I’m writing this in the middle of November, having just got in from a ramble. It’s been a dull, misty day and it was already dusk by 4pm. I was reminded of that gloomy poem by Thomas Hood, which I’ve quoted before:
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –
But things are changing. We need to remember that poor old Thomas Hood, who died at the age of just 45, wrote this in London in 1844 at a time when the city was often choked with smog and winters were much colder than they are today. November 1st this year was the warmest November day ever, we’re told, and I seem to have plenty of feeling left in the members that matter. Moreover, there are lots of leaves still on the trees. I had to cut my lawn again this last week – unthinkable even 25 years ago, let alone over 250 years ago. And, amazingly, I did see a butterfly on the wing the other day – a bright peacock, feeding quite happily on some late hedgerow flowers. I also saw and heard quite a few birds today. Robins, wrens and a song thrush were all singing and the hedgerows were busy with foraging parties of tits and goldcrests.
Best of all, I saw two birds that lent a splash of colour to the general drabness. One was a nuthatch, a small chunky bird with a steel-blue back and warm buffy underparts. The name comes from an old-English word meaning ‘nut hacker’, a reference to its habit of wedging a nut in some crevice and hammering it with its strong dagger bill to reach the kernel. It behaves like a little woodpecker, with the difference that it’s the only British bird that can climb headfirst down a tree trunk as well as up one. They have been scarce in the village in recent years but now seem to have returned , I’ve noticed. The first sign of one is usually the call, a loud, cheerful tweet – or should I say tswoeet, to distinguish it from the output of Twitter – but they regularly visit our gardens and you might catch a glimpse of one raiding your bird table for a suitable nut to hack into. The other colourful bird was a grey wagtail down by the river. The name doesn’t do it justice because although the back is dark grey what you first see is a flash of lemon-yellow on the belly as it pirouettes along the water’s edge flirting its long tail.
So, Thomas Hood’s lament doesn’t quite apply, or at least not yet. Mind you, by the time you read this winter may have us in its grip again, and there were some pointers today in the flights of chattering fieldfares that are now pouring into our countryside from more northerly countries. Maybe they know something about the Christmas weather we don’t yet.
10 November 2015
October 2015: Lost to the world
I was walking across the fields in Great Thurlow the other day when I caught sight of a red kite cruising over the fields. Wow, what a gorgeous bird, glinting red and gold in the late afternoon sun. An aerial genius too, constantly adjusting its speed, direction and flight pattern with the subtlest of tail and wing movements. I noticed a young person approaching me from the other direction, so I pointed up and shouted excitedly, ‘Look, red kite!’ No response. Then I saw why. He was bent over his mobile phone, his eyes about six inches from the tiny screen, and he was wearing a large pair of headphones that were tuned into some throbbing beat music, audible from yards away. Blind and deaf to the world, effectively. The incident reminded me of some troubling research I had just heard about. An Oxford Professor I happen to know had conducted a survey of his first-year biology students to discover what knowledge they had of the natural world and where they had learned it from (books, parents, friends, school or what?). To his amazement, 42% of them could not even name five British birds. Can you believe that? At Oxford and studying biology???
There is no point in just criticizing the young (every generation in its turn does that anyway), but what does this say about our changing relationship to nature? The new technology now makes it possible to insulate yourself entirely from the living world around you. Yes, you can communicate ever more easily from within your private bubble to like-minded friends who may be miles away. Communicate after a fashion, that is – the exchanges one overhears (‘I’m on a train’) don’t seem to be very rich in content. But I do fear that more and more such people are losing any sense of contact with the actual world around them.
If the youth I met had discarded his digital kit that day he would not only have seen the red kite – still a rare event in these parts – he would have heard our resident robins and wrens singing around us, a distant call from a green woodpecker (the ‘yaffle’ call), and he might have noticed the party of long-tailed tits foraging along the hedgerow and conversing softly … (There, I’ve mentioned five British birds already.) But not only birds. There were some late butterflies – commas and red admirals – still enjoying the last of the year’s nectar (and the last meals of their short lives) from the flowering thistles and field scabious. There were also bees buzzing around the ivy among a swirl of hover-flies. As I headed out into more open country, I watched three hares chasing each other across the recently ploughed fields. I returned to the track and there right in front of me a fox slid quietly through the hedge. We eyed each other for a while and then, quite calmly, he trotted off along the path ahead of me and I got a faint whiff of him. There isn’t an app for that.
2 October 2015
September 2015: Autumnal thoughts
I came back from a European trip the other day and hastened to take a walk down the Drift to relocate myself, as it were, in my home surroundings. For me, that always means seeing and hearing what’s changed since I’ve been away, even if that’s only been a few days. At this time of year the signs of autumn approaching are all too clear – the shortening days, a freshness in the early morning air, the more slanting arc of sunlight, the first leaves falling, swifts gone and swallows on the move. A familiar feeling of the year gradually winding down. But two sounds cheered me: first a robin singing that meandering autumn song which they start up after their summer break; it has a wistful, slightly melancholy quality, somehow suiting the season, but also a piercing sweetness which consoles and comforts; and secondly, a mewing call above my head – yes, a couple of buzzards soaring through the clear blue autumn sky. These two sounds reminded me of where I had just been and of some differences between the two places.
We’d had a few days in Falsterbo in Sweden. It’s on a peninsula that juts out into the Baltic in the extreme south of the country and in September it’s the funnel through which all the birds migrating from the Swedish forests for the winter have to fly to reach warmer havens further south. It’s the narrowest land bridge between Sweden and Denmark – in fact quite close to the mighty Oresund Bridge linking those two countries by road (which will be familiar to viewers of the TV detective series, ‘The Bridge’). Over this narrow spit of land fly huge numbers of birds of prey heading south – eagles, falcons, kites, harriers, hawks and, in especially large numbers, buzzards. I must have seen several hundred a day passing close over my head there, a stirring sight. It’s not so long since buzzards returned to East Anglia after an absence of a century or so and it was wonderful to see them in Sweden in such healthy abundance.
The case of the robin is rather different. I didn’t see or hear a single one of those in Sweden, which seemed weird at first since according to my field guide they are common throughout Scandinavia. Then I remembered that whereas in Britain the robin is primarily a garden bird that endears itself to us by its confiding habits, on the Continent they are wild and shy birds of the deep forest. The reason for this may be quite interesting. It has been suggested that in Europe they follow the wild boar, which rootle up the soil in woodlands and expose the grubs and worms robins feed on. We don’t have wild boar, so here they depend on the human gardener doing the same thing, and that’s why they are apparently so tame and affectionate. So if we ever cease to hear our robins singing, look out for wild boar.
13 September 2015
August 2015: The Return of the Native
The avocet is one of those birds familiar to everyone as a symbol, even if they have never actually seen one in the wild. It is the emblem of the RSPB, prominently displayed on all their stickers, insignia and branded gift items. It was chosen as their logo, partly because the avocet is such a beautiful bird – with those elegant powder-blue legs, the sweep of the upcurved bill and that striking black-and-white, porcelain plumage; but its main claim to fame is that it represents one of the RSPB’s most dramatic success stories. Avocets depend on shallow lagoons in which to feed and breed, but they had became extinct in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, largely as a consequence of the draining of our wetlands and coastal marshes for agriculture and other kinds of development. For birdwatchers in the twentieth century, it seemed that this charismatic bird had disappeared from our shores for ever, to live on in the national memory only as a piece of wondrous folklore.
But then miraculously, just after the Second World War, a few suddenly reappeared on a remote part of the Suffolk coast and bred at Havergate Island, where the colony was guarded by the RSPB under almost military conditions of security and secrecy. At first the birds needed special protection, not only from natural enemies like foxes and marauding crows, but also from dastardly egg-collectors, who would give an arm and a leg to add a prized avocet egg to their illegal hoard of treasures. The policy worked and when the RSPB felt it safe to do so, they eventually arranged little boat trips from the quay at nearby Orford on the Suffolk coast to give RSPB members a privileged chance to witness this ‘return of the native’. In the sixty years since then, avocets have spread out much more widely, but they remain a heavily protected star species at Havergate and other coastal reserves like Minsmere and the new one at Hollesley Marshes.
You can’t rely on birds to do the sensible thing, however, and always set up home just where we want them to. I’ve been staying this summer at Shingle Street, a little further along the coast from Orford. Little terns here, for example, sometimes breed just outside the secure, fenced-off accommodation provided for them by the RSPB in special enclosures on the beach. And this year a pair of avocets have done something similar and have nested right alongside the sea-wall footpath in full view. I have been watching over them like a nervous godfather, convinced they would suffer from too much human disturbance or lose their eggs and young to predators. Somehow they have managed to bring it off, though, and now there are two rapidly-growing young running around the pools with their parents, just about ready to fly and showing every sign of making it to adulthood.
A good reminder that nature is nature and plays by its own rules.
12 August 2015
July 2015 elephant hawkmoth 2
I’ve been much involved recently in organizing what is rather grandly known as a ‘biodiversity survey’. What that really means is a listing of all the different species in a designated area – birds, mammals, flowers, butterflies and moths, spiders, reptiles, snails … the lot. The idea is to show how even a small area can sustain a huge variety of living organisms that we need to care for and conserve. The area in question is the tiny settlement of Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast, where I’ve been staying most of the summer. It’s been a lot of work but a real eye-opener. I already knew this was a very good area for birds, since I’ve been watching birds on the Suffolk coast for years and have recorded well over 150 species in this one parish alone, including such special species as avocets, marsh harriers, corn buntings and grasshopper warblers. But I’m now realizing just how much else is here. It’s a wonderful area for flowers, for example, and it turns out that we have well over 150 species of those too, just on the shoreline strip in front of the row of houses. On the shingle itself (and Shingle Street is aptly named) there are such specialized shingle species as sea-kale, sea-pea, yellow-horned poppy and orache, while further back we have a spectacular array of viper’s bugloss and hoary mulleins, and even a few bee-orchids. The mammals include field voles, harvest mice, hares, badgers and otters. And once summer arrived, so did the butterflies – red admirals, peacocks and painted ladies in profusion but also the less common graylings, wall browns and green-veined whites. I’m still having some trouble identifying the different ‘skippers’, little brown jobs that flit along the sea-wall and include at least three very similar kinds (one of which is called the ‘Essex skipper’ – what’s that doing here?). It’s the same story with the moths: people have recorded well over a hundred different ones here, including some quite rare migrants from the Continent (evading our border controls, happily) and a lot of those are hard to identify too, though I did have one unmistakeable one in my moth trap the other night. It was a giant elephant hawk-moth, coloured in the most violent shades of pink and olive-green that it would take a daring woman to combine in any outfit (OK, or a man). And these are just the more striking and charismatic species. There is also an underworld of over 70 different spiders, some rare snails so small you need to be on your hands and knees even to see them, and just last week a tiny sea-slug (limopontia depressa) which turns out to be the first one ever recorded in Suffolk.
If you want to follow our progress, see www.shinglestreetsurvey.org.uk. And by the way, the specimens of homo sapiens here are quite interesting too.
7 July 2015
I was very touched to see the letter from Florence in the last Village Link. That means I must have at least three readers, but I can’t count the editor or my wife since they don’t really have much choice. Thanks to Florence too for sharing the good news that she had just saved a butterfly. She’s clearly going to grow up to be a conservationist. And butterflies will need all our help in the future. There are just 59 resident species in Britain, some of them now very rare and endangered, like the Duke of Burgundy, the Large Blue and the Wood White, which are restricted to a few protected sites mostly in the south and west. Some have already become extinct (for example, the Mazarine Blue and the Black-veined White), and overall it is estimated that we have lost well over half the number of butterflies that seemed to fill the air in the countryside at the time of my own childhood. The reasons for this decline are all too familiar– the loss of habitat like flowering meadows, woodlands and marshes to ‘development’, air pollution, the intensive use of all the ‘-cides’ in agriculture – herbicides, pesticides and more directly insecticides. For butterflies are indeed insects, but surely the most attractive of all insects with those painted wings, that wayward fluttering flight and that fragile beauty. Think too of that extraordinary life history they have, going through the successive stages from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and then finally emerging as the perfected imago, the butterfly that spreads its wings to live for no more than a year. The names of the different species are themselves wonderful and reveal our delight in them: the Silver-washed Fritillary, the Grizzled Skipper and the Clouded Yellow. Who wouldn’t want to see one of those?
The word ‘butterfly’ itself is something of a mystery. Some have suggested it comes from a simple mix-up of ‘flutter-by’ or ‘beauty-fly’, or that the original ‘butterfly’ was named after the yellow of a pat of butter, which is just the colour of one the first butterflies to appear every year, the Brimstone. No one really knows, though it is established that it is a very ancient word in the language, going back more than a thousand years, so it’s good to imagine that our distant ancestors were as fascinated by butterflies as we are.
This is the time of year to be admiring them, anyway. Despite all the losses, you can still see lovely Peacocks, Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals in your own garden, especially if you have flowering plants like buddleia, which they dote on. You should also find Comma, Speckled Wood, Common Blue, Small Copper, Meadow Brown and Painted Lady, all quite common in Thurlow most years. You will have to go further afield to find such spectacular species as Swallowtails, Purple Emperors and White Admirals, but I could tell you where to look. And there’s a butterfly conservation society you can join at www.butterfly-conservation.org if like Florence you want to help save them.
14 June 2014
I had just about decided I wouldn’t be able to do a nature note this month since I’m off at dawn tomorrow to explore a wild part of Estonia and I won’t be back until after our editor’s deadline. But then I glanced outside as I was checking my essential packing (field guide, binoculars, camera, short grammar of Estonian – useless in fact, since the language looks much too difficult to start learning on the flight – there are twelve noun cases for a start, apparently!) and I saw the first swift of the summer scything by in the darkening sky. This really is the reassurance that summer is returning. 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
Swifts are about the last of the regular summer migrants to arrive. I usually reckon to see them here on about the 10th of May, so they are a day or two late this year. We shall now have them with us all summer and you’ll hear small parties of them screaming (literally) as they chase each other over the roof-tops. They are the most aerial of all our birds. They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing, spiralling high in the sky to take the avian equivalent of catnaps. Sometimes pilots report seeing them at great heights, in a stratum of the atmosphere other birds don’t reach. Incredibly, when the swifts that breed here in Thurlow have reared their young and leave their nests built in church towers or other buildings offering crevices they can crawl into, they don’t touch down again until they return next year. Their whole lives are spent in the air. As a result of this extreme behaviour, they don’t have, because they don’t need, feet that can grip and perch in the way blackbirds or robins can. In fact if they ever land on the ground they find it very difficult to take off again. Their scientific name is Apous, meaning ‘footless’. But once in the skies they are in their element and are perfectly shaped to cut through the air with minimal resistance. They are sometimes confused with swallows and martins, but they are actually in a quite different family.
They do reach as far north as Estonia eventually but I think I may get there before they do this year. What I shall hope to see, though, are all those species we have lost over the last 50 years or so: whinchats, tree pipits, red-backed shrikes, spotted flycatchers, willow warblers, wood warblers, wrynecks and turtle doves. They are still common in these unspoiled environments, along with more exotic local specialities as black woodpeckers, cranes, barred warblers, sea-eagles and hazel grouse. Who knows, I might even hear the cuckoo? I haven’t heard it in Thurlow yet.
12 May 2015
This is the most exciting time of year in the natural world. Everyday something changes – a new flower opens, leaves unfurl, a butterfly emerges from hibernation, a migrant bird arrives from Africa, and the days lengthen perceptibly into summer. You can get an advance snapshot of all this if you travel south across Europe and experience there what is literally coming our way. We made a short trip to Venice in early April, where spring was already well advanced. Venice is renowned for many wonderful things, of course, but wildlife isn’t usually thought of as one of them. It is a wholly built-up island in a sea-lagoon with scarcely a tree or a blade of grass visible, except in one or two carefully nurtured gardens in the courtyards of ancient palaces. I did hear a blackbird and a blackcap singing in one of these, their voices just audible over the roar of the dozens of motorboats and the thronging tourists. But what caught my attention more were the parties of swifts, flickering through the air high overhead and chasing round the buildings like screaming Valkyries. They must have just arrived in Venice but they are not due in Thurlow until the 8th of May (they are pretty punctual!). It was a thrill to think that they heading towards us once again, the annual reassurance that ‘the world is still working’, as the poet Ted Hughes put it.
But I’m afraid the world isn’t working as well here as it once did. We used to have corn buntings, tree sparrows and even a nightingale in Thurlow, but they are all long gone. Other much-loved country species like skylark and yellowhammer are declining fast. You’ll be lucky to hear a willow warbler this year, though they were once common; and sadly, it’s now rare to hear that iconic spring call of the cuckoo, while we have effectively lost the turtle dove altogether. I’ve chronicled these losses before and they constitute a real national bereavement. We also have far fewer butterflies and moths, fewer wild flowers, fewer bees and bumblebees, fewer everything, it seems, except pigeons. In Britain overall it is estimated that we have lost over half our wildlife in the last fifty years, which is a staggering figure when you think about it. Why isn’t there more of an outcry? There is an election on after all, but how often have you heard the environment mentioned as an issue, except by the tiny Green Party? There’s no one easy remedy of course, but there are partial solutions and the long-term outlook is so serious that we need our politicians to stop competing for our attention with small bribes and to start collaborating to save what is left of the natural world. Venice may not have much wildlife, but it could become the terrible catastrophe that finally gets the world’s attention if it literally sinks into the sea as a consequence of man-made global warming.
15 April 2015
Someone telephoned me the other evening to say that there had been a small white heron in the paddock behind the cattle-sheds in Great Thurlow. He thought it might be a cattle egret since it was feeding around the livestock. Wow, I said, or words to that effect … The cattle egret is an extremely rare bird in Britain and the twitchers would be arriving here en masse if that were confirmed. Anyway, I was up at dawn the next day (not so demanding at this time of year) and went to investigate. It turned out not to be a cattle egret, in fact, but a little egret. They do look very similar and the bird was indeed rootling around by the horses, so it was a fair shout on my informant’s part. And I was very glad to see it anyway. Little egrets are quite unusual here themselves, though I have ever seen them occasionally along the river towards Little Bradley. They also have an interesting recent history in Britain. Going back to the 1950s they were as rare then as the cattle egret is now; indeed there had only been about twenty ever recorded at that time. I still remember my great excitement when I saw my very first one on the Essex coast. It stood out like a small beacon with its intense, almost glaring, white plumage – far more brilliant than the white of a gull or a swan. Egrets have a symbolic importance in the history of birdwatching too. Over 100 years ago it was the mass slaughter of egrets to supply fine plumes for ladies’ hats that led a group of pioneering female conservationists to found in 1889 at Didsbury in Manchester the ‘Society for the Protection of Birds’ that went on to become the modern RSPB, which now has over one million members.
Fifty years ago little egrets were basically a Mediterranean species but since then they have been steadily expanding their range northwards and they are now a common species around our coasts and estuaries. This is undoubtedly a consequence of global warming. Other exotic water birds are coming our way too and for the same reason. There are reports every year now of purple herons, great white egrets, little bitterns and glossy ibises visiting Britain, and in a few cases staying on to breed. And it isn’t impossible that we may really get a cattle egret in the village one day since they are part of the same movement north.
Another sign of climate change is the earlier arrival of our regular summer visitors. The chiffchaff (a small warbler from Africa) is usually the earliest one back in Thurlow and I’ve just heard my first one of the year on 14 March – about a fortnight earlier than when I started keeping annual records here over 30 years ago. You can’t really be a sceptic about climate change if you keep your eyes and ears open, as well as your mind.
15 March 2015
I made a little trip into the Brecks the other day to have a look for some of our more unusual winter visitors. It was one of those bitter, raw days that sucked the warmth out of you if you stood still for more than a couple of minutes, so I marched energetically along the river bank, waving my arms about and generally advertising my presence to anything watching. Not a good idea if you are bird-watching and I scarcely saw a thing, though I did hear a small flock of siskins buzzing and wheezing in the tree-tops. Well, that’s a start. Siskins are small yellow seed-eating finches that congregate noisily on the alder trees and have a cheerful, extrovert presence on a cold day. By now I was warming up from the exercise anyway. I slowed down and made myself more a part of the landscape – to be able to see before I was myself seen. I was looking for two very shy birds that would be easily disturbed.
I was lucky with one of them. Peering out from behind a tree, I scanned the tops of the hawthorn bushes in an open field, and there sure enough on one of them was a starling-size bird, a ghostly pale grey all over except for a piratical black eye stripe. From time to time it would swoop agily down on some small prey, maybe a mouse or a large beetle, and then fly back up to its perch to dismember it. A splendid great grey shrike, a bantam-weight predator, probably escaping from hard weather in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe. The Latin name is Lanius excubitor, which literally means a ‘butcher-bird sentinel’ and that just about sums it up. They always sit up like that to keep a good look-out all round and they sometimes maintain a ‘butcher’s larder’ nearby where they impale their prey until they are ready to eat it.
The other bird required both luck and a bit of fieldcraft. Hawfinches are huge finches that have a very top-heavy, stumpy appearance and look in silhouette rather like little parrots. They have massive bills that can crack open cherry stones but their favoured food is hornbeam or beech mast, not hawthorn berries as you might expect from their English vernacular name. The Latin name is both more accurate and more fun, Coccothraustes coccothraustes (that is, ‘kernel crusher, kernel-crusher’). Despite their striking appearance they are very hard to find and almost impossible to watch closer. The best thing to do is to locate a hornbeam copse and then position yourself in hiding a long way off. I did that, but after about half an hour the cold was seeping back into my bones and I was beginning to think longingly of home, tea and my log fire. Then, quite suddenly, a couple of birds flew up from the woodland floor into the hornbeams and I got a clear view and a rush of adrenaline that cheered both body and soul.
12 February 2015
I was walking along a stretch of the Suffolk coast on New Year’s Day, when I heard an unusual call overhead. It was a deep throbbing bass note that seemed to reverberate in the clear frosty air, quite different from the other sounds from the marsh that day. Now where did I last hear that call? Oh yes, it was last autumn on a trip up to Northumberland when I was walking in the Cheviots. Two large black birds took off from some crags, flapped a few times with slow, elastic wing-beats, and soared away over the moor making just that same kronk kronk call. Ravens! This New Year’s bird was first I’ve seen in the county of Suffolk, though.
Ravens are the largest members of the crow family, much bigger than rooks or crows, and even larger than the buzzards we see around the village now. In the nineteenth century they used to be common throughout Britain, but they were progressively hunted out in the south and east and until recently you could only see (or hear) them in the wilder parts of Wales and the West Country or in Upland Britain. Indeed, they weren’t that easy to see anywhere, having become very shy and wary birds – as well they might. But, like the buzzards, they are now making a comeback and are spreading eastwards again. In the west they tend to nest on inaccessible cliff-faces or rocks, but as they spread back across the lowlands they are also using big trees, churches and other tall buildings, and are even nesting in cities again. They are basically carrion-eaters, but are quite omnivorous and will take fruits, berries, seeds, insects, small animals and various kinds of city refuse. They are also highly intelligent birds, as has been recognised from ancient times. Aesop had a fable in which the raven is confronted by a pitcher half-full of water, which the bird can’t quite reach down into far enough to drink. So the raven drops in pebbles until the water level rises to the top. Brilliant! Modern scientists have often repeated that experiment and have confirmed the bird’s very high IQ in solving such puzzles (you can watch them doing it on Youtube).
With their black hulking appearance, croaking voice and this reputation for intelligence, it’s easy to see why the raven became a bird of myth and legend in so many cultures. They were thought to be birds of omen, portending either good or bad fortune, according to belief. Myths may sometimes need to be manipulated, though. There is the old tradition that if the ravens resident at the Tower of London ever forsake it, Britain’s downfall will soon follow. During the Second World War the Tower birds were in fact all killed in bombing raids, so the keepers secretly brought in some new ones to keep up the national morale.
I’m therefore taking my raven on New Year’s Day to be a good omen. What’s the point of doing horoscopes if you can’t choose the ones you want? Happy New Year to everyone.
10 January 2015