16 November 2011
It’s been a topsy-turvy year. We started with a bitterly cold spell, if you remember; then had a glorious April and an accelerated spring, followed by a dismal summer that was not so much a wash-out as a grey-out in which we scarcely saw the sun from May to September; and now we have had wonderfully sunny and warm days in late October and November. As I write this in mid-November there are still red admiral butterflies on the ivy, bees on late-flowering plants and even some skylarks singing – several months early (or late, depending on how you view it). This is all very disruptive for the wildlife that depends on reliable seasonal triggers. Animals and plants that should be hibernating to conserve energy and build up their strength again are still active and are spending their resources heedlessly. Are they like children staying up too late at night or will they just get used to less sleep?
Nonetheless the winter thrushes are pouring in. I can’t go out of the door without hearing flocks of noisy fieldfares overhead and I found one very unusual winter visitor the other day. I was walking across the meadows near the church in Little Thurlow when I heard what sounded like a pig squealing in the ditch. No one keeps pigs now, do they? Could it be a terror-stricken rabbit trapped by a stoat? Or hedgehogs mating, which always sounds like an unpleasant experience on both sides (well, think of those spines!)? No, it was a bird. I saw it scuttling off through the leaf litter, like a stumpy little hen, very well camouflaged with greys and browns streaked with black. A water rail. These are usually very shy birds, which live in dense reed beds, where they are more often heard than seen; but occasionally they disperse in winter and go walkabout. One of my bird books describes the voice as ‘heart-rending and fearsome groans … a curious rolling note between the purring of a cat and the croak of a frog’. So, you’ll recognise that if you hear it, won’t you. Water rails are close cousins of corncrakes, whose old country name was land rails and as the name suggests were the farmland counterparts of the water rail. The corncrakes would have been quite common round here two hundred years ago but they have now retreated to the extreme Celtic fringes in the Hebrides and Ireland where they cause guaranteed insomnia in the summer months. They are no nightingales and their basic ‘song’ is an endlessly repeated, rasping crex crex, like someone running a stick along a large steel comb. Conservationists are trying to reintroduce the corncrake to the lush, damp grasslands round the Ouse and Nene Washes near Peterborough so I suppose that one day we may be able to listen to an unlovely duet between the two species in that area of watery land.
Meanwhile the water rail here is like a displaced person who has evaded border controls, and is no doubt also confused by these strange seasons. Whatever next? A white Christmas and a partridge in a pear tree?
15 October 2011
Autumn is a time of great transitions. The last house martins left the village in the first week of October, bound for somewhere in Africa, though we don’t quite know where. It’s one of the still unsolved mysteries of bird migration. We know just where swallows and swifts go to when they fly south, because people notice, and welcome, their arrivals in their winter quarters just as we do their spring arrivals here. But the house martins just disappear, perhaps to areas of central Africa where there are few people to observe them. We shall soon know anyway, because it’s now possible to fit birds with tiny little transmitters that will record every detail of their journeys (though they do it themselves without the SatNav, of course). But now there are waves of birds coming towards us from the other direction, winter migrants from Scandinavia and Northern Europe who are escaping the harsh weather to come and preparing to feast on the brimming larder of berries in our hedges here. I heard the first redwings fly in on October 13th, a large flock heard arriving by night as I stood outside the house, identifying themselves with their penetrating sibilant flight calls. Then came the first fieldfares, a day later on the 14th. These are a larger bird, about the size of a mistle thrush, and have a much more boisterous rackety presence, making loud chacking calls. We shall be seeing both these species feasting in our fields and hedgerows all winter now. But there are thousands of other birds pouring in too that you might be less aware of since they are species we see all the year round: chaffinches, skylarks, meadow pipits, blackbirds and robins. Yes, the robin on your bird table this winter may well not be the one you think of as a familiar friend when you are gardening in summer. It may be one of the immigrant horde who come from Germany or Sweden or Denmark just for the winter season. And the same applies to the blackbird on the lawn, the starling on the roof, the tit flocks down the lane and the skylarks in the fields. It’s rather like Paddington Station, with constant arrivals and departures, all more or less on time.
One of the wonderful things about Britain is that we do really have seasons, unlike some places near the equator where the weather is always the same and totally predictable. The old name for autumn was in fact ‘harvest’ but that fell into disuse in about the sixteenth century as people started moving more into towns and lost touch with the seasonal changes in the country. It then became ‘the fall’, referring of course to the fall of leaves. We exported that expression to America with the first immigrants there from England in the seventeenth century and the Americans still call it that, while we then moved on to using the word ‘autumn’. For many people autumn has associations with melancholy, a sadness at the end of summer and at the start of the long gloomy winter season. But of course not all change is loss. When you think of all those immigrant waders and wildfowl on the coasts of Britain as well as all the arrivals in our villages that I’ve mentioned, there is probably a larger total population of birds here now than in June.
15 September 2011
Well, that seems to be the end of the summer that never was. We may talk hopefully about the possibility of a late ‘Indian summer’, but as I write this note the skies are still grey and the evenings are getting dark ominously early. I think we’ve had it. Time to take stock, anyway, of the successes and failures among our summer visitors, now heading rapidly and very sensibly back to Africa and all parts south. I’ve been looking back at my records for the year and the spring started quite promisingly after that long, hard winter. The chiffchaff arrived in Thurlow bang on time on 18 March, quickly followed by the blackcap on 31 March, a single willow warbler (down the Drift) on 3 April and the first swallows (round Great Thurlow Church) on 6 April. We had a gloriously warm April, if you remember, and the common and lesser whitethroats arrived on their due dates too, though the house martins were a little late. And finally, the first swifts of the season were scything the skies over our house on the 7th of May, an event I await keenly every year and always take to be the start of real summer. I’ve got diaries of all these arrivals going back 30 years now, and they are extraordinarily regular, though there is a clear trend for some species to arrive a few days earlier than they once did, no doubt because of the trend to global warming.
But there are some gaps and changes in this list too, and some bad news. That first willow warbler was the only one I heard singing all summer, though we usually have one or two pairs breeding here. Then, what about the cuckoo – the traditional herald of spring? Well, I finally heard one or two calling, as did one or two dog-walkers who reported it back to me (we have an active cuckoo-alert force out every spring!); but this wasn’t until 30 April and I think the birds were only passing through. I never heard the female cuckoo’s call at all this year (quite different from the male’s cuckoo – a sort of bubbling cry, rather like gargling beer), so I don’t know if any eggs were deposited anywhere. Cuckoos have been getting scarcer every year and I do fear we shall soon have a year when I don’t hear one at all. Indeed that happened with two other species this year, once quite common summer visitors: the turtle dove, whose lovely purring song is the sound-track of summer itself (remember that ‘voice of the turtle’ quotation in the Bible?); and the spotted flycatcher, a more nondescript bird, but again one that was once a characteristic marker of the season with its little fluttering forays from perches to catch flying insects, just as it says on the tin (they did have some at Honeysuckle Cottage, though, I was glad to hear). Nor did I record in Thurlow this summer any garden warblers, grasshopper warblers or sedge warblers, all somewhat less common visitors but once regular too; let alone a nightingale, which did once grace us with its extraordinary vocal presence – until someone chopped down its little plantation!
That’s rather a sad inventory, I fear. Grey thoughts for a grey season.
15 August 2011
I was standing on one of our bridges over the River Stour, hoping to see a kingfisher flash by, when I glanced down and saw something scuttling along the bed of the river which I couldn’t make out at first. It looked like a little lobster but it was moving more like a crab, only fast forwards not sideways; and when I leaned over to get a better look it suddenly shot off backwards with a flick of its tail. Then I realized – of course, a fresh-water crayfish! I sat back in the shadows and waited, and before long it emerged again, sifting the current for edible morsels, and soon it was joined by several others; in fact before long I realized the river was teeming with them.
Crayfish look a bit sinister with that bony, plated body and the mighty waving claws – a sort of nightmare vision if you saw one close-up. They might well put you off paddling, though I think they’re probably quite shy and would take quick evasive action. On the other hand, if you just left your foot dangling with the toes exposed … who knows. They’re easy to catch at any rate. Further up the river two boys were pulling them in like fun and had a whole bucket full. They were just using lines with a piece of bacon on the end. Irresistible to crayfish, apparently, since they were grabbing hold of the bacon with their pincers and foolishly hanging on while they were hauled up out of the river.
These were specimens of the signal crayfish, which is actually an invader in our streams and is completely displacing the native white-clawed crayfish. They are a North American species and like the Yanks were said to be after the war, they are over-sized, over-sexed and over here. They were first introduced into special fishponds where they were bred commercially to end up in those nice crayfish salads that are so popular now. But what the growers overlooked was that crayfish are amphibious and can travel overland on wet nights, so lots of them escaped into our rivers and in no time at all the population had expanded enormously. Indeed they can climb as well and have been known to scale six-foot high concrete walls. And not only are they bigger and stronger than the native crayfish but they also carry a fungal disease which is fatal to the white-clawed variety. So they now dominate the waterways. As far as I know, the only predators who might cull their numbers are otters, a few fish-eating birds and human hunters like the little boys I saw. Hostility to these invaders isn’t just a prejudice against immigrants, for whereas the native crayfish used to perform a useful function in cleansing our fresh-water rivers of detritus the newcomers undermine banks with its burrows, snip off purifying water weeds and predate small fish. So, don’t let the boys have all the fun. Get down there with a bit of string and a bacon sandwich.
16 July 2011
I was in Wiltshire the other weekend taking part in a ‘festival of nature’ in the charming town of Malmesbury. There were several interesting talks on aspects of the countryside and landscape, but I sneaked out on the Saturday to see some of the local wildlife first-hand with an old bird-watching friend. We had a lovely time in the rolling downs and grasslands near there – a bit like a mini-steppe, I thought, with my recent visit to the real Russian steppe still in mind. There are still larks, yellow wagtails and corn buntings a-plenty in Wiltshire and we even heard quail calling from the clover fields and watched a pair of rare Montagu’s harriers at their nest site. What we didn’t do was venture further into the Salisbury Plain where they are re-introducing great bustards, under military conditions of security, feeling that would perhaps be more like visiting a zoo than a landscape.
These huge birds – the size of big turkeys – were once not uncommon in Britain’s open spaces, though they were extremely shy and liked to have clear views to the horizons around them. The collective noun for them was a ‘drove’ and when they were spotted it was often in groups of 30 or 40 birds, as was once recorded in 1812 at Elveden in Suffolk. They flourished in East Anglia, in fact, in the heaths and Brecks and the large arable fields, and extended into the dry expanses of Newmarket Heath before the hunting and racing interests closed in on them. That is why they appear on the Cambridgeshire county crest as well as on the Wiltshire one, and why they survive to advertise their former grandeur on various pub signs in Lincolnshire and, more especially, in Wiltshire (where there is even a beer named after them). Britain became just too crowded and hostile for them in the end, of course, and the last wild native birds were seen in 1832 in Norfolk. Whether the introduced Wiltshire birds will ever spread and become genuinely free and wild birds must be doubtful, I think, and may be a case of trying too hard.
In my only encounters with great bustards in the wild I tried a bit too hard too at first. I was in the plains of Extremadura in Spain, a European stronghold for the species, hoping to see the famous breeding display when they fan their white tail-feathers over their backs and look for all the world like a huge, white ball of feathers. I was peering eagerly with my telescope at a moving white dot a mile or so away and shouted triumphantly to my companion that I had one in view. We watched, at first in excitement and then with growing dismay, as a Spanish farm worker appeared from behind a ridge in the distant field, walking along with a large, white plastic container of crop-spraying equipment strapped on to his back…I did see some real ones later, though. Honest.
16 July 2011
15 June 2011
I’m a bit out of steppe, as you might say. Literally so, since I’m just back from the vast open spaces of southern Russia that the Russians call ‘steppe’. This is an unimaginably huge area that extends from the Ukraine in the west, through Russia itself, and then on through Kazakhstan and Mongolia (all of them gigantic countries into which Britain would fit like a pinhead on a map): horizon after horizon of unbroken wild grasslands for maybe 2,000 miles, flat, almost treeless, but lush this year after heavy rainfalls with grasses, herbs and flowers. This is the Russian equivalent of the American prairies (as they once were), the African savannah and the South American pampas – a wonderful place if you like space, freedom and wildness but terrible, I imagine, if you suffer from agoraphobia or hay fever! The steppe is home to abundant wildlife beyond measure. The birds of the region include cranes, bustards, eagles, harriers, buzzards, wheatears, pipits and countless larks – oh, the larks, thousands and thousands of them, so many in the air at any one time that the sky itself seems to be singing. There are also many mammals –hares, wolves, foxes, susliks (a sort of burrowing hamster, and the main food source of the eagles and foxes), and a rare antelope called a ‘saiga’, which has the misfortune to have body-parts that are a much sought-after item for Chinese aphrodisiacs and health supplements (a fate that is proving almost terminal for the black rhino, tiger and some turtles too; why can’t the Chinese just take Viagra and spare the planet?). And of course there are snakes, lizards and a lively range of insects and spiders, most of which are less immediately attractive to the average visitor.
But the most extraordinary thing about the steppe is not just the diversity of life there but its abundance. We have almost forgotten what it looks and sounds like to have a sky full of birds and the land populated by teeming wildlife. We ask each other anxiously here, ‘Have you heard the cuckoo yet?’ Well, yes, just twice so far this year in my case, but they used to be everywhere from mid-April onwards, didn’t they? And I have still to hear the turtle dove this year, though I always thought of that gentle, warm purring song as the sound-track of summer itself, one of the most soothing, reassuring sounds I know. We also used to have spotted flycatchers nesting in the garden, colonies of tree sparrows by Broad Road and corn buntings along Temple End Road, but these have all gone, and I notice the numbers of yellowhammer and whitethroat are declining fast as well as the larks. So I’m out of step with all this too, until I adjust back again, which I no doubt will do only too soon. But it’s good to be reminded of what was, and still can be elsewhere.
18 April 2011
If spring has a colour it must be yellow. The first butterfly on the wing is the brimstone, which probably gave the ‘butter-fly’ its name from its lovely butter-yellow colours on those broad floaty wings. And the first flowers of the year are nearly all yellow, if you think about it, starting with the old gold of the aconite and followed by the fresher, brighter colours of the yellow crocus, the daffodil, and celandine, and then the milky yellow of the primrose and cowslip and the bold brilliance of the dandelion. Dandelion a flower? Isn’t that a weed? No, not at all – have you seen the swathes of roadside dandelions in the grass verges at present? They look like a million little suns. A million, million if you go to a country like Russia at this time of year, where they sensibly spend much less on herbicides to tidy up the countryside than we do. Every road there looks as if it is bordered with thickly clustered gold medallions, a glorious sight, far outshining the neatly cultivated borders of any municipal park. These wild dandelions are not a bit like those cramped little flat rosettes that press down tightly to the ground in your lawn to avoid the mower and kill off the grass underneath. These are fancy free, nodding their heads like Wordsworth’s daffodils, with fine upstanding jagged green leaves.
The leaves give them their name of course: dent de lion or ‘lion’s tooth’ and they are valued in their own right for both medicinal and culinary purposes. In the nineteenth century dandelions were often grown in greenhouses as a winter substitute for lettuce in salads and ladies used to serve them in sandwiches at their tea parties between thin slices of brown bread. Worth a try, WI? As health foods they were especially valued for flushing out the kidneys and in helping to prevent gout in the port-drinking classes. Worth a try, gentlemen imbibers?
But everything in moderation. Dandelions were also notorious as diuretics, hence their many rather explicit country names like wet-the-bed, tiddle-beds and jack-piss-the-bed. And a little later in the year, when the golden flower heads give way to those perfect balls of feather-down seeds (about 180 per head on average) they become children’s toy clocks. The number of blows you need to remove all the seeds and send them off down the breeze gives you the number of hours, but I confess I don’t quite see how this works at all accurately! Best of all, though, if you can catch one of the flying seeds on the wing you can make a spring wish. Not as easy as you might think.
15 March 2011
It feels as though it’s been a long winter this year and we are all longing for spring now. We probably each look out for different signs to reassure us that it’s on the way – whether the first daffodils flowering, the first butterfly or bumble bee, or just the simple pleasure of getting up in the light. For me, from about 15 March I’m listening every day for the song of one bird that means the year has turned again and the green tide of spring is surging in. It’s the chiffchaff, the first returning summer migrant, all the way from Africa. It is a sort of miracle how that tiny bird does it: across the Mediterranean, over the Alps, through central Europe, over the Channel, and up through England probably to just the same clump of trees in Thurlow it spent the summer in last year. And how pure and fresh that song is, a simple refrain of chiff-chaff that announces its name and its arrival.
The name is onomatopoeic, of course, our best representation of the song in human sounds. Other old country names were chip-chop, chit-chat (both Somerset), choice-and-cheap (Devon) and siff-saff (Wales), all with the same idea in mind; and some of the European names are clearly imitations too: zilp-zalp (German) and Tjiftjaf (Dutch) – I like that last one. The scientific name in Latin is more complicated, as you might expect, but interesting too. It’s Phylloscopus collybita. The first part of that is the genus, which tells you what kind of bird it is and who its relations are, a bit like a surname. Phylloscopus means literally ‘leaf watcher’, which puts it in together with the willow warbler and wood warbler, birds which forage in trees for caterpillars and insects. The second part is the specific name and collybita has the unexpected meaning of ‘money changer’, the idea being that the song is like the clinking of coins. These Latin names were mostly invented by the great Swedish scientist, Carl von Linné, who lived in the eighteenth century; he is better known to us as Linnaeus, because it was thought that if he was giving all the birds Latin names he ought to have one himself. He was a great creature of habit and went every Sunday to his local parish church accompanied by his dog, Pompe. If Linnaeus thought the parson was too long-winded he would just get up after an hour and walk out; and if Linnaeus was too ill to go to church the dog would go in his place (and would also walk out after an hour!).
Anyway, I shall be listening out every day now down the Drift, just by the river, and when I hear that first clear double note chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff I may feel like shouting ‘yes!’ out loud and punching the air (sorry if I alarm anyone – I’m quite harmless, just spring-struck).
12 February 2011
Britain has been invaded. The invaders have come from the North and they are fast-moving, fierce and here for the plunder, just like the Vikings of old. They are sweeping through the countryside, pillaging towns, villages and shopping centres in marauding bands. But this is not your standard rape, pillage and plunder: what they are after are berries – rowan, pyracantha, rosehip, hawthorn, cotaneaster – anything red and juicy. They are waxwings, of course!
Every few years we get a huge influx of these birds in winter when the berry crop runs out in their native Scandinavian and Russian forests, and this year they arrived here in force during that very cold spell in January. Parties of several hundreds, perhaps even thousands, arrived on the East coast of Britain and soon spread throughout the whole country, delighting those birdwatchers lucky enough to come across them. You can’t actually go out to look for waxwings in quite the way you might for other birds – they just sort of happen to you. I came across some quite by chance when I took a wrong turning the other day and had to reverse into a driveway to go back. And there they suddenly were, about 15 of them, stripping rosehips from a bush by the roadside in front of me.
They are quite unmistakeable when you see them: about the size and shape of starlings, but a lovely cinnamon-buffish colour over the body; large, erect crests; a fierce black face mask and chin; striking yellow and white markings on the wings and tail; and best of all, the strange, waxy red feathers sprouting from the main wing, which give them their name. Flocks can be anything up to 250 strong and they are very vocal. The field guides usually describe the calls as ‘bell-like’, but to me they sound like a kind of silvery, choral trilling, with the sound surging and falling as they cluster excitedly on the berry bushes and gorge themselves. It has been recorded that one waxwing consumed about 1,000 berries in six hours of continuous gluttony, and as a consequence was defecating every four minutes on the trot (so to speak). A flock of 100 birds can make quite an impact, therefore – both on the bushes and on the ground.
They are quite tame and when they are engrossed with feeding you can walk right up to them and get stupendous views. One good place to see them is often in supermarket car parks, since these tend to be planted out with the sort of bushes they like. They are said to prefer Tesco to Waitrose on the whole, which may or may not indicate wise consumer preferences, but there were certainly good numbers in the Cherry Hinton Tesco’s a little while back and there are still parties touring round Cambridge, Bury and Ipswich as I write. Do keep your eyes and ears open. They provide a touch of charisma to our dull landscapes in winter and it may be years before they return in such numbers again.
15 January 2011
One of the great pleasures in engaging with the natural world is developing an eye and an ear for what can be expected where. An experienced naturalist will size up a bit of countryside or habitat and inwardly think – that’s just ideal for a barn owl, a woodcock, a nuthatch, a dormouse or whatever; and then there is a terrific thrill in actually finding the species there – a sense of a knowing intimacy with nature. But there’s also a very different kind of thrill that comes from a happy surprise, coming across something quite unexpectedly and entering, however briefly, into its private world. I had both kinds of luck today. I went to look at a reedy lake in the Brecks, set deep in the Thetford Forest, to see if there were any visiting winter wildfowl and I said to myself as I scanned around, ‘this should be just right for goosander’. Sure enough right in the middle of the lake there was a fine drake goosander cruising along and diving from time to time to clamp its red, serrated ‘sawbill’ (which is the name of this family) round some slimy fish or eel. This is a really handsome, large duck, with a green-black head, a white body tinged with salmon pink and a contrasting black back. Great! But then I suddenly saw an even more charismatic fisherman. A rounded head broke the surface about 50 yards away, followed by a smooth muscular body and a long broad tail as the creature porpoised out of the water and then submerged again with scarcely a ripple. Ring of Bright Water! It was an otter, a big dog otter, and he put in a real performance for about 20 minutes: plunging repeatedly, bobbing up like a cork, paddling along, pausing to rub its nose and whiskers with its paws and then diving again with sinuous swirl, until he eventually slid away into the thickly vegetated bank of the lake, presumably to lie up for the rest of the day. These are usually nocturnal animals and very shy ones indeed, so this was a really privileged sighting. Otters almost disappeared from England in the 1950s and 1960s, through a combination of human persecution (otter hunting), habitat destruction (drainage and the clearing of river banks) and poisoning (from agricultural pesticides that had leached into our rivers and become ever more concentrated as they entered fish and moved up the food chain). But times have changed and otters are now making a comeback and the numbers in East Anglia are almost back to pre-war levels. Indeed, they are working their way slowly up the River Stour and have got as far as Cavendish, I think. They may even reach Thurlow one day and the first sign will probably then be a shiny black ‘spraint’, deposited on a river bank or bridge as a leaving card to alert other otters to their presence.