Nature Notes 2009

By Jeremy Mynott

12 December 2009

By the time you read this we’ll be past the shortest day and no matter what wintry spells we might have in the New Year the daylight hours will begin to lengthen and there will be an unstoppable momentum towards spring. Most of us look out for little signs of this along the way, whether it’s the first aconites showing early in January in the beautifully managed wilderness of the spinney by the Olde School, or the song thrush singing at dawn outside your bedroom window. But there’s another bird sound too, which you might not normally think of as a spring song – the drumming of the great spotted woodpeckers, which actually starts in late December and goes on to early summer. Everyone knows that woodpeckers excavate holes in trees with that dagger bill, but when they are doing that the sound is more like a series of disconnected exploratory stabbings as they search for the most rotten wood to drill and chip out the fragments of bark and pulp. When they are drumming to attract mates and discourage rivals (the function of all bird song) the strike-rate is speeded up to as many as sixteen separate blows a second, more like a burst from a pneumatic drill than hacking about with a pick-axe. They find a nicely resonant branch or hollow trunk and use that as a sounding-board to project the sound as far as possible. Most of the birds have two or three favourite song-posts in their territory – the ones which produce the best musical effects and which they keep returning to in a sort of circuit. In the first part of the season the females drum as well as the males but by February the males are the ones dominating the airwaves. It’s the males that mostly make the nest-holes too and it takes them about five days hard work to excavate a decent hole, first to roost in and then, if they attract a female to their des. res., to breed in. We also get green woodpeckers in the village, of course, but they rarely drum just for effect, so if you hear that spring drum-roll it’s almost certainly a great spotted.

Some other species of birds also use mechanical sounds in place of song. The snipe ‘drums’ by flying up then going into a rapid dive, extending some of its tail feathers stiffly to vibrate in the down-rush of air. Storks will clatter their bills in mounting excitement in their courtship displays. And some birds like nightjars even clap their wings with a smart crack in their display flights and you can sometimes get them going by clapping your hands in imitation (but be ready to duck quickly when they zoom in). So even if you are not a great, romantic songster in the choral tradition – like the thrush, the nightingale and the lark –you can still make music with the percussion section and get the same results.


16 November 2009

There was a very well attended quiz in the Villlage Hall last week and one of the subjects on which we were questioned was ‘Garden Birds’. Pressure – what pressure? (Well, I’d have been thrown off the team if I’d messed that one up). In fact they were mostly straightforward and I think most teams did pretty well, but one bird that caught a few people out was a slightly blurry picture of what looked like a large thrush. If you peered at it carefully you could just make out a pale stripe over the eye and some grey on its back and nape, which is the real give-away. It was a fieldfare, so named because the Anglo-Saxons thought it ‘fared’ or travelled over the fields. They have just been faring a long way, in fact, since they are now arriving in Thurlow in large numbers from the continent, particularly from Northern and Eastern Europe. As soon as the berry crop gives out there or hard weather arrives they head off over the North Sea for Britain to spend the winter here, gorging themselves on rowan, hawthorn and ivy berries in the hedgerows and foraging for worms and beetles on the open fields. The first sign of their presence they usually give is a clamour of harsh chack-a-chack calls as a flock comes over and settles in a tall tree before descending to the ground. They are quite gregarious birds and you can often see mixed up in the fieldfare flocks a smaller cousin called the redwing, which does indeed have red flanks and underwings and also a conspicuous white eye-stripe. But fieldfares are not only large, they are also aggressive and if there is a competition for food they will boss redwings, blackbirds and starlings quite ruthlessly.

Someone said rather grumpily to me on quiz night – after getting that one wrong, I fancy – of course fieldfares are not really garden birds, are they? But in fact they are, or at least will be a bit later in the winter when they have cleaned up on the hedges or if we have a hard frost to seal up the soil. That’s the time they move into those gardens where there are fallen apples on the ground and then you get a real feeding frenzy right in front of your eyes. I suspect they get a bit tipsy on some of the rotting and well-fermented apples and they then seem tempted to spend more of their energies unsteadily fighting off other fieldfares rather than enjoying the fruits at their feet. It gets somewhat like a rowdy scene in the bar in one of those westerns where everyone ends up fighting their neighbours but can’t quite remember why when they are nursing their sore heads afterwards.


20 October 2009

This month’s Nature Note comes from the Isles of Scilly, which I regularly visit each October for a week’s walking and birdwatching. Scilly is a small place of big surprises. The island group lies some 30 miles off Lands End into the Atlantic and is the most south-westerly part of the UK. As the nights draw in here in the east Scilly gets about an extra 25 minutes of daylight each day because of its westerly position. It has a mild Mediterranean climate, is virtually frost free, and so has palm trees and subtropical flowers and gardens. The local specialities are the gorgeous blue agapanthus and pink nerines and belladonna lilies, which were all in bloom this week along with hottentot fig, sea spurrey, Bermuda buttercup and the strange daturas with their hanging trumpet flowers. This last week Scilly has also been enjoying a late Indian summer, with butterflies and swallows still on the wing and long hours of warm sunshine. All in all a week won back from winter.

The birds are always a surprise too. Wandering migrants end up here from every quarter of the globe and I saw a dowitcher from America (a sort of wading bird, rather like a godwit), rare yellow-browed warblers from Siberia, whooper swans from Iceland, rose-coloured starlings from Eastern Europe, and a cattle egret from the Mediterranean – all on the same tiny island. A couple of weeks earlier they had even had an albatross following one of their fishing boats in. The fisherman phoned a message through to Scilly Radio, who promptly broadcast the report and pretty soon practically the whole population of Scilly had crowded on to one of the headlands to look with amazement and delight at this huge bird gliding effortlessly over the waves with its 12 foot wing-span. The albatross must have been a vagrant from the southern oceans, literally the other side of the world, which shows what a small world it is for some birds. Of course, the birders these unusual species attract are almost as exotic as their quarry: they range from relatively ‘normal’ casual birdwatchers to the semi-professional hardcore twitchers who will risk life, limb, jobs and marriage for a new tick on their lists; you also get the occasional birding celebrity like Bill Oddie who goes there regularly on holiday. In fact, you never know quite who you are going to run into. Someone cheerfully hailed me near the quay one day and there in front of me were Andrew and Anna Dickson, who live all of fifteen yards away from us across the street here in Thurlow. A small world indeed!


16 September 2009

There have been some lively discussions in the village just recently about whether the Thurlows should be regarded as one village or two. This is a natural history column not a political one, but it made me start thinking about how the wildlife perceives it. From their point of view, of course, our tribal boundaries mean nothing at all and when the birds fly over the Village Hall (in either direction) they are quite unaware that they are heading into ‘Injun territory’. In another sense, though, they divide the world up into more parts than we do and recognize at least five or six different ‘villages’, though none of them identical with either Great or Little Thurlow. The first wildlife village is the river and its surrounding vegetation, which form a sort of corridor through both Thurlows; water is the stuff of life and this nurtures many of the different species of plants and birds we enjoy here, including of course our charismatic kingfishers (which I’ve been seeing more often recently, I’m glad to say). Second would be the woodlands, which are fortunately mixed woodlands here and so support a very good diversity of birds, butterflies, flowers and local populations of fox, badger (more than you think) and muntjac (ditto). Then there are all our gardens, which are a tremendously rich habitat, especially if you have a good number of flowering plants and bushes, maintain a pond of some sort and put out food for birds. The surrounding fields, both arable and pasture, are yet another ‘village’ for birds like meadow pipits, lapwings and golden plover in winter, and skylarks, rooks and the teeming wood pigeons all the year round; while the mature hedges, which we are lucky to have – thanks to enlightened Estate policies, are themselves important wildlife corridors through the fields and support important populations of yellowhammers, finches, whitethroats and other warblers. There are also specific hotspots which have their own residents and visitors: the lake at Great Thurlow (tufted duck, coot, moorhen, and often cormorant and heron), the Water Treatment Plant (to use the preferred euphemism) at Little Thurlow (which is home to pied and grey wagtails, who thrive on the abundant insect supply) and the farmyards (very important for our house sparrows, which have mysteriously become a somewhat threatened species nationally).

Each of these habitats has its own borders and territories. What’s more these are three-dimensional territories since they extend upwards as well as sideways. Different birds use different air corridors just as planes do: for example, swallows generally feed close to the ground, skimming over fields, especially those with horses in them, to catch the larger flies and insects; house martins hunt smaller insects further aloft, and swifts go higher still, feeding on a sort of aerial plankton which they hoover up as they fly. And with all these different territories you do of course get border disputes, quite as fierce as any in the human world.


22 August 2009

It may have been a bad year for cuckoos but it’s been a good one for butterflies. In spring there was a spectacular arrival of painted ladies, a butterfly that migrates here, incredibly, all the way from North Africa through Spain and France. On the 24th of May an estimated 50 million of these fragile creatures crossed the channel on their flimsy wings and arrived on our south and east coasts. They then filtered up through the country, delighting many people who had never really seen one before. Many more must have perished on the way, I imagine, when you think of how vulnerable they would be to wind and weather, but this was an invasion on an epic scale. We think of birds as long-distance migrants but quite a few butterflies manage it too, and along with the painted ladies we had many large whites and peacocks coming in to swell the numbers of the native breeders already here. The painted ladies are said to be able to travel about 150 km a day in favourable conditions, which is quite remarkable considering the size of their nectar food tanks and the time they must take to stop and refuel on the way.

The favourite food plants of the painted lady are thistles, mallow, Viper’s bugloss and nettles, so they do well in wild and weedy areas, but like most other butterflies they are also drawn to buddleia so you may well have them in your garden too. You can recognize them from the dusty orange colour of the wings, which are tipped with black with a few white spots and blotches. And now the clock is ticking. Many of the millions that arrived in May and June will have laid their eggs then. The eggs take about a week or so to hatch into caterpillars. Many of these are eaten by birds (including cuckoos in fact) but those that survive become fully grown after about four weeks; the caterpillars become a chrysalis for another two or three weeks; and after another two weeks or so the chrysalis will make the final metamorphosis and hatch out into the gorgeous butterflies that are the end result of the whole process. So there could be another explosion of painted ladies in August as the offspring of the original migrants emerge. They may live for only a few weeks or even days, sadly, and unlike the birds they will be unable to migrate back the way they came, but others in Europe and Africa will go on laying eggs that will survive the winters there and will start the whole cycle over again.

What about the name, though? It seems to get more flattering the further you go south. The French call the painted lady la belle dame, and the Italians, as you might expect, celebrate them even more chivalrously as bella dama o cardero, the lovely lady of the thistle.


23 July 2009

Well, the year has turned. We passed the longest day some time back, I’m sorry to say, and the birds have noticed. The dawn chorus, which deafened us in April and May, is now a much more muted affair (more like a dawn conversation, with some of the participants finding it hard to get up): blackbird, wren, wood pigeon and (if you are out over the fields) skylark and yellowhammer are now the main contributors. Even the robin has fallen silent on his three-week vacation at the start of the school holidays. It’s the only time of year that they don’t sing, and when they start up again in mid-to-late August it is, to our ears at least, a sadder and more soulful song, somehow suiting the mood as summer changes to autumn. You aren’t likely even to see a robin now since they are moulting into new plumage after the wear-and-tear of their spring and summer exertions and they tend to lie low to avoid attention.

Some of our summer migrants are on the move, sensing the changing season too. You are not likely to see any more swifts after about the 8th of August, nor hear any more blackcaps and willow warblers until next spring. And most of the cuckoos have already gone – though we didn’t see or hear many of them this summer to start with, did we? I think cuckoos must be in deep trouble and maybe we shall never again hear them in the numbers we were once used to, though no one really knows what has caused the decline. ‘Global warming’ can’t be the simple answer in this case, since it hasn’t affected their food supply (mainly caterpillars) or their host species (mainly dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers, all of which are flourishing).

On the Suffolk coast you can actually watch the migration happening: straggly groups of migrating swallows and martins are following the line of seawalls at the start of their long journeys south, feeding as they go with that swooping and skimming flight. One mile as the crow flies must equal about ten as the swallow flies, I should think. And off the coast ‘sea swallows’ are heading in the same general direction – terns, which no doubt got that nickname from their forked tails and their repertoire of similar acrobatic skills (in their case diving for fish not flies).

Our own cycles seem slower to respond to these changes. You are probably still expecting that ‘long, hot summer’ we were promised and the holiday season has only just begun in earnest. But should we take a lesson from the birds here? Wouldn’t it be better to count May, June and July as summer and then go back to work and school in August. After all, the football season has just started again, and it’s only a matter of time before someone says, ‘The nights are pulling in now’.


19 June 2009

On the other side of Suffolk near the coast there is a strip of land called ‘the Sandlings’. This used to be a huge area of heathland stretching all the way from Ipswich to Lowestoft, but over the years it has been so eroded by housing expansion, leisure facilities like golf courses and by agricultural development that only tattered fragments of it remain today. It is still an important environment for some of Suffolk’s most distinctive wildlife, though. I’ve been walking the Hollesley and Sutton Heaths just east of Woodbridge this last week and have seen and heard some favourite birds: the lilting woodlark, the stonechat and the tree pipit, which launches itself from a small tree on a beautifully choreographed song flight, first soaring high then spiralling slowly downwards to return to its original perch just as its breath seems to be giving out and the song dies away. I’ve also heard the scratchy song of the rare Dartford warbler, which has colonized this area only fairly recently; it lives most of the time deep in thick swathes of heather and gorse and is very difficult to catch sight of, but occasionally it pops out briefly to display its wine-dark plumage and cocked tail.

The star of the show, however, is even harder to see. This is a bird so well camouflaged with its broken pattern of greys and browns that you could walk right past it without noticing it lying lengthwise along a branch or resting motionless among leaves and bracken on the ground. What’s more it is basically nocturnal and lives by hunting moths, which it vacuums up in its huge gaping mouth. And, it only ‘sings’ when it first becomes active just as the dusk is becoming more night than day. The word for this evening habit is ‘crepuscular’ (nice word, wish I could use more often!), but it means that there is only a brief window between its immobility by day and its invisibility by night when you can actually encounter it. It is well worth the effort, though. This is the nightjar, whose weird churring song evokes all the mystery and magic of twilight, when you hear it on a warm summer evening with the fragrance of heather, birch and broom scenting the air around you. When the last thrush and blackbird have finally fallen silent there is a sort of hushed expectancy before the sounds of the night begin. And then you hear this extraordinary noise: is it near or far, beast or machine, soft or loud? The dry, whirring notes rise and fall with frequent changes of pitch that only add to the sense of otherness. No doubt because of its strange appearance and song and its nocturnal habits the nightjar has entered into folklore and superstition and has attracted various old country names like goatsucker, fern owl, razor grinder, gabble ratchet and flying toad – mostly unfair, stick with ‘nightjar’.


18 May 2009

The great detective, Sherlock Holmes, was famous for his remarkable powers of perception ¬ – seeing things that other people had missed. But arguably his greatest feat concerned ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night’ where what he noticed was that something was missing – there was silence when a dog should have been barking. I felt like that in April as I watched our summer migrants arriving one by one through the month: the chiffchaff, blackcap, willow warbler, swallow and whitethroat all arrived on their due dates or thereabouts, but some one was missing. No house martins! I have kept records of the arrival dates of our summer visitors for over 25 years and I know pretty much to the day when each species should appear. And our house martins should have checked in on about 20 April in some numbers. They nest all along The Street in those conical mud-houses stuck neatly under our eaves. The sky is usually full of them making their little circular turns in the air and chirruping drily in a conversational sort of way. But this year none at all. I kept staring upwards, suffering from a cricked neck and an ‘empty skies’ syndrome as I looked out forlornly for them. I even phoned and emailed around friends in other parts of the country to see if theirs had arrived, but only a few were reported anywhere. I think there must have been some terrible crash in population in those parts of central Africa where they spend their winter or else some really adverse conditions in their long journey here in spring.

The martins are not to be confused with the swallows and swifts. Swallows arrive a few days earlier, have longer tail streamers, red throats and steely blue backs and usually fly closer to the ground; while swifts, which arrive later in the second week of May, are those sickle-shaped all-dark screamers that fly at tremendous speed in chasing parties, often high in the sky. The house martins are the ones with a white patch on the rump of an otherwise black back and a pure white throat and front. They are smaller and stubbier than swallows, with only a shallow fork in the tail, and they occupy the air space just above them and just below that of the swifts. Each species feeds on the different flying insects that occupy the air-corridors they generally inhabit and each comes from somewhat different winter quarters, so it is quite possible for one species to be worse affected by weather or food shortages than the others. But as I write this in mid-May I have just noticed today a large group of house martins arrive and circle around the village in the evening. Perhaps this is a second wave of some kind and they will stay to breed. Let’s hope so or it will be an impoverished summer.


20 April 2009

I saw my first swallow of the year on the 10th of April. That’s always an important event in the calendar of my year, a sort of annual reassurance, whatever the other problems in the world. But this year it was different. I was watching them not in the skies over Thurlow but coming in off the sea at Cape May in the state of New Jersey in the USA. Cape May is a famous birdwatching place, a peninsular that juts out into the sea on the east coast of America and offers the first landfall for tired migrants following the coastline after crossing the Gulf of Mexico on their way north. There were two interesting differences from the swallows that must have been arriving here at about the same time on their parallel migration north from Africa. First, though these swallows were the same species as ours ¬ ¬– the official name both in America and here now is the ‘barn swallow’, signifying the close connections swallows have always had with human habitations and buildings – the American ones can be easily distinguished by the larger area of colour they have on the throat and chest, which is suffused with a deep glowing orange-red. That’s just a regional variation, but a very striking one if you haven’t seen it before. Everything else is the same – the cheerful twittering song, the looping flight and the lovely long tail streamers. The second difference was that these American birds were accompanied by two other members of the swallow family (or ‘hirundines’, to give them their scientific name), that you wouldn’t ever see here: tree swallows, which are smaller and have metallic green backs that are iridescent in sunlight, and purple martins, which are much larger and are coloured bluish-black all over. The latter are the ones most Americans greet as ‘the sign of summer’ and they put up large communal nesting boxes for them in many towns and villages. The weather at Cape May was actually atrocious and all the swallows were battling ashore through driving winds and rain. As far as I could tell from weather reports the weather in Thurlow was a great deal better and more spring-like, but in both places the swallows carried the same message that the year had turned and that the world was still working.


22 March 2009

At last, it feels like spring! And for me the sounds of spring are as important as the sights – indeed, from early March we literally hear the spring arriving as the volume of bird song increases daily, building up to the early morning crescendo in April and May when the full orchestra is playing right outside our windows. People sometimes ask me what my favourite bird song is, so here’s my ‘top ten’, listed in ascending order (as they do in all such competitions in show-business):

10. Skylark – the poets’ favourite (‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit’) and also the musician’s (‘Lark Ascending’), amazing for the duration and zest of its aerial song.
9. Swallow ¬– a cheerful twittering as it swoops and glides round our houses, the real sign that summer has arrived again.
8. Robin – that sweet and gentle ruminative song, with us all the year round.
7. Nightingale – incredibly rich and powerful outpourings, the Nessum Dorma of bird song, but one to celebrate rather than live with.
6. Blackcap – a wonderful purity and simplicity; listen for it in the blackthorn down the Drift from about 3 April.
5. Song thrush – his loud repetitions seem so confident and life-affirming. Often sings from your roof-top.
4. Garden warbler – rather like the blackcap but richer and more complex. Unlikely to be in your garden (despite the name) but we have a few in our woodlands.

And now for the top three (it’s getting exciting…):
3. Blackbird. Could there be anything more mellow, soothing and uplifting; a woodwind virtuoso; we have one in every garden here, and what’s more, they come free with the property!
2. Curlew. A surprise, perhaps, but I love the wild, bubbling song of the curlew on the moors or heathlands; I associate it with space, freedom and joy unconfined.

And the winner is (wait for it…):
1. Woodlark. Not as well known as its cousin, the skylark, but quite common now in the Brecks, the Suffolk coastal Sandlings and forest clearings in the Thetford Forest area (the nearest ones to us are probably those at Cavenham Heath, just 40 minutes away). The song is a series of subtle variations on a simple fluting theme, delightfully conveyed by its French name alouette lulu: piercingly beautiful trills interspersed with deeper, yodelling lu lu notes, and often choreographed with a slow circling song-flight. My personal number one. Gold medal!


21 February 2009

If you walk over the hill on the footpath south from Temple End Farm you reach a point where the villages are concealed from view by the folds in the land and you can scarcely see a single building in any direction. You might think it was a wholly natural landscape you were looking at, one without human artefacts in it, but of course it isn’t. The fields, hedges, copses and tracks are all man-made; we have shaped and fashioned the land for our own purposes and little or nothing is really wild or untouched in what we see. In fact the ‘landscape’ we see isn’t very ancient, and neither is the word, which only became common in the 18th and 19th centuries and originally referred to paintings of scenery (literally a ‘scaping’ or ‘shaping’ of the land), at a time when it was becoming fashionable to have a taste for the picturesque in nature. Then the meaning was transferred to the scenery itself, and people started to think of it as beautiful, magnificent, pretty or whatever, depending on whether you were in the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or, more locally, in Constable Country. Now the word tends to get applied to almost any scene we happen to be observing, and you can have cityscapes, seascapes and streetscapes. The really interesting thing about a landscape is that it is both something out there – some combination of the physical features of the land as shaped by geology and history, and also something in our heads and imaginations – our responses to these brute facts of nature. A mountain isn’t beautiful in itself – it’s just a lump of rock – but it can certainly produce very real and strong reactions in us when we experience it.

Isn’t it the same with birds? The birds I could see and hear on that walk over the hill – the larks, wood pigeons, magpies, rooks, robins and wrens – are all just particular biological species, a few among the 10,000 or so species of birds in the world, physical organisms that live the lives they are adapted to live and then die. But to us they may be significant and have a meaning far beyond this. Each of the birds I have just mentioned will have associations for us: larks with that soaring song which has inspired poets and musicians; robins, which we think of as the gardener’s friend, featuring in a thousand images on Christmas cards, ornaments and tea-towels; rooks in the country churchyard, so often the background sound-track in TV drama. And that’s even before you get to celebrity birds like the eagle, crane, pelican, nightingale and owl, which crop up in the folklore and myths of different cultures worldwide. So, I think we need a word for Birdscapes as well. And I know of a book by exactly that title just about to come out…


15 January 2009

I looked up (we don’t so that enough) and caught sight of a large raptor soaring slowly over the village the other day. Must be a buzzard, I thought. A few years ago that would have been a good record here, but happily they are now firmly re-established in these parts and a not uncommon sight. But something nagged at my mind. It was twisting and turning in flight in an unusual way, and weren’t the wings rather too slender, too angled and elastic for a buzzard? Wasn’t the underwing also rather pale and boldly patterned? Then I caught sight of its long forked tail, glowing rufous in the bright light of this frosty winter day. Of course, a red kite! This was my first for the village and I punched the air like a footballer. The red kite is truly a charismatic bird, capable of breathtaking aerial manoeuvres which it executes with feather-tip control, and it is made more remarkable by its fluctuating history in Britain, which is more of a commentary on changes in our social habits than theirs. In Tudor times the kite was a common bird of our towns and cities, an urban scavenger living off the plentiful carrion and refuse, with a particular reputation as a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, including bizarrely items taken from washing-lines. ‘When the kite builds, look to lesser linen’, as Shakespeare warns in The Winter’s Tale, and indeed underwear has often been found lining their nests, along with gloves, scarves, handkerchiefs, socks and hats! But as our cities became cleaner and more hygienic there was less waste to feed on and so the kites moved into the countryside where they fell foul of the game interests that were becoming ever more influential then; they were thought to pose a threat to pheasants, partridges and grouse and were persecuted almost to the point of extinction. In the 1980s the population had dwindled to only about 30 birds, limited to a wild stronghold in the Welsh mountains. Social attitudes to conservation were then changing, however, and there have since been a number of deliberate reintroduction programmes to establish kite colonies in the Chilterns, Northamptonshire, Yorkshire and Scotland. These have thrived and of course we now produce ample supplies of carrion again, this time by the sides of our roads. The latest population estimate of kites in Britain was a very healthy 3,000 or so, a hundredfold increase in about 30 years. Who knows? Peregrine falcons have re-entered our cities and are living happily in central London, feeding on the pigeon, gull and starling flocks. Buzzards have returned to East Anglian woods. Ospreys have re-colonised old haunts in Scotland and are even spreading to English waters in the Lake District, Rutland and elsewhere. Maybe the kites will once again grace our skies, and the view I had the other day will be less a rarity. It would be no less an occasion for celebration, though.