Getting adventurous

Our front garden has now been home to four ex-batt hens for nearly two months. They settled in remarkably quickly, going from scared-of-their-own-shadow to we’ve-always-been-here in just a few weeks, and taking bully-chicken Willow and chicken-herder Holly in their stride.

Having previously kept chickens raised in a non-intensive environment, there are some obvious differences with my new flock. They are still quite jumpy, for instance if Holly charges through the garden or I throw food on the floor, but are otherwise fearless. They refuse to obey Willow’s pecking order, much to her frustration. She is top hen, but the others show her no deference whatever. And they eat absolutely anything, including shredded paper and aromatic plants. I dare not introduce foxglove to the garden, as I’m certain they will eat it. They also love layers pellets, while my previous birds would avoid their ‘proper food’ if there was even a whiff of something tastier.

The strangest reaction has been from Willow. She was so outraged that the new birds had invaded her territory that I was worried at first if I’d done the right thing. But now Willow fights to get her share of layers pellets. Willow eats plants she never before touched. And Willow eats the paper bedding. Anything they have, she is going to bloody well have, and before they get at it.

My ex-batts are also far more adventurous than I expected. One of them has been spotted on top of the garden hedge, which at six feet is an impressive height. Then this morning I found two of them – wait for it – in my office. The furthest room in the house: up a flight of stairs, along a corridor and then down a few more stairs. And yes, there was poo on the carpet. Holly was there too. I really wish she would learn to herd the chickens out of the house.

Relaxing

Relaxing

Um, what are you two doing here?

Um, what are you two doing here?

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Off you go…

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Now back down the stairs…

Settled in? I think so!

Settled in? I think so!

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Goodbye, hello

A short while ago I had to say goodbye to one of my diminishing flock of chickens. Ivy Chicken had stopped laying, and I was already suspicious of another malfunctioning chicken when she took a turn for the worse. Do I hope for the best, find someone who will ‘do the deed’ for me, or give the vet a go? Ivy was always the least friendliest/most flighty of the flock, but I needed to know – am I losing chickens because I’m doing something wrong? I was fairly sure after hitting the chicken forums that the problem was something called egg yolk peritonitis, a genetic problem (due to overbreeding for egg production) with no cure. I needed to know (and there was still hope, after all) so off to the vets we went.

The vet agreed with me – egg yolk peritonitis. Some people do attempt treatment with antibiotics, but we both agreed this would merely delay the inevitable, and Ivy was not going to be a good patient, so that was that. Now I only had one chicken.

Poor Willow Chicken. There is no sadder sight than a lonely chicken. Do I buy her some friends or go the rescue route? I called the British Hen Welfare Trust, and they had very good news: there were still some hens left over from the last rehoming day. So that Saturday we went to pick up our new flock. As Willow has always been Top Hen, we asked for well-feathered birds. Apparently we are in a minority, as usually people ask for the ‘oven ready’ birds if they express a preference.

Well, I shouldn’t really be surprised that Willow Chicken went from The Loneliest Chicken In The World to the Meanest Monster Bully Ever. I popped the new birds in the coop for an hour to settle, but when the first bird ventured out feathers started flying – literally.

It took a week for Willow to calm down her bullying. Although the newbies all got out of her way when she pecked them, they were so used to being treated roughly that they just ignored her, and you cannot be Top Hen if you have no Fawning Minions to obey you.

I’ll write more about how the newbies are settling in later. For now, here are some pics…

Beautiful, unfriendly, Ivy Chicken. RIP

Beautiful, unfriendly, Ivy Chicken. RIP

Holly meets new chickens

Holly meets new chickens

Willow Chicken is Not Amused

Willow Chicken is Not Amused

Settling in

Settling in

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Home again

It’s hard to imagine now that before moving Up North, My Taller Half and I spent six years living in Southend-on-Sea in Essex.

Southend is where miles of suburban flatlands meet miles of Thames estuary mudflats. Terrible for hillwalking, fantastic for wildlife and birdwatching. While I longed for the hills, I can’t deny that I also enjoyed the coastal wildlife, seafront pubs and promenade walks.

Occasionally I get dragged down to Southend for work purposes, and this week I spent two nights in my former home. After an interesting evening train journey from Liverpool Street to Southend Victoria*, I decided to walk the promenade from the pier towards Westcliff.

(*the whole train was humming, loudly, for the entire journey. The commuters seemed oblivious, I nearly pulled the emergency cord. The train operator was clearly embarrassed by their trains – there was no clue from within the carriage as to who they were).

While waders are now returning to the British uplands, whose who breed in the arctic are still waiting for winter to lose its grip, so I was thrilled to see little white birds, busy as ants, glowing in the night against the sea defences by the pier. Sanderlings. Thirteen of them (I counted twice). My absolute favourite bird (apart from starlings, oh and tree sparrows, and don’t forget spotted flycatchers…). Totally oblivious to my presence, eschewing the wader’s high tide sleep in order to fatten up for their impending journey.

A little further on and my slight nerves at walking in the dark in a town are now gone (how easy it is to forget how to cope in once-familiar places). A tight flock of sanderlings are sleeping right next to the promenade. About thirty, although this time I didn’t count. One or two feeding, the sleepy ones fluttering their wings and occasionally jumping slowly into the air. So trusting. I want to scoop them up and take them home.

I nearly go back to the hotel for my forgotten camera. It has a night time setting but I doubt I’d be satisfied with blurry sanderling shots, so I carry on.

I pass the Westcliff casino (always changing its name, still looks the same). Lots of cars parked in the bays between the traffic lanes. I spot a fox ahead. It’s found something tasty next to a car, clearly thrown out by the lazy occupant. Rural foxes are not brave – a rare treat to see one in Weardale. I stop so as not to scare this one off.

The fox gives up on its dinner and trots towards me. I hold my breath. It stops in the road, close now. A car beeps its horn, startling me, not really bothering the fox, who is now walking right past me on the pavement and then heading to the bin behind me and then back into the car park to look for more discarded food.

I get one more chance to visit the seafront on the morning of my last day. The tide is nearly in, but only one sanderling in sight and three Brent geese. I say my goodbyes and look forward to the trip home. This time I make the effort to travel the C2C line to Fenchurch Street (took me ages as a C2C commuter to realise the C stands for both City and Coast). Modern train, coastal views. I think to myself that I’d never have managed four years as a commuter if it wasn’t for the views from the train window.

Fast forward a boring but uneventful journey home. I’m getting off the bus at Wolsingham. I look up, and there are thousands of starlings gliding in the air above me. Sanderlings and foxes forgotten, what a treat to be back. Starlings can form huge roosting flocks in the winter, and I can’t believe these guys are still hanging around. Maybe like the sanderlings they are waiting for spring to arrive in their breeding grounds?

I should be hurrying home, but I enjoy the starlings circling above me when one of them dives down into the trees behind the main road. Two, three seconds pass, then starlings start pouring out of the sky in their hundreds and into the trees. I stand and watch for what seems like an age as the cloud of starlings, pendulum-like, arc over these trees, a small group pouring down at each pass. Eventually all the starlings are earthbound and I am released to go home.

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Murmurings

It started a couple of weeks ago. First a trickle, then a torrent. Starlings are on the move and a large number of them have decided that Wolsingham is a great place to hang out. And I get a ringside seat.

Starlings gather to roost in large numbers over the autumn/winter period. Before they settle they spend up to an hour flying together in fluid flocks known as murmurations.

I’m guessing that the starlings roosting in Wolsingham right now are gathering before heading off to their spring breeding grounds – they certainly didn’t winter here. Why they’ve chosen Wolsingham and how the newcomers know where to turn up I have absolutely no idea, but I’m not going to miss this photographic opportunity, especially as all I have to do to get the best view is open my window.

So for the last week or so, I’ve taken every opportunity to capture this spectacle, and I’ve even started getting creative (aka arty-farty) with my shots. Take a look for yourself. Unless they all decide to bog off tomorrow, consider this a work in progress.

A photo from each day I’ve been photographing:

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At first they arrived in small numbers

Only a small murmur, but making interesting shapes

Only a small murmur, but making interesting shapes

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Experimenting with black and white now

Getting a closer look

Getting a closer look

Going all arty-farty

Going all arty-farty

A step too far?

A step too far?

For more photos, check out my Starling Murmuration flickr album

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Best laid plans

Winter 2012/13 was pretty amazing (if you like snow). When I look back at the photos I took, from December through to early April almost every photo features the white stuff. It was also memorable because border collie Holly joined us in December, and her first ventures beyond the garden gate were snow-crusted. Holly loved snow.

Winter 2013/14 was a bitterly disappointing one. Autumn weather never really left us, and snow showers were fleeting. One of Holly’s toys had survived puppyhood, and I’d been harbouring a secret ambition to get a shot of her running in the snow with the same toy she loved so much as a puppy.

Holly in March 2013, playing with Blue Rope in the snow

Holly in March 2013, playing with Blue Rope in the snow

This week has seen our first decent snowfall of Winter 2014/15. I dug out Blue Rope (all Holly’s toys are named. We have forgotten some of them, but Holly hasn’t). Holly refused to play with it. If there is snow on the ground, it’s now snowballs or nothing. No negotiation.

So I’m still waiting to get my shot. In the meantime, here’s Holly catching a snowball.

Holly catching a snowball, photo taken yesterday

Holly catching a snowball, photo taken yesterday

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Two disappointments

Today we had two disappointments. The first one involved our border collie Holly. The second involves our house.

Disappointment #1 Holly

Today was Holly’s first practice run at going to Doggie Daycare. We’re not planning to abandon her or become part-time dog owners, but just occasionally we might want (or have) to go somewhere she wouldn’t enjoy. A small town, for instance.

We’d already had an assessment. “She’s a bit anxious, but after a few practice visits she’ll settle down”. When we got there (driving through snow – see how dedicated we are) she knew where to go and seemed happy. Just as we were arriving back home to do some sneaky DIY I got the call. “We’re having a few issues. You’ll need to pick Holly up…”.

It all started out well. Holly went on a walk and was well behaved. Then something changed. Back at base all her defensive instincts kicked in. “I’m alone. Abandoned. This is dangerous. Don’t touch me!”.

Looking after a dog with separation anxiety is a real pain. Sally from Doggie Daycare explained that with time and one-to-one attention Holly would settle, but they have a lot of dogs to look after and her anxiety is just too big a problem for them to cope with right now. Holly will never survive in kennels.

So I’m feeling disappointed, and I can see a lot of hard work ahead for us. It’s just lucky we don’t enjoy holidays abroad, and that our families don’t hate us for not visiting them ever.

Holly taking it out on the pond (not really - she loves this game)

Holly taking it out on the frozen pond (not really – she loves this game)

Disappointment #2 Floorboards

We had planned to use Doggy Daycare Time to take up the carpet in our hall to see what was underneath and to make plans for sorting out the upstairs floor.

We’d convinced ourselves we had floorboards in the hall, but were not sure about the bedroom. Guess what – no floorboards!

Right now we’re a bit deflated. We now have no hall carpet, and frankly, it looks like a building site. This is not a disaster though, but a spur to action. Next weekend is going to involve choosing flooring (it will be wood or laminate. No more dirt-loving carpet). Joiners may or may not need to be involved, but pretty soon (relatively speaking) we will have lovely flooring upstairs. That’s going to be a big tick in our home improvement programme.

Look - no floorboards

Look – no floorboards

Two disappointments in one day. Two journeys to take. One should be straightforward, but one will be hard. We will learn on the way, and get there in the end.

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Goodbye 2014, hello 2015

What have I been up to in 2014? Obviously not blogging (sorry blog). The Wolsingham Wayfarers have taken up a lot of my attention. I’m the ‘official’ walks photographer, and I manage the website, twitter and facebook page. Just google Wolsingham Wayfarers if you want to take a look.

The other thing that’s been taking my attention is the house. We’ve had a new boiler, new kitchen, floor tiles put in, and a wood burning stove installed this year. There’s still lots to do, but we’re getting there.

The allotment is ticking along but still needs love. My fruit trees are establishing, I’ve dug out the old raspberries and replaced them, and I have more kale and sprouts than even the chickens can eat. I have clubroot (boo, hiss) and the soil is pretty exhausted. I must get some more manure on the plot.

Holly is still a mad border collie, but she is starting to calm down now she’s two. She is starting to make doggie friends and is better at travelling, but still has a bad car/jogger/cyclist/cow obsession: as far as she is concerned, they are all dangerous and must be chased off. She adores the beach, so more trips to the seaside next year.

In the garden, it’s been a good year for tree sparrows. I now have a flock of around 30 visiting daily. They mingle with the rather larger population of house sparrows, and Vine House Farm are doing very well out of it (sparrows love the finch mix). I think the chaffinch and greenfinch populations have crashed locally due to the trichomonosis disease. Hardly see any these days. It hasn’t all been rosy with my chickens either, as Rowan and Hazel died this year. Willow and Ivy are currently thriving and rule the garden.

That was 2014. What about next year? I’ve decided that 2015 is going to be all about my photography.

I’m going to:

  • redress the balance between taking photos for the Wayfarers and taking photos for me. It’s really the processing that takes up the time, so I’m going to buy myself a nice little digital camera to take photos on Wayfarers walks and for dog walking
  • take fewer, but more considered photos with my DSLR camera
  • get back into Flickr in earnest
  • start printing my images

What’s going to happen to my blog?

I’ve been really neglecting Muddy Tracks for the last couple of years. I love writing, but just never seem to have the time. I may have to give in and get a laptop or tablet so I can write in front of the TV. I’ll try to be good. You are allowed to nag me.

That’s it. Let’s hope that 2015 is better for everyone than 2014 was.

Snowy day in Weardale. More snow please!

Snowy day in Weardale. More snow please!

Holly at Blackhall Rocks. Expect to see more photos like this in 2015

Holly at Blackhall Rocks. Expect to see more photos like this in 2015

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