November 2016: What’s in a name?
I was enjoying some late autumn sun last week on the Suffolk coast near Dunwich, that once proud town which in Anglo-Saxon times was the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles and in the medieval period had a port to rival that of London. It also had nine churches then, all of which have now disappeared into the sea after centuries of coastal erosion, though fishermen in its pub like to tell you that on some nights you can still hear the church bells tolling under the sea. Well, fishermen in pubs aren’t the best witnesses, perhaps, but the sea keeps surging in and the reshaped profile of the coastline does continue to produce its surprises. I was picking my way along a track between beach and marsh when I noticed a small bird perched atop a swaying reed stem. It looked interesting. I could see with the naked eye that it had a long tail cocked at an acute angle over its back and when I got my binoculars on it I realized that it was a Dartford warbler. These are tiny warblers that, unusually, don’t migrate to warmer climes for the winter but stick it out here, usually on heath land where they take cover in the thickest gorse and feed on minute insects and spiders to see them through the cold weather. When it’s really cold they suffer badly and in the successive hard winters of 1961-63 it was thought that the numbers in Britain fell to just ten birds. Since then, however, with milder winters and helped by climate change, they have greatly revived and the Suffolk coastal strip is now one of their strongholds, along with the Dorset heaths and the New Forest.
The name comes from Dartford in Kent, where the species was first identified as a British resident after a pair had been shot in 1773 near Bexley Heath. Curiously, two other species of British birds are also named after Kent locations (naming all three would be a good quiz question): there is a Sandwich tern (which is was rather parochial of us so to name, since it’s a global species) and a Kentish plover (now only a very rare visitor here on passage); the only other British bird I can think of which has adopted a place-name is the Manx shearwater, a sea bird which did indeed once have a huge colony on the Calf of Man, but whose population is now concentrated in more remote islands like Skomer and Skokholm (both off the Pembroke coast) and the Outer Hebrides. By an odd linguistic twist, the Manx shearwaters used to be called ‘puffins’, which was a reference to their tubby, pot-bellied shape. Their scientific name is still Puffinus, but the English name ‘puffin’ has now been passed on to the lovable little black-and-white auk with the parrot bill and comical penguin-like gait. There is also a bird called an Ipswich sparrow, but that’s actually an American species, named after Ipswich in Massachusetts, and I’m sure Donald Trump will be laying claim to that.
14 November 2016
October 2016: Hope in the hedges
I must often sound rather pessimistic in these nature notes, recording the decline of one more species after another in our countryside. But I actually found something the other day that gave me a real lift. I was walking along the concrete track from the ‘Water Treatment Plant’ (as the municipal euphemism now has it), and suddenly saw a flash of yellow in the hedge, then another, and eventually a flock of some ten to fifteen small birds flew out on to the fields giving clipped, hoarse calls. Yellowhammers! A few do breed round here, mainly in the hedgerows up the Temple End Road, but I hadn’t seen a gathering like this for years, here or indeed anywhere else. Yellowhammers are one of those seed-eating birds that used to be common farmland species, but they have declined sharply in recent years along with the larks, corn buntings and turtle doves. I guess that what I saw was a gathering of several family groups drawn from surrounding villages that were flocking up for the autumn and winter. Yellowhammers are lovely little birds. They belong in the bunting family and the second half of their name probably comes from the Old English Amer, meaning a bunting. The first half is clear enough, anyway, and the males have brilliant canary yellow heads in spring, with a paler suffusion of yellow on the underparts.
Two of their old country names point to other distinctive characteristics. They used to be called ‘scribble larks’ because their eggs are delicately inscribed with a loose series of wavy lines that look like even worse handwriting than mine. The other old name is ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’, which is meant to be an imitation of the song. The song actually sounds more like ‘little-bit-of-bread, cheeeeese’ (a stutter followed by a wheeze) and they can be heard singing this refrain tirelessly all summer from the tops of telegraph poles and small trees along the hedgerows where they are breed.
There was another nice surprise nearby, too – a stonechat, perched attentively on a topmost twig. These have the shape and posture of tiny robins from a distance and the name in this case comes from the call, which sounds very like two stones being struck smartly together. Stonechats are residents in Britain but quite rare visitors to our village and I imagine this one was just passing through on passage, maybe from the coast or the Brecks. A further sign of hope.
My final hopeful encounter this month was meeting the nearest we have to a secular saint in Britain at present, David Attenborough. He was giving the closing address at a conference in Cambridge called Nature Matters that I helped to organise. He was inspirational. He’s over 90 now but he stood there on the platform, full of vigour and passion, waving his arms in that expansive way he has and urging us all to greater efforts. It was as if he was summing up his life’s work in the cause of nature and passing on the torch. Not a dry eye in the house.
10 October 2016
September 2016: Raptors overhead
How many birds of prey have you seen locally? Kestrel, sparrow hawk and buzzard, but you might then struggle a bit to think of any others. That isn’t surprising. Many of the species in this class of birds called raptors – ‘snatching birds’ – are quite rare in eastern England. But despite their relative scarcity here and elsewhere raptors have always seized the human imagination (as well as more literally their animal prey) and throughout history people have been fascinated by their power, speed, agility and beauty. Eagles figure in many national flags (Mexico, Albania, Egypt and the USA, for a start, if you’re a quizzer) as well as in the names of pubs and sports teams, as do falcons, hawks, ospreys and harriers. There are plenty of these symbols and images around, but where can you actually see the birds themselves? I’ve just come back from such a place. It’s a magic spot in southern Sweden called Falsterbo, a narrow peninsula jutting out into the sea, where at this time of year all the raptors that have been summering in the vast Scandinavian forests to the north filter down to this area and funnel through Falsterbo on their annual migration south. In the distance you can see the Danish coast across the Oresund Bridge (the one made famous by the TV detective series, The Bridge); so can the birds, of course, and that’s where they head for on their way to warmer climes in southern Europe or Africa. They pass close overhead here in huge numbers of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, in a day. It’s a birdwatcher’s heaven.
I sat on a small hillock by the coast most days and just looked and wondered as the birds streamed over me. It wasn’t only the numbers that were so spectacular but also the diversity. I saw a dozen or more different species of raptor, including sea eagles, red and black kites, peregrine, hobby, osprey, merlin and two kinds of harrier, as well as the commoner Thurlow species. In fact buzzards of the kind we see here were one of the most numerous migrants, drifting easily by in slow circles on the warm thermals. But among them, posing a challenging identification test, were other kinds of buzzards as well, in particular large numbers of honey buzzards. These are rather misnamed. They feed not on honey, like some avian equivalent of Pooh Bear, but mainly on the larvae of wasp and hornet nests, which they dig out with their specially adapted long claws, their vulnerable body parts being protected against the furious attacks of the hosts by thick feathering and a nifty chemical insect repellent.
Where you get interesting birds you also get birdwatchers, of course, and I soon found myself in an international gathering of other enthusiasts on my little hillock –not only Swedes, but also Danes, Finns, Norwegians, Dutchmen (and women), a few Germans and two Canadians. It was a real United Nations, at least in the shared pleasures that had brought us together. Brexit was never mentioned, to my relief. Just, ‘Wow, look at that!’
18 September 2016.
August 2016: See you next year
Loyal readers may remember that my New Year resolution this year was find a glow-worm. Well, I’ve been trying. I’ve been to a recommended site and walked late at night along a forest ride in deepest Suffolk, peering through the undergrowth for a telltale light. There was plenty of other activity: I made out the dim shape of a tawny owl on the top of a spruce, a ghostly nightjar hawked past me in the gloaming, a badger lumbered heavily across the track, and I disturbed one courting couple; but I didn’t see a glimmer of a glow-worm. I will probably have to wait another year now, since it will soon be the start of autumn in glow-worm time and their little lights will go out until next June. Glow-worms aren’t really worms at all, in fact, but beetles. It’s the females that glow, and they are literally doing a bit of flashing to attract a passing male. Males are the ones that fly and the females are in effect offering them a strip of friendly landing lights. It’s another kind of courtship.
Meanwhile, our summer birds have been feeling the change in the season, too. Swallows have been gathering on the wires, doing a lot of communal chorusing to psych themselves up for the long journey south in the next week or two. And the swifts have already gone. These are sometimes confused with swallows, but in fact they belong to a quite different family, whose scientific name is Apodidae, which means ‘footless’. They are so called because they live an entirely aerial life – eating, mating and even sleeping on the wing. Incredibly, after leaving their breeding sites they won’t touch down again anywhere until they return to nest next year. Hence they don’t have much use for feet and only have tiny ones, just strong enough to enable them to scramble into the crevices in roofs (often church roofs) where they nest. By the same coin, however, they are superb fliers, with a beautiful aerodynamic design of swept-back wings and a streamlined silhouette. They think nothing of flying several hundred miles on feeding trips, so quite often our local birds will nip over the channel to forage if the weather is temporarily better over there and the flying insects more plentiful. Because they depend so much on these airborne insects in the upper strata of the sky they are only with us a short season, and they are remarkably punctual in their habits. I reckon to see the first returning birds over Thurlow on 8 May and the last departing ones of summer on 10 August. And there’s another interesting twist to this punctuality. Swifts are monogamous and generally mate for life. They also share parental duties at the nest, but after raising their young the pair then separate for the rest of the year, both returning to the breeding site on the same day next year to resume the relationship. What more could a mate ask: faithful, punctual and out of the way when not needed?
14 August 2016
July 2016: A vision in the woods
July is usually a quiet time for birds but it’s often the best month of the year to see butterflies, emerging to drink in nectar from the summer flowers. This year, however, we’ve had such disturbed weather with these heavy rains and squally winds that many things have been knocked out of kilter. Knocked out of the sky, too, in the case of butterflies, many of which are just venturing out for the first time in all their fragile beauty. Imagine how vulnerable they are if caught in downpour, with huge raindrops exploding on and around them like shells. In fact they dive for cover in a shower, just as we do. They usually hide under nature’s own umbrellas, clinging to the underside of leaves until the danger passes and using the clever waterproofing on their scales to shed stray droplets from those delicate wings.
They have to come out evenutually, though, and in the hope of finding some of Britain’s finest I took a chance on the weather and headed to a very special wood in Wiltshire, which is home to three of our most charismatic species, all with names are lovely as their appearances: the white admiral, the silver-washed fritillary and the purple emperor. It didn’t look promising. The rain was falling steadily when we arrived and we sloshed through dripping woodland rides. But then there was a sudden break in the leaden cloud-cover, a tiny window of blue – like the patch on a Dutchman’s trousers, as my mother used to say. The first rays of sunlight pierced through, bringing an immediate rise in temperature and a wave of humid heat. There was a quickening of pulses all round – ours and, more importantly, those of the butterflies, which are wholly dependent on the warmth of sunlight to mobilise their tiny engines. Within seconds we saw a few of the commoner ringlet butterflies on the wing, then a shout went up as the first white admiral glided past and settled to nectar on a bramble flower. The white admiral is unrelated to the much commoner red admiral we see in our gardens in Thurlow, but has the same stately presence, with broad blackish wings patterned boldly by white bars. Then within minutes the first silver-washed fritillaries floated easily down from the treetops. The French name for these is La Grande Nacre, the ‘Great Mother of Pearl’, which perfectly catches the effect of the black spots on the rich brown wings with their scalloped edgings. The English name comes from the silver streaks on the under-wing. The last of this famous trio of beauties was more elusive, but eventually we glimpsed a single purple emperor, too, gliding round the tops of the oaks in its distinctive stiff-winged action, glinting as the iridescent purple sheen of the male caught the sun.
The vision lasted just an hour. The clouds closed in and the rains came again. But as the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore said, ‘The butterfly counts not in months but moments, and has time enough’.
15 July 2016
June 2016: Blue Magic
We had a few days in Dorset recently and were reminded what an attractive county that is, almost as nice as Suffolk (well, not quite). Among of the glories of Dorset are the chalk downs along the coast and they support some special populations of flowers on the close-cropped grasslands – and some even more special butterflies that depend on those. At this time of year the grass is studded with a bright array of vetches, clovers, buttercups and thrift and the sunny south-facing slopes are home to one of Britain’s rarest and most spectacular butterflies. I spent a long while walking up and down the switchback coastal path looking for this creature, with my eyes glued to the ground for once, ignoring all the nice birds I could hear calling around me (stonechats, whitethroats, linnets, and so on). I had one or two false alarms as small butterflies emerged from the vegetation and quickly skittered away. Could that be it? No, calm down. When you are looking for something particular like this, it’s easy to deceive yourself. But then suddenly, WOW, yes, that’s it! Unmistakeable! I saw a tiny blue butterfly nestling close to the ground in a patch of grass. But this wasn’t just blue. It was the brightest blue I’d ever seen, a vivid, dazzling, sky-blue plus some. It glowed blue, radiated blue, it was like a pulsing jewel of blue. This was it – the Adonis Blue butterfly.
The Adonis Blue nearly went extinct in Britain a few decades back but is now slowly recovering. It was the victim of one of those ecological chains of events with unpredicted results. The horrible myxomatosis disease that reached Britain in 1953 killed some 99% of our wild rabbits, so they were no longer cropping the chalk downland grasses, and the food plants of these downland butterflies got swamped by the rank growth of vegetation. Eventually the rabbit population gained immunity from the disease and recovered; they resumed grass-cutting operations and the butterflies recovered too, helped also by climate change, since in southern Britain they are at the very northern edge of their range.
The English name comes, of course, from the mythological figure of Adonis, a youth so beautiful that both Aphrodite and Persephone fell for him and they had to do a deal to share his attentions. Aphrodite got the summer months and Persephone the dark winter ones when Adonis disappears temporarily to the Underworld. And it’s the male butterfly that has this seductive beauty.
In the nineteenth century, the Adonis Blue occurred much nearer to home, on Newmarket Heath in fact. That is also chalk downland, and it was a locality then for the favoured foodplant of the Adonis caterpillar, the horseshoe vetch. Ah, is that another connection: horseshoes, Newmarket? No, the flower is so called from its twisted seed pod that looks a bit like a horseshoe. But that’s also worth looking for. If it’s around here, maybe we might even get the blue beauty back again one day.
May 2016: Late arrivals at Platform Four
It’s been an odd, stuttering sort of spring. We had some glorious days in early May, when it was said to be hotter in Thurlow than in Casablanca (I couldn’t go to check, alas) and I thought we were segueing straight from winter to summer. But then there was a cold snap with a bitter north wind when we were chillier than Iceland (ditto). If that has been confusing for us, think of the effect on the rest of the life all around us. There are finely tuned regularities in nature, which scientists call phenology, the sequence of spring ‘appearances’ of flowers, butterflies and migrant birds. I’ve been keeping records of these in Thurlow for over thirty-five years now, so I know just when and where to expect the next arrivals and get strangely excited every spring looking for the first chiffchaff down the Drift (20 March), the first swallow at the Great Thurlow Barns (16 April) and the first swift screaming over our house (6 May). But though those particular species all arrived on the dot this year (‘The swallow arriving at Platform Five is the 16 April from Cape Town, South Africa …’), others have been curiously delayed or have arrived in dribs and drabs rather than in an orderly procession. The blackcaps had me quite worried for a while. This is a small warbler that has changed its habits in recent years. It used to be a summer migrant, arriving here from southern Europe and Africa in the first week of April, when we would hear the male’s clear, fluting song from early-flowering blackthorn bushes. But then a few of them started overwintering as our winters became milder, which you might think was very good sense, since it saved them that tiring and hazardous journey over the Alps and across Europe. Funnily enough, however, the ones that wintered here were not the long-distance migrants from Africa but birds from Central Europe and Germany, where it still gets a good deal colder than Britain every winter. They pushed off back to Europe as the weather warmed up in Britain in spring and our own spring birds still had to wing it from the far south. Complicated, isn’t it.
Anyway, this year they didn’t arrive on time at all and I was wondering if there had been a population crash somewhere in their winter quarters. I emailed various birding friends round the country and they were all reporting the same experience. I then phoned the BTO, the British Trust for Ornithology, which keeps a central register of national records, to see what the wider picture was. They told me not to worry – there were plenty of blackcap records on their computer database. So I told them rather huffily that they should get out more, since that wasn’t how it was on the ground. The blackcaps made it in the end, though, so I can relax again until next spring.
15 May 2016
April 2016: April showers
Well, April is certainly living up to its reputation today. I decided to take a long walk up the Temple End Road to the old airfield and set off in bright sunshine. At exactly the halfway point, the heavens opened and within minutes I was soaked to the skin. I ducked for cover into a copse up there, but the rain continued to run over, down and eventually through my clothes. So I decided just to relax into it and see how other refugees were coping. The thrush family at any rate was coping brilliantly – in fact they seemed to relish the downpour. A mistle thrush (the old country name of ‘storm cock’ is relevant here) was belting out a loud skirling song from the top of a nearby ash. Its smaller cousin, the song thrush, was living up to its name too and going through its tuneful repertoire of refrains: did-he-do-it, did-he-do-it; too true, too true; wait-a-bit, wait-a-bit; doo, doo. The poet Robert Browning caught this exactly:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
lest you should think he never could recapture
the first fine careless rapture.
Come to think of it, those lines come in the famous poem that starts. ‘Oh to be in England, now that April’s here’, so he got the timing right too. Most of the other birds and animals in the wood were lying low, though. The trees weren’t giving any of us much cover and I started thinking about that. The hawthorns in the hedges are nicely green already and there is some good leaf on the birches, maples and hazels, but most of the taller trees here are oak and ash. Both of these always leaf late, of course, and their sequence is supposed to be a guide to the volume of rain to come:
If the oak before the ash then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak then we’ll surely shall have a soak.
Today the soak seems to have come before either of them, but there’s the more sobering thought too that we may soon need a new proverb. Ash trees are suffering from a terrible blight called ‘ash die-back’, spread by a virulent fungus that could wipe out most of our native ash trees. And if that isn’t bad enough, there is another nasty fungus causing ‘oak wilt’. Can you imagine an English landscape without any of those two wonderful trees? Don’t say it couldn’t happen. Think elm. After the onslaughts of Dutch Elm disease in the late 1960s shall we ever again see a stand of tall English elms, their tops billowing against the sky. Or take an earlier devastation. The river valleys of Suffolk were once graced by huge, rugged black poplars – the paintings of John Constable are full of them. We have just one, very ancient one, left in Thurlow. I admired it again as I squealched back home. It stands grandly in the corner of the paddock and it’s leafing – for one more spring at least.
15 April 2016
March 2016: A confusion of seasons
The exciting thing about this time of year is that one keeps seeing the ‘first’ of various things for the year: the first butterfly (usually a floppy yellow Brimstone gliding along a hedge), the first chiffchaff (freshly in from Africa and singing its heart out down the Drift), the first frog spawn (in your garden pond – you should have one if you don’t already), the first bumblebees, the first shoots of green on the hawthorn, the first cowslips in the banks, and so on. I still feel a jolt of adrenaline when each of these appears in the village again, a reassurance, as the poet Ted Hughes said, ‘that the world’s still working’. More than just a reassurance, though. It’s a joyful sense that the sullen dark days of winter are going, soon to be replaced by light, warmth and growth. A feeling of abundance and renewal. Who wouldn’t feel the emotional sap rising at such a time?
But it’s getting more complicated, like the rest of life. This ‘spring’ we had the first sticky buds on the chestnuts in November last year, and the first aconites out in December; I found a chiffchaff flitting around in February and I can already hear the drone of lawn-mowers as well as bees round the village. Isn’t this good news? It can’t be bad to be spared the bitterness of a really old-fashioned winter and to enjoy the pleasures of spring a month or two earlier, can it? But suppose we are losing the familiar distinctions between the seasons altogether? These are deeply ingrained in our history and culture, and give us our bearings in the natural world. I’m not sure I’d want a bland, uniform climate in which the cycles of growth and rebirth had been flattened out or erased, even if it was a bit more comfortable.
We’ve got used to this kind of thing in our eating habits, of course. You can now eat fresh (well, fairly fresh) raspberries, asparagus and spinach all the year round, when once we were attuned to having them only in season. And you can buy exotic fruits like avocados at any supermarket or corner store. I don’t suppose I had ever even eaten an avocado until I was 30, and if you had asked me as a boy what the word ‘Avocado’ meant I might have guessed at some sort of Church prayer or Mexican board game. These changes in consumer habits aren’t just the consequence of climate change, of course. They are as much to do with the globalization of trade and developments in agricultural science, and we and our tastes and our bodies have largely adapted to them; but they do illustrate how easily you can lose the sense of a season.
Perpetual spring would actually mean no spring at all. Not that this is likely. What is more probable that one set of cycles will be replaced with another, with perhaps some violent interludes and some strange effects. We may yet see avocados growing in Thurlow – in between the floods and droughts, that is.
13 March 2016
January 2016: New Year’s Resolution
The New Year began as strangely as the old one had ended – blustery, to be sure, but so mild that it could have been September or March. The weather is clearly disturbed, and you hear fewer people now denying that some large-scale change is under way. The seasons are becoming both confused and confusing. How are we supposed to react when we see that the daffodils are already shooting, indeed a few of them already in flower, and that the buds on the chestnut trees are already ‘sticky’, months ahead of their time? Do we hail this happily as an early spring, or mutter darkly that they probably have a shock coming when winter does actually arrive? But if it’s confusing for us, how do you think all the creatures out there are affected? All their reactions and seasonal behaviour patterns have been finely calibrated to match seasonal changes and deeply imprinted over thousands of years of evolution. Butterflies take to the wing just when their favourite flowers are opening their petals to expose fresh supplies of nectar; their caterpillars emerge when the particular food plants they need are leafing; the cuckoo arrives just in time to feed on those caterpillars and drop off their eggs in the nests of their host species, which in turn had just been triggered to start their own breeding cycle; and so on through the whole interconnected world of nature. Change one sequence in this beautifully choreographed procession and everyone gets out of step.
Of course, if the climate eventually settles down to a ‘new normal’, things will adapt to that or perish. That’s how natural selection works. But in this phase of earth history the changes are all happening so fast that there is no time for gradual adaptation and there are likely to be some mass extinctions. If that happens the one class of creatures likely to survive and prosper are the humble beetles. Did you know we have in Britain 4,034 different kinds of beetles – more than all the bird, animal, reptile, fish and butterfly species put together? No wonder the famous biologist, J.S. Haldane once remarked, ‘The Creator, if he exists, must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles.’ They seem to thrive in every habitat: mountains, forests, fields, sea-shore, rivers, lakes, gardens and buildings. Some people are squeamish about them, but think how attractive, for example, are the ladybird (so-named after ‘Our Lady’ with her red garments, the ladybird’s seven spots recalling her ‘Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows’), the splendidly antlered stag beetle and the whirligigs gyrating round your garden pond in their silvery bubbles. Some others have extraordinary names: the ‘Devil’s coach-horse’, the ‘Beaulieu dung-beetle’, the ‘Cardinal click beetle’ and the self-explanatory ‘Hogweed bonking beetle’. The one I want to find this year, though, is one you may not even have realised was a beetle at all: the glow-worm. Even Winston Churchill recognised their charisma, remarking, ‘We are all worms, but I believe I am a glow-worm.’ Anyway, it’s my New Year Resolution to discover one glowing.
15 January 2016