Tuesday, 31 December 2013

New Year's Eve at dusk

New Year twigs & berries from the garden
I have just come back into the house after sitting outside for the final twlight of 2013. Earlier in the afternoon I clambered around in our small orchard squishing mistletoe berries, harvested at Christmas from my parents' Gloucestershire garden, and pressing the sticky seeds into the likeliest-looking nooks and crannies of gnarled apple trees. I still remember my mother arriving to collect me from school one day in about 1979, a young crab-apple tree poking jauntily through the sun-roof of her ageing Triumph Herald. Oh the shame of it! More than 30 years later, that sapling is now a mature and shapely specimen, festooned with mistletoe propagated many moons ago by itinerant thrushes. Now I am using the fruits of those plants in an effort to establish a new colony in my own garden, and though success is far from guaranteed, I take heart from the positive result achieved by neighbours a few miles up the road. They used the same uncomplicated berry-squishing technique and are now the proud parents of a young mistletoe plant growing on one of their apple trees.

The Christmas Cactus I wrote about on 8 September
While pretending to be a Mistle Thrush, I heard the high-pitched trills of Long-tailed Tits coming from the direction of one of our suet feeders. The sibilant, penetrating call of a Treecreeper and the busy 'zeet zeet' of a Goldcrest completed a hat-trick of calls from the same end of the sound spectrum. At around four o'clock, and following their daily pre-sunset winter ritual, squadrons of Jackdaws, nearly 200 in all, flew up the valley towards a roost site whose precise location we have yet to discover. At dusk, I watched a Buzzard, simply a mewing black shape in the gloaming, flap low across the valley to its own roost site, serenaded by two Robins singing against each other – their thin winter song already infused with something richer and more springlike. Finally, three Woodcocks, one at a time, flew fast and silently over the tree tops, leaving their day-time woodland-floor roosts to feast on earthworms in wet fields under cover of darkness. A Tawny Owl hooted. The calendar year is almost done, yet the gardening year has already turned and the days are getting longer. Already, if you look, listen and smell, there are little signs of spring all over the place, of which more tomorrow...

In the meantime, Happy New Year and happy gardening in 2014!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Lighten our darkness...

Leaf wrangling in the drizzle
Though earlier in the week I picked and ate more raspberries (see post of 10 November) and even saw a couple of bumblebees, I have just come in from the gloom and drizzle of a typical December afternoon, fit for a bit of half-hearted leaf raking and some pruning of currant bushes, but not much else. Although the thermometer – had I cared to look – would probably have read a respectable 8 or 9 centigrade, and there were little clouds of gnat-like insects, one of which I managed to inhale extremely successfully, the dankness permeated everything. My hands and fingers are only now beginning to warm up as I sit typing away in front of a log fire.

Lichen on rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trunk
Yet all is not lost. Today marks one of four special days at this end of the solar calendar, around which the year turns and the light gradually starts to come back. We're still two weeks away from the actual winter solstice, but today the afternoons stopped getting shorter. At this latitude and longitude, 'official' sunset today was at 16.09, the earliest of the winter. It  will remain at that time until 18 December, the second of the crucial dates, when the afternoon gets longer – by one whole minute! – with sunset occurring at 16.10. The mornings, on the other hand continue to shorten and darken, the latest sunrise of the year, at 08.20, not occurring until 25 December and staying that way until 6 January, the fourth and decisive date, when sunrise is a minute earlier at 08.19. By then, sunset will already have stretched out to 16.25 and the slow lengthening of the days will gradually become perceptible. This natural period of renewal in the northern hemisphere has of course long been celebrated by human beings, from pagan times to the marking of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the Christian calendar. Whether we individually hold scientific or religious convictions, both, or neither, I suspect that most of us who garden share a special sense of optimism as the light on which we all depend returns. And the hazel catkins are already poised to take advantage in a few weeks' time...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Crepuscular warbling

Dipper singing outside our cottage early in the morning
Not from precocious carol singers but the dawn and dusk song of a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) advertising its winter territory along the tumbling stream that flows through our garden. Named for their characteristic bobbing curtsy, Dippers are extraordinarily well adapted to life in their watery world, immersing themselves fully in fast-flowing currents in search of the aquatic invertebrates on which they feed. Local names here in the south west include 'Water Colly' (Somerset) and 'Water Thrush' (Cornwall), while the quaintly bucolic 'Bessie Ducker', which sounds like the name of a doomed chamber maid from one of Agatha Christie's rambling country houses, hails from Yorkshire.

For some years, Dipper song – a loud, varied and irrepressibly cheerful jumble of notes – has been a daily fixture from mid-autumn to early spring and all the more welcome at a time of year when few other birds are singing. Unusually, both male and female Dippers sing but as their plumages are alike, it can be suprisingly difficult to distinguish courtship between the sexes from territorial agression between two males. We fixed nestboxes underneath the bridges in our garden, and though we think these are used as overnight roost sites in winter, they have not been used for nesting (yet!), though a pair successfully used a natural site a couple of years ago just upstream from our greenhouse. For more information about Dippers, including an example of their song (and better pictures!) visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/d/dipper/index.aspx