Birding catch-up

For one or two reasons (one of which is small, cries a lot and is growing fast), I’ve done less birding than usual – but I’ve still managed a few bird photos. Sometimes this has been via a visit to a reserve;at other times we’re going for a walk and then – “hang on Jen, hold the baby, there’s a dipper / kestrel / wagtail over there”.

In August the three of us went to Watersmeet, just over the border into north Devon near Lynmouth. While we walked along the riverbank path, I caught sight of a very obliging dipper – which was very much a ‘hold the baby’ moment!


Dipper near Watersmeet

It soon flew off to a more distant boulder.


Dipper near Watersmeet

In the middle of September, Jen and I went for a walk through the Westhay reserve towards Mudgley one evening. On the way we had a lovely view of a roe deer in the evening Sun.


Roe deer at the Westhay nature reserve

Last month I went to Ham Wall on a day organised by Carl Bovis, an outstanding wildlife photographer who (amongst other things) runs the Somerset Nature Photography group on Facebook. He was also one of the exhibitors at the Eyes on Wildlife weekend!

During the day I finally managed to get a good photo of a cormorant: they’re not exactly pretty birds and generally just look black, and they tend to take a lesser priority than other birds (such as grebes), but this time the lighting was just right to make it look interesting.


Cormorant at Ham Wall

I spent much of the morning hanging out with Chris Hooper and Les Moxon – they’re far better photographers than I am! – but it was enjoyable spending time with them and learning from them. We spent a while at the Tor View hide where a Little Grebe provided much entertainment with its continual activity.


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Some of the wildlife photographers at Ham Wall from the Somerset Nature Photography group. Neil & Jan Fearnley; Chris Hooper; Les Moxon; Carl Bovis.

About three weeks later I went down to Ham Wall for an afternoon trip, and although the weather was good it was less productive photographically… except for some Iberian Water Frogs. As their name implies, they’re an introduced species but they have a certain froggy charm to them – and provide a tasty morsel for the local bitterns and egrets…


Iberian Water Frogs at Ham Wall

While we were in Cornwall, on our trip to the Lizard Peninsula last week, we came across a very obliging kestrel perched on top of a pole (and it was Jen who spotted it before I did!). I was photographing it for about five minutes before it flew off to a nearby fence-post. Although this new perch provided a view of more of the bird, the lighting wasn’t nearly as good as before – as a comparison of the two photos will show.


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula

Cornish present and past

We’ve just come back from a very refreshing week in Cornwall, staying at a cottage near Stithians. It was a great location for easy access to both north and south coasts, as well as Land’s End.

The best weather of the week was on the Tuesday when we went to the Lizard Peninsula. We walked from the Point (after a good brekkie for lunch!) to Kynance Cove, which was a wonderfully scenic route.


Kynance Cove from the Lizard Peninsula

Kynance Cove itself is a sheltered and picturesque bay; unfortunately we didn’t have long there because we needed to get back before sunset.


Kynance Cove


Looking south from Kynance Cove

On our return, a little person didn’t like being in his carrier, so we took a different approach…


Walking back to Lizard Point

As it happens, Dad’s family came from Cornwall, and his father was the rector of St.Mawgan-in-Pydar (along the north coast between Newquay and Padstow) in the 1920s. We decided to visit, and found it to be a very attractive village. The old rectory is huge – as the old Vicarage in Shapwick was before the fire around 1910. It’s a good indication of the change in culture of the UK over the last hundred years: although clergy today are very generously housed, there’s no comparison with the enormous houses of one hundred years ago. Either way, it’s all a bit different from the “Son of Man [who] has no place to lay his head”.


A couple of miles coastwards lies Mawgan Porth, a lovely seaside cove.


Mawgan Porth


Mawgan Porth near sunset

We had less fortune, weather-wise, when we went to Crantock, where Jen’s granmother lived and where her family used to go for summer holidays. It was greyer, windier and rainier, and the tide was in… but still good enough for a nice family photo!


First family visit to Crantock!

Holiday pics

One sign of a changed life is less time for blogs! I wonder why that might be…? Although a certain little baby is feeding on my left as I type…

Jen and I had a good holiday around the end of August. We spent the first week with Jen’s mum in Kenilworth, which meant we also saw lots of Andrew, Rachael, Sophie and George. Mat and Claire also came up from Devon with their younger two, Austin and Louie.

Despite having been to Kenilworth quite a few times, I’d never been to the castle before. It’s an impressive set of ruins, part of the charm of which is that it hasn’t been extensively renovated. Its most famous association is with Queen Elizabeth I, who visited three times when she was consorting with Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester. It had also been the site of the longest siege in English history in 1266.

Kenilworth Castle

Sophie is very excited about her little cousin; Joshua has a way to go with reciprocating…

Sunday lunch on a large scale… Clockwise from left: Louie, Claire, Sophie, Jen, Andrew, Margaret, Austin, Mat, George, Rachael

We then spent a few days with my Mum, almost literally on the Welsh border on the bank of the River Teme, which flowed at the bottom of the garden of the cottage we had rented.

View of the River Teme near where we stayed

The cottage was an idyllic location for wildlife – highlights being the nuthatches that regularly visited the bird feeders, and the grey wagtail that flitted around the river by the garden on one of the days.

One of the nuthatches which wwre frequent visitors.

Grey wagtail flitting along the Teme at the bottom of the garden.

On our final morning we went in search of the source of the river Teme – or at least, according to the map there’s an obvious stream which is the furthest of several at the upper end of the valley.

That’s the source of the river Teme – with Jen and Joshua.

Before heading back home late afternoon, we also managed a walk along Offa’s Dyke. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, very little is known about it, other than that it was built during the time of Offa, king of Mercia in the second half of the eighth century. It’s just possible this has something to do with Mercia being less significant than the Roman empire, a point which Offa himself might not have fully grasped.

A late lunch on Offa’s Dyke. (If you look closely, you’ll see two very small feet.)

Dad, where’s my fish?

For some strange reason I’ve had less time to go to the Decoy Hide recently – but Jen allows me a little self-indulgence once in a while!

This photo summarises the last couple of months on the lake. I was concentrating on the little egret, before it was photobombed by a grebe carrying fish for its chick!

Photobomb by a grebe while I was focussinhg on the little egret!

For once I had the sense to follow the grebe and was rewarded by one of my better feeding sequences.

Meanwhile I was less successful with the little egret photos because I kept on over-exposing – a flaw in a number of my photos this time!

Little egret picking prey off the lake surface

If you’ve ever tried to have a quiet romantic moment with your spouse and then one of your kids bursts in, you’ll feel some sympathy with one of the grebe pairs. They were going through a courtship ritual – in itself very unusual for midsummer, which made me wonder whether they were thinking of a second brood – only to be interrupted by little ‘un clearly wondering what on earth they were up to!

Ever tried to have a queit romantic moment with your spouse when the little one bursts in?

Mummy? Daddy? What are you up to? I’m hungry and need feeding!

Feeding the chicks was the consistent theme throughout the last couple of months – the only difference being the size of the chicks. However there has also been a change in the numbers of chicks: both of the closer pairs started with three but by mid-July were down to two, which conveniently meant that each parent could focus on one chick. The number of herons and egrets around makes me suspect the fate of the other chicks.

Eager chick, eager parent

The family of four opposite the hide

The third pair at the far end of the lake finally had chicks around the beginning of July – but I never saw them afterwards. Given the size of the lake I may simply not have seen them, but as I saw the parents a few times, I fear the herons may have had their way.

The third grebe pair with their two chicks

By mid-August there was only one nearly adult-sized chick left. This could mean one of two things: it could have been a disastrous few weeks for the grebes,or the bigger chicks may have flown elsewhere. I don’t know enough about grebe chicks to know when they disperse – but as they were already easily old enough to dive for protection some while back I am less sure they were gobbled up. In my experience grebes rarely fly, but of the five grebe flights I’ve seen this year, four were on my trip to the lake last week – which leads me to think that the older chicks may just have taken wing and dispersed.

This grebe flew in to have its portrait taken last week

One of my bogey birds, photographically, has been the great white egrets – which are large enough to seem easy to get. My luck changed at the end of June, though, when one arrived close to the hide and started hunting.

This Great White Egret strode around outside the Decoy Hide…

…before striking suddenly

Last week an immature egret showed up close to the hide as well (which you can tell by the all-yellow bill).

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Finally, a non-bird… I tend not to concentrate on the abundant dragon-flies,  but this four-spot chaser perched on a reed very close by.

Four-spotted chaser outside the Decoy Hide

Sleeping soundly and feeding prolifically: Joshua’s first month

It’s usually not considered good form to sleep soundly while people visit you – except when you’re just a few weeks’ old, and the whole ‘being alive’ thing seems only slightly more comprehensible than it was on day one.

Jen and I are learning loads – such as, making sure the frills on a nappy lie outwards, or there will be another leakage and another soiled babygrow. We’ve also learned that arriving somewhere doesn’t mean we’ll actually get to see much of where we’ve arrived: we’ve twice been to National Trust properties and spent two or three hours oscillating between the cafe and baby change faciliity. Despite these little challenges, we’re finding that the whole learning experience is very enjoyablzzzzz…

We’ve had a few guests, which has also been a privilege and joy. Both Margarets have stayed twice, and agreed with each other that my mum would be Grandma and Jen’s mum would be Grandmama (which she is to George and Sophie). While they were both here we went to viist Montacute House, near Yeovil. Andrew and Rachael have also visited a few times with Sophie and George: Sophie’s a little excited about her new cousin!

With the Grandmargarets on the clothes peg at Montacute House

In Yeovil with Rachael, Sophie, Andrew and George.

We were especially grateful to two sets of guests who insisted on cooking for us: firstly Sharon and Jon Whitmarsh who came with Harrison (why we didn’t take a photo when they were here I don’t know), and Charlotte and Jeffrey Bardell, who came with Mary and Katie (Jeffrey being one of Jen’s cousins).

Charlotte, Mary and Katie with Joshua. Photo by Jeff

Jen with Joshua in a sling

We bought an Ergobaby carrier as a must-have for taking Joshua on walks through the countryside… but then discovered that, in the hot weather, he overheated very easily. So we got hold of a sling as well. The sales assistant was astonished when I willingly tried on the sling – every other bloke she’d suggested this to had shied away. I said that I’d been softened up for this by my sister-in-law (Rachael) who’d first persuaded me to carry George in hers for a while.

I’d joked to Jen that we should get a sling in camouflage colours so that I could take Joshua birdwatching, so I was amused when the assistant said she had only black or khaki in stock – even Jen thought khaki was the better option given that choice!

We’ve even had guests over from the USA, though we can’t possibly claim that they travelled over just to see Joshua! First of all Alison Teply arrived with her youger daughters Lydia and Clara: Alison went to the same school as Jen in Warwick, and they both did research in Cambridge at the same time, before Alison got married and went to live across the pond.

Lydia, Clara and Alison Teply, Jen, Joshua yawning, and grandmama.

We were delighted also to welcome Ed and Nan McCallum, who are on their first trip to the UK. Ed was my pastor for a year-and-a-half when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-90s. I loved being part of New Covenant church because for me it was the first time that I felt part of a church family, and I greatly valued the friendships that grew there. It was great to be able to catch up with them about what’s happened in the 23 years since I left. After leaving Tucson, Ed served in Chicago at the headquarters of the Evangelical Presbyterian church (of which New Covenant Church was a part). He left recently to become part of ITEN, a mission agency dedicated to empowering and educating church leaders in the developing world.

Ed and Nan McCallum with Jen and Joshua

We were also delighted to meet with Richard and Catherine East, and their daughters Marianne and Amy, at Montacute House. They’re serving in Japan with OMF, working with students.

On the clothes peg at Montacute House with Amy, Marianne, Richard and Catherine East

We also did a barbecue for some local families who have recently had babies themselves: Lizzie came with Ewan and her older son Ollie, Rob and Rachel with Hugo, and Adam and Heather with Alice.

Rachael, Ollie, Lizzie, Adam, Rich, Jen, Heather – with Hugo (very alert), Joshua and Alice (not very alert).

Let me finish with a few other photos that we like.

Joshua with Jen

Dad time

Mum time


Moles and drought – plus a little owl

Just over a week ago, the three of us were going with Katie, a friend from London, along the back lane from Shapwick to Ashcott. I was focusing on Joshua so, if Katie hadn’t exclaimed, would have completely missed an unusual sight: a mole sprinting – as much as a mole can sprint – along the side of the lane. It crossed over and dived into a roadside ditch, just before a van drove past.

For once I managed to think quickly enough and realised that my iPhone was the best chance I had of recording the event.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

My delight at seeing a live mole for the first time in my life was tempered by the realisation that its running along the road – as opposed to going along a deep tunnel underground – was almost certainly a reaction to the drought.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that this is happening quite widely. On the Mammal Society’s Facebook page one member (“Bog Myrtle”) reported having come across four dead moles in her travels in West Dorset, and another came across two near Bristol – in both cases, in places where previously they hadn’t encountered any. A local Somerset photographer recently obtained a shot of a fox with a mole in its mouth. It’s not possible to quantify such anecdotal evidence but it does suggest that many moles are suffering badly because of the drought.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

I tried a little Internet research but couldn’t get much further than rather general statements. I read that in drought moles are known to head above ground in search of water. I also read that they go down to their deepest burrows, to find worms which have responded to drought by digging deeper. This is a little contradictory and I’m left with a feeling that there’s some guesswork going on.

Seeing this particular mole has prompted me to ask some obvious questions. What if the drought is so long that the worms descend below a mole’s deepest burrows? And what if the ground is so dry and hard that a mole can’t excavate any deeper? Would that not impel a mole in desperation to head in the opposite direction, up out of its network of burrows to find somewhere – anywhere – with food? Even if that meant sprinting along tarmac? And, more importantly, once it does that – what are its chances of survival?

I could easily have missed it, but I haven’t found evidence of research about the effect of drought on moles. This region could present a good one to study because there’s an interesting contrast between the dry Polden Hills, where this mole was running, and the marshy fields a mile away in the Levels, which remain moist not far below the surface. The weather conditions would be almost identical. Maybe this could be a potential project for a field biologist?!

Little Owl near Moorlinch

On a more cheerful note, Jen and I encountered a little owl near Moorlinch a few weeks back. I chanced upon it again a couple of weeks later and, as I happened to have a camera with me, stopped to photograph it. As these were my first decent photographs of an owl, I was well pleased. Nevertheless, I decided that it was worth trying for better photos… so a week later I obtained a pass out from Jen 🙂 and headed back to the Moorlinch area. I did a couple of circuits of the area, and drew a blank. Then I noticed a familiar shape on the top of a small barn, and gradually approached closer. It was a very obliging bird as by the end I’m sure it saw me directly, but didn’t fly off.

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Joshua’s arrival

We’re delighted to announce the arrival of Joshua into our lives! It happened the following way.

Jen with Joshua, just after they arrived in the delivery suite.

Jen went into hospital on Monday morning to be induced. Over the next couple of days she underwent the full course of drugs and underwent some rather uncomfortable contractions, but the drugs didn’t have enough of an effect. On Wednesday morning we were asked what we thought about a C-section because it was felt that at this stage, it would be the safest option. I said, “I have two criteria: healthy baby, healthy wife. I want what’s going to give the best guarantee of that”. We were both in agreement, so it was arranged for that afternoon.

Family portrait, about an hour after Joshua’s arrival

We went into the operating theatre – it felt slightly surreal being able to walk in, the last time I went in one of those I was being wheeled in for an operation on a broken nose. Jen was placed on the bed and I was given a chair by her head. A screen was erected between us and the operation “just so dad’s not tempted to take part”!

Mummy time

Our baby soon annouced his arrival with some loud screams, and a few minutes later (when he was freed!) he was presented to us – when we discovered that he was a boy! He was weighed at 3.46kg or 7lb 10oz.

Aw, mate, what’s up with the excessive fluffy language?

It took a while for the surgeon to sew Jen back up again – apparently this is the longest part of the procedure. At the end, the notes were re-assuringly terse! (I wouldn’t have noticed this if the nurses hadn’t laughed about it first!)

Dad time

Since then we’ve been getting to know our little son. Jen’s also been learning how to breastfeed, and the staff here have been excellent with their support. Apparently, it’s all about the latch…

Joshua kept Jen awake most of last night – which is apparently quite normal at this stage, with Jen providing colostrum with the milk yet to come through. Eventually at 5am a midwife took pity on her, swaddled Joshua (a technique we might want to learn), put him to sleep, and told Jen to get some rest. A few hours later Jen awoke to find Joshua sleeping peacfully beside her and a nice little handwritten note placed on him…

Joshua’s writing skillls are amazing for one so young…

It was lovely also that Lizzie from Shapwick was also having a baby at the same time – they were born less than eight hours apart. Jen greatly appreciated Lizzie’s friendly face at midnight after Rich had gone back to the Vicarage to throw out some z’s.

Lizzie with Ewan, born a few hours later

It’s probably not surprising that we’ve learned a whole heap of stuff that we didn’t expect to. Take swaddling. I’d read about it in a well-known baby book by Harvey Karp and thought it was a new-fangled, old-fangled notion that we wouldn’t be using. Until a midwife quietened a fractious Joshua at 5am by swaddling him… so we decided we had to learn how to do it.

Being taught how to swaddle Joshua

Our departure from the maternity ward was a ‘welcome to parenting’ experience. Let me summarise why it took three hours: last feed before departing, big poo, nappy change, big wee (which we were really excited about because we weren’t quite sure he was doing this), another last feed before departing, fetch car, extract car seat, discover that the car seat is set up all wrong and neither of us have a clue how to fix it, faff around for an hour before realising the secret lay in lifting the cushioning, really the last feed before departing, place Joshua in car seat, then realise we don’t know how to attach the car seat, more faffing, success and departure. Jen remained calm throughout.

We arrive back home, smiling as if we haven’t just survived a three-hour trauma half an hour previously

We really feel blessed by God in all of this – even if we do have some sleepless nights!

Joshua doing what he often does…