It seems extraordinary that November is already here but the signs of winter’s approach have been all around for a while. Skeins of geese have been coming in for a good couple of weeks – usually barnacle but we see the odd gaggle of pink-footed too – and the occasional hooting sounds from a flypast of whooper swans really make my skin tingle. We have large flocks of redwing and fieldfare clacking and hissing like fire-crackers all up and down the lane and we’re still optimistic that one day a waxwing will bring all its friends to McMurdoston for a visit. Neighbours just down the road saw a couple last year, so we live in hope and continue to plant berry-producing trees…
It astonishes me just how many flowers are still around, even though we’ve had a couple of frosty mornings now. Campion never seems to give up, unless covered in snow, but I’ve also seen pink purslane, buddleia and ground ivy in sheltered places and the honey bees are still feasting on the ivy up and down our drive when it’s warm enough for them to emerge. We had a great honey year in 2018, with two harvests of the delicious stuff, so much, in fact, that I had to resort to buying jars instead of relying on my usual stores. The same went for apples and the shed is still full of buckets of them, waiting for my new juicer to arrive. This is despite having made jams and jellies, pies and crumbles and given about half a ton to the local donkey sanctuary where they were apparently enjoyed by not only the usual inhabitants but also the ponies, the pig and the tortoises. I can’t bear to waste them.
So, the wood-burner is lit, the cats are comatose in front of it and I’m getting my 2019 bookings diary up to date for next year. We’re hoping that we can continue to lure a few more visitors to stay with us at McMurdoston – both human and animal. Many of our guests (human!) are now returning for the second, third or even fourth times, which couldn’t be more of a compliment. Mind you, I have to admit that I feel just as chuffed when I see the red squirrel returning to our feeder or a hedgehog scurrying past the back door, or – as just now – a lanky leveret scampering down the lane in front of the car.
… oh dear, I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I wrote here. I must try and do better. Part of the problem was that the snow-laden winter seemed to last so long that, by the time spring eventually happened, everything in the garden grew so enthusiastically fast that I’ve hardly had any chance to do anything recently other than mow or snip or weed. Or water! After such a chilly winter the heat of May took us by surprise and I’ve practically grown watering cans as permanent arm-extensions!
McMurdoston’s bird residents continue to entertain us – particularly the swifts, swallows and house martins as they return from warmer climes. I think we have more than last year but it always takes a while to assess, so I’ll update later in the season. The tree and house sparrows have become so at home here that they have been competing with the house martins for nest sites and we have even found ourselves shoo-ing off sparrows in favour of martins. In the end it’s up to nature, but it’s a hard balancing act sometimes. This is also true in gardening terms… I struggle to keep the place looking ‘kempt’ whilst also maintaining wildlife-friendly habitat. Having a large family group of hedgehogs here means leaving areas unmowed and unstrimmed in a desperate bid to offer comfortable accommodation to these wonderfully charismatic guests.
Luckily, in terms of our human guests, things have continued to look good so far as local hostelries are concerned. The Auldgirth Inn is going from strength to strength, having won ‘Scotland’s best gastropub’ just recently, and had the brilliant idea of laying on a minibus to take local customers home after they have had a chance to sample its culinary joys. Delicious!
My blogging has been quiet recently due to a lull in activity all round – it’s that funny time of year when the weather controls things for the most part and the short daylight hours give lots of excuses to sit in front of the fire, contemplating life…
So far as wildlife is concerned we have been happy to discover a local murmuration of about a thousand starlings – always a hypnotic treat. We’ve also had success with our camera traps, in that we now have evidence that the red squirrels seem to move deeper into the woods over Winter. I’ve got footage of two chasing each other around a tree, which gives hope of more kits to come, and a couple of clips which seem to suggest jays and red squirrels really do not get on at all – too much competition for nuts I suppose. The roe deer seem totally unfazed by cameras strung round trees and the badgers are just much more interested in trying to demolish and empty the feed boxes with which we attempt to attract creatures of all sorts.
Anyone who looks at our Facebook page will already have seen this, but if you haven’t, perhaps you might like to take a look at some rather mysterious footage I got a week ago or so behind the house and put on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJgxkc1bB8g&feature=youtu.be .
Let me know if you have any suggestions as to what the ‘Scary Beastie’ might really be!
A couple of weeks ago the newly refurbished Auldgirth Inn opened its doors to the excited population of Dumfries and Galloway. Steve continued to visit the bar he and his friends enjoy there and met the new staff and manager. Menus were speculated over, decor was discussed, opening hours, staffing and wine lists all hotly debated . . . I became more and more intrigued by the snippets of information I was hearing about award-winning chefs, triple-cooked chips, wild mushrooms and bottles of vintage champagne and so, when an excuse came up in the form of a visit by my daughter, we grabbed the chance to treat ourselves.
And – wow – what a treat it was! We each had a starter and main course and shared a couple of desserts between the three of us. I made sure I got a taste of what the others ordered, which meant I got to experience a dazzling array of flavours, but was careful to leave room to enjoy every mouthful of what I’d chosen for myself. I had the wild mushrooms with hollandaise sauce, which was somehow earthy and creamy and sharp and crisp all in one mouthful, followed by venison served with creamed parsnips and a beautiful rustic stew of barley. We chose a silly number of side dishes (well it was our aim to try and taste everything) which really weren’t strictly necessary given the amount on each plate but were all superb, including the legendary triple-cooked chips, which turned out to be just one of many culinary successes those heroes in the kitchen are producing.
It was a superb meal in comfortable and very friendly surroundings. Chilled water was on the table when we arrived with savoury pop-corn provided as a nibble and we were so full by the end of the feast that we had to give away our choc-nut fudge which came with the very reasonable bill.
The genuinely exciting thing for us here at McMurdoston is that this wonderful new establishment is only two miles away. On long Summer days we’ll be able to walk there and back in daylight, on quiet roads. Even at this time of year a lunch-time trip just requires a back-up torch and a rain-coat. Local cabs are easy to book up in advance and there’s plenty of parking beside the pub itself. I can’t wait to find another excuse to try some of the other delights on the menu…
My last post bemoaned the small number of swallows and house martins we were seeing at the time. As hoped, this situation changed and we did end up with our fair share of these delightful guests. As ever, though, we’re hoping for more next year. Having said all of which, I was astonished on my morning run today to see what I estimated to be four to five hundred swallows just down the lane, crowding onto the telephone cables where they could, and filling the skies above just like a swarm of flies. I came back breathlessly to Steve and suggested that perhaps they establish something like a motorway service station en route to Africa… He gave me a bit of a funny look but changed his tune later in the day when we drove back up the same part of the lane to see what we think were almost a thousand swallows in the same place, all vying for a place on the phone line or swirling around, chattering noisily above us. Perhaps the wet weather was putting a stop to their travels? Perhaps they do this every year and I’ve only just been privileged to witness it? Perhaps they do have a motorway service station just down the road from McMurdoston?
Our red squirrels are elusive currently – this happens periodically and I really should establish a journal to record when we see them and when we don’t as there may well be a pattern. I was particularly pleased though to see a gorgeous one on a walk yesterday. He had a large hazelnut in his mouth, still covered in greenery, which made him look as if he had a dramatic green handlebar moustache (hence me assuming he was a ‘he’!). Very handsome. As I drove back up to the house I was also lucky enough to have a male sparrowhawk, all grey metallic weaponry, lead me for quite a distance up the lane. They are unbelievably manoeuvrable and he disappeared in a flash, just as I was getting my eye in.
We have bees back at McM now. They are lovely and calm and we are preparing to harvest a small amount of honey, as we did this time last year. We even managed to capture a swarm which turned up in the field about six weeks ago – we are on a distinctly alpine learning curve but we’re both fascinated by them and determined to keep up the education process.
Last, but not least, I followed a badger from the next farm’s entrance to our drive a couple of nights ago – they trundle like our hedgehogs do (oh yes! – did I tell you we have hedgehogs*?!), until you approach them too closely and then they’re off like Olympians.
*We had a bonfire today and spent a good thirty minutes turning it over beforehand checking for unwanted visitors. We found a toad, who lives to fight another day, but thankfully no urchins, as they are know in these parts.
I’ve been bad at keeping up to date with this blog, partly because I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written for the past few years. When you’re logging wildlife and its wonderful happenings things can become somewhat repetitive – in a good way that is. So, at the risk of boring you (and, really, who could be bored with wildlife?!), I’ll give you a little update…
The swifts and swallows are back, not in huge numbers but they’re here. We’re a bit mystified by the house martins who appear regularly in the yard but have not nested yet – it seems highly unlikely that they will now. Steve is thinking of amending the arrangement he put up to encourage them to nest (as detailed on page 11 of the latest RSPB Nature’s Home magazine). Fingers crossed we get them back – I miss their reassuring, gossipy chatter. There are dozens of baby tree sparrows twittering about, flapping greedily at their harassed parents, and just now a juvenile yellowhammer appeared outside the kitchen window. We spotted a pied flycatcher in the trees at the top of the drive and are really hoping it’s nesting up there.
In our field we have a mass of yellow rattle and buttercups with some welcome newcomers peeping through the lovely long grasses. I’ve spotted stitchwort, campion, wild marjoram, alkanet, knapweed, viper’s bugloss and birds foot trefoil amongst other beauties. Now I have to be patient and see what else appears through the Summer. The veg plot is starting to look quite interesting too and the pond is teeming with tadpoles, whirligigs and the occasional damsel fly. The bees have gone away to be re-queened, having become a little too feisty for our liking. They’ll be back when they’ve learned to behave better!
Two deer have just trotted elegantly through the long grass in the farmer’s field. I also watched a pair of hares earlier on and Steve has been seeing the barn owl on the cameras fairly regularly again – these are repetitions I’d be happy to see endlessly and I hope you’ll allow me to share my sightings.
Finally, Steve has just said that when he left early this morning for work he carefully followed a beautiful little leveret down the lane until it ran off through a gateway – a stunning shade of gingery red.
Well… as I write, Steve is up a scaffold knocking holes into the side of the barn.We had some repairs to do on one of the old buildings which form our ‘steading’ and decided that while we had the means to reach one particular wall we would install some more accommodation for swifts. Last year while I was mowing I saw a swift repeatedly flying in and clinging on to this wall to look at a crack at the base of an old chimney. It moved off eventually, having investigated thoroughly and decided it wasn’t a suitable nest site. Both of us felt duty-bound to see if we could improve the chances of it trying again this year – this time successfully perhaps.
So, after a little research, Steve constructed some small ‘nesting pods’ out of air brick liners, each one containing a shallow nest-cup suitably lined with a few feathers and a bit of straw. While the chimney was being repaired above, Steve got down to preparing sites to install the pods. Luckily he’d had some practice at knocking holes in buildings when we converted the cottages and he’s pretty good at it now!
Once the pods are all suitably installed and the wall is painted I shall put a series of pictures on the blog. One day we’re hoping to see a swift going to investigate them but, given how fast they move, I somehow doubt my photographic skills will be able to capture that.
… as you can see. Eight superb new homes are now ready for whoever gets there first, and there’s a refurbished one just perfect for the smaller visitor. With luck this will solve the local housing shortage, particularly among the tree sparrow population. We are so lucky to have them here in increasing numbers and Steve’s doing his utmost to keep them happy and accommodated.
Other important news from McMurdoston is that we have a new cat. She’s a little grey beauty called Sheba, rescued when her owner sadly died unexpectedly. Zeus and Sheba spent today trailing me in the garden, the former shyly delighted to have a new friend, the latter apparently attempting to work out just what the soppy ginger and white moggy’s thought-processes are… good luck with that Sheba!
Local sightings of red kite continue and today we saw a yellowhammer and a brambling under the bird feeder. Oh – and the sight of snow on the tops of the Lowther Hills in the distance also made me grin stupidly, especially with the sky as blue as it was for a while today.
What a great start to the year! Crystal-clear sunshine spotlighted a goshawk today at Caerlaverock, a pair of red kite are now regular visitors over our field, McMurdoston the handsome whooper swan has found a mate, the (surprisingly entertaining) sheep have discharged their grazing duties diligently and Venus is blazing brighter than ever at the top of the drive. The house is almost back to normal again after a busy festive season and we’re looking forward to meeting and greeting friends both old and new as 2017 progresses.
Come and visit – there’s always something to see…
The ever-changing Dumfries and Galloway weather keeps us on our toes here – oddly warm and sunny one minute, freezing cold with snow on the hills the next. The solar panels don’t know what to do… mind you, they have taken on a new role currently as shelter for our latest guests, four Texel tups, borrowed from a neighbour to graze down the long grass in our ‘wild’ area. I find them irresistibly entertaining and have to restrain myself from getting too friendly!
Another regular visitor has been a red kite. We’ve put large numbers of pheasant carcasses out in our field, thanks to the generosity of the local shoot (I skin and de-breast the birds first) and the kite is getting increasingly brave as it negotiates with the local buzzards and crows over who gets the richest pickings. I’m hoping to get a good photo one day but it’s hard to concentrate when a bird of such multi-coloured magnificence is so close overhead.
Other good sightings locally have been a dozen or so golden plovers in the high stubble fields, plus literally hundreds of skylarks rising from the same stubble as we walked the perimeter. Today’s moment of magic happened just as I’d puffed my way back up the road after a run, to find Steve at the top of the top field enjoying the view. We both stood in the sun, registering how lucky we are to live here when what sounded like a pigeon being fired out of a cannon shot over our heads … milliseconds later we recognised the local peregrine on the hunt and just caught sight of it again as it narrowly missed its prey – a genuine and supremely lucky pigeon. Phew!
Finally – an image I caught just now and one most of us take for granted.