Monday, 21 July 2014

It's harvest time already

Strange lights shine across the fields during the night and the distant rumble of engines and blades hums away into the early hours. Fields which the previous day swayed in the breeze suddenly have neat crew cuts with perfectly straight rows of straw creating giant geometric patterns.

Here on the veg patch harvest is well under way too. We've already had a bumper crop of tomatoes, a basket full every day for the last few weeks, as well as cucumbers dripping from the three plants in the polytunnel.

But now the outside crops are coming good too. I've picked my first runner beans and French beans. The first and second sowings of broad beans need picking as the beans inside those fleshy pods have now swelled enough to cause the pods to hang downwards.

Runner Bean Scarlet Emperor

French bean Cobra

Then, of course, there are the courgettes.
Yes, they're coming again in an inexorable march. The more you pick the more they come. I've even discovered my first accidental marrow already.

And finally the potatoes have done well this year, growing and swelling quickly. This is fortunate, for I've had to take the tops off all of them as blight has been both early and widespread this year. Sunshine and rain both in abundance does have its downside. I'm just hoping that most of the varieties have had enough time to swell and that the blight hasn't got down into too many of the tubers.

So in the middle of last week I roamed the veg patch gathering in some of the harvest. Here's a pictorial sequence, a bit like a children's book. In go the go the go the potatoes...until the basket was full.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Thistles - A Tale of Love and Hate

Why is it that some of the very best plants are also some of the very worst plants?
I'm talking nettles and thistles. The good side:  not actually bad looking plants, wonderful for wildlife, useful as a barrier. The bad side: rampant and uncontrollable.

I'll deal with the thistles for the moment, creeping thistle in the main. It produces fluffy seedheads by the million. If they find a footing, they shoot their roots deep into the ground and in no time fleshy roots are spreading deep underground, sending up battalions of prickly shoots. Pulling them is tedious and disheartening, not to mention the inevitability of discovering some time later that microscopic pieces of thorn are lodged just under your skin.

But on the good side, there's this:

Thistle flowers are an absolute magnet for insects. These photos took me less than 10 minutes to take and it wasn't even a sunny day.

If only there was a way to control the thistles, to grow them where I want and only where I want.
The old saying goes -
Cut them in June
You've cut too soon,
Cut them in July,
They're sure to die.
Unfortunately it's not that straightforward. But it is definitely the best time to cut the plants when they have just put all their energy into producing flowers. More than that though, they need constant removal and this is just not realistic. (It's taken for granted that I will only use a weedkiller when I have completely run out of other options - even that would require repeat applications).

Now, I may not be able to constantly keep the thistles cut, but I am hoping that I have put together a team who can. They need a little help at first, for which I use a hand sickle to swipe down the plants, but after that they come along and devour the wilting leaves. They gradually nibble the fresh young leaves too and I'm hoping this will be enough to do the trick over time.
Here is my team.

If my Shetland sheep attack the thistles with the same gusto that they nibble at my trees, in no time the thistles should only be growing where I choose.
They like nettles too.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Finally Tying The Great Knot

It's not great...but it is a Great Knot!
The lucky bride-to-be
I have an announcement to make. Sue and I, after 27 years of blissfully living together, are finally getting married!
It's not going to be a huge wedding and we started planning it at the back end of last year. The first question was, what date?
We didn't want it in the winter. Nor, of course, could we have it during the spring or autumn migration periods. This left midsummer as the safest time.

Eventually we plumped for 1st August. I reckoned this would be easy to remember and hopefully the weather will be good too. There are also only a tiny handful of birds likely to turn up in Britain which would cause me significant levels of inner stress on the day and distract my mind from my beautiful new wife!
At this time of year the chances of a lifer turning up on any given day are extremely slim. In fact I have only had 10 July lifers since the turn of the century and I have never had a new bird on my birthday. The only realistic chance of a lifer for me lies in a lost wader, of which I only need five species to complete the set. Of these, two are outrageous rarities which have not turned up since I've been birding and two have only put in one brief appearance each.
The fifth is Great Knot, with four previous visits, but two of them in the last days of July.

Several years ago I enjoyed a mad dash to Breydon Water, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border to see a distant blur which eventually was judged to not be a Great Knot but just to be a Knot (aka Red Knot) - I hope you're knot confused.

And so to yesterday morning. After a late start, I logged onto my computer at 8:15am and the first thing I clapped eyes on was "Great Scott, Great Knot". In my initial sleepy panic I put two and two together and started considering the drive to Scotland. I'd really like to see a Great Knot, but I really didn't fancy driving to Scotland right now. Besides, I didn't even know where in Scotland.
A couple more keyboard strokes and I found my answer. Breydon Water! The Norfolk part of Scotland! Holy mackerel (or something like that!) Why had my pager not wailed into action and woken me earlier? Why had my phone not alerted me? I'd foolishly left them both in the 99% portion of the house which enjoys absolutely no signal whatsoever.

It took me five minutes to let the turkeys out, let the geese out, let the chickens out, let the ducks out, feed all the aforesaid, grab my bins and scope, crisps and chocolate and I was off!  Like a rocket.

For the next hour and a half I enjoyed the delights of the A17 and the A47 - what a pair of roads to negotiate when you're in a hurry. All this time the bird was still present in the high tide roost though mostly not visible.

Breydon Water is a huge inlet from the sea with vast mudflats enjoyed by swarms of waders. However, they are often mobile and distant, with views not ideal due to heat haze and the direction of the sun. At high tide, birds get forced onto a small patch of salt marsh at the east end, near the bridge and Asda car park, which is where I hastily abandoned the car at some time just after 10.
As the tide recedes, bird fly out to feed on the mud, mainly on the south side.

There were maybe 30 or 40 people already assembled along the footpath which runs under the road bridge. Some had already seen the bird earlier when the tide had allowed it a little exposed mud. Another similar size group were assembled along the sea wall on the south side.
I perched my bottom precariously on a grassy slope and started to scan the salt marsh. Avocets, Curlews, Whimbrel, Godwits, Redshanks, a Spotted Redshank. Yes, all the taller birds were just visible, their heads and shoulders poking out above the beautiful purple flowers of swathes of sea lavender (I may be wrong on that one?) For ten minutes a grasshopper used my knee as a perch.
But the Great Knot hadn't been since since 9:55 when a brief aerial foray had at least confirmed its rough location. As the tide rose higher and higher, all the waders were clearly getting wet feet. Occasionally a group would briefly take to the air before settling back down again. I'd been there about half an hour when a large group of avocets did this. Then the call. In amongst all those black and white feathers and recurved bills was, somewhere, a Great Knot in flight. Briefly, very briefly, what was probably the bird shot through my scope, but I was then completely unable to get on the bird again despite several people calling directions to it. I came off the telescope and went for the wider view of the binoculars, but still I couldn't get on it. By now it had joined up with a group of golden plovers and was heading away at height! "In the blue patch of sky", someone said. I aimed my sight at a random blue patch and there, third from the left in the line of golden plovers, was a not-golden-plover! I followed it for a couple of minutes, almost always heading away, until that thin line of waders became undiscernible dots and disappeared.
That had not been in the plan. The Great Knot was supposed to sit it out on the high tide and duly start waddling around on the mud as the tide receded, even if it failed to poke its head above the salt marsh before then.
So, I had definitely seen the bird that was a Great Knot, but no way had I seen enough to be happy.

Why had it gone off with Golden Plovers? Surely it would land in a field with them and then feel out of place. It may even realise its mistake and return on its own. Anyway, for now the tide was still rising - typically it was unusually high - and all I could do was wait. At least it was sunny and there were lots of old friends to catch up with, as well as friends on the way and texting for updates. I was pretty hungry though, having dashed out of the house without breakfast. Asda was only 5 minutes away, but I daren't go just in case the bird put in another brief appearance.

Eventually the tide started to turn and the first patches of mud appeared. Squadrons of Avocets marched down from the saltmarsh to begin feeding and gradually all the waders were becoming visible. But the tide receded quickly and in no time distance and heat haze were rendering our views far from perfect. And still no Great Knot.
The mud on the south side of the channel was now becoming exposed. Most of the waders were heading over there and the light was better from that direction too. Gradually we too left our high tide roost and filed over the bridge, scrambling down the other side. As we did this, the line of birders who had chosen to wait on the south side began moving noticeably quicker. There was even running. Had the bird been refound or was this just a panic? Should I play it cool or break into a trot?


When I caught up with the crowd, there were confused messages passing this way and that. At the extreme left end... near the tyre.... by the avocet (not helpful). But the tyre was nowhere near the extreme left hand end. All the birds were still distant, but not too distant to pick out a Great Knot, surely.

A long line of birders finally enjoying views of the Great Knot
Then, four hours after I had arrived, the dumpy figure of a Great Knot was walking across the mud in my scope view. By now people were starting to arrive from as far afield as Bristol and Sussex.

I had waited a long time for a crack at one of these. I had even had one snatched away from me, bizarrely in exactly the same spot as I found myself now. Views weren't ideal but, as well as the distinctive shape, you could clearly see the dark amber-spangled upperside and the distinctive black chest.

It's out there somewhere!
But we couldn't put the birders on the opposite bank onto it.
We watched the bird for almost an hour, which included a rather comical phone call trying to give directions to the bird to someone on the other side of the basin. Perspective can be so deceptive.
Then it flew west and out of view.

However, it's not often I'm going to see a Great Knot, so I joined the line of birders who decided to yomp the couple of miles along the seawall in the hope of better views. We weren't disappointed. All the waders were feeding on the South Flats and the Great Knot was dabbing into the mud at a distance of less than 100 metres. Now that may sound like it's still a bit distant, but when the light's good the 60x power of the telescope zoom allowed every detail of the bird to be admired. For the first time I could make out the intricacy and beauty of the feathering on the back and I could finally clearly see the spotted flanks. Now I could relax and enjoy the bird.

My attempts at bird photography go no further
than sticking the phone up to the telescope,
so I was quite happy with my record shots.
It was great to bump into some old friends too, some who I'd not seen for a long while. That's how this twitching game works. You never quite know where you'll be, what you'll be seeing or who you'll bump into when you're there.

Let's just hope a Royal Tern doesn't rock up on 1st August! The 2nd August would be okay though!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Radish pods - at the forefront of trendy veg

I'm not a great fan of radishes.
It's not that I don't like the taste, but a couple of slices is enough.
So what I need to grow is about one radish plant every week. What I actually grow is about 20 plants a week, but only for about 3 weeks, when I run out of steam.

The main reason I grow them is that every gardening book advises to intersperse radish seed with slower growing seeds of other crops such as lettuce and parsnip. The rapidly growing radish seedlings mark the line of the other crop so it is not lost in amongst the multitude of other weeds competing for resources.
The trouble is that those other weeds invariably overtake the radish too!
The result is that, a couple of months after sowing, I suddenly discover three rows of radishes gone over.

Peppery, woody balls in the ground topped by gangly shoots culminating in delicate little flowers.

One year I'll get this element of my gardening sorted, but until then it doesn't really matter. In fact, better than that, I have discovered a new way to use radishes. For those radish flowers develop into small pods shaped like magical toadstools and with a flavour more subtle than the roots but still distinctly radish.

I reckon you end up with a much more sophisticated vegetable and you get a good number of pods per plant too. Plenty enough to add a delicious flavour to my omelette.

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