400 SMILES A DAY - so here's lookin' at you...
and remember: you're never fully dressed without a smile

A "SMILES" STARTER FOR TEN: Just three of my favourite things...

Pussycat the dog

Lassie the horse

Jerry the cat (click for more)


FIRST TIME HERE? Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative: Children smile 400 times a day, adults just a miserable 14....   More

 
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Relatively speaking ...
www.lookyou.co.uk ... updated daily, with a smile and a chuckle - hopefully ... contact me ... with any points of order - or disorder...
 


 

8th June 2013
White Park in the Park

TODAY was not the first time I’ve stumbled upon a new-born calf along my morning walks through the Towy Valley ... however: “Hello Sunshine!

 
 

 
 

Today though was the first time for me to witness some quite extraordinary animal behaviour; indeed, behaviour that would, in its own little way, have done BBC TV’s Springwatch Live  proud.

Walking through Dinefwr Park & Castle at sunrise, I couldn’t help but notice the newly-born calf in the big meadow in front of Newton House, the field where the estate’s famous herd of White Park cattle mostly hang out.

Those who watch Countryfile  on television will know that Adam Henson has a few of these rare cattle on his farm and is quite captivated by them. They are rather handsome creatures.

Anyway, this young calf seemed surprisingly listless in the beautiful sunrise of another perfect morning. Its mother was clearly a heifer, a first-time mum, and she, to my surprise, appeared somewhat uninterested in the calf.

I decided to investigate. Now these cattle are familiar with people passing close by, in fact they are proper pussycats ― however, rule number one: never venture near a cow that has a young calf, even if you haven’t got a dog (hounds particularly excite them and turn them all aggressive and dangerous).

Fortunately, modern cameras, even my modest little effort, have a handy zoom which means you can capture creatures from a safe distance.

From my vantage point it seemed the heifer had already licked the calf. The next thing I noticed though was that one of the other cows from the herd approached the calf and sniffed it ... followed by yet another, both shown below...

 
 

 
 

It was evident that both were clearly older than the new mother. Then one of them begins to prod the calf quite vigorously with those lethal horns of hers. It seemed as if she was attacking it (shades of Bonnie and Clyde on Springwatch, the pair of jackdaws doing their damnedest to kill the fledgling chicks of another jackdaw family because they were desperate to lay claim to the nest).

 
 

 
 

You can see the head of the calf on the ground, above. However, with mum looking on ― nearest the camera in both the picture above, and below ― it’s difficult to say whether she is concerned or otherwise. One of the pair of older cows then wanders away to one side.

 
 

 
 

The remaining cow, however, continues to poke and prod the calf quite forcefully. Suddenly, the calf, clearly pissed off with this rotten old cow giving it a hard time, struggles to its feet and totters uncertainly towards its mother ― and mum puts out the welcoming mat.

 
 

 
 

Then followed several minutes of intrigue as the calf searched under the cow for its udder ... bingo! And it began suckling like mad, encouraged and pushed to the well by its young mother.

Now I have a theory: the older cow wasn’t ‘attacking’ the calf, but rather she intuitively knew that it hadn’t yet suckled those important bovine colostrums produced by cows for their newborn calves (which contain antibodies to protect the newborn against disease). The newborn animal must receive these colostrums within six hours of being born for maximal transfer of antibodies to occur.

Crucially, the moment the calf got up and went to its mother and suckled, the older cow ― which could well be the calf’s grandmother for all I know ― simply walked away to rejoin the herd.

 
 

 
 

In no time at all, the bond between calf and mother was endorsed ― here pictured in the glorious pinkish glow of the rising sun, with Dinefwr Castle as a backdrop...

 
 

 
 

And here, now with Newton House in the background, both are a picture of contentment in this colourful flower meadow.

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? And 400 smiles delivered in just 60 minutes of nature at its best.

 
     

19th November 2012
Meet Sir Tom, Top of the Towy Valley Tups


O'ER Carmarthenshire hill and Towy dale, tupping has been in full progress since September. For those of a townie bent,
this is the rather narrow window of opportunity where ― well, I am reminded of an old rugby club song:
                                                                                                                                                       
♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫♥♫
                                                                                                                                                        Old MacDonald Had A Farm,
                                                                                                                                                        Eeai-eeai-oh;
                                                                                                                                                        And on that farm he had some rams,
                                                                                                                                                        Eeai-eeai-oh.
                                                                                                                                                        And the rams were ramming it here,
                                                                                                                                                        And the rams were ramming it there,
                                                                                                                                                        Ramming it here, ramming it there.
                                                                                                                                                        Ramming it every-where ― 
                                                                                                                                                        Ohhhhhhhhhh...
                                                                                                                                                        Old MacDonald had a farm, etc, etc..

And sung of course to full and matching body language. Gosh, those were the days, my friends, and we really did think they would never end...

Meanwhile, duty calls
 

Down on the farm, the rams are let loose among the girls to do their duty for Queen and Country and Farmer. Much like the rutting season so beloved of the BBC Autumnwatch team, but without all the over-the-top violence (mind you, not that it’s a walk in the Dinefwr Park  for the horny brigade either).

I was greatly amused the other day watching a couple of rams going about their duties. One was noticeably larger than the other, the smaller one being obviously younger.

Anyway, both rams happened to be together, surrounded by a dozen or so sheep.

The rams kept sniffing at the girls, but nothing was happening. Clearly the sheep hadn’t quite come into season, but were about to, hence why the girls had turned into groupies and were following the rams about.

Occasionally the older ram would go up to one of the sheep and nudge her neck, as if saying: “Come on babe, get those knickers off ‘cause I’ve got my bragging rights to think about down  at the Woolpack tonight.”

But best of all, the young ram would sometimes wander off, quietly, and sniff some other  babes loitering nearby.

The older boy though ― been there, done it, got the T-shirt ― would watch the youngster all the while ... the moment the young ram thought he was onto something promising and got a bit excited, the old boy would rush over and push him forcibly out of the way and a bit of a shemozzle would break out.

Not at all like the frenzy of rutting bucks mind, perhaps because the rams sensed that there were several hundreds of sheep available to go round, and not even a handful of rams running amok with the flock.

Talking of getting knickers off, as I was, it takes me back a few years. No, nothing personal, but I had noticed along my morning walks this particular young ram.

I had instantly christened him Sir Tom, and all because of a medallion around his neck, which seemed to be some sort of highly unusual identification tag.

The youngster had a noticeable limp ― no, I mean in one of his legs. When I originally photographed Sir Tom ― see below ― he was but a young tup, not even a year old, but obviously the farmer had seen something promising about young ‘What’s His Name, Pussycat?’.

And clearly the farmer knew his stuff...


Fast forward a couple of years ― and here’s why the farmer had spotted that certain glint in the eye of Sir Tom...

Sir Tom the Medallion Ram and the green, green grass of home

The ram from nowhere 

That funny, familiar, forgotten feeling

And that's why, Delilah, they call him Thunderballs 


And five months later, hopefully the patter of tiny feet...
 


15th June 2012
GT - with a slice of lemon


I’VE JUST caught up with this brief article in The Daily Telegraph  newspaper…

                                                                        
The friendly bird
                                                 
                 
Great tits are apparently energetic social networkers in their loosely knit flocks

For a creature that lives such a controversial life, the great tit still seems to take things fairly easily, though it could never be accused of chillaxing, that annoying new pastime.
     But, refusing to shun celebrity, it frequents the most sought-after bird tables and is often to be seen working out on a suspended coconut shell.
     For much of the past century, the big scientific question has been how these personable birds learnt to peck through milk-bottle tops to drink the cream. Among the explanations has been Rupert Sheldrake’s alternative science theory of
morphic resonance*. The latest theory, as we report today, finds a model in Facebook*. Tits are apparently energetic social networkers in their loosely knit flocks.
     The remaining mystery is why human beings no longer widely enjoy doorstep milk-bottle delivery. It surely cannot be to our Darwinian advantage.


* Morphic resonance: a term coined by Rupert Sheldrake in his 1981 book A New Science of Life. He uses the expression to refer to what he thinks is “the basis of memory in nature ... the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species”.
* Facebook: just like a Facebook account can say a lot about a person, birds’ social networks can provide important information about their lives, offering scientists insights into how they find mates, or how information or disease spreads within a population.
     However, wild animals’ social circles aren’t easily cracked. Researchers studying wild
great tits living in Wytham Woods near Oxford, England, attached transponders to thousands of birds and recorded their presence when they showed up at 67 feeder 

Just one of the GTs (with slice of lemon) I've befriended in the Towy Valley

locations throughout the woods during the winter.

Well, hereabouts I can get involved with personal observations of great tits and the like...
 

As recorded on this web site, just over three years ago I began a simple experiment to establish how easy (or difficult) it would be to train totally wild songbirds to take feed from my hand. How I set about it is detailed around and about this site, but essentially, the first couple of birds to come to hand were robins. So no surprises there.
     But thereafter, the stars of the show were tits, both blue and great. Friendly and fearless little birds. I often pondered on how the numbers coming for handouts increased dramatically during cold weather; I speculated whether, somewhere deep in the woods, there was a Royal Tit Arms.
     In the bar they would gather and gossip: “Hey, there really is something called a free breakfast, you know. Come with us tomorrow morning and you’ll get to meet Mr Candy Man.” Or did they keep it to themselves ... but all the other birds present grew suspicious: “Where do  that lot disappear to every morning? Let’s follow them tomorrow.”
     Now it turns out that they have their own Facebook. D’oh
!

Anyway, back to the business of the milk-bottle tops and the great tits. Here are some fascinating responses from the Telegraph  Comment Board: coming up, an idea as to why they became attracted to milk bottles in the first place...

Simon Coulter: Memories of box crates, covered ones, plastic tops for the milk bottles - anything to keep the tits away.  
     As to pecking - is it possible it began with the birds attacking their own reflection in the silver foil typically used?

Another location, another GT: in the shadow of Dinefwr Castle on a dank early morning

Edward Green: It likely started with a leaky lid - I recall this occasionally used to happen in the days when we had milk delivered; as birds aren’t too much on licking, the next event would have been an accidentally broken foil top and woo-hoo - free milk!
     I would expect a number of similar ‘seed’ events such as this. Birds watch a lot, simple observation will be responsible from there on.
     Birds are also tremendously opportunistic, and often quite smart. As a teenager I had a large tree outside my bedroom window and one little fellow took to singing directly outside the window whenever I played music during daylight hours - he provided a strange, but not unpleasant accompaniment.


Interesting theory above from Edward Green. And it certainly makes sense. In the meantime...

MillyB: We have a regular milk delivery, but the resident blue and great tits will be very disappointed if/when they discover the bottles.  Semi-skimmed milk has no lovely layer of cream on the top.  My late Mum used to have to leave out a milk bottle cover years ago, as the blue tits would attack the bottles minutes after their being left on the step.  Maybe the birds can tell the difference between full fat and semi-skimmed!
HarryThomas2: It wasn’t the case (many) years ago, when milk was delivered in bottles as ‘gold top’ or ‘silver top’ - both of which had a lovely 2 inches of cream.  Much nicer than the homogenised variety we get nowadays, IMO.

A large GT (or at least two of them) compliments of The Candy Man

William Stanier: “Semi-skimmed milk has no lovely layer of cream on the top,” says MillyB (above). And nor has full fat milk because it’s homogenised to prevent the cream floating to the top.
Kugelschreiber: William Stanier  (above) ... Gosh, I didn’t know that.  I still shake the bottle to mix in the cream
! I found myself saying “Snap!” right there.

Every day a day at school spot: The butterfat content of milk in the UK these days is much lower than it traditionally was. Currently, Channel Island milk contains 5.5% butterfat content, but whole milk (or full fat milk) on the mainland is 3.5% butterfat content. Butterfat content in the UK used to be similar to that in the Channel Islands.

Lizzy Dripping: Also, many years ago, if you were out when the milkman called for his money, you could put it in an envelope stuffed into the neck of an empty milk bottle.

Ah yes, those were the days, my friends. Now back to the tits…

Stoobs: Samantha Fox came under criticism from many for having Great Tits.  Well, she certainly had her knockers. And talking of feeding them: tits like melons, or tits like coconuts?
Bohemond: Yes, friendly birds with great tits commonly form social networks.
(Tick
!)
Pretty Boy Guy: Easy. They converse using Twitter. And there are many Great Tits living near Whitehall.

Great Tits are from Mars, Gorgeous Tits are from Venus


So there we go. I hope you enjoyed an unexpected visit to view my amigos the great tits currently living on my square mile. Fascinating wee birds. 
 


10th January 2012
                                                                                                            A mystery to do with asymmetry
                                                                                       
                  So why are the evenings lighter than the mornings?

IN ONE of those idle moments, have you ever wondered why, at the arrival of the new year – here in the northern hemisphere, that is – the evenings appear to be getting lighter faster than the mornings? Or do you put it down to a trick of the light?
     Well, early on a Saturday morning on Radio Cymru, the BBC’s Welsh language radio station, there’s a nature programme called Galwad Cynnar - Early Morning Call.
     There are experts on all aspects of nature, people who know their stuff inside out. Every Saturday morning really is a day at school.
     One such is Iolo Williams, the famous Bird Man of Alchemy (as in: his knowledge of nature has a potent alchemy – and anyway, alchemy is the closest I can get to Alcatraz).
     Iolo told us that, last week, he heard for the first time a Welsh expression regarding the pace of increased daylight following the passing of the shortest day of the year.
     In 2010, that day was not the 21st of December, as many presumed, but the 22nd, at 5:30am to be precise: the year is slightly longer than 365 days (as measured in solar time), so the traditional shortest day occasionally trips over into the next. And that is why this year is a leap year, an extra day to balance the books (as measured in mean

time, otherwise we would all be going round in circles).
     Anyway, the expression Iolo heard for the first time was "cam ceiliog" - a cockerel’s footstep – which is used to describe the short steps by which the day lengthens at this time of year. Yes, I too was brought up with that expression.
     In fact there is much confusion over the lengthening of the day in December, in as much that the evenings appear to become lighter faster that the mornings – and that is of course a fact.
     Many believe that both mornings and evenings should become lighter in tandem following the passing of the shortest day, but this is not so.
     Every day in the Western Mail  newspaper, the times of sunrise and sunset are shown. I always make a note of this in my diary: I’m not particularly bothered with sunset, but as I go for a walk along the wild side of the Towy Valley each and every morning, heading east initially, the time of sunrise is of interest (I add 10 minutes to the published time).
     Have a look, below, at the times for both sunrise and sunset, as recorded at Cardiff, by the Western Mail, through December into January.

DATE (2011/2012)           SUNRISE                 SUNSET
December 7                              8:05                          4:08
                  8                              8:06                           4:08
                  9                              8:07                           4:07
                 10                             8:08                           4:07
                 11                              8:09                           4:07
                 12                             8:10                            4:07
                 13                             8:11                            4:07  Daylight starts to lengthen
                 14                             8:12                            4:07
                 15                             8:13                            4:07
                 16                             8:14                            4:07
                 17                             8:15                            4:08
                 18                             8:15                            4:08
                 19                             8:16                            4:08
                 20                             8:17                            4:09
                 21                             8:17                            4:09
                 22                             8:18                            4:10   This was the "shortest" day

DATE (2011/12)     SUNRISE                                                 SUNSET
December 23                   8:18                                                            4:10
                  24                    8:19                                                            4:11
                  25                    8:19                                                            4:11
                  26                    8:19                                                            4:12
                  27                    8:19                                                            4:13
                  28                    8:20                                                           4:14
                  29                    8:20                                                           4:14
                  30                    8:20                                                           4:15
                  31                   8:20  Daylight starts to lengthen     4:16
January     1                      8:20                                                           4:17
                   2                      8:20                                                           4:18
                   3                      8:20                                                           4:19
                   4                      8:19                                                            4:21
                   5                      8:19                                                            4:22
                   6                      8:19                                                            4:23
                   7                      8:18                                                            4:24

What will surprise many is that the evenings start to lengthen, ever so marginally, from the 13th of December on – which explains the seemingly faster pace of the brighter evenings – yet, the mornings keep getting darker and darker until the very last day of the year.
     Also, around the point of the winter solstice, the daily change in daylight is measured in seconds. Yet around both the spring and autumn equinox, daylight lengthens - or shortens - by as much as five minutes a day. "Cam ceffyl" - a horse’s footstep?
     Be that as it may – or perhaps be that as it is December – back with the winter solstice: so why are neither the latest sunrise time nor the earliest sunset time actually on the shortest day?
     Well, it’s a very complex business, and is marginally above my intellectual capacity – but as I understand it, the Earth does not sit up straight. It slouches i.e. the Earth’s orbit is elliptical. Therefore the sun does not affect the point of sunset and sunrise in a balanced fashion, hence the difference as shown in the above table.

If you Google “Please explain the mechanics behind the shortest day” – I know, I know, Google doesn’t demand that you say “Please”, but the ghost of my mother looking over my shoulder would be very annoyed if I didn’t.
     All intellectual levels of explanations surface, but my favourite, with some marvellous images, is the link coming up, just below.
     Below that actual link, proof that the most astonishing thing about this winter’s journey from December into January has been the unnatural spring-like weather, at least compared to recent winters (thus far, anyway), so I include a couple of images taken in December, which confirm the delightful doolallyness of the British weather.
     No wonder we talk about it all the time. I mean, Red Campion spotted all over the place, normally a favourite high summer sight along our hedgerows and woodlands.
     But in high winter? Also, a picture showing some frost, which has only gently nipped at our noses on just a couple of occasions thus far this winter.
     As usual, the little songbirds help me illustrate the point.


 

http://www.askamathematician.com/2010/12/q-why-isnt-the-shortest-day-of-the-year-also-the-day-with-the-latest-sunset/


 

A bluetit poses alongside some frost-coated hawthorn berries

An increasingly rare marsh tit admires a winter's red campion 


2nd April 2011 ~ a PS added on the 3rd
A journey from autumn to spring

Four and twenty blackbirds...
 

JUST like the North and South Poles, the first couple of months of 2010, along with the final month of the year, acted like frozen bookends either end of the year as two of the coldest and snowiest spells of weather for mega moons took a stranglehold on the UK  and all who sailed in her.
     On the wild side of nature, the most vulnerable to this extreme weather were the little songbirds, something I have covered extensively both here and over on 
Look You.

Now I, like many millions of others in this country, did my little bit to make their life easier by providing some extra food to tie them over. But it is interesting to note how nature goes about looking after its own.
     Last autumn the most noticeable thing was how much the trees were weighed down with seed, as if they were anticipating the cold weather ahead, although the experts insist that this is down to ideal weather conditions from spring to autumn 2010.

A tree outside the cottage, laden with fruit

A typical hawthorn tree spotted along my morning walks 

Outside the kitchen door, in the grounds of the cottage where I live, are two apple  trees. One is of the eating variety, the other cooking. Both really were weighed down with fruit last autumn. All of us who live up here on the hill helped ourselves to the tasty eating variety, but as October slipped into November, the larger songbirds - blackbirds, starlings, etc - began to tuck in as well.
     Initially there were more than enough to go round, but it rapidly became increasingly difficult to find apples that did not bear the pecking orders of our feathered friends.

I also regularly helped myself to the cooking variety - I really enjoy oven baked apples - but I noticed that the cooking apples remained untouched by the birds.
     As November slid by, the temperatures began to drop significantly, and on November 26 we had our first snows of the winter. November gave way to December - and the temperature plummeted quite dramatically.
     The birds quickly polished off the sweet, eating apples and then, as if the frost had somehow made them more palatable, they attacked the cooking apples with gusto.

The Nov temperature drops ... normally seen in a mesmerising
murmuration, outside the cottage a lone starling hunts for food

As it becomes ever colder, food is suddenly scarce ... a female
trapeze blackbird tucks in to the last eating-apple on the tree  

The cooking apples fall and offer up a juicy and tarty carpet ...
blackbirds, starlings, thrushes and fieldfares magically appear

Then the snows come ... blackbirds turn up in ever-increasing
numbers ... I throw some bird feed and the chaffinch join in

As Christmas approaches with some exceedingly low temperatures - minus 20 recorded  on Xmas morning - blackbirds from the whole county seem to materialise to feed on the abundant apples hidden under the snow. I quote this by Derwent May in The Times...

Blackbirds are often seen chasing each other through the branches. They sit near each other, then one suddenly flies at another and follows him a short way as he flees. The chaser lifts his tail vertically as he lands again, then lowers it as he settles.
     It is usually males that are engaged in these chases, and the three or four birds involved seem to be a father, and his sons from the summer who are still hanging around his territory. His mate and daughters also form part of the group that flits about in the

trees. In spite of the father's desultory hostility, several of the birds can often be seen feeding on a lawn together, with brief squabbles.
     The young birds probably stay around because they can still learn from their parents where to find food, and also because one of them might be able to drive the parents out and take the territory over.

The extreme cold and snow meant I was able to watch the above behaviour not only in all its glory but in concentrated form on open ground, just outside my kitchen window, from where I took all the bird photographs featured here.
     My tale continues...

Birds that sit under the apple tree "with everyone else but you"
increase in numbers daily as the temperature keeps dropping

A closer look under the apple tree: one day I counted 60 birds
feeding on the apples, of which some 40 were blackbirds

The one aspect of the blackbird behaviour mentioned by Derwent May that I had  noticed was the continual bickering. They never stopped. As May says in his piece, they were forever jumping at each other and briefly flitting into the air before settling back down and carrying on with the feeding - before once again starting a shemozzle with another bird. It was going on all the time. 
     Unlike robins when they engage in territorial fights, which can go on to the death, nothing serious ever appeared to result from the blackbird squabbles.

They would spend the whole day under the tree, buried in the snow. However, I had noticed that the quarrelling would increase markedly as the day progressed - and I became convinced that they were getting progressively pissed feeding on the apples. It was just like a Saturday night down at the Crazy Horsepower.
     However, the one thing which did concern me as I watched, was that they were so into their feeding, heads buried in the snow, backsides in the air, they were becoming sitting targets, literally, to a predator. Hold on to your hats, folks...

Easy targets - and the crow is not acting as a lookout...

...the inevitable happens - a sparrowhawk claims an easy lunch

Twice I saw a sparrowhawk - the one kill, above, the other time flashing across the snow in pursuit of a target as the birds took flight. It would have happened quite regularly, I presume - I mean, if you were a sparrowhawk, what would you do if you had a buffet spread out in front of you all day, every day?
     The birds would always take flight if one of us or the dog wandered onto the scene, but occasionally there was no obvious reason, so I guess the sparrowhawk was on a take-away run, but their early-warning system must have worked now and again.

It was quite a surprise though how quickly they returned to their cold storage orchard once everything had settled down. That's what starvation does for you, I guess.
     Once the cold weather broke, the birds were gone, back to their usual feeding grounds. We are left with a handful or so of our resident blackbirds, flitting around what they probably regard as "their" territory.

And so winter gives way to spring...

Spring has sprung and the blossom bursts into life...

...and the bees do what comes naturally

The cycle of life begins again with the flowers and the bees. Now what was it Albert Einstein said? A world without bees would be a world without humans...

PS: After putting this bulletin to bed and packing myself off to bed,  I remembered a curious incident connected with the sparrowhawk kill, above.
     To the left of the tree, and just out of shot, there stood a crow directing a great deal of venom and aggressive body language at the sparrowhawk - it could well be the one in the picture to the left (in fact there appears to be three resident crows on the property). It was as if it was determined to take the kill for itself.

The sparrowhawk held its ground, but then it caught sight of me trying to grab a better picture - and off it went with its kill, the crow in hot pursuit...
     Some 30 minutes later the crow returned and landed among the blackbirds, which were now back in force. Suddenly the crow lunged at one of the blackbirds - which jumped out of the way quite effortlessly. The crow then appeared to give up after just that one attempt. It was a most curious incident all round. 

2nd October 2010
A visitor from a faraway place with a strange sounding name
 

The Himalayan Balsam ~ Naughty but nice
 

DURING this year's Springwatch, the show's presenters discussed some of the UK's most destructive invasive species - from grey squirrel and mink, via red-eared terrapins, to Spanish bluebell and Japanese knotweed - just some of our unwelcome visitors.
     Kate Humble, however, defended the Himalayan Balsam, and pondered aloud what her bees would have done for nectar, given the previous two exceptionally wet summers. I heard myself going "Hear, hear!"; indeed over the past few years I've grown quite

attached to this extraordinary plant.
    It is only about five years or so since I first encountered it, especially its wonderfully attractive flower, and wondered what the hell it was. Only the following year did I discover its identity.
     It has impressed me greatly, so here's a hymn of praise to the Himalayan Balsam, as well as in support of Kate Humble and her busy bees.
 First, an introduction...

The beautiful Himalayan Balsam - also known as
'kiss-me-on-the mountain' and 'policeman's helmet'

In Welsh, 'Jac y Neidiwr' - roughly translates as
'Jumping Jack Flash' - which will make sense further on... 

On the Seventh Day, God – or Mother Nature as I call Her – poured Herself a large wine, put Her feet up and contemplated what She had learnt over the past six days of intense evolution. Could She come up with the perfect creation?
     Well, in the morning She fashioned the banana,
Her all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing herb-cum-fruit: the colour is pure, bright and sunny; easy to harvest and transport; grows all year round; ripens best off the plant; no need to wash hands or fruit before eating; no messy peeling, just a quick zip-a-dee-doo-dah; tastes great; easy to eat, even for those with no teeth; even easier to digest; full of goodness, contains

three natural sugars – sucrose, fructose and glucose – which combines with fibre to generate instant, sustained and substantial energy boost; can be safely eaten even as it begins to go off, when it turns all gooey and browny; a sure way to cure a hangover i.e. a banana milkshake sweetened with honey; and as a super duper bonus the magical banana can be used as an emergency Post-it note.
     But it wasn't quite right: it would only grow in humid, tropical conditions, where it rains a lot. Warm rain, that is!
Back to the Drawing Board.
     So in the afternoon She created the Himalayan Balsam. Bingo!

Himalayan Balsam along the River Towy,
photographed in the shadow of Dinefwr Castle

It commandeers the river bank - the above photographed from the
castle, looking down to the spot where the picture alongside was taken 


So here is Mother Nature's winning hand, when she created the Himalayan Balsam (occasionally referred to here as simply HB)...

It is strikingly handsome as it garlands our waterways, ditches and much else besides - see above.

It exudes a perfectly understated fragrance – if it were a woman she would be French, probably Carla Bruni.

Bees buzz around it like squadrons of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitt 109s on heat. Standing in the middle of a forest of HB is much like
standing in the centre of Soccer City during July's World Cup Final, except that nature’s vuvuzela is infinitely more agreeable than humanity’s effort.
 

Bees are irresistibly attracted to the flower
Cleared to land: flaps down, throttle back, nose up...

Once inside the generous flower the bees help
themselves to the copious amount of nectar it produces


Come autumn and songbirds appear to go after the seed, but just one touch of a seed pod and seeds explode in all directions,
including into water ways where the seed will seek out a new home, hence the reason why it spreads at such a phenomenal rate.

Oh yes, this clever dispersal of seeds explains the Welsh 'Jac y Neidiwr' - 'Jumping Jack Flash'.
 

Many seed pods surround every flower,
each pod containing up to 16 seeds

Each plant has a great capacity for seed production -
some individuals producing 2,500 seeds in a lifetime


Where cattle can get at it, and to a lesser extent sheep, they will graze it right back to the ground – it clearly contains some magic potion -
which suggests that Kate Humble’s honey is a Himalayan delicacy to die for, hence the 'kiss-me-quick-on-the-mountain', perhaps?
 

Cattle struggle to reach through fences to get at the
plant - note the 'clean' gap between fence and neck's length!

Here a bullock has entered a fenced-off area ... heaven! -
its enthusiasm for the plant was evident as it gorged

Next year the HB will be back bigger, brighter and more bolshie than ever.
     On the debit side it shades out and suffocates everything beneath it; in late autumn the plants die back leaving the ground bare of vegetation and liable to erosion; also, by producing such an abundance of sugary nectar it makes it more attractive to bees and other insects, luring them away from pollinating our native flowers.

But hey, Mother Nature’s prime directive insists on the survival of the fittest.
     So with the Himalayan Balsam Mother Nature really did create the
all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing bit of kit. Every bit of it does indeed serve a purpose.
    
Perfection – unless of course She came up with something even more impressive on the Seventh Evening. Amen. Or perhaps that should read Awomen!  


20th August 2010
A very private death, a very public slaughter

TIME to catch up with the breeding swans featured in previous bulletins - but first, a startling sight that greeted me in the Towy Valley the other morning.
     Folk often wonder why they never see a dead bird when they're out and about, not counting those that have obviously been hit by a vehicle or caught by the cat - which is odd when you ponder the number of birds flying about out there.
     Well ... birds, like all creatures, find a quiet, hidden corner when they feel unwell,
which is where they usually die - just like people, really, who mostly die in the privacy of their own home.
     Also, birds have loads of natural predators which hoover up anything dead or dying. Having said that, and acknowledging that I spend much of my time out on the wild side, I do occasionally come across dead or partially eaten birds - but this sight stopped me in my tracks, something I had never seen before. A dead and ravaged swan.

 

 

When I first caught sight of the corpse, a buzzard was perched proudly on it, with a handful of crows also in attendance - but by the time I'd slipped the camera off my shoulder and switched on ... they had all flown the feast.
     But this was not a sick bird gone to meet its Maker. This swan had died violently, and not by the talons and beak of a bird of prey. As mentioned, I've never seen this kind of death before, but it didn't surprise me.
I've written before about the territorial fights I witness on these oxbow lakes, in particular the extremes the resident alpha male swan will go to protect his territory.
     If you look at the top of the second picture you can see the alpha male, on the water, with wings in aggressive posture, seeing off the swans that want a share of the lake - I would guess that the dead swan was one of this flock. Funnily enough I caught a fierce fight back at the beginning of the year, during the cold weather and the snows.

The swans wrap their necks around their opponent's neck in a show
of strength as they attempt to force the other under the water...

...the fights become so fierce that other birds nearby - in this
case ducks - take to the air to escape the confrontation...

The alpha female, seen aggressively patrolling in the top image,
now decides to join in the fight and launches an attack...

... which is bad news for the challenger - and it makes a break
off the water, pursued by the alpha male ... it eventually escapes

It's a jungle out there, folks. Anyway, back to the breeding swans. The Fighting Alpha Pair of Oxbow Lake, which this year had seven cygnets, one more than last year, duly lost one, but the remaining six are doing well.
     However, what I call the novice pair, have struggled. To recap: last year none of the eggs hatched, probably because the nest was not high enough above the backwater's water line. This year that error had been corrected, and six little ones duly arrived.
     Mind you, if the local Swans Social Services had caught up with them, they would have taken the youngsters off them. The pair were really bad parents. Not that they abused
the cygnets, but I'd noticed from early days that the whole family would wander away from the relative safety of their backwater, and were spotted all over the place.
     Occasionally on the smaller backwaters dotted about the fields, sometimes down on the nearby river - and then back on base backwater. As a consequence, one by one the youngsters were taken by predators. During this slaughter of the innocents, I caught up with the family when they were down to four cygnets - and noticed something odd.
     One of the cygnets was white. Not an albino, but looking back at earlier photographs, it was a pale colour from the word go. Strange.

A cygnet loses its dull, ugly duckling grey colour, at a very young age

A cygnet is isolated the wrong side of an impenetrable fence

And then they were down to just two cygnets. One morning I happened upon a parent with one of the remaining cygnets in the field next door to the base backwater - with the other parent and remaining cygnet at home, but crucially divided by that impossible fence - see the photograph, directly above.
     How the stranded two got the other side of the fence I shall never figure out - the parent would have been able to fly over the fence, but the cygnet not, obviously.

I watch the stranded pair watch the other pair...

...just the other side of the fence ... it was horrible

The stranded pair simply couldn't figure out a way to return to the backwater, so they just stood by the fence, staring at the other pair. The youngster also looked weak and often toppled over as it attempted to get away as I approached it.
     The idea was to lift it over the fence, but no luck. The parent would get highly aggressive towards me - and yes, they really can break your arm if they hit you properly
with that immensely strong joint bone in their wing ... so, with a heavy heart, I leave them to it. The next day, unsurprisingly, there was just the one cygnet left.
     And I haven't seen the family at all over the past couple of weeks. I'll have to walk the river to see if I can spot them. Why the parents were driven to continually leave what I thought was their relatively safe backwater home, I shall never know.


Just to leave you with a positive bounce, a couple of photographs of the Fighting Alpha Pair of Oxbow Lake - and family...

When everything works it is such a relaxing sight...

...and here's one way of coping when the kids get on your nerves


Finally, I began the previous bulletin, just a quick scroll down, with a couple of love birds ... well, they've sort of kissed and made up...

You come home here after chatting up all the birds - don't you
try and get round me you smooth-talking, Nogood Jackdaw ...

Honestly! I need my head examined. Each and every time I fall
for your promises never to be a wandering Nogood Boyo, ever again...


3rd July 2010
A few birds, some calves and the summer solstice


SPRING, and a young crow's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love ... but in no time at all it's nothing but nag, nag, nag...
 

Your eyes are the eyes of a jackdaw in love,
And may they gaze evermore into mine...

If you're not back from the pub before I put the kids to bed -
your supper will be in Colin Crow next door


Tweet of the Day
Time for an update on the songbirds I've been befriending down in the valley. Just as with the crows, above, once the birds' fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love, it was chat-up and seduction right, left and centre. Food became an annoying distraction.
     Then,
once the chicks began to hatch I saw less and less of the lads - after all they were now fully occupied hunting all day long to help the missus feed the kids.
A male chaffinch or two did keep me company, but once all the various birds began to fledge, more and more of the parent birds began to reappear, accompanied by the chattering of the young, hiding among the leaves, begging their parents for food, even though they were already starting to hunt and feed for themselves.
     One of the returning birds was a great tit - but there was something rather odd...

Initially distracted by the neat blend of the yellow feathers and the carpet of buttercups and cowslips, I then noticed the lack of feathers around the head area ... captured more clearly the next day - see next door... I have no idea what this is a sign of, unless of course it's some sort of stress-triggered alopecia following a close call with the local Jack the Ripper, a sparrow hawk, causing the poor bird to lose its body feathers following a dreadful fright.

Pssst!

You know how I love my diptych - a pair of photographs that sit comfortably alongside each other - then add the "Pssst!" factor...


A couple of White Park calves - one a mongrel, or more correctly, a genetic throwback - captured in front of Newton House at Dinefwr Park, Llandeilo...

Summer solstice

Given all the agreeably dry weather this year thus far - don't mention the pending water shortage should this weather continue - with plenty of sunshiny days leading up to June 21, the 'longest' day of the year, I thought I'd try and capture both sunrise and sunset ... from the same spot, atop Dinefwr Castle. It's one of the highest points within the Towy Valley itself, with wonderfully panoramic views. It's only the once over the past 10 years or so that I've managed to capture both ends of the day; even if it's not raining on the day, cloud cover regularly obliterates either the sun coming up or going down. So it was fingers crossed...

A beautiful dawn, some typically high, wispy summer clouds - the above was captured at 05.05. Despite the perfect forecast, the sunrise over the Cambrian Mountain range (running up through mid Wales) was nearly 'lost' due to that really dark band of cloud, just above the horizon; and believe it or not I could see rain falling from those distant clouds - more about that, directly below. That evening, I returned to capture sunset from the same spot, knowing that there wasn't much to see looking west, compared to the glorious views looking east, that is. I forgot about the castle itself – the above reminds me of the Sphinx – and of course the birds handily wandering into view, stage left. The above was taken at 20.20, shortly before the sun actually set.
     What is particularly interesting from the top of the castle is that the sunrise and sunset points at this time of year appear like ten-past-ten on a clock - the image so beloved of marketing folk - which reflects the daylight/darkness hours perfectly.

Above, a close-up of those dark clouds - captured some 15 minutes before actual sunrise - and the sheets of falling rain are clearly visible, which rather took me by surprise given the forecast was for a dry day. When I got home I checked out the Met Office rainfall radar for the British Isles, which shows rainfall images at half-hourly intervals, for the previous six hours - and there it was, a telltale line of narrow showers, over the valleys of east Wales, to the north of Cardiff. I was truly surprised at the distance between me and those showers - some 50 miles according to the radar images. Strangely enough the other picture, above, was something that caught my eye in the sky, quite near - taken just before the sun appeared. It's those small dark clouds, in particular the jellyfish-style tails. Thinking about it after, I presume those are 'tails' of rain, but quickly evaporating in the dry morning air. Whatever, I though it a rather eye-catching image. 

31st May 2010
The tale of the upside-down sheep - but first, an update of life on the wild side

"Relatives are the worst friends," said the fox,
as the dogs took after him.

                               Danish proverb

I KICK OFF this bulletin with a repeat of the proverb I used to round off the last bulletin. There is, of course, a reason. After putting the previous bulletin to bed, and as is my wont, I went walkies along the world wide web ... lo and behold, I stumble upon the smiliest of images – and so very apt, given the above quote.
     Here it is, alongside...
     In a perfect world I’d acknowledge whose effort this little masterpiece is - confirmation of 'believe nothing you hear, just half what you see'! - but sadly, I have no idea where it comes from. It's a fact of internet life that on the wild side of the web, once anything goes online there’s no knowing where it all ends up, and that’s something you just have to accept. It’s all part of the game.
     Anyway, back to my last bulletin: I featured the photograph of two crows observed stalking a sheep and her lamb, and I mentioned that “crows will attack sheep that have become trapped, or more often, sheep that roll onto their backs and are unable to right themselves without human help. The crows will first take out the sheep's eyes, and then set about attacking other vulnerable parts of the body. It really is distressing coming across a live sheep 'attacked' in this way”.

Well blow me, not long after posting that previous bulletin, I’d set out of the cottage on my usual morning walk and was crossing one of the fields when, suddenly, my heart sank.
     I could see an upside-down sheep - there on its back, legs in the air, and what was clearly its own lamb looking on in a bemused fashion - the depressing incident captured in the image alongside.
     I hurried towards it, dreading what I would find, namely a sheep that was no more, a sheep that had kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible - an ex-sheep... (with apologies to the Python's dead parrot sketch).
     Now I'm aware that the farmer whose land I was crossing faithfully checks out his flock even more regularly than the local vicar checks out his, the trouble being though that a sheep can roll onto its back the moment the farmer exits the field, and then it quickly succumbs to the unforgiving tactics of the many predators out there.
     Birds appear at the head of the queue, and as I mention above, it’s the eyes they go for first – I’m never sure whether this is because the eyes are a delicacy, or that it’s a strategic advantage to render your target blind. In truth it’s probably a bit of both.
I have some photographs of sheep attacked in this way, and truth to tell they are most harrowing, certainly it would serve no purpose to parade them here.
     Anyway, as I got nearer the sheep it began to struggle wildly – but no way could it right itself. I arrive with the sheep – its lamb having scampered away as I approached – but thankfully everything was okay. It had probably not long rolled onto its back.
     What happens, as far as I am able to surmise, is that sheep are now specifically bread for meat purposes i.e. perfect conformation, meaning low-slung with 'deep' bodies, a low centre of gravity, and shortish legs – just like the whiteface featured here (I call it a white-face as I'm unsure what specific breed it is). So when they kick their legs out to generate momentum to lift themselves back onto their feet - especially so if they happen to be lying on a bit of a gradient - they are not particularly agile so they somehow roll onto their backs, and there they stay, grounded in an upside down state.
     Curiously, not long ago I witnessed what I call a speckle-faced sheep roll onto its back. You lucky cow, I remember thinking, I’m on the spot to rescue you. But surprisingly the sheep kicked its legs out rather vigorously and righted itself without too much trouble, much as a horse does after it rolls onto its back to treat itself to a good old scratch and rub. So the speckled sheep is a more traditional breed, not having such
a low-slung body, but crucially blessed with much longer legs, and all-in-all much more supple.

Anyway, I duly set about rescuing old white-face, which took quite an effort. Lifting it back onto its feet was no problem, but as soon as I released my grip, it immediately collapsed in a heap, and as it struggled to get up, rolled onto its back yet again.
     The poor creature had completely lost its sense of balance, its equilibrium. So I tried again – but this time, as soon as I righted the old girl I gripped her firmly allowing her to regain her equilibrium ... I hoped no one was watching! ... yes, she struggled to free herself, but after a while I let go and off she shot, a bit unsteady on her pins as she rushed towards her lamb and the rest of the flock. My good deed for the day done and dusted.
     As a matter of interest, in the photograph alongside, as she rushes to rejoin the flock, you can see from the other sheep the body shape and how impossible it must be for the unfortunate things once they find themselves on their backs.
     By a further coincidence, about a week later, on a neighbouring farmer's land, I came upon another sheep, this time already dead and decorated in the tell-tale red patches as the scavengers took their fill - but from the position of the body that unfortunate sheep must have died from some natural cause, as if it had simply lay down - and just died.

The dark side of the moon lights up

LAST year I followed the breeding adventures of two pairs of swans: one couple I labelled the alpha pair as they occupy the main lake, what is the prime breeding spot, at least within my square mile; the other two I presumed to be a novice pair attempting to make a go of it on very much a second-tier backwater.
     The alpha pair bred six cygnets, and their life and times I followed all the way up to the stage just before they abandoned their 'ugly duckling' persona, and were then duly sent packing by mum and dad as they prepared the ground work for the coming season's new arrivals.
     But the second pair's attempt at raising a family was a disaster, in as much that the eggs never hatched. There was a particularly heart-rending moment I witnessed as the
mother stood over the failed eggs calling out and 'slapping' them with her feet. I concluded that the nest had been built much too shallow and as a consequence the body heat of the pen was negated by the cold rising from the backwater beneath.
     This year they were back - at least I guessed that they were the same pair - because this time what was noticeable was how much higher above the water level the pair had built the nest. Every day a day at school, you see, and that of course includes all of God's creatures.
     If you didn't follow the tale of the two families last year, especially the novice pair, here's a link that will paint a brief picture of what transpired, which will then make this season's pictures coming up that much more relevant. Click swans...

This year the nest is built much higher above the water level...

... and the cob patrols the nest rather aggressively

Last year's disappointment turns to success
 - captured shortly after the cygnets hatched...

...six in all, but curiously they immediately abandon that
backwater for a much smaller and more vulnerable location

Meanwhile, the pen of the alpha pair has also delivered - one
more than last year - but I catch her somewhat by surprise...

...moving from the larger oxbow lake to the smaller one - but once
in the water the cygnets immediately pile aboard mum for safety

However, the very first newborn of the season seen strutting their stuff on the lake were geese...

...a pair of Greylags show off an impressive 16-strong brood

A month later, with the cygnets also now in residence, the cob gets bolshie

Also, a pair of Canada geese fancy each other like mad:
"So what's a bad girl like you doing in a nice place like this?"

A few weeks later, the stork delivers the goslings as promised!
In attendance what must be either a sister, aunt, grandma...


'Old it, flash, bang, wallop, what a picture, what a photograph
 

I LAUNCHED this bulletin with a photograph that wasn't mine - so I might as well round it off with a guest picture too.
A picture which, unsurprisingly, has been all over the newspapers this spring bank holiday weekend...
 

Fast food queue: "Okay kids, whose hungry?"
 
Now isn't this quite the most delightful photograph you've seen in a while? A long-tailed tit has her work cut out with a brood of 11 chicks to feed.
     Do you know, I've often wondered about those unfortunate little birds which end up with a cuckoo in the nest: how on earth do they cope with feeding the cuckoo as it grows to such an enormous size? Well, the long-tailed tit here provides the answer. Imagine just how hectic life must be for the parent birds as they feed this little lot.
     The photograph was taken by Gary Shilton, a volunteer at the RSPB's Fairburn Ings nature reserve in West Yorkshire. A truly magical picture, Gary.
I've never seen a long-tailed tit among the bevy of tits that I've befriended over the past year or so. The long-tailed tit, like all the other little birds that struggled with the cold winter, had to eat almost continuously to survive - which is why losses were so high.
     Given the evidence of my own eyes, what with the increased numbers of cygnets and goslings on show as featured in this bulletin, do you suppose that all birds are automatically programmed to increase their breeding programme following a hard winter? It's an intriguing thought. Incidentally, I'll be very surprised if this little long-tailed tit doesn't feature on tonight's first Springwatch 2010.

18th April 2010
A 21st Century Fox Production

When the fox cannot reach the grapes, he says they are not ripe
                                                                                         A fable attributed to Aesop
ON A RECENT edition of a BBC Welsh language radio programme about nature called Galwad Cynnar – Early Morning Call - a listener rang the show to tell the tale of watching a fox wander about and inspect at close quarters a flock of ewes and lambs as they relaxed on a field – but astonishingly not a single sheep moved, let alone become agitated or alarmed, as the fox wandered amongst them. Had others noticed such curious behaviour, especially as the fox is presumed to be a lamb’s number one public enemy?
     The perfect juxtaposition image alongside was captured a good few moons back in the display window of Fountain Fine Art at Llandeilo.
     Anyway, the general consensus from the studio experts was that this sort of behaviour has been observed before, especially by farmers themselves, where sheep surprisingly take not too much notice of foxes wandering past.
     As someone who wanders the Towy Valley around sunrise pretty much every morning, I've also spotted this particular behaviour a few times; indeed on one occasion I managed to capture some photographs of the incident.
     Normally, as soon as a fox notices or senses me, it scarpers; it will then casually stop to stand and stare and measure the real threat - before usually shooting off again.
     However, this particular morning the fox noticed my presence, stopped ... stared ... and then continued along its unhurried inspection of the goods on view.

As mentioned in previous dispatches, for ease of use, handling and carrying, I use but a small-ish camera - something between a pocket-size compact and a proper SLR; it does what I want, but it struggles if conditions are not ideal, or if I have to use maximum zoom, as I have with these photographs - which explains why the fox doesn't appear to be particularly fussed with my presence standing at the other end of the field.   As it wandered through the flock it occasionally stopped to inspect the grapes on the vine - a neat stand-off between fox and sheep captured above - and below, no real confrontations, but both sheep and lambs keep eyes very much on the ball.
     The two pictures below are not good quality - the fox was moving away - but they capture rather perfectly the cat-and-mouse game between hunter and hunted.

The above incident reminds me of a letter I had published in the Western Mail back in 2005. It was in response to a farmer who’d written in and claimed hardly any lambing losses in a lifetime of farming…
"SIR - DO YOU suppose the correspondent who claims to have lost just two lambs in more than 40 years of sheep farming fell asleep whilst counting? Even the better farmers admit that sheep and lambs are not the best of survivalists. They demand much TLC along their walk through time.
     Losses escalate during the lambing season: stillborn, weakness in one or more of a multiple birth, sudden limb disorders leaving lambs as easy targets for predators...
     Farmers are in general agreement that foxes mostly hoover up the dead and dying, but acknowledge the existence of killer foxes; unlike killer dogs though, which can be identified, isolated and shot, a great number of foxes need to be taken out in the hope that the killer is one of them..."

    (Pictured alongside, a fox I crept up on - while hiding behind a hedge - which I'd noticed was busily chomping away on something. Often just the 'click' of the camera will alert wildlife, but I was far enough away. So I pointed again - and went "Pssst!". Click! And off it shot like the proverbial dose of salts. Anyway, to continue the letter...)

"It brings to mind a local rustic tale from way back before lambing sheds, where the farmer concerned, dead many moons now, always boasted loss-free lambing.
     This puzzled neighbours and local farmers, especially given he was not flamboyantly boastful, indeed a well respected chapel man, trusted in the community. The truth duly emerged.
     Prior to high-profile mechanisation, farmers often employed many servants, dependant upon the size of the farm, obviously. Said farmer ran a sizable unit, so when his workers returned from the fields and reported losses, the old boy would do his nut and give everyone lots of hassle for the rest of the day.
     The men quickly learnt to simply chuck any dead lamb into the woods and say nowt. Human nature being what it is, they shared their secrets with fellow farming mates, who told their own bosses, who duly gossiped in the community, especially so down the pub.
    All this resulted in a delightful win-win situation: foxes having their grub delivered on a plate; farm workers left in peace to get on with things; boss man contented with his lot; oh, and the parish in on the joke without ever once letting foxy-woxy out of the bag.
    Life is so simple when lived properly."

The fox never found a better messenger than himself
                                                                                 Irish proverb
HERE'S another off-beat encounter with Mr Fox. Walking along a local country lane I could hear a quite dreadful racket the other side of a tall hedge. I recognised the sound of magpies doing their nuts, or whatever it is they do when they’re squabbling amongst themselves - or indeed warning other magpies of a sparrow hawk in the vicinity. So I came upon a gate leading into a field of recently sowed and newly established maize. What I saw made me freeze – well, except for quietly sliding the camera off my shoulder, taking the lens cap off, switching on and hurriedly pointing and zooming before focussing...

A young fox was wandering casually through the maize rows, sniffing here and there – but being vigorously and loudly harassed by one of the magpies. It became particularly agitated and aggressive towards the fox, indeed it would move dangerously close to the fox.

The fox took little notice of the bird, except to occasionally lunge at it. The magpie would execute a rapid takeoff – but quickly return to the task at hand. Also, the second bird would sometimes join in the rowdy attacks. So what on earth was going on? I concluded that they must have had a nest or chicks somewhere close by, and were simply protecting their young, desperate to get rid of the fox. Suddenly, the fox spotted me - and off it shot at a rate of knots. The birds relaxed ... and peace returned.
BUT ENOUGH of the fox. Perhaps a lamb’s greatest enemy, especially when it is at its most vulnerable, could very well be the crow. Crows will attack sheep that have become trapped, or more often, sheep that roll onto their backs and are unable to right themselves without human help. The crows will first take out the sheep's eyes, and then set about attacking other vulnerable parts of the body. It really is distressing coming across a live sheep 'attacked' in this way.
     Anyway, some weeks back I noticed a couple of crows stalk a sheep and its lamb. The farmer involved lambs at home, but when the lambs are a day or so old, and presuming they are fit and healthy, he brings them to this rented field. So there was no after-birth for the crows to clear up; the lamb looked perfectly healthy, if a little hunched from the cold, frosty weather ... but had the crows sensed that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed? They really do look ready to pounce, but I watched them for a while without anything untoward happening. But they continued to stalk the lamb and its mother.
     Finally, and returning to foxy-woxy, here are three pictures I've captured: the first from Fountain Fine Art's window; the second taken when I crept up on an unsuspecting young fox hunting voles or some such thing; and the third, one taken at too great a distance for sharpness - but when I looked at the image, something caught my eye ... see if you spot it ... I've blown it up, so ignore the lack of definition.


Yes, it's those extraordinary markings on its face - the white 'blobs'. I've never noticed anything like that before.
Anyway, I shall round off this 21st Century Fox Production with another wonderful foxy quote...
 

"Relatives are the worst friends," said the fox, as the dogs took after him.
                                                                                                        Danish proverb


25th March 2010
Sing something simple

A DIPTYCH that hopefully justifies the name of this web site, not to mention the pleasure that goes into keeping it current ... so say hello to a couple of my singy-songy feathered friends...
 

"Is it me - or can you hear that strange background music?"

"Now you mention it, yes I can - don't like the song much though."


These little birds provide me with endless amusement and satisfaction - they also keep my imagination on its tipy-toes - hope you share my enjoyment and smiles. Be sure to check out the updated Postcard Corner over on Look You...


12th March 2010
Kiss a snowdrop - tongues allowed
 

I rounded off my previous bulletin with Iris Murdoch's delightful quote: "People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us." And I endorsed it with a picture of a cluster of snowdrops, along with a few words to greet their late arrival following the coldest winter for 31 years.
     Although it is often thought of as a British native wild flower, or to have been brought to the British isles by the Romans, it was probably introduced around the early Sixteenth century.
Quite how the "experts" know all this I'm not too sure - after all, we're currently witnessing a high-profile enquiry into exactly what happened over the past ten years to bring about the war in Iraq, yet all I can hear is: "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"
     Anyway, snowdrops are the perfect antidote to the greyness of winter - or should that be the "whiteness of winter" this time around? Whatever, I thought the flower deserved a  more appreciative slot, so here are some shots captured over the past week or so, all bar one pretty much outside my back door.

A hot air balloon rises above a drift of snowdrops

A worm's-eye view of this magical little flower

Down and out on a misty dawn following a cold, frosty night...

...but with the sun on their backs it's heads up, shoulders back

As mentioned in my last bulletin, these delicate flowers survive in winter because their leaves have specially hardened leaf tips for breaking through frozen ground - known as 'snow piercers' or 'snow breakers'. The leaves also contain an antifreeze: when sub-zero temperatures strike, the water in the plant's cells doesn't crystallise and rupture the cells - as spectacularly demonstrated in the pair of pictures below.

At nine in the morning, after an exceptionally frosty night...

...and at three in the afternoon, despite a cutting northerly

Recent years have seen an unusual rise in the number of bees out and about in the cold winter months, and scientists are now beginning to find out why. While most bees are hibernating, some honey bees raise an extra generation of workers to take advantage of our winter-flowering plants, although the bee shown here has been programmed to start earlier in the year by our recent mild winters and early springs. Probably.
     So, in celebration, just a taste of The Snowdrop, by Mary Webb...
In the pale sunshine, with frail wings unfurled,
Comes to the bending snowdrop the first bee.
She gives her winter honey prudently;
And faint with travel in a bitter world,
The bee makes music, tentative and low,
And spring awakes and laughs across the snow
.

But what are those curious 'blobs' on both its hind legs?

Seen here in close up ... some sort of infection?

No, certainly not an infection - but I had to look it up to find the answer...
    
Workers and queens have two pollen baskets, one each on the outside surface of both hind legs. The pollen basket is easy to spot: when empty it's a large, flat and shiny area with spiky hairs around the edge, but when it's full it contains pollen which is mostly yellow, orange or red.
     The honey bee moistens the forelegs with a protruding tongue and brushes the pollen that has collected on head, body and forward appendages to the hind legs.
First, the pollen is transferred to the pollen comb on the hind legs and then combed, pressed, compacted, and transferred to the outside surface of the tibia of the hind legs – as perfectly highlighted above.
     Bee researchers have observed that individual honey bees are variously efficient in packing pollen into the pollen basket - just like human workers, in fact. It can take an individual worker bee anything from three to eighteen minutes to complete a pollen load and return to the hive.

Incidentally, yesterday, after an exceptionally frosty and cold start, the day opened up beautifully, so in the afternoon I decided to visit the family farm to the north of Llandeilo to check on the avenue of trees I planted a few years back.
     I then took the opportunity to visit the banks of the little river that runs through the farm, just to see if the snowdrops I remember from my youth were still there ... indeed they were ... the result can be seen alongside. I'd forgotten just how relaxing a stroll along the banks of the Afon Dulais could be.
     An addendum to this late spring: with daffodils still struggling to burst into life, and the lush green carpet of foliage that precedes the bluebell just making an appearance - a month later than usual - this very morning I noticed, in a sheltered and secluded south-facing spot along the banks of the River Towy, some primroses, in all their glory. Delightful.

Smile of the snowdrop day
Did You Know?
If you kiss a snowdrop and slide the tip of your tongue inside the flower - after it has been open for a while - you can taste the sweet nectar inside.


28th February 2010
When the snow lay round about (see 31st January, below)
Deep and crisp and even...

 

HAVING previously done a feature on the Towy Valley birds doing their own Winter Olympics in the snows of 2010, I've delayed my more traditional snow scenes because the cold weather and snow has been reluctant to release its grip. Another significant snowfall and I could have had more images to choose from.
     Anyway, with March knocking on the door, now seems as good a time as any to paste some memories into my scrapbook. Mind you,
in the hard winter of 1947 snow fell every day somewhere in Britain from January 22 to March 17; indeed, someone
told me recently that the really critical snowfall which caused so much disruption and mayhem didn't arrive until the end of February, although the weather had apparently remained desperately cold since January.
     Be that as it may, my snow bulletin involving the birds kicked off with a glorious slice of Shakespearean poetry - with matching picture - so I thought I'd do the same again, inspired by the old path through the woods, which runs from Penlan Park, Llandeilo, down through Castle Woods.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
                                                                                       Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I'M FOREVER serendipitously stumbling over new words which I take an instant shine to. Not long back it was "diptych": essentially a single image or photograph divided into two distinct canvas pieces placed side by side .... each canvas print can be identically sized, or two different-sized panels can be used ... when viewed together they seem to be a single canvas print.
     In my world I've adapted/adopted the word to mean a couple of images of the same subject matter, but captured at different moments, with perhaps a different focus. For example...
When I set off on my morning walk and head for town, I climb the fields behind the cottage before then beginning the gradual descent towards civilisation. The views at the highest point are wonderful. As I drop through the fields, on the horizon lies the Black Mountain, the focal point of the ever glorious Towy Valley, with views stretching across the Carmarthenshire Fans.
     In the wake of the second significant snowfall at the beginning of January, I notice as I cross the carpet of white what must be molehills neatly bulging under the snow. I sense a diptych...

Turning a White Molehill into...

...a Black Mountain

Whenever there's a decent fall of snow in the Llandeilo area, the town's youngsters, along with those who are young at heart, flock to Dinefwr Park, in particular a field at the entrance to the park, just beneath the famous beech trees . It's a field that is nearly perfect for sledging, with a levelling out at the bottom allowing just enough space to come to a halt before crashing into the fence at the bottom. Yes, the actual slope could be longer, obviously, but still, it draws the punters.

The sledging field, above, is home to a flock of sheep, which go into hiding...

...whenever the snow arrives (retain the image of the kayaking youngster, above)

Astonishing: The Alps, Carmarthenshire!
(same field, the Black Mountain as a backdrop)

But what goes up...
must come down...

...occasionally with near horrendous consequences
(remember the kayaking youngster gathering his thoughts?)

How it wasn't a bad accident I shall never know - whew! - but what
makes people climb in the path of youngsters descending at speed?


Meanwhile, back at the diptych drawing board...
 

Today, Dinefwr Park ... tomorrow, the Black Mountain ... the day after, the World

But after the Lord Mayor's snow, a solitary sheep reclaims the slope

Ancient battlements and modern defences

Same fence, after the snow - but still frosty - looking into the sunrise


And now, a couple of images which tickled my imagination...
 

A local farm at first light, when the cold was at its worst, confirming
that farming and care of stock never stops, whatever the weather...

Three melting snowmen at Dinefwr Park ... and a glorious reminder
of the famous John Cleese and Two Ronnies sketch about "Class"


"People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us" Iris Murdoch

     Over on Look You I've just started what I guess is the opposite of a Rogues' Gallery - a Charmers' Gallery? - which will feature the eye-catching flowers that decorate my square mile as the year unfolds.
     While winter may not yet have released its grip - indeed the farming forecast for the week ahead gives "cold and frosty", with possibly some snow next weekend (March 5 - 8), but at least the sun is slowly climbing in the sky and getting stronger by the day, so winter is on its way out. Tomorrow, Saint David's Day, the 1st of March, is due to come in like a lamb - but will the 31st of March go out like a lion?
     Whatever, the first flower of note to grace us with its presence is of course the snowdrop - call me a galanthosnapper*, an enthusiastic collector of snowdrop shots - but delayed several weeks this year because of the extreme cold weather. But it duly arrived, it is therefore the perfect flower to sign off my snow bulletin.
     Incidentally, did you know that the leaves of snowdrops are pre-strengthened, and they act like little ice picks to enable them to push up through frozen ground. Nature equips them to get through the most hostile of grounds - but I guess there are limits. Happy galanthospotting*.
* A galanthophile (actual word) is an enthusiastic lover and collector of snowdrops.


6th February 2010
The blue-tit special's steaming down the line...

GOODNESS gracious me, the above takes me back: "Over-the-points, over-the-points, over-the-points … The six-five special’s steaming down the line…" And Pete Murray would appear, as if by magic. Anyway, this bulletin was going to be about the snows of January, but as is my wont I’ve been – how shall I put this? – not so much derailed but diverted onto another track.
 

IT ALL began a few days ago when a letter from a Francis-Carlo Bernhardi surfaced in the Daily Telegraph: “I thought I'd recycle some of my shredder's contents and line my blue-tit box – a three-holer of German origin – to give a bit of a ‘home start’ for any future residents. A couple turned up last week, and their first job was to clean out my offering. What intrigued me was that, rather than simply turf it out, they flew with beakfuls of paper back and forth to some hawthorn, where they perched and let drop their cargo. Was their action to protect the whereabouts of their future home, or was the stuff so repellent to them that they wanted it as far away as possible? If I hadn't been observing, I would no doubt still be puzzled by a scattering of ‘shreddies’ beneath the crataegus*.”
     [*For a moment there I thought it was something to do with the Court of King Caractacus - but apparently a "crataegus" is a type of small hawthorn tree ... every day a day at school, look you.]
     Anyway, some Telegraph responses, the first from Val Osborne of the RSPB: 
“Francis-Carlo Bernhardi shouldn’t take any offence. Blue-tits are tidy and fastidious birds. When they arrive in a box that appears to have been previously occupied, they will give it a spring-clean and remove the contents before filling it with their own material. Blue-tits are also smart. Mr Bernhardi’s visitors carried the unwanted material some distance away and deposited it in a hedge so it doesn’t draw predators’ attention to the nest. If you are putting a nest box out now, there is no need to put anything in it: a house-proud garden bird would much rather procure its own furnishings.”
     A Wendy Alexandra Page adds:
“It is no wonder that the blue-tits removed the shredded paper. They like to line their nests with mint and lavender to kill bacteria and create a sterile environment for their young.” Also, Bernard J. Seward: “The nesting blue-tits were probably intolerant of the sulphite in what I presume was the office waste he had shredded. Good, old-fashioned Daily Telegraph newsprint from mechanical wood pulp would probably have been more acceptable.”

Now how could you not adore such a gorgeous and cheeky little bird?


So I thought this was a grand opportunity to submit my tales of close encounters of the bird kind to the Daily Telegraph, a condensed version of the following, which is in fact a summary of previous bulletins posted on this site - but all new images...
 

RECENT correspondence regarding bluetits brings to mind a project I undertook some 12 months ago, an exercise to establish just how difficult – or indeed how easy – it would be to seduce rural songbirds to feed from hand. Along my daily early morning walk I’d leave a trail of bird seed at selected spots – and waited to see what would happen.
     Just as with urban birds the robin was quickest off the mark, a remarkable hit-and-run effort after just four weeks - but it took another month before the robin accepted an invitation to linger.
Then came a sex-break – no, not me, the birds. The breeding season arrived and food was relegated down the agenda – as with humans, a promise of sexual intercourse trumps a tasty five-course meal, anytime.
     As autumn approached the birds suddenly rediscovered their appetite. The next bird to take feed from hand was, surprisingly, a delightful little marsh tit, but that took nine months from the time the project began; then came the bluetit (10 months) and the great tit (11 months).

The original Gavin Henson hairstyle, as spotted in the Towy Valley

Who was that masked bluetit?

The arrival of the cold weather changed things dramatically, with robins and tits queuing up to land on my hand to take the candy on offer. Other songbirds – chaffinch, nuthatch, sparrows, blackbirds – venture within an arm’s length or so, but thus far have steadfastly refused to make that final leap.
     It seems the smaller the bird, the braver it is. So much so - and as highlighted in the previous bulletin, just a quick scroll down - the bluetits have taken possession of the project.
     They far outnumber all other birds – I would guess about three times as many as any other
species, perhaps more – and now the bluetits commandeer my hand as soon as I stick it out, even standing their ground against the great tit and the robin (again, see previous bulletin).
     Curiously, at another, more isolated spot, a profusion of great tits parade themselves - and no, you naughty people, I'm not talking about the Crazy Horsepower's saloon bar.
     The bluetits though are delightfully fearless and clever little birds which seem to have adapted effortlessly to everything humanity and mother nature can throw at them. I am truly seduced.


Smile of the Day
 

NORMALLY the "smile of the day" is something I feature over on Look You, but something truly smiley happened this very morning along my walk. After a somewhat overcast dawn, the cloud quickly parted to unveil a delightfully sunny, pleasant – and whisper it – spring-like morning.
     The bird song was most noticeable. Now the breeding season is still a hop, step and a jump away –
indeed the latest weather forecast promises a return to colder weather next week – but the birds are clearly beginning to pair up already. And so it was this morning.
     Now that the birds accept my presence without fear, and even if they do have things on their mind other that grub, they will not disappear into the undergrowth and trees when I enter their space.

A couple of bluetit lovebirds?: "I'll take good care of you, baby."

Probably the same two bluetits following the big thaw

And so it was this morning: after putting out the usual selection of candy, the birds tucked-in with their usual enthusiasm – but a couple of bluetits were darting hither and thither above my head. I was mesmerised. It clearly wasn’t a mating-dance, but it most certainly looked like a chat-up dance: "So what's a bad bird like you doing in a nice place like this?"
     Could it be the two birds featured above, which appear to have made my hand a home from home?
My initial impression was that the male was harassing the female (at least I presume they are male and female!). But the female would land on a branch, and the male would alight just a short distance behind or above her. Off they’d go again. But the male never actually “caught” the female. It was all very "slow, slow, quick-quick, slow".
     An absolute delight to watch – and all unfolding just above my head.


Truly a "smile of the day" interlude – especially after what happened up at Twickenham, later ... anyway, the letter has been submitted. Curiously, while I've had a fair bit of success with letters to the Times stable of newspapers, the Telegraph has never embraced my "wit and wisdom"! My mother never bread a jibber, though.


31st January 2010
When the snow lay round about...

WHAT better way to start my January snow report than with a slice of poetry, with Newton House as a suitable period piece (more or less), captured in a snow storm...
 

Shakespeare's Winter from Love's Labour's Lost
 

WHEN icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
'Tu-who;
Tu-whit, Tu-who'—A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
'Tu-who;
Tu-whit, Tu-who'—A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

 

I found the above in a quotation book while looking for something connected with snow - never seen or heard it before, but I was quite taken.
However, a few words and expressions threw me...
     "blows his nail" - blows on his hands to warm them
     "keel the pot" - cool the contents of the pot by stirring or pouring in something cold
     "saw" - speech or sermon
     "crabs" - crab apples

What really caught my eye though was the line "And birds sit brooding in the snow".


It's scrumdidilymptious
 
HAVING over the past year successfully enticed quite a few of the Towy Valley's gorgeous little songbirds to take feed from hand, little did I guess that the fiercely cold weather and picturesque snows of January would add a whole new dimension to the project.
     Undoubtedly the best known song from
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is The Candy Man, in particular the Sammy Davis Jr cover version, which starts with Davis talking to some children: "All right everybody, gather round..." He then offers them all sorts of goodies before announcing: "Anything you want you've come to the right man ... 'cause I'm the candy man."
     Followed by a highly smiley reaction when all the kids chorus a singy-songy "Oooooooooo!".
     In the previous
400 Smiles bulletin I'd reached the stage where the birds and me had reached a civilised but reserved arrangement regarding restaurant bookings. Then the snow and that extreme frost arrived, and all bets were off.
     The word above,
"scrumdidilymptious", comes compliments of Willy Wonka's Factory; indeed it

sums up rather perfectly my experience while feeding the birds. Yes, it was a bit of a "scrum" - but the birds clearly found the whole experience "didilymptious". They would gather in significant numbers and impatiently await my arrival, often zooming out into the field to greet me, even bombarding me, occasionally landing on my head, so desperately hungry were they.
     One of the more striking features were the robins. They are fussy about other robins invading their space and tucking into the grub on offer, but during the really cold weather all aggressive behaviour was put on hold. At one point there were five of them lined up on a fence, indeed I was tempted into paraphrasing the Sammy Davis version of The Candy Man: "All right every birdie, gather round, the candy man is here ... what kind of candy do you want? Sunflower hearts? Peanut kernels? Thistle seed? Porridge oats? Suet pellets? Mealworm? A sprinkling of digestive biscuit? Anything you want, you've come to the right man ... 'cause I'm the candy man."
     "Oooooooooo!"

FIRST up, a shot of several birds perched in the branches of a tree, much like aircraft stacked up awaiting their call to land...
 

...Which includes three robins perched and awaiting the call

A robin establishes "first contact" during a snowstorm

Little bluetits land at my feet ...

... desperate for crumbs from the candy man's table


He said what? "They melted me down to make Ant & Dec." Portly Sir Terry Wogan on his Madame Tussaud's waxwork.
 

So here are the Ant & Dec of the songbird world ...

... and the Sir Terry Wogan of the songbird world

 

"Excuse me little Ant," complains Sir Tel, "that, is mine." ...

... "I don't believe it - Ant and Dec!" Sir Tel morphs into Victor Meldrew

"After you, baby - we tits must stick together." ...

... "but this particular titbit belongs to this particular great tit."

"Room for one very angelic Cock Robin?"

One of my favourite birds: a marsh tit strikes an elegant pose


Truth to tell the behaviour of the birds took me somewhat by surprise, so deep down I'd welcome another short, sharp burst of cold weather to study them a bit closer. As I write, some snow is falling - but fairly light showers for the moment...
Somewhat more traditional "square mile" snow scenes coming up over the coming week or so...


6th January 2010 (Happy New Year!)
Scroll down to the end of this particular bulletin for a remarkable follow-up to...
The bird that swallowed a tennis ball

17th December 2009
+ Christmas Day addendum

Oh go on, show us your tits
(and please, can I hold a great one in my hand?)
 
MORE moons ago than I care to remember I began keeping a scrapbook of those things which catch my eye in newspapers, magazines, etc, etc. Often I would show to those who called at the house an article or picture that had tickled my imagination; sometimes I pinned items up on the notice board at the Crazy Horsepower Saloon bar, little things which regularly amused the locals.
     So when I dipped my toe into the world of the internet and the web site it seemed totally logical that this would now become my scrapbook. I moved from cut and paste to copy and paste ...
lookyou remains fairly faithful to the original concept, except of course I now add my own comments and observations to proceedings.
     Here on 400 Smiles its pretty much a scrapbook of those things I personally observe that make me stand and stare and smile. An appreciation of my own square mile, if you like; in particular what I encounter along my extended early morning walks along the glorious and picturesque Towy Valley.
Hopefully some of this is of interest to those who venture into my world. Indeed, the agreeable feedback suggests that, all in all, it's working reasonably well.
     In effect I'm producing and publishing my very own magazine, albeit an amateur, seat-of-the-pants affair. As I think I've mentioned before, one of the joys is making up headlines to go with any given section.
    I can only dream of even approaching the standards of the professionals - The Sun newspaper being the uncrowned champion of the "wel-i-jiw-jiw" front page - but it gives me lots of pleasure having a go, so I can only hope that just occasionally a pass mark is achieved.
     This brings me neatly to the headline at the top. For nearly a year now I've been dying to write that line.
      So let's get on with it and show you not just the one tit - but a real handful...
A gorgeous but quarrelsome family of bluetits pop in for breakfast at Hubie's
SO HOW do you get from capturing on camera a bevy of beautiful little tits furiously feeding on the bough ... to hosting a great tit - well, not exactly in the palm of your hand - but on the tips of your fingers (as featured alongside)? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
     To recap. Last January, just under a year ago now, I encountered a friendly robin along my walk. It hopped along the fence beside me as I walked past - and it continued to follow me.
     While I've always appreciated the songbirds all around, I've never taken much interest. They are part of nature's rich pattern, so I simply enjoy their presence. A bit like having Oh Holy Night playing in the background at this time of year.
      But there was something about this robin. Someone's feeding it, I remember thinking, so I stuck out an open hand - and it immediately landed and began pecking away furiously at my hand. The following day I brought some feed - repeated the invitation ... and so began a sweet but sadly short-lived relationship.
     One morning it wasn't there. Nor the next. Nor the one after. A victim of predation, I guess. Then I began to wonder, as I tend to do ... what if I were to pick a spot as far away as possible from Towy Valley 'civilisation', and then attempt to seduce totally wild birds to feed from the hand.
     I did a bit of research online and discovered that robins are acknowledged as being people friendly and relatively easy to seduce to feed from hand. Indeed, as I quickly discovered, and have previously written about (in the bulletin dated 12th July 2009), I got a virgin robin to snatch feed from hand within a month ... another month before it landed and decided it had a bit of time to stand and stare.
     Next, and rather surprisingly, it was a tiny and delightful marsh tit which started taking feed from my hand (covered in my bulletin dated 18th October 2009). But all the while there were bluetits and great tits flitting around - and they were playing hard to get. So it all looked like an uphill struggle.
     What I was ultimately aiming for was to stand clear of trees, hedges, fences - indeed to stand in the middle of a field, say, so that the birds would then have to make a conscious and dedicated effort to get to the goodies in my hand.
     So this is the grand old tale of why...


A tit in the hand is worth two in the bush
 

After my escapade enticing the 'virgin' robin to feed from hand, the bird that I half-expected to be the next 'easiest' to seduce was the chaffinch. They were always around and would allow me to get quite close to them. So it was with total surprise when the little marsh tit shot to my hand and helped itself. The chaffinch had clearly drawn a line: so far, but no further. Coming up below, a couple of shots showing two separate, but nervous, great tits.

The look the great tit is giving the chaffinch as it helps itself is wonderful.

Another great tit watches nervously as a marsh tit helps itself.

The great tit decides that the feed on the branch looks much too inviting.

A little bluetit adopts a similar strategy to what's on the fence post.

It's one careful step at a time as the bluetit edges ever nearer the goodies.

When a bird makes that first contact - the foot on my finger - it's a truly Magic Moment.

A pantomime moment as a busy bee lands on the flower: "It's bee-hind you!"

The great tit turns its bum to camera, just a few feet away. A critical moment of trust.

Fear slowly but surely dissipates as the great tit claims its prize.

Similarly with the bluetit: "Decisions ... decisions ... what shall I have for breakfast?"

Next comes standing away from the tree: a great tit hovers but decides not this time.

Similarly with the bluetits: two rush in and land at the same time - neither claims a prize.

Several days - and many, many hours of patience ... success. Definitely a Magic Moment.

Actually, of all the birds, it was a bluetit that was first to land out in the field.

With growing confidence the birds now start to get quite cocky about it all. They dive in, land on my outstretched hand - and often take a good look about them before tucking in. When I saw the image, above, what came instantly to mind was the famous Hollywood quote: “All right Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Just to check out the quote, I googled it - and landed on Wikipedia – Sunset Boulevard (film), where the famous line comes from. As I scrolled down I came upon the above, back-lit picture of Norma Desmond (actress Gloria Swanson), who utters the memorable line at the end of the film.
     Compare the pose, the turned-up nose ... great ... a different sort of Magic Moment, for sure.

Christmas Day round robin


On Christmas Eve the following letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph, from Andy Charles of Newbury in Berkshire...
Rotund robin:
SIR – If robins do not put on weight by eating little and often, (report, December 22), why does the one in my garden look as if he has swallowed a tennis ball?

I submitted the following response...
Round robin: SIR – Further to the robin that looks as if it has swallowed a tennis ball (letter, December 24), it has nothing to do with what they eat but rather the weather. During very cold weather birds puff themselves up to help ward off the cold. And the robin does this rather more spectacularly than most.

And here's one I photographed during the recent cold snap...
 

Here's definitely lookin' at you, kid.


6th January 2010 addendum...
The curious case of poor little Cock Robin Junior
 

LISTENING to Radio Wales on the morning of 30th December (I think), a lady called Alex Pollard was a guest. She is studying the effects of artificial light on urban birds - but robins in particular because they have large eyes, relatively speaking.
     Now I like to think I'm an observant person, but curiously not when it comes to superficial things. I can meet someone and immediately afterwards, not only will I not remember that individual's name, but

have no idea of the colour of eyes, hair, clothes, etc ... but I will have registered little character traits, body language, is the person a dolphin or a shark, a pussycat or a polecat, etc, etc...
     Now I hadn't noticed that the robins have particularly large eyes, but here's a strange thing, or rather, here's a couple of photographs. Well, it's just the one photograph, but the second is a tightly cropped version of the robin's eye...

What I'd noticed was my reflection in the bird's eye. Look closely and you can clearly see the sun rising - and alongside, that's me. I was flabbergasted that the reflection was so clear, bearing in mind that, as you can see from the original, above, I wasn't all that close. Armed with Alex Pollard's insight, clearly the size of the robin's eye has something to do with this.
     Since then I've been trying to capture a really up-close photograph to establish just how clear my reflection could be. Trouble is, I can now stick the camera close to the birds without frightening them off, but they never stand still, which makes it impossible to focus and capture a decent shot. But I will keep on trying.

In the meantime, another robin has captured my attention. Now quite a few robins come to my candy shop, but because where I put the food down doesn't appear to be the territory of any one particular robin, they get on reasonably well ... well, except for one little robin, a small one, a teenager I presume - and all the other robins pick on the poor little thing and drive him off quite aggressively.
     I presume it's a he - whatever, I've grown exceptionally protective of the little thing as it dives into my hand to take feed. But it gradually dawned on me that there was something unusual about this robin. A series of pictures coming up ... see if you notice anything odd...


Above, first contact, the little robin lands on a branch to pick and peck .... while alongside, much later, it lands on my thumb to take feed...


Above, the bird settles on my thumb ... and alongside, it squats happily in my hand - a wonderful shot which sums up the trusting nature of the little thing...


And again, above, and alongside, in the company of another of my morning-walk "pals" - the robin gets a bit jittery when old long-face comes too close. Well ... have you noticed something?


A clue: above, another robin ... note how it lands on my thumb ... whereas alongside, our little friend does a delicate balancing act...

And then, suddenly, in the image above, the answer. It is always squatting because it has only one leg.
     Extraordinary. I then returned to an earlier photograph: when I captured the image alongside, above, I had no idea it was our friendly Jake the Peg, I just assumed this particular robin coming in to land had only extended one leg, the other coming down after I'd clicked the shutter.
     How astonishing is that? And how vulnerable does that make the poor thing? I have since noticed that the robin does actually still have most of its leg, or at least it appears that it's only the foot itself that is missing. How could that have happened? I have seen a dreaded sparrow hawk in the area, so do you suppose that it had grabbed the robin by the foot - but the bird managed to escape? Who knows?
     But more to the point, I've always maintained that if you want to understand people, first study the creatures of the wild. In the news just this week has been the dreadful tale a disabled family being persecuted by those in their own community - shocking stuff, and on the local news they showed video footage of their car being ruthlessly vandalised. Quite vicious, mostly the work of youngsters, it seems.

Meanwhile, here in the Towy Valley, I watch the other robins continually harass this little bird because of its disability (I guess). All of nature's creatures clearly have some intuitive need to attack the defenceless. Incidentally, it flies okay. At least it can keep out of the way of the other robins as they chase after it. How long this robin will survive, especially in this extreme weather - well, it's anyone's guess. But it has done remarkably well to survive this far. I mean, how can you not feel protective towards the poor little thing. And it is so loveable as it looks at me and appears to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Or perhaps that's just me getting carried away.
     Yesterday morning, Sarah Kennedy played Julie Andrews' Feed the Birds on her radio show: "I do wish the dear Dame would talk more clearly," remarked Sarah with tongue-firmly-in-cheek after the song had finished. Indeed. Not only is the dear Dame blessed with a truly melodic voice - but her enunciation is top drawer. However, back with the song, it made me come over all goose-bumpy, I can tell you, listening to those wonderful words. Here's just a few appropriate lines...

                                                                                                                                      return
"Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you'll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare;
All it takes is tuppence from you."

 
Whenever the robin alights on my hand, I now always think of one of broadcaster Roy Noble's favourite lines: "May only good luck come to your door." Amen to that.
     And finally, for something completely different: on Monday the 4th, weatherman Derek Brockway included a photograph of mine on his Wales Today evening weather forecast.

It's one I captured at the oxbow lake along my morning walk. As the frosts became more severe the lake quickly began to ice over. Slowly but surely Mother Nature pulled the wagons into an ever tighter circle, pushing all sorts of birds - swans, geese, ducks, coots, etc - ever closer together into the centre of the lake.

As the weather got progressively colder there were often hundreds of birds present, but as things get more extreme all the geese have already moved on, just some ducks coming in to land. What is most interesting are the swans. In normal conditions they are happy to share the lake with other birds, except geese, mostly, which for some reason irritate them no end.

However, they do not like any bird invading their own personal space - just like humans! - yet here we are, as Jack Frost tightens its grip, it's a case of "We're all in this boat together!". Again, just like we humans!
     See you soon...


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