Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Just a year older than me

Philip Anthony Dwight Sheppard 1920-1974
As I was driving home the other day, a memory came to me. I don't know why, or what prompted it, but it was crystal clear and bitter sweet.

When she was in her early forties, my mother was widowed. She was young, attractive, and had two teenage children. Her husband was a gentleman; he always opened the doors, he was the one who did the driving. He was an actor, a writer, and she probably worked ten times more than he did. But that was circumstance, not choice.

He died at just 53 - that's only a year older than I am now. I never knew him really - only as a little girl who loved her daddy. I think of some of the things we said and did, and they seem like things I can't understand now, as if there was a different language we spoke then.

But the memory which came to me was  from the day of his funeral. We were in Bath, the home town of his family. It was a chilly winter day,  most of the which was a blur, but I remember being very cross at the funeral gathering after his interment (which I did not attend). The vicar was sent in to see me, to try and explain to this immature child why everyone was having a party now her dad was dead. I wasn't having any of it.

My mother, aunt, brother and I must have looked at the flowers and read cards, with the usual condolence and best wishes. But it was this one card's message that suddenly came to mind as I drove home that day, and it's a memory I treasure. It was from our neighbour's child Mary - she was probably only four or five years old.  On the card, in her naieve writing, was written "Have a happy time in heaven Anthony".

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A walk around Fowlmere

Tree creeper

What better way to spend a sunny October Sunday than to take a walk round my favourite nature reserve? Fowlmere is run by the RSPB and I go as often as I can. I've seen mink there before but today I spotted a weasel hopping across the path with his dinner in his mouth. Tasty for him, unfortunate for some small creature.

The lazy heron

The reserve was really busy - there were lots of cars and plenty of people. There were very few birds though - the lake was deserted apart from four ducks and a lazy heron. I did have the pleasure of seeing a tree creeper. I tried to photograph it but only got a backside view (my speciality it seems).


As I wandered round the reserve, sitting quietly in some of the hides, or wandering slowly along the sun-dappled path, I didn't just keep my eye out for birds. There was a deer, the aforesaid weasel, and lots of bugs. The gnats danced over the water in formation, a cloud of insects that seemed to love the feel of the sun just as much as everyone else.

Being autumn, it's also a wonderful time for fungi and I saw bright orange spongy stuff on rotten wood in the river, mushrooms in little circles and some lovely ones on a tree. I have no idea what kind of fungi they are, but the deep red one was particularly striking.

Old man's beard
There was talk of the kingfisher having been seen (though it has eluded me every visit so far), but I am almost sure that the grey feathers I photographed through the reeds was a water rail (or a pidgeon learning to swim). The long-tailed tits, who I have been trying to photograph without success, put in a quick performance. I managed to get another butt-view, but not very in focus unfortunately. Patience is the key, and I will keep trying until I get my perfect photo of these delightful little birds.
Of course, it's also a great time of year for plants - the changing of the seasons brings out a riot of different colours to the brashness of summer. Deep red berries, ochre-tinted leaves, purple blackberries and the lush greens of watercress, reedbed and evergreen. 

Long tailed tit
The barn owls have nested and there are young too - I took a long-distance photo of the nest box and can see, on close examination, a sleepy owl's head. I need to go back at dusk one day to get a good look at these wonderful ghost owls.
If you've never been, then do take a walk around Fowlmere one day. It's not too long a walk for young and old alike, and there are plenty of benches and hides.

A life on the wing


The last weekend in September I spent time away from a computer, away from technology and my every day life. I have always enjoyed bird watching, so the opportunity to spend three days in the company of fellow bird enthusiasts in the wilds of Norfolk was delightful.

I won't list birds all the birds or go into detail about walks along hedgerows, patient waiting to see if we could spot the elusive 'yellow browed warbler' (who did not appear); I could mention standing in fields with scopes and binoculars focused on distant soaring buzzards, I will mention my delight at watching the gannets plummet into the ocean. All in all it was a most relaxing and enjoyable time, and I learned a lot.

Godwits and stuff

The other members of the group who were, without exception, lovely people.We were all 'bird nerds' together. I took great delight in learning more about birdsong, in absorbing little snippets that will help me recognise more birds and to know where to look and what to look for. I particularly enjoyed the fact that when someone saw a bird (whether we were driving, walking or standing watching) everyone was interested and keen to see what had been spotted. Chris, our group leader and very knowledgeable guide, would often pull the van over to the side of the road (mostly tiny single track Norfolk byways) and point to something in the field like a grey partridge or a rock dove. It was no inconvenience to be interested in birds - it was our shared passion.

I have often bird watched, but usually on my own, or incidentally when out doing something else. At other times my bird watching has been quite often been a reason to get left behind. But for three whole days we were completely indulged.

Thousands of birds at Snettisham. Knot, dunlin,
oyster catcher, to name but a few

The highlight of the trip was the early morning visit to Snettisham. We saw some forty or fifty thousands birds on the mudflats, waking up from their overnight roost and getting ready to spread out along the coast as the tide receded and the day warmed. The most spectacular point was when something spooked the birds and they would rise in a cloud - the sun catching their wings, creating a golden shimmering cloud.

I had an amazing time and will definintely try and go again one day. Maybe I'll take a friend, if I can find someone else who is as prepared as me (and the other birders) to stop what you are doing and just peer into a hedge for fifteen minutes in the hope that...

For more info, visit Chris's website: http://www.norfolkbirding.com/

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The right stranger

I've been doing a lot of train travelling recently and as I sat on the train last night I thought how nice it would be to talk to someone. But instead, opposite me was a huge man who ate noisily and largely (each movement of his mouth, every gesture towards his crisps or drink, was large) and who left crumbs down his shirt and tie and all his rubbish on the seat. Next to me was a woman who was engrossed in telephone calls. The other seat of the four was occupied by Mr Large's detritus.

I would have liked to chat to someone, as I often do. Sometimes talking to a stranger can be the right thing when you have something on your mind. As I sat and pondered these things, wishing I could snooze but unable as one window of the train was faulty and a howling chill breeze kept everyone wiggling in their seats, I remembered an encounter from many years ago.

Pregnant and awaiting the arrival of my daughter, I was in the park with my son, who was only two. It was a brisk, chilly day, but bright and the playground that Alex was enjoying was fairly empty. There was one other woman there, and I can't remember if she had a child with her or not. We got chatting, as women do.

After a very brief time she told me of an extremely distressing personal experience relating to childbirth, and the trauma and difficulties she'd had dealing with it. She also told me that she'd never told anyone this before. So why me? I don't know -sometimes it really is easy to tell the hardest things to a complete stranger. I never saw her again, but I hope that a listening ear was helpful. I hope I was the right stranger.

Photo credits: yatesplaygrounds.co.uk, Ajax46 (Flickr).