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
Nature note: 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.
Nature note: 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!