Nature Notes 2004

By Jeremy Mynott

10 December 2004

I have received Christmas cards with thrushes, swans, pheasants, blue tits and even waxwings on them, but the bird that figures most is of course the robin. Why is that? Why is the robin such a British favourite, especially at Christmas? Well, first, we warm to his plump and jolly shape – nothing too tense or temperamental there, surely? Then there’s the fact that he’s still singing sweetly through the dark, dank days of winter when most other birds are silent. They are also such trusting, friendly birds, aren’t they, perching on our spades and feeding round our feet when we’re gardening. Finally, there’s that bright red breast, a cheerful splash of colour in the black-and-white world of December. No wonder we’re so fond of robins.

Unfortunately, none of this is true, or at least it’s only half true. Robins are in fact very moody, indeed extremely aggressive towards their own kind – whom they are ready to fight to the death if they trespass. They are so keyed up that they will attack virtually anything wearing red, even just a piece of red cloth if you hang one up. Nor is ‘he’ the only one singing just now – robins are unusual in that both sexes take up territories in winter and sing to scare off rivals not to serenade them. And this friendliness towards our own species is the merest cupboard love, I’m afraid. On the Continent, where robins are hunted and (can you bear it?) eaten, they are not surprisingly shy and wary birds of the deep forest. It’s only in Britain that they have learned to charm the gardener, with clear ulterior motives. As for the red breast, that’s real enough and red is certainly the colour of Christmas (think holly, Santa Claus, roaring fires and Christmas lights), but in folklore at least the robin’s breast is stained red for darker and more sinister reasons to do with blood, sacrifice and death.

Sorry about all this. I like robins too. But the real reason robins so dominate Christmas cards may be more mundane than sentimental. The first postmen in the nineteenth century were known as ‘robins’ because they wore a uniform of bright vermilion waistcoats and that’s why robins got to be pictured on so many cards, often even with a letter in the beak to show they are delivering the mail. Happy Christmas!


14 November 2004

Immigrants are in the news and I saw a very exotic one on the river here one the other day – a mandarin duck. They are so called because of their supposed resemblance to an imperial Chinese ‘mandarin’ in full costume, and they are certainly unmistakable. The drake has a broad white band over the eye, and below it a sort of combed orange mane (the mandarin’s whiskers); and on its back there are two sets of upraised feathers that look for all the world like little orange sails. All topped off with a bright red bill and a long tail. The mandarin duck really does come from China and East Asia, in fact. It was imported into captive collections in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries as a decorative oriental curiosity, but inevitably some of the birds escaped and there is now a thriving wild population, mostly in the home counties. Where the Thurlow bird came from I don’t know, but I have seen wild ones in the Fens and the Brecks.

Many British birds are, of course, immigrants who found their way here or have been deliberately introduced into these islands, not always with predictable results. The pheasant was brought in by the Normans (or possibly even earlier): it’s really an Indian jungle fowl and it still doesn’t look very natural in our landscape to me, even though the landscape has in some ways been shaped to suit it. The canada goose was introduced into private estates in the reign of Charles II (1660-85), was freely breeding by the 18th century, but is now thought something of a pest. The red-legged (or ‘French’) partridge became widespread in the late 19th century and has now largely displaced the grey partridge from farmlands. Little owls from the Mediterranean were also set free in the late 19th century and in this case have surely become one of our most charming and well-integrated residents. In the mid-20th century, North American ruddy duck and tropical ring-necked parakeets have established thriving colonies in southern England. More recently still, there have been spectacular re-introductions of charismatic species that used to breed in Britain but were hunted out of existence a century or more ago, such as the red kite, the white-tailed sea eagle and the osprey; and in just the last couple of years there have been attempts to re-introduce the corncrake to the Fens and the great bustard to the Salisbury Plain. There’s even now talk of such exciting possibilities as bringing back the raven and crane to East Anglia along with the beaver, sturgeon and turbot, all of which were once ‘native’ here. So, it’s not always easy to say what’s natural and what isn’t when we see a stranger. The mandarin would certainly never have made it here under its own steam (or those ‘sails’), but it certainly brightened up a dull November day.


20 October 2004

It’s been a very good autumn for berries, fruit and nuts of all kinds. That may be the result of the unusually wet August we had, but whatever the reason you can now collect plenty of ‘food for free’, either to eat directly or to turn into jam, jelly, chutney, wine or even something stronger (you know the old joke about the man who liked his women fast and his gin sloe). But you had better get on because there are other collectors out there too. Squirrels are ‘squirreling’ away nuts, dormice are fattening themselves up for hibernation and putting something by for the odd snack, and thrushes and blackbirds are stripping the hedgerows of berries. The biggest hoarder by far, however, is the jay.

Jays are members of the crow family and tend to be persecuted as a consequence, so they are very shy and not easy to see. But if you get a glimpse of one they are strikingly attractive birds: they have pinkish-brown bodies, a black tail, a conspicuous white rump and white wing-patch, a bright blue fore-wing and a fierce black moustache. You couldn’t really call the voice attractive but it is certainly distinctive – a loud rasping call which older bird books used to describe as like the sound of calico tearing. Not many people even know what calico is nowadays and in any case you probably shouldn’t tear up sheets of it just to research jay calls, so let’s say they sound something like aaaaaarrrhh uttered while gargling. In spring they also have a sort of ‘song’, a series of low whistles, gurgles and mewings which is rarely heard and rather weird (the same books describe these vaguely as ‘sounds of the forest’, which is equally unhelpful).

Anyway, the jay is a champion hoarder and buries some 5000 (yes, five thousand) acorns each autumn for later consumption – and what is more remembers where each of them is hidden. (You try remembering in February exactly where you planted just 20 daffodil bulbs the October before). Inevitably, though, the jay doesn’t get round to unearthing all of them and so is directly responsible for planting many of our oak trees. Which reminds me of the supposed origin of my favourite oak wood, Staverton Thicks, in the east of our county near Butley. The monks from the nearby abbey were told, as the story goes, that they could take just one more crop from their land before it was confiscated. So they thought hard and planted … acorns. The result is a wonderful stand of ancient oaks, now hundreds of years old and home not only to jays but also to a huge range of animal, bird and insect life, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, nightingales, redstarts, hawfinches, red deer, badgers, and the rare white admiral butterfly. Buried treasure indeed.


22 September 2004

September and October always seem to be the months of transition, as we leave one season behind and prepare for the next. There are certainly plenty of reminders of summer: the leaves are still green on the trees and hedgerows; you can find butterflies in sheltered places – red admirals on the ivy, peacocks on the last of the buddleia and speckled woods among the brambles; a few lingering house martins are feeding up their last broods for their great migration south; the chiffchaff, which I always write about as the first sign of spring, has started singing again just before it leaves (no one quite knows why); and – to be more practical – the grass on the lawn still needs cutting, dammit. But there are also portents of the season to come in the shortening days, the thick dews and the chilly evenings; the hedgerows are bursting with berries (a bumper year for blackberries and rose-hips, by the look of it); on clear nights we will soon be hearing the lisping calls of redwings and the harsher chackle of fieldfares arriving from the north for the winter; with them will be large numbers of continental blackbirds, thrushes and robins, which we may be less aware of as migrants because they will be joining our residents of these species; and other birds like tits, starlings and finches will be banding together in flocks for mutual support and protection, while they forage for food supplies in the cold, dark days to come.

However, it may be a mistake to think that only autumn and spring are the times of change. The point about the annual cycle of the seasons is that it is a cycle, with no beginning and end, just a continuous revolution of regular patterns. We like to think of January as the start of our year but that’s a fairly recent convention in the long history of humankind. In the prehistoric period, for example, every day was a new day and a new struggle for survival; there were no Monday mornings, weekends or Christmas breaks. Could it be that October is the real start of the bird’s year in some ways and not its autumn? After all, this is when all the young birds make their start in life – rather like our ‘back to school’. Moreover, the adults have completed their moult in late summer and now have their new feathers for the beginning of their new year. The robins and wrens have begun to sing again (both males and females at this time of year). And if you watch the mallards on the river and the lake you’ll see that they have actually started courtship: their repertoire of displays include all manner of grunting, whistling, head-bobbing and tail-jerking to attract prospective mates. In short, the hormones are circulating again, and not just in the males. Perhaps winter is just a long preparation for spring?


18 August 2004

Some of you may remember one of the early BBC wildlife series which was just called L00K and was introduced, I think, by Peter Scott. This was not only a very good programme but also very good advice. We rarely stop to look, I mean really look, at anything. The National Gallery in London reports that visitors spend on average about three seconds looking at each picture they pause before. Three seconds for masterpieces wrought with such passion, technique, time and effort! It’s the same with natural wonders. We’ve all seen people stop at some famous beauty spot, march out of their car, take a photo to show someone else the ‘sight’, and then drive away to tick off the next spectacle. Why travel hundreds of miles to do that when you can see more remarkable sights closer to home, indeed from your home, if you actually look?

So, here are some suggestions about looking. First, look up sometimes. You may be surprised just how many birds are moving high above the village if you stand and stare (or, more comfortably, lie on your back in the garden). One of my neighbours rushed over a few years back and dragged me from the house, shouting ‘Jeremy, quick – there’s a vulture over the village.’ In fact it was a heron, circling slowly a mile or two high to catch the thermals, but there often really are other birds of prey like buzzard, kestrel, hobby and sparrow hawk doing just the same but going quite unnoticed. And if you didn’t look up you’ll have missed the last swift of summer this week migrating high over the village. Secondly, look down. I mean really get on your hands and knees and stare hard at a patch of long grass or a wild bit of your garden for at least ten minutes. I guarantee you will be amazed at the activity there when you adjust down to the tiny world of insects. There are more than 20,000 different species of insects in the UK and a high proportion of them are found in gardens. Buckingham Palace has a rather special kind of garden, of course, but when that was surveyed by experts a few years back they found, for example, 343 species of butterflies and moths, 57 species of spider and 90 kinds of beetle. All that in the middle of London and in a conspicuously tidy plot. Lastly, look closely. Could you say from memory what is the colour of a house sparrow’s bill, how many legs a grasshopper has, whether the shell of a snail goes round in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, and how many lobes a chestnut leaf has? But you’ve ‘seen’ them a hundred times.

You may get a reputation for eccentricity if you go around looking properly, but that’s surely better than spending just three seconds in front of one of nature’s Rembrandts or Constables?


19 July 2004

So, St Swithin has had his revenge. Just as we thought global warming was at least giving us some decent summers we’ve returned to the traditional English climate, dreaded alike by brides, Wimbledon officials, parents on beaches and organisers of village fetes. How is it for the birds, then? Well, it is, as they say, nice weather for the ducks since they are more interested in what goes on under water than above it; and it’s not bad for the worm-eaters like blackbirds, thrushes and (you may be more surprised to learn) our resident little owls who eat a lot of worms and catch them by legging it rapidly across the ground to surprise the worms when they surface. But the aerial feeders like swallows, martins and swifts find it a lot harder since the flying insects they live on are themselves taking cover and they have no other options. The swift, for example, has the scientific name apus, which literally means ‘without feet’, since they are such masters of the air that they long ago gave up perching, hopping or walking and are quite unable to move around to catch anything on land. What is more time is running out for bringing up their broods since –can you bear it – we are already well past the longest day and the swifts will all be gone from our skies by about 10 August on their way south.

Still, there are compensations. The grass and the leaves are the most extraordinary deep, almost glowing green, a thing of wonder for visitors from abroad used to sere midsummer landscapes. Garden flowers are flourishing. Vegetable marrows are swelling to prize dimensions. Trees are sucking up deep draughts of water to provide the 90 or so gallons a day they need in summer. The frogs and toads are in their element, literally. Slugs are beside themselves. And the social benefits for us are surely considerable. It was Dr Johnson in 1758 rather than St Swithin in 971 who defined the real importance of rain nationally. ‘When two Englishmen meet’, said the good doctor, ‘ their first talk is of the weather’. Imagine then what the current spell of rain is doing for a sense of solidarity in the community: you know that anyone you meet on the street will greet you with a wry shrug and a friendly smile and comment eagerly on the rain just past or just to come. The key thing in these exchanges is never actually to disagree with anyone but to find ways of repeating the same sentiments with small variations. This makes for a very comforting conversation.


21 June 2004

June is my month for a wilderness break and this month’s Nature Note comes from the Flannans, a small group of uninhabited rocky islands out in the Atlantic swell some 25 miles beyond the Outer Hebrides themselves at the edge of the kingdom. There was once a manned lighthouse there but there’s a frightening ‘Marie Celeste’ sort of story about a mysterious disaster which befell the keepers. A relieving crew was concerned to see the light go dark and when they arrived they found no sign of the three keepers – just their coats on their pegs and their breakfast still on the table. The presumption is that they dashed outside to respond to some emergency and were swept off the rocks by a gigantic wave. Their bodies were never found and the event was memorialised in a famous (but rather bad) poem by Wilfred Wilson Gibson which ends portentously:

Three men alive on Flannan Isle
Who thought on three men dead

If their ghosts are here they must be kindly ones, since I was put off on the main island and camped alone at night in the shelter of the lighthouse, to be disturbed only by spirits of a very different kind. I witnessed an extraordinary display by a very unusual seabird I had come all this way especially to see and hear. The leach’s fork-tailed petrel, to give it its full name, is quite a numerous seabird in the open Atlantic but you have to be very determined ever to see one since they come to land to breed only in four places in Britain, all of them bare uninhabited isles way out beyond the NW coast of Scotland and its outlying islands in the Hebrides. What’s more they only return to their nests at night – at about 2 o’clock in the morning in fact – and you have to be just in the right place at the right time to encounter them. But when you do they are unforgettable. Suddenly they are flying all around you, quite close and sometimes brushing you with their wings, rather like huge bats floating and veering in the half-light of the mid-summer night in the far North. And they are calling in a weird devil’s chorus of chuckles, screams and gurgles as they find their way back to their burrows around you, often flopping down right at your feet. Several hundred birds at least, all shrieking together. Weird if you didn’t know they were just birds – Valkyries, kelpies or Gaelic goblins on space-cake maybe?

In the morning light they are all gone, leaving you wondering if it was all just a disturbed dream. As another and better poet (WS in The Tempest) put it :

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.


16 May 2004

There are some rare and exotic birds nesting near Lakenheath which I went to watch this morning – a small colony of golden orioles which have returned each spring for many years to breed in the same poplar plantations. They are about the size of blackbirds and are just as beautiful as they sound. The males are a brilliant golden colour all over, set off against black wings, but they are nonetheless very difficult to see because they mainly inhabit the upper canopy of dense stands of trees. The females are greener and even more inconspicuous and elusive. The song, from which the name ‘oriole’ is derived, is a lovely melodious warbling, a little like a blackbird’s song but with a briefer and more bell-like refrain. The Lakenheath colony of orioles is just about the only regular nesting population in the UK and even that was threatened a few years back when Bryant & May decided to convert the plantations they owned into matchsticks. The RSPB stepped in and bought a neighbouring block of poplars in which the orioles now have this precarious foothold. They will be there until August if you want to try your luck, but you may have to be very patient.

In the same area there are green woodpeckers, which birdwatchers who are over-anxious to spot the orioles often mistake for them when they are swooping between trees and flashing their yellow rumps. And seeing them there made me realise that actually the green woodpecker is an equally beautiful bird, and one which we have right here on the doorstep, so to speak, or at least on the lawn – since they seem to spend at least as much time riddling for ants in the grass as they do wood-pecking in trees. You can often see them on the playing fields, in the meadows or on the sward by the sewage works, and they do also come on to garden lawns where they make a spectacular display. They are a gorgeous bright green all over, with striking red crowns and moustaches, quite as exotic as any gaudy parrots in the Brazilian jungle. (I’m not quite sure why more birds aren’t green in colour since that would seem the natural camouflage in a green world but in fact it’s quite unusual.) At this time of year the green woodpeckers are as often heard as seen, of course, and most people will be familiar with their call, a loud ringing ‘yaffle’ like mocking laughter which gives them their country nick-name. Another and older country name is the ‘rain bird’, for there was a widespread belief that the green woodpecker called just before the onset of rain. That is quite false, in fact, except in the sense that it is always just about to rain in England.


20 April 2004

If spring comes with the chiffchaff, then summer surely comes with the swift – and we should be seeing those familiar sickle shapes again high over the village around the 5th or 6th of May. May must be the loveliest month, combining all the freshness of spring with the pleasures of summer. Even if ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’, as Shakespeare warns, we know we are through the long dark winter days to the seasons of light and warmth. Other poets celebrate ‘the lark ascending’, the return of the swallow ‘twisting here and there, round unseen corners of the air’, the time when ‘the voice of the turtle is heard in the land’, and the one song everyone knows ‘summer is y-cumen in, loude sing cuckoo!’. Of course, poets are inclined to put the whole thing down to sex: this is the time, they tell us, when ‘ a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’. But that’s only true in some larger sense which includes the greening of the hedges and trees, the bloom of flowers, the flight of butterflies, and the swelling chorus of bird song. It’s the impulse to life and growth, unstoppable, like a breaking wave.

But we shouldn’t take for granted this annual cycle of renewal and rebirth. Every year in Britain there are fewer larks in the air, fewer hedgerows and fewer meadows; wild flowers disappear and with them whole species of butterflies. Did you actually hear the voice of the turtle dove in the village last year, how many cuckoos did you see, what happened to all the nesting swallows and yellowhammers, and can you remember the thick drifts of cowslips in the meadows of years gone by? These are real changes, and if we notice them even here in our wonderful local countryside – still a very privileged place compared to most – how much more do they threaten other areas. Forty years ago Rachel Carson gave us a terrible warning of all this in her prophetic work Silent Spring, but Graham Harvey’s new book The Killing of the Countryside shows just how little we have learned since then. The countryside is treated more and more like just another commercial resource – to be managed, controlled and exploited – and is thus diminished and impoverished before our very eyes. Yet what chance is there of countryside conservation even being mentioned as an issue at our next General Election? What price the song of a lark?

The final word should go to another poet, lamenting the changes to the landscapes he knew and loved, in this case nearly 200 years ago: ‘Summers pleasures they are gone like to visions every one …/ I tried to call them back but unbidden they are gone/ Far away from heart and eye and for ever far away’ (John Clare, Remembrances).


18 March 2004

I took an early morning walk today and was immediately rewarded by the sound of at least six chiffchaffs singing down by the river at the end of the Drift. These are always the first summer migrants to reach the village and I look forward every year hearing this promise of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. There are plenty of other signs of spring, of course: the haze of green on the hedgerows, the daffodils in full flower, noisy copulation in the ponds and ditches (of toads), and the restorative light of the lengthening days – with thrushes and blackbirds singing until 7 in the evening. But the chiffchaff still seems the surest and the sweetest sign, partly I suppose because of the drama of its journey and expected day of arrival (some 10 days earlier now than 25 years ago – global warning in action). Every spring they make this arduous and dangerous flight, starting from central or northern Africa, over the wintry ridges of the Alps or Pyrenees, across mainland Europe, over the final barrier of the channel and up through England to here. And the first thing they seem to do on arrival is sing, chanting the piercing double refrain which gives them their name.

Lots of birds are named after their songs and calls, of course – think of the cuckoo, curlew, peewit and owl. Birds are more often heard than seen, especially in summer, and it was natural for country folk to call them by what seemed their most distinctive characteristics. Other countries do just the same: the Dutch call the chiffchaff tjiftjaf (which I’m sure chiffchaffs can pronounce better than I can), and the Germans call them zilpzalp, which is rather nice; the French of course have to be different and call theirs pouillot véloce (which I suppose means ‘speedy warbler’, though that doesn’t seem especially apt?); even the scientific Latin name, weighing in at eight heavy syllables with phylloscopus collybita, makes a gesture at describing the call since the second word means ‘like a coin’ – presumably a reference to the clinking of coins together, quite a good image.

There are lots of other bird names which once were imitative of their calls but where the original meanings are now forgotten or the words have evolved in different ways; just as we no longer think of the names of people called Taylor, Smith, Baker, Black or Walker as descriptions of what they do or how they look. Rook, gull, coot, dove, grouse and bittern all began life in this way and we can still just about hear their distant meanings. Thurlow has its own history too, of course. According to the definitive new Cambridge Guide to Place-Names, ‘Thurlow’ meant either ‘hill of deliberation’ (Parish Councillors please note) or ‘warriors’ burial ground’ (Thurlow FC please note).


12 February 2004

You must have noticed the growing volume of birdsong as one by one the different species are joining in the morning chorus. In January we just had the robin, wren, great tit, mistle thrush and song thrush most of the time; in early February they were joined by the dunnock, wood pigeon, skylark and greenfinch; and now you can hear chaffinch, goldcrest, yellowhammer and blackbird as well. It’s a good time of year, in fact, to learn to recognise all these songs if you don’t already know them since the summer visitors haven’t arrived yet and it’s still possible to separate out the voices of the residents. Come April and May there’ll be a deafening dawn chorus and it’s hard to pick out individual voices at all. What’s more, some of the birds are themselves learning their songs just now – most obviously the young chaffinches who are practising for their first full season. The mature cock chaffinches have a lovely rippling song which descends in a sort of surging waterfall effect and then has a final rousing flourish; but the first year birds have to learn this by imitation and most of them are struggling with that final flourish at present.

Benjamin Britten has a famous musical piece called ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ where he introduces each instrument in turn so that you can learn their different sounds before they all combine in symphony. You could teach yourself bird songs in much the same way by tracking down the individual songsters and concentrating on one at a time. The song thrushes are really whistling now and I would think of them as part of the woodwind, maybe the oboes; the robin and the blackbird provide the fluting melody; the wood pigeon and collared dove do the crooning; the skylark’s song soars with the strings, as in that other famous and very affecting composition by Vaughan Williams, ‘The Lark Ascending’; there’s even a percussion section, with the greater spotted woodpecker drumming various favourite dead branches, the blue tit on the traingle and the pheasant on the klaxon; and I suppose the hooting song of the tawny owl comes from the brass. I can’t quite fit into this picture the great tit, wren and dunnock, all of which are in fine voice now and well worth learning, but then you shouldn’t push analogies too hard any more than you should orchestras.

17 January 2004

Birdwatchers like to suffer for their sport. They are quite happy to rise at dawn, venture out in the wildest weather, travel to dangerous parts and abandon friends and family (sometimes all of these at once). They also hang out in strange places – like the Thurlow water treatment plant (sewage farm, in the old language), which I thoroughly recommend, especially when the wind is behind you in the east. At this time of year you can be almost certain to see two species of wagtail there, often sitting on the revolving arms or the concrete surrounds. The pied wagtail is the common one and is boldly marked with black and white, as the name suggests. They feed by leaping up for flying insects or by picking them off the filter beds as they stride around with a characteristic jaunty step, the head bobbing and the long tail wagging. An old country name for the bird in some parts is washtail, after the up and down strokes of the battledore once used to beat washing, and another is washdish or polly washdish. The other wagtail there is the grey wagtail, though that is a boring and misleading name for a most striking bird. Both sexes have a brilliant lemon-yellow splash of colour under the tail and on the lower belly, and in the adult male this extends all the way up the breast to a black throat patch. The back is indeed grey but that isn’t what catches the eye. They also have improbably long tails, much longer even than the pied, which are constantly wagging up and down and moving the whole rear end with them. The grey is most often found by running water and they do nest in the village in crevices in the banks and bridges of the Stour.

Quite often there are chaffinches and meadow pipits feeding in the beds too, dodging the spray from the arms and leaping over them each time they pass as if in some gymnastic exercise. On the grass sward look out for green woodpeckers, hopping around heavily and probing for ants. There are often mistle thrushes, song thrushes and blackbirds hunting worms in the same area. Behind you is a straggly line of elm suckers trying to become trees and that always seems to be a good place for tit flocks, especially long-tailed tits, and occasionally a tree creeper. To the right of the grass sward is a wooden fence-line with more mature trees and bushes behind it and you can always see robins, wrens and dunnocks working their way along, searching for tiny insects. To the left are an unlovely row of municipal conifers but they do provide good cover for greenfinches, bullfinches, coal tits and goldcrests. I could go on. It gets even better in the spring and summer, though then the wind really does have to be in the right quarter.