January 2021: Speedy whistlers
Our arable fields can look very bare in winter, almost devoid of life. But look more closely, and listen. We have visitors from the north, flocks of them, sometimes noisy. Golden plovers, who arrived here in the autumn from the northern uplands where they breed. In summer plumage these are gorgeous birds, sporting gold-spangled upperparts and peat-black bellies, divided by a sinuous white band running down their sides. Nonetheless, they are surprisingly well camouflaged against the variegated colours of the moorland heather and you may only become aware of them from hearing a plaintive, fugitive whistle, almost lost in the wide and windy spaces. This was the sound Robbie Burns heard when he wrote of ‘the deep-toned plover gray, wild whistling on the hill.’ An old folk name for them was ‘rain bird’, but the two parts of the golden plover’s official scientific name are more oxymoronic in combination: Pluvialis apricaria ‘rain-bird, basking in the sun’. Given the changeable upland climate perhaps it was an attempt to connect the birds with both sun and showers.
In winter they migrate south to our fields and wetlands, where they congregate in large flocks, though they can still be hard to locate on the ground since they have now exchanged their contrasting summer colours for drab browns and greys that again give them perfect camouflage, only this time against the dun shades of the earth and mud on which they are feeding. If you carefully scan the fields up the Temple End Road, however, you will eventually make out the hunched profiles of some golden plovers on the ground. And when you have picked up a few, look again and you may find there are not just five, but fifty, or even a hundred or more, which gradually emerge from the background. They have a distinctive way of feeding – walking briskly head down for a few yards; a quick stab for worms or grubs; pausing, more upright and alert; then marching off again at different angle.
Every now and again, for no reason apparent to us, the flock may take off in a sudden dread. And now you hear their individual calls combined into a very distinctive whistling chorus that has the strange quality of being both muted and penetrating. These flocks swirl around in dense formations before the birds settle again back again on the ground in their invisibility cloaks. They are powerful flyers and, bizarrely, played a part in the creation of a publishing phenomenon. A spirited argument had broken out among the members of an Irish shooting party in 1951 about which British game bird was the fastest flyer – red grouse or golden plover? So Sir Hugh Beaver, who was one of the shooters but also happened to be head of the Guinness brewery, commissioned a volume to settle this and other such inconsequential facts – The Guinness Book of Records, which is now an annual best-seller. A golden gift to the publishers.
Jeremy Mynott, 12 January 2021
February 2021: The rooks return
‘The Rooks have returned’ is a famous painting by the 19th century Russian landscape artist, Aleksey Savrasov, who was much influenced by Suffolk’s own John Constable. The picture celebrates the return of rooks to their traditional nesting site in his village. Russian winters are so hard that rooks are summer migrants there, so for him this was a joyful sign of spring. Rooks are resident with us all year round, of course, but they are early breeders and are already busy rebuilding their rookeries. You can see them flying in with new twigs to repair nests shredded by winter storms, and also sometimes cheekily pinching some choice sticks from their neighbours’ constructions – hence our term ‘to rook’, meaning to fleece someone. But they are essentially sociable birds, foraging and roosting together, and nesting in these densely-packed colonies. The clamour from a rookery in the breeding season can be loud and raucous, to be sure, but the combined choral effect of all these individual conversations and altercations is powerfully evocative, even soothing. As soon as a BBC drama features an English churchyard scene you know they’ll soon be dubbing in a sound-track of rooks cawing in the tree-tops – a subliminal reassurance of an enduring rural idyll. Enduring except for the trees, that is. Rooks used to prefer mature elms, but they’ve gone; second choice was ash, also becoming endangered; so now most often sycamore, beech, chestnut and oak round here. Our nearest rookery, I think, is the one in the line of trees between Little Bradley church and Hall Farm stables.
Rooks and crows are often mistaken for each other, but the old country saying largely holds good, ‘A crow in a crowd is a rook and a rook on its own is a crow’. Shakespeare didn’t help this confusion with his line in Macbeth, ‘The crow makes wing to the rooky wood’. Scarecrows are misnomers, too, since it’s rooks they are meant to drive off the crops. In fact, this is doubly inappropriate since rooks feed mainly on grubs and insects, so serve to protect the crops, and that despite their scientific name of frugilegus ‘crop-picker’. Rooks and crows look quite different, anyway. Rooks have that whitish patch of bare skin round the base of the bill – visible from quite a distance; and their plumage seems one size too large for them, especially on the thighs, which look as if they are covered by baggy, feathered shorts. They walk differently, too. Crows stalk about rather menacingly, while rooks just waddle.
The collective term for rooks is a ‘parliament’. I used to think that too staid a word for their noisy, obstreperous gatherings. But the way things have gone recently in the world’s parliaments, I now think it may be unfair to rooks.
March 2021: Far away and long ago
There’s a lot of excitement about this Perseverance mission to Mars. The technology is amazing and the information we are getting back is remarkably detailed. For example, the night-time temperature there yesterday was a bracing -98F. They’ve equipped that extraordinary Rover vehicle to search for signs of past life. If they find any, it’s likely to be in the form of fossilised microbes about 3.5 billion years old. The mission is costing $2.7 billion and is thought a small price for satisfying the deep human urge to reach out and find life elsewhere in the universe.
I couldn’t help comparing that sum, however, with the current UK budget of £258 million for nature conservation and the protection of biodiversity. There is life on earth, right here and now, and it needs some help. Some of our own ancient inhabitants are in real trouble. Bees evolved in the Cretaceous period, some 120 million years ago, at about the same time as flowers, with which they have ever since formed a mutual support system. The bees pollinated the flowers, which competed for their attention with the huge variety of different colours, shapes and fragrances that the flowers evolved to lure them in. In turn, the flowers offered the bees pollen and nectar and the bees themselves diversified and adapted to take advantage of this bounty. We come into this biological equation too, since we depend on crops the bees have fertilised – in fact it has been estimated that the value of pollination for human food is more than £110 billion a year.
But bees are declining fast. They have lost important habitats of flower-rich meadows and have suffered terrible collateral damage from pesticides, herbicides and the other -cides, as well as from parasites. We’ve all read the headlines about this, but how much do we really know about this wonderful family of insects? Most people can recognise a bumble bee and a honey bee, but did you realise we have 24 different kinds of bumble bee in Britain and 270 other kinds of bee? Or that 250 of the latter are called ‘solitary bees’, which don’t live in hives or big colonies and have a huge range of life-styles, indicated by such intriguing names as miner, mason, leaf-cutter, wool-carder and sweat bees (yes, attracted by perspiration). Worldwide, there are over 20,000 different species of bees, more than all the birds and mammals put together, each occupying a different niche and enriching the planet in their own ways.
Well, you can see where my Easter parable is heading. Are we at risk of learning more about 3 billion-year old microbes on a dead and uninhabitable planet 140 million miles away than about the buzzing and blooming life that sustains our own live one and that lifts our hearts again every spring?
Stop Press. See this link for an important East Suffolk initiative. https://www.eastsuffolk.gov.uk/news/wildlife-to-benefit-from-more-wild-spaces/
Come on West Suffolk!
April 2021: Sounds of spring
All the talk is of a ‘return to normality’. Yes, I know people are longing for that but, as the old saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for. One of the compensations of lockdown has been that people have been exploring their immediate surroundings much more closely than ever before and seeing all sorts of things that were always there but unnoticed. Hearing them, too – for one of the revelations of the first lockdown was how transformative it was to be spared the noise pollution of air and road traffic and to hear all the natural sounds again with such clarity. The buzzing of bees, the gentle soughing of leaves, a babbling stream, and above all the chorus of spring birdsong – all balm to the ear. It felt like a new experience, but it’s also an ancient one. Here is the Greek poet Theocritus, celebrating the sounds of summer in the third century BC:
Over our heads many an aspen and elm stirred
And rustled, while nearby a sacred spring
Gurgled gently, welling up from a cave.
In the shady foliage of the trees the dusky
Cicadas were busy chirping, and some distant songster
Murmured from deep in the thorny thickets.
Lark and finch were singing, the turtle dove crooned,
And bees hummed and hovered, flitting hither and yon.
Well, that sounds pretty familiar, if you change cicadas to crickets and think back to the time when we did still have turtle doves and elms. But I worry about that ‘distant songster’ he mentions. As the traffic builds up again, I’ve noticed that the softer and higher-pitched ‘murmurings’ of birds like goldcrests, blue tits, coal tits and tree creepers are getting harder to pick out against the background din. And that isn’t just my ageing ears suffering what audiologists call the ‘cocktail party problem’ of picking out individual voices in a crowd. I seem to spend more time in the woods than at cocktail parties anyway, but the real problem is that now even the birds are now finding it increasingly difficult to hear each other. Research shows that they are having to sing louder to be heard in the modern world and that many of them are having to abandon otherwise suitable habitats near busy roads for just that reason. They sing their hearts out but never find a mate. I find that very sad. Think of a visual world that consisted only of loud colours. Think of an orchestra that only had trombones, cymbals and drums. So much of the beauty of both the landscape and the soundscape depends on variety, subtlety and harmony.
As for the desire to return to ‘normality’, whatever that is, we might bear in mind Oscar Wilde’s version of the old saying with which I started, ‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers’.
10 April 2021
May 2021: Go wild
I’ve been keeping a log-book. Literally. I’ve been very restricted in my walking recently by a hip-problem (now fixed, I hope), but I found a mossy old log by the river I could just get to and rest on, completely out of sight. I’ve been sitting quietly on that, making notes on what comes by. It’s a quite different kind of nature-watching from the one I’m used to – striding out freely and actively exploring the world. But it turns out to have its own compensations when you adjust to it, which you have to do mentally as well as physically. Your world has shrunk to a radius of just a few yards, but it’s still teeming with life. And instead of pursuing nature you just have to be still and let it come to you. Which it does, surprisingly quickly.
After a few minutes, I hear a rustling very close by. A beetle? A mouse? No, it’s a wren, working its way busily through the undergrowth, picking up tiny insects invisible to my eye with deft little pecks and pounces. I don’t move a muscle, trying to look like an extension of my log. The wren’s nearly at my feet when it senses an unusual presence and flicks a little way off to continue its rummaging, but not before I get my best-ever view of its subtly variegated dead-leaf colours and the stiff little cocked tail. Now a moorhen paddles slowly by in the river, quite unaware of me, and a male blackcap sings from a branch – so close that its pure fluting song is almost too piercing. After an hour of immobility, I’m almost a woodland feature. A seven-spot ladybird lands on my hand, some wood ants investigate my boots, and the wren makes another pass, more boldly this time. And now a butterfly settles right next to me in a patch of sunlight – a male orange-tip. What a beauty! This is the first I’ve seen this year and it really does capture the spirit of spring with those sunshine orange flashes on its wings. Soon there will be lots of them on the wing searching out their favourite plants, garlic mustard and lady’s smock, both them just coming into flower now with perfect timing. The orange-tip’s Latin name is Anthocharis, ‘flower grace’ and the French call it L’aurore, ‘the dawn’, a nice suggestion of a new beginning.
Some people walk by just the other side of the river, another interesting species that doesn’t notice me, or very much else, I fancy. There’s a move to re-wild our landscapes, but I emerge from my immersion in nature feeling that we could all do with some rewilding ourselves. We’re part of nature too.
16 May 2021
June 2021: A local exotic
A neighbour reported an unusual bird on their lawn the other day. They wondered if it could be some exotic visitor from overseas. It was quite large, they said – the size of jackdaw but slimmer and very brilliantly coloured, flashing a bright yellow rump in a V-shape up the soft green back. And it sported a most striking head pattern with a black mask enclosing a white eye, topped off with a scarlet crown. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a tropical jungle, but here it was hopping about on the grass in front of their house. When disturbed, it flew off in a bounding flight and appeared to clamp itself, as if magnetised, on to the trunk of a nearby willow.
Well, that was a very good description of what is certainly a charismatic bird, but not in this case an exotic one – it’s a common British resident, the green woodpecker. We naturally associate all our native woodpeckers with trees, as their name suggests, and they do indeed use their powerful dagger bills to excavate nest holes in tree-trunks, probe the bark for grubs and drum on hollow branches to advertise their presence both to rivals and potential mates. But the green woodpecker has also developed this further habit of using its formidable drilling equipment to dig into ant colonies in our lawns and lick up the inhabitants with their specially adapted tongues. The artist Leonardo da Vinci, who observed everything with insatiable curiosity, was fascinated by woodpecker tongues – why were they so long, he asked, and how were they housed in the woodpecker’s head when they were retracted? The answer was later revealed by dissection and is illustrated in this little diagram of a skeleton: the tongue is literally wrapped around the brain and its elastic movements are controlled by specially adapted bony cartilages.
In spring, the male green woodpecker has a very distinctive territorial call, a descending peal of (usually seven) loud ‘laughing’ notes that gave the bird its old country name ‘yaffle’. Another folk name was ‘rain bird’. It was widely believed that the yaffle’s call presaged rain, which would bring out the insects on which the bird feeds. An easy prediction to make in Britain, perhaps, when it is always about to rain anyway, but quite false. Possibly it derived from an even older, more primitive belief in the woodpecker as the ‘thunder bird’, who summons up the rain with his resounding drum-roll and wears the red badge of lightning on his crest.
Anyway, no need to invoke foreign exotica with such wonders close to home.
7 June 2021
July 2021: Benign neglect