Nature Notes: Owl and Snipe

In the sticks, given time and the choice between driving the A roads and taking the country lanes, I’ll go for the latter. There’s a better chance of seeing something unusual.

Heading home from my daughter’s house is actually a straighter run via the lanes, though slower when meeting more than the usual traffic: the roads are too narrow for two cars to pass comfortably and one of you has to pull in.

I thought this was the case last night when an approaching car flashed its headlights, a signal to say they’d pulled in, but the closer I got, the more it flashed its lights.

It turned out to have stopped for a bird in the middle of the road. It was, I think, a barn owl though it appeared smaller than I believed them to be. Yet it had a distinctly ghostly white face and breast. Identifying it later, I see we have just five native owl species and the barn owl, or screech owl, is the only one which comes close to the bird we saw.

It was struggling to hold on to its prey; it may have dropped it on the road and had dropped to retrieve it as we came upon it. No sooner had we stopped, bookending it between the two vehicles, then it grasped the meat and took off in a low, loping swoop over the hedgerow, the span of its wings seemed disproportionately long making the bird suddenly look much larger. A nice spot.

Further on our journey home, another lane and another bird in the road. It was running ahead on little legs so we took it to be a game bird, something like a quail, but as we closed on it, it turned its head to show a slender but unfeasibly long beak. Then it took flight with a frantic blur of wings, following the road ahead for a while as if hemmed in by the hedgerows. Then it went to ground in the taller grass before we passed by.

What was it? Too brief a glimpse, especially in the dark, and relying on memory isn’t the best for identifying animals. The closest I could find was a snipe. It may have been a woodcock – a nocturnal feeder – but I believe it was too small. It may have been a jacksnipe, but these are less common.

Snipe are wading birds and though it wasn’t spotted near any water I know of, there has been some torrential rain and local flooding. Quite possibly the fields and ditches beside the road were flooded, or it was looking for permanent water somewhere.

The snipe has the binomial scientific name, gallinago gallinago, which to me sounds it should signify something special – like buteo buteo or pica pica – but it just means those birds are relatively common for their type.


Alternative Heating

We moved into our home only last February. The village is quite small and is not served by the gas network so we have an oil-fired boiler which came with the house.

The boiler is ancient, probably the original one installed when the house was built sometime in the 1970s. Even if it wasn’t that old, it needs replacing with a more efficient one – a condensing boiler – to save us money. Unfortunately, since last winter it has developed a fault which means it intermittently locks out.

The service guy has been in three times to replace different suspected parts, it’s just about becoming the boiler equivalent of the Ship of Theseus – or Trigger’s Broom, depending on your preference for either philosophical thought experiments or popular sit-coms.

Despite our frustration and concerns that winter will soon be upon us, I’m beginning to see it might be a blessing in disguise. Had it all worked okay, we may have replaced it with a newer oil-boiler, but the fault has drawn attention to its inherent disadvantages.

It’s dirty stuff. Reading up on it, not only does the boiler need servicing annually but the storage tank is recommended to be flushed out every three years to rid it of sludge!

The fuel line is buried and runs about thirty feet, part of which is under the house. This bothers me somewhat: I like things accessible.

There is a faint odour of kerosene, especially around the tank. The tank itself is an eyesore. It has been screened from sight by previous owners but the screen – made of concrete blocks – is a bit of an eyesore too.

What to do?

Okay, there are two simple alternatives to oil-fired boiler central heating, with radiators, and hot water heating: the LPG-fired boiler and the Biomass boiler.

LPG would be similar to having natural gas, which I’m used to, only it works out to be 40% more expensive than oil to buy. That’s a bit too rich for my liking, and it’s still a fossil fuel.

Biomass, in the form of wood pellets, looks to be almost parity with oil but there is a government initiative which means the state pays the consumer a tariff for using “greener” alternatives to fossil fuel. Current figures suggest the tariff might pay the majority cost of wood pellets at today’s prices, and the payout scheme lasts for seven years. That’s an interesting incentive!

I have concerns. In our wonderful country, thanks to our established gas networks and the discovery of North Sea Gas, we haven’t been forward on new and alternative heating systems. It’s probably accurate to say that we, as a nation, simply don’t trust them. So while these things are established technologies in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, for us it’s all a bit new. As an indication, the closest installer, and regular servicing firm, I’ve found is well over seventy miles away. That’s a three hour round trip if anything goes wrong.

The second concern is shifting the pellets into storage and filling up the boiler, which looks like twice a week, by hand. The storage isn’t a concern as we have a garage and, anyway, the area taken up isn’t any bigger than an oil tank, the volume much less as the tank sits on piers. Swings and roundabouts, really, and I’d much prefer to have that piece of garden back to extend our soft fruit plot. The garage will never be used to house a car, so it’s plenty big enough.

The big thing that’s tipping the balance in its favour though is the climate emergency. I’d feel better coming away from fossil fuel dependence. Who knows, in five or ten years time, fossil fuels may be totally discouraged and extremely expensive as a result.


A Fernery Corner

In an effort to tire out our daughter’s overactive young spaniel, I take her for a circular walk to the lake at the bottom of the woods. Though the sun is intermittently shining it’s been a wet week and all is soggy underfoot.

Walking down through the woods reminded me that I have designs on creating a fernery at home. There is a shady, damp plot just outside the side door from the kitchen and though existing plants seem to grow well there, it looks like a good place for ferns.

Some initial thoughts about its design: I read that the ground ought to be well drained but I think a presence of water complements ferns greatly. I would like running water rather than a pond which can look ugly if neglected. And plenty of stones but not a rockery.

As the plot is fairly small, a water feature is more suited rather than a mock stream, but not a formal construction like a fountain. I don’t know how but it would be good if it was driven by wind power. Second best might be a device powered by gravity.

Stones could form a wall which would give the design a vertical dimension and as well as planting for ferns, a surface for mosses. Stone steps might provide some interesting focal point; a kind of folly on a small scale. The whole construction would have a derelict appearance without looking too scruffy.

Garden, Music

Privet Hedges Remembered

I’m tasked with taking two foot off the top of a Leyland Cypress hedge which forms our entire back border and it’s made me nostalgic for the suburban Privet of old.

The Privet hedge was the ubiquitous green border around suburban houses in my youth. They weren’t particularly interesting, even when they produced tiny clusters of black berries – kids would be warned these were poisonous fruits. Funny but I can’t remember them ever flowering.

At least you could trim these hedges, and with gusto!, without fear of damaging their growth; I believe they were beyond destruction.

In those days, before power tools became the norm, the job of trimming was done by hand shears. Clip-clip-clip, a sound I can associate with peaceful Sundays in Summer, along with the burrr of the pull-push rotary mower, the chimes of a slowly driven ice cream van, the crack of leather on willow, or…

Then something radical happened to the gardening landscape: the introduction of Leylandii or the Leyland Cypress. I suppose at first glance it looked prettier than privet, and it was fast growing which meant quick privacy for homes which were packed shoulder to shoulder. It soon become the thing to have and very popular. Privet was gone!

But the Leylandii is a terrible bush. The fact that it grows at a rate of knots is its curse. In no time, it is as tall as a house and broad with it. It needs clipping back but carefully as its greenery is superficially skin deep and will not renew from the brown foliage beneath.

What can you do? I read that mature Leylandii ruins the soil it grows in. I can see this with my own eyes: nothing grows within two feet of the trunks, not grass, not even weeds; the soil is completely barren. Cutting down the hedge would then mean digging out the roots and replacing a good deal of earth. That doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s a horticultural disaster.


The Gardener’s Friend

Unexpectedly, I came into a little cash recently and splashed out on one of those “Alexa” things. It was a toss-up between her and an “Okay, Google” thing. Reading the specs and reviews, I narrowed it down to one of each but despite the “Okay, Google” being a few quid cheaper, “Okay, Google” didn’t seem to roll off my tongue as smoothly as “Alexa” did.

If it’s of interest, I went for an Ultimate Ears Megablast: it’s portable and waterproof, both essential for listening to in the garden, and its “smart”, connecting directly to the wi-fi so no need to run it through a second device.

My Grandson, aged 3 and 3/4, helped take it for a test drive out of the box, enjoying Alexa’s sonic encyclopaedic knowledge of farts. This morning, on my lonesome, I took her into the garden for the intended purpose: to relieve the tedium of some gardening chores. In this case it was chopping up a great pile leylandii prunings for the green bin.

It worked a treat. My new gardening friend.

Hodson Henz

The Tale Behind Hodson Henz

I thought I’d like to write about things which loosely fall into a group of categories such as, Art, Design, Photos, Nature, Garden. Other stuff would be categorised as Hodson Henz.

Of course, it’s a play on words. You agree, it’s better than the standard “Uncategorised”?

Just before we were married, we went house hunting. We must have viewed millions! All across the county of Hertfordshire, and a little bit into Buckinghamshire. This was years ago, only a few of the houses remain memorable.

One such was the family home of a middle-aged man with a superb West Indian accent. He showed us around and then took us outside to his garage. It had the usual up-and-over door and as he pulled it open he said, “this is where I keep my hods and hens”.

And we were instantly disappointed not to see chickens and bricklayer’s over-the-shoulder carrying equipment inside.

Hodson Henz

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

This post – all that’s above this sentence, that is – is what they give you to start you off. Normally, a blogger would delete it, it not being of his or her own making, but I notice something odd in the quote: in English, when did it change from “in a journey” to “on a journey”?

What do you think? Do you feel that you’re on a journey or in it?

Am I Not Entirely Happy With This?

Let me tell you that beginning a blog isn’t easy for a perfectionist. Choosing a title you can live behind is tricky enough, and you hope the URL address is available, not that it matters as no one ever, in the history of websites, remembers the URL addresses, but you are a perfectionist remember!

But the real arse-ache happens when it comes to choosing one of the off-the-peg “themes”. Perfectionists always begin with an intransigent ideal. Take me as a perfect example: I’d like the title to sit at the very top, and way over to the left hand side. I definitely don’t want it superimposed on the header image; I’d like a personalised header image which doesn’t overwhelm the landing page, like some flaming blockbusting billboard! I really just want a neat strip under the title.

I’d like to see the post “category” over or beneath the post title, and as a hyperlink to all the posts in the category. Any other significant information can appear below the body of the post.

Reasonable? I think so. Simple? It would be if that theme ever existed. Okay, I could get it coded but I’m a cheapskate in matters of the web. A cheapskate perfectionist! Two traits which don’t mix.