Wednesday, 11 September 2019

September - Swallows, Sleeves, Socks and Sleep

I can't believe we're nearly half-way through September already!

I haven't seen or heard any Swifts since perhaps mid-August. Small groups of Swallows dash eastwards, making the most of the wind behind them, calling and feeding as they go. A group today were particularly loud. I looked up just in time to see a Kestrel flying low through the gap between my house and next door, so low that it was its light-chestnut coloured back which identified it as a Kestrel. I've seen a Kestrel before here, hunting the fenceline, riding the wind.

The sun sets noticeably earlier and we've had night-time temperatures in single figures. I run hot, so am still in T shirts, but have had to put on something with sleeves on cooler evenings.

The cats have noticed the change in temperature and snuggle closer in bed, instead of sprawling, belly-up, in their own space. Now I'm under the duvet, instead of lying starfished on top of the sheets.

I keep seeing news predicting a week's heatwave in the wake of the Atlantic weather systems formed from the remnants of tropical storms Dorian and Gabrielle, though the weather for the week ahead locally doesn't reflect that. It may stay mild here, but once again, the media headlines refer to London and the south-east of England, as if that represents the whole of the UK.

It will soon be time to break out the woolly socks, and I have picked up some knitting which has been aestivating. I lose the motivation to knit during the summer, but it comes back as the weather cools.

My right knee is having a bit of a flare. A few weeks ago, it took the brunt of the twisting force as I tried to stop a wayward shopping trolley, which also ripped off the top of a finger nail. Despite lots of massage, physio exercises, mindful use, warmth and rest, it is getting worse rather than better. It's not just painful when I try to use it (and it's painful even when I'm resting it), but it feels as though the knee is on sideways - it won't bend properly, and is unreliable bearing my weight - a clue that the kneecap isn't tracking properly. Although it's occasionally been bad this year, it's not been this bad. It gave way last night as I was peeling some carrots, and I took a chunk of skin off one of my finger-tips with the peeler as I lost balance. Blood everywhere, and a throbbing finger to add to my irritability!

I'd forgotten how exhausting pain is. It wakes me at night, and though I fall asleep again quite easily (purring, snuggly cats help!), I sleep longer - eight hours becomes nine, ten, eleven ....

Optimistically, I've rearranged a new course of belly dance classes to give me a few weeks to try to get my knee a bit better again. Perhaps if the weather heats up, some lying around on a warm beach and perhaps having a swim might be good therapy too!

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Sparks of joy

Deary me, my Create 365 challenge seemed so feasible at the start of the year, and here we are, last day of August without even a month's worth done.

Still, the idea was to motivate me to sort things out, one of which was a new pair of trainers which were comfortable the first time I wore them, and then, for some reason, increasingly uncomfortable. After the fourth time wearing them, I stopped and put them away.

I watched a documentary featuring Marie Kondo, and not for the first time, I wondered about the concept of 'sparking joy'. The answer seems to be straightforward, a binary yes/no.

Not generally one for getting satisfaction from tidying and decluttering, nevertheless when I went to put clean knickers away, I found myself folding them into neat little shapes, then took out some knickers that I only go to as a last resort. Why was that? Did they 'spark joy'? Actually, no. They've always been too uncomfortable, with thick elastic edges. A couple of sessions resulted in balls of  jersey yarn.

I also sorted a few pairs of old socks, a couple of sessions yielding 4 smaller balls of  jersey yarn again. Soon I'll have enough to make something!

I mended a T-shirt which had a couple of small tears in it, probably courtesy of my cat Greebo, who seems unable to jump up for a cuddle without creating holes in whatever I'm wearing.

But back to the trainers. I looked at them, all turquoise and pink and light, and was surprised to find a spark of joy. But they had been cheap, probably wouldn't last long and there was no point in keeping them if they were uncomfortable, so what to do? I slipped them on again to walk around and focus on the discomfort. Something was rubbing my heels, irritating my Achilles tendons. I slipped them off and looked at the backs - they were quite high and curved in a little, unlike my heels. The centre back seam ended in a hard knob, just in the wrong place.

I was unsure if I could fix this, but on the basis that you don't know until you try, I used a stitch ripper to undo the seam where the lining joined the outer across the back of the heel, cut both outer and lining straight across and trimmed the centre back seam, before adjusting the small foam heel pad and re-sewing lining to outer.

This worked, although they may still not last long now that they are wearable!

This batch of things: 6
Cumulative total: 28

Friday, 2 August 2019

It's a jungle out there!

The back garden, that is, although the front is no better, covered in weeds again. While I was concentrating on the front, and especially while I was a bit poorly in May and then again in June, the back garden rewilded itself into an almost impenetrable mass of brambles and pendulous sedge. The compost bins are full, I've hacked back brambles a few times and burned them in the incinerator, but everything is growing so fast! The Alchemilla mollis is about to sprawl everywhere too. I'm tempted to take it out. I've surely got enough of its seed in the soil that I shall never be without it.

The patio is also inaccessible, full of pots which blow about in the wind. I haven't done any moth trapping as setting up the trap feels just to complicated. And the privet hedges, overgrown and in full flower. The sparrows have been enjoying those, as well as the aphids on the roses.

Still, there are compensations. Apart from butterflies, and the occasional damselfly, this Common Darter caught my eye.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

(W)Racking my brains

Nolton Haven is a more-or-less U-shaped inlet on the west coast, facing roughly south-south-west. Looking out past the cliffs which form the mouth of the haven, you can see the jagged humps of Stack Rocks, near Brandy Bay and Mill Haven, between Little Haven and St Brides. Beyond them, the curve of land ending in what appear to be hills and valleys is the north coast of the Marloes peninsula. You'd need a telescope to see the details of the spectacular old red sandstone cliffs, but binoculars will help you see that the lumpy 'hills'  are islands. Left to right, the peninsula ends with the steep cliffs of Wooltack Point, then there is Midland Isle and Skomer. Skokholm lies behind the end of the peninsular and Midland Isle, indistinguishable from the other land in the haze. Ships waiting for their place at the oil terminals near Milford Haven often anchor off the coast, looming out of the mist.

I probably only go there once or twice a year, as it always takes longer than I think it will; I get lost in the narrow, winding lanes and drive slowly, as there is a lot of traffic, both cars and farm vehicles, and potentially horses from the large riding stables in Nolton village.

(You should be able to click on the photos below to see a larger version.)

This was taken 4 August 2015, when it was chilly enough to wear a coat!
Last Sunday, a friend and I decided to take some sandwiches and blow away some cobwebs with a little walk on the beach. The sun was playing hide-and-seek, and it was even blowier than expected, adding extra sand to the sandwiches. The tide was out, enticing us to walk down the beach. There's a stream which flows under the road and  onto the beach spreading out over the sand so that it stays wet. On either side, there are rocks covered with barnacles and seaweed, and rockpools.

Take a tip from me and stay in the sandy centre of the haven if you go for a swim. Several years ago, I swam to a little sandy patch near the cliffs and the waves pushed me against some of the rocks. It was only when I got out that I felt the sting and realised when I saw blood dripping onto my feet that one of my shins had several deep scratches from the barnacles.

The rockpools don't generally have much in them. There are the usual beadlet anemones, a few crabs, but I've rarely seen any shrimp or small fish. There is a lot of weed. Every year, I remind myself that I should learn something about seaweed so that I can name what I'm looking at.

I don't know what the astonishingly purple weed is, but it really was that colour!
The most common weed covering the rocks is the brown one with greener blobs on the end and occasional bubbles in it. I thought it was Bladder Wrack Fucus vesiculosus, but was I right?

Back home, I had a cup of tea while I leafed through a couple of my nature guide books. I have quite a collection, but the two I took from the shelf were The Readers Digest Field Guide to the Water Life of Britain, and the Hamlyn Guide Seashores and Shallow Seas of Britain and Europe (Campbell and Nicholls).* I'm not sure either of these are still in print, but you can pick good second-hand copies up very cheaply from Amazon. (* These are affiliate links)

It turned out my memory was correct, and while I had my guide-book in hand, I looked at the details for the other types of wrack commonly found around the UK coastline - Toothed or Serrated Wrack Fucus serratus, Spiral Wrack Fucus spiralis, Knotted or Egg Wrack Ascophyllum nodosum, Channelled Wrack Pelvetia canaliculata, and decided that would be enough for the time being. The green prickly puffs on the end are fruiting bodies.

I love the patterns and textures of the weed-draped rocks. Now I want to see what other weeds I can identify ... or is that just an excuse for another trip to the beach?

Friday, 21 June 2019

Spittle bugs - first survey

An initial drift around the garden, coaxing some of the nymphs out of their froth by wiping a bit of it away with a paper towel, was very easy. The nymphs weren't impressed, doing everything they could to hide or blow some more bubbles, so getting an in-focus photo was rather more challenging.

All the 'cuckoo spit' was on herbaceous or woody plants; Rosemary, Evening Primrose, Ribwort Plantain, Ragwort and Dock. The Pendulous Sedge had no cuckoo spit on it at all, and I couldn't see any on the Lilac or the Privet, or Grasses. Presumably we don't return records for plants where we haven't found something?

All the nymphs I found were green, so according to the BRIGIT Xylem-feeding insects website, (their ID section is great!) all are Philaenus spumarius, Meadow (Or Common) Froghopper. There were also some adults around, but they tended to ping off rather than sit for their photo. When I looked up the species to double-check identification, I was amazed at how variable the adults' colouration can be (so thank goodness the nymphs aren't!).

Philaenus spumarius Meadow Froghopper nymph on a paper towel rather than in foam

Philaenus spumarius Meadow Froghopper adult on Ragwort
Pretty cute! I hadn't realised, but the adults are covered in tiny hairs, so at certain angles, they appear to glisten.

By the time I'd wandered around getting some photos and generally getting distracted, the camera battery was dead, so I put it on charge and registered on iRecord, ready to edit a couple of photos and input the results the following day. Or sometime.

Ah, the joys of relational databases! This is where what I've noted collides with the way the records have been set up. In iRecord, it looks as though the records are numbers of insects at various stages (spit only, nymph, adult) for each host plant. Trouble is, there's a question about how long the survey took. I was out for about half an hour (probably more like 45 minutes, but I got a bit distracted by the blackbird chicks). Do I divide the survey time by the number of plant species? And an estimate of how many square metres. Well, the Rosemary is about one square metre, because it's huge, but I was drifting around in about 30 square metres of garden. Both time and area are mandatory questions. The Xylem-feeding insects website has a Survey Monkey driven survey (for those who don't want to tangle with iRecord), which doesn't contain the time and area questions and allows multiple plants to be listed, aggregating the total number of blobs of spit over all the plants. OK, surely I'm not expected to divide time and area surveyed per host plant, so same time of 30 minutes over 30 square metres it is. I can comment that they were all the same survey session if the database doesn't put the records together.

It took me a while to get used to what I was looking at. I found my way to instructions on the Xylem-feeding insects site on how to fill out the iRecord form and it looked simple enough, but it seems a bit glitchy.

The host plant is mandatory, and encourages users to look up the plant on the drop down list to enable the name to be spelled correctly for the database (data validation, very sensible!). Oh look, it doesn't recognise Rosemary, or Rosmarinus officinalis. Hmmm. Nor does it bring up a drop-down list for Evening Primrose, Oenothera. 'Other' it is then, to list the plants. Nope, a big red box appears saying 'unauthorised', and what I'd entered already was removed. Grrr! Oh well, if at first you don't succeed ... (go and hang out some washing, bring in the dry towels, coo at the blackbird chick in the Lilac, have a glass of water ...).

Having cleared the form, the drop down list for plants appeared. Strangely, it didn't recognise Other, (because it doesn't have Evening Primrose or Oenothera) and I had to scroll to the bottom of the list under O to find and select it, but otherwise it all went smoothly and the drag and drop for my few in-focus photos to be added against the record worked instantly.

It took me a while, but I was noticeably faster after my 8th record, finding that the less I typed into fields with drop-down boxes, the better.

Having entered my records, I decided to have a little explore and came across others complaining about how difficult the form was. I'm glad of my database knowledge and the time spent exploring the Xylem-feeding insects website, but I sympathise; not easy for someone new to iRecord and without knowledge of the spittle bug species.

Now I've got into this, I noticed some blobs on a patch of nettles, so I might go out to have a look at those.

There's a yellow warning for thunderstorms and heavy rain from Sunday (the day after tomorrow) to Tuesday. I wonder how resilient cuckoo-spit is to downpours?

A Creative Lull

I have been struggling a bit over the past few months; ill, stressed-out. Having got myself together a bit from mid-May, I did more work on the front garden, as the pressure to get that done was a source of stress which I could address. I could picture myself doing another create 365 post and adding the paths and beds of the front garden to my creations.

Just being out and working on it again felt good, even though I was low on energy. I soon found that I could only do so much weeding, wrangling the path edging into place and knocking in pegs before my hands started to ache. At first, I put it down to just being out of condition, unused to the work. Switching to the computer to do some typing and editing didn't help, something as simple as doing the washing up felt like hard work. Within the week, I found my finger joints were so painful I couldn't make a fist. Putting on hand cream felt wonderful, cool and smooth.

I had hoped that I'd be able to get the garden done, get crafting and generally catch up in all directions, but with burning, aching hands, it was hard to get anything done. I've always been good at opening jars, and now I'm struggling with them. I am so not impressed. [Expletives deleted - Ed.]

I fixed my washing line, where a line had worn against the hole in the arm and broken next to the fastener. It was easier than I thought it would be, as there was enough spare line in the fastener at the other end to rearrange it. Then I cleaned the line (although looking at it today, that's difficult to tell!) and it was ready for some of the dry weather we had in April. It's fixed, that counts!

I've just had a heavy cold and felt really under the weather for a fortnight, with sleep a welcome respite from the coughing and sinus headaches. At the beginning of the week, it felt like the lights were coming back on, and I've been madly trying to catch up ever since. I'm wary about getting frazzled out, but the sun is currently shining (which it hasn't done very much here so far this summer) and I do have lots to do. According to the weather forecast, we're due a few days of thunderstorms and heavy rain (yellow warning issued) from Sunday (the day after tomorrow), so I'm making the most of it and hopefully seeing a friend tomorrow for some downtime.

This batch of things: 1
Cumulative total: 22

Monday, 17 June 2019

Spittle-bugs and Cellar Slugs

There are a couple of 'citizen science' projects on my To Do list which are nagging at me.

The first is a study of xylem-feeding insects, that is, froghoppers and leafhoppers. Their nymphs (immature stages) are usually called spittle bugs, because they surround themselves with a froth of white foam, commonly called cuckoo spit, possibly because it starts to appear around the same time that cuckoos return in March or April.

Not that there are any cuckoos locally. Despite occasional sirens, traffic noise, screams and shouts from schoolchildren and the whine of power tools and bouts of banging from various neighbours, it's still quiet enough here that I would have heard the persistent cuc-koo call carried on the wind. They aren't unknown in Pembrokeshire, but they are on the UK Red List because of their declining numbers.

In recent years, the bacterial disease Xylella fastidiosa has been wreaking havoc in Europe, killing off olive and fruit trees amongst other plants. Many of our garden plants are imported from European growers, so Britain is on high alert, The plant pathogens are spread by sap-sucking (xylem-feeding) insects, yes, those spittle bugs!

As my garden is running wild, there's a lot of cuckoo spit about, plenty to study.

The second project is a study of Cellar Slugs. My view of slugs is that the ones helping break down my compost are fine, and the ones which are eating my plants should be banished, if not from the face of the earth, then to some other location where they cannot utterly destroy, for example, the pepper, aubergine and fennel plants to which I treated myself only a fortnight ago. Although, the plants could just as easily have been destroyed by snails, of which the garden also has a superfluity, despite the blackbirds' best efforts.

This study is going to involve some poking around with a torch, although my first port of call will be the compost bins.

It's stopped raining, so I'm off for a spot of spittle bug study.