23 November 2010
This always seems the low point of the year. The days are short and often dull; the landscape looks sodden, flattened and somehow withdrawn in on itself. It’s also very silent out there and feels almost lifeless. Almost, but not quite. This is a good time of year in fact to pay more attention to one resident bird that suits the season in its unobtrusive colours and behaviour and spends it foraging in our gardens. You glimpse a little brownish bird, flitting and bobbing restlessly through the bushes, pausing just occasionally to sit up on a twig and flirt its tiny upturned tail, then diving back into the densest parts of the undergrowth. Sometimes you then hear an enormous burst of song from these hidden places, like the sound track for a severe electric shock, but you never see the singer. It’s a wren, of course, one of the smallest and least conspicuous British birds, but also one of the commonest. We overlook them, perhaps, both because of their retiring habits and because they may suffer in comparison with other more brightly-coloured and extrovert species in spring and summer – like the robin, swallow and great tit, all parading themselves more openly. But I like to think this is the wren’s season – still here, still singing, still working away busily. Indeed the American name for the bird is in fact the ‘winter wren’. And while we’re on names, the Latin name of the family of wrens (and there are 80 different species of wrens worldwide) is troglodytes or ‘cave-dweller’, indicating its preference for dark holes and crevices.
The association of the wren with winter isn’t just a fancy of mine, either – it has its roots deep in history and folklore. The druids observed a ‘wren day’ on the 26th of December each year (St Stephen’s Day) when they would stage a wren hunt and pin the victim on top of a decorated pole which they would then parade through the streets and eventually sacrifice as a midwinter symbol of the year past and the year to come. This tradition has been maintained for centuries by ‘wrenboys’ in similar festivals in the Isle of Man, Wales, Ireland and Newfoundland, though in more recent times, I’m glad to say, they have used a stuffed wren and don’t actually hunt one down. These Celtic celebrations are really dim memories of an ancient rite of winter. And why should the wren be chosen? Probably because, in an even older tradition going back to ancient Greek myths, the wren was the ‘little king’, who vied with the eagle to see who could fly highest and won the competition by clinging to the eagle’s back and then flying just that little bit higher when the eagle itself was exhausted. So when I see our garden wrens working away so industriously to survive our harsh winters I think of them going this extra mile and winning through.
5 October 2010
In the course of editing the interviews in our Thurlows 2010 volume and looking though the lists of houses, I realised just how many dwellings are named after some feature of the natural world: flowers are represented in many of the ‘cottage’ names (Lavender, May, Larkspur, Honeysuckle, Myrtle and Rose); trees and bushes appear in The Limes, Willow Hall, Hollyberry, The Hawthorns and The Firs; birds in Blackbird Cottage, Kingfisher House and the Cock Inn; and of course animals in Fox Cottage. Most of these recall some real present or past connection, unlike their counterparts in towns and cities where whole estates are sometimes given house names or street names that not even the most optimistic salesperson or planner can seriously believe in. To go no further afield into the concrete jungle than Haverhill, for example: at the end of Manor Road you will find Gannet Close, and Rosefinch, Sandpiper and Tern Closes, while off Park Road you can encounter the fragrant delights of Betony Walk, Bryony Close and Spindle Road. Any records of the relevant species in these locations would be a great surprise. There hasn’t ever been a gannet within 75 miles of Haverhill and the nearest rosefinches are in Eastern Europe!
The same applies to the names of villages themselves, which may also tell a story, especially in a county as rich in rural history as Suffolk. Think how many familiar place-names in Suffolk refer to some key identifier in the landscape or its wildlife. Trees are prominent features, of course, and were often important in the rural economy; they appear in such names as Campsey Ash, Elmswell, Oakley, Thornham, Walsham le Willows and, less obviously, Bergholt (birch copse) and Copdock (pollarded oak). Animals crop up too, as in Foxearth, Hargrave (hares), Brockley (brock, the badger), Wangford Warren (rabbits), Hartest (deer) and Martley (a surprising one – martens, which were once to be found in East Anglia). Birds also figure, in such names as: Hawkedon, Falkenham (falcons), Ousden (owls), Elvedon (literally, swan valley, not elvers as you might guess) and Cransford (cranes, another species which used to be common in the wetlands here in the middle ages). There are even fish lurking in Fornham (trout) and amphibians in Frostendon (frog valley), and there is at least one village named after an insect – Knettishall, which literally means ‘knat’s nook’.
Most of these names will presumably have evolved from general custom and practice rather than being ‘decided’ on at any particular time. They have a history and life of their own, like the places they denote. They may now sometimes seem quaint or curious, but they are not artificial or purely sentimental, like some of their urban counterparts that are invented by planning committees who just like the sound of these names or think they will sell the properties. The old names remind us how in the country at least the natural and the human worlds come together.
14 September 2010
There’s a definite feeling of autumn in the air, as the winds freshen and the nights draw in again. Most of our summer visitors have now left us on their long journeys south, though there are still a few late-nesting house martins hanging on. The journeys these birds will make across Europe to southern Africa are truly amazing – they will pass unguided over mountains, across seas, through deserts and into tropical regions where they will see herds of antelope and zebra replacing the everyday sight of the cows and sheep here. But even these great migrations are outdone by what we are now learning about some ultra-marathoners crossing the Pacific on the other side of North America. Scientists have been tagging some waders that breed in Alaska with tiny satellite transmitters and following them on their journeys to Australasia. They had assumed these birds would travel south in stages, moving through Asia and island-hopping to break their journeys, but in fact they discovered to their amazement that two species in particular were breaking all known records for non-stop flight. The bar-tailed godwit is a large wader one can actually see on the East Anglian coasts in winter and our birds come south to us from Siberia where they breed on the tundra; but the other side of Siberia there are populations of the same species breeding in Alaska and they migrate all the way down to Australia and New Zealand over the Pacific. And what the scientists have now discovered is that they can do it in one non-stop journey – just imagine, some 7,000 miles without a pit-stop or a break, flying continuously at about 40mph. Another bird called the bristle-thighed curlew, a hairy-legged American relative of our curlews, does the same, in this case starting from Alaska and heading for the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. The godwits have been clocked as making this vast journey in nine days of continuous flight, without once stopping to feed or drink. How do they do it? Well, before they leave Alaska they deliberately fatten themselves up on clams and worms to carry enough fuel in the form of protein to last them the whole way. So they start fat and end thin, very thin.
The champion traveller of all, however, is the arctic tern. They go even further, in fact as far as you can go: they summer in the Arctic and then go to the far end of the earth, across the date line and the equator, and into the ‘southern summer’ in the Antarctic, over 12,000 miles away! The terns have it easier than the godwits in one way, in that they feed on small fish and can eat as they go, but over a lifetime of such journeys it is estimated that they fly the distance a spaceship would cover if it went to the moon and back three times. That’s the ultimate commute.
18 August 2010
I was birdwatching with a friend on the Suffolk coast the other day and we were scanning a series of lagoons just back from the seawall at Bawdsey. There were the usual mallard and tufted duck there, a few teal, moorhen and coot, some feral greylag geese and also a family party of mute swans. We turned and glanced idly at three very large white birds flying along the coast some way out to sea. ‘Three more swans’, we thought. But then we did a double-take and looked again. They weren’t flying like swans – the wing-beats were too elastic and floppy and they didn’t have that steady, rhythmic beat of swans in flight. And come to think of it, weren’t their profiles rather long and slender, with projecting legs and long bills? We raised our binoculars, in a sudden excitement, and to our great satisfaction the birds turned out to be … have you guessed … spoonbills! These are large wading birds rather like herons or storks (though in fact they belong to a different family), but they are immediately identifiable by their extraordinary bills, which are very long and are shaped, as the name suggests, like spatulas at the end. They use them for sifting through shallow water when feeding and the bills are very efficient and sensitive instruments for that purpose. But spoonbills are basically southern European birds not British ones. A few do nest as close as the Netherlands, but they have always been very rare in England – at least they have been for the last 400 years, though they may have been more common here in the Middle Ages when there were still huge areas of wetlands in East Anglia. There is a remarkable wooden carving on the misericords in the famous fifteenth-century church in Lavenham that seems to be depicting spoonbills pecking a man’s head. Take a look at it sometime if you are ever that way. Quite why the spoonbills should be pecking the poor man is unclear, but it does at least suggest that the craftsman was familiar with the species. They then became virtually extinct in Britain as their habitat was progressively drained and shrank and the birds were hunted (along with bittern, cranes and herons, all of which featured regularly in the classier medieval feasts). But now they may be coming back of their own accord, just as the cranes have done. This year in fact spoonbills bred for the first time at Holkham in North Norfolk and they have been increasingly observed along the Suffolk coast as well. This is very exciting news: we may be losing some birds through climate change, but we may be gaining some too.
Moral of story. Be prepared to see the unexpected. Some of your geese may be swans, and some of your swans may even be spoonbills.
14 July 2010
We’ve only just got over that really hot spell but suddenly it’s almost autumn! At least the birds think so. Here on the coast the swallows and martins are gathering on the wires, psyching themselves up for that marathon journey back to Africa – including all the young birds and first-time flyers who don’t yet realize how hard it will be and how few of them will make it there and back again next year. The great volume of spring and early summer bird song had died down too and the adult birds are recovering from their great efforts in rearing large families in double-quick time. They are now at last thinking about other things than sex, home maintenance, the neighbours and the next meal and taking a break for a while. This is the time of year most birds moult their feathers – a sort of off-season when they make themselves inconspicuous and build up their strength again, so you don’t see as much of your local robin, dunnock or song thrush as usual.
Out on the marshes here things are moving too – flocks of curlew have already returned from their breeding grounds further north on the moors to their autumn and winter quarters on the coast, and every evening I hear those wonderfully evocative courliew calls as they flight in to the fields to roost. There have also been one or two whimbrel with them too – a sort of smaller cousin of the curlew, which nests even further north in Shetland and the northern isles). They have a quite different call – a sort of stuttering whistle (hence the old name of ‘seven whistler’). And these will soon be joined by the streams of returning waders from the Siberian tundra, who have worked literally round the clock in the brief Arctic summer where the sun never sets to bring off their broods before the ice and darkness return: dunlin, green and wood sandpipers, greenshank and spotted redshank, knot, bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits, little stints, sanderling and various plovers, all heading for the mud-rich and protein-rich estuaries of Britain for the winter. Some of them in fact still have their dazzling summer plumage and a particular favourite of mine is the grey plover – – a study in silver, grey and jet-black to match any gaudier bird of the tropics.
And talking of seasonal change, I gather we are losing our editors of the Village Magazine, so this is a chance for at least one contributor to congratulate them on their great efforts and thank them for all the patience, tact and hard work that is the daily lot of an editor. They have raised many broods over the years. They probably won’t moult and we very much hope they won’t migrate, but they are certainly entitled to a break!
22 June 2010
I’ve been watching avocets on the Suffolk coast, surely one of our most charismatic national species. They are those tall, graceful wading birds, a picture of elegance with that pied black-and-white plumage ¬ – both bold and delicate at the same time, like fine porcelain. They have an unusual upturned bill which they swish from side to side, sifting the saline pools for small crustaceans and invertebrates, and they have those lovely long legs which are an extraordinary pale blue in colour. They are quite unmistakable and impossible to miss if you are near a colony, since they also keep up a chorus of soft fluting calls if you approach too close. In fact if they think their chicks are threatened they can become quite aggressive and the avocets turn into exocets, dive-bombing the intruder. So, avocets bring more than a touch of the exotic to our coastal marshes. Even the name sounds attractive, derived from an Italian equivalent.
Even if you have never seen a real avocet you must have seen an image of one, since for over 50 years they have been the official logo of the RSPB and appear everywhere on their badges, signs and products. This was a very shrewd commercial choice by the RSPB, since not only are avocets beautiful to look at but they are also the perfect symbol of a great conservation success story. Avocets disappeared from Britain as a breeding species in the nineteenth century, as a consequence both of human persecution and wetland drainage, but they miraculously reappeared in 1947 just after the end of the war, ironically returning to a habitat of flooded farmland and marshland which had been deliberately created as part of our coastal defences. They found their own way back to the Suffolk coast at two places: Minsmere, which is now the premier RSPB reserve in the country, and Havergate Island in the Ore estuary, where they bred successfully under conditions of high security (the RSPB even had a secret code name for the place – Zebra Island!). Since then they have spread all along the East Anglian coast in suitable habitats and have become quite a common bird again; but to begin with they were a happy symbol of national recovery and regeneration – the return of a native.
21 May 2010
Well, it’s summer at last. You temperature has soared in the last week, the evenings are still lengthening, and the trees and bushes are now thickly clad in green. Summer proper starts for me when the swifts first arrive, on about the 6th or 7th of May. I usually see the first vanguard passing high up in the sky, in a separate corridor of airspace from the martins and swallows, but then as the main body arrives they start chasing round our houses in those daredevil screaming parties. The poet Ted Hughes always took their safe arrival each summer as a sign that all was still well with the world:
They’ve made it again
Which means the globe is still working
The Creation’s still waking refreshed,
Our summer’s still all to come
But all is not well with other species. I’ve yet to hear the crooning of the turtle dove in Thurlow this year – that most soporific of summer sounds, nor the lovely cadences of the willow warbler; nor have I heard a cuckoo here or seen a spotted flycatcher. But perhaps the saddest decline is of one of our iconic residents whose songs usually thrill the air in this season: the skylark. There are some still around but there have been over a million birds lost in the last generation, a terrible loss to the countryside and our pleasure in it. An ‘exaltation of larks’ is the collective name and it captures the sense of physical and spiritual well-being we associate with this bird. Another poet, Percy Shelley:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit
Bird thou never wert –
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art
Skylarks were once so common that they formed part of many place-names: for example, Laverock Hall in Yorkshire, Caerlaverock in Dumfries (‘Lark’s Castle’), Larkfield in Kent and Larkton in Cheshire (not to mention the fictional ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’). And they were once regular items on the English table. It was estimated that in the mid-nineteenth century 4,000 dozen (48,000) were sent to the London market each year from the grasslands round Dunstable in Bedfordshire alone, and local inns in Dunstable like the Old Sugar Loaf were famous for their lark pie. We may shudder at this now, but it indicates their abundance.
Sadly, we have found our own, more insidious ways of reducing their numbers – through intensive farming, over-use of herbicides, the removal of bare patches or uncultivated borders in fields and the absence of stubble fields in autumn and winter. The species is declining fast and in many parts of England it is a silent summer, at least as far as the larks are concerned.
25 April 2010
Have you heard the cuckoo yet? I have – but not in Thurlow yet, unfortunately. We were in Europe on the wrong side of the channel when the Great Eruption occurred that affected so many lives for a short time. We were up in the Tuscan hills in Italy in fact in a lovely old farmhouse, but without English papers or Internet so I was spending a lot of time listening with one ear to an ancient radio whose knobs I was hopefully twiddling to find some reliable news in the babble of foreign voices. But with the other ear I could hear the clear signs of spring outside – about two weeks ahead of us, I reckoned. There were warblers, woodlarks, and nightingales singing everywhere; there were swallows and swifts overhead; and best of all there were lots of cuckoos calling, the traditional harbingers of spring. This is a sound that is becoming increasingly rare in Britain, alas, but for centuries it has been the key marker of a new season for country folk. One of the oldest English songs of about 1240 begins (in the original spelling):
Summer is icumen in
Loude sing cuccu
People used to write letters to the Times each year to report ‘the first cuckoo of spring’ (even if they sometimes confused them with song thrushes). And people still stop each other in the village to ask, ‘Have you heard the cuckoo yet?’. They don’t stop you to ask, ‘Have you heard the latest opinion polls?’, ‘Have you heard if Chelsea won their last game?’ or even ‘Have you heard if that volcano has erupted again’. No, they ask about the cuckoo, and that shows how deep our feelings about the seasonal cycle and the natural order of things run. Something is wrong with the world (our world) if the swallow, the cuckoo, the swift and the turtle dove don’t arrive when we expect them, or worse still if they don’t arrive at all. But something is changing and it’s very troubling for someone with even one ear to the natural world. True, our first swallows are now here, as I write, and the house martins are prospecting last years’ mud huts under our eaves, and down the Drift there are plenty of blackcaps and chiffchaffs in song. But last year I only heard the cuckoo once in Thurlow, and the numbers of summer migrants like the willow warbler, turtle dove and spotted flycatcher were much reduced from even 10 or 15 years ago. The reasons won’t be exactly the same in all cases, but something really is happening out there and if we don’t recognize it and start to affect it in the ways we can we shall literally lose our bearings in the world as we know it. And then it won’t just be a practical question of how we get home, but whether home is still home when we get there.
19 March 2010
I left Thurlow in early March on a raw winter’s day, temperature near to freezing, with a chill, dry wind from the east threatening snow. Twenty-four hours later I arrived at my destination, slap bang on the equator, with the temperature in the high 30s C (or 90s F) and drenching humidity. I gasped, and dripped, and stepped out … into the jungles of Borneo.
All the sights and sounds are different in the tropical jungle, with a vivid intensity that makes you gawp in disbelief. Huge multi-coloured butterflies float around you, sipping at the brilliant orchids (there are some 1200 different ones here) and at exotic fruits and flowers everywhere; ferns and lianas trail from the steepling trees whose spires disappear into the distant canopy above; a thousand insects buzz and whine around you, and in the background is the unceasing tinnitus of cicadas and tree-frogs. There are unseen slitherings and scuttlings on the forest floor too that you feel quite happy to leave unseen, though you know a hundred pairs of eyes may be watching you, and there is the occasional clamour in the small branches as a playful troupe of monkeys swings by, whooping and hollering. Once I heard the loud crashing sounds made by some larger animal in the trees, stood stock still and was rewarded with a close encounter of a hairy kind with our near-relative the orangutan, who shares about 97% of our DNA and has those big soulful, expressive eyes. They are now a very endangered species, alas, and survive in the wild only here and on the island of Sumatra. This one, a big female, hung nonchalantly by one very long arm from a vine just yards away and inspected the strange bearded interloper while she sucked on some large squashy fruit and then hauled herself slowly and easily away (somewhat to my relief I must admit but, yes, I did get the photo). I also saw water-buffalo wallowing in a creek, big monitor lizards five feet long in a mangrove swamp, lots of bright green geckos and a few snakes, including one python coiled asleep in the fork of a tree above my head.
And then there were the birds, in their bewildering variety and of every hue, shape and size. I struggled to identify the smaller ones as they flitted through the flickering foliage, a profusion of flower-peckers, sunbirds, spider-eaters, fantails, babblers, trogons and bulbuls. In the open and with the larger birds it was a bit easier and I had some wonderful views of the amazing kingfishers (they have 11 kinds!), cuckoos (12 kinds), swifts (8 kinds), bee-eaters, paradise-flycatchers, a huge buffy fish owl and of course the extraordinary hornbills with those monstrous protuberances on their beaks (technically called casques).
It all seemed like a long Technicolor dream when I returned to our wonderful cool English air, and the song thrush announcing the spring at last.
17 February 2010
I’ve just seen one of the great natural spectacles in Britain. Birdwatchers tend to get most excited over rare and exotic birds, but this encounter involved a very common bird, and not an especially beautiful one, indeed a bird regarded as a pest by some people in the country – the rook. But I wasn’t watching just one rook, I was watching over 10,000 as they came in to roost in a traditional winter roost site in the Yare valley in Norfolk. I positioned myself in the windswept fen on a chilly February evening with the wind in the east, and waited. About an hour before nightfall the rooks started streaming in from all directions, ragged skeins of birds arriving from up to twenty miles away to congregate in this one wood. The darkening skies were full of them, whirling around like black chaff. And the noise was tremendous: imagine the communal cawing at a church rookery and then multiply that up several hundred times; what was at first a distant conversational murmuring became a deafening clamour as the streams of birds converged and congealed in one towering vortex. For a long time they spiraled upwards, like a gigantic shoal of fish seen from the ocean bed. Then there was a moment when they all descended as one to a huge grassy area that served as a mustering ground, and as if at a signal they suddenly all went totally silent, rather like an expectant theatre audience just before the curtain goes up. Then the curtain did go up and the enormous flock rose in one last combined aerial display and after a minute or two they all descended to their roost in the nearby wood. I could no longer make out the shapes of individual birds but every branch was lined to near breaking point with them and each tree had this densely serrated silhouette. Then silence, as the darkness became complete. At dawn (which I didn’t actually wait for on this occasion, since when the magic moment had passed I began to realize how cold I was!) the whole process is reversed and they again disperse to their feeding grounds in the surrounding countryside.
The poet John Clare captures this perfectly, as usual:
Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd –
Rook, crow and jackdaw – noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull winter’s dreary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.
This extraordinary spectacle is repeated every evening in the winter months in the same place at the same time, and has been so from time immemorial – an ancient rite of winter before the spring.
19 January 2010
Well we’ve had some real winter now. It may come back, but for the time being the snow has melted, the frosts have gone and people are coming out of their homes again like creatures emerging from hibernation. The severe weather will have taken its toll of birds, however. You may have noticed birds of the countryside like redwings and fieldfares coming right into your garden, desperate for food. Just imagine how difficult it is for the thrush and blackbird family when there is snow on the ground for days on end. The early bird is more likely to catch frostbite than a worm! And the smaller the bird the worse the problem, since a bird as tiny as a blue tit or wren can only store very limited supplies of energy in its body and the combination of short days and bitterly cold nights is, literally, a killer. If a blue tit doesn’t feed within half an hour of getting up and about it will probably not survive. Wrens are even smaller. They live by foraging, constantly moving to pick up the tiniest of insects and invertebrates hidden in dense undergrowth or ivy. They also try to conserve heat by all piling into communal nests overnight, sometimes ten to a bed. There are over seven million pairs of wrens in Britain, which make them one of our commonest birds, but I fear there will nonetheless be a great population crash this year, with up to half the population dying, as they did in the terrible winter of 1962/3. But they have large and multiple broods, so the numbers should recover again quite fast in a few years, just in time for global warming.
The Americans have the same species, which they actually call the ‘winter wren’, to distinguish it from their other wrens. The only difference is that theirs is monogamous, while ours is polygamous and is likely to have several mates simultaneously. I once entered a competition in the USA for a poem about birds in the form of a clerihew. Now a clerihew is a short satirical poem with ridiculous rhymes, as in:
Edgar Allen Poe
Was passionately fond of roe
He always liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome
So I came up with the following patriotic verse:
The bold British wren
Is a man among men
He can service a dozen
Unlike his Yankee cousin
I didn’t win.