Fat Fledglings, Fish and Fluttering

A day in the garden – part 3

Hebe

Part two was all about the sounds I heard while spending the day in the garden – but what of the sights?

It’s amazing what you miss when you’re ‘busy’. Weeding, digging, planting, pruning are all rewarding activities if you’re into gardening, and you do get a pleasing result for your efforts.  But how often do any of us take the time to really look at what we’ve created and to raise our eyes beyond the fence to what lies beyond?

This is what I saw when I stopped and stared…

The garden is terraced – three levels in all. The top two levels are buttressed by beautiful, dry-stone walls built with sandstone reclaimed from the original croft buildings.  The lowest level can’t be seen from the house and it’s at the lowest level that you will find the pond – an amazing, little, bio-diverse ecosystem.  

Every spring the pond is a romantic rendezvous for zillions of toads and frogs. The massive bonkathon which takes place over several days is sound-tracked by the loud chorus of bullfrogs singing to their lady-loves. Afterwards these amorous amphibians disappear as suddenly as they came (so to speak) peace returns – only the trickle of the waterfall from the filter pump to be heard – and the pond is filled with spawn a foot deep. A few weeks later baby frogs and toads emerge and disappear just as their parents did – to where, I don’t know.

One of the many parents-to-be

The pond is one of my favourite areas of the garden – but I hadn’t been down there for weeks. You see I was in mourning. All our fish –about fifteen, gorgeous, fat, golden and blue orfe – which have thrived on our neglect for years, had died. Seen off either  by the extremes of last winter, despite the husband making air holes in the two-feet thick ice that persisted for weeks –  or, when Spring eventually came, taken by the heron which lurked at the pond’s edge for hours, days on end, biding his time till one of them swam into view. By June I was sure they were gone – sure that if they’d emerged from their winter stasis at the bottom of the pond, as they’ve done every other year, they’d ended up in the heron’s belly.

However, as I was on a mission to take in everything in the garden, I braced my self and descended the steps to the pond’s edge. waterlilies spread out across the surface – plump and indolent, red-hot pokers stood to attention on the bank at the far end, pond-skaters skimmed the surface of the water – and then I saw it – a flash of orange, then another and another, followed by the darting of two creamy-coloured shapes. Just by the lily pads – five fish! Three golden and two ‘blue’ (a misnomer as they are in reality cream) orfe.

Fish!

I did a little jig of celebration, punching the air, and shouting ‘yes!’ What survivors these little fish are – well some of them at least. Seeing them was at least as exciting as seeing a pod of about fifteen of common dolphins swim up the loch two days earlier – but that’s a tale for another post…

All the time that I was outside, I was aware of two sorts of fluttering on the periphery of my vision. Butterflies – Small Whites (also known as Cabbage Whites, I think) bobbed and weaved through the plants and, overhead, swallows swooped and soared constantly.

A little field mouse chancing her luck also darted into vision a few times – scrambling out from between the stones of the rockery wall to grab some bird seed from the slab of rock that serves as a bird table.

opportunist mouse

A colourful line of washing clapped in the stiff breeze – it would be dry within a couple of hours of being hung out. I know I’m probably a bit sad for feeling this – but I get a deep sense of satisfaction when surveying a washing line of clean laundry.

And, out on the loch, ferries heading to and from the Outer Hebrides made regular appearances while several fishing boats trawled for mackerel and shellfish. As it was a clear day the mountains on the island of Harris were easily visible when I looked north – dark purple against the blue sky and to the south the triangular peak of Ben Tianavaig was the distant focal point.

Overhead the sky was gentian blue and cloudless, the blue marked only by high vapour trails.

But just as it was the birds who provided the predominant sounds for my day outdoors, it was also the garden birds who were the predominant sight. True the plants came a close second in all their attention- grabbing glory but the birds were just so entertaining – as well as being in their glorious full HD colours. At one stage I counted fifteen different species all present at once. The most numerous were the chaffinches but there were also plenty greenfinches, siskins, blue tits, great tits, starlings, sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds and, the perpetually airborne, swallows and swifts. However, it was the appearance of a single robin that really made me smile. These little birds with their optimistic and heartwarming song are dear to many. We usually have a couple of breeding pairs in our hedges, but, while they’re raising their young, these always rather solitary creatures become even more withdrawn from bird society , so it was pleasing to see the return of at least one of their number.

Whole families appeared – parents and fat fledglings – the latter still flapping urgently, beaks agape, demanding to be fed – in spite of being larger than their mums and dads. At one point two parent sparrows and their four young lined up on the front wall – the parents flitted back and forth to the seed feeders and painstakingly filled their lazy youngsters bellies.

From my garden I’ve seen golden eagles, sea eagles, sparrowhawks, peregrines and I’ve even had a hen harrier sitting on the lawn –and awesome though those magnificent birds are, it’s their little garden cousins who really do my heart good.

upside down feeding!

By three o’clock in the afternoon, cloud began building – the northerly breeze replaced by the stronger and prevailing south-westerly. There was rain in the air by four. So it was time to gather in the washing and retreat indoors.

That night before going to bed I looked out at the garden and loch. Both were bathed in the light of  the big, bright yellow moon that peeped from between the fast-moving clouds. I realised the nights have got darker in the last couple of weeks – only a month ago it was still light at bedtime. I felt a slight pang that summer  – like life – speeds past so quickly but I also felt glad to have been blessed with the time to stand and stare at my corner of our beautiful, precious world.

If you want to see a full-screen slideshow of the photos (plus extras) in these last three posts click on this link to Flickr  A day in the garden July 2010

Low-flying Jets, busy bees and bickering birds

A day in the garden – part 2

'You go for a bath and I'll hoover up all this seed.'

Ah, the peaceful country life – not! Birdsong provided the backing track to my observations but there’s was lots more to be heard besides. There was the half-bark, half-cough of the ewes calling to their lambs and to each other. There was the deep bellow of a Highland (the large, ginger-haired, horned variety of cow native to these parts) heifer chastising her calves for playing a bit too roughly. This year’s little calf was winding up his brother, born last year. Junior was actually head-butting his sibling. Given that big bro’ weighs twice as much as the little one and has the beginnings of some pretty impressive headgear, I could see why mama cow was getting agitated.

'Leave me alone, little fella!'

I heard one animal noise I’m not familiar with – an intermittent sound –a cross between a snort and a throat-clearing. It came from next door. I peered over the fence. It was the new arrivals – two llamas. They seemed to graze for a wee while and then pause to snort to each other before resuming their chewing. As they stood tail to tail they reminded me of the push-me-pull-you in Doctor Doolittle. They’re a curious blend of camel and sheep – weird!

'Sheep are weird!' The llamas seem puzzled by this stumpy legged creature

The sound of intermittent squabbling between next door’s ducks and geese persisted for most of the day. There are ongoing skirmishes between the two species over water access – yesterday was no different. The geese harangued with their distinctive honking call and the ducks muttered and quacked back – in a literal flap. Also from next door came the cry of the resident peacock calling to his lady – it’s an almost eerie sound, a call full of longing – almost like human crying. I find it quite endearing.

At the bottom of the garden just over the fence, hens clucked and scrabbled in the field – tutting as they dodged cattle hooves and sheep kicks to get at grubs and seeds in the long tussocky grass. And the rooster followed his harem around, strutting like Mick Jagger in best ‘Brown Sugar’ mode, and crowing enthusiastically whenever the fancy took him.

A gannet kept watch on us all from the chimney-top, squawking out his complaints about goodness knows what. Every now and again he was buzzed by the ever-circling carrion crows and cacophonous, winged fisticuffs would ensue. I’m rather fond of crows – they are so intelligent – not the least bit bird-brained. We mainly get two varieties round here – the carrion and the hooded. The hooded lads are mostly peaceful, mind-their-own- business kinda guys – but the carrion crew are loud bully boys. I’ve seen them harry a sea eagle – apparently it’s not uncommon for them to work as a group to see off raptors who might pose a threat to their young.

As well as the chirruping of the small birds and a blackbird singing exquisitely from his perch in one of the rowan trees, the other backing track was a deep and loud hum – bees – many bees. The garden is edged all round with fuchsia which the bees adore. The hedges were full of bees as were the blue hydrangeas, the purple buddleias, the pink daisies, the mauve geraniums, the lilac hebe – yes okay – all the flowering plants. The drone was unpunctuated and I did take some time to track one of their number – what a work ethic as he systematically worked over one yellow potentilla bush.

busy bee

I couldn’t see the horses on the croft to the south of ours as the rosa rugosa bushes that grow against the drystane dyke that forms the boundary are too tall to see over at this time of year. But I could hear them snuffle and whinny – two grumpy old men having a blether.

But  all this noise wasn’t troublesome to me as I forayed through the garden. It wasn’t intrusive. I was able to think – to let my mind play and toy with all sorts of thoughts and notions, observations and reflections –  as I perched, crouched, squinted and scrutinised the plants and creatures all around me.

So when the two low-flying fighter jets materialised – with no approaching sound – roaring up the loch, below the level of the mountain ridge on the loch’s eastern flank, when that ultra-fast, earbusting, engine roar suddenly silenced every living creature on the ground, I thought I was having a cardiac episode of the terminal variety. What a fright! At the southern end of the loch they climbed and banked before turning to head back down the water and out into the Minch.

Mother Nature was momentarily silenced by Man’s fighting machines – that definitely gave me pause for thought. But soon the squabbles, skirmishes and social calling and the serious business of feeding had resumed and I got back to my safari.

Episode three to follow soon…

where the jets banked and turned

Llamas, bluetits and hairy cows

Shona, the Highland cow, and some other croft residents

The weather! They say us Brits are obsessed with it, but I was never so aware of it as I am on Skye. Unsettled, volatile and downright weird (not me, the weather) – it’s also an area of micro-climates so districts a few miles apart can experience completely different weather.

‘Eilean a Cheo’ is one of the island’s Gaelic names and it means ‘misty isle’. It’s a name the island often lives up to. Because of this, some short-stay visitors don’t get to see the mountains which dominate much of the landscape.

However, it could equally be called ‘rainy isle’, ‘windy isle’ or ‘sunny isle’ and all of these adjectives can apply within an hour – never mind a day. And whatever the weather, Skye is never less than stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful.

But on a sunny, blue sky day with enough of a breeze to keep the dreaded West Highland midge at home in bed, there can be few places on Earth to rival its ‘stop you in your tracks and make you gasp’ abilities.

Yesterday was such a day. The second in a row. The husband was away on a motor-biking trip, I was on holiday from work so I headed out of the house and into the garden.

The house I headed out of

Now, normally, spending time in the garden for me means  weeding, pruning, chopping – gardening of the ‘stopping the garden invading the house or becoming like Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year forest’ variety – with a little bit of creativity occasionally thrown in. But not yesterday – yesterday I just wanted to be outdoors – not labouring in the garden or going for a walk – but just being.

I didn’t want to sit passively in a chair and just gawp either. I wanted to be an active observer – to really see, hear, smell and feel (I drew the line at taste) life in the garden and on the croft and to do a bit of stopping and staring at the wider landscape that I normally take for granted.

Llamas, tits (blue and great, of the feathered variety) and big hairy cows are just some of the things I observed.

Great tit contemplates taking a bath

My next couple of posts will tell you more of what I found there…