Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Rivers

Rob's car blew up last night. It's a right old banger anyway, and he's had more than his money's worth from it, but choosing to die on a single-carriageway section of the A35 at 10:30pm was a bit naughty. I trundled over in the van and towed him home. At least it was the right side of Dorchester and the traffic was light. So this morning I gave Rob a lift in to work. He's cooking the Christmas lunch menu at The Thimble Inn, Piddlehinton. On the way back through Dorchester I pulled over in order to take a look at the river. It's the River Frome, and regular readers may remember that it provided Rob with his first-ever grayling back in February, though further downstream at Wool...


Rob with our only fish of the day. The 'Beast from the East' was biting hard, which meant the grayling weren't.

The Frome is narrow where it flows through Dorchester, and while it was certainly tanking through at some pace, there was very little colour in it, which I guess is the norm for a chalk stream. I wandered in the drizzle along a riverside footpath until I came across an ancient sluice, took a photo, and then retraced my steps...


I would imagine that a photo taken in the same spot, when those sluice gates were all shiny and new, would likely have featured no houses at all in the background.

The river splits at this point, and as you can tell from the ironwork, there were once a set of sluice gates across the other branch of the stream too. As I stood there in the murk, carefully avoiding a seriously-pancaked dog turd, I surveyed the weathered steel, the remnants of old masonry, and wondered what had once been their purpose. A bit of googling tells me that they were used to divert water from the main river out onto the adjacent water meadows. Regular flooding of the meadows in winter apparently allowed more grass to be grown to feed the local dairy cattle. And if your imagination is vivid enough, you might be able to see a heavily-moustachioed chap in Edwardian flat cap, shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, clay pipe smouldering gently, using a heavy crank to winch open the sluices...

And that's one of the endearing things about rivers. Very frequently you encounter signs of by-gone times, interesting artefacts that give you a glimpse into the past. That's just one of many reasons why I love rivers. Whenever I am beside one, whether standing, sitting or strolling along, I cannot help but be struck by their timelessness.

Hopefully this is something I'll come back to in future posts...

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Ruddy Duck Question


If you began birding only recently, here's a species you possibly don't yet have on your list...

Ruddy Ducks, otherwise known as 'dead birds floating'

I took the photo at Staines Res in December 2010, and haven't seen a Ruddy Duck since. In my active West London birding days of the 1980s and early '90s they were a pretty common sight, especially in winter when they gathered in double-figure flocks at several localities. According to what I've read (and I'll take it at face value) the whole UK population originated from seven individuals imported in 1948. They and/or their offspring began jumping the fence shortly afterwards, and when I saw my first (during a YOC trip to Tring Reservoirs in the early 1970s) they had been at large for maybe 25 years. By the year 2000 the population was around 6,000 birds...

If, at this stage, you are thinking "Oh, good for them! What a fine success story!" well, think again.

Perhaps you have in mind the ubiquitous Canada Goose, similarly 'at large', and highly successful. And while you personally (and sensibly) believe that the Canada Goose is evil incarnate, and clearly set to replace homo sapiens as the dominant species on the planet, you cannot help but marvel at its fecundity and its ability to persuade man to tolerate swarming herds of the things. Ruddy Ducks, on the other hand, are small and cute, and make you smile involuntarily at their ludicrously blue bills and ridiculous tails. If anything deserves a shot at success, the Ruddy Duck does. So, "Yes," you are thinking, "Go, Ruddy Ducks!"

But, O foolish naïf, you have reckoned without White-headed Duck, and the fact that Ruddy Duck has a very acquisitive eye on the position of its Eurasian congener. Arriving on the continent, it explained - like the Borg - that resistance is futile, and proceeded to begin assimilation by diluting the genetic purity of its cousin through hybridisation. Spain had just spent vast sums of money on improving the lot of its dwindling stock of White-headed Ducks by controlling shooting and protecting habitat, and there was no way the Ruddy Duck was going to be allowed to poop that particular party. Cutting a long story short, the upshot of all this was a decision to exterminate the entire UK Ruddy Duck population, beginning around the turn of the century. Since then, several million pounds of UK and EU money have gone into this eradication programme, and thousands have been shot.

Which means that nowadays it's a right stinker to get on your year list.

Opinions are divided on what to do about the last few remaining. An all-out effort to track down and shoot each and every one? Some see that as the righteous path, and would like any sightings of this now-scarce bird reported to the 'authorities'. Others, though, would rather protect them through suppression. Occasionally the debate surfaces online. Like this recent tweet...




I think it would be nice if the last few remaining Ruddy Ducks were left alone. My own reasons for that view are admittedly sentimental, but I can offer some argumentation for the scientifically inclined...

If you are convinced that evolution is the mechanism which drives the various changes in all forms of life on this planet, surely you've got to admire a bird that has evolved to look so cute that it can induce another species to pick it up and carry it halfway across the globe to facilitate the spreading of its genes. And if White-headed Duck is so genetically feeble that just a whiff of robust Yank DNA causes it to crumple so pathetically, well, it's doomed anyway isn't it? And who are we to get in the way of all that? So yes, of course Ruddy Duck fully deserves its crack at being the fittest for survival.

On a slightly more serious note, it is quite thought-provoking that we have the power to decide what species or habitats deserve our help, or not. We'll spend huge sums and loads of time and energy on some creature that is actually not threatened at all, while others (including many that we're probably quite oblivious to) are blithely allowed to disappear without trace. And still others are quietly taking over the planet without hindrance from mankind. It's all very arbitrary...


Resistance is futile...

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Working With What You Have

There's a Lidl store just down the road from here. I can walk there easily, and often do. In town there's a Waitrose, but very rarely do I shop there. Yes, when it comes to the contents of my wallet, the basic principle of 'working with what you have' guides me unerringly to Lidl every time.

Working with what you have...

It's an interesting principle. But not necessarily a popular one. For example, at this time of year just about every commercial enterprise that you might care to name is hell-bent on persuading you otherwise. Even Lidl is stacked to the rafters with the rich and sticky wares of seasonal excess. Go on, it's only once a year. Load up, splash out. You. Deserve. It...

In the face of all those tempting goodies, and as you watch cheery, dimple-cheeked families wheeling their mountainous trollies through the check-out, it would be so easy to get down-hearted. Envious perhaps. Decidedly unhappy with your sorry lot...

Which is why Mr Visa invented the credit card.

Actually, you can take that principle and apply it to all sorts of things. Like your best-loved hobbies, say...

Birding
It's autumn. Every bush on the east coast is dripping with drifted quality. Your inland patch, on the other hand, has been dead for weeks. Dead. Dead-dead-dead. And then one morning as you walk round the pit...what's that out on the water, spinning like a little top? Bins up. It's a phalarope! A gorgeous juvvy Red-necked Phalarope! You can hardly believe it, and your hands are shaking a bit as you reach for your phone. There'll be a twitch...

If you've ever experienced something similar, you will know exactly what I mean. Such moments are priceless. It doesn't even take a rarity. Working with what you have helps you see birds in the context of your patch, wherever that may be. And it stops you wasting emotional energy on pointless envy every time you (unwisely) study the BirdGuides map.

Fishing
I no longer live in West London's Colne Valley, where every gravel pit is home to bulging pods of gargantuan carp. In fact, Bridport is at least an hour's drive from almost all the sort of fishing which appeals to me. So I have to work with what I have, ie. distant venues. And I can forget huge carp. As it turns out though, I can have huge pike instead, which is fine. Very fine. And there are plenty of other appealing fishy targets too. It's just that the distance involved means I cannot go as often as I would like. So it's just as well that I have other hobbies. Like...

Cycling
To be honest, when it comes to cycling I am spoiled. The only way I could be unhappy with my lot is if my heart's desire was mile after mile of pan-flat, super-smooth tarmac on which to bash out very rapid miles. Yes, it would look great if I was clocking up a 20+mph average for every ride, but thankfully I am not interested in that. And I love the hills. Love 'em...

August. Inland of Abbotsbury, looking towards Portland. What's not to like?

Which leaves...

Running
With running I have recently been forced to accept an undeniable truth. Not counting nine months of womb, my body is more than half way through its 60th year. At this point in its career, many unwelcome physiological inevitabilities are at work. Like the fact that my muscles are much more eager to shrivel than grow. That recovering from a hard work-out takes two or three times as long as it did 30 years ago. That my maximum heart rate is endeavouring to be lower each year. And worst of all, that connective tissue takes so much longer to beef up than all the other stuff you need for injury-free running. The reality is that although I am technically capable of running farther and faster than I currently am, I simply dare not, because every time I open the throttle I get injured. Right now, for example, I am nursing a touch of plantar fasciitis. Basically this is a sore foot - pain on the underside of the heel/arch - a connective-tissue injury that requires careful management to facilitate recovery.

Cycling is different. It's perfectly possible to hammer yourself into the ground on the steepest of hills all afternoon, mentally begging for mercy at every summit, and then do it all again a couple of days later with nothing worse than sore muscles and a bit of cramp maybe. Brilliant. But try any of that masochistic stuff with running and you'll be out for weeks, as your tendons, ligaments, bursae, and other assorted gristly bits cripple you totally.

It's a shame really, because now that I've discovered I can still run, I want to see what this knackered old frame can do. Which means pushing it, testing it, stretching it. But it won't allow me to. Not yet. I need to be patient.

I'm trying hard not to get down about it. I need to remember to work with what I have...

Sigh...

I think a glass of wine might be in order. I can work with one of those...