Category Archives: Wildlife

The realm of the jackdaw in my garden

A large group of jackdaws is currently reigning supreme in my garden.  They appeared about six weeks ago, and are here every late morning when they spread out across my lawn and forage in the grass and occasionally the flower beds, usually in harmony with one another, but occasionally with minor internal disputes.  Their relationships with other wildlife in the garden is rather less amiable, but on the whole mutual caution seems to rule.  The most I counted in one go was 16 jackdaws, but there are rarely less than 10.  A group of this sort is known as a train or clattering.  One or two individuals sometimes return in the afternoon, but the jackdaws only visit my lawn en masse in the late morning.

The jackdaw is, at first glance, a large, and undistinguished black bird much like a crow, but when observed more closely is a rather beautiful thing.  It has remarkable silver eyes that stand out against the black pupils.  The head and beak are black, but the hood, nape and neck are silvery-charcoal, like a mane, which becomes pure silver in bright sunlight.  They have a self-important rocking-horse motion, but walk one leg at a time, rather than bouncing along on both legs like smaller birds.  Their skinny-looking legs are well able to support their large bodies during periods of extensive walking over the expanse of the lawn.  They use their wings to supplement their legs to pick up speed when seeing off transgressors or moving a safe distance away from their more aggressive family members.  Young jackdaws have brown irises that only become silver grey as they become more mature.

Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) are part of the same 120-species family as crows, ravens, rooks, magpies, and jays, the corvid family, and are the smallest member of that family in the UK, at about 34cm long.  Carl Linnaeus provided the name “monedula,” deriving from the Latin word for money, chosen for the brightness of the things that the jackdaw, like the magpie, is fond of collecting.  Every creature on the planet owes its two-part Latin formal name to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).  All living creatures are assigned  these two Latin names, their genus and species.  Biologists have since elaborated this system, and now rely on DNA to establish relationships, but Linnaeus provided them with the basics of the taxonomy that we continue to use.

Sometimes all one can see is the bird’s rear end, because the head is so deeply and busily buried in the grass. Like other members of the corvid family, jackdaws are omnivores.  Whatever they are plucking out of my lawn and flower beds is probably insect life, like leather jackets, worms, beetles, caterpillars and ants.  They are also partial to slugs and small snails, and and supplement their diet with fruit and seeds.  Jackdaws also steal the eggs and offspring of smaller birds and, like all corvids, will eat carrion when they find it.  The diversity of their diet has helped their numbers to rise in Britain.  

Many insect eaters can derive most of their water requirement from this food, and I have not yet seen them (or magpies) drink from any of the bird baths in the garden which the other bird species use frequently, even large ones like pigeons and doves. They may, of course, be sourcing their liquids from outside the garden.

They don’t sing; they squawk and chatter.  It is often a rather disharmonious sound, unappealing to the human ear, nothing like the blissful melodies of the blackbird or thrush.  You can hear a sample on the British Birdsong website here, or the RSPB website here.

Birds that form lifelong monogamous relationships often have the largest brains, relative to their body size, and they are certainly smart, regularly defeating my small-birds-only weight-detecting  winter bird feeder, using every form of trickery at their disposal, including flapping wings madly to hold position whilst poking their heads through the hole to reach the bird seed.  In the days when milkmen left bottles with foil caps by front doors, jackdaws were notorious for pecking through the foil to get to the creamy milk within, thereby rendering themselves seriously unpopular by contaminating and ruining the milk.

Jackdaw eggs in nest. Source: East Norfolk Ringing Group blog

There is no externally visible difference between the male and female.  Jackdaws breed between April and June, raising one brood each year.  Their nests are untidy.  They simply fill a hole or recess with sticks, and may be lined with wool, hair, string or grass and weeds.  A 2021 research paper found that although pairs behaved similarly and generally cooperated to build their nests, their roles were not identical.  Females contribute more to the build of the nest, and call more frequently, but the males are more assiduous guardians of the nest once it is built.  The eggs are blue-grey with dark speckles.  Once the eggs are laid, usually up to a maximum of six or seven, more usually four or five at a time, they are incubated for up to 20 days.  They hatch at different times, with the oldest having a much better chance of survival than the youngest.   The female tends the nest whilst the male sources food and brings it to the female and the chicks.  The chicks remain in the nest for up to five weeks, before leaving the nest and learning to fly and feed for themselves.

Jackdaws on chimneys in Cornwall. Source: Hudson 1908

In the title of the post I referred to the garden as their realm, because as far as I can tell, two generations of the family have been born in one of my chimney pots.  I seem to be sharing with those jackdaws the same pattern of sheltering in the house at certain times of the day and night, and working in the the garden when the weather is nice, or at least dry 🙂  One of the colloquial name for the jackdaw is the “chimney bird” due to their affinity for this particular type of home, which are becoming less available to them year by year, due to chimney caps and central heating.  Fortunately, as well as chimneys and holes in roofs, they also like rock shelves, cliff faces, tree holes and the abandoned nests of bigger birds.  Some will even nest in abandoned rabbit burrows.  The chimney at the front of my house, together with that section of the slate-tiled roof, formed the hub of their activities when the nest was still occupied, but they still use it as a home base, where they  can sit and bicker and gather their energies for the next foray into my garden or, in the afternoons, into the field over the road. Right now, in mid June, the noise in the chimney is confined to mornings and early evenings, meaning that the youngsters are fully fledged and that the family are out all day.

Jackdaws move seasonally.  Family units will focus on a breeding site in the spring and summer, often returning to it in subsequent years, but in the winter they will leave and join communities of several hundred other corvids, not just jackdaws but also rooks and carrion crows, roosting high in trees.  These winter roosts are rarely too far from their breeding grounds.  Communal roosting is both sociable and solitary.  Although the birds gather together in the trees, they are spaced from one another, not huddled together for warmth.  Large roosts attract predators, and although a few losses might be seen as a sacrifice worth making for the benefit of the group as a whole, such as African livestock herds where the elderly, young and weak are picked off.  But herds are on the move, and a roost does not move, making it an easy target for multiple predators to target them.  Still, those perched within the greater group are likely to be protected, and the better positions in the roost are, like other aspects of corvid life, dictated by hierarchy and status.  An additional or alternative explanation is based on corvid intelligence and communication, and suggests that roosts provide a context for learning and for the exchange of information.  What this means in bird terms is obviously very different from what it means to human groups, but there is little doubt that the calls made are a form of communication and signalling.

Konrad Lorenz.  Source: Famous Psychologists

Research into jackdaw behaviour builds on the foundational 1930s work by Konrad Lorenz.  The jackdaw population might have been flattered had it known that Lorenz, a renowned Austrian ornithologist, is also credited today with being the Nobel Prize-winning founder of modern ethology ( the biological study of behaviour), and observed the jackdaw with a view to understanding innate behaviour in animal and human communities.  Lorenz was the first to observe that jackdaw groups operated within a strict social hierarchy based on sex, breeding status and seniority.  

All wild jackdaw couples are monogamous, paired for life.  It makes biological sense that breeding pairs are more important than unattached individuals, and in a social order where the male choses the female, it is inevitable that a single female will be lower in status than a paired female or a single male.   This means that females without partners are at the bottom of the social heap.  This has consequences.  If a female is unpaired, she is disadvantaged, particularly when times are hard.  She is the last to eat, the first to be denied shelter in the nest at times of stress, will be pushed to the risky outside edges of a communal roost, and is not permitted to retaliate when picked on by other members of the community, who may peck at her to reinforce their own status.  Matters change when a female is selected by a male as his mate for life.  Her status is equal to that of her mate, and she then has the authority to treat junior members of the community in the same way that she was herself treated.  

More complex relations occur amongst males, as a 2014 research project discovered, concluding that larger male jackdaws attained higher ranks and that social rank increased with age.  It also suggested that high-ranked individuals had a shorter lifespan suggesting that maintaining or achieving high rank and associated benefits comes at a cost, and also that social rank declined substantially in the last year an individual was observed in the colony, because of deterioration in performance related to age, which acted against the benefits of seniority, knowledge and experience.  Apart from physical size equating to rank, the rest is eerily reminiscent of patterns in human livestock-herding groups operating in marginal conditions in places like the Sahara, where seniority, experience and knowledge are the key priorities for choosing group leaders, because those are the skills that will promote survival.

Jackdaws often come up in the context of “social behaviour” research.  Instead of focusing on which bird is likely to be the most dominant in a particular hierarchy, the focus in this type of research is on how the entire group acts as a decision-making unit.  For example, when big groups roost overnight in huge numbers and then split up into smaller groups during the day to feed in various locations, there is a question about how the decision is taken to take flight.  Research in Cornwall, recording the sounds of bird calls before, during and after they have taken flight is key to this process.  The calls reach an intensity immediately before the birds take to the wing, as though they are declaring a level of confidence that reaches a peak, a threshold that indicates that the group is ready to take to the skies. A major evolutionary advantage would equate to herbivore herd behaviour, creating a block of fast and confusing movement to deter predators, which would otherwise pick off lone individuals with comparative ease.

At least some of this  behaviour can be observed in the garden.  There is plenty of pecking when one jackdaw ranges too close to another, presumably a senior making it clear to a junior or unpaired female that there are boundaries to be observed.  Sometimes a few of them will walk in line, like schoolchildren following a teacher.  For the most part, they are evenly spread across the lawn and only occasionally do a small number bunch in close proximity.

They are perfectly happy to share my lawn with the robins and blackbirds that also forage in the lawn at the same time,  as long as they don’t come too close. On the other hand, war breaks out when a squirrel emerges, quivering all over, its tail tightly curled, pausing to strategize before taking up the offensive and chasing off the jackdaws.  When the magpies arrive, a wary stand-off is practised on both sides.  When the magpies, singly or in a pair, stay at a safe distance all is well, but if the magpies infringe too far, hostilities are quick to erupt.  The magpies will often dive-bomb the jackdaws at such times.  Even though the jackdaws should be able to win the numbers game, they usually take to the wing, but so do the magpies.  It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Transit and mobbing flock patterns. Source: Nature

Jackdaws, like starlings, occasionally form flocks.  Recent research has shown that there are two different types of flocking behaviour: those flying to their winter roosts and those joining forces to scare off potential predators.  In the first case, transit flocking, there is an element of predictability because the size of the winter roost flocks is fixed, and the jackdaws organize themselves in relation to one another in an orderly manner.  In the second case, referred to as mobbing, the sudden gathering to scare off predators is a far more chaotic and unplanned event until the flock has achieved a certain number, when the jackdaws start to behave more like a roosting flock, with their motion through the sky co-ordinated and spatially organized.  Jackdaws flocking before roosting offer some of the most spectacular aerial displays.

The jackdaw has only a faint footprint in myth and history suggesting that whilst an occasional nuisance it has not been sufficiently systematic as a pest to make its mark in folklore and superstition.  Henry VIII, never one to pull his punches, added jackdaws, rooks and crows to the Vermin Act of 1532 in response to poor grain harvest that were blamed, in part, on foraging corvids.  Elizabeth I echoed his in 1566 with another act intended to preserve the nation’s grain production against birds.  Perhaps this reputation for pillaging grain accounts for why they were sometimes considered to be bad luck. Although a jackdaw on a roof might once have been taken to signify a new arrival, it might just as well have been an ill omen, sometimes a portent of death.  Several decades later, in May 1604, Members of Parliament in the London Houses of Parliament were debating the third reading a bill when a young jackdaw flew into the chamber, upsetting a number of those present who interpreted it as a bad omen for the bill. Jackdaws had long been associated with ill fortune.  Although there had ben confidence that the bill would pass, it went on to be defeated by 118 votes to 99. The clerk of the Commons was sufficiently impressed by the incident that he recorded it in the Commons Journal. 

Bodmin Jail. Source: Cornwall Live

In the 19th Century, the jackdaws of Bodmin Jail on Bodmin Moor in southwest England were thought to be on the cusp of fulfilling a curse.  A spinster living in woods on the edge of Bodmin, shunned as a witch, depended on jackdaws to bring her trinkets, and trained them to steal items of value, enabling her to survive.  When she was found guilty of the jackdaw thefts, she was incarcerated in Bodmin Jail, where she died, cursing her jailers, the jail, and the town of Bodmin, whose inhabitants had rejected her so cruelly.  The jackdaws, having followed her to the jail, remained, and the curse stated that “should the last Jackdaw be born at Bodmin Gaol, so the spirits of the condemned shall rise and bring misfortune and chaos to all that reside within.”

The Vain Jackdaw by Harrison Weir in 1881

In literature, a Greek and Roman adage that “the swans will speak when the Jackdaws are silent” (in Latin, tunc canent cygni, cum tacebunt graculi) advises that the wise should speak only when the foolish have finished their chatter.  The jackdaw puts in an appearance in a version of Aesop’s Fables, representing unwise behaviour including vanity and greed.  In The Bird with the Borrowed Feathers, the jackdaw borrows the peacock’s feathers to become one of this superior enclave, but on being recognized as a fraud has the borrowed feathers stripped from him and is so badly mauled that his own species do not recognize him, and reject him.  It is a moral against social climbing.

In the 18th century, A poem by William Cowper (1731-1800) is dedicated to the jackdaw:

There is a bird who, by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.

Above the steeple shines a plate,
That turns and turns, to indicate
From what point blows the weather.
Look up — your brains begin to swim,
‘Tis in the clouds — that pleases him,
He chooses it the rather.

Fond of the speculative height,
Thither he wings his airy flight,
And thence securely sees
The bustle and the rareeshow,
That occupy mankind below,
Secure and at his ease.

You think, no doubt, he sits and muses
On future broken bones and bruises,
If he should chance to fall.
No; not a single thought like that
Employs his philosophic pate,
Or troubles it at all.

He sees that this great roundabout,
The world, with all its motley rout,
Church, army, physic, law,
Its customs and its businesses,
Is no concern at all of his,
And says — what says he? — Caw.

Thrice happy bird! I too have seen
Much of the vanities of men;
And, sick of having seen ’em,
Would cheerfully these limbs resign
For such a pair of wings as thine
And such a head between ’em.

Perhaps a better known poem about jackdaws is the 19th century The Jackdaw of Rheims by Richard Harris Barham (who used the pen-name Thomas Ingoldsby, 1788 – 1845).  It’s a lengthy affair, so I haven’t reproduced it here, but you can find it on the All Poetry website here.  It is another humourous poem that tells how a jackdaw stole the cardinal’s ring, but wound up being made a saint.

Because jackdaws often favour steeples and holes in roofs of church buildings, the Jackdaw can valued as a holy bird, shunned by the Devil because of its pious choice of residence, a tradition that was particularly prevalent in Wales.  I suspect that those responsible for the care of the churches concerned might have a less charitable view on the subject.

On the whole, history has judged the jackdaw without suspicion but without overt hostility.  Today they are are still legally classified as vermin in the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, and numerous pest control companies offer the removal of jackdaws as one of their services.  This is partly because of the noise and disruption of their chimney, roof and church occupancies (and I can vouch for the fact that they are seriously noisy) but also because of their perceived threat to the conservation of smaller bird populations and the ongoing damage that they can inflict on cereals crops.

There are some 1,400,000 breeding pairs in Britain and in the region of 30 million across Europe.  In 1984, they were first identified in north America. The Big Garden Birdwatch, organized annually by the RSPB, found that jackdaws were ranked 15th in birds observed in English gardens in 2022, and 11th in Welsh gardens.  In both cases most of the birds higher up in the ranking were small varieties, but they also came in behind magpies and wood pigeons.

When I walk out of the back door the jackdaws take to the air without hesitations.  Unlike the blackbirds and the robins that take a look at me, hop a short distance away, and then ignore me, or the sparrows and tits that take instant flight, but only as far as the nearest tree from which they can monitor my activities, the jackdaws are gone.   Although the jackdaws and I share the garden independently, there have been numerous examples of jackdaws having a close affinity with particular humans.  Usually this is after the bird has been injured and cared for by the person with whom the relationship is formed (broken wings seem to be the most common example), but not always.  There’s a great video of a man feeding a jackdaw with a grape at Rhuddlan Castle below, which shows that formidable beak in action (I would be seriously worried for my fingers, but the jackdaw never misses its target):

The tenure of the jackdaws in my chimney will have to end this year after they leave, when the chimney will be cleaned out and capped, but it has been fascinating to have this growing family at both roof and ground level for so long.

Sources:

Books

Bruun, B. 1970. The Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe.  Hamlyn Publishing

Couzens, D.2004.  The Secret Lives of Garden Birds.  RSPB

Hudson W. H. 1908. The Land’s End. A Naturalist’s Impressions In West Cornwall, Illustrated. D. Appleton And Company.
Available on Project Gutenberg:
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47990/47990-h/47990-h.htm

Moss, S. 2003. Understanding Bird Behaviour. A Birdwatcher’s Guide.  The Wildlife Trusts

Reader’s Digest Nature Lover’s Library 1981.  Field Guide to the Birds of Britain. Reader’s Digest

Papers

Nicola S. Clayton and Nathan J. Emery 2007. The social life of corvids. Current Biology, Vol.17 No.16.
https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(07)01494-7.pdf
https://www.academia.edu/23657956/The_social_life_of_corvids

Alex J. Dibnah, James E. Herbert-Read, Neeltje J. Boogert, Guillam E. McIvor, Jolle W. Jolles, Alex Thornton 2022. Vocally mediated consensus decisions govern mass departures from jackdaw roosts. Current Biology, 2022; 32 (10)
https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(22)00601-7?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982222006017%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

Nathan J. Emery, Amanda M. Seed, Auguste M. P. von Bayern and Nicola S. Clayton, 2007. Cognitive adaptations of social bonding in birds.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2007) 362, 489–505

Ira G. Federspiel, M. Boeckle, A. M. P. von Bayern and N. J. Emery 2019. Exploring individual and social learning in jackdaws (Corvus monedula). Learning & Behavior volume 47, pages 258–270
https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13420-019-00383-8

Alison L. Greggor, Guillam E. McIvor, Nicola S. Clayton and Alex Thornton 2016.  Contagious risk taking: social information and context influence wild jackdaws’ responses to novelty and risk.
Scientific Reports volume 6, Article number: 27764 (2016)
https://www.nature.com/articles/srep27764

Luca G. Hahn, Rebecca Hooper, Guillam E. McIvor and Alex Thornton 2021. Cooperative nest building in wild jackdaw pairs. Animal Behaviour, Volume 178, August 2021, pp.149-163
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003347221001731

Hangjian Ling, Guillam E. Mclvor, Joseph Westley, Kasper van der Vaart, Richard T. Vaughan, Alex Thornton & Nicholas T. Ouellette 2019.  Behavioural plasticity and the transition to order in jackdaw flocks.  Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 5174
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-13281-4

Mioduszewska, B., Schleuning, X., Brunon, A., O’Hara, M., Auersperg, A. M. I., Federspiel, I. G., and von Bayern, A. M. P. 2020. Task aspects triggering observational learning in jackdaws (Corvus monedula). Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(4), pp.567-588
https://www.animalbehaviorandcognition.org/uploads/journals/29/AB_C_Vol7(4)_Mioduszewska_et_%20al.pdf

P.William Smith, 1985. Jackdaws reach the New World. The first specimen record for North America, with notes concerning the birds’ probable origin. American Birds, Fall 1985, vol.39, no.3
https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/nab/v039n03/p00255-p00258.pdf

Matthew Sparkes 2022. Flocks of jackdaws ‘democratically’ decide when to take flight at once. New Scientist 23rd May 2022.
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2320585-flocks-of-jackdaws-democratically-decide-when-to-take-flight-at-once/

Simon Verhulst, Moniek Geerdink, H. Martijn Salomons, and Jelle J. Boonekamp 2014 . Social life histories: jackdaw dominance increases with age, terminally declines and shortens lifespan. Proceedings of Biological Science, September 22nd 2014; 281(1791): 20141045.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4132676/ 

Lies Zandberg, Jolle W. Jolles, Neeltje J. Boogert, Alex Thornton 2014. Jackdaw nestlings can discriminate between conspecific calls but do not beg specifically to their parents. Behavioral Ecology, Volume 25, Issue 3, May-June 2014, pp.565–573
https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/25/3/565/513806

Websites

10 Things Wrong with Environmental Thinking (blog)
Spat out of Nature by Nature: Konrad Lorenz and the Rise and Fall of Ethology
http://10thingswrongwithenvironmentalthought.blogspot.com/2012/07/spat-out-of-nature-by-nature-konrad.html

Birds in Cheshire and Wirral
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
http://www.cheshireandwirralbirdatlas.org/species/jackdaw-wintering.htm

Bodmin Jail
The Jackdaws of Bodmin Jail
https://www.bodminjail.org/blog/historical-tales/the-jackdaws-of-bodmin-jail/

British Garden Birds
(Eurasian) Jackdaw
https://www.garden-birds.co.uk/birds/jackdaw.html

Country Life
11 Things you never knew about the jackdaw
https://www.countrylife.co.uk/nature/jackdaw-bird-just-loves-people-178185

The History of Parliament
Parliament and Superstition: A Jackdaw in the House of Commons, 1604
https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/parliament-and-superstition-a-jackdaw-in-the-house-of-commons-1604/

The Nobel Prize
Konrad Lorenz – Facts (Sat. 18 Jun 2022)
https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1973/lorenz/facts/

RSPB
Jackdaw
https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/jackdaw/
Big Garden Birdwatch
https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/

Wildlife Trust
Jackdaw
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/crows-and-shrikes/jackdaw

World Birds
Jackdaw symbolism and meaning
https://worldbirds.com/jackdaw-symbolism/

A stroll through Marford Quarry (source of the Mersey Tunnel cement) on a cold but sunny day

Last week we went to Marford Quarry, just off the Chester-Wrexham road just south of Rossett.  I had never visited before, but it has been open to the public for walking and cycling for decades and has had a lot of work invested in it to make it a great place to walk dogs and stretch legs.  Bigger and smaller footpaths and trails make for a lot of variation, as do the multiple facets of the quarry and its surroundings, with different types of plantation and wildlife providing a lot to see.  Some of it looked almost like a desert landscape, whilst other parts were thick with shrubs and trees.  Although trees dominate even the sparsely covered areas, particularly silver birch and conifers, and the bird song is fabulous, there is a lot more going on at ground level, with wild flowers clustering in favoured spots and the rustle of birds turning over the leaves.  We saw a wren, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds and plenty of robins bouncing fearlessly near the paths.  The heart of the quarry a deep bowl with a slight rise in the centre with a single tree on top, is a dramatic sight, like an enormous amphitheatre.

Marford smithy on the left, with the glacial moraine like a giant wall in the background, now quarried away. Source: Essentials Magazine https://www.essentialsmag.co.uk/features/the-last-icesheet

Marford Hill, climbing from Rossett towards Wrexham, is what remains of a glacial moraine.  An article, The Last Ice Sheet by Pam Gibbons in Essentials magazine, has a photograph of the quarry before it began to be quarried for sand and gravel to make cement.  It is shown right, around 130ft high and up to 25,000 years old, dumped by the glacier as it melted, and the ice retreated north.  The former smithy, used by ATS for so long, and recently replaced by two modern houses, is clearly visible on the left at the foot of the hill.  A marvellous photograph, with thanks to Pam Gibbons for recognizing its significance when she saw it.

There was originally a motte and bailey castle at the top of Marford, called Rofft.  I’ll see what I can find out about it, but the quarrying destroyed it, which surprises me given how aware people were of the value of historical sites by the 1930s.  It is such a shame.

Here’s the original caption from the Wonders of World Engineering website: “BUILDING THE ROADWAY through the Mersey Tunnel. Made of reinforced concrete, the roadway is supported by two intermediate walls, 12 inches thick and 21 feet apart, and is anchored to the cast-iron lining. The finished road in the main tunnel has a width of 36 feet between the kerbs. The tunnel has a capacity of 4,150 vehicles an hour, with cars 100 feet apart and moving at twenty miles an hour. The space beneath the roadway acts as the duct for fresh air and is sufficiently large to provide a second road or railway should they be necessary.” Source: Wonders of World Engineering

The quarry opened in 1927 and closed in 1971.  Its biggest claim to fame is the it supplied material for the Mersey Tunnel.  The Mersey Ferry and the railway tunnel, between them doing a good job of carrying passengers to and fro, could not cope with the growing demands of road traffic.  Initially a bridge was proposed, but the engineering wisdom came down in favour of a tunnel, which required a lot of aggregate.  Work on the tunnel started on December 19th 1925.  Today, the former Birkenhead to Wrexham railway, following the river valley, still runs between Chester and Wrexham and runs immediately to the west of Marford Quarry, with the A483 bypass now running between them.  The railway enabled the quarried materials to be loaded directly on to the train and carried to Birkenhead, a super-efficient and cost effective way of acquiring the building materials for the tunnel project.  For a good article on the building of the Mersey Tunnel, with some great pictures, see the Wonders of World Engineering website, which gives the following details “On July 18, 1934, the Mersey Tunnel was opened to traffic by His Majesty King George V. The main tunnel has a length of 3,751 yards, from the Old Haymarket, Liverpool, to King’s Square, Birkenhead. The branch tunnels which lead to the docks on either side of the river bring the total length of roadway to 5,064 yards, or nearly three miles.”  Funny to think of Marford’s glacial moraine holding it all together.  For more about the history of the quarry and its ownership, see the Maes y Pant website.

The main bowl of the quarry, a single tree standing on a slight rise, the rest of the quarry edges rising like an amphitheatre all around it. When I first rounded a corner and saw it, completely empty of people, I found it distinctly eerie.

The 39 acre site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1989 and the following year 26 acres of it were bought by the North Wales Wildlife Trust.  As the North Wales Wildlife Trust puts it “The reserve is especially important for a specialised group of invertebrates, aculeate Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps), with an astounding 171 different species recorded (2018). Ants, in particular, are an important source of food for green woodpeckers.” In 2011 the site was split into two, and one section of the site is now owned by the Maes-y–Pant Action Group Ltd.

Sadly, the photos taken with the emergency back-up camera that I carry in my handbag did not come out as well as I hoped, but hopefully give some sense of what is there to be seen.  There was a bit that we missed, where there is apparently a viewing point and an outdoor gym, but we figured out where they were so will visit them next time.

 

Visiting:
There were all age groups present, and several of the unwilling-leg variety who were doing very nicely on the nicely maintained paths, making good use of plenty of benches dotted around (and lots of fallen logs to sit on).  There are some gradients, but not many severe ones, and it is very easy to avoid them.

There are two places to park, one on Springfield Lane just below the Trevor Arms in Marford, with spaces on the side of the road, and a small but proper car park on Pant Lane just beyond (heading north) the Co-op at the top of the hill.  We parked in Springfield Lane and walked along the quarry footpaths to Grove Street, and I walked back to retrieve the car to collect Dad.  It’s about a 15 minute fast walk from one to the other.

Sources

Gibbon, P. The Last Ice Age.  Essentials Magazine
https://www.essentialsmag.co.uk/features/the-last-icesheet

Maes y Pant
Site History by Trevor Britton
http://maes-y-pant.com/site-history.html

Marford Conservation Area Assessment and Management Plan
https://coflein.gov.uk/media/305/417/640273.pdf

Twentieth Century Society
Of the Month: Building of the month – October 2006 – The Mersey Tunnel
https://c20society.org.uk/building-of-the-month/the-mersey-tunnel

Wonders of World Engineering
The Mersey Tunnel
https://wondersofworldengineering.com/merseytunnel.html

 

A visit to Chirk Castle yesterday for the snowdrops and daffodils

It was such a gloriously sunny day yesterday that even though I had marked today for giving the house a much-need top-to-toe clean, I abandoned the whole project, jumped in the car, and  stopped off to pick up my Dad before driving down to Chirk Castle to enjoy the pristine garden and the walks in the small woodland.  It is a great time of year for it.  The castle, the only one of Edward I’s Marcher fortresses still inhabited today, always a little intimidating in its block-like immobility, is far less bellicose in the bright sun.

The topiary is great at any time of year, and the colours of new foliage and bright heather give a real lift to everything, whilst the daffodils and snowdrops, popping up everywhere but particularly good in the woodland, are a joy.  The snowdrops are all in full swing, but although a lot of daffodils are out and looking terrific, there are still more to break out of their buds.  We stopped off on a perfectly placed bench for a blissful half hour in the sun to look out beyond the ha-ha over the rolling hillside towards the view below.  It’s only a short outing, but a very agreeable one.   I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

 

 

Plan of Chirk Castle grounds. Most of the snowdrops are in the Pleasure Ground Wood, but the daffodils are everywhere.  Source:  Chirk Castle, National Trust (website and free leaflet available in the ticket office)

Details of visiting are on the Chirk Castle website (National Trust).  Regarding my usual comment on access, a wheelchair user might be able to see some of the gardens, but the woodland is probably not advisable.  As for unwilling legs, yes if you keep in mind that the ground is uneven.  There is a shuttle from the car park to the castle entrance, as the walk up can be challenging for unwilling legs.

 

Big Garden Birdwatch 2022

I only started doing the Big Garden Birdwatch when I moved out of London, but it has become a real pleasure since then. This is my fourth go at it, but my first in Churton, done on 30th January.  At this time of year with the unpredictable weather, it can be a bit hit or miss, particularly as we now experience so many more storms.  Luckily, in spite of Storm Malik, in which one of my bird feeders vanished completely in spite of my efforts to locate it, there have been long dry periods and the birds have been out and about, stocking up with calories whilst the going is good.  Because it has been so dry, I had to refill the bird bath, and they were soon drinking from it.

Of the birds that paraded themselves for one hour this year, there was nothing rare, but that’s not what it’s all about.  Any and all Birdwatch observations contribute importantly to the statistics that have been collected by the RSPB for over 40 years and help to chart trends in bird populations.  In 2021 over a million people took part.

Just a selection of my visitors on the day. My kitchen windows seriously need cleaning 🙂

I was in the kitchen, looking out of the window due to the cold, so I was mainly watching the bird feeders on the Japanese maple about 10ft away.  The robin that fights for the patio territory with ferocity was there, scooping everything that the almost ubiquitous blue tits and great tits drop so untidily on the floor.  Male and female house sparrows have mastered the bird feeders, some even performing the rudimentary forms of gymnastics that the tits perform so sublimely.  Male and female blackbirds bounced around the ground, scattering the smaller birds.  I was so pleased to have three chaffinches, a male and two females, for the first time ever, and they arrived very handily in the hour that I was doing my official watch.  They scurried around underneath the bird feeders in the shade of the shrubs, and I couldn’t capture  them with the camera.  Another time.  Missing from the usual suspects were the collared doves and the  sole dunnock that often visits.

My garden is quite long so I could not see what else was dashing around in the trees and shrubs in the rest of the garden, but splendid magpies, raucous crows and enormous waddling pigeons were all visible in a patch of fugitive sunshine at the end of the garden, as were two squirrels competing for territory in the beech tree. 

One of my recent visitors

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some more unusual visitors recently.  A week ago I saw a spotted woodpecker who was sitting in the big Japanese maple on my patio, trying to work out whether or not the bird feeders were at all feasible (not).  On the same day I walked downstairs to find a pheasant standing at my back door looking in.  I assume that someone else is feeding him from their back door, because he looked so expectant.  In my last house, in Aberdovey (west Wales) I had a community of pheasants daily in my garden during the winter, which I used to feed on peanuts, but although pheasants roam the fields around here, I’ve never before seen one in the garden.  Once in a while I hear and then see a thrush, but so far none have established a territory here.  I have been trying to encourage goldfinches into the garden with nyjer seeds, because I had a community of them at my last house and they are enchanting, but so far they are resistant to all my efforts, although I saw some splashing in a pool of water in Pump Lane last year.
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Look what’s coming to dinner: giant puffballs found on a grass verge

If you are lucky enough to find puffballs, especially giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), in your travels they must be eaten almost immediately as they simply don’t keep.  Put them in the fridge, and they will last maybe two days, perhaps three if your fridge is very cold.  Freezing them on the same day is also possible but they are not nearly as good as when eaten fresh.  I used to harvest them from the golf course when I lived in Aberdovey, but never did I collect any this enormous!  My father had a couple, I had a couple and a neighbour had one.  These came from a local grass verge that I was driving past, and I pulled over to go and retrieve them.  Because puffballs reproduce during the decay of the puffball (at which point it puffs off its spores), always leave one behind to ensure that there is a chance of them coming back next year.

A giant puffball looks a little like chicken breast when you slice through it.

As always, collecting wild mushrooms comes with a health warning.  It is easy to mistake puffballs for mildly poisonous earthballs when they are both very small and white, although earth balls quickly become dark as they grow whereas puffballs look pure white throughout their growth cycle, until they mature and the spores (like seeds) are ready to depart when they go creamy yellow.  They are pretty well unmistakeable when they reach a size bigger than a golf ball, but read more about them here on the excellent Forager Chef website.

Puffballs have a subtle mushroomy taste and a soft texture, both of which are quite unique and utterly delicious.  When they are big enough, they are fabulous cut into big slices and tossed in  sizzling butter and fresh sage.  Small ones can be cooked whole.

Slices of giant puffball at the base were topped with smoked bacon, black pudding, crispy sage leaves, spinach and a poached egg.  A terrible photo – I really cannot take photographs in artificial light!  I need to sort out a mini home studio.

There are a million ways of serving them, some gastronomic, others rather more down to earth.  Last night I had mine fried in butter (yes, I know, but how delicious), served at the bottom of a stack made up of a rasher of smoked back bacon, a slice of excellent black pudding, both done on an iron griddle plate over a high flame, with a handful of steamed spinach over the top and a poached Churton egg on the top of that.  Bliss.  I’ve been a bit off food recently, but I couldn’t wait to cook this.

For a vegetarian version, the puffball slices would be excellent cooked in garlic oil, and served on griddled sourdough toast with the spinach, courgettes, and crispy sage leaves, or with asparagus, perhaps with a drizzle of cream.  For me, the poached egg is a must with this meal.

However you cook giant puffballs, be careful not to overwhelm their delicate flavour.  I would not, for example, do them in a red wine sauce, but they go well in a white wine and cream sauce, or in a pasta carbonara.  They are also sensational as an accompaniment for steak, and go very well with chicken or pork.  As tapas, they are divine cooked in garlic and sherry.

 

Some photos from my 15 minute contribution to the Big Butterfly Count

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the Big Butterfly Count.  It goes on for another two days, so if you want to participate, have a look at their website.  It is an initiative to learn about what is happening with butterfly populations in the UK.  Well worth contributing.

I’ve submitted my count for my 15 minute slot, staring fixedly at the bed in which my two buddleias reside, along with roses, poppies and various other floral beauties.  In 15 minutes the Black Knight buddleia won hands-down in both the butterfly and bee popularity stakes, and the scent of the flowers was almost overpowering.  Here are some of the photographs that I took.

It was interesting to note that apart from the comma, these showy, large butterflies were completely different from the ones that I saw the other day at the lower end of the footpath that heads to the Dee from Knowl Lane.  Those were small, more understated butterflies, enjoying the hedgerows, including gatekeepers, speckled woods, meadow browns and small coppers.  Photos of some of them are on my earlier post about that walk, but a lot of them refused to land and be photographed.

Small tortoiseshell

Comma

Peacock, conspicuously bigger than anything else that turned up

Small White

Holly Blue. I had just watered the rose bed, and the Holly Blue
seems to have landed to take a drink.

Red Admiral

I was amazed by how big the peacocks were, compared with other visitors. How super to be asked to do something so enjoyable that happens to be useful too.  The small whites were the dominant visitors, followed by the peacocks.  There was only one holly blue during the 15 minute section, although I see them quite regularly in a given week.  There was also only one red admiral.  Like the holly blue, they are not infrequent visitors to the garden, but I generally see more of them when out and about.  Their caterpillars like nettles, and I have gone to an awful lot of trouble to remove all traces of nettles from the garden.

 

The Big Butterfly Count 2021

The Big Butterfly Count runs i Britain between 16th July to the 8th August, so we are just in time to join in.  Every year I do the Big Garden Birdwatch, counting birds that land in the garden in a given hour.  It ran this year in January 2021, before I moved to Churton, but I’ll be talking about that next year when it comes around again.

I had not, however, heard of the Big Butterfly Count.  It was reported in the latest edition of the magazine New Scientist, so I fired up my web browser to get the details.

The Big Butterfly Count “is a UK-wide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment simply by counting the amount and type of butterflies (and some day-flying moths) we see.”  The idea is to sit in a promising spot (for example, in your garden, in a park or along a footpath) for 15 minutes and take note of everything you see in that time.

You will need to register for an account, which is free, after which you can download and print off a butterfly identification chart (which also lists the species in which they are interested), and then send in your results.  You can do this via a free smartphone app or via your web browser (computer, tablet, etc).

I am going to spend my 15 minutes in front of my Black Knight buddleia, which is a great butterfly attractor.  A tremendously good excuse for abandoning the weeding and mellowing out with the wildlife 🙂  I had to chase out a peacock butterfly from the living room only this morning.  On a recent walk there were many types in the hedges flanking the footpath section of Knowl Lane at its western end as it approaches the Dee, and I suspect that I will find that the species that prefer those hedges and the ones gracing my garden will be very different.

Find out the details on the Big Butterfly Count website.