20 December 2015


Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren 
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave, 
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself – 
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.
Carol Ann Duffy The Wren Boys

The year turns at 04:48 (UT) on 22 December this year. As always it can't come soon enough though there's no doubt that this year the incredibly mild autumn and winter have helped shorten the journey into the shortest day.

Without the delights of growth and abundance to attract--or maybe distract--the eye, there's the time and space to notice different things.

One Saturday morning, we look out to see a wren walking on water... almost. The pool near the house is thronged with pondweed elbowing aside the water lilies and keeping them confined to their own end of the pond. All of these are strong enough to bear the weight of one small wren who delicately balances on the Canadian pondweed and pecks through it for tiny invertebrates that we can barely see. 'Dart-beak' indeed! We're surprised and delighted.

Other birds in the garden at the moment are more raucous (starlings), more noticeable (wood pigeons) or more infrequent in their visits (greenfinches, mistle thrushes), but all are equally welcome. The whirr of wings, the squabbles, the flitting movement scarcely seen, the tossing aside of leaves and twigs in the quest for grubs and worms, the gathering around the feeder: a winter garden with birds is a lively place; without them it's so much more dull and lifeless. We've had a severe reduction in the number of birds over the last couple of years, mainly down to neighbours' cats. I do wish that those who share their homes with cats would keep them indoors... I've no problem with what I think of as 'food chain predation': it's not pleasant to see a magpie or a sparrow hawk take some sparrows or robins, but they do it to feed their own young. Well-fed suburban cats simply do it because it's in their nature, and that sort of hunting upsets the balance very quickly in the tiny ecosystem of a few suburban back gardens.

Only a little bit away from the garden, on a another walk, I catch a heron taking flight on a grey winter's afternoon, disturbed by one small grey schnauzer rummaging on the banks.

Heron on the Slang 

Heron on the wing
And along that same stream a few days later, a thrush sings in the pre-dawn darkness, easily raising its refrain above the monotone of the traffic hum from a nearby road.

Late autumn and early winter have been warm, but oh the rain! We've had nothing like the flooding in the west of the country, but the rivers have been swollen and the skies leaden.

Swollen river after the rains
This morning we had some brief respite with only showers to worry about and some sunshine to light our way on a beach walk.

A shower heads up the Irish Sea
Low winter sun casts a beautiful light on both organic and inorganic objects:

Ochres and umbers in the winter light: a seaweed holdfast and a bicycle chain cassette
That division into organic and inorganic was the first bit of 'science' that I remember discovering... When I was about seven or eight or so, we had a book in school called 'Science from the Beginning' which showed early on in its pages how everything could be divided into 'alive', 'dead' and 'never alive'. I remember very clearly reading this and, in wonder, starting to go through all the things I could think of one by one in my head, classifying them and realising that yes, this could make sense of the world. That was probably the first step to finding my way into a study of science. Something that I'm so glad to say has been taken on by both my sons too.

Speaking of science, here's a new word I learnt on Twitter of late: cladoptosis (cladop = branch; ptosis = falling). After Storm Desmond swept through these islands, I noticed--as always after a winter storm--that many of the trees in the park had dropped small branches and twigs. I've always considered this as a sort of self-pruning and indeed it is! While some of the branches we see on the ground have broken in storms, many of them are shed cleanly by the tree, leaving neat abcission scars behind. A bit like the leaf-shedding of deciduous trees, though writ large. It ensures that the tree sheds the weaker branches which will include those that are not displaying their leaves in the optimum display (to catch the most light possible). All of this helps the tree remain strong and healthy and it's such a neat process.

Branches as well as leaves are shed in the autumn and winter
By the way, here's what an optimum arrangement of ivy leaves looks like, it's a view from above, as a bird would see it or, crucially, as the sunlight would hit it. No I didn't employ a drone or climb up a tree... it was another casualty of the storm, now lying horizontally on the ground.

A bird's eye view of ivy leaves with just the right arrangement to get as much light as possible
And speaking of sons, as I was a couple of paras ago, this week I'll be welcoming both of them home and we'll celebrate the turning of the year with friends and family. Here's the wreath I made, with bits from the garden, to welcome them home:

Happy Solstice all.


  1. Delightful as always! Looking forward to catching up over the holidays 😊

    1. Thanks Shevaun! Hope you and your girls have a wonderful Christmas. And looking forward to catching up again.

  2. Nice post Erica. I learn something new every time I read your blog postings.

  3. Beautiful & informative as always...thank you. Happy Solstice and as the world turns and the light comes back may you enjoy some lightness too. xx

    1. Thanks Jude, hope all have a wonderful solstice, Christmas and new year chez Wyleys xx

  4. Wonderful photo of the 'taking off heron' - I have a book full of 'blank skies' where I try & try to get the heron taking off. It truly is a mystical, and somewhat prehistoric type of 'take off', isnt it. I see it all the time along the canal banks - but those goddam critters are determined my camera is not going to capture them. Happy Winter Solstice to you and yours 'erica'. Graineweile.xoxo

    1. They look so unlikely as they take flight, don't they? I was lucky I had the phone to hand :-)

  5. "Like a herrin' on the griddle-oh"
    Great shot of its wings - like a DeLorrean!