Winter – Photo Challenge

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Seems to me that I might as well join a photo challenge, while I’m trying to learn my way around my new camera, so here goes with ‘Winter’ from A Lil Hoohaa

It’s a little bit late, since this was the theme for February, but hey – the photos were taken in February, so doesn’t that count?

Now, we haven’t really had much in the way of frost or snow, and very little mist or fog, and since one can’t actually capture the feeling of very cold air in a picture, you’ll have to use your imagination a little bit1. Up there at the top, though, is rather wintry simply because of the mist combined with the blue sky and the ponies being fed hay because the grass is so thin on the ground. These ponies are being grazed on a rather limited area anyway; just a thin strip on the top of one of the many drainage dykes.

Next, I suppose, the low lighting generally should get a look-in, since that’s also a feature of this season, with or without visible manifestations of the chill factor2. Here’s a view I often get of OH and Jeffie as Sid and I pause to allow them to catch up. You see Sid, being a tripod, finds it easier to bound along at a fast-ish pace. Certainly it’s more than a fast walking pace for me, and I don’t do more than a very slow jog at the best of times. It’s not particularly comfortable for me, but it’s impossible for OH and Jeffie to keep up, so … there you go. Outlined by the low light of winter:

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This winter having been so mild, we’ve seen quite a few flowers blooming relatively early, but of course, the snowdrop is famous for putting in a ‘dawn-of-the-year’ appearance, and ours were true to form and have been out for a couple of weeks now. I have doubles and singles, but I much prefer the single flowered ones.

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Another dog walk, this time at the boating lake, which is a very popular dog-walking, child-walking, and general recreation area. The lake itself is frozen over, but with lots of cracks and un-frozen parts around the edges. The wildfowl seem to be managing OK, but it’s definitely not suitable for boating – or skating, come to that!

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Lastly, the sunset. This is fairly wintry, since it’s either in the late autumn or winter that we get such spectacular colours here in England. The sun was sinking so fast, as I stood taking photos, that I only had time for four before it was gone. I think it was worth getting out of the car for, though, don’t you?

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1 Yes, yes, I know. England doesn’t exactly reach hideously low temperatures compared to .. oh, I don’t know, Saskatchewan … but it feels bloody cold to us, OK?

2 Like snow, ice, hail, sleet, that kind of thing.

Jeffie’s Neurologist

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We popped down to the Queen’s Veterinary Hospital at Cambridge University yesterday to see Jeffie’s neurologist, Paul Freeman. We didn’t take Jeffie along because we were only going to view the scans and x-rays which had been taken when he was seen there, but which for some reason we didn’t get to see at the time.

It felt strange walking into reception without a dog, and knowing we weren’t even there to collect one. I almost felt like a fraud. So I buried myself in my Which Digital Camera? magazine, because another thing we were going to do was visit the Campkins photography shop to see if we could get me a new camera.

And the time went by. I read all the latest reviews and discovered that since I last bought a one, something called a Compact System Camera had appeared in large numbers, and that I wanted one.

We were given some tokens by the receptionist for a hot drink from the machine, and passed a minute or two selecting and following instructions after which we drank the strangest cappuccino either of us have ever tasted1.

More time passed. Canon and Nikon were metaphorically ditched, and I learned that Sony cameras were well respected and that Olympus were not only still being made but were strong contenders. I also learned that something mysterious called the Micro Four Thirds systems was raising the game.

And eventually, OH said: ‘Do you know we’ve been here nearly an hour?’

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I went up to the desk and relayed this information to the receptionist in a polite ‘how much longer?’ kind of way and she checked our appointment time and who we were here to see, and looked horrified that we hadn’t been seen yet and rang through to find out what was going on, and a few minutes later the neurologist came through apologetically and ushered us into a consulting room. It seems he was just about to ring us to find out if we were coming or not, because his pager had fallen off somewhere and he’d never got the message that we had arrived.

Ah well. There then followed a most interesting session with him showing us the x-rays and MRI scans and explaining what all the things we could see thereupon actually meant.

My eye was immediately drawn to a bulging disc, but in fact it was an old problem, quite calcified and unlikely to be causing his symptoms because a) he doesn’t appear to be in pain judging by the way he throws himself about and leaps into the car like Zebedee, and b) it isn’t compressing anything. This was in the cauda equina2 area, but most of the bulging is in the safest position, which is downwards, and the nerves are not being pinched. We discussed his demeanour, his playfulness, and lack of any obvious signs of pain, plus the fact that he is in fact on anti-inflammatories as a kind of empirical ‘he’s nearly thirteen years old, he must hurt somewhere‘ solution. Personally, I haven’t seen any sign of any difference in him since he’s been on them, but I’m willing to trust my vet on that one.

There are also a few bone spurs, most noticeable in the thoracic region, but again, not of a type to cause a problem, and not in a place where they might cause a problem. ‘It’s something you see in old dogs’ he said. Fair enough.

I wish I’d thought to ask if I could snap a couple of pictures off the screen to show you, but the sad fact is that I didn’t, so you’ll have to make do with some random pictures.

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Anyway. It was lovely of Mr Freeman to give us an appointment just to go and see the scans and to make time to explain everything thoroughly for us. I have to say that our experiences so far with the Cambridge vet school have been outstanding, and this afternoon gave us a new appreciation for exactly why the cost of an MRI is so high. Not only do the machines themselves cost an absolute fortune3, and animals need to be anaesthetised while inside them, but because the area they cover at any one time is so small, it can take a long time to get the information you need. You have to first determine which area is worth looking at by clinical examination, then take some x-rays to narrow it down, then set up your MRI to make ‘slices’ at predetermined intervals through the tissues. Each slice examines a two-dimensional area, so that, for instance, to examine a short section of spine properly4, you might need about fifteen slices – which all take time, both to produce and to analyse.

For Jeffie, today’s visit will make absolutely no difference at all. For us, it was reassuring to know that we had done, and were doing, all that was reasonable. He is an old dog – thirteen years old in a few months – and there is a limit to what one should do, I think, if the benefit does not outweight the risks and stresses involved. What we hope for Jeffie is that he will continue to enjoy life in his own idiosyncratic way, despite his ‘Dogzheimer’s Syndrome’ and his wobble issues, right up to the day we find that he has peacefully slipped away from us in his sleep. It’s a rare thing, but when it happens to an oldie whose issues are known and are being addressed, it’s a real blessing.

1 It must have been cappuccino because it said so on the pod. Tell me: why do coffee machine manufacturers assume that anyone who wants cappuccino or hot chocolate also wants to compromise their pancreas and rot their teeth? What is wrong with being allowed to add sugar by choice?

2 Cauda Equina literally means ‘horse’s tail’ and refers to a section of spinal cord with nerve roots branching out all over the place.

3 Pet Plan insurance is our friend.

4 In the ‘through the tube’ direction, not with the animal flat on his side.

No birds on the feeders

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Well, OK. I exaggerate a tad It’s not ‘no birds ever’, it’s ‘very few birds’.

It’s winter here in jolly old England, and my least favourite month of the season: February. January can be vicious, it’s true1, but February seems to hang onto the worst of winter with bitter obstinacy, and March with it’s blue skies2 seems months away. Usually.

This year, it’s been quite mild. There have been some days when it’s been warm enough to go out without a jacket, and I’ve been too hot in my walking boots.

We live on the edge of the village, so on one side of us there are open fields, and on the other the houses continue, and grow denser. Usually we get a fair variety of bird visitors in winter, including magpies, jackdaws, fieldfares, goldfinches, blue tits, great tits, starlings, dunnocks and the occasional green woodpecker. Not forgetting the robin (singular) and last year we had Bob the blackbird, who would hop into the conservatory to clean up any dropped bits of kibble from Jeffie’s dish. He got quite impatient if breakfast was late, or if Jeffie didn’t drop any, but Jeffie usually did drop quite a lot so that was alright. OH got quite used to going into the conservatory with his cup of tea only to see Bob’s truculent little face pressed against the glass door. If he’d had fingers, we’re convinced he’d have been tapping them, while muttering things like ‘Bloody lazy humans .. Come on, come on! Do you think I’ve got all day?’

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This year, the birds have been conspicuous by their absence. We have two bird feeding poles, each with a hanging seed feeder and a mesh tray. I put ‘no mess’ bird food into one feeder and a ‘winter warmer’ mix into the other, and mealworms and a corn mix into the trays for the starlings, jackdaws and the aggressive little bastard robin3. I sprinkle mealworms occasionally into the dormant vegetable trugs for Bob, because blackbirds are ground feeders by choice. I also sprinkle a small amount of seed mix on the ground for the dunnocks, but I don’t know why I bother because the starlings tip enough onto the ground anyway once they get here.

But that’s the problem. This year, the bird numbers are way, way down. I have had, at the most, five starlings on a feeding station at one time, whereas usually, there are somewhere around fifteen or twenty.

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The dunnocks are still hopping around in ones and twos, but the collared doves, wood pigeons, tits and so on are, quite simply, infrequent visitors. I’ve seen a jackdaw once, and I haven’t seen a goldfinch or a woodpecker4 this winter at all. Even Bob is conspicuous by his absence. Good heavens, I’ve only had to buy one pack of each type of food for them! I’m filling the seed feeders once a week, instead of every couple of days.

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I don’t think it’s a lack of bird numbers. I think it’s the unseasonal weather. I think that the birds are finding plenty to eat in the fields and hedgerows without having to venture into gardens – which is why the mealworms are going, I suppose, mealworms being to the winter bird diet as a restaurant meal is to us; something rich and special, to be grabbed if you can.

There’s a ‘Winter Invertebrates’ thread on a wildlife forum I belong to, and it’s really quite busy with sightings of flies, slugs, beetles etc all awake and doing when they should be asleep, and there are flowers blooming which shouldn’t be5. No wonder the birds aren’t at the all-you-can-eat buffet we call the feeders! What with all this untoward activity, plus the habit farmers have of planting crops earlier and earlier, they have the equivalent of a roast dinner out there for the taking!

Ah well. I bet come nesting season they’ll be back. For a brief month or so the feeders will be emptying as if they had holes in the bottom.

Oh .. wait … they do!

1 … and so can March, April, May, September, October, November and December. In fact, you can throw in June, July and August as well, because I can remember some vicious days during those months too, like the day we battled to the get to the school’s summer fete in driving snow one July dressed in our winter’s finest and with our umbrellas turning inside out, and the August day I tried to cycle into Brighton from the north against a full-on, bitterly cold gale. In fact, just go and listen to Flanders & Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather‘, and you’ll get the idea.

2 See footnote one.

3 People seem to have such an affection for the robin that they tend to overlook the hugely aggressive nature of this little bird. They berate starlings for being dirty, noisy, antisocial and aggressive, but in fact starlings are a) no dirtier than robins, although considerably less dainty, b) extremely social with a very organised ‘family’ structure, and c) only aggressive with each other. I have never seen one chase a bird of another species away or attack them in any way, but OK, you’ve got me on the ‘noisy’. Robins, on the other hand, will kill their own mate if she doesn’t bugger off the minute raising the family is done with, and likewise the nestlings if they hang around once their red breast feathers develop. They will attack small birds of other species without provocation, and will even attempt to kill a stuffed model robin, or their own reflection in a window.

4 Though I know the woodpeckers are around because I hear them.

5 Like the white rambling rose at the bottom of the garden, and the periwinkles, for goodness’ sake!