Is it a train? Is it autumn leaves? No its . . .

Chinook
Chinook

A helicopter, a Chinook, say – (that’s either a warm wet wind on the Pacific coast of North America, a hot dry wind on the plains the other side of the mountains, an Indian Tribe {First Nations People} or a breed of dog – most people go for the wind).

Well a helicopter does make a change doesn’t it? Autumn and winter are tough times for nature bloggers, maybe we should go into hibernation. I’ve often thought it might be quite nice to lie around and doze until Spring. You would need to set your alarm clock for Christmas of course – you wouldn’t want to get dunked in the teapot would you. You could stay awake until after the New Year celebrations and then go back to bed for a few months.

We have RAF Spadeadam and Carlisle Airport – well, Carlisle airfield would perhaps be a better name – just a bit over Newcastle way from us, so we expect to see the odd aircraft, especially as we are right in their route to the Solway Estuary or the Lake District National Park.

Which leads me very nicely into the next thing I was going to mention. Apparently they are a unit of the Dutch Air Force and they’ve come here to practice. A very sensible thing to do, when you consider that when things were being shared out, Holland was first in line for flat bits and we were first in the bumpy bits queue.

We do have our own flat bits though – Norfolk etc. – maybe we send helicopter crews to Holland so they can learn to ride a bicycle.

Poised

Buzzard Perched
Buzzard Perched

Here we have one of our local buzzards “busy doin’ nothin'”. This is their favourite pastime. They just love that scenery.

Over on this side we have open farmland mostly grazed by cattle. Of course as the year is now drawing to a close all the cattle are being taken indoors for the winter, so there isn’t even that continual rolling scrunch of cows’ tongues ripping mouthfuls of grass off at ground level and slowly grinding it to pulp. Cows are such noisy eaters, you know, if you’re perched on a branch above a field full of cows it is almost impossible to get any sleep at all.

Over this side we have the valley with its stream and the railway line. We only have two or three trains an hour and they all have diesel engines so they are pretty quiet on the whole, especially if you can get a perch back up the hill here – anyway it isn’t difficult to doze through that comfortable rumble as they go past.

Probably the main disadvantage of a perch up on the hillside is that you are visible from the road. Every so often you get someone come along with a camera and they stand there going click, click, click for ages. How is anyone supposed to get any rest when you have to perch there, pretending to be alert, with your shoulders back and pulling your stomach in?

As The Sun Sinks Slowly In the West

Sunset over Carlisle
Sunset over Carlisle

“Quick! Quick!” said Anthony “Where’s the camera. Quick!”

Anthony was up from ‘down south’, staying with us for a few days. I was busy, so I waved a disinterested hand in the direction of the camera. That seemed to resolve the issue so I forgot about it. Time passed – have you noticed that it does this from time to time? Stuff happens and then something else happens and possibly even something else as well. Then suddenly you notice that it’s quite some time since that stuff happened and you wonder if you should have paid more attention while that dog was having its day.

You may have missed something important, something of earthshaking gravity may have just slipped away. Rome may have burned to the ground while you were fiddling with some minor matter which could have easily have waited two seconds, two minutes, or two hours. Who knows maybe you should have put it aside forever? Possibly if you’d only known, it might have been better left undone.

Then again, what would have happened if you had turned aside? Say you hadn’t been focused on that whatever-it-was you were so intent on? Would you forever regret the missed opportunity? Would that butterfly never have got round to flapping its wings in the Amazon forests?

Would the sun still set in the west?

Firelight

Fire
Fire

Our new home has central heating. So you might wonder why there was a fireplace. Except, perhaps as some relic from bygone days when people somehow, in some unimaginable way, managed to survive without thermostatically controlled radiators, possibly just by wearing more clothes, or thicker underwear, or even by being much more active. Or perhaps by just putting up with the cold because there was no alternative?

My first thought was that perhaps our fireplace was ornamental rather than functional and perhaps we would arrange half a dozen tea lights in there to sit and watch the television by. A quick peek inside, however confirmed that our fireplace was, in fact, connected to the outside via a chimney. A check from the outside showed that we actually have two chimneys, one seemed to be aimed at the bathroom, so we didn’t expect that one to be functional – and it’s not, but the one at the other end of the house was in exactly the right place to line up with the fireplace down below.

Urged on by some long forgotten childhood memory, Jackie suggested that I should lay the fire in the grate, so that it would be ready to light in the morning.

Why light the fire in the morning when we are both busy and with no time to sit around in front of it? Some inner voice suggested that this is not a question that it is safe to ask (my childhood was spent in warmer climes – with no need for fires or fireplaces). So I laid the fire and she lit it next morning.

I’m expecting the Ghost Of Christmas Past to knock at the door any time now with a goose in each hand.

Snow

A Dusting Of Snow
A Dusting Of Snow

Last night the weather forecast was for a dusting of snow – the first snows of winter, they said, although it is still autumn and we are still operating on British Summer Time (until tonight). Of course, a statement like that from a weather forecaster is enough to make you dig out your swimming togs, then try to find the garden sprinkler and get it set up on the lawn, ready to lie under, in preparation for the hottest October day for twenty years.

Imagine our surprise when this morning broke bright and clear – with the roofs and the field covered in, “A Light Dusting Of Snow”. Off we went for our morning constitutional with the air bright and clear and crisp. And also very cold on the nose and the ears, this is the first time I’ve worn my gloves since last winter.

Standing at the gate waiting, while The Dog checked to make sure that this was our road and that only the postman had been this way today, we noticed a gentle trickling sound a little like water but quite clearly not water. It seemed to come from the trees in the wood behind the house. Looking up we could see tiny showers of leaves detach themselves in a companionable sort of way from the branches high in the tree tops and trickle down through the lower leaves rustling and whispering as they fell.

It made leaf-fall seem less forlorn and more like a group hug.

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves
Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves was written in 1945 – in French. The original poem was written by Jacques Prévert and the music by Joseph Kosma (thank you Wikipedia). Even though it was sung by Yves Montand – yes, you remember him – it wasn’t until Johnny Mercer wrote the English words that it really took off. It’s still being recorded by the upcoming artists today and has become a popular jazz standard, not bad for a song that is pushing 68 this year. I wonder how many of today’s ‘wun rap wunders’ will be remembered in seventy years? To be fair, of course, there was a lot of terrible music around in the ’40s too – thankfully it’s mostly gone and luckily completely forgotten.

Bananas, like leaves are only green because their skins are laced with chlorophyll and like leaves as the chlorophyll breaks down the yellow shows up better and better and they start to look ripe and appetising (if you like bananas).

The leaves of other trees don’t seem to have as appetising an appearance – but they do look pretty.

Play The Game

The Beck
The Beck

Down at the bottom of the hill, on the road that takes us on a short walk to the next village, is the beck. Or the burn if we were in Scotland, or the stream, or the brook, or insert-your-local-name-here. Like so many things in life, what it’s called is actually not important. What matters is how it behaves and what it does. In our case it runs  from east-ish to west-ish and in doing so, it runs through a bridge and under the road.

The all important bridge is just before the corner as you go and just after the corner if you’re coming back. This proximity to the corner is important because it means that from a position close enough to the bridge to be able to join in the game there is a clear view for three or four hundred yards in both directions along the road. This all adds up to – the opportunity for a game of pooh sticks – good solid iron railings on both sides, a good view for some considerable distance along the road in both directions and very little traffic on the road in any case – who could ask for anything more.

When Fin and Jen were here a couple of weeks ago we played several times. In the last game, my stick got stuck on a rock and failed to finish the game (within a five-year-old’s attention span anyway). This was most unsatisfactory. Seeking closure, I suggested to The Dog that we should play a game or two – just to get in some practice, so to speak.

She participated eagerly in the hunt for, and selection of, suitable sticks, but at the last minute she refused to drop her stick in the water and brought it home with her instead.

She doesn’t seem to have a good grasp of the rules – I must remember to read her the story.

The Holly Bears A Berry

Holly Berries
Holly Berries

Holly is interesting stuff. It’s evergreen, its flowers are small white and inconspicuous but its berries are bright red and visible. At a time of year when most trees are losing their leaves the evergreen holly with its bright red berries stands out in the woods, hedgerows and gardens. Anything that puts itself forward only has itself to blame if it becomes involved in religion. Holly, with its spiky leaves was taken to be the masculine where the ivy – also green through the winter but whose leaves lack such a defensive structure, was taken to be the feminine principle. Very early Christians, who were keen to show that their religion was pretty much the same as the one they were trying to supplant – but different, just adapted the current religious practice to their needs – so we ended up with holly and its berries becoming associated with Christmas.

The holly berries are actually mildly poisonous to humans and even the birds won’t eat them until there have been a few frosts to soften them. Keep those Christmas decorations out of the reach of children and pets!

Holly in heraldry stood for truth. The idea was that because the holly stayed green all year it was ‘constant and true’. Henry the vee eye eye eye – he of the many wives and also an accomplished musician – he wrote Greensleeves  – wrote a song ‘Green Groweth The Holly’ in which he uses the holly’s ability to stay green through the worst of the winter to show that his love would be always true.

Providing his latest love could give him with the son he desperately wanted, of course. Otherwise  – “Next. Please!”

Hedge Fun

Dunnock
Dunnock

Google suggested I try the RSPB, so I gave them a click and found quite a useful bird identifier. It narrowed things down to the Dunnock – not bad considering we started from a blurry photo of a small brown bird.

The Dog and I were on our way home – we had just been down to the level crossing and had been rewarded with a ‘fly past’ of part of the track-laying train. We recognised it, as it had spent the (very) early hours of one Sunday morning, thumping and clattering its way along our bit of embankment. As we hurried homeward, with the promise of coffee and a biscuit to speed us onward, we became aware of a chirp, chirp, chirping in the hedgerow to our right. The hedge is quite high here but we could see that, that most common of form of wildlife, the small brown bird, was perched on the top. I held the camera above my head and took a few pictures. As you can see, we do have a reasonable photo as a result.

The Dunnock is that bird, beloved of TV wild life programmes, with the sex life that makes ‘Desperate Housewives’ look like a Sunday school picnic. A ‘breeding pair’ can consist of any mix of almost any number of males and females, depending on the available food resources and the territory needed to raise the brood. To add to their entangled relationships, it seems that the Cuckoo, who has been having less and less luck with its normal hosts – probably due to the publicity it has received in the media, has now started dumping occasional eggs on the Dunnock. In spite of the fact that the Cuckoo hasn’t had time to ‘personalise’ its eggs to Dunnock nests, they seem to be being accepted and the Cuckoo chicks successfully raised.

But then, I guess if you’re going to sleep around, you’re bound to have difficulty remembering which egg went with which father.

Scratch card

Devil's Bit Scabious
Devil’s Bit Scabious

Google and I think that this is Devil’s Bit Scabious. If we’re right then it’s doing a worthwhile job here on our verge and even Natural England can’t find anything to complain about. It’s a ‘good thing’ for the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and, would you believe me if I told you, The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth? Both of them need it to lay their eggs and both of them are rare. Hmmm. Has Eve O’Lution been indulging in her penchant for whimsy again?

Speaking of whimsy, Wikipedia, that fount of all that’s best on the Internet, notes that the plant was used to treat scabies and other skin afflictions including the sores left by Bubonic Plague. Well, imagine that! I always thought that if you caught The Plague, your body had to be pushed back into your house with a long pole and the entire house burned to the ground, especially if you lived round Pudding Lane. It seems, though that you could actually have a mild case of plague or even recover from a more serious bout.

The plants name comes from the Latin ‘scabere’, meaning to scratch and it has a funny root. In its first year the root looks a bit like a small carrot, but that rots away soon after and leaves a ring of new roots surrounding a ragged stump. Apparently, the fact that there was a way to alleviate the torment that he had gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange for Mankind (as always we include womankind here, although in this case they may wish to be excused) upset the Devil and in an attempt to get rid of the offending plant he bit off the root.

So that explains a lot.

Hip! Hip!

Rose Hips
Rose Hips

Rose hips are very useful things – but they take quite a bit of preparation in order to be useful. The first problem is that the seeds are covered with tiny hairs and in fact, are used to make itching powder. This used to be sold in toy shops as a harmless joke – I’m guessing that it is now banned by some Health and Safety edict issued by the European Commission For Abstinence From Anything Remotely Enjoyable Unless You Can Pack Them In Boxes In Units Of Ten.

This recipe suggests that if you make Rose Hip Jam you need to de-seed the rose hips. That sounds tedious beyond belief. If you make Rose Hip Jelly though you can leave the seeds in as they will all be sieved out in the jelly making process.

Rose hips are full of vitamin C, I repeat this, as I suppose that somewhere on some remote desert island where roses don’t grow at all, there is someone who doesn’t know it. More interesting is that there have been recent studies, (small ones admittedly) that have shown the rose hips are beneficial to arthritis sufferers, especially rheumatoid arthritis which is stubbornly difficult to treat in any other way.

All of the above is interesting but irrelevant. The main reason for showing this photo is that it represents the triumph of photography over canine instincts. Just as we were poised to take the picture, with the sun in the right place and no shadow of either camera or photographer intruding into the frame, a rabbit appeared from the under brush not more than a few yards ahead. He looked at us then lolloped leisurely back the way he had come. This was too much for even the most restrained dog and she leapt into action. The lead unwound to its fullest extent and virtually knocked the camera out of my hands. Amazingly, we did actually get a photo!

In the small print, I must add that no rabbits were harmed in the taking of this photograph – however I’m sure their vocabulary was considerably expanded.

 

A Song Of Sixpence

Juvenile Blackbird
Juvenile Blackbird

There are, it would seem, Blackbirds and BLACKbirds. Some blackbirds are black but they don’t make a special thing of it. Female blackbirds tend to go for brown – autumn colours are very chic this year. Young blackbirds wear whatever takes their fancy, if they’ve just grown a nice new coat of shiny, reddy-brown feathers shortly after fledging, they will be quite happy with them until they are past the extrovert teenager stage. When I saw this guy as I glanced out of the window, at first I was sure it was something other than a blackbird, though it certainly looked and behaved like a blackbird as I watched it longer. Google thought the RSPB might be helpful and they thought this page, showing various blackbird plumages, was what I was looking for. Isn’t the Internet helpful, how did we ever manage without it?

My friend doesn’t have a yellow beak yet so I’m guessing that he/she is still a juvenile, probably born this year – don’t youngsters grow up so fast these days?

Wikipedia kindly answered a question that I was thinking of raising here. When there are so many black birds around – Crows, Jackdaws, Rooks, to name a few, why was the blackbird the black bird that was named the blackbird? If you see what I mean. The answer is simple and obvious once you know what it is – like all good answers: In the Middle Ages, when people were going around giving things names, large birds were called ‘fowl’ and only small birds were called birds. So, you see, we could easily have ended up with the rook or the crow called the Blackfowl – but we didn’t. As the Blackbird was the only black bird sized bird, when they weren’t calling it an ouzel they called it a Blackbird.

So that clears that up. Do you know that has been bothering me for years!