walking up a tree

The sparrowhawk nest we found a few weeks ago is about fifteen meters off the ground. It is a tightly woven conical shape structure made of sticks close to the trunk of a typical sitka spruce – the kind a tree surgeon friend calls a “pole”. The tree is so straight, so tall, and so covered in thin dead branches sticking out in all directions from the main trunk, that I just can’t get my head around how on earth I am going to climb it?

This is a rather blurry photo of me pointing my binoculars at the nest in horror.

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And this is what I can see through my binoculars – you can see clearly the nest is surrounded by lots and lots of sharp branches!

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Tree climbing isn’t on the list of my hobbies as I am terrified of heights to the point of panic, but for some reason we decided earlier on that it will be me climbing the tree to take a spar chick from the nest. I think we both thought it’ll be hilarious and will make good tape. Yes, I can just picture the drama – me hugging the tree paralysed with fear, unable to move up or down, in tears, terrified and begging to be rescued, and yet having to complete the mission.

But also deep inside I want to be the one climbing the tree and taking the chick. This is a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and face my phobia.

So yesterday I did a trial climb of a sitka spruce but in a different location to avoid disturbing the nesting spar. Our colleague and friend is a professional tree climber and has all the gear. He tried to talk me through the technical names but somehow it didn’t stick and all I can say is there is a harness, a rope, carabiners, and spikes for shoes.. But it is really amazing how few things one actually needs to climb a tree!

The idea is simple – you have spikes on your shoes and they help you grip to the tree but if you slip you won’t fall because you have a rope that wraps around the trunk and keeps you secure. You move the rope higher with your hands, then make small steps up the trunk with your feet and then move the rope higher again and so on.

Essentially you are slowly walking up a tree.

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So as I watched in slight panic and anticipation I had many disaster related thoughts, like what if a squirrel suddenly jumps out and startles me? What if I need to pee as I am half-way up?

But I’ve reached the point of no return, and unless I was prepared to face the shame of being another scared weakling, I just had to get on with it.

So here I was all geared up ready for that tree.

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Something amazing happened when I started my ascent – very quickly I fell in love with the process. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be so high off the ground, to be close to the mossy trunk, smelling resin in the moist folds of the tree. To be able to see the land and people below and to get that one long uninterrupted view from the height is just so precious. And I can see how tree climbing can become addictive.

My progress was slow, I didn’t climb very high, maybe only six meters. And I did have a few moments of doubt and fear, but they were quickly gone because I had to focus my thoughts on the immediate task of putting each foot higher and moving the rope.

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A very blurry photo of me smiling.

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In a few days I will try climbing higher and hopefully will take better photos of how magical Irish woodland looks from above.

x

 

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a female in the nest

One thing I love about living in Ireland is how everything turns green almost overnight. One day trees look bare and wet and the next day they are covered in greenest new leaves that scream “Summer!”. Everything changes so suddenly that it’s hard to recognise the woods we’ve roamed in search of nests.

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A few weeks ago I wrote that we have found three sparrowhawk nesting sites. We called them the Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods. Finding actual nests is really exciting. All those hours of searching for signs and clues on the ground have paid off and this is a big landmark in our Wild Take adventure.

This means that I can now stop focusing on the feathers under my feet and put all my attention towards the tree tops – towards where sparrowhawks nest. So a few days ago we revisited the Sorrel Woods hoping to see sparrowhawks coming and leaving the nest.

Sorrel Woods is one I like the most because it’s just gorgeous. The nicely spaced trees allow sunlight to trickle down to illuminate velvety leaves of wood sorrel that covers the ground. This woodland is so clean, and it feels enchanted and just lovely.

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The other reason I like this spot is because we came across is randomly – by following a musket who swiftly flew in front of our bicycles as we were on our way elsewhere. It felt almost as if this little male lead us towards this place and the nest.

We brought our bivvy bags, oatcakes, and binoculars in preparation for a long stakeout. We found a tree to rest against with a good view of the nest and waited. The midges were horrific. They are vicious little flies that won’t leave you in peace until you move location.

This is Ed waiting patiently but what you can’t see on this photo is that he is being eaten alive by midges.

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After a few moments of looking through my binoculars and fidgeting as more and more tiny jaws tucked into my thigh I could no longer stand the midges and decided to walk around to see what I can find. At one point I directed my binoculars upwards towards the canopy. Then I stopped and gasped – there was another nest! How did we miss it last time? I don’t know. But it was a solid built thing about 15 meters up high. It looked new too.

Here is a photo I took through my binoculars.

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Almost immediately I noticed that something was sticking out form the nest. It was a tail – a sparrowhawk was right there in the nest!

On this photograph Ed took through binoculars you will see a roundish clump of twigs and just to the right from the middle of this clump there is an upright oval/rectangular shape – this is the tail.

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The photographs do not do justice but the tail had barring and it was unmistakably her sitting in the nest. Whether she was on eggs of not we couldn’t tell. She sat very still for a long time and then suddenly she called in a very faint voice. She shifted, got up and starred directly at us. It’s amazing to be starring in the eyes of such a wild thing. But she didn’t fly away maybe because she was incubating eggs or maybe because she was heavy and was about to lay. Once she called, her partner came out of nowhere and darted past us in panic making it clear we were intruding on their privacy. It was time to leave them in peace.

We will return sometime in the next few weeks to check on this nest discretely. Meanwhile here are some treasures we found in the Mossy Woods on the same day.

A molted feather of a sparrowhawk. It looked very healthy with no hunger marks or signs of damage.

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Plucked bird – feathers in sheaths.

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Gorgeous feathers from multiple recent kills.

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A rat skull?

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x.

 

wild food: beware of hemlock

We camped out on an island on Lough Corrib the other day. There is a myth that Lough Corrib has 365 islands – one for each day of the year, but in reality there are probably over 1000 islands. Some are homes to huge heronries in spring and if you are lucky you might see something like this peaking at you from a nest:

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This is a young black-crowned night heron from the BBC Wildlife magazine spring issue. Ireland has grey herons but they look just as scary as babies.

Islands are magical places especially on a rain-free spring evening.

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While on this island I quickly tried to identify plants around me. I found nettles and water mint and then another plant that looked and smelled like celery or parsley. I had my Food for Free guide and I identified it as Alexanders – an edible herb similar to parsley. I was very close to tasting it, but then decided to research more. When we got home the following day I did a quick search and discovered that in fact I was close to eating the deadliest plant in Ireland -Hemlock Water Dropwort. A tiny amount can kill you in a few hours.

Apparently this plant was used in the ritual killings of elderly in the Phoenician Sardinia. People who were too old and could no longer take care of themselves “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death”. Fun fun fun. The plant is called “sardonic” because one of its side effect is so-called “sardonic grin” as it paralises face muscles. Oh dear…

And this case study describes how eight young adults on holiday in Scotland cooked a curry that included water dropwort roots. Of course it was all party time after a few hours when one in the group experienced a “grand mal seizure”, whatever that felt like. Pure evil. 

So for now, I will stick to wild garlic and water mint because they are easy to identify.

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I’ve also gathered a lot of nettles to make nettle wine.

I used store-bought yeast this time, but wild fermentation works really well too if you want things to progress more naturally. One of my favourite books Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is fantastic if you feel creative and would like to experiment a bit, make unusual but tasty food and rewild your gut.

At the moment I have mead, blackberry/apple, and banana/coffee wines during various stages of fermentation.

 

Safe foraging to you!

 

x

more nests more bones

We found two more sparrowhawk nests since my last post!

The first one we discovered accidentally by following a sparrowhawk who flew across a woodland track in front of our bicycles. The woods there are absolutely stunning – nicely spaced sitka spruce, moss, and wood sorrel everywhere.

We called this Sorrel Woods.

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We heard sparrowhawks calling almost immediately after entering the woods and also it didn’t take long to find several plucking posts.

Some contained fresh fathers.

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The Sorrel Woods Spars liked rodents too! Sparrowhawks do not frequently eat ground mammals, but in this woodland we found a plucked vole and even its fresh guts on a mossy stump. Very exciting indeed.

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We found woodcock bones and feathers which were clearly broken or pulled off. Perhaps it was a fox, or perhaps it was a female sparrowhawk?

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And of course we found multiple old tiny skulls and bones – possibly a blue tit?

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The nest itself is nicely built, perhaps you can spot it on this photo. Draw a straight line down from X towards the middle of the photograph. You will see a small round mass to the right of the line and almost in the middle of the photo.

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It’s is a little higher than the nest in The Garden and will require climbing gear, which will be an adventure! We have not seen any activity there, but we are planning to revisit this spot early in the morning soon. Females will be laying eggs in May and we might see a tail sticking out of the nest or a male flying in with food.

The other nest is located in the Mossy Woods – everything here is padded with greenest moss.

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A few weeks ago we found feathers of a tree creeper.

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Then we were told that a sparrowhawk was heard calling and so we revisited and this time we found a foot of a freshly killed blackbird.

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And most amazingly we found a half-plucked and eaten thrush! Something must have spooked the sparrowhawk to leave so much meat behind.

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We also found an old egg shell belonging to a medium size bird. A sparrohawk perhaps?

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I didn’t take a photo of this last nest but it’s a solid platform made of small sticks two-thirds way up a tall pine, close to the trunk, and partially hidden by ivy – similar kind of structure as the other two nests we found.

We will revisit The Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods soon and will hopefully spot a female on eggs!

x.