Red Squirrels in the Trossachs

It has to be said that red squirrels are extremely cute critters! I spent a few days up in Strathyre in Argyll at the end of last week, and greatly enjoyed being able to watch them for a while. As with their grey cousins, the best way to attract them is to feed them…

Red squirrel feeding

Red squirrel feeding

Looking cute

Looking cute

I was watching them from a portable hide but it didn’t take long before I was spotted… but the nuts were enough to outweigh any perceived danger.

I've been spotted...

I’ve been spotted…

On the alert

On the alert

Looking cute

Looking cute

Much as the squirrels looked cute and cuddly, being a squirrel is obviously serious business – especially when spring is just approaching… These two clearly weren’t able to abide each other’s presence…

A serious skirmish took place between two of the squirrels...

A serious skirmish took place between two of the squirrels…

...which had the scampering around the tree trunk, muttering all the while.

…which had them scampering around the tree trunk, muttering all the while.

Of course, I didn’t just watch squirrels all the time… it was a stunning location and had it not been for the wildlife I would have headed for the hills.

Benvane from Loch Lubnaig

Benvane from Loch Lubnaig

Loch Lubnaig near sunset

Loch Lubnaig near sunset

A red admiral in January

I was doing some work in my bedroom when I glanced out of the window and noticed a butterfly fluttering outside. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – but it’s still January and butterflies don’t do winter, do they? So I emailed the charity Butterfly Conservation  and had an unusually interesting response. It’s all down to global warming, apparently, and this insect is a clear indicator:

Many thanks for your message and your sighting. We’ve received quite a few Red Admiral sightings during January from across southern Britain. It is normal to see Red Admirals in the winter nowadays, but your surprise is justified because 10 or 20 years ago it would have been extraordinarily astonishing to see one.

Red Admiral butterly by Jim Asher of Butterfly Conservation

The status of the Red Admiral butterfly in the UK has changed over that time from being just a summer visitor and breeding species, which arrived from southern Europe in the spring and departed in the autumn, to being a year-round resident. Some still migrate of course, but there is now a substantial permanent population that stays here during the winter. It is now our most commonly seen winter butterfly, by far. What’s more, Red Admirals continue to breed here during the winter, so there are also Red Admiral caterpillars around right now.

Unlike our other butterflies, which are tucked away in hibernation during the winter, Red Admirals do not go into a proper hibernation. They simply roost on days of bad weather and then wake and fly around when the conditions are better.

Best wishes

Richard Fox

Butterfly Conservation

The other astonishing thing about this is the realisation that these flimsy wings could migrate hundreds of miles…

Goosanders remain amongst my favourite birds, so when I read that there were half a dozen at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to see them. Goosanders are like mallards in being ducks in the way that Beethoven is like Kylie in being musicians: none of this tame quacking on the lake shore, goosanders are majestic birds that generally don’t like humans and for food prefer to dive for fish. I arrived at Woorgreens and to my surprise saw a whole flock of them on the far side of the lake – 23 in all, and 19 in the picture below.

Goosanders at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean (click to enlarge)

It’ll be demanding image rights next…

Now I admit my limitations as a wildlife photographer, but just once in a while some creature poses to have its picture taken. What better place than Slimbridge, you might think, with lots of unusual bird species. A pity that the animal in question is a mammal which lacks any rarity value at all…

I don’t often get too excited by video clips on the Internet, but the Russian crow tobogganing down a roof on a jamjar lid is a major exception. Crows are known for clever examples of tool use… but this is a crow using a tool just to have fun. This blows away any notion that birds are concerned only about the grim realities of survival. It’s possible that, when a bird sings, it’s not just trying to attract a mate, or just defending a territory – but actually enjoying itself at the same time…

Renegades for the Kingdom

Being back in Cheltenham may not have been Plan A for the summer, but there are some definite advantages. One of these is being able to be a part of  the “Kingdom Renegades” prayer group on Thursday nights. The meeting this week seemed like a significant occasion: the group grew from a prayer triplet involving Dave Slight, Wes Wright and myself, but for various reasons this was the first time in over three years that the three of us have been in the meeting together. God is good!

The Shakka Bongie boys: Shane, Jonathan, Matt, Wes and Dave; Rob, me and Phil

We have an expectation that God moves in supernatural ways – that is, after all, His nature. There are a variety of significant sources of inspiration for us, which include the New Wine network, Bethel Church in Redding, California of which Bill Johnson is the pastor, and Justin Abraham’s Company of Burning Hearts.

Dave and Camilla

On Friday night Dave Shill and Wes held a joint birthday meal at a local Indian restaurant, which was a great chance for a good get-together. As teenagers they were both in the same swimming team and have remained friends since. Dave now battles with MS – and does so with courage and cheerfulness.

Meanwhile, an obstreporous grey-haired individual is cross with me for not including him in my final post from Durham, so I am obliged to end this one with him…

Feeding red squirrels

First sighting of red squirrels

Sometimes you just get lucky.

A few days ago I happened to be looking at the website of a local wildlife photographer, Derek Bilton, and saw some very impressive photos of red squirrels. I therefore emailed and asked him where he’d taken them. He told me they were part of the Berwick Hill colony, and gave me instructions on how to get there. “Take some food”, he said, “and when you get there you’ll see some logs. Place the food there, retreat and wait. You may have to wait about half an hour.”

So, after three heavy days of the “Death & Dying” block module, I decided I needed some refreshment, and headed out there.

I found the logs exactly as Derek described, placed the nuts and seed on the logs – you see, all  that training I gained by feeding the greys in Durham has been put to good use! – and then retreated. I settled in to wait for half an hour or so.

It’s so not fair when someone else gets to the food first…

A couple of minutes later a red bundle of fur bounced into view. It settled at the bottom of a tree trunk. After a bit of activity I decided to try photographing it. On the third shot, as I was pressing the shutter, a second squirrel came down the trunk and into view!

I was then entertained for the next half hour by three squirrels, feeding, running, chasing each other at high speed, and dashing up and down tree trunks. The nuts and seed were obviously to their liking. Having never seen red squirrels before, I was amazed to have such a wonderful first encounter with them.

For a squirrel, there is such a thing as a free lunch…

Shaping the Church

“Sweaty church”, “Questioning Church” and “An organic community for the elderly” – these were some of the topics being discussed over the last couple of days, in an MA study block on “Can Mission shape the Church?”. It’s been an intensive time, largely focussed on student-led seminars which have often sparked heated discussion.

John Lee told us about “Sweaty Church”, a new initiative at St. Paul’s, Holgate (where he’s the vicar and where, coincidentally, I spent a week last July). For young boys, Sunday mornings often clash with football, and church somehow seems a less attractive option – so the church has come up with an afternoon event primarily for boys and their families. It combines boisterous fun and Bible-based teaching, and has already proved to be a hit with young families in the area.

A couple of the seminars looked at the needs of the elderly, and the realisation that their needs conflict with those of young families – but that mid-week lunch clubs can be effective ways of serving them and providing church.

Many of the sessions were very thought-provoking. Mike Loach, a former Philosophy teacher, challenged us with “Questioning Church”, saying that too often church does not provide a healthy environment for honest questions. An hour later, Dan Pierce was arguing that the essence of church is that it should be for the whole of society, not just small sub-units – and he was sharply critical of the tendency of many Fresh Expressions to be aimed at distinct sub-cultures. (TubeStation, which reaches surfers in Polzeath in Cornwall, is a well-known example.) While I wasn’t fully convinced by their arguments, the debates that both Mike and Dan sparked were really good.

The squirrel is back…

Anybody would think I’d put the feeder at this height just for her!

I ended up doing the first seminar on Monday morning – which was good because people were at their most alert and attentive! One of the questions I asked was how church should reach people in Urban Priority Areas. I asked it because the answer seems to be both clear and costly: church leaders need to live on the estates that they hope to reach. This way, people get to know them for who they are, and genuine relationships are built up. For example, the key leaders at Stockton Community Church, such as Duncan McAuley on Victoria Estate and Tony Grainge on Easterside in Middlesbrough, do exactly this. Tony has recently become part of the Eden Network, which has had a dramatic impact on the youth of a number of urban estates across the country – because team members have moved onto the estates.

Doing this course has been one of the highlights of the teaching here – because I feel better equipped for my future calling by doing it.

School days

St. Aidan’s, Darlington. Image from

As it was Schools’ Week at Cranmer, Phil Morton and I spent three days at St. Aidan’s in Darlington. Three years ago it was a failing school, locally reputed to be the worst in the country. Now with a visionary leadership team and having moved into an architecturally impressive £16m new building, it is being transformed into a school with a real buzz in the air.

We were guests of the chaplain, Sally Milner, who enabled us to chat with staff and students. Most revealing were the conversations with some of the year 11s. Asked what had changed most at the school, every single one said either ‘behaviour’ or ‘discipline’. It was striking how they enjoyed having a disciplined environment. In fact, both Phil and I were impressed by the air of calm in the school.

We led an assembly one morning – based around a ten-minute tour of the universe! Then Phil used Psalm 8 to say that the same God who created this magnifient universe is the same God who loves and cares for each individual person in the room. We also enjoyed a couple of “Grill-a-Christian” sessions with two of the year 7 classes – both classes were lively and engaged.

The evidence

Wildlife antics

On Tuesday I came back from St. Aidan’s to find that the bird feeder had fallen off – having little doubt as to the culprit, I thought “Poor squirrel, it must have had a shock”. I then observed the bag of bird seed whch I had carelessly left under an open window.

I present the evidence in the image at left. Note the pile of sunflower seed husks on the floor (lower arrow). Next, note the small hole carefully nibbled in the side of the bag (red circle). Finally, observe the slightly open window (top arrow).

Clearly, while I had been gone, a squirrel had got into my room, sat on the floor, enjoyed a pleasant meal and, when it was replete, departed whence it came. I rest my case.

Sedge warbler, really giving it the chirp, and a linnet who thinks he’s more handsome.

On Saturday morning I made an early start, as I wanted to see how the Great Crested Grebes had done which I’d seen before. Having parked in a side road, I was immediately drawn to activity in the nearby bramble hedge – in particular a very loud, rasping warbler. My identification skills are not great, and for me warblers are at the limit, so I decided to take a photograph for later study. As I did so I noticed a flurry and found myself snapping a female linnet instead. The male posed on a nearby stem moments later. I’d never seen a linnet before – but this one was not difficult to identify! (Back home I discovered that the warbler was ‘just’ a sedge – but I’m unlikely to forget it in a hurry)

The Great Crested Grebe family: three chicks, one hitching a ride.

A furry encounter

I was slowly waking up the other day when I was jolted awake by an extraordinary commotion on the bird feeder. I carefully pulled back the curtain – to find myself face to furry face with a squirrel sitting in the feeder!

Needless to say, I was torn between the thoughts of having all that lovely finch food nicked – stolen! – by this character, and thoughts of the photo opportunity this presented.

Uh-huh, so you wanna see how I did that? It’s quite clever, even if I do say it myself. I put my paws here and here – do you like how I did that? And then, look…

…here I am in the feeder. Eating your seed. Isn’t that clever of me? And the funny thing is, there’s a whole pane of glass between you and me, so you can’t get me…

…but, because I’m so fair-minded, I’m even going to leave some food for your finch friends!

Golden Plover on Bollihope Common

My other wildlife encounters over the weekend were more expected. I went for a walk on Bollihope Common, in Weardale, and saw large numbers of curlew, lapwings and golden plovers. The amazing thing about these birds is that they’ll spend their winters trekking about on the soft mud of estuaries like the Severn or Tees – but they breed up on high moorland, which seems about as different an environment as it could be. I’d love to know why they choose such contrasting places.

And as a cricket nut since my non-sportsman grandfather introduced me to the game (“I’ll be Derek Underwood and you can be John Snow”, he said), I have to add a note to celebrate the fact that England have finally won a world tournament! An outstanding achievement by a great team.