Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Viva la Gleaning Revolution!

As we move swiftly towards midsummer there's a feeling of wanting to stay outside for as long as possible and enjoy the long days. Impromptu picnics and barbecues are arranged at the slightest hint of a heatwave. Yet there can be a disconnect between our relationship to the cycle of the seasons and the food on our plates. Consumer and retailer whims (strawberries in winter / wonky carrots anyone?) are part of the food waste scandal I heard about at a Cambridge Sustainable Food talk where I met Marie-Laure Prevost of the Gleaning Network. The local coordinator for the international partnership organisation is seeking volunteers keen on getting outdoors into the countryside and rolling up their sleeves...

On Saturday 30th May and Saturday 6th June the Eastern England Gleaning Network will descend on a farm in King's Lynn, Norfolk where 250 tons of parsnips are going to waste. The mission is to save as many as possible of the sugary root veg by donating them to food-share charities. It's a sociable, active day out and a very hands-on way to contribute to a cause.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Is It A Bird? Is It a Plane?

They come bombing out of the thunderclouds like Japanese shuriken. They're on a mission so frenetic, so fast and so purposeful they simply don't touch down. They are ninja stars that eat and sleep and mate on the wing. They are swifts, and they're back.

I stand among them as they scud up and down the river. Blue sky and towering white cumulus nimbus are their backdrop, not their element today; they seem big, impressive 3D birds instead of the screaming distant silhouettes and specks of high summer. Couples shadow each other silently - speed dating I suspect, but too dizzying to keep track of.

The return of these summer visitors makes some people want to tell the world. Ted Hughes wrote a poem about them: 'they've made it again, which means the globe's still working'. Local group Fulbourn Swifts celebrates their return to the Cambridgeshire village where new housing was developed to integrate the existing colony rather than dislodge the migrants and wave them goodbye forever. The group encourages people to join them on a weekly swift survey every Wednesday on summer evenings (see Natural Occurances, this blog's events calendar).

The RSPB is running a swift survey this year so wherever you live news of these birds would be welcomed. It's the VE Day Anniversary Air Show this weekend at Duxford Imperial War Museum. Watch out! Local road signs are warning that the bank holiday roads will be jammed. Kids are going to get bored waiting for those spectacular flying displays. Maybe they should look to the skies and count the swifts while they wait for the shuttle bus at the Park & Ride...

Photo by Dave Curtis

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Of Light and Colour

Detail from 'Field' by Julia Ball

'Can you see the greens, the differences between the greens?' Julia Ball's paintings are a testament to an ability common to artists and naturalists to look closely - for a long time - and see what the rest of us may overlook. Of Light and Colour: Four Paintings is an exhibition of recent work by this Cambridge artist, on show at the Over Gallery until 30 May. Exquisite sketchbook colour studies are on display and smaller works are also for sale.

'I am interested in colour', Julia says 'The sources of my paintings come from landscapes, and the colour I find in the East Anglian landscape: plants, for example.' The changing light of water, seasons and time of day - so very elusive to capture - is somehow distilled in her paintings. The process of describing light via the medium of paint is paintstaking and elusive - as Timothy Spall's grunts and intense glare of concentration in the biopic Mr.Turner would testify!

The Over Gallery opened in December 2012 and shows contemporary art. Like Julia Ball, many of the artists selected by owner Helen Taylor are local and inspired by the natural world. Helen has a passion for the outdoors and nature, and can recommend that a visit to her gallery be combined with a trip to the nearby nature reserves, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes and RSPB Ouse Fen.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

And Then It Flies Away

Cuckoo: photo by kind permission of Tom Lee (Flickr)

Some people would pay anything to hear the sound many fear we are losing from the British countryside. That's what the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) thinks anyway: the bird research organisation is encouraging people to send a donation by text if they hear a cuckoo this spring!

There's such anxiety in thinking something so familiar and iconic might disappear that hearing one of these summer migrants is cause for celebration. The woods were silent the other day as my Granny quoted the rhyme I grew up with: 'The cuckoo comes in April, sings its song in May, tips its tune in the middle of June and then it flies away.' Anxiety has a tendency to enter one's dreams. I thought I was dreaming, but woke to the soft, far away sound of a cuckoo at dawn. I've spread the word among my dog walker neighbours to listen out for the two I've heard in the area over the last three days. I'm hoping we might hear them when I lead twelve bird people on a local walk tomorrow...

Tom Lee, a photographer I discovered on Flickr, had a stroke of luck after his persistence paid off. He writes 'Another view of the cuckoo from yesterday. I've been hearing them (and seeing them fleetingly) for a few weeks now and as it was sunny and warm yesterday I thought I'd try my luck. So, on with the dull  "country colours" clothing and armed with my long lens I ventured to the normal spot where I see them. This one, however was not where I'd seen them last year but I could hear him calling so walked in the general direction. He was obligingly still on the wires so I took some shots, walked on 5 paces, took some more, walked on 5 paces etc, keeping close to the fence line all the time. He let me get quite close and as I stayed still he flew back and forth between the wire and tree in which I pictured him yesterday. He was still there when I moved off. It's what I believe is called a result...'. 

Thank you Tom for kind permission to publish the cuckoo photo at the top of this post.

Photo from British Trust for Ornithology's cuckoo tracking project

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Walk On Water: Paddleboarding Lessons!

Go! Get out. Dare yourself to try something new. North Cambridge's country park plays host to one of the fastest growing water sports in the UK as paddleboarding returns to Milton Country Park between May and September 2015.

Easy to get the hang of without falling in, paddleboarding involves standing on a large surfboard and using a paddle to glide through the water. Starting at just £10 there are taster sessions, lessons and courses this summer. You can even hire a board and do your own thing once you've mastered your turns (tip: look straight ahead, towards your destination...it goes a bit wrong when you look down!) The park, a series of lakes (originally old gravel pits) is 95 acres in total, with 2 miles of cycle and wheelchair-friendly paths. Dog owners have a designated area for off-lead walks and there's a great visitor centre with cafe and a balcony overlooking the lake. It's a social hub, and a great place for other activities such as birdwatching.

The paddleboarding sessions are being run by South Cambridgeshire District Council in partnership with Cambridge Sport Lakes Trust. Fully qualified instructors are on hand at all times to guide you. Helen Stepney, South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Sports Inc­lusion Coordinator and qualified paddleboard instructor, says: 'Paddleboarding is great fun and we’ve taught families, friends and people of all ages to confidently give it a go over the last few years at our Parklife Family Fun Day as well as through taster sessions and courses. Some of this year’s dates are already getting busy, so book your place today.'

Taster sessions are 45 minutes long and cost £10 per person:
Fridays from 1 May to 25 September: 4pm to 4.45pm and 4.45pm to 5.30pm
Every other Saturday from 2 May to 19 September: 10am to 10.45am, 10.45am to 11.30am, 11.30am to 12.15pm and 12.15pm to 1pm
Five-week beginners ­­courses costing £60 are also available, running on Thursday nights from 5pm to 6pm or 6pm to 7pm. Courses will run from 30 April, 11 June and 3 September and are open to adults and children over 1.3m tall.
A three hour course is also available for over 18s who already have some paddleboarding experience and want to be able to hire boards and paddle independently. Costing £40, the course will run on Saturdays 9 and 23 May, 6 and 20 June, 4 and 18 July, 12 and 26 September.

'What's going on?!' Herons and other wildlife abound at Milton Country Park