Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A Landscape of Reeds...and the Bees Build Up for Summer


Great Crested Grebe

I'm fascinated by landscapes of big skies, golden reeds and pools of rippling water.  This is one of the places I like to come to on warm, summer days - when there's only a slight breeze - because it's so peaceful here, with only the occasional calls of the wild birds and the gentle movement of the different grasses.  Everything is so still - and even the ducks and geese glide over the water with their eyes half closed or their heads tucked back into their feathers. I've found a hidden place in the reeds where I can watch the birds from a bank, and I could easily spend hours here, because it just seems such a timeless place.  It's perfect way to spend a relaxing afternoon.

On a bleak winter day, though, everything changes. This blue and gold landscape becomes a dull copper and grey - and because there isn't any shelter from the wind, it can be bitterly cold.  But, in any season, it's still a great place to watch wildlife.

There have been a few warm days this month, so I've managed to spend some time here. I've seen a wonderful selection of birds and I love the way they're reflected in the pools of water...

Greylag Goose


There are plenty of ducks here including Pochard, Red-crested Pochard and Tufted Ducks...

Tufted Duck


























This Canada Goose must have been too close to the Swan's nest, because it suddenly had an angry Swan bearing down on it (a pretty terrifying sight for any goose, I imagine)...
 



I've seen the female Swan on the nest and I look forward to coming back and seeing the cygnets.  Meanwhile, the Greylag Geese have goslings...






 This Pochard was half asleep, enjoying the sun...









The reeds were full of warblers and Swifts and Swallows were flying above.  And a Marsh Harrier was hunting there, too (apologies for the quality of the photo, it was some distance away).







I'll be coming back here as soon as I can.

On the Smallholding

I'm still busy sowing veg seeds and our new cold frame is starting to look full of young plants, especially lettuces and cabbages.  Meanwhile, I'm really thrilled we have flowers on our young wisteria...




Wisteria is one of my favourite climbers and I'm glad it looks as though it's thriving in this spot.

Elsewhere Pip the goose is no longer nesting in my lupins, but has joined the other three geese on a single nest in the goose house.  I would have thought three geese squashed onto one nest wasn't the brightest idea, but they seem happy enough...







Bees

All three colonies are expanding well - and two of them are expanding so well they now need additional space, so I've put on an second box (called a super) full of frames on top of their main brood box.  If I don't give them the extra room, they'll soon feel overcrowded and will probably swarm. They may well want to swarm anyway - and if they do - then I'll be left with half of my bees(or less, if the remaining bees swarm again) and no real chance of honey this year.  To prevent this, I'll have to watch them carefully and - if necessary - create an artificial swarm i.e. I split the colonies myself.  The bees then believe they've swarmed and settle down quite happily.

Hive with super added.



I'll know the bees want to swarm if they start to raise a new queen (they'll need a queen each for the old and new colonies).  The bees create queen cells to raise a new queen in and - before the new queen has hatched - the old queen leaves with the swarm.  Meanwhile, the first new queen to hatch from her cell then goes through the colony and kills the other queens still in their cells so that only she's left.  I can't see any signs of queen cells yet, but bees are notorious for hiding them by clustering around them and covering them up.  It's not unknown for a beekeeper to think that all's well in the morning, only to return later in the day to find that half the bees have gone!

Male Orange Tip on Spanish Bluebell





This lovely Orange Tip settled by me as I was gardening at the weekend.  It seemed to love a small clump of Spanish bluebells I have growing by the pond.  I saw a female, too, but she didn't settle anywhere for very long.  I'm hoping to take a pic of one of the females before the Orange Tips disappear again for another year (the female is white, without the orange tips on her wings, but she does have same beautiful markings on the under-side of the wings as the male, seen above).  The Orange Tips will disappear in June.






Monday, 13 May 2013

Foraging in a Forest



Beech tree in Rendlesham Forest




I often go foraging in the local countryside, but I only gather the more familiar wild foods such as elderflowers, blackberries, ramsons, sloes etc.  I don't know as much about wild foods as I'd like to, and so I've been missing out on many of the hedgerow plants that I could use in a meal.  I'm also aware that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing in foraging; especially when many of the hedgerow plants can look like each other.  So, to improve my knowledge, I've just been on a short course. I can only learn so much on a single course, but it has taught me about a few more plants to gather on a foraging trip.  The course I joined was run by Food Safari and held in Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk.  Our group wandered along a forest path identifying plants and tasting them, before gathering leaves to make a salad.  Amazingly, on such a dull, cloudy day, the rain actually held off (I think it would have been pretty miserable in a downpour).

The first food we identified was a fungus, with the common name of  jelly ear, which was growing on an elder tree.  I'm often foraging food from elder trees but the food has always been the flowers or the berries; I didn't know about the fungus. I think the fungi we saw on this particular tree weren't fresh enough to eat, and in any case they have to be cooked (so, to be honest, I've still to find out what they really taste like).







We also gathered the common plant chickweed...








Chickweed can be added with young leaves from different trees and plants such as hawthorn, hedgerow garlic (or garlic mustard/Jack-by-the-hedge) and wild herbs to make a forest salad. I find some of these leaves have a mild taste so a good dressing is definitely needed. Fresh, young leaves are important as "older" leaves can taste bitter. On our course, we tasted hedgerow garlic in a pesto with Parmesan cheese and ground almonds.  I was a bit hesitant to try this, because I don't usually like almonds, but it was really delicious.

We also made up some woodsman's tea with nettles and pine needles. I have to admit that I've never fancied trying stinging nettles in anything, although I have been told that nettle beer is good.  But one drink I was keen to try was some already prepared beech leaf noyau.  I've heard of this and always fancied making it - and now I'm definitely going to, because it was very good.  Beech leaf noyau is a liqueur that combines fresh beech leaves, gin, sugar and brandy - and I'll be gathering some beech leaves in the next few days to make it.  It should be ready to drink in the next few weeks, so I hope to post my results of my own concoction, then!

The foraging course lasted about two hours.  David and I both went on it, and we've come away with some new ideas for recipes to try over the summer.  I'm also keen to improve my (still) limited knowledge of wild food.

On the smallholding

Back at home, our rhubarb-in-a-barrel is ready.  I've promised myself I'm going to explore some new rhubarb recipes for it this year (although I'm still tempted to fall back on crumble and fool, because they're such favourites...)








In the trees and hedges, the summer visitors are still returning, like this little whitethroat...





The "local" cuckoo came back at last on 7 May (which is much later than usual) making a dramatic entrance by flying right over my head calling loudly. It's the first cuckoo I've heard this year, which I think ties in with other reports that they're becoming much rarer.

And this is my first sight of an orange tip on the smallholding this year...




And a speckled wood by the beehives...









I'm behind with my weeding in the cottage garden patch, but now everything is on hold because Pip has decided to nest amongst the lupins...








I'm sure she's crushing one of my favourite perennials - and I think from her sideways glance she knows that too. The wire fence at the back, which she's now bent, was supposed to keep her out. Still, if she's happy, I'll just have to live with it for a bit.
 
The apple blossom is out at last, and my bees are collecting the pollen from it...





Bluebells

Finally, I had to include more pics of my local bluebell wood, because I can't get over how stunning the bluebells look this year...








Saturday, 4 May 2013

Woodland Paths, Swallows and Homemade Wooden Coasters and Table Mats


Wild Oxlip

Although I've more than enough to do in the garden, I can't miss the chance of walking through the local woods at this time of year, because the wild flowers there are looking wonderful.  Most of my wanderings have been through the wood close to the smallholding, but I've also made a special visit to Shadwell Wood, in North West Essex, to search for wild oxlips.  These lovely woodland flowers are confined to a small area of East Anglia (covering parts of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk) because they thrive on the boulder clay soil found here. Oxlips resemble the cowslip and the primrose, and flower between March and May.


In my local wood, I've come across lesser celandine...


And violets...




And one of my favourite flowers, the bluebell...


I'm fortunate that Essex has some of best bluebell woods in the country (Norsey Wood, near Billericay, is world-renowned as a bluebell wood). The bluebells are just starting to look fabulous, creating a shimmering blue haze with a beautiful scent. As the climate is generally warm and dry in Essex, wild bluebells don't spread outside the shady, damp conditions of their wood (I'm always amazed when I visit other counties, such as Cornwall, where I see bluebells growing freely in the hedgerows). Because of this, bluebells in Essex are an indicator of ancient woodland i.e. woodland that pre-dates 1600 and the first maps.  In many other areas, where bluebells grow out in the open, they're not used as indicators because they can spread to newer woods.

Harry in the Local Bluebell Wood


The ramson or wild garlic is starting to flower, too - another plant with a powerful scent! 








We have some growing in a small bed on the smallholding, but this isn't flowering yet.

The fields next to the wood aren't farmed and have been left as set-aside for years.  Some of my hives are located here, and this is fantastic for them, because right now these fields are full of dandelions that the bees, butterflies and other insects love...

Peacock Butterfly on a Dandelion

Elsewhere I've come across lambs, which is unusual in this part of the world, because there's little livestock farming here...



And my favourite bird, the swallow, has returned.  They're often sitting on the wires outside the smallholding...




Bees

After I discovered I'd lost one of my colonies, I then found that one of my other hives had lost its queen over the winter.  Where there isn't a queen laying eggs and producing new bees, the colony becomes weaker, so although these bees were healthy enough and were bringing in pollen, they were also gradually dying out.  To save these bees, I've united them with another, stronger colony and, to do this, I've put the two hives together, one on top of the other.  Because the two colonies would fight if they were simply thrown together, I've put a sheet of newspaper between them.  By the time the bees have chewed through this paper, they will have become used to each other's scent and so won't be inclined to attack each other.  The weaker colony will then become part of the stronger one under the one queen.


 
Homemade Coasters and Table Mats

When we realised that our coasters and table mats were looking a bit shabby and needed replacing, we decided to make our own out of wood.  We went to our local carpenters' workshop on the hunt for some off-cuts of oak, and were really fortunate that they agreed, not only to give us some, but to put them through their table saw.  Once cut, we sanded and then used linseed oil on the wood.  We've now created some chunky table mats and coasters, and I think they'll last longer than any that we've bought (which, frankly, never seem to last long...).
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  Finally, I came across this in the woods.  Is it a cauliflower fungus?  That's my obvious guess.  I'd love to know!