Nature Notes 2007

By Jeremy Mynott

14 December 2007

There are lots of fieldfare in the village at present. These are large thrushes, about the size of mistle thrushes, but with grey on the rump and nape. They are flighting in from Scandinavia and all parts north to spend the winter here and you can hear flocks in the air chattering harshly with their characteristic chack-a-chack calls . If you’ve got any apple trees the fieldfares are likely to join in with the blackbirds in glutting themselves on the windfalls. I’ve also been looking out for redwings, a much smaller thrush with a conspicuous eye-stripe and, as the name suggests, rusty-red flanks and also two other scarcer winter visitors, siskin and brambling. You’re only likely to see these if you actually concentrate on finding them: the brambling are likely to be mixed up in parties of their close cousins the chaffinches (look out for a white rump when they fly up) while the siskins may join the tits and greenfinches on any nuts you put out (look out for small agile finches with a lot of yellow and black on them). They are easy to miss, however, and this makes the point that a lot of any success in finding unusual birds depends on having informed expectations, that is, knowing what to look for where and when. One’s attention is necessarily limited and selective and needs to be focussed on the possibilities.

Of course, if you go to far in training your expectations you may find yourself imagining that you have seen something you just want to see. I had a phone call from Dullingham the other day to ask if I could identify some large black and white birds that someone had seen hopping about in their garden one morning. ‘Could they be oystercatchers?’, I was asked. ‘Well, no, almost certainly magpies’, I’m afraid. It reminded me of a more extravagant claim a lady on the south coast made some time back. She phoned the RSPB excitedly to tell them that there was an albatross sitting on her roof. The RSPB man suggested gently to her that it was more likely to be one of the black-backed gulls which roost in large numbers on houses in coastal towns nowadays. ‘No’, she said, ‘it was definitely an albatross, I’ve seen them on television’, and she rang off in a huff. The next day she phoned again. ‘Young man, I want to tell you that the albatross is back on my roof again today. And don’t you try to humour me by saying it’s just a gull. I know an albatross when I see one. What’s more, there are thirty of them there today.’

Happy new year and good hunting.


17 November 2007

If you go down to the woods today … it may seem very quiet. You could see a grey squirrel and perhaps some rabbits, even a fox or a badger if you’re lucky and out very early or late; but not a bear surely, whether picnicking or otherwise? Mind you the conservation authorities are getting very keen on re-introducing species that used to live in Britain centuries ago. It’s worked well with birds: there are now thriving colonies of red kites in various parts of Britain, sea-eagles are established in the Hebrides (and there’s talk of reintroducing them somewhere on the Suffolk coast), ospreys are breeding at Rutland Water near Stamford, and corncrakes have been reared in the Nene Washes near Peterborough in the hope that they will return to East Anglia on their summer migration next year. It’s fun to see all these charismatic birds back where they once were, though I must confess I’m more excited myself by those species that have found their own way home, like the cranes which returned to the Norfolk Broads some years ago and now have a small but thriving colony there (and then started another one near Lakenheath just this year). That seems less artificial and therefore more moving. The risk with the elaborate programmes of re-introduction, however well-meaning, is that they encourage us to think of places that should be left wild as a sort of Theme Park we can all visit, rather like a free range zoo.

Birds can fly here of course, but with mammals that’s not an option and if we want to see wild beavers, lynx, wolves and bears again in Britain we will have to import them and let them loose. There are other obvious risks in that, as you can see in the case of the boars that have escaped from farms in the south of England and are now rampaging through the countryside there. And think of how the imported grey squirrel displaced the native red squirrel.

However, there’s one bear you might just find here right now. It isn’t at all threatening or harmful but you’d need to look very hard. That ‘s the ‘water bear’, a tiny microscopic creature that lives in films of water on lichen, leaf mould or between grains of soil. They are called ‘bears’ because of their lumbering gait as they crawl around on their four pairs of stubby legs. If they were having a picnic it would be on algae and bacteria, which they clean up invisibly for us, and there can be up to two million of them feasting in a metre square of moss. They are very widely distributed round the world and can survive extremes of temperature and radiation that would be fatal to humans. But although there are records for Cambridgeshire and Kent they have as yet never been found in Suffolk. So here’s your chance to be sure of a great surprise and discover the first Suffolk bear.


16 October 2007

The Isles of Scilly are a magic place for me, lovely all the year round but perhaps especially so in October when you get the full benefit of their extreme south-westerly location, some 35 miles off the coast of Cornwall and just visible on a clear day from Lands End. You get about half-an-hour extra daylight in the evening at this time of year, very welcome when the days are drawing in for winter as they now are; and the sun there still has real warmth in it even this late in the autumn, testimony to the Mediterranean climate that sustains a very special micro-environment on the islands, as Alan Titchmarsh rightly showed in the first of his new TV series on The Nature of Britain (do watch it) which included several scenes from Scilly. You effectively get an extra month of summer there. In mid-October there are still in flower fuchsia, blue agapanthus and pink belladonna lilies (known locally as ‘naked ladies’), still red admiral and peacock butterflies on the wing (with the occasional lovely clouded yellow), and still swallows and house martins in the sky lingering before their final southerly migrations. There are other migrants in Scilly too: rare birds which somehow find their way there from both East and West – I saw a yellow-browed warbler from Siberia and a blackpoll warbler from America in the very same tree last week! And with the rare birds come rare birdwatchers too, Bill Oddie among them sometimes, dashing about to catch up with the discovery of each latest arrival and twitching furiously, in every sense of the word. I watch the birders almost as much as the birds themselves these days and find them just about as interesting and exotic in their feeding and mating habits, display behaviour and their various plumages. Meanwhile, for those who prefer slower-moving spectacles there are even three species of stick insect, found no where else in Britain, which pose in statuesque immobility and almost perfect camouflage on the leaves of the native elms (yes, they still have real elms there – it’s too far for the Dutch elm bug to fly across from the mainland) or on the many introduced trees and bushes which have escaped from the famous Tresco Gardens and now serve as wind-breaks for the mosaic of tiny daffodil fields. Flowers, and in particular daffodils, are in fact the islands’ main exports, which is a rather charming fact in itself. I’ve been visiting these enchanted isles for some 35 years now, but whatever changes time may have wrought on me Scilly seems still to retain its first innocent beauty.


15 September 2007

This nature note is from an unusual place. The remorseless editor of The Link reminded me of the deadline on a busy day in Cambridge just before we were going on holiday. Panic. No time for a leisurely stroll down to the river in Thurlow to ponder a suitable theme. But then I thought, I’m always saying that one of the great things about birdwatching is that you can do it anywhere at any time, however unpromising the circumstances. You can always see something to provoke a thought. So that was what I attempted while I attended my last appointment of the day – at the dentist. I set myself the task of identifying at least one bird while ‘in the chair’. I was duly levered back into the usual horizontal position but I could still just see one pane of the window if I looked past the head of the dentist as she bore down on me wearing one of those frightening masks and brandishing a whirring instrument of some kind. And through that pane I caught sight of a collared dove on a television aerial belonging to the house opposite. They seem to like aerials, don’t they, and in fact the German name for the collared dove is Die Fernsehtaube, which means ‘the television dove’! It fluttered up there making that boring bleating noise and then broke into its equally boring song, rather like the football chant of a hoarse fan somewhat the worse for wear United–UNITED– united. I was reminded that I had had an email only the day before from a Californian birdwatching friend to say that the collared dove has just reached the State of California in its worldwide expansion but that he didn’t feel it really belonged in their landscape. He supposed he would get used to it eventually, however. I emailed him back to say that he shouldn’t bank on that. After all, pheasants were introduced into Britain a thousand years ago by the Normans, or possibly even earlier by the Romans, but even now I don’t feel they really belong in the English landscape. They are Indian jungle fowl of some kind and still look it. Of course the collared dove has been an extraordinarily successful immigrant. It first arrived in Britain from Turkey and the Middle East in the mid-1950s and has now spread everywhere like wildfire. It’s gone from celebrity to pest in about fifty years. The Californian birds probably found their way there via the Bahamas, where some of them were unwisely released, and then via the southern USA. It must be only a matter of time before they cross to some of the Pacific islands and perhaps from there even to Australia, where they would no doubt become the third most hated immigrant (after rabbits and the Poms).

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted. ‘That’s all done then’, said the dentist. ‘I must say you were very relaxed’.


21 August 2007

The tiny village of Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast is just what it says on the tin – a raised ridge of shingle on which there is perched a line of some twenty houses defying the North Sea. It’s a wild place, summer and winter, largely cut off from the land by dykes and marshes and exposed to sea, wind and weather. You might think it a harsh and barren environment, just shifting shingle swept by salt spray, but in fact it supports a remarkable range of life, some of it specially adapted to these extreme conditions. Above the high-tide mark the shingle itself is blooming now with the exotic waxy flowers of the yellow-horned poppy, and also with blue sea-pea, white sea-campion, thrift and dense patches of yellow stone-crop. Among the banked pebbles ringed plovers, little terns and oystercatchers make their nest scrapes, in which they lay beautifully camouflaged eggs that turn into beautifully camouflaged chicks – quite invisible until they move. Just back in the salt marsh there are huge swathes of purple sea lavender and in a few secret places beds of samphire, a sort of fleshy succulent which is a culinary delicacy, a bit like a salty asparagus. Redshank, lapwing and snipe all breed regularly in the rough pasture and this year I found another very special bird nesting among them. It was a tall wading bird, mainly white with delicate black markings, long powdery blue legs and a distinctive upturned bill – an avocet! Avocets are local celebrities. Their stronghold is on Havergate Island near here, which was where they were first discovered to be breeding in Britain again just after the war after disappearing in the nineteenth century. Under conditions of great secrecy, to protect the birds from egg-collectors and other miscreants, the RSPB bought the island and offered round-the-clock protection until the first birds were safely reared. This was one of the earliest and most dramatic of the RSPB’s conservation efforts and they very suitably later adopted the avocet as their logo and symbol – you must have seen it on stickers, tea towels and books. Now the Havergate colony has over 100 pairs and the birds have spread out a bit, but they are still rare breeders elsewhere so it was a thrill to find the Shingle Street birds. They chose to nest right by a public footpath on a sea wall and somehow survived the floods and storms of the English summer as well as the attentions of foxes and walkers-by to bring off three young. A little local triumph, and a reminder of the need to leave some places wild.


17 July 2007

I suppose we’ll have to accept soon that we had our summer in April this year. I keep waiting for that long hot spell but it doesn’t seem to come – it’s been more like global soaking than global warming so far. And I don’t want to be gloomy but the signs of autumn are already with us: we’ve passed the turn of the year and the days are slowly shortening again; by the time you read this the cuckoo will have gone and the swifts will be just about to go. There have been fewer swifts this year anyway, I fancy, and by 10 August most of them will have departed for southern Africa, where they can be better assured of warm air and abundant insect life. The amazing thing is that after flying from their nests here they don’t actually touch land again until they return to Thurlow to breed again. They spend the whole year airborne – eating, sleeping and mating on the wing, whatever the weather – which is why they have such a beautiful aerodynamic shape, like a bow that has somehow fired itself. Ted Hughes has a wonderful poem about swifts flying ‘on a steep/controlled scream of skid’, and at this time of year they are certainly screaming round the houses in chasing parties between downpours. When there’s a big storm they try either to outpace it or rise above it until it’s passed and then drop down into our airspace again.

Two other long-distance summer migrants have been in short supply as well: the turtle dove and the spotted flycatcher, both of which have suffered serious national declines of over 80% in the last 40 years. That’s a huge drop. The turtle dove, like the swift, is one of the sounds of an English summer, or should be, in their case with that purring, crooning note which is such a wonderful antidote to stress that it ought to be recorded and replayed in all troubled environments like airports, examination rooms and dentists’ surgeries. Summer is supposed to be the time when ‘the voice of the turtle is heard in the land’, but increasingly it isn’t. The flycatcher by contrast is rarely heard or seen anyway. It’s a drab little bird that tends to live in the tops of trees; it has a rather weak song and is only noticed when it makes its fluttering forays after insects from a favourite exposed perch. This is the best time to see them, when the young have just hatched and the busy parents redouble their efforts to feed them, and I’ve just found three different pairs in the village after thinking all May and June that there might be none this year. But it’s all happened before. It was Byron who spoke of ‘the English winter, ending in July, only to recommence in August’.


16 June 2007

This month’s Nature Note comes ‘from your own correspondent’ in the Volga Delta, a vast wetland where the mighty River Volga spreads out across the flat countryside as it enters the Caspian Sea in southern Russia. This is a marsh so big you could fit the whole of East Anglia into one corner and it’s a wildlife paradise for every kind of reedbed warbler, herons, bitterns, egrets, ibis, pelicans, crane, terns, waders, wildfowl and several birds of prey (especially sea eagles); there are also wild boar, racoon-dogs and even a specially adapted marsh cat; oh yes, and about ten million frogs, by far the noisiest inhabitants, which kept up a deafening background chorus all day and night. I recently spent a week there, staying in a tiny village perched on an island of dry land in the middle of this watery jungle. The ‘garden birds’ there were themselves quite a thrill, of course. They made me remember the time when I got my first serious bird book, the famous Peterson Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, which was first published in 1954. Peterson opened our eyes to all kinds of birds young birdwatchers like me had scarcely even heard of and I remember one page in particular which featured: bee-eater, roller, hoopoe and golden oriole, all spectacular birds to look at and seeming impossibly exotic and remote. I wondered then if I should ever see any of them. Well, I did – they were all to be seen around the village we were staying in, the common garden birds of Obzhorovo, which the locals scarcely looked at twice. To me they were like a Russian circus troupe: the bee-eater with a suit of rainbow colours yodelling as it swooped and darted around like a swallow, but catching bees on the wing, as the name suggests; the hoopoe strutting around busily like a huge pink starling, flirting that outrageous crest, then floating away on black-and-white butterfly wings when I got too near; then the roller, like a sort of overdressed gangster with startling blue and chestnut plumage, poised menacingly on the wires or posts to drop down and stab snakes, beetles or small mammals with its dagger bill. In the hot sun and the strong light they made a kaleidoscope of dancing, tropical colours in the otherwise drab and dusty village. On the other hand, I didn’t see a single robin, wren, blackbird or song thrush all week – they would be the rarities and celebrities down there. And I must have looked like a rare bird myself in a place where they rarely see foreigners at all, let alone eccentric Englishmen with beards and binoculars. A small girl shyly peeped at me from behind her mother’s skirts one day and said something to her mother I couldn’t understand. I asked my Russian friend to translate and he gave me a look. She says “Does he work in the circus, mummy?”


22 April 2007

Well, the summer migrants are coming in fits and starts. The chiffchaff and the blackcap checked in just before I would have predicted, but the swallow and willow warbler have been slow to arrive in any numbers. They have probably been put off by the persistent northerly winds in mid-April and decided to hold back until they change; then they’ll come in a rush. After all birds have minds of their own. Or do they? Surely their brains can only be the size of a pea inside those tiny skulls – hence the rude expression ‘bird brain’. Some people would say that everything they do is by instinct not intelligence and it’s true, of course, that birds and animals don’t have the capacity for abstract thought that we do. I heard a lady say to her dog the other day, ‘Shall we ask the plumber to come at ten o’clock tomorrow?’, which is asking a lot, even of a Yorkshire terrier. On the other hand this isn’t only kind of intelligence. If you can find your way from Cape Town to Thurlow travelling mostly in the dark, if you can weave a nest with just one beak (a sort of Zen knitting?), find enough food to feed a family for the whole summer, learn to avoid cars, cats and sparrow hawks, and sing a complex musical song, then you must be quite good at some sort of problem solving even if you are not clever enough to do sudokus, go to war and ruin the planet.

I went to London Zoo just recently to look particularly at the new and very spacious gorilla enclosure. The big male ‘silverback’ was sitting on a grassy mound watching us watching him. There was something both very bored and very knowing about his gaze, as if he understood just as well as we did the situation we were all in. At one point he looked directly at me in a most penetrating way for a few seconds and I felt a sudden sense of recognition and kinship. Speak for yourself, you may say. And of course that’s just what people did say, very angrily indeed, when Darwin first suggested that the whole of animal kingdom was related by genetic history and evolution and that we were ourselves part of the same natural world. Like the birds.


18 March 2007

March and April are often topsy-turvy months, with summer doing her best to break through but winter reminding us he hasn’t quite let go. (I think winter has to be a ‘he’ and summer a ‘she’, don’t you?). In early March this year, if you remember, we had a week of real spring sunshine and warmth: the chiffchaff arrived in Thurlow on 11 March (about ten days early), daffodils were in full bloom, bees were buzzing and butterflies were already on the wing (I saw four different kinds down the Drift – brimstone, peacock, comma and small tortoiseshell – extraordinary for the time of year). Then there was a sharp shock in the middle of the month when arctic winds from the North stopped all this dead in its tracks (literally so, I fear, in many cases). But these sudden seasonal changes aren’t anything new in fact, whatever further disturbances global warming is now bringing. Back in the nineteenth century a Scottish scientist called Alexander Buchan announced that after a systematic study of past records he had discovered a pattern of climatic change that would predict these variations. He claimed that in most Northern European countries the temperature didn’t just rise steadily up to some point in mid-summer and then gradually decline again, but that superimposed on that trend there were also alternating spells of warmer-than-expected and colder-than-expected weather. The latter became known as ‘Buchan’s Cold Snaps’ and he even said exactly when they would fall. His key dates were: 7-10 February, 11-14 April, 9-14 May, 29 June – 4 July, 6-11 August and 6-12 November. The same phenomenon is widely recognised, of course, in proverbs and folklore. In England we have the ‘blackthorn winter’ at about the time of Buchan’s May dates, which in Germany is known as the ‘Three Ice Men’. And several European countries have ‘Ice Saints’ whose name days fall in the same period. So you might like to jot down the dates of Buchan’s cold snaps in planning your holidays this year or at least check them out to see if they are still generally true. And while you are about it here are some other key dates, based on my own local records for the last 20 years and updated to allow for the recent effects of global warming (Mynott’s Hot Tips). Look and listen for the first blackcap on 3 April, willow warbler on 5 April, swallow on 12 April, house martin on 15 April, cuckoo on 20 April, whitethroat on 24 April, swift on 5 May and turtle dove on 12 May. These do vary a bit from year to year but are surprisingly constant. Whatever the changes to the world’s temperature overall the hours of light and dark change at exactly the same pace each year and that still controls a great deal in nature’s calendar, as in our own.


12 February 2007

I met Bill Crooks out walking the other day and he told me he had just seen a little egret down by the river. That’s a very good record, the first for Thurlow as far as I know. But it probably won’t be the last. Little egrets were extremely rare birds in Britain up to the latter part of the 20th century, but then they started moving northwards from the Mediterranean through Europe and the first pair nested in Britain in 1996 on Brownsea Island near Poole in Dorset. Since then they have spread right round the south coast and are common visitors (mainly in winter) to the SW and East Anglia too. Bill’s bird was probably doing a little prospecting along the Stour and quickly passed on, but the chances are that with the milder climate we now have they will eventually move right through Britain and become the common ‘little white herons’ of our coastal marshes and estuaries and perhaps some inland rivers as well.

They are quite unmistakeable, with gleaming white plumage (much more brilliant white than a gull – perfect for a detergent advertisement), black legs and bill and bright yellow feet. In summer they grow lovely white plumes on the head, neck and breast and these are largely responsible for a significant episode in birdwatching history. In the 19th century there was a huge demand for these lacy plumes in ladies’ hats. Fashionable women about town were literally dressed to kill – at the cost of over 5 million egrets a year, slaughtered to indulge the habit. Eventually, however, a group of more progressive women made an organised public protest against this carnage and in 1889 founded the society which went on to become the RSPB, now one of the largest conservation bodies in Europe with over 1 million members (more than the combined membership of both Conservative and Labour parties, as a matter of fact).

The little egret isn’t the first bird to have expanded its range like this, of course. Think of the collared dove, now a common garden bird throughout the whole country but unknown in Britain before the first pair nested near Cromer in Norfolk in the 1950s. After that initial exciting incursion it spread like wildfire and is now regarded as almost a pest. What else might be coming our way, then? Well, exotic Mediterranean species like the hoopoe and bee-eater are finding their way here in growing numbers and have occasionally even bred. The serin (a small finch) and the crested lark have reached the other side of the channel but haven’t yet made it across to our side. And birdwatchers dream of being the ones to find the first British black woodpecker, a charismatic bird of the forests of Central and NW Europe which has never yet been recorded here despite one or two false alarms (they are the same size as jackdaws…). Here’s hoping, and looking.


15 January 2007

Visitors to garden bird tables have changed over the years. Twenty years ago the commonest birds round the feeders were probably starlings and house sparrows, who between them dominated the scene and threatened to crowd out the more retiring species. Well, there are still some starlings around but they don’t seem quite as tame as they once were and they certainly don’t monopolise the food supplies now. As for sparrows, they have become rare birds in many places. I have a friend who walks round Hyde Park in London most days and, incredibly, he has yet to see a sparrow there. The new ‘sparrow on the block’ in our garden seems to be the greenfinch. They have learned how to hang from the bags of nuts just as agilely as the blue tits do, they can prise away whole nuts with those powerful chunky bills and they positively dote on black sunflower seeds, which they consume in great quantities – and then come back for more. They seem to have made a successful transition from being birds of open countryside to garden birds.

Another relatively new visitor to the fast food store is a very striking customer, bold in appearance but shy in manner, the greater spotted or ‘pied’ woodpecker. This is a primarily a woodland bird, of course, whose main diet used to be the sort of grubs it could find by boring into dead trees with that powerful bill, supplemented by nuts from native trees like walnut and almond which it would wedge into a crevice and break open, using the bill this time as a hammer rather than a drill. But now they have discovered peanuts. It’s rather like the change in our own eating habits when sometime in recent decades it became as easy to buy avocado and passion fruit as it was apples and pears. We don’t really mind where they are grown and we probably don’t even know. The exotic has become familiar. Anyway, the great-spot now has us on his shopping route and regularly calls in for these nutritional supplements. He tends to fly in fast and direct, scattering the smaller birds, and clamps himself tight to the nut bag. He then literally stabs the nuts, using the bill now as a dagger, and takes his fill. There is one further use for this Swiss-army knife of a bill – singing! The woodpecker’s courtship songs consist in a rhythmic drumming, a series of short bursts produced by very rapid percussion (about 25 bangs a second) on a hollow branch or sometimes even on a telegraph pole. We’ll be hearing this ringing out round the village very soon, as will the female woodpeckers and rival males. He then finally has to convert the bill into a pick and excavate a hole for the nest site in a suitable tree. No wonder the energy additives are so welcome. And which will be the next new species to visit the health store?