Whose Babies?

In the barn down on the big field, there are three large bird boxes. Much to our disappointment, our local barn owl hasn’t taken up residency in either of the owl boxes this year and hasn’t been spotted for a month. The other, smaller box however, has been inhabited.

For weeks, we’ve been sneaking down there hoping to catch a glimpse of the babies. We’ve heard cheeping and chirping, and seen parents darting in and out bringing food. We’ve spotted tail feathers poking out of the opening and caught the occasional glimpse of a beady eye or hooked beak.

kestrel box

Two weeks ago, I walked down to the barn with my big camera, hoping to climb up and take a few pictures inside the box. And to my surprise and glee, I was greeted by three, rather large bundles of feathers sitting, rather awkwardly on the floor.

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Our baby birds had fledged. I dashed back to the house to tell Maddie and we rushed back to the barn.

We stood and watched them for a while, marvelling at how close we were to wild Sparrowhawks. For this is what we assumed they were. They were clearly raptors, and the previous owner had mentioned that she’s had Sparrowhawks nesting in the barn in the past, so it made sense.

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We’ve spent the last two weeks making regular visits to our sparrow hawk chicks. Even Saffie likes to tell visitors about them and take them down to the barn.

They don’t seem to mind our visits, and watch us as intently as we watch them. The parents don’t come close when we’re there, but instead wait on a nearby telegraph pole, and dart back in to the barn with their offerings as soon as we’ve start to walk back up the lane.

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We’ve all become rather fond of the chicks, and were a little down when we realised that one had perished. We’re not sure what happened to it; maybe a fox or a crow?

kestrel fly

But the remaining two have flourished and I think we all felt a real sense of pride when we saw them take their first, small tentative flight up on to a fence post. They’re looking strong and healthy, and while I was out running this evening I spent forty minutes watching them fly from field to field, swooping across the grass and landing like experts on tree branches and barn roofs.

kestrel wing

I’ve prepared Maddie for the fact that they won’t be here forever, and I reckon it won’t be long before they’re completely independent from mum, and take leave of our barn.

kestrel & maddie

But one question has arisen over the last 24 hours. Whose babies are they? As I said earlier, we’ve called them the Sparrowhawk chicks. But Maddie, while researching feathers on the internet, has suggested that in fact they may be Kestrels. This would make sense, as pigeons have been roosting in the same barn as our raptors, and would surely have been prey for a Sparrowhawk. Kestrels however, eat mainly rodents so wouldn’t have been interested in the pigeons. And while comparing pictures on the internet, their appearance resembles a Kestrel rather than a Sparrowhawk – black not yellow eyes, and much browner plumage. So I am inclined to agree with Maddie and conclude that they’re Kestrels. And Saffie will have to learn a new word – Kestrel, and tell our visitors all about the Kestrel chicks instead. Unless of course, any of you know better…….

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Hay there!

We’d been here a week or so, when a local dairy farmer who owns much of the valley behind us, dropped in to introduce himself.  He seems a real character and offered to cut the fields for us later in the summer. We promptly took him up on his offer and although this obviously does us a favour as we don’t have the right machinery to mow fifteen acres, it also does him a favour as he gains the hay for his cattle. Like an old fashioned barter system, which I like.

He was intrigued to know what we were going to do with the land ; keep horses?, or cattle? Or even farm it? He found it really hard to get his head round the fact that we didn’t want to do anything with it. Just enjoy it. Play on it. Clearly for a man that makes a living from the land this was a hard concept to grasp.

But play on it we have. The first few weeks we were here, the grass was short and all three fields were wide open spaces, lush and green. Footballs were kicked about and frisbees thrown and caught. The aerobie , which we were looking forward to being able to launch without fear of losing over the fence, was promptly lost to a neighbouring field as it caught a rogue air current .

Harvest aerobie

Harvest - short grass

By June, the grass had grown so much that Stu was able to mow a series of ‘paths’ across the fields. These have given the girls hours of fun as they’ve explored the maze of routes through the long grass. For Saffie especially it must’ve felt like venturing through a forest as the grass towered above her on either side.

HArvest - saffie path

Maddie and her friends have spent hours running along the paths chasing butterflies and both girls have loved riding their bikes along the winding green roads. And although the vibrant green has faded and the lushness has given way to an almost feather-like quality, we’ve all marveled at the myriad of different grasses, flowers and butterflies we’ve seen.

Harvest - path

But last week, it was all change again. Farmer David and his friend arrived early on Monday morning with tractors roaring and began to harvest the grass.

It was exciting, noisy and dusty. Saffie had a fabulous day. We sat up on the balcony of the play house to get a good view over the hilly field, and she let me know each time a different tractor came into view, and waved as they roared past.

harvest tractor harvest 1

We both marveled at the baling machine, that turned the long piles of cut grass into neat, circular bales. And she giggled as the forklift-type machine stabbed the bales, like you stab an olive with a cocktail stick, and moved them onto the back of a trailer.

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harvest saffie

When Maddie got home from school we surveyed the day’s work, and I couldn’t help but make the comparison to Monet’s “Haystacks” series of paintings as we walked across the fields in the evening sun.

Harvest - haystack Monethaystackssummer

Our new landscape will take a little getting used to; the short grass looks parched and yellow and the lack of rain means that the ground is hard and dusty. I’m not sure that I like it. But I guess this is the cycle of life in action. Farmer David acquired seventythree bales of hay for his cattle, and I need to remember that by easter next year we’ll be looking out over lush, green fields once again.

harvest - short

“Gone Fishin’ at Fishponds”

The sun was shining and the sky was blue. In fact the weather couldn’t have been more perfect for our “Gnome Warming” party last weekend.gnome1_Snapseed

From about lunchtime onwards, friends and family started to arrive. Those that were camping out were directed down to the “campsite’ so they could pitch their tents. Then it was time to find somewhere shady to chill for the afternoon.

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We transformed the stables into a “bait shop” and an old iron bath we found in the fields was filled with ice and “moonshine.”

Sweets and crisps for the children were served as bait and Granny made a fabulous blue jelly with fishy sweets swimming in it. I found a fabulous cake maker in Colchester who did an amazing job on a “Gone Fishin’ / Gnome warming” cake for Maddie’s birthday. It was almost too good to eat, but was delicious when we did eventually cut into it.

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Stu did an awesome job on the bbq down in the  “bait shop”, and even fired it up again on sunday morning to provide all the happy campers with bacon and eggs for breakfast.

Stu serving breakfast from the BBQ for the campers

Stu serving breakfast from the BBQ for the campers      

The children’s entertainer arrived at 4pm for Maddie’s birthday party part of the proceedings and kept the children thoroughly enthralled for two hours with his magic, games and puppets. This was a great opportunity for Maddie to invite some of her new friends from school over, as well as catching up with friends from her old school. They all got along beautifully, and spent many hours after the party, out in the fields with the fishing net party bags trying to catch butterflies.

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It was fabulous to see so many of our friends and family, and also great to be able to invite the new neighbours over and get to know them a little better.

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As the sun set over Fishponds, people began to drift home. A few of the more hardcore stayed till the early hours of the morning.

It was a fantastic day. The thing that made it most special to me was that it finally felt like we’d officially arrived at Fishponds Cottage. Auntie Tanya, who moved to the Middle East shortly before we moved here, was able to visit for the first time. Our awesome neighbours from the old house came and partied hard. And every friend and member of the family who came commented on how quickly they were able to drive here. This has filled me with the hope that we’ll have many more visits from our friends and family over the coming years.

Save our soles sailor lusty

Take the Bait update.

Light at the end of the mammal tunnel

Light at the end of the mammal tunnel

As I was walking back up to the house from the fields yesterday evening, I noticed the mammal tunnels, and as we hadn’t checked them for a week or so, I had a quick peek inside. To my continued disappointment, our carefully prepared paper was still blank and the bait was still untouched. I toyed with the idea of moving them to a different location, but decided instead that I would get Maddie to rebait them after school tomorrow with the hotdogs I had bought especially and see if that would bring better results.

This morning however, as I was taking the bins out, I had another quick look, and to my surprise and probably unnecessary excitement, I saw footprints. Maddie was equally excited as we removed the paper and took it up to the house to identify our visitor’s prints.

This wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. We managed to rule out otter, pine marten and polecat among others, but to be honest, a lot of the smaller, more common mammals have very similar prints. We’ve decided that we’re going to claim they’re hedgehog prints, as this seems a better option than the other real possibility, the brown rat. What do you think?

 Footprints 2Mammal soc

  Footprints

We will rebait and re-ink this evening, in the hope that we have a regular visitor or two.

Sticks and Feathers.

Sticks and Feathers. Both my children have always been slightly obsessed with sticks and feathers. Walks in the country result in new additions to the stick collection at the back door, and feathers floating around the kitchen floor. My car frequently resembles the inside of a bird’s nest as we transport our treasured finds back home, much to Stu’s annoyance.

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But the interest in feathers has reached new heights since moving here and now the whole family are involved. It was Maddie who started it. She found a really pretty little feather in the barn about a week after we arrived at Fishponds. It wasn’t your run of the mill large, grey, slightly rounded pigeon feather. It was a small white one, with a brown and white specked end and a blast of orange in the middle. Over the next week or so, we found a few more of them in the field and started to suspect that they were from the Barn Owl who is often seen swooping over the fields at dawn and dusk. A quick google search and our suspicions were confirmed.

This new found information has fuelled the interest even further. Evening walks are spent with eyes down, scanning the ground for feathers. The beautiful rolling landscape and spectacular sunsets go mainly unnoticed by Maddie now as she hunts for another specimen for her collection. And I have to admit, I am just as guilty. I stopped on the third lap of a run round the fields last night to pick up a striking blue feather I had spotted on the first two laps. It’s pretty but turns out it is just a Jay feather. Still it’s one we didn’t have so is prized nonetheless.

We’ve invested in a fabulous book ; “Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe” which is already well thumbed and with page corners folded at the most popular pages.Feathers book_Snapseed We’ve identified nearly all the feathers we’ve collected so far. As well as the predictable pigeon, magpie and blackbird feathers, we also have partridge, pheasant and sparrow hawk feathers displayed proudly in the garden room.

There’s a wish list of course, with a peacock feather topping the list as the most desirable. Not sure that we’re going to get many of those passing through Fishponds, so a visit to a stately home may be on the cards in the future.

Our new book also shows how to investigate the bird life through the droppings, footprints and pellets. Maddie has been asking me to help her dissect an owl pellet for the past few weeks as the barn is full of them. I have been very creative in my excuses not to participate but it turns out that Nic has taught this exact science in her biology a-level classes and has promised to perform this task with Maddie. Picking through owl poo. Not really my idea of fun, but I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Please take the bait!

The traps have been set, the bait left out and the Petersen girls have gone to bed filled with the excitement of what we might find in the morning. It all sounds a bit gruesome but in fact it’s all part of a “hedgehog survey” for The Mammal Society.

We’ve decided to play detective and find out what mammals, other than hedgehogs, come out at night in the garden. We know they’re there…Bramble and Pixie have left a few “gifts” at the back door over the past few weeks, but we’ve spent the evening erecting “mammal tunnels” to try and record the Fishpond’s Nightlife!

They were simple to make; a large sheet of black corrugated plastic foldMaking tunneled into a triangular tracking tunnel. Using paperclips we secured a piece of plain paper at each opening and bait in the middle. At the edge of each piece of paper we stuck down masking tape and loaded it with ink made from poster paint and olive oil. Saff painting mammal tunnel

We made two tunnels and Maddie carefully chose where to site them. One has been put next to a flower bed at the side of the lane, where Maddie thought she had identified a mouse hole. And the other is in long grass at the edge of a field.m&s mammal tunnelWith any luck, the hedgehogs, mice, shrews and their other small furry friends will be tempted by the peanut butter, cashews nuts and dried apricots that were lovingly left out for them this evening. After feasting on our goodies, they will inadvertently leave a footprint trail as they scurry through the ink and across the paper.

Part of me can’t help but think I will have two disappointed girls in the morning when we check for footprints and find blank paper. But we know there’s life out there……and we’re determined to track it.

I’ll let you know how it goes! Mammal tunnel

Father’s day treat.

Swallows plus adult

While Stu was taken breakfast in bed this morning in recognition of Father’s Day, one feathered father in the garden had a far from restful day.

The swallows that have been nesting in the stables fledged this morning and daddy (and mummy) swallow have been busy throughout the day bringing insects for the chicks. This fabulous spectacle has been a father’s day treat we couldn’t have planned.

It has been wonderful viewing. Over the past few weeks we’ve grown used to seeing the swallows swooping across the field, diving down low over the lawn and darting into the stables at full speed. But this morning, there seemed to be more activity than normal. And as I looked more closely I noticed five, rather fluffy chicks perched precariously on the fence. I called Maddie and grabbed my camera, and we crouched behind a tree and watched in wonder.

The chicks really looked too young to be out, with their fluffy down still visible.Swallow fluffy They haven’t yet got the distinctive colouring of the adults, and they looked a little wobbly on that fence. But they were alert and all watching intently for the parents, who were bringing them insects every couple of minutes or so. They were noisey too, vying for the parent’s attention  enthusiastically each time they returned with food.

Feed me!

Feed me!

And we soon realised that they could fly. As we tried to move a little closer, they all took off and the sky seemed filled with swallows. After a minute or two they settled again on the fence and lunch continued.

Bramble noticed them too. She’s an accomplished hunter and I was worried for the chicks. I watched as she crouched low, slinking across the lawn to get a closer look. But Mummy and Daddy swallow were on the ball and both swooped fast and low at Bramble, missing her by centimetres and Bramble made a hasty retreat.

By late evening, all the swallows had gone. I’m hoping that they’re just roosting back in the stable and that they’ll be out again tomorrow for some more enthralling viewing.

Swallows feeding

Running the Gauntlet

When I met Stu, his nickname was “Forrest”. He loved running, and as he was growing up, his friends would often see him running round the village and shout “Run Forrest, Run!” from their car windows.

Runkeeper

I have never felt the same love for running. Vanity pre-wedding and post-baby had necessitated the use of a treadmill. And I must admit that the luxury of our own private gym at Mon Ami, without the judging eyes of superfit, lycra clad trainers, had meant that I did turn into a bit of a gym bunny. It was a good excuse to indulge in a soap opera or two as I pounded out the miles onthe treadmill. It became a habit and the fitter I got the easier it got. Stu, on the other hand, would still take any opportunity to run in the hills of the Nature Reserve next door than spend an hour glued to the telly in the gym. I have always found his love of outdoor exercise slightly odd as my limited experience had involved swallowing flies, avoiding dog poop and copious nettle stings.

So it was with a feeling of fear and dread, that a few weeks after moving to Fishponds, the realisation that there was no gym finally dawned. If I wanted to maintain any kind of fitness, and work off the wine and copious fish and chips that had been consumed, then I was going to have to venture outside and run the gauntlet of cross country running.

This was slightly different though. Running round the fields, I knew there would be no doggy doo, and no ramblers or dog walkers to dodge, red faced and breathless. So I downloaded Runkeeper and set off.

I couldn’t find the headphones for my phone which was a blow. I had to undertake this chore in silence without any tunes to keep me going.

A mile in and I had a revelation. The silence was golden. I could hear the birds singing, and creatures rustling in the hedges. I heard the church bells ringing from across the valley and the countryside revealed itself to me. I saw bunnies darting for cover as I approached. I watched swallows darting across the fields catching the evening midges for their chicks. I noticed that the pigeons wings squeak as they fly. I saw bluebells that I didn’t know were there and could smell their heady scent in the early evening air. The tall grasses had a pink haze and seemed to shimmer in the evening sun. And I saw our resident barn owl swooping elegantly across the field.

And I had time to think. My mind was clear and I started to make plans and mental notes, think through issues that I hadn’t had the time to deal with, and by the time the four miles were up, I felt like I’d done a whole day of mental admin.

And so I am hooked. I’m not saying it’s easy – far from it. There are hills to deal with, molehills to dodge, the occasional deer to avoid. And I ache. But the lure of what I might see, the peace and quiet, and the feeling of achievement are addictive and I’m already looking forward to running the gauntlet of the cross country course tomorrow.grass sunset

Why did the hedgehog cross the road?

hedgehog road

hedgehog close

It turns out that it wasn’t to see its flat mate. Although it could’ve been a close call. Maddie, Saffie and I were ready to stop traffic when we saw this little fella crossing the road but he made it across safely.

Saffie and I had seen him on the way to collect Maddie from school. We followed him along the pavement for a while until he disappeared into a hedge.

As we were telling Maddie about our exciting encounter, Maddie suggested that maybe that’s why they’re called Hedgehogs; because they live in hedges. So when we got home we googled it. And she was right. Apparently, the name hedgehog came into use around the year 1450, derived from the Middle English heyghoge, from heyghegge (“hedge”), because it frequents hedgerows and hogehogge (“hog”), because of its piglike snout.

Luckily for Maddie he reappeared as we were talking about him, and we managed to get a good close look.

So there you go. Not only did we get to see a bit of british wildlife that would normally require a night time stake out, but we also learnt something new.

hedgehog

“One mum went to mow…..”

mum & saff mower

Ride on mowers. One of those things that men of a certain age dream of. I know Stu had tried and failed to justify the purchase of one at Mon Ami, but with 15 acres to tend, there was now no excuse not to hit the shops.

The research was extensive ; bedtime reading was now the heavy plant machines of a John Deere brochure, not the fast cars of Evo. Discussions were had with anyone who knew about such things, and trips were made to specialist dealers around the south east.

If he’d had paid as much attention to ordering the kitchen then he might’ve remembered the oven.

But this was different. It had wheels.

And then it was delivered. And i feared that I’d lost Stu to the fields.

But in a moment of sincere benevolence, Stu asked if I’d like a turn? Millsy had already tried it out, and spent about an hour or so trundling up and down a field on it. But I was pretty non plussed. It was just another appliance for doing a job – and I spend enough time with the Dyson and the dishwasher thanks. But I accepted his offer, and was immediately hooked.

Saffie jumped on board and together we spent an hour in the sun whizzing round the fields. It was somehow exhilarating and relaxing all at the same time. The countryside seemed different being that little bit higher up; I noticed things I hadn’t seen before. We saw rabbits scampering for cover as we approached at speed, and even disturbed a rather magnificent pheasant who flew up out of the long grass right in front of us. Saffie squealed with delight the whole time, and i have to admit I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

I’m brokering a deal with Stu now to swap ironing for lawn mowing. And if I succeed, and the stripes are a little bit wonky, then it’s because I’ll be making the most of this wonderful chore (and the drinks holder) and sipping a nice cold G&T as I mow.mower away