot of easterly and south-easterly winds recently. These birds have a varied diet, small mammals, small reptiles and amphibians and also eat insects, beetles and worms.

Red-Footed Falcons are a similar size to a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and hunt in a similar fashion.

As is usual when a rare bird is sighted, there are quite a few people that go to see it and I was a little worried that there would be a crowd, however the viewing point was on a farm track and everyone was able to social distance easily. The falcon was mostly on some telegraph wires or in a tree next to some farm buildings quite some distance away, just visible to the naked eye if you knew where to look but a good view in binoculars or telescope. According to other birders it had been terrorising the local blackbirds into giving up worms and grubs!

As it was a long way away, my photos aren't the best pictures one could take of this bird, but you can see that it has very distinctive plumage compared to similar resident species. This is the female, the male birds are mostly grey plumage.

On the way home I saw some other, much less rare birds - although still pretty birds to see - and I'll do a post about them tomorrow.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Lockdown Day 87 - Allotment Update - Carrots

For quite a few years we struggled to crow carrots, yes we got a few but they were mostly riddled with the black marks of carrot fly. I read that carrot flies do not fly more than a couple of feet off the ground so we wondered whether we could grow the carrots in some kind of raised container.

We hit on the idea of using tyre stacks. I found out at a local garage that firms have to pay to dispose of them so they were glad to let us have a few as it reduced their costs! Also, tyres are frequently found dumped in the countryside and so we've added a few that way too, doing our bit to help clear up the awful fly-tipping that goes on.

At the base of the tyre stacks are perennial weeds as the heat built up in the base will be enough to compost them thoroughly. Then layers of ordinary composting and finally standard bought compost mixed with sharp sand from a builders' merchant. This is best started over winter as it takes quite a lot of material to fill a tyre stack which is three tyres high. At the end of the season the compost can be spread across the allotment.

Then, carrots can be planted and they take a week or two to germinate. The tyres do dry out quite easily so it is important to make sure there's sufficient moisture in the stacks but not too frequently as you want to encourage the roots to work downwards in search of water. Be careful also watering the seeds as they have a tendency to wash to one side of the stack and also when the carrots are very young they need gentle watering.

The carrots are very hardy when in these stacks, the tyres act as insulation in the colder months and some straw can be put on top to further insulate these, and we've been able to keep a supply of carrots going through to February or thereabouts.

The following picture was taken four years ago when the carrots were on the same patch as part of our four year rotation, and you can see that the nasturtiums can be used to hide the tyre stacks if you find them unsightly. Cosmos or a climbing plant can be used in the same way. Mint, chives and lavender can act as distractions for carrot flies if you companion plant. We grow carrots in the same rotational bed area as onions, garlic and parsnips.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Lockdown Day 86 - Remembering Grey Seals on Farne Islands

With today being a shopping day, I haven't been up to the allotment or out for a bike ride into the countryside. Although I was wearing a face mask, very few other people were, in fact at one store only myself and one shop assistant who was standing outside the shop were wearing one. This troubles me a lot as face masks can cut transmission of coronavirus in enclosed spaces although by wearing one, you are protecting others from any germs you may have rather than the other way round.

Anyway, today's blog is another flashback, this time to 2013 and a trip to the Farne Islands by boat from Seahouses, a beautiful fishing village on the Northumberland coast. That year we had amazing weather and spent a lot of time on the beach too. There are, in normal times, some very tasty fish and chips to be had from takeaways and cafes and there's some very unafraid eider ducks to watch you eat them!

Around the Farne Islands there are approximately nine thousand grey seals with at least two thousand pups being born every Autumn, the National Trust have a seal counting programme that has been going since 1970 (although seals were counted by others before that point) so there is good data of trends and numbers.

The Farne Islands have thousands of seabirds make their nests there, including Arctic Terns, Puffins, Guillemots and many other species.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Lockdown Day 85 - Allotment and prepping update

Another day in lockdown, another trip to the allotment. Whilst some seem to think that COVID-19 is all over, we are still being very careful. One trip a week to get shopping (with only a quick visit at another time if we forget something or need to get some gluten free products which aren't available in the stores we usually go in), still making sure any trips out for exercise are socially distanced, still keeping up stringent hygiene. A lot of other people are getting careless despite there still being lots of cases and indeed deaths from this virus.

Over the past few days I have done an audit of our finances. I already knew we are in a good position (I feel very sorry for those who aren't and we do our bit to support the vulnerable in our society) but it is good practice to do a check once in a while as bills and costs do go up over time, and unexpected costs can arise. I also have done an audit of what started a couple of years ago as our "Brexit Box", our store cupboard in case of disruption to groceries. The panic buying that happened at the start of the lockdown here in the UK emptied the shelves very quickly but as we had some backup supplies of staple foods, tinned fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in the freezer (and indeed toilet roll from Who Gives a Crap - ethical supplier!) we had no issues. The only thing we were short of was gluten free pasta and we eroded our dried bean stock quickly, so these are things which we are rectifying for the future. We've planted out about forty borlotti bean plants so far and have another thirty or so to go out, and we have stocked up with some tinned butter beans, pinto beans and red kidney beans.

There still remains significant risk from a second wave of coronavirus and indeed the risk of no-deal Brexit disruption to some food supplies at the end of the year and it is as well to be prepared for any sort of disruption whether this be caused by human factors or nature.

Our mini sweetcorn (the ones you put in Chinese dishes) and coming on well and with about forth plants and two or three cobs per plant there's plenty for the freezer. 

We've done really well with the brassicas this year and we've got some calabrese ready to eat now. There's also broccoli, cauliflowers and cabbage here. 

It will soon be time to harvest the first new potatoes, those are the ones at the rear of the photograph near the blackcurrants. Supposed to be twelve weeks from planting but I always give them a bit longer to avoid having pea sized ones! There's Red Duke of York and Cara in this patch.

This is part of the radish patch, and these are one vegetable it is wise to plant in small batches but often, there is a limit to how many radishes one can eat in one go! 

Another job done yesterday was trimming the hedge in the garden - it is only a low one which birds do not nest in and we were struggling to get up the garden path as it has overgrown quite considerably! Watering again after a few dry days too. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

Lockdown Day 84 - Blackcurrants

Just a quick one tonight, I will be going up to the allotment in the morning so will have much more to say tomorrow!

Yesterday I picked the first batch of blackcurrants from our bushes in the allotment. We have a permanent bed in the middle section of the allotment that contains several blackcurrant bushes, some raspberries, a minarette damson tree with delusions of grandeur and a Gala minarette apple tree. There's a rhubarb plant there too and a comfrey plant, the latter of which is really buzzing with bees, I've seen quite a few tawny mining bees, carder bees as well as honey bees feeding on the comfrey flowers.

By midweek I shall probably be able to fill another tub full of blackcurrants, they are ripening really quickly at the moment. We put quite a lot into jam and some we put into sugar solution. One time I tried putting them in vodka! What happens over time is that the blackcurrants soak up some of the vodka. When you first put one in your mouth nothing happens but then when you bite into it you get a blackcurrant and vodka flavoured taste explosion!

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Lockdown Day 83 - Allotment update

We're getting to the time of year that produce from the allotment is plentiful. The first peas are ready, in fact we picked a few yesterday and the plants look like there's going to be a good harvest this year. They are supported by sticks of which we have an infinite number having trimmed two hawthorn trees, the hazelnut tree and the hedges earlier in the year!

Further down the allotment is the soft fruit permanent bed and with all the warm weather, followed by lots of rain and now back to sunny weather again the blackcurrants are just about ready to be picked. Although quite a tedious job they do provide us with plenty of fruit for jam and for potting up in Kilner jars in sugar solution for use on porridge and ice cream. They are delicious soaked in vodka for three months for a dessert with a bit of a kick!

This is spinach beet which can be used in salads or stir fried as you would pak choi. It is starting to go to seed a bit now but there's still plenty that can be used. 

Finally for today, this is the first of this season's calabrese is almost ready

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Lockdown Day 82 - Tree Bumblebee

After the rain had finally stopped this morning we went down to the allotment. Still very soggy though. As the sky brightened various bumblebees came to visit the comfrey and the blackberries, the latter of which are now flowering. The carder and tawny mining bees on the comfrey were just too quick for me to get a photograph of but a Tree Bumblebee spent quite a bit of time on the blackberry flowers.

The Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) is a recent and rapid coloniser, having first been spotted in Wiltshire in 2001 but has now spread all over England and now into Scotland and Ireland since then. They do like bramble flowers as well as raspberries, comfrey and cotoneaster. Apart from sometimes invading nest boxes they do not seem to be causing any issues for the native bee species. 

This one appears rather bedraggled from the morning rain though appeared to be feeding happily on the nectar on the bramble flower.

More about the Tree Bumblebee can be found on the Bee Conservation Trust's website