Saturday, 29 June 2013

A quick update on everything on the smallholding

The pigs are all healthy and eating us out of house and home as usual. They have put on a sudden spurt of growth which prompted me to pay a visit to the butcher last week! Two will be going on a little journey at the beginning of the summer holiday. One will be spared for a while, to go off for bacon in the winter, and Daisy's future is still a matter of discussion between Sue and I.
Two of their sisters who I sold have already gone, but ours grow more slowly as they spend all their time chasing each other.

At the last count, there were 65 guineafowl eggs hidden in the grass. But still every evening eleven birds roost on the fence so none is sitting ... yet.
The guineafowl have, however, discovered the strawberries. Not just ours, but Don's too. They have always been allowed to wander free and have never previously caused too much damage. For now, the strawberries will be netted and we will monitor the situation.

The chickens all seem happy at the moment. We are getting about a dozen eggs a day. A few have shown signs of broodiness but have given up when we keep taking their eggs. Elvis, who we want to go broody, has most unusually shown little inclination to sit. Shame, as we were rather hoping to hatch out some blue eggs.

The geese have finally given up on their efforts to hatch an egg. Maybe next year they'll have more success. So for now they are back out in the paddock to keep the grass down. They have quickly settled into their new routine and every evening wait at the gate to waddle in line into the stable for the night. One goes on the right of the divider, the rest go on the left.
The poor girls who spent so long sitting on the nest are slowly getting back into condition.

Ducks Still waddling.

The sheep have settled in to living in their new home, up in the pasture, where they are beginning to make an impact on the grass. The one who had the limp is now completely better and they are all growing fast. I accidentally left the electric fence off last night and one got out, but it didn't go far. They are happy where they are as long as they have fresh grass.

Who knows! They are now closed down for a few weeks. All we can see is this unusual cluster at the bottom of the hive. We think they're clustering around newly built queen cells. With luck both hives will successfully manage to make a queen which mates successfully. We'll know if they have been successful if there are eggs when we next open them.

The owls continue to delight us, more and more during the day. I saw a young one being fed the other day. Once in a while I hear the swallows causing a commotion and look up to see a dumpy Little Owl being pursued by a line of graceful but angry swallows.
Not such good news with the Barn Owls. There seem to be very, very few about. It seems that their boxes have been taken over by Jackdaws.
A couple of weeks ago I spent some time assessing the young woodland trees. If you remember, this job was interrupted by the arrival of a Pacific Swift in Suffolk. Most are doing well, though we suffered a few losses. By next year they should be looking more like small trees than weedy saplings.
The Ash saplings all seem to be doing well. Time will tell whether the threat from Ash dieback is as serious as it seemed last year.


The orchard trees, all planted two winters ago, are beginning to flourish. We should get a more significant amount of fruit this year. However, pollination was patchy, especially of the cherries and plums. Goodness knows where our bees were going to get their food, but they studiously ignored all of my and Don's offerings.

Soft Fruit
All the soft fruit is developing nicely. It looks like being a bumper year for gooseberries. I really look forward to this annual treat. The other fruit that should be ready early is the strawberries, but I seem to have very little ripe fruit this year. Neighbours and friends are already harvesting.
However, as alluded to above, I think I've discovered the reason.

Those pesky guineafowl seem to have found the fruit before me. The netting will have to come out.


Runners struggling to get going

Beans n Peas : Every year is different in the world of vegetable growing. Last year beans and peas, if the young shoots got past the slugs, did well. This year, nobody's beans are coming up fast. The weather has been too cool and they could do with a bit more (warm) rain.
The broad beans, though, have loved the cool weather.

Roots : Parsnips are flourishing again. Carrots are patchy again, but much better than last year. The experiment to sow carrots into a bed of mixed annual flowers has backfired somewhat as the weeds grew first. This happened with the other beds which I reserved just for the flowers. It's impossible to get in there with the rotavator or even the hoe. Still, a few weeks of selective weeding may just reveal some pleasant hidden treasures.  

Spuds : I'm a bit worried about the spuds. The tops are looking good, but it's been a bit dry at the crucial time when the tubers should be forming. I dug up one of my Earlies a couple of weeks ago and there were no tubers at all! Those I grew in bags had a disappointing yield too. I'll have to make changes for next year.
However, I'm still pretty confident that the outdoor crops will come good. I probably just need to be patient. They did go in a little later than I hoped and I did not get to chit them properly as the house was in such a mess with the building works. 

Brassicas : This year I've actually got round to transplanting the young brassicas into the veg beds outside and they've even got protection. They'd better work, or I'll be giving up on them.


As you can see, I've even gone to the effort of making collars for them out of old carpet underlay. This, in theory, should stop them being devastated by cabbage root fly.

Work on the house is almost finished. We're still waiting for the scaffolding to come down and there's a couple of jobs for the plumber to finish off (it's only been six months since he first came!) All we need to do now is decorate every room. That'll be in our spare time then!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

NEEDLETAIL! The highs and lows of twitching.

Needletail. Thanks to Josh Jones for letting me use his photos.
There we were on the hard shoulder of the M6, a couple of hundred yards short of Gretna services. The blue lights were still flashing through the back window as Dan continued his futile attempts to start the car. We were due to fly out from Inverness in about 6 hours time.
In our minds, though no-one dared speak it, were thoughts of the air fare going down the drain and the chance of a Needletail going with it.

A Needletail.  Dream bird.

If only the rear plate light had been working, we would not have been pulled over and we would still be hurtling our way towards Inverness Airport.
As it was, we were entertaining thoughts of the most disappointing breakdown ever. If necessary, we would have dumped the car in the services and found a way, any way, to get to Inverness. But time was against us and we just had to be on that flight.
No way could we even contemplate this costing us a Needletail.

A knock on the window and it was the friendly police officer suggesting that we try bump starting it, but to keep out of the way of the lorries. So, protected by the still flashing blue lights, Dan and I put our all into pushing the car along the hard shoulder. After several miles (well, it felt like that anyway) we had to stop. A heart attack really would spoil our chances of seeing a Needletail in the UK.

But Josh thought we should give it one more go. He thought the car just might start. So we did. And it did.

Crisis averted. Fair to say we would not be stopping again before we got to Inverness.

Just in case you're wondering what all the fuss was about... Needletail, fastest bird in the world, ultra, ultra rare, enigmatic, likely to disappear at any moment, but on the lists of so many of the old birders. Needletail. The ultimate catch-up bird. Needletail. White-throated Needletail.
And so soon on the heals of the Pacific Swift. Unbelievable.

So, at seven in the morning there we were, checked in, through security and taking full advantage of the Executive Lounge. Yes, that's right. The Executive Lounge! With free newspapers, free sweets, free coffee, free cakes. One of us even had a free Bailey's!

Our plane - taken from the comfort of The Executive Lounge!

Free grub!
Not our usual style of travel, but booking the flights last minute meant we had no choice but to choose luxury.
We wasted no time in lowering the tone of the place.

The flight was short and a good job too. We were all absolutely hyped up for this bird. I couldn't keep still and my heart was racing (maybe something to do with the six shots of espresso macchiato I enjoyed in the Executive Lounge.) 

Only at the weekend I was telling relatives how the Outer Hebrides were my favourite place to see rare birds in the whole of Britain, not quite expecting that just a few days later I would be coming in to land at Stornoway Airport.

Approaching Stornoway
As we landed we received news that the bird was still there. GET IN! But a Needletail can disappear as fast as it appears and the job was not done yet. The news did nothing to calm us down and we were quickly into the hire car and I held tight as we took a leisurely drive down to Tarbert village on the Island of Harris - not actually separate from the Isle of Lewis. I don't get why it has another name.

We pulled up by the road overlooking the village at half past nine, where a small group of familiar birders stood looking strangely subdued. We baled out of the car before facing with the slow realisation that this morning's positive news had been an incompetent misinterpretation of a delayed twitter message - well, something like that, all a bit vague, Chinese whispers.

As the news sank in and we stood searching in vain for a flying bullet to appear over the village, the mood change was extreme, from tense excitement to desperate hope and despair. I dug deeply into my store of Stoicism. If they were all guaranteed, the edge would be taken off everything. Every now and then we need a dip to keep the successes special. The lows make the highs even better...
But a Needletail. Of all the birds to dip, a Needletail on the Outer Hebrides would surely test the resolve of the most optimistic of twitchers.

Just then, a phone call. STILL HERE. Over the loch just up the road. A scramble and then, THERE! THAT'S IT. Coming towards us. A brief view before we lost it. But seconds later it hurtled past.

Absolutely awesome. The low points of the last hour made it all the better. That dip could wait just a little while longer.

It had been an eventful lead up, but things were to take yet more twists and turns.
It wasn't long before we settled down to watching the Needletail as it gave great views twisting and turning over the loch.

It really was a cracker of a bird. But nothing was to prepare us for what happened next, as it began to hunt directly over our heads. At one point it flew straight at me and skimmed not six inches over my head. This went on for some time. It would head off to the other end of the loch, or soar over the hill opposite, but every time it came back to give absolutely stunning views. Sheer power. Sheer grace. A totally enigmatic bird giving literally  hair-raising views.

It's not often a mega rare shows this well.
(Thanks Dan for the photo)
The twenty or so birders present had all seen many, many special birds, but all were in agreement that this was really special. Something that none of us would ever forget.

Views don't get much better than this.
Photos courtesy of Josh Jones

Once or twice the bird flirted with danger with passing cars, but its supreme speed got it out of trouble. The weather warmed up slightly and the bird spent more time scything through the air scooping up the flies as they rose higher. Friends who had opted to come over on the boat should be arriving soon, bit this type of bird has a history of rising higher and just disappearing round a corner. But the bird still regularly returned to show off. Then, as it split the air just above our heads causing oohs and aaarghs, a jet did the same, skimming the top of the hill behind us before roaring over the loch and disappearing into the distance and over the mountains.
The bird was clearly spooked. It briefly disappeared before returning to give us a final by-pass and display of prowess. But it then headed off to the far end of the loch before disappearing round the corner. The arrivals off the boat were still inexplicably some way off (a delay in docking it turned out) and it wasn't looking good for them. Some forty minutes later they arrived. The bird had still not returned.

We said some brief "hellos" but didn't want to rub it in too much, so bade our farewells and headed off toward the airport very, very happy.

A great bird in a great place, good company, stunning views and to top it all both Josh and Chris had managed to capture stunningly good images.

Back at Stornoway terminal, the images went whirring into the ether of the internet, which was soon buzzing with admiration for the images.
News came through, too, that the Needletail had been relocated over moorland several miles to the south. So all who put in the effort had connected.

The flight back was a chance to crash out and for the body to begin recovering. The car started at the first time of asking and we began the journey South.

It wasn't long, though, before the final twist in the story. I glanced at my pager to see the message:

W. Isles    White-throated Needletail till c5.45pm Harris SSE of Tarbert then appeared to be hit by wind turbine.

Three minutes later, it was confirmed that the bird had been picked up dead.

Everybody was in shock. The memory of this beautiful, powerful and enigmatic bird was still freshly etched into our minds and the poor thing had come to a most unfortunate end. Our emotions were really being put through the wringer today.

The news slowly sunk in.

As one post put it:

"VERY VERY sad news indeed. RIP my friend though safe in the knowledge that you gave several lucky people the best day of their life today."
After stopping off near Pitlochry to admire a singing male Common Rosefinch, I caught up on some much needed sleep as we headed south. I eventually got back just before four in the morning. Three hours until the alarm would be waking me up for work.
I wonder what the next adventure will be.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

10 weeks in the polytunnel

The polytunnel today
 Growth in the polytunnel has been astronomical. I thought the best way to show this was in photos.

Potatoes    8 April
Sowing begins    12 April

Warming up
A new bed    15 April

Fast forward to mid May
The race begins
Bean seedlings ready for planting

Old pig bags always come in use

Brassica seedlings growing up

Cucurbits struggle to germinate

A greenhouse within a polytunnel
Tomatoes doing well, aubergines slow to get going

Another new bed and seedlings starting to grow

The potatoes are coming along    17 May

Potatoes    2 June

Tomatoes   2 June
Ready for planting as soon as flowers begin to appear

Looking Back - Featured post

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