Saturday, 31 March 2012

R.I.P. Mr Spade

Remember Do-It-All? Long gone.

Well that's where I bought my trusty spade. Others have come and gone, but not a patch on this one. A few weeks ago I heard a sickening crack in the shaft, but still it carried on until today. The final potato bed was all it could take!

A temporary replacement has been purchased, but it's just not the same.

Plans are afoot for a shaft transplant. Watch this space.


Saturday 31st March 2012
The weather turns - just in time for the holidays.
A couple of big jobs out of the way.
During the last week I have managed to get my early potatoes into the ground and mounded up. Some people like to get them in early in March, but when those tops poke through the mounds they will need protecting from the frosts, and I'm sure there's a fair few of those still to come.
Planting potatoes involves an awful lot of moving soil around. It's a big job. Most of the potato crop grows in the mounds of soil you heap up, not down into the ground below. As the shoots emerge, you mound the soil up more, but I like to make the mounds as big as possible at the beginning so I don't need to keep going back to the same job. One unexpected sharp frost, if it catches the young shoots, can set the plants back and undo all the effort of getting them in early.
I like to plant lots of varieties of spuds - they all have their own unique qualities, and I figure that if something goes wrong I prefer not to have all my eggs in one basket. I've gone for four varieties of First Early this year.
Red Duke of York did very well last year. A floury potato, it makes an excellent chip.
Also Arran Pilot, Dunluce and Swift, all for that classic new potato taste.

A little more colour and experiment with the Second Earlies.
Salad Blue I've tried before - a novelty potato with blue/purple flesh, though it can go a bit watery when boiled.
Bonnie is a delightful white potato with red blushes. Charlotte, a salad potato, the one that comes in small, very expensive bags in the supermarkets. Did very well last year. And finally, Edgecote Purple, a new variety to try, deep purple skins.

More Fence
Since the chickens have been given freedom to roam, they have behaved well. On the whole they respect the boundaries of the veg patch and have discovered the orchard and the long grass of the meadow to their liking. The boundary with Don's land here is not chicken proof, and although they'd have  long way to go to get to his vegetables, I don't want to give them any encouragement! So today's little job was to erect 50m of chicken wire fencing, a job which involves lots of walking up and down the fenceline, mainly to retrieve tools which always end up at the other end of the fence to where needed.

With a couple of hours left, I dug a bed around the base of one of the apple trees, a new home for the rest of the strawberry plants which Don gave us.
Eventually, I want to do this with all the fruit trees, with various plants and flowers underneath them, some for beauty, some to protect the trees from disease and pests.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Farm Tick 98

Thursday 29th March 2012
"Forgot to mention, I saw a Red Kite floating over Wisbech yesterday. Surely only a matter of time before I see one in the skies over the farm."

That was what I wrote 3 days ago. Guess what I saw today! No, not kidding, nor suffering from delusion.

I got home from work at about 3.45, bringing with me two day old chicks which had hatched in the incubator at school. After introducing them to the others, I headed down to the chickens to collect the eggs and to see if Elvis' eggs were showing any signs of hatching.
As one of the resident buzzards circled low, my mind went to the possibility of a Red Kite drifting over on a day like today. The time of year is good, the weather has been perfect and today there was just enough cloud to ensure that not all migrating raptors would pass over as unseen dots in the sky. I scanned around with my binoculars on the off chance, as I so often have, and there, over by Coy Bridge, was a Red Kite not six feet off the ground.

Farm Tick 98!

It went out of view and I presumed it had landed. Whether to risk losing it by driving round for closer views, or to view from the farm. I attended to the chickens, then scanned again. Just over the bank of South Holland Main Drain, I saw two huge wings flap and was just able to see the bird on the ground. However, without my scope views were never going to be great, so I dashed back to the house. I returned and climbed up onto the haystack for a better view. As I did so, the Red Kite flew and steadily gained in height as it circled, before gradually heading off over Holbeach St John's. All in all I watched it for about half an hour.
I'm sure it won't be the last I see here, but it is the first. And that's the most important!

The Goldcrest (or another) was around again today too.

ed. This evening I watched 2 Short-eared Owls hunting and tussling over the back fields. More of a surprise were 9 Redwings in the Ash trees as the sun was setting. I've only seen a couple in the garden all winter. They'll be well on their way to Scandinavia by tomorrow morning.
A sunset pic for a change.

Ten Years Since My Best Bird

Ten years ago today I saw the best bird I am ever likely to see in the British Isles. At the time, I was doing a very serious year list, zooming here, there and everywhere trying to see as many species as I could in a calendar year. (40000+ miles, 364 species)
In that year, we had an influx of Iberian birds in late March. I had been to Cornwall the previous weekend to see a Black-eared Wheatear (a lifer) , a Woodchat Shrike and a Hoopoe. While there, a local had told me about 3 Cattle Egrets (at the time, much rarer than now) and given me vague directions. An hour later, I was've guessed...3 Cattle Egrets.

During the week a Scops Owl appeared at Porthgwarra, in the car park where I'd slept the previous night. There were also a couple of Alpine Swifts at St Just. I needed both these birds as lifers, but was working for the whole week with no possibility of a day off. By the next weekend these birds had moved on, but my good friend Graham Ryland was keen to visit anyway to view the birds I'd seen the weekend before. Since there was now a Night Heron in the same area, off we traipsed to Cornwall again for the long bank holiday weekend. Another Alpine Swift had been sighted on Tresco, one of the Scilly Isles which lie just off the tip of Cornwall, so we decided to get the Scillonian ferry across on the off chance it was still around. A delayed departure due to tides was frustrating, as it meant we would only get a couple of hous to look for the bird before it was time to return.

Birdwise the crossing was very quiet, but within sight of the islands, as we were on deck chatting to three fellow birders, Graham pointed out a tern-like bird approaching the boat. As it turned sideways on, it rapidly became obvious we were viewing an absolute MEGA!!! A Red-billed Tropicbird. It flew right over the boat at very close range, then just continued flying till it went out of sight. This was only the second ever record of this species in Britain.

We never did see the Alpine Swift (I have seen plenty since) and we didn't much care.

Why do I write this? Well, apart from the ten year anniversary of the sighting, this year has been a little reminiscent of 2002, with a flurry of Night Herons and an early Alpine Swift in Cornwall and even a brief Scops Owl on the Isles of Scilly.
Scilly has been on my mind recently too, as the damp woodland and reeds of the Lower Moors area has harboured a very elusive Northern Waterthrush since last autumn. I have seen one of these in Ireland, but am still keen to see this bird. Back in October, there was a Black-and-White Warbler, a brilliant little American humbug, in the same patch of wood. I saw this bird and spent the rest of the day looking for the Waterthrush. The closest I came was when my friend, crouched next to me, saw the bird, but before I could budge to see past the tangle of branches, it flew off!

Over the last couple of weeks the Waterthrush has again been seen fairly regularly, and each reported sighting tempts me a little more. In fact, I have resolved to go for it early next week if it continues to be seen. Having said that, it sounds like it still needs quite a large slice of luck and more than a little patience, so we shall see what happens...

It makes sense to fly over and have as long on the islands as we can, but the nostalgic side of me says to take the boat again!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Birding The First Hour

Wednesday 28th March 2012


What a beautifully clear, fresh morning. I decided to spend the first hour just soaking in the atmosphere, taking the oportunity to survey all the newly planted trees and observing the birds. Just about all of the saplings are budding up now and some have already unfurled their first leaves. Even the dog roses, which were severely nibbled, are shooting back into life.

Around the farmhouse, a few Collared Doves were hopping around the branches and groups of Woodpigeons were still roosting in the trees. A couple of Starlings sat atop one of the tallest trees, clicking and squeaking as they do. As always, Carrion Crows were already busily poking about in the fields and a steady procession of gulls headed inland from The Wash (Common, Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls)
A few Pheasants noisily left their night-time roosts, while another stood proud in the meadow until it saw me, when it hunched down and slunk off. A couple of Red-legged Partridges set their clockwork legs to max speed and legged it into the cover of a reedy dyke. A group of 23 Fieldfares weighed down a tiny bush before continuing their journey North, probably some of the last I'll see until next winter. A hare bolted along the fenceline, and others could be seen hopping around the fields, their long ears betraying their presence above the growing crops. Distant enough to be unaware of my presence, a Roe Deer fed quietly and near it, hunched on the bank, a gleaming white Little Egret. Then a loud bang from nearby sent pigeons and Mallards scattering into the skies.
All the while a Yellowhammer belted out its song from its perch high on a bush, joined by the repetitive chant of a Reed Bunting perched low in the reeds. A couple of Skylarks sang from the ground before rising into the sky with the sun and a lone Meadow Pipit sat quietly preening before uttering a few notes of its song. (Running out of words for 'sing'. Thesaurus not much help - not sure yodel, croon or serenade are appropriate. Warble would be, except for the lack of warblers until later in the year).
Raptors were up and about too. A Kestrel flew direct and low from a post and a Sparrowhawk skimmed over the rape field. Three Jackdaws passed through this morning, one landed briefly in the Ash Trees where a small party of Linnets and Goldfinches were feeding. Now almost all paired up, Chaffinches flew from treetop to treetop, the males occasionally stopping to announce their territory.
Garden birds were notable for their apparent scarcity this morning. Probably all breeding now and able to feed in the hedgerows and dykes rather than needing to come close to the farmhouse. A couple of Robins were singing quietly as well as  a more raucous Wren. How does such a small bird manage such a loud noise? A couple of Great Tits and Blue Tits flitted around in the hedge, as well as several Blackbirds and a few House Sparrows. A Song Thrush made a quick dart out of and back into the hedge where an unobtrusive Dunnock fed on the ground.
The frost was beginning to thaw, but not my feet, and it was time for a warming cup of coffee and breakfast. Nothing exceptional this morning and a few of the regulars absent,  just a taste of a typical morning's stroll on a Fenland farm.

Oh, forgot to mention these!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

More Goose Trouble.

Tuesday 27th March 2012
A fireball in the sky, a frost on the ground.

A typical friendly morning greeting from the geese.

While I was at work yesterday, Don kindly dragged over my second veg plot. However, the three unruly geese kept following the tractor. Fearing an early end for one of them, Don corralled them in the vacant pig enclosure, where they seemed to have made themselves at home... until 10 o'clock this morning, when I heard a muffled honk from the road.

Upon investigation, there were the terrible threesome up to their traffic calming tricks again. I drove them back into the garden and spent the rest of the day with the gates shut. They quickly discovered the pond, which they found to their liking. They are now back in their original paddock while the other two recover in the stable block. Gerry is happy about this too, as he has recently converted the pig ark into a storage cabin for half mutilated baby rabbits!  

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Couple More Cute Piglet Pics

Monday 26th March 2012
Another murky March morning.

Mum's tipped over the water trug again. Looks like a good place to sleep.

The misty morning gave way to a fine day with temperatures reaching 20. Unfortunately I was stuck at work for much of it, but the change to British Summer Time does mean I get a few hours to work in the garden when I get home. Reshaping veg beds was the order of the evening, interrupted by a Short-eared Owl hunting along the dykes. You're probably getting tired of me telling you every time I see an owl, but I just find them remarkable creatures and think they deserve a mention whenever I am lucky enough to see one.
Forgot to mention, I saw a Red Kite floating over Wisbech yesterday. Surely only a matter of time before I see one in the skies over the farm.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Goose Trouble

Sunday 25th March 2012
British Summer Time!
The clocks went forward an hour last night. Everyone else lost an hour's sleep. But not me, as my life is ruled by the sun, so I just got up an hour later (which was actually exactly the same time as yesterday). The only difference is that everything everyone else does starts an hour earlier now.
Goose Trouble
The five geese we recently adopted have been nothing but trouble. The gang of three now dominate the pair and have been bullying one of them. We have not been able to lock them away in the same room at night, so have left them out, free to go into the stables as they please. This has resulted in a few stand-offs between Sue and the geese! But last night it seems the three hounded one goose and caused it to injure its leg. This was the same leg on the same goose which had previously been grabbed by a dog. We're keeping an eye on the goose for a while, but will probably try to splint its leg. There's no point calling a vet - I could buy a couple of Harrod's geese for the same price! But we don't want an animal to be suffering either.
We have separated the two groups of geese, but the three have few proper boundaries now. So this morning, at 6.45 (used to be 5.45) I was ushering three geese across a foggy road and back onto the farm! On the positive side, they were a very good traffic calming measure and it may be worth starting up a business in white robotic geese for this purpose.
Time will tell, but I suspect we will end up having to choose between the two and the three. All depends on whether the injured bird recovers.

Unlike yesterday, the thick morning air lingered on and the sun never really broke through today. When it did, it was accompanied by a decidedly chill breeze. We had a few bits and pieces to sort out today, so it seemed good to spend the last hour or so of the day mowing some of the grass. I think some of it must be related to elephant grass, judging by its rate of growth at the moment.

I do love it when I've just mown the grass in the veg garden
(which I like to refer to, more poshly, as a potager).
It accentuates the geometric design which has taken me so long to shape.
More Chicks
One of the bits and pieces we had to do was to pop into Sue's school and check the incubator. A happy surprise. Two more bluebird chicks, and one of the brown eggs was slightly cracked too, so hopefully we will soon have some Indian Game chicks as well as the Cream Legbars.
As the day came to a close, the female Hen Harrier drifted across the garden again. If this happened every day, I would still get a buzz from it every day.
Shortly after this, the air turned sharply cooler and an eerie fog rolled in across the fields.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Stopping The Rot

Saturday 24th March 2012
Pea soup
Actually, my research tells me that a pea souper refers to an industrial smog. In fact, it's called a pea souper precisely because it's not like the white fog of rural areas. You learn something every day.

The Bluebird
One of the blue eggs has hatched! If it's a girl, it will grow up to lay more blue eggs for us. If it's a boy, it should be very tasty in the autumn. Cream Legbars are autosexing - nothing rude, just means you can tell boys and girls apart as chicks... except, I can't remember how and I don't have any others to compare! For the moment, this very chirpy chick is living in a plastic box with a light bulb to keep it warm. None of the other eggs is showing any signs of life. Apparently they usually pip once one has been born. It will be disappointing if we only get one.

The Rot Sets In
More disappointment with the seeds I sowed back in February too. Germination was generally very good, especially the ten varieties of tomato I sowed. However, I have been having a serious problem with damping off, a fungal infection of the soil which affects the roots of the young seedlings, causing the stem to collapse. It spreads like wildfire, becoming airborne, and can kill off a whole tray of seeds in no time. Damping off is caused by poor conditions, in particular not enough light. I'm a bit stuck really though. The greenhouse is not heated and won't be warm enough for them, the dining room is just not bright enough. But mostly it's my own fault for making the same mistake as I've made before, killing the seedlings with kindness by making the soil too wet.
I have read that sprinkling the soil surface with cinnamon powder can solve the problem, so I have raided the spice cupboard. I'm not sure if it's too late to save some. In desperation I moved the worst affected trays to the greenhouse anyway, but this merely sped up the demise of the poor seedlings.
I'm still hoping to keep enough alive to get a decent early harvest, but I'll have to resow some varieties and accept a one month delay. Having said that, I often find that the slightly later sown seeds virtually catch up anyway.

Peas On Earth
No point worrying about it now. What's gone is gone and I'll just move on and take the best course of action from where I am now. Back on a more optimistic note, today's early fog gave way to a glorious day by early afternoon. I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours in the garden with Sue planting peas - Kelvedon Wonder and Early Onward. Also Sugar Snaps and Purple Mangetout. Peas like to clamber and climb, so various structures were improvised for them. For this we used the sticks and branches saved from pruning a red dogwood. It looks excellent. I guess the dogwood may just decide to root itself, but I don't think it'll compete with the peas and I may even get some new shrubs at the end of the season.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Short-eared Owl upgraded and the First Chiffchaff

Friday 23rd March 2012
This morning the first Chiffchaff of the year was singing loudly from a small isolated willow next to the orchard. Bees buzzed around the pollen-filled catkins. In the background, a Yellowhammer belted out its song from the top of a bush.  Two tortoiseshell butterflies cavorted in the meadow and a brimstone fluttered through the garden. Spring is most definitely arrived.

Short-eared Owl Upgraded
I'll jump straight to the most exciting event of the day. As I returned from work, I was scanning the ducks in the dyke when a Short-eared Owl appeared to spook the teal. I never tire of watching owls - there's something very magical about them. Anyway, I lost it behind a copse, so carried on along the road. Shortly after, a second owl crossed the road in front of the car. I pulled up and watched this one land in a small bush. I put the scope up, intending to snap a picture, but by the time I got set up there was a crow in the bush where the owl had been. I scanned around searching for the owl, only to spot it perched on a white post. Hang on a minute! That post is on my land. The bird flew off straight over the forest of plastic tubes on my farm. Short-eared Owl has been getting closer and closer to the farm, but finally one was briefly on the farm. As it flew over the rape field next to my land, it sped up its flight and flushed a female Hen Harrier from the field. This then also flew straight through my land. Only the second hen harrier of the winter. After both birds had departed in opposite directions, I continued along the back road, wishing I had actually been on my farm when these birds flew across. The views would have been amazing. Shortly after crossing Coy Bridge, a third Short-eared Owl was hunting over a field by the road.  Three Short-eared Owls and a Hen Harrier on the way home from work. Not bad.
And when I got home, the Chiffchaff was still in the same small willow, five hours after it had first flown in there.

This tiny willow held the year's first Chiffchaff for five hours today.

This was all after I had dropped in to see a Great Grey Shrike in a small copse by the A47 at Thorney. It was distant and not in good light, but it's a scarce winter visitor and one which I would love to find on my patch.
Record shot. If only it had sat the other side of the copse.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the piglets continue to grow at an astonishing rate. They are intelligent, inquisitive creatures. Most have now grown into their saggy skin and they are starting to play, climb, poke and prod. I think we have six or seven boys again - I do know how to tell the difference, but counting them is proving difficult.
Hopefully they can move outside next week, when it will be easier to count them and separate them.
"I wonder what's in here."

"Look, green stuff. Must stand on it, then eat it."
And finally...
The white linnet put in another appearance. Feeding on the ground in Don's orchard, it was more reminiscent of a Snow Bunting. This bird is so distinctive, I don't give it long given the number of raptors around here. Odd birds like this tend to get snapped up quickly, though it's managed to avoid capture thus far.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

As you sow...

Wednesday 21st March 2012

Thursday 22nd March 2012
A surprise frost, a warm day ahead.
I didn't miss the sunrise, it took this long to break through.

Piglet Progress
The piglets have been provided with the luxury of a heat lamp to keep them warm. Today I decided to try them without. In theory the straw and their mum's heat should keep them warm enough, and they should have enough body fat by now to help keep themselves warm.

I'm not sure whether Daisy is happy
about this or not, but the piglets
now cuddle up to mum instead
of huddling under the heat lamp.

Outdoor sowing
The last of the winter crops has been harvested, most of the beds are prepared, and it's time to get the show going! In went the parsnips, with garlic and marigolds as companions. They'll be ready for harvest come next year's frosts. Then turnips, a quick growing crop to use the soil space before the cabbages go in. Next some broad beans, dipped in paraffin to keep the mice off them. They'll need netting before the shoots appear, as those tender tips proved irresistible to something last year. Two varieties of pak choi - I don't particularly enjoy eating anything green, but these I find one of the more palatable. And this year I have a plan to thwart the flea beetles and whitefly that plagued last year's plants.
Finally I dug over the Jerusalem artichoke patch and replanted a dozen of the healthiest looking tubers. Alongside these I put in eight large bulbs which I found tucked in an envelope, already beginning to sprout. I think they're Elephant Garlic. It's unusual for me not to label something, as I know this is what happens - miscellaneous crops.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring Equinox

Tuesday 20th March 2012
A beautiful start to a beautiful day.
The first day of Spring.

A Message From Chick of Elvis

translated as I'm sitting on eggs, I'm not budging for no-one, go away!

I Never Tire of Watching Owls.
Today I spent another glorious day stuck inside at school. When I returned home, I was keen to get out on the land. Foremost in my thoughts was the possibility of a migrant bird choosing my farm on which to feed up. On the way round the land, I took the opportunity to check the new trees for signs of growth and to check for rabbit damage. All was well and most of the young trees seem to be budding up ready to burst into life. 

Two Mute Swans had taken up residence in the field just a few yards beyond the end of my land. As I sat on the banks of the dyke watching them, a Barn Owl came bouncing along surveying the dykes. If you look carefully, it's in the picture above the swans, up in that glorious blue sky. I watched the owl following the system of dykes, when suddenly into my binocular view flew another, but this one larger with slightly less stiff wing beats - this one a Short-eared Owl. One or two birds have clearly taken a liking to the area as sightings are getting more frequent and closer and closer to the farm. To see these two birds together in such clean light was a privilege. The Barn Owl then flew directly to the owl nestbox which stands on a pole next to South Holland Main Drain,  where there was quite a lengthy tussle with a pair of Kestrels, clearly with their eyes on this penthouse residence.

Equinox - an explanation
And now, since the sun is such an important part of my life this year (not just because it keeps me alive!), from tomorrow's Guardian (I travelled in time to get this article):

Spring equinox heralds official end of winter

The Earth drifted through a major astronomical checkpoint at 5.14am GMT on Tuesday, marking the official onset of spring in the northern hemisphere.

The spring, or vernal, equinox marks the point in space and time when the sun moves across the celestial equator, an imaginary circle projected into the sky above the real equator.

... ... ...

Seasons on Earth are driven by the planet's orbit and 23.5 degree tilt from the vertical axis. As the Earth circles the sun, it can show more of its northern or southern poles to the sun. But when the Earth passes through an equinox, both poles receive equal sunlight, because the planet is tilted neither towards or away from the sun.

The next part of this article explains something that had been puzzling me. Howcome sunrise and sunset are more than 12 hours apart on the equinox, and howcome the day lasted 12 hours a few days ago?

While the equinox signals a time when day and night are equal, the moment when both share 12 hours apiece happens days earlier, because of atmospheric effects.

"The Earth's atmosphere delays the sunset and makes the sunrise earlier," said Robert Massey at the Royal Astronomical Society. "When the sun is on the horizon, light is bent round because we have a thick atmosphere, and that appears to raise the sun in the sky. So when the sun appears on the horizon, it would actually have set if we had no atmosphere."


In short, IT'S SPRING and we get more than 12 hours of light every day from now till September.

Tomorrow sowing begins in earnest outdoors.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Clear skies end winter

Monday 19th March 2012
So that's where it rises these days.
The last sunrise of the winter.
A beautiful, clear and sunny day. Unfortunately, I was stuck inside at work all day. I relaxed in the evening by watching the piglets. They are much more active now, running around and beginning to playfight. They already do that pig thing - if you've ever spent any time with pigs you'll know what I mean - that pig thing where they all freeze at once for a few seconds, then spring back into action. I'd be surprised if somewhere in the country there's not a traditonal children's game based on this most peculiar phenomenon.
Here's a couple more cute piglet pics for you to look at.

By the way, they're £40 each if you want one. £35 if you catch me in a good mood, or I could throw in a pack of bacon.

Looking Back - Featured post

Storm Arthur

What's been going on at Dowse Farm recently? Well, we escaped Storm Abigail, but Storm Barny swept through with gusto one night. We'...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...