18 December 2006
We think of the calendar as being fixed and immutable, the diary of the year around which we make our plans and appointments. But of course it is in reality quite arbitrary. Think of the names of the months: anyone with a smattering of languages will know that September should be the seventh month, October the eighth, and so on; and so they were, with the year starting in March until the present ‘Gregorian’ calendar was introduced here in 1752. Or look outside Britain and you find there are Hindu, Chinese, Islamic and Jewish calendars, all cutting up the year in different ways. In fact the only real calendar is that of nature, governed by changes to light and the length of days that not even governments, wars, religions or global warming can control. And already the days are beginning to lengthen, just a little. On Christmas day, for example, the sun will set at 3.50pm (though you may not be in a state to observe this); by 1 January it will be 3.56pm (but ditto, if New Year’s Eve was a success), and by the end of January it will be 4.45pm (come on, get out there).
We may not notice these gradual changes ourselves but the birds do. Early in the new year the robin and wren, who have been vocal all December, will be joined in song by the song thrush, mistle thrush, great tit and dunnock; by the end of January the chaffinch and greenfinch will find their voices (and you can hear them literally doing that, remembering or learning how to do it to start with); and by mid-February the blackbird, skylark and yellowhammer will be singing their familiar songs too. I have a diary of bird song in the Thurlows that goes back over twenty years now and these dates are remarkably constant. The only new trend is that our summer visitors are definitely arriving a few days earlier than they once did, because of the changing temperatures that effectively bring forward the seasons. The hours of light don’t change, though, and the times of the entrants into each morning’s dawn chorus are exactly as they always were, to the minute.
January is named after the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward to the new year and the other looking back to the old one. That reminds us that the year is really a cycle not a calendar, whose endings and beginnings are the same.
19 November 2006
Summer seemed to stretch into autumn this year and autumn has only just arrived when it should really be winter already. I even saw a couple of red admiral butterflies out in the morning sun today – most unusual for late November. But the days are nonetheless shortening remorselessly and that of itself slows the pulse of life. The countryside can seem very dormant at this time of year, with few birds to be seen or heard in the hedgerows and woodlands. But there are exceptions. The robin and wren are still in song periodically, defending their winter territories. And if you wander quietly down the lanes it won’t be long before you come across a party of foraging tits, flitting lightly among the branches and calling constantly to one another in thin, high-pitched tones in order to maintain contact as they work their way along. Most of the group will probably be long-tailed tits, maybe up to a dozen of these fluffy little acrobats, just a bundle of black, grey and white feathers, with those improbably long tails designed for their balancing acts. There are also likely to be some blue tits with them, a few of the larger great tits and the occasional coal and marsh tits. Other hangers-on may include a tree creeper, moving up and down the tree trunks like a mouse, and a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird but a tiny gem, with a flaming orange stripe on the crown. But isn’t this mixed group of fellow travellers rather strange? Aren’t birds of a feather supposed to flock together? Well, that particular proverb is wrong in two respects. In the first place many birds don’t flock at all. Have you ever seen a flock of robins, woodpeckers, owls or kestrels? These are all birds that compete with their neighbours, often fiercely, for the best territories and sources of food. And then there are other birds that do flock but are happy to go around in a mixed group, like the species I mentioned above. There are good reasons in this case for their companionship. They can to some extent share in their discoveries of food supplies – perhaps particular bushes and trees still harbouring supplies of insects. They can also learn feeding techniques from each other – just where and how to look; there will, after all, be young birds in these groups, for whom this is the first winter they have had to face. But more importantly, all these species can find safety in numbers. If a sparrowhawk passes overhead you will hear sudden, shrill alarm calls whose meaning all the species understand regardless of which one first raises the alarm, and they will all dive for cover in a trice. The more ears and eyes the better, and everyone gains from cooperation.
20 October 2006
This isn’t everyone’s favourite time of year. Some of you will remember Mrs Chorley, who used to live in the Square. She once marched up to me when I was digging my allotment in the gathering gloom of a raw November afternoon and recited to me (loudly, as was her habit) the poem by Thomas Hood called, ‘No’.
No sun – no moon
No morn – no noon
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease
No comfortable feel in any member.
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –
Well, we know how he felt, but that wasn’t really true of autumn even in Thomas Hood’s day (1799-1845), and it certainly hasn’t been true recently, particularly not in the long Indian summer this year. I’ve just got back from a week in the Isles of Scilly, which lie 35 miles to the SW of Cornwall, and it was just like summer over there – with an abundance of all the things Hood was missing. The swallows and martins were still lingering, as were other summer visitors like the turtle dove, warblers and flycatchers; there were plenty of bees feeding on all the flowers in bloom, including the lovely belladonna lily which grows wild there and fuchsia in profusion; and there were butterflies in extraordinary numbers, not only the regular peacocks, red admirals and tortoiseshells, but a host of beautiful clouded yellows which came in off the sea from the continent, and one even more exotic migrant – a charismatic monarch butterfly, gorgeously marked with orange and black-veined wings, that must have somehow made it across the Atlantic all the way from America. And that wasn’t the only visitor from the USA: there was an American robin, a great rarity here which attracted frenzied interest from the twitching fraternity. Being American, of course, it is much larger than ‘our’ robin – in fact it is really a kind of thrush that the first immigrants, feeling a little home-sick no doubt, named as a robin just because of its ruddy red breast. Come to think of it, it was the American Indians, I believe, from whom we get the phrase ‘Indian summer’, since autumn was the time they harvested their corn (maize).
If global warming goes on perhaps these extended summers will come to be the norm, but there may be a cost at the other end of the year, so to speak, and perhaps some modern-day Hood will be lamenting the blinding heat and desert conditions of May or June.
24 September 2006
September and October are in-between months. This is a time of uncertainty and change, an Indian summer or the first nip of winter. For birds that means the busiest time of the year for arrivals and departures. Britain at this period is like one huge airport, with travellers coming and going in all directions: some long-haul and some short, some going north and some south, some experienced fliers and some on their first trip, some in a rush and some waiting for more favourable weather, but everyone snacking in readiness for the effort to come. For most of August and September the heavy traffic has been heading south, a constant stream of our summer visitors now making for their winter quarters in southern Europe or Africa. In an inland location like Thurlow we become aware of this mainly through sudden absences: the swifts went in early August, most of the swallows by mid-September and the house martins by the end of the month, with just a few stragglers hanging on into October. But on the Suffolk coast you can see the migration actually taking place. If you stand on a sea-wall there will be streams of these hirundines passing down the coast, all impelled by the same irresistible urge to head south for warmer climes before the dark days of winter come.
But from early October there are just as many arrivals as thousands of thrushes, finches and other small birds come from further north in Scotland or Scandinavia to spend the winter here in our relatively mild climate. Some are birds of species we see only in the winter – like redwings and fieldfares (members of the thrush family), which suddenly appear in the trees and hedgerows gorging themselves on the rich berry crop. Some others are members of resident species like blackbird, robin and chaffinch but which come over from the continent for the winter in vast numbers and swell the populations of the local birds. Most of these travel by night and if you go out on a clear evening you can sometimes hear the flocks passing overhead and calling to maintain contact with each other. On the wetlands, lakes and estuaries huge numbers of ducks, geese and swans will arrive, together with uncountable flocks of wading birds like curlew, dunlin and knot. And on fields and farmlands there will be an influx of lapwing, snipe and golden plover.
By November and December it will have settled down again until the cycle of the year turns again in spring, when the same urge takes them all off again, but in the opposite direction. Of course, this may all change with global warming. Airport UK will have effectively been relocated further south and will be catering for some quite different birds of passage. And some of our present visitors like the swallow may choose to stay. Swallows on Christmas cards? It’s not impossible.
17 August 2006
In every national poll of our favourite birds the robin always comes out on top of the list. In Scotland the Scottish RSPB organised a poll of their own, hoping to establish the golden eagle officially as the undisputed national symbol, but even there the dratted robin came out first again (despite a late surge in voting for the red grouse, which turned out to have been boosted by an energetic email campaign by the marketing department of Famous Grouse whisky). Other perennial high scorers are the song thrush, nightingale, skylark, kingfisher, barn owl and puffin. But what about the opposite – a list of our least favourite birds? That’s more complicated, because it could mean two quite different things. My own list of most boring and least charismatic birds would probably include wood pigeon, canada goose, pheasant, coot and greenfinch, all of which I’m rather indifferent to and give little attention. But there’s also a different category of birds that tend to be actively disliked and I suppose magpie comes top of that list for many people, as noisy, vulgar, aggressive, and above all nasty and destructive. After all, they feed on grisly carrion or road-kills, and even worse they take the eggs and young of our precious songbirds, don’t they? Magpies have long been held to be birds of ill-omen (‘One of sorrow, two for joy, three for a wedding and four for death’), and now you can often see up to ten of them, so what disasters does that foretell? Gamekeepers of course have always hated them, and even in high opera they have a bad press – think of Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’. These are birds we love to hate, so there are regular public demands for a drastic cull to protect our better-loved species.
But is this fair? Serious academic studies have been done to see if there is really any correlation between the increase of magpies and the decline of more popular species like the thrush and the lark, but the scientific evidence is negative. That is, songbird numbers can decrease in areas where there are low densities of magpies and increase where there are high densities. Magpies undoubtedly do predate these species, but apparently not to a degree that affects the populations numbers. The number one killer is actually the domestic cat. Does our hostility to the magpie, then, tell us more about our own need to find scapegoats for trends we don’t like than about the birds themselves? Just because magpies are clever, cocky, gaudy and successful doesn’t automatically make them into villains. If they were rare birds wouldn’t we think them rather beautiful and exotic?
I’m interested in why we find certain birds attractive or otherwise. So why not make a list of which birds you like or don’t like and think about the reasons? Please send me your nominations. But be careful – you may be revealing more about yourselves than about them!
15 July 2006
Do you know the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze? The great detective solves a mystery by noticing something which wasn’t there – the curious case of the dog that didn’t bark in the night. That’s what was significant, that it didn’t bark. Well, have you noticed anything significant missing from your garden just recently? What about robins? When did you last hear one singing or even see one? There are just two or three weeks in the year when the robin falls silent and lies low. Why? Basically, to get a break for the first time in about 49 weeks. The breeding season is at last over, the young have left the nest and the competition for the best territories in the autumn hasn’t yet started. This is their only chance to recuperate and, most importantly, to moult. A bird’s feathers get an enormous amount of wear and tear and at least once a year they need replacing. But a robin can’t lose all its feathers in one go and stand around starkers until they grow again. Instead they lose them one at a time, so that there are always enough to enable them to fly out of harms way if there are cats and other enemies around and to keep them warm and dry through chilly nights. By the end of the month they will have completely new plumage and they will be ready for the off again: to sing, strut, fight, defend territories and sit on our spades. Some other species are under more pressure of time since they have to migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles south in September and need to have their flight feathers in perfect condition before then. So this is the only chance they really get to renew their plumage. Ducks are an even more extreme case. They do lose all their flight feathers more or less together and are temporarily flightless for a few weeks, and so very vulnerable; but they have a means of keeping out of trouble by staying on the water or on islands in what is called ‘eclipse’ plumage, very drab and dowdy, until they have grown the feathers all back again.
I suppose we think of ourselves as at our most active in the long light days of mid-summer, and at our lowest ebb in mid-winter; but for the robin and most small birds it’s just the reverse. This is their low season – not so much a holiday as a preparation for winter, when they need to be at their fittest. I shouldn’t really spoil things by mentioning winter just yet, but there’ll very soon be one other striking absence to notice in the skies. The swifts that are still screaming round the village will be all gone by about the 10th of August and we shan’t see or hear them again until next May. Absences can be as significant as presences for the nature sleuth too.
19 June 2006
I saw a most beautiful butterfly the other day, the largest and one of the rarest in Britain – the swallow-tail. They used to be quite widely distributed in southern and eastern England, breeding as recently as the 1940s at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, for example; but the damp meadows and fens on which they depended were increasingly drained and lost to agriculture or housing and they are now restricted to just a few sites in Norfolk (which I like to think of as North Suffolk). The place I went to was Strumpshaw Fen, on the edge of the Broads, but if you want to see them there this year you had better be quick because they are only on the wing until mid- July. Do try, though. They are quite special in appearance: they have huge floaty wings, with a dazzling pattern of yellow and black, and one bright orange spot just between the two forked ‘swallow tails’ which give them their British name (the French call their equivalent ‘Le grand porte-queue’, which must mean ‘the mighty tail-carrier’, I suppose). The British variety is very vulnerable because their caterpillars have just one, exclusive food plant, the milk parsley, which is itself very restricted. The adult butterflies, however, take nectar from a whole range of flowers, and the ones I saw seemed to be preferring purplish ones like thistle, ragged robin and buddleia.
Butterflies usually live only a few weeks, of course, – at least in that form. The whole life cycle can take up to a year as they pass through a series of extraordinary changes. The butterflies lay their eggs (don’t ask me which came first) and then in a few days the eggs become caterpillars, whose main function seems to be to eat as much as possible. In the case of the swallow-tails the caterpillars look disappointingly like bird-droppings, which is good camouflage but an unpromising beginning to a glorious outcome. The caterpillars turn into chrysalids, which are hidden away in little hammocks slung on vegetation low down, and they stay like that until next spring when the final transformation takes place. The whole process is a sort of triumph of evolution, showing how to survive through the most radical changes of identity.
At the same site I saw several keen butterfly-watchers ( lepidopterists, if they are really serious about it), and it made me wonder what they do the rest of the year? Do they switch to beetles and spiders for the winter? At least birdwatchers have something to do all the year round and some two or three hundred different species to look out for over the UK (there are only about 60 different butterflies, by comparison). But perhaps that makes butterflies the more precious. The very transience seems to accentuate their fragile beauty, a sort of parable for the summer of our lives.
17 May 2006
We had another dawn chorus walk round the village in mid-May and ten stalwarts got up before 5am and braved the heavy showers and thunder. The birds themselves had been up some time before that, of course, but like me they hadn’t had any breakfast yet. Birds sing before they eat, indeed before they do anything else really, which shows how important singing must be to them. It’s thought that this is partly just good time-management on their part. After all, at dawn the insects on which most of them feed haven’t become active so the birds have an hour or so to wait anyway. And there are two good reasons to sing as soon as possible: first, to reassert their rights to their hard-won territory each day anew, in case there are any new arrivals or neighbours with designs on it; and secondly, because most females lay their eggs at dawn and then become fertile and, well, interested again, so it’s worth trying to get them going with a burst of song.
Some of the best songsters we heard were warblers, including willow warbler, chiffchaff, common and lesser whitethroats and blackcap; and if we’d taken a different route we might have added sedge and garden warblers, and possibly even grasshopper warbler too. These are all members of the huge warbler family, whether or not they have the word ‘warbler’ in their usual English name. Most of them aren’t much to look at – indeed they are very hard even to catch sight of, singing as they do from deep foliage or the tops of trees – but they all have striking or beautiful songs. ‘Beautiful’? Isn’t that just sentimentality on our part; or, to put it more scientifically, anthropomorphism – the mistake of thinking that animals and birds share our own thoughts or feelings? Well no, not entirely. It’s noticeable that the birds with the most beautiful songs to our ears are also the most inconspicuous. Think not only of the warblers but also the nightingale and the lark . They expect to impress their mates and rivals by being heard rather than seen. You can see the reverse strategy in the equally large but quite different warbler family that lives in America. These species are often very brightly coloured (almost garish in some cases) and have names to match – like the magnolia warbler, the black-throated green, the cerulean and the chestnut-sided warblers; but their songs are quite feeble and limited in vocal range by comparison with their European cousins. The moral of this seems to be that both these families are equally exhibitionist: it’s just that theirs flaunt it while ours flute it.
19 April 2006
May is surely the most exciting month. It still has all the freshness of spring but with the promise of real summer. There may be a few chill winds to remind us of winter past, and to prompt the recitation of country lore about ‘blackthorn winters’ and not ‘casting a clout till May is out’ (though is that the month or the hawthorn blossom?), but we really know it’s summer now until September. Every day marks some new beginning – a cowslip opening, the first cuckoo (18 April this year), the return of the nesting martins, a peacock butterfly on the wing – but of course nature’s dairy has different engagements in different places. I’ve been dividing my time this year between Thurlow and an even smaller village called Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast and I’ve been comparing the spring migration in the two places. In Thurlow the chiffchaff is the first arrival, followed quickly by the blackcap, willow warbler, swallow and house martin. In Shingle Street it’s the wheatear, followed by the sand martin, sedge warbler and yellow wagtail, with an outside chance of more exotic birds like an avocet or a spoonbill straying over from nearby Havergate Island.
But in both places there are ‘marker birds’ I particularly look forward to as the sign that spring has ended and another summer has indeed begun. In Thurlow it’s the swift – look out for those scything black silhouettes screaming through the skies from about the 5th of May. They have been in the air continuously since they left Thurlow at the end of the last breeding season, never once touching land until they return home to their nest sites in the church tower or in your eaves – eight months on the wing, can you believe it? In Shingle Street it’s the little tern, one of Britain’s rarest nesting sea-birds, which arrives at about the same time as the swift or just a few days sooner. It’s a fairy-light bird, almost as aerial as the swift and also travelling here from Africa, which dives for the silvery sand-eels just off-shore and makes a bare scrape of a nest on the raised shingle banks. The nest and eggs are beautifully camouflaged but very vulnerable, alas, to disturbance from people, dogs and foxes. The swift arrives with a scream, the little tern with a busy chittering call, just rising above the sound of surf and shingle. Neither of them tuneful to human ears in a conventional sense, but for me the authentic sounds of summer.
14 March 2006
Well, it’s been a late spring despite all the talk of global warming, which just goes to show that nature’s graph doesn’t always go in straight lines. Anyway, it’s now a matter of urgency for the birds to prepare for the breeding season, and one of the first requirements is a nest. They can’t in most cases build them any sooner because the nests would be too obvious in the bare hedges and trees but if they wait any later then the best sites will be taken, so there is now a frantic period of DIY, where the labour is intense and the skills outstanding. Imagine building something as complicated and perfect as a bird’s nest in about two weeks with just your mouth.
The long-tailed tit is a local master craftsman. They use four basic building materials: moss as a foundation and framework, the silken threads of cobwebs as binding, lichen for facing and camouflage, and finally feathers (some 1500 of them) for insulation. The brooding mother and up to 12 nestlings can eventually be accommodated in the little domed nest. Amazing! But perhaps the wren’s industry is even more remarkable. The cock bird may have to build up to 10 different nests for his potential mate to make a selection from. The female tours the properties and if she is attracted by one she eventually chooses it as her family home and afterwards, as a sort of secondary consequence, she chooses the cock bird that produced it as well. They then mate and rear their family. But the male’s other efforts at home-making are not entirely wasted since all those other nests offer him scope for other assignations. In short, he tries to fill his vacant properties with as many females as possible to maximise his offspring, however tiring the consequences.
When I was working in the USA some years ago I made friends with a New York birdwatcher with whom I used to compare American and British birds in our rambles round Central Park. We were once talking about the differences between our two wrens, which are basically the same species in both countries but are monogamous in the USA and polygamous in the UK. I remembered this conversation when my friend later announced a literary competition for a bird poem in the form of a clerihew. Now a clerihew is a sort of satirical poem with a particular rhyming scheme like this:
Edgar Allen Poe
Was passionately fond of roe
He always liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome
So I submitted the following:
The bold British wren
Is a man among men
He can service a dozen
Unlike his Yankee cousin
My friend said that I would become an overnight sensation, but this doesn’t seem to have happened.
19 February 2006
We’ve just had a short break in Devon, enjoying the very different landscape of moorland, hills and wooded valleys there (and experiencing more rain in three days than we’ve had in three months in Thurlow). I was particularly looking out for two species of bird characteristic of this part of Britain. The first is the dipper, so called from its habit of bobbing up and down as it perches on boulders by the fast-flowing streams where it lives. It’s about the size of a thrush, but even plumper, blackish-brown above and white below, and it is unique among British birds in that it actually walks under water in search of aquatic insects and larvae. We shall never get these in East Anglia because we just don’t have the right kind of geography (or the rainfall) to create the rivers they need .
The second is the buzzard. There always seemed to be some of them in the air above us, soaring and gliding effortlessly over the woodlands and the ridges. Buzzards have long been plentiful in the North and West of the country and they are now spreading back across East Anglia where they were once quite common but were persecuted to extinction by sporting interests. I’ve been noticing the odd buzzard around Thurlow for the last five years or so but they are now regular – and are indeed breeding nearby. They are immediately recognisable from their sheer size – far larger than kestrels or sparrow hawks – and from their lazy wheeling flight on those broad outstretched wings. They also have a distinctive mewing call, a sort of pee-aarrrh, which makes one instinctively look up (something we rarely do, presumably because evolution taught us that most of our enemies were at ground level). There’s no shortage of nesting sites for them in Suffolk (woods and copses) or food (mostly rabbits and rodents, but sometimes toads or even worms), so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t re-establish themselves completely if we leave them alone this time. The word ‘buzzard’ has rather negative connotations, unfortunately, but only for the very unfair reason that in all those Hollywood westerns the ‘buzzards’ scavenging dead animals (or even human bodies) are in fact turkey vultures. Another case of Britain being divided from America by a common language.
Various other species are poised to return to East Anglia as well. There are now ospreys breeding in Rutland and red kites in the Chilterns, and the corncrake can once again be heard craking in the Nene washes near Peterborough (not a pretty sound but an exciting one). Who knows, the spectacular white-tailed eagle might return to the Norfolk Broads and even the great bustard might find a home in the remoter parts of the Brecks (they used to breed on Newmarket Heath in the nineteenth century!). Unlike the dipper all these were excluded by human intervention, not by landscape or geography, and could now be welcomed back home.
19 January 2006
It was Chaucer who gave St Valentine’s Day its romantic associations. In his poem, The Parliament of Fowles, he imagines all the birds coming together on February the 14th to declare their passions and choose their mates. Florists and card manufacturers have been grateful ever since. But hang on, why mid-February? Wouldn’t you expect the mating season to begin in Spring? Well, like all the best-loved British traditions the history is rather murky. Chaucer actually wrote his poem to celebrate a royal wedding on 3 May1381 between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and he borrowed the name of a minor Italian saint called Valentine whose feast was by chance celebrated on that day. It was only much later that all the romantic stuff was cheerfully transferred to the February date, which was itself originally an ancient Roman fertility festival that happened to coincide on the calendar with the death of a quite different saint also called Valentine.
Never mind, there is truth even in literal error. The birds really have started to sing in the early mornings now and for just the reasons Chaucer supposed. Two of the easiest songs to recognise in the February dawn chorus are those of the great tit and song thrush, each of which relies on repeating a few basic phrases loudly and often. The main great tit song is a ringing double note which is usually represented as teacher-teacher, though they do also have a large repertoire of different calls (up to 80 variants have been separately counted). The song thrush, on the other hand, tends to sing in longer phrases like did-he-do-it, did-he-do-it; too-true, too-true. As another poet, Robert Browning, puts it:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
Bird songs are in fact getting both earlier and louder, for reasons Chaucer could never have foreseen 625 years ago. Earlier, because of climate change, which has advanced the breeding season by some weeks for many birds. And louder, for the sadder reason that traffic and other urban noise has now reached levels where studies have shown that great tits, for example, have to sing louder if they live in towns than if they live in the countryside . Moreover, some birds with softer and less penetrating voices are now quite unable to have territories and nest successfully by motorways, even though there are suitable locations in all those bushes on the verges, because they simply cannot make themselves heard by prospective mates. Now there really is a fable for our time.