Monday, 23 February 2009

A trip to the valleys...

Just returned from a refreshing trip to the valleys of Wales, where we were lucky enough to beat the cold weather and have the first sips of Spring.

We lodged within bowshot of Harlech Castle, a beautiful ruin which still stands sentinel over the small seaside town.

Great flocks of rooks and jackdaws nest in its crumbling ramparts nightly, and I made a point of sitting out in the chill at dusk to watch and listen to their nighly soap operas as they came into their night quarters to share stories of great food caches and other corvid gossip. The aerial acrobatics of these birds in particular are superb, among the very best the avian world has to offer, but as they are common birds in most parts of the country, they get largely ignored.

Keep your eye on them when you can, they lead infinitely fascinating lives and are always worth watching on the wing.

We were also fortunate enough to catch up with ravens and even a colony of choughs high up on a mist-shrouded mountain top.

The Atlantic Sea also provided plenty of opportunity for seabird watching and the surrounding area of Snowdonia National Park is quite stunning with its omni-present gorse bushes. A spectacular retreat.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Cold hands - warm heart?

That's what they say isn't it?

Well, if that's the case, then I'm the warmest-hearted son of a gun out there.

My hands have been freezing in this weather - at least until I got them on the beauty above - a Peacock Handwarmer.

Using lighter fluid to soak a reservoir below, you hold a match over the gauze burner at the top to get it going - and then, as if by magic, the little treasure begins to glow, warm, warmer, hot.

Peacock handwarmers come in a couple of different sizes, complete with their own tartan sleeping bag to make sure you don't burn your little mitts. A superb product for the outdoor enthusiast.

To order, simply click here:

If you order more than one and mention The Amateur Naturalist, the kind people at GK Trading will do you a deal on postage. What more could you ask for?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Tracks and Signs...

While the heavy snows continue, I thought I'd mention something that's been playing in the back of my mind for a while now; tracking birds and animals.

I've been fortunate enough to witness this first hand on safari in Africa, and at that level, it has to be seen to be believed. From a mishmash of muddy bore holes across a rutted game drive and into semi arid desertland, one Zulu tracker I was with insisted we follow him as he had found the tracks of white rhino.

The ground looked more like the results of a weekend off-roading session to me, but we demurred and followed his expertise. To cut a long story short, we ended up tracking the rhino - after a while, he insisted there were actually three - for over an hour, in the end believing we were being led on a wild rhino chase.

But we found them alright on the plains, three of them as predicted. With sundowners over a crackling fire that night, our tracker murmured that he could have told us their age and sex too -but knew we wouldn't have believed him.

Youngsters in the African bush begin their learning in this incredible art by tracking insects and continue to move up into the bigger - and more toothsome - varieties of game. The very best trackers are highly sought after to lead safaris for paying guests.

But tracking of wild birds and animals is very possible here in the UK too, and it's something I've had more than a passing interest in for some time. I intend to study it some more following the sighting of some excellent tracks in the snow and will be returning to the subject on my blog, but thought I'd let you in on some excellent correlating blogs I've found during my research.

Check out this fine effort: Pablo is passionate about his wildlife and it shows. Well worth a half hour with a cup of tea.

This too, really whets the appetite to learn more:
The standard of these blogs amazes me, to be honest.

I will be studying these sites and more and will report back. In the meantime, I have got hold of an amazing book that deals solely with the tracking of birds in Britain and Europe, part of the series of Helm identification guides. To say it is comprehensive is like saying Pele can play a bit. Check it out.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Woodpigeon's Digestive Bottleneck...

Did any of you catch the Home Planet radio show on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday afternoon?

The last piece on the show featured a listener asking why woodpigeons were so 'greedy' when she was throwing out her scraps for the garden birds.

An interesting discussion followed, with eminent scientists discussing why the pigeon is almost constantly searching for, and eating, food in cold weather. Whilst they dismissed 'greedy' as merely a human trait, they did agree that the pigeon needs to keep eating because of a 'digestive bottleneck' when eating brassicas in cold weather, which effectively meant they had to eat a hell of a lot of foodstuffs which gave them very little sustenance. Just like our friendly neighbourhood oilseed rape then...

Anyway, the study on which this hypothesis is based was written up back in 1977 would you believe. I have tracked down a copy and will be studying it with interest to see if it highlights anything else useful about the amazing bird and worthwhile quarry, Columba palumbus. If you'd like a copy, email me at

You can listen to this episode of Home Planet here (Woodie part starts at 24 mins):

Monday, 2 February 2009

The Barometer Says Change...

And boy, is it correct.

Woke up this morning to a decent powdering of snow - and apparently, we were lucky. Other parts of the country were buried. At least that's what it sounded like on the news.

Poor old Londoners faced no trains, buses or tubes. How on earth will they get from one place to another? I'm being a bit sarcastic, but it does make me laugh how we get ourselves in a tizz the moment a few snowflakes fall.

In the quiet hedgerows and white topped-coppices this morning, the birds and animals I saw had more important things on their mind. Like how to find enough food today to get through another night. It made me feel guilty for being able to get back into a nice warm house and have a cuppa and it also reminded me to put out more bird food.

Several of the pigeons I have recently brought to hand have been thin, poor specimens and it beggars belief how a tiny Jenny Wren for example can survive these Arctic temperatures. I reckon the songbirds at least deserve every little bit of help they can get at the moment.