Feeding Kites And Growing Sheep

Hurrah! A happy conjunction of available time, good enough health (joints) and decent weather means 100 miles ridden – and enjoyed – this week. That’s a welcome change.

Getting out at this time of year is slightly different because a lot of the hedges and stands of shielding trees aren’t in leaf yet, so you do get to see (pry) into properties you’d never otherwise catch a glimpse of. Seeing the homes of the rich with another parliamentary expenses scandal dominating the news, and yet another bank’s massive losses making headlines, and the immediate thoughts are inevitable. The issue is what to say or do that’s not mere moaning. For now all I’ll say is that I’m working on it; merely moaning is tedious.

In the meantime, in South Oxfordshire today I saw a large Red Kite swoop down, grab something from the edge of a rapeseed field and then proceed to either eat or at least investigate whatever it had in its talons as it was taking off. It was all very ungainly – it almost had to stop flapping to reach down to peck at whatever it was – but that’s definitely what it was doing. Presuming it was prey, I hadn’t realised they’d feed on the wing.

Also in South Oxfordshire in spring, the fields sprout lambs. And there I was, thinking they were mammals.

Field grass with lambs

Lambs Sprouting

Spring Encounters

A short ‘rehab ride’ on a wider-Q fixie and not feeling too bad in the joints. The weather’s doing that very pleasant ‘English Spring Sunshine’ thing that it pulls out of the hat every year but which, in the depths of a grey winter, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever see again.

Quite a lot of blossom’s out already; buds abound and the blackbirds are noticeably frisky. In other ‘nature notes’:

  • today saw a very close encounter with a Red Kite – he was engrossed in a splatted squirrel and didn’t see me until I was within 10 feet of him. The ensuing flapping was spectacular – they don’t get off the ground easily.
  • in another contest for a branch, it seems a Magpie trumps a Crow, which is news to me.
  • and deer – how do they find each other? I came across the local herd today trying to cross a lane. They were disturbed by a van and so about eight made it across, with the remaining 15 or more (one Stag, the rest seemingly all Does) frightened away. I stopped to see what would happen and the eight in one field ran to safety in the middle, stopped there and just waited – very obviously very alert. After several minutes, the rest of the herd appeared from a completely different direction, so they must have run in a fairly broad arc, found an alternative place to cross one or perhaps two roads, and come back up to where they’d originally intended to be. Fine … but I didn’t hear a thing the whole time, which left me wondering how they communicate.

Once again, I find myself wondering about my learned relationship to nature. I don’t have a clue what the equivalent feeling is amongst those who are decades younger.

And let’s not forget the light at this time of year – another aspect of nature, after all. (OK, there’s the atmospheric pollution aspect, but let’s overlook grim realities for once.)

That soft spring light

That soft spring light

Same Herd, Different Field

If I was a naturalist I’d probably be able to explain why I see this particular herd of deer at around this time of year. As it is, I’m just guessing if I say I imagine it’s because of the lack of natural cover at present – we’ve had the winter die-back but there’s no new growth yet.

Deer in a field

Same herd, different field

This herd, 2013.
And this herd, 2012.

Crows are known for their bravery / aggression / stupidity – they’ll have a go at birds far bigger than they are. It’s not uncommon to see large Red Kites going about its way, only for a Crow to take off from a nearby tree and have a go at it. Normally, the Kite will just keep on going about its business but if a Crow gets too chippy the Kite will strike out – a mid-air lunge with talons out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them actually hit each other though; it seems to be posturing.

Today’s variation on that theme saw a Red Kite occupying the uppermost perch on a large old tree near Binfield Heath, a Crow coming in hard to try and dislodge him, the Kite, with much flapping of wing, holding his spot and the Crow settling for playing second fiddle – settling on a branch just a little bit lower. Again, neither appeared injured – it seems to be all about the posturing. Smart birds.

Of course, animals do fight ‘for real’ too, but the rule seems to be that avoiding the risk of injury is best if at all possible. They know they’ve too much to lose if they get hurt – their ability to find food is paramount. There’s probably an system to be constructed aimed at ensuring humans who would fight are always vulnerable to personal loss, and that they’re fully aware of that vulnerability.

That applies in the sense of a street brawl or in the sense of taking their country to war but it’s only for the latter that you can imagine successfully putting a formal system in place. To properly refine it, you would want to ensure that even the victor suffers some loss, by some mechanism in proportion to the losses suffered by those who fought to achieve any victories.

OK Then, Now What?

The first back-to-normal week of the year and four fairly short rides: the weather’s not that cold, but it has been stunningly wet of late. If nothing else, the very flooded Thames means the options for routes are very curtailed. Basically, from Reading, head north and pick your way carefully: it’ll be filthy and the puncture risks are high as you’re moving into chalk-and-flint territory, but you can work out loops that aren’t too bad. And, as (almost) always, getting out every now and then leaves you feeling better than staying in, even over this dreary month.

The highlight from the natural world this week has been the sight of a Red Kite timing his landing perfectly as he approached a perch in high winds. He came is so slowly, so accurately, it made me smile. (I also nearly crashed into the ditch as I was looking up for too long.) There’s always pleasure to be had from watching something done well, whether by a human or not. (Don’t watch me cycling.)

Catkins out too early

Yes, these are early. Yes, it is unseasonably warm.

As I’ve been riding lately, I’ve been thinking about what I was saying before Christmas: that we need to do more than merely moan if we’re unhappy about things. It’s brutally obvious, of course, that the question then becomes what to actually do.

You can report the pot-holes and flytipping you’ll see while you’re out riding. You can monitor whether the reports are acted on and keep on reporting as necessary. You can follow-up inaction with letters to the local papers, to the local MP. You can take direct action: if you just pick up any litter you come across near where you live that will make a difference.

You can monitor the direct-action activist sites such as SumOfUs and Avaaz, sign petitions and spread the word. You can stay with a cyclist-focus and fight for Road Justice. You and I can get involved in any number of ways: helping local charities; helping national charities and so on. One way or another, helping those less fortunate than you or fighting for justice isn’t that hard.

And that’s all fine and worthwhile. But it all leaves me with a nagging sense of it not being enough. Tackling symptoms is good – especially for the sufferer. But there’s still the question of how to prevent the symptoms occurring in the first place – how to make changes happen further up the line. But where to start and where to stop?

Mad June Hares

A surprising ride for wildlife:

  • A decent-sized flock of starlings in a field near Nuffield – far more than I normally see around here at any time of year;
  • Red-kites play-fighting below Swyncombe, including one ‘bombing’ another on the ground – which later flew up, seemingly fine, reinforcing the impression that it is all play-fighting and nothing else;
  • A hare jumping around in field near Benson – I know their breeding season is longer than just March but you don’t often see them much later than that;
  • A ferret-weasel-stoat type of animal, dragging a dead baby rabbit across a lane and into a hedge. Now, I’m not saying this with any certainty, but judging by the colouring I’d say this was a polecat I saw – near Checkendon – but I’ve read they’re mainly to be found in Wales, with some sightings in Hampshire and Wiltshire. So … I’m totally unsure about this, but it looked very polecat-like.
  • And a fair few swallows hurtling around on their low-level sorties in the quieter lanes, often within just a few feet of me – but I think there are fewer than normal.

And you can still go for walks down bluebell-lined paths, weeks after they should be over. They’re saying it’s the coldest spring in 50 years but I fear that sends the wrong message. Instead of that feeling alarming, it’s reassuring – oh, it’s rare but it’s happened before so it’s nothing to worry about. It doesn’t put it in context – the context of the increasing frequency of unusual weather events of any type.

Everything else aside, it’s another dismal example of the media selling its audience short.

Bluebells in June

This is not normal

High Jinks

Hoo-bloody-ray! A bike ride. A short, easy, tentative and cautious ride on a still weak ankle and bruised foot, but a ride. The first for 10 days – and a pleasure. It was grey, windy, it rained for half the way around and I’m to be found grimacing if I try and move my foot sideways (for instance, to release a cleat), but it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t hammering it down. And it is so, so nice to be outside again.

The pleasures of being out are many, and among them it is always a real treat to watch Red Kites. Today there were four, flying low, jinking and jostling for position against each other and against a gusty wind as they all tried to drop down to a recently killed pheasant on the road near Henley. Their agility in flight, their physical control and skill, is something you can only admire.

Whether they are intelligent is another question: while they were engaged in their high jinks overhead, a Magpie was getting on with it – darting out from the verge between the traffic whenever it could and grabbing mouthfuls of the same road-kill.

The route took in Bolney Lane, Lower Shiplake, and someone’s put up a new bench there. It looks home-made, privately done. It’s no masterpiece of seat design, but looking at it and the hand-written message on its back rest made me realise how bland so much public furniture is. The same seats, the same type-face for the message on the back … Functional isn’t the sole purpose of design.

A bench with inscription - have a rest

I suspect the writing on the back is sincere