flowers and stone walls

Why is it that spring flowers look so much prettier next to a stone wall?  Chilly spring weather in Wales and Scotland didn’t slow down the spring blooms.  Maybe they get a little extra warmth from the re-radiation of heat from the stones in the walls next to them.

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

daffodils and stone walls

Well, the daffodils aren’t right next to the wall, but there are lots of stone in this shot…

Hadrian's wall, England

But there were no spring flowers planted next to Hadrian’s Wall near Carlisle, England. This monumental construction across the narrowest width of England measured 73 miles long, 10 feet wide, and 20 feet high — built in 2nd century A.D. to keep the “barbarians” out of Roman-occupied Britain.

everyday birds

We managed to see 146 different bird species during our travels through parts of Wales and Scotland, at least 50 of which we saw again while hiking in the Lake District of England.  Some of those bird species were so common, we saw them everyday.  Ten species (listed alphabetically) became the equivalents of the cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and crows I usually see everyday in my Minnesota backyard.

blue tit

Blue Tits love bird feeders as much as our chickadees do. But this bird seemed to find the newly formed buds quite tasty.

carrion crow

Crows are just as common in England as they are in Minnesota and most of the U.S. An all-purpose bird that is clever enough to find food almost anywhere.


Chaffinches also love bird feeders, but are quite common in deciduous woods — easily recognized by their loud and repetitive songs.  Males are quite colorful; females are a drab gray-brown with the same black and white wing feathers.

eurasian blackbird

Eurasian Blackbirds might be the most common of the common English backyard birds. Their name is appropriate for their color, but they are close relatives of the American Robin and act quite a bit like our robins, exploring the litter and lawns for bugs and other goodies.

european robin

Everyone’s favorite everyday bird — the European Robin (or English Robin in this case). They are loud singers (not the prettiest song either) and quite tame, posing just a few feet away and even taking mealworms or peanuts from one’s hand.

Great Tit

Of the half dozen tit species in the U.K., this bird is the largest. They too love bird feeders, and call out “tea-cher, tea-cher” from high in the trees to let us know they are there.


Jackdaws, members of the crow and jay family, are highly social, often congregating in groups on lawns and grassy fields.  Their striking pale iris and bi-colored gray heads make them an attractive backyard bird.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds.

pied wagtail

Pied Wagtails are members of a family we don’t have in the U.S. that includes both pipet and wagtail species. As the name indicates this bird wags its tail up and down almost continuously as it looks around grassy fields for insects or other food.

willow warbler

Warblers in the U.K. seem drab compared to ours, but their songs are beautiful. Several species follow the same pattern as this Willow Warbler of gray upper body with light, buffy breast and belly, and faint eyestripes.  Song is the best way to tell the look-alike species apart.


Woodpigeons are chunky birds, about 50-75% larger than our Mourning Doves. At home on grassy lawns as well as tree tops, these large birds make you flinch when they take off in a flurry of wingbeats.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds.

That is the top ten “everyday birds” from across the pond — our new feathered friends from the U.K.

Hiking the fells

We’ve learned quite a few new words while hiking in the Lake District.

Fell: a high and barren landscape such as a highland moor.

Even though the “mountains” here in the Lake District are under 3000 feet, they are virtually treeless and open landscapes, covered with bracken (ferns) and grass.

Loughrigg fell above Ambleside, Lake District

Stone walls divide the sheep pastures, all the way to the top of the mountains.  It’s amazingly quiet, with just a few birds singing, soft ground that completely muffles your footsteps, even the sheep don’t complain about our being there.

Loughrigg fell above Ambleside

Trails go off in every direction, but it’s pretty easy to find your way from one spot to another, if you just keep walking in the desired direction.

Loughrigg fell above Ambleside

Rain (of which there is a good amount here in the Lake District) runs off the bare, rocky slopes of the mountains, and some drains into the numerous creeks that feed the big lakes for which the area is named.

Beck:  a swiftly flowing stream, such as “cross the beck and proceed west through the kissing gate” (directions on one of our maps which we had no idea how to interpret.)

Beck, swiftly moving stream

Some becks tumble down steep cliffs and become waterfalls.

Waterfall near Skelwith bridge

Some of the rainfall accumulates in small lakes up in the fells.  That’s called a “tarn”.

Lily Tarn on Loughrigg fell, above Ambleside

And finally — the kissing gate.

kissing gate above Ambleside

Kissing gates are U- or V- shaped enclosures that permit only one person through at a time — and no animals. Why a “kissing” gate?  There are probably several explanations, but here is one.  If a romantic couple were out walking, a gentleman would allow his lady to pass through the gate first, but as she turned to let the gate swing back to admit him, she would have the opportunity to face him, demanding a kiss to permit him to pass through.

stone circles

What started out as a hike to a crag (hilltop viewpoint) ended up as an excursion through sheep and cow pastures in search of the well-visited Castlerigg stone circle, just over a mile from Keswick.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

We first climbed through a beautiful forest for a view of the lake (Derwentwater) around which we had hiked yesterday.  Stone-walled pastures continued all the way to the top of the hill.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

A sign on the public footpath indicated that Castlerigg stone circle was nearby, so we abandoned our climb to the top of the crag and began a long sojourn through numerous walled sheep pastures.  Two of my hiking companions stopped to pose for a photo on the un-labeled footpath.  It’s often hard to tell the footpath from sheep-path or normal erosion.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

Every mountain (even with sheep) is scenic.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

a new breed of self-shearing sheep…that heavy wool must get pretty itchy when the weather warms up.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

there were more cattle than sheep in the higher pastures

And finally after turning many corners and walking through many pastures we came to the site.

Castlerigg stone circle hike

The Castlerigg stones are set in a flat open space with a 360 degree view. The site is so popular with tourists, it’s difficult to see the stones themselves.  Click on the image for a larger view.

Castlerigg is one of many (more than 1300) such stone circles in Great Britain, and probably dates to about 3200 BC.  Its purpose is not really known, and various suggestions range from a meeting place for trade to a celebratory site for Druid rites to solar calendar.  It is interesting to note that each of the large stones lines up with one of the surrounding peaks — as illustrated in the plaque at the site.

Castlerigg stone circle

Alignment of peaks and stones is not perfect, but then stones may have moved or been adjusted in the past 5000 years.

We may never know what went on here, but the route to the site was beautiful and well worth taking the detour.

a long hike

We took advantage of the lovely sunny weather in Keswick to hike around the lake — Derwentwater, which is surrounded by steep rising hills.  We even managed to spot (and identify) a few birds we had seen elsewhere in Wales and Scotland.

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

the lakeshore from the edge of Keswick in the Lake District of Cumbria, England

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

we passed pastures full of grazing sheep

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

beautiful reflections of clouds and hills

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

this is one of the wettest places in England, and moss grows over just about everything.

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

the south end of the lake is marshy, but with so many hikers on a nice day, there were very few birds to be seen here.

hike around Derwentwater, Keswick, England

You can also take a launch around the lake, getting on and off, making several stops at scenic areas.

The map said the hike was about 8 miles, but the hike around the top end of the lake near Keswick took me far inland and away from town.  So I ended up walking about 13 miles, and was pretty happy to just sit down for the rest of the day.

tracking the Red Grouse

On a beautifully sunny, and almost warm day, we hiked into the Cairngorm mountains south of Grantown-on-Spey to look for ptarmigan and found instead a bevy of Red Grouse, calling and flying about us on our walk.

Cairngorm mountains-

Looking for grouse…

Seen only rarely elsewhere in Wales and parts of northern England, we found quite a few grouse on the slopes as we walked.  Even though this is a national park, the area is intensively managed for these grouse — to the exclusion of their predators (for example, raptors like Golden Eagles) which are shot, trapped, or poisoned by gamekeepers to reduce predation.

Red Grouse-Cairngorm Mountains-

The males stick their heads straight up out of the heather — their red eyebrows and their low cackle makes them easily identifiable in a monotonous landscape of low heather and grasses.

Red Grouse are a subspecies of Willow Ptarmigan endemic to the U.K. Unlike the ptarmigan however, they do not molt into a white winter plumage, and their summer rusty brown plumage blends into the moorland landscape very well.

Managed heather plots-near Llyn Conwy

To encourage more grouse in an area, sections of the heather moorland are burned or mowed to encourage the new growth that is more nutritious for grouse that eat primarily the shoots, flowers, and seeds of the heather.

Why all this effort for one species?

Red Grouse-

A handsome male sporting a red comb of feathers above each eye, and reddish chestnut body feathers

Red Grouse are the chief game bird of the U.K. and are shot in large numbers by enthusiastic hunters each year, beginning on opening day of the shooting season August 12.  With vast tracts of land managed just for Red Grouse by habitat alterations, predator removal, and eradication of disease-carrying rabbits, the grouse population has boomed.

Cairngorm mountains-

Looking for Golden Eagles, or raptors of any sort…on our treks through moorland mountains and highlands, we saw no Golden Eagles, only two male Hen Harriers, and a few high-flying Peregrine Falcons.  Scotland is not a particularly friendly place for raptors.  

Managed “nature” doesn’t leave much room for other wildlife, but this problem isn’t limited to what is occurring here in Scotland.

Badger watch

Near the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland is the charming town of Grantown-on-Spey, an excellent base for birdwatching at the coast, in the mountains, and in the cool pine forest.  But it wasn’t birds that took us to the Rothiemurchus forest last night.  It was badgers.

Loch Morlich near Grantown-on-Spey lies in the heart of a Scots Pine forest with the snow--capped Cairngorm mountains in the distance.

Loch Morlich near Grantown-on-Spey lies in the heart of a Scots Pine forest with the snow–capped Cairngorm mountains in the distance.

Red deer at Rothiemurchus forest

A captive red deer herd greeted us on our walk into the hide (blind) on the Rothiemurchus estate.

Badger at Rothiemurchus forest hide

The first badger made an appearance about 10:30 pm, just as I was about to doze off in the darkened blind.  Exterior lights don’t bother the animals that come for peanuts and raisins; its just enough light to photograph them.

Badger at Rothiemurchus forest hide

European badgers in this area of Scotland are a rotund bunch (or maybe they are just eating a lot of peanuts).  Although we think of badgers as carnivores in the U.S., these badgers eat a wide variety of food including earthworms, insects, small mammals, root tubers, fruits, and of course peanuts.

Badger at Rothiemurchus forest hide

Peanuts and peanut butter can be found everywhere around the hide in the evening, so badgers crawl into some tight places to show off for us.

Badger at Rothiemurchus forest hide

Some noise put them on alert and this pair dashed off under the rocks near the hide.

Mouse at Rothiemurchus forest hide

Mice made brief appearances to grab some of the peanuts before the badgers ate them all.

Pine Marten at Rothiemurchus forest hide

But this is the animal everyone was waiting for, and she showed up quite late to grab her share of the peanuts.  The quick-moving, feisty Pine Marten is another member of the weasel family, like the much bigger badger.

Martens are about the size of a small house cat, quick on their feet whether on the ground or running about in the trees, and eat a wide variety of mostly animal matter, although they too love the peanuts.

Pine Marten at Rothiemurchus forest hide

Martens are agile climbers with retractable claws, so they can forage in trees as well as on the ground.

Pine Marten at Rothiemurchus forest hide

Pine Marten, like many other small carnivorous species (like red foxes), are exterminated by gamekeepers managing the grouse and other game birds for shooting.  On this small area of the Rothiemurchus estate, which brings in lots of wildlife viewers, the martens are safe.

Pine Marten at Rothiemurchus forest hide

They rarely pause in their foraging, so with low light levels in the pitch black night, it’s extremely difficult to capture an image of them.

We left the blind at 12:30 a.m., happy to have seen as many as five badgers and two martens, as well as a Tawny Owl and Woodcock flying about the blind.

a hike in the foothills

The diversity of habitats within a relatively few miles is what makes travel in northern Wales so interesting.  Here are scenes from a day in the uplands of Snowdonia National Park.

foothills of Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Lakes and steep, rocky hillsides make up the landscape here.  Spring really hasn’t arrived yet.

foothills of Snowdonia National Park, Wales-

Looking for the Ring Ouzel, a blackbird (i.e., American Robin) relative. It did not show itself unfortunately.

foothills of Snowdonia National Park, Wales-

Stone walls even up here demarcate “pastures” for the sheep.

foothills of Snowdonia National Park, Wales

A beautiful glacial valley with a river running through it.

foothills of Snowdonia National Park, Wales-

Sheep farm in the glacial valley

LLanrwst tea room, Tu Hwnt Ir BontI

The best scones in North Wales can be found at picturesque Tu Hwnt Ir Bont Tearoom, in Llanrwst.

scones at Tu Hwnt Ir Bont in Llanrwst

Scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam — a must.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

the beak of the bullfinch

Bird beaks take the place of hands and fingers when it comes to handling food.  So it makes sense that the beak should be highly and easily adapted to whatever the available food might be.  As it turns out, just a few genes that change the size and curvature of the beak can yield a whole suite of bill shapes, making individual birds more or less better adapted to utilize a particular food source.  This is the basis for the huge variety of bills in the Galapagos finches  — and probably what causes the variation in bill closure and shape in (Red) Crossbills (from yesterday’s post).

Today we saw another finch with an unusual bill — the Bullfinch (so named because it has a pretty massive looking bill for its diminuitive size).


English Bullfinches have unusually short, thick bills that look like they might be good at crushing their food.

Their bill, however, is surprisingly weak, and wouldn’t cause a bruise if it closed on your finger (unlike that of the Crossbill).  Instead, Bullfinches feed by nipping off a berry, seed, capsule, bud, etc., closing the bill against the food so as to shear off the outer coat and use their tongue to glean whatever is inside.  They can even use this harvest strategy to de-shell small snails.


Manipulating food with bill and tongue separates the edible from the inedible.  Perhaps a short, stubby bill is just what is needed to allow the tongue and palate work together.

Although Bullfinches eat mainly seeds, they turn to consuming buds in late winter and early spring during food shortages.  Their extreme success at bud nipping, however, has made them a pest in orchards where they do significant damage to fruit crops by decreasing the number of blossoms.  A single Bullfinch can remove 30 buds per minute on an orchard tree, and the birds move systematically along a branch denuding the buds entirely.

The Hawfinch is a bird on the other end of the crushing strength spectrum from Bullfinch.

Now this is a bird that can crush hard seeds with its massive bill.  In fact, they prefer the seeds of hard nuts, like cherry and plum pits. Photo by Rudo Jurecek for the RSPB.

From short, stubby bill to a large, crushing one — not as difficult genetically speaking as we might think.

a most unusual finch

A bird that specializes in feeding on the seeds buried in pine cones has to have a nifty trick for extracting them, like a beak that works like a pry bar.  In the Common (or Red) Crossbills, the two mandibles that make up the beak do not meet at the tip, but cross over one another.  When the bird bites down between the scales of a pine cone, the tips of the mandibles push the scale open and the bird extracts the seed with its tongue.

Common (Red) Crossbill-

It might look as if the bird has an overly long upper mandible, but it is crossing over the lower mandible instead, giving the bird the ability to push the tips of the mandibles in opposite directions.  This bird was feeding on larch (tamarack) cones.

Strong legs and feet grip the cone as the bird works the scales open with its beak, curling its body around the cone and twisting its head to apply further pressure.

Common (Red) Crossbill-

Whatever position works best, even upside down.

Common (Red) Crossbill-

Check out those big feet and big beak at work!

Common (Red) Crossbill-

The birds usually start feeding at the bottom of the cone and work up in a spiral pattern to the top — the direction of the spiral depending on which way the mandibles cross.

Cone seeds make up most of a Crossbill’s diet, and they feed the seeds to their chicks as well.  As a result, Crossbills can breed and raise chicks any time there is a big enough cone crop, even during cold winters.  Young Crossbills, however, do not have crossed bills, but only develop them as they begin feeding on the cones themselves, about 45 days after hatching.

Crossbills usually feed on the cones high in the tree, but this bird must have been pretty hungry because it fed at eye-level for several minutes, completely ignoring the group of photographers honing in on the action.  (Photos above by Steve Chaplin)

photographing common crossbill-

the Crossbill is in the highlighted area in the tree