15 October 2013
Every October I make a visit to the Isles of Scilly. It’s a lovely month there. To start with you, get about an extra hour of daylight because it’s so far west; add to that the subtropical climate because it’s also well south; garnish with brightly coloured butterflies and flowers and it seems like an extension of summer. Scilly lies out in the Atlantic, some 35 miles off the tip of Cornwall, and it’s also a wonderful place for migrant birds, which arrive from all quarters of the compass. This year I saw a very rare sora rail, which must have lost its bearings somewhere on the east coast of the USA, flew valiantly some 3,000 miles in the wrong direction and pitched down in a little reed bed in the island of Tresco (where the famous gardens are). It was a bit like a tiny moorhen, with a plump body, an upturned tail and small stubby wings. As an engineer once said of the bumble bee, a creature constructed like that ought to find it impossible to fly at all, let alone cross the Atlantic. Other birds were coming in from the south – a purple heron from the Mediterranean; some from the east – a jewel-like yellow browed warbler, probably from Siberia; and yet others from the north, the first winter flocks of redwings and fieldfares that are also arriving in Thurlow about now to feast on the berry crops in our hedgerows. Quite why Scilly attracts all these unusual visitors simultaneously is still something of a mystery.
And there’s another mystery – less spectacular but quite as interesting in its own way, and that is the birds you don’t see there. You may remember the Sherlock Holmes story about ‘the dog that didn’t bark’, where the great man solved a mystery by noticing something which ought to be been present but wasn’t. Well, I could take a walk round Suffolk any time and be pretty sure of finding rooks, green woodpeckers, nuthatches, long-tailed tits, magpies, jays and reed buntings; but I’d be most unlikely ever to see any of these in Scilly. In fact a green woodpecker would be a major rarity there, which would really get the twitchers running. The last one was recorded in 1901, which makes it rarer than a sora rail! Some of the birders are interesting migrants too. There is a loyal group of us who go every year, and we get to know each other quite well in that one place and in that context. We are used to seeing each other dressed in our birding gear, but know nothing of each other’s lives outside these magic isles. I once met one of them by chance on the London tube, when we were both dressed for work in suits and ties. We stared at each other for a while, convinced we knew the other from somewhere. Then it clicked – ah yes, on Peninnis Head, watching the buff-breasted sandpiper side by side last year. But what are you doing here?
13 September 2013
I went out hunting moths the other day. Well, not exactly hunting, since they caught themselves in a specially designed moth trap a friend of mine had set up one evening; all we did was go along early the next morning and look at what had entered it overnight. The trap is just a big wooden box with glass slats. There’s a light on top to attract the moths, they fly through the slats and settle in the hollows of some empty egg boxes he puts inside. To my amazement about five hundred moths of some fifty different species had checked in and were nestling comfortably in this deluxe accommodation. I had no idea there could be so many mysterious nocturnal visitors to one small country garden. They were also much more beautiful than I had imagined moths to be. We think of them as drab and dingy insects drawn hopelessly to a flame or a light and usually crash-landing to their deaths. But these had all manner of intricately shaped and scalloped wings, and were variously mottled, barred, spotted, striped, streaked and patterned with subtle shades and hues of coloour. I hadn’t a clue what any of them were, but my friend expertly called out their names as we released them. And what names! I jotted down a few: blood-vein, smoky wave, flame carpet, mottled pug, early thorn, dingy footman, gothic, snout, striped wainscot, burnished brass, square-spot rustic and, most improbable of all, the sebaceous Hebrew character. Who invented all these names? The moths in the box seemed like a cabinet of curiosities from another age, each with its own peculiar character and label. We broke the spell by shaking them gently out of their crevices in the egg boxes. Thereupon they all fluttered slowly away to the nearest bush or tree, where they immediately became quite invisible. The markings that had seemed so conspicuous a moment ago now blended perfectly with their natural surroundings to give them total camouflage protection.
I now feel quite differently about moths. I think we shrink from them as weird creatures of the night, with those furry bodies that make them seem part insect and part mammal. But in fact they are endlessly fascinating and just as lovely in their way as their much more popular and familiar near-relations, the butterflies. Both are members of the large order called Lepidoptera, meaning ‘scaly-winged’, but in fact the moths are the major partners, with over 800 different species that can be seen regularly in Great Britain and Ireland, compared to about 60 butterfly species. I notice that lots of bird watchers are now getting interested in moths. Perhaps that’s because the best time to see them is in the mid-summer months of July and August when things are rather quiet on the bird front, so the birders can redeploy their identification skills and keep themselves cheerful until the autumn passage brings in the birds again.
13 September 2013
15 August 2013
Summer got off to such a late start that it looked as though butterflies would have another terrible year. But nature is very resilient and there is now an effusion of them on the wing from late broods. We’ve been on the coast at Shingle St and the lavender bushes here (it’s another ‘Lavender Cottage’!) have been teeming with whites, tortoiseshells, peacocks and gatekeepers. This last is one of the ‘browns’, also known as the hedge brown. It has a bright orange patch on the upper wing and on the edge of that there is a black eye-spot with two white dots in each one (the ‘pupils’). Gatekeepers are often found in the company of another of the browns, the meadow brown, but that is a much duskier butterfly overall and the eye-spot has only a single white pupil. The scientific names of these butterflies are very interesting in themselves and in fact not at all ‘scientific’. Many of them are a mixture of linguistic misunderstandings and romantic derivations from figures in Greek mythology. For example, the gatekeeper is Pyronia tithonus: Tithonus was the Trojan youth beloved of Aurora (Dawn), who persuaded the gods to grant him eternal life but unfortunately forgot to ask for eternal youth as well … ; and the generic name Pyronia looks like a mistake for Pyropus (‘fiery-eyed’) which might have been the next word in the Greek dictionary consulted. Similarly, the meadow brown has the scientific name Maniola jurtina, where Maniola seems to mean ‘the little soul of the departed’, perhaps a reference to the dusky murk of the nether regions; while jurtina looks like another mistake, maybe a typographical error for ‘Juturna’, the nymph of a fountain near Rome. No matter, the butterflies themselves are a glorious confusion of colours and movement so this all seems perfectly appropriate.
On a nearby heath I also enjoyed seeing one of Suffolk’s rarer butterflies – the silver-studded blue, an exquisite little gem which in its male form has violet-blue upper wings with black borders and white fringes. The studding is on the underwing, which has marginal black spots with silver-blue centres. Again the scientific name Plebejus argus is a mythological reference to Argos of the hundred eyes. The first part of that name is sadly less appropriate now: plebejus means ‘common’ or ‘vulgar’ but this tiny butterfly is now threatened by habitat loss, as are so many other butterflies. Since 1900 Suffolk has effectively lost all of the following: swallowtail, purple emperor, large tortoiseshell, wood white, brown hairstreak, chalk hill and small blues, and a whole host of our beautiful fritillaries. Others, like the silver-studded blue and the grizzled skipper, are on the danger list.
These declines reflects a sad prophecy made in 1920 by the Suffolk lepidopterist, Claude Morely: ‘I have no doubt that butterflies are dying out in this county. I do not mean that there will ever be no butterflies here, but that the ones you see will be merely the common kinds – the whites and browns and blues, the plebs of the highways and hedges.’ Not plebeian enough, alas!
15 August 2013
14 July 2013
So summer arrived at last, and with it a heatwave, but the season will inevitably be contracted by its slow start. When we had those bitter winds from the north-east in June it almost felt as though summer was already over. On one particularly cold, wet and windy day I was at the coast at Shingle Street and noticed a stream of swifts passing over and heading south all afternoon and evening. I’m sure they were failed breeders and were migrating back to southern Europe and Africa to escape the English ‘summer’. They depend on high-flying insects for food – a sort of aerial plankton which they hoover up – and there just weren’t any to be had, so they had to leave or starve. The disturbed weather did produce a couple of very remarkable swift records, though. First, a pacific swift was spotted on the Suffolk coast and stayed a couple of days at a nature reserve near Felixstowe. It drew crowds of twitchers from all over the country, since it has rarely been recorded in Britain and really belongs, as the name suggests, in Asia. I went to have a look when I thought the crowds would have thinned out a bit and got there just ten minutes after it disappeared high in the skies, never to be seen again. And no sooner had that excitement subsided than an even rarer swift, a white-throated needle-tail, somehow lost its way from Asia to Australia and zoomed into view in the Outer Hebrides. A truly charismatic bird, which hit the national headlines before zooming off again. This species is the fastest bird in the world in level flight so it might even have found its way home had it not collided with the vanes of one of those giant new windmills and met a sad and sudden end on the isle of Harris . It was actually a friend of mine that originally found it, but this year I had chosen to go elsewhere for my summer wildlife trip, alas, and missed that one too. Moral of story, don’t go chasing rare birds, enjoy what is closer to hand.
And I’ve been doing just that in these warmer days. I’ve been going to a local heath in the lingering twilight to listen not to the dawn chorus but the evening one. When the robin and the blackbird have finally sung their last songs of the day and ‘all the air a solemn stillness holds’, as the poet Thomas Gray put it in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, one very special bird comes to life and starts singing. Or perhaps I should say ‘churring’, since it’s a weird sound that sounds almost mechanical, a long drawn-out purring that alternates disconcertingly between different pitches. A bird generally heard and not seen – in short, a nightjar. These too are summer visitors, observing what may be a short season, as Lord Byron once described, ‘The English winter, ending in July – only to recommence in August.’
14 July 2013
04 May 2013
It’s been a topsy-turvy spring, with a raw, grey March, bitter north-east winds through much of April, then a few days of real warmth early in May, followed by more chilly winds and some late frosts at night. I think the whole country will go heliotropic when summer finally comes (if it does – remember last year …). Hedges and trees are still quite bare as I write, and the migration of birds has been very disturbed. The early arrivals really suffered in the cold and wet and many will have lost their first broods. Lots of them sensibly arrived much later than usual, however, and as I write they are still coming over in dribs and drabs. There will be a great rush when they finally feel confident enough to commit themselves, and by then the whole season will have been contracted. I’ve experienced this phenomenon sometimes in my trips to the far north of Europe and the Outer Hebrides. The summer there is so short that everything moves at a great pace. You get all the flowers out at the same time rather than the orderly succession of aconite, snowdrop, primrose, cowslip and so on which we are used to down here. And among the birds you get odd combinations of winter visitors still leaving while summer visitors are just arriving, like a busy airport which has passengers travelling in all directions. I’ve seen some examples of that here just recently. My usual spring herald, the chiffchaff, came in early April rather than mid-March, and crossed with flocks of fieldfares, preparing to depart for Norway, Finland, Estonia, Poland and all stations north-east. I also had an unusual combination of wagtails at our water treatment plant, a favourite haunt of theirs because of the guaranteed supplies of insects there. Pied wagtails breed there and you can see them skipping, trotting and ducking in and out of the sprinklers all year round. The Italian name for these is Ballerina Bianca, which sums them up perfectly, I think. Grey wagtails are a bit scarcer in Thurlow but they too are regular visitors, especially in winter. You can pick them out by their elegant bobbing tails, even longer and waggier than those of the pied wagtails, and also by their lemon yellow underparts, which show up better than the slaty-grey backs that give them their name. But on this day in April these two wagtail species were joined by a third – a male yellow wagtail, sporting his brilliant canary yellow plumage. The yellow wagtails are summer visitors, once common but rare breeders now, and the loveliest of all the wagtail tribe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen all three species together on the same day here before.
Whatever happened to global warming, you might ask. Well, the scientists never actually said it would get a bit warmer every year in succession. There are always going to be more variations than that. But what they did warn us to expect is more disturbed weather, more extremes and more surprises. And that’s what we seem to be getting.
4 May 2013
17 March 2013
In 1866 an American naturalist encountered an amazing sight. For fourteen hours he watched an immense number of birds passing by in flight overhead, in a column that he estimated was one mile wide and some 300 miles long. The flock was so dense that they darkened the skies and it has been calculated that it may have contained over 3,000 million birds. They were passenger pigeons, then the most numerous bird in the world. Yet less than forty years later, on 22 March 1900 in Pike County, Ohio to be precise, the last wild passenger pigeon died. The species became officially extinct a few years later when the last tame specimen, nicknamed Martha, died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo. The reasons were probably a combination of deforestation, loss of habitat, agricultural changes and large-scale hunting. Things can go wrong very quickly in nature when they get into a tail-spin, especially for colonial species that depend on safety in numbers.
We have been witnessing a rapid decline in some of our most familiar species too, not quite on the same scale, it’s true but still dramatic. Take sparrows and starlings, for example, once among our commonest garden birds, bullying off the bird tables other species we would perhaps have preferred to attract. Yet in the last forty years the population of starlings in the UK has declined by about 80% and house sparrows by about 65%. You may not have noticed this decline of house sparrows so much because in the Thurlows we do still have reasonable numbers. There are little colonies of them hanging on in clusters at Little Thurlow Green, Temple End, Larkspur Cottage and Church Farm, Great Thurlow, and one or two other places, but most of us don’t see them in the garden at all now. In London their demise really is dramatic. They used to be the common cheeky chappies everywhere, the cockney sparrows that were the iconic urban bird of the capital – noisy, brash, vulgar, almost a pest. Not now. You could spend a year in Hyde Park now and not see a single one. Is it possible that in 20 years time, say, the last one will die in captivity in London Zoo, probably nicknamed Charlie Spadger?
Things really are changing. You won’t see the house sparrow’s cousin, the tree sparrow, in Thurlow now, though there were three or four colonies of them here a few decades back. We’ve lost the corn bunting, the nightingale and the willow tit, probably for good. We are about to lose the spotted flyctacher on current trends and you’ll be very lucky to hear the cuckoo or the turtle dove again here, except the odd bird passing through in early spring. And talking of spring, the winter seems to have been so long, so grey and so raw that I can hardly wait. We just need to make sure that we do always get a real spring, and not the ‘Silent Spring’ that Rachel Carson warned us about in 1962.
17 March 2013
18 February 2013
One of these days we shall wake up and hear that David Attenborough has died. There will then be deep and widespread national mourning, since he has become a sort of secular saint – a new St Francis of the birds and animals. But one should praise people while they are still alive and with us, not just write solemn obituaries when they are dead, so here goes. For years he has been our guide to the natural world – infectiously enthusiastic, knowledgeable and, what is not at all the same thing, wise. It has become a sort of televisual cliché, but now an addictive one: the camera shows us some impossibly remote and inhospitable terrain from a great height; we pick out a tiny, distant figure in the wilderness of ice, desert, plain or whatever; the picture zooms slowly in; and there is Attenborough, spreading his arms outwards to welcome us in, swaying around somewhat erratically to emphasise his words, and telling us, almost confidentially, in that so familiar, slightly hoarse voice, ‘And here, even in these extreme conditions, there is life, abundant life, and just over here behind me is something really quite extraordinary …’ .
In his autobiography he tells the story of his first job-interview with the BBC. He applied to be a graduate trainee and got the job, but years later when he moved into management he took a look at his own file. He saw that the interviewer had commented that this was a clever man who should certainly be given a position of some sort, but should on no account be allowed in front of a camera, because of his peculiar facial movements and body language. And this is precisely his great charm, of course. He has the priceless gift of conveying his excitement and sense of wonder about the natural world in a way we can share and understand and can see to be genuine. He is the perfect guide and intermediary, who leads us in and then lets us see what he saw and enjoy our own reactions. So many other broadcasters seem over-trained by comparison. I have stopped watching programmes like Springwatch, since the presenters now seem to spend more time presenting themselves rather than the wildlife and are required to banter, flirt and utter all sorts of banalities that just get in the way.
I have never met Attenborough, alas, but I have heard him give a talk. The hall was packed, of course, and at the end of his spellbinding performance the chairman invited questions. A little boy at the front shot up his hand and asked in piping tones, ‘Please, Sir, how can I be like you when I grow up?’ The audience collapsed. But David Attenborough took him seriously and said, ‘Well, thank you, the first thing you might do is go outside in your garden and look hard at something. I mean look really closely, for a long time, and then try to draw or write down what you saw and think of some questions to ask. It may become a habit.’
13 February 2013
12 January 2013
I’ve just received my copy of the final report from the Suffolk Hedgerow Survey. These are the results from a massive coordinated effort to survey all the hedgerows of the county in a kind of ‘green’ Domesday Book to guide conservation efforts in years to come. The statistics alone are quite impressive. The project started in 1998 and was finally completed in February 2012. 317 Suffolk parishes contributed and between them they surveyed some 40,000 hedgerows, in each case counting the number of different tree species occurring in measured lengths and analyzing the principal landscape features. Overall, it was discovered that over 20,000 hedges had eight or more species and more than 30,000 had five or more species in them, which probably means that over 80% of our Suffolk hedgerows are between three and twenty centuries old!
Great and Little Thurlow each took an active part in this survey. The Great Thurlow team consisted of Conrad Hawkins, Rod Pass, John and Christina Lusty, and Justine Reed and they surveyed a total of 104 hedgerows, while the Little Thurlow team (which hunted in pairs) consisted of myself and Mary Hilton, Kevin and Sue Beal, John Tipper and Jessica Hale, Robert Sanderson and Margaret Levin, and Steve and Sue Burgen and we surveyed a total of 176 hedgerows. It was quite hard work for the dedicated field-workers (many were called but few stayed the course …), but we enjoyed many surprising discoveries of rarer and charismatic species like buckthorn, black poplar and wayfaring tree and the interest of walking through private land we would never get to explore normally (we did ask permission, of course!).
The bare figures don’t really tell the story though. The countryside of Britain went through a devastating period in the 1960’s and 1970s when farmers were encouraged to grub out hedges and drain ditches to enlarge fields to make use of larger and more ‘efficient’ machinery; at the same time they were drenching the fields with pesticides to improve yields and increase ‘productivity’. The results of all this was a dramatic decline in the whole chain of our national wildlife – the flowers, the insects, the animals and the birds. There is at last some sort of realization of what damage we have done to our world and we are seeing some measures of restitution, though it may all be too little and too late. The hedgerows are crucial in all this. They act as shelters, corridors, larders and homes to a huge variety of creatures large and small. They also represent a show-case of our greatest national heritage, the British landscape. There are centuries of history in a hedge with eight or more species, going back in some cases to the original Domesday Book of 1086. We are lucky in Suffolk, which is one of the most rural counties in Britain (and the only one to have completed a comprehensive survey of this kind) and we are particularly lucky in the Thurlows, where the principal landowners have maintained relatively enlightened conservation policies. Let’s cherish this tradition and preserve it.
29 December 2012