Monday, 31 December 2012

Broadly Lacking


Few birds promise so much yet deliver as little as the Rough-legged Buzzard. I first encountered one four, nearly five, years ago now. It was love at first sight. That first sight; side-lit in the golden winter afternoons of the north Norfolk marshes, thrilled me. All it had to do was sit on a fence post, in a field, as I watched, rapt. I like arctic birds, I like raptors; but arctic raptors are something really special indeed.

That year was a fabulous year of carefree birding for me: a year of burgeoning confidence in my own abilities and widening horizons. I fell in love with Scotland that year. Nostalgia foreshortens the gaps between the successful trips and the lifers. And there were lots of those. But amongst them all, the Rough-legged Buzzard by Burnham Norton marsh remains a cherished birding memory.
(That first rough-leg)

It spoiled me, I think. Now I wonder if crossing the North Sea is so exhausting, they have to spend winter sitting down to recuperate.

***

It’s a clear day. The rain has gone, for a day at least, though its replacement is a bitter wind. On the western horizon lies Cantley Beet factory, and the steam from its cooling towers exits at a right angle. It’s five miles away and between us a dull green expanse of nothing-much marsh. Mud, grass, rivers and gates sprinkled apparently at random. Fritton, Chedgrave, Cantley, Furlton, Norton, Thorpe and Reedham Marshes all spread out in front of me. Dad and I, standing on the edge of the higher ground of Waveney Forest were the first thing the wind hit for those five miles; and it gleefully ripped through coats and gloves and shook the scope just to make things difficult, as well as cold.

These marshes are a desolate place. It doesn’t help that the fingerprints of man are all over it. In the gates, the raised river banks, the windmills that mark off the different marshes, the train track that splits into two and runs either side, the pylons, the bridge and the A143 in the distance… The landscape is cold. Unremitting. Man’s additions are functional, utilitarian. The only scenic additions are the windmills, the ghosts of agriculture past.

Another birder found it first. Taking the directions, we find the rough-leg. Or we think we do. Nobody was really sure: sat at nearly a mile, identification is by percentage; probability of what it looks most like. What we conclude, when we’re certain it’s not a goose, is that it’s a large greyish brown raptor, pale headed and pale tailed. The rest exists in uncertainty. It probably was the Rough-legged Buzzard was my conclusion, but it was hard to conclude anything. By behaviour as much as anything else. Ever since the Burnham Norton bird, the rest I’ve seen have all been sat on the opposite ends of whichever rain-sodden marsh I find myself at. I don’t think they fly at all, which, oddly, must be about their only similarity to Coots. But for a high-arctic, charismatic, scarce, and exciting species, they seem determined to be a damp squib, everytime.

***

After, we headed to Buckenham Marshes. Home of England’s only regular wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese. Except not today. Today it was almost completely bereft of birds except for Wigeon, Kestrel and this Pied Wagtail.

The Kestrels were frantically hovering as if it were the only way to keep warm. We hid in a hide, overlooking a mammoth, thousand-strong flock of Wigeon...

...Wondering what happened to all the birds? Is this the worst winter in a decade for wintering bird numbers?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Ennui

After the redpoll? Christmas. Turkey, books and socks I’ll probably never wear again; enough alcohol to circumvent family gatherings and parents still busy with work. The final week between Christmas and the new year is always fallow. Lethargic, like this sentence. Short of a proper cold snap, are we witnessing the globally-warmed ghost of Christmas future? It was so warm that a pre-Christmas pint with friends was held outside, at 10pm, in December without coats. More practically, the mildness means the sky has been leaking rain since…forever? Or so it feels. Without the usual cold snap the countryside has laid to rot, devoid of anything that isn’t a Waxwing. And there’s none near the village here.
After the redpoll? Minsmere. After that redpoll most things don’t seem so good. That afternoon was spent wandering around various hides overlooking a remarkably birdless scrape. Passing Bittern hide we stopped and looked at it: ‘you never actually see Bitterns from it’ I remark to dad. He agreed. The same applies to Kingfisher hides. As soon as you name a hide after an animal, you’re guaranteed to never see that species from it. Mother Nature is the greatest ironist though: at that moment a Bittern flew from left to right, extremely close in front of the hide. Had we gone in the hide, we would’ve been walking up the stairs, oblivious to the bird.

We were headed to Island Mere, for the long dusk of winter days. Facing southeast, with the skeletons of poplar trees in the distance, the horizon turns a festive golden as the light slowly slips away. Bewick’s and Whooper Swans makes brief, unsatisfactory appearances, as does a Kingfisher, periodically flying from one reedy inlet in front of the hide to another. By the reedy edge of the hide, Water Rails comically, awkwardly, sprint from cover to cover. Living deep in cover does that: they’ve not learned the Minsmere way of parading to a paying public. As the shadows extend over the margins one becomes a bit bolder though, and hesitantly, slowly picks its way around a muddy puddle. They are impossibly awkward looking birds, with their long, gently decurved bill, long legs, and surprisingly slender, striped, body.
The hide fills up as dusk wins over day. Word has got around about this place, and more precisely this:
One of the more reliable places to go face-to-snout with an Otter, though never one you can ever confidently predict. It just appeared, in a channel in front of the hide, posed for just long enough to grab a photo before hunting for fish. For several minutes it was on view, often just the head or tail before the light disappeared completely.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Home is where the Hornemann's is.

I don’t travel well. Four hours into a seven-hour train journey is when the rot sets in. First the legs, then the head: I can’t be made to sit down for so long. It’s not right. And then I look at the Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll: a finch the size of a fist with wings as long as my fingers. It’s flown from Greenland and ended up in this scratchy patch of Sea Poppy in front of me on the Suffolk coast. I complain crossing Britain: this bird has done that and an ocean too.

It wasn’t that simple. It had been present in Suffolk for a week; about four days longer than I had been. It had gone missing for one afternoon in that time, and typically, just before we arrived.

For Jens Wilken Hornemann it was somewhat simpler: from his desk in nineteenth-century Copenhagen he ended up with an eponymous bird, in a field he didn’t study, that he never saw alive. Simpler, because he never left his desk: it was Carl Peter HolbØll who went to colonial era Greenland to collect the type specimen. Safer, because it was HolbØll who drowned in the mid-Atlantic when his ship sunk. Carl Peter HolbØll is the much more interesting individual. From his desk as Professor of Botany, Hornemann enshrined HolbØll in Boechera holboellii, a species of rockcress. Out of a wonderfully nineteenth-century politeness, HolbØll returned the favour with the redpoll, two years after Hornemann’s death. At least HolbØll was a botanist: Hornemann, by all accounts, was no ornithologist[1].

But questions of curious nomenclature aside, Hornemann or HolbØll never had to put with a Suffolk beach and a manic twitch in a brutal easterly wind. Manic, because there had been only one previous record of his redpoll in mainland Britain, and December is the twitching off-season. We arrived to find a crowd of people all looking in different directions. Most of them appeared to be just there for a social, as if standing on a shingle beach chatting is the most perfectly natural thing to do in this winter wind. Never mind the redpoll. Apparently it would reappear shortly. So we waited. Then we walked. To the north lies Aldeburgh, full of the neglected bijou gardens of second-home owners. More immediately in that direction is a boatyard – where the bird was last seen flying towards. Directly west is a marsh of rank vegetation. Up and down the shingle beach is tangled with the skeletal remains of sea poppy shaking in the wind. Balls of gulls bounce down the shoreline. The odd dog-walker gives us bemused glances. The redpoll could’ve been anywhere. Tundra birds stick to the ground: they live a life north of any trees. We figured we could discount looking amongst the taller vegetation. So we walked towards the boatyard. The rest of the twitchers just stood and chatted.

Creeping between boats, masts whistling in the wind, seems very far away from where you would expect birds. Surrounded by ‘nature’ why would a bird from the tundra end up in here? Looking with human eyes it seems mystifying. But from the bird’s perspective it’s shelter, and where there’s mess there’s normally food. And where there’s food, there’s not always birds: in this case, just boats, and one other confused looking twitcher. I turn to dad. He turns to me. Between us is the length of three boats, and a fat white finch flying between us.

It dropped out of sight behind the biggest building in the boatyard. We rushed around but found only twitchers casually talking. Dad suggests heading to the beach: we clamber up to the shingle from the track and find the other twitchers all converging on one bit of the beach.




At first it’s hard to see: staring into the light, a white bird in a pale tangle, with elbows, shoulders, bald-patches in the way. Then it shuffled onto the end of a dead stem, gently bending under the weight of the bird. Backlit like this, the first thing that strikes you is the size: this is not your typically dainty redpoll, but bulky throughout the body, bull-necked and big-billed; but with a lanky tail and oversized wings. A body the colour of arctic snow with two bold black scratches down the side and a pale buff face. And did I mention the ludicrous wings? The wind ruffled under its back feathers revealing dense fluffiness, and layers of feathers to repel the arctic chill or Suffolk-coast easterly. Time fades away when watching birds: I watch it until my knees complain of the shingle, I shift until I feel life returning to my legs and I carry on watching.
 (Note how the bill appears different with pose)


Every twitch comes wrapped up in its own justification. I’m a lover of deep nature, of slow nature. The minutiae of seasonal changes in a land you’ve spent years in; the behaviour of birds you see on a daily basis. It’s why nobody’s ever written a good book about attempting to see so many different birds in a year: you can’t manufacture suspense or meaning in something so utterly arbitrary. There’s no suspense in a twitch, just boredom and frustration; the pay-off from a successful sighting is undermined by the expectation. The justification? I also love birds. It’s as superficial as that. Particularly anything with high-arctic chic: the fluffy white wind-blocking feathers and the general air of being tougher than anything the capricious climate can throw at you. I also like anomalies. There’s an absurdity that this bundle of wings and stripes took a wrong turning somewhere over Canada and ended up the wrong side of the Atlantic to pitch down on this particular beach. It’s nice to dream that coastal Suffolk can have a touch of the tundra about it. I’m also, sadly, never likely to end up in arctic Greenland or Canada: I’m a Hornemann, not a HolbØll.


[1] For more detail, see Biographies for Birdwatchers, by Barbara and Richard Mearns (London: Academic Press, 1988).

Friday, 7 December 2012

Visible Dreariness


Hi. 

Are you ok? 

I feel like I’ve been neglecting you. I haven’t been up to much. Just a whistle stop tour from Paradise Lost to Omeros and 5000 words that will never see the light of day again. A week’s worth of angst printed, doubled-sided, to end up in a pile in a box in a cupboard with the rest of my undergraduate work. With it, no more Waxwings and nothing much of interest for you. For me, I walked the road from Cambuskenneth at night with the threat of snow. The sky above Edinburgh burns at night. You can see the orange stain from here; Grangemouth is just a smudge; the Hillfoots are a necklace of streetlights; cars race down here and the path is treacherous underfoot. There can be an even more treacherous beauty in pollution. Nothing quite compares to a clear night: the moon out lamping stars. Play connect the dots. Orion’s belt. The Plough. Polaris. Head back until your neck hurts. Dizzy. Not because of the endless mystery of the night sky, just it’s cold and my inept circulation. Geese heading to roost on the Forth after dark, cackle in the night. The moon is never quite bright enough to lamp them.
It did eventually snow. I woke up and saw the geese going the wrong way: as if they’d come up the Forth, found the carse in ermine and thought better of it. The loch mostly iced up; variations on grey and white, whilst a peachy drake Goosander bobs blissfully amidst the Mallards it tries to mate with in spring. A floating duck has a kind of zen, the zen that comes with not having to write essays and a timetable of eat, sleep, hybridise. I saw six from the bus the other day, floating in the Forth.


This is the life of the almost finished student. The apathy of a job mostly done, so let’s not try to think about it anymore. More books to read, a meeting to attend. Birds are still there at the fringes of life, they never leave. Wordsworth could wring a transcendence out of this. His visionary dreariness. It’s a phrase I love but that turkey’s neck has been well wrung by now. I’m counting days until I head home again, when the nature/life balance becomes more correctly skewed towards nature.

And in lieu of having an actual bird photo to put here, this is a sign at the university library, my new home.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Bohemia


A week after they first hit Shetland and Orkney, the Waxwings start filtering south. Everyday they reach another town further south before eventually hitting Stirling. First it’s a few flyovers, then small groups; then a surprise three figure flock. It’s another invasion year this year – if it carries on as it has – like it was in my first year here. Yet its not really been like that at all. This time they hit Shetland and Orkney then Scilly, bizarrely, before Stirling or Suffolk. This year instead of filtering through they’ve exploded all over. They’re in Down and Derby, the Isle of Man and your local Rowan tree, it seems. Though the Rowan crop here has mostly been had by the Blackbirds this year. It’s not as cold as the previous influx. I never found my own flock then, either.

I did this time.

It was a strange morning. Blue sky to the east and leaden to the west as Michael and I put aside our birding rivalry and walked into Bridge of Allan. The streets were quiet but the roads were full with commuters heading east: the air thick with geese going the other way. Passerines flitted over grey rooftops and Starlings squawked from aerials. The last of the leaves flutter from the trees: they fall in an oddly bird-like way and those that remain stand proud like a perching bird. You can’t avoid it: you look like a fool when you rely on your peripheral vision to detect ‘bird movement’ and it turns out - mid exclamation - to be a leaf. A lot of birding, a lot of everything is in the head. You don’t want hope to be an autumn leaf because you’ll stop looking. Scenery is a big part of that. Up hill, Bridge of Allan is an old spa town of wide, leafy roads, and plenty of trees. As it merges into the carse, the roads get tighter, the trees get fewer, more planned and less loved. In a fleece (always a fleece, we’re birders!) and with binoculars in streets in the early morning, I feel terribly self-conscious. So does Michael. We were going for safety in numbers. It’s so easy to sack it off and hope for a flyover.

One last road. They all merge into one. We’d had geese, countless geese, from their roosts near the Forth heading into the carse, and my first Dipper of the winter flew down the Allanwater, but it wasn’t a successful morning. Avenue into lane into street, road, drive, cul-de-sac: all dead-ends. Then in the gap between two semi-detached houses, a glimpse of back garden tree. Standing proud was, this time, not a leaf. I turn to Michael. I bet it’s a Waxwing, I said. It trilled, and flew.
One building down we got a better view: a back-garden tree decorated with bauble-like Waxwings, delicately buff-pink in the morning light and tinkling like wind-chimes. And they flew down the street again. They’re completely hyperactive. They pitched up in a park at the bottom of the street. I sunk to my knees and scoped them, counting at least 35: Michael’s photo showed there was at least 39.
(I have still never managed a good photo of one.)

That was, I think, two weeks ago. Last week I found the same flock a few roads away, in a complex of streets named after Hume (that’ll be the Enlightenment philosopher, not the ornithologist of Phylloscopus fame). Without binoculars and with heaps of Starlings they were discovered by their elegant flycatching (which the Starlings weren’t doing) and incessant trilling. My friend, killing the same time as me, was duly impressed.

And then a few days later there were no reports of any in the small belt of suburbia from Dunblane to Stirling. That’s approximately 400 birds spread out, all decamping at once. I tried for the Stirling flock of 200 before I’d realised this: the patchwork of carpark Rowans all stripped and bare, except for about five berries. I wonder if we’ll get a second wave of the birds left in the highlands when the snow comes or if all the berries really have been had…

Friday, 2 November 2012

Miscellaneous...

One of the problems with studying English is that things read a few months ago all congeal into the fuzzy blob of half-remembered quotes that is my memory. I can't remember where I read it but I remember Martin Amis once wrote something along the lines of, 'the problem with reviewing books is that your review is in the same medium. You can't help but be judged in comparison with what you're judging'. Or at least I think he said it. It could've been someone else. My memory might have made it up.

Anyway, with that in mind, here's my latest book review, of Anthony McGeehan's Birds Through Irish Eyes. I hope it doesn't suffer in the light of his writing. Click on the image and cross your fingers the hyperlink works.

And whilst we're on the topic, here are my older reviews on BirdGuides.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo
Facing Extinction by Paul Donald, et al.
The Jewel Hunter by Chris Goodie (The somewhat controversial one. I've reread the review but not the book (time issues) but I've passed it on to other people who said pretty much the same thing as me. I still think it's a good and fair review. See comments seven and eight for more of a discussion; see comments one to six for a pointless waste of everyone's entitlement to be a keyboard warrior.)
Birding from the Hip by Anthony McGeehan (The first one. I was a mere seventeen, acne ridden and prematurely bearded when I wrote this.)

In the meantime, I've been busy drowning in essays. Recently I stretched my legs for the first time in far too long and I found these fish trying too hard and getting nowhere:
And I know exactly what that feels like. Though to be fair I've never tried it in a river. I think they're trout; I imagine Atlantic Salmon to be much bigger and much more capable and taking that jump.


Winter arrived recently.
But hasn't been seen since. Waxwings are filtering through, and I'll probably spend the next fortnight wandering through the backstreets in search of Rowan trees, cotoneasters, etc. failing to find my own flocks. I have quite an extraordinary history of failure with these things, hopefully this year will be the year I finally find a decent flock.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Iteration

I haven't checked the charts but somewhere over Britain must be the line where two weather systems are meeting. My parents on holiday in Dorset are having all the symptoms of a low pressure front. They're particularly enjoying the rain. In Stirling this was our fourth day in the row of skies passing for summer: calm and blue. But clear skies, particularly at night, give the air an added bite. Winter is settling in. It can be seen in the paleness of the blue and the skeins of geese crossing over, daily. Curiously no Redwings yet.
I walked over the bridge across the loch just before the sunset, pausing to take a picture. If I wasn't busy I would've waited for the sun to drop fully to reveal the rich colours that are just forming, waiting to paint that line of wispy cloud. It'll do though. The pre-sunset is better than no sunset at all.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Two Variations

Saturday

A second consecutive day of sun; this time spent knee deep in the medieval poetry of Chaucer.

‘Nor other cure canstow noon for me.        
Eek I nil not be cured, I wol deye;
What knowe I of the quene Niobe?
Lat be thyne olde ensaumples, I thee preye.'

Indeed. The sky was a faded blue and I reclined on my bed, looking out the window. Wispy clouds and the occasional leaf rolled through on the gentle breeze. This is October. This is traditionally the season that should be spent digging fingernails into palms in stiff easterly winds by the coast, waiting for that unusual looking warbler to reappear (and to inevitably be just a Chiffchaff). This is the third week university slump though; my Hamlet phase when the uses of the outside world seem weary, stale, flat and unprofitable to me.

I pull myself together by five. By half five I’m out and walking up, but west not east. Instead of to the mountains, my regular route, I head along a road with a short hedge by a field that banks steeply downslope. I wasn’t the only one with the idea. The sun drops between the edges of the Hills of Touch and the Trossachs here. The Carse of Lecropt is bathed in cool shade with the stippled halos of trees catching the last rays of the sun. The hills are distant and grey and black.

 By half six the sun has sunk below the horizon. The other watchers leave, oddly, as the sun sinks, content with what they have seen. As the sun carries on its orbit below the horizon the colours get more vivid. The clouds, hitherto patchy, congeal into a giant mass; they burn orange-red, briefly, then disappear into dusk.
 (And twenty minutes later)


Friday

Eventually September rains itself out; eventually I get my required reading done. The afternoon, never productive time for me, was to be spent on a wild goose chase in the carse. This is never a particularly reliable target. You can walk down any country lane here one winter’s day and stumble across giant flocks that you’ll never find again in the same place, but you’ll never give up trying to find them there…

In the end, one small flock of Siskin in a hedge was hardly what I wanted for a seven mile walk. Feet aching and thighs on fire, and the first thing I find on getting back to my room in the flat was an orange sky outside. Walking east at dusk has its downsides. The crows that roost in the trees by the loch spread themselves against the sky, fold like origami and shoot off behind the other flats. Just in time for a quick shower of rain. Five minutes later the sky turns orange, grey, blue and yellow.

It seems very Scottish this photo. Nothing can quite escape the fingerprints of the rain.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Light and dark.

 Light, deciduous. Dark, evergreen.

Death-come-quickly

 
(Aka: Geranium robertianum)

Simple Pleasures

(North)
 
I spent my afternoon with the Ravens. They tumbled off the hillside and into thermals, I merely sat on rocks and watched.

The king of crows.

They have a special flight style, I think, using all of their body to flip from gliding thermal to thermal, and to tumble off over cliffs and moors. It's not just the way that Rooks, Carrion Crows and Jackdaws fly from the wing, but the way a Raven gently twists its tail. It's... elegant, if that word doesn't seem too incongruous when applied to a beast of a bird that will take out the eyes of a new born lamb*.

To the west, showers rolled south over the carse, from the Trossachs to precipitate over the city.

(West)

*Allegedly.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

With Friends

Dumyat is hardly a mountain, though it depends how you define it. It limps in at 418 metres above sea level and angles itself on the western edge of the Ochils as if leaning against the main range for support. It's a well trodden path. Blue sky brings the walkers of Stirling to it like wasps to a picnic, and the students who know that the best cure for whisky heads is being blasted with a brisk northern breeze.
 South
 West
East

It's still roughly 400 metres higher than anywhere in East Anglia. It's odd then that despite being known amongst the university's nature society as Steve from the flat south, I lead the way. Quicker than anyone else. I have no desire to run on flat ground, but there's something about an incline, peat and long grass that make me want to run up. And then down. And then up again. And to slap my hand against the grain of the igneous rocks and feel the grain from countless storms.

It could almost be that nature intended man, or me at least, to have a slope beneath its feet.

Friday, 28 September 2012

On heading east.

‘Oh fleeting joys / Of paradise, dear bought with lasting woes’ (Paradise Lost, Book X, L. 741-742).

At 6 am the mist rises off the loch into a cool blue pre-dawn. By 7am the hills are pinkish brown and invitingly autumnal, painted by rosy-fingered dawn*.

Oh Scotland: you rain and you rain and then you stop and then I fall in love with you some more.

The train ran away from the mountains though, to the south and east, to the coast of Lothian. It rides past the burns and rivers of the central belt, a landscape unsurprisingly, but unfairly ignored. From a viaduct you can look down upon the mist rising, turned golden by the sun. Up above is a saltire sky.

Sudden scarcity will do that to you. You don’t miss the everyday things until they’re gone. It’s a cliché but it really does rain everyday here: coming from one of the driest parts of England, September is a meteorological culture shock. It’s enough to turn you pagan and to worshipping the sun when it eventually appears.

I disembark at Dunbar. The hometown, oddly, of America’s first conservationist, John Muir. In this small corner of south east Scotland he has a wedge of land dedicated to him. A thin triangle of saltmarsh and dunes separates the waves breaking in Tyninghame Bay from breaking the roads of Dunbar and Belhaven. It has to be said, it’s not exactly El Capitan, Yosemite or any of the other American exceptional wilderness Muir helped preserve, but 21st southern Scotland is a different proposition from 19th century western America. Something now is much better than nothing. Even if the something is just a handy area for dog walkers to get a lap in.

The view though. Wet brown sand like a stained mirror: a paler blue reflection of the sky streaked with brown and stretching across the bay. White-capped waves seem to take the approach leisurely as if reserving their venom for the unsheltered side of Dunbar. Just the faintest cloud hovers on the skyline over Fife. Bass Rock disrupts the smoothness of the scene like a lumpy tooth thrust out of a gum. Still speckled white with Gannets. Unlike a tooth, that bit.


Several Guillemots float just off shore. Gannets were going haywire in the Firth; large numbers of adults, juveniles and immatures moving in every direction. They survived or missed the wreck. The Guillemot amongst the flotsam in the tideline was less lucky: a dogwalker leant over to inspect its penguin like corpse.

Twitching is lazy but it’s also an opportunity; one from time to time I see no reason not to take. The other Suffolk to Stirling culture shock is the birds. Or rather Stirling’s lack of them. Back home I can see all the waders you’d expect: my wader list for Stirling is… non-existent pretty much. Buff-breasted Sandpipers are heaven sent waders. Ruff are nice, but gangly and not particularly exciting. The Buff-breasts are American, nest-fresh juveniles that got lost somewhere over Nova Scotia and ended up old Scotland. But they’ve got such long wings you can forgive these juveniles for getting lost on their first proper use of them.

Over the dunes I get my first peek at what I came for. An artist slumped over a sketchbook on the edge of the dunes was rather helpful: several feet away a pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers ran over the saltmarsh, up to their legs in the marsh. Not wishing to break the skyline I crawled closer to the artist, using him as cover. I needn’t have bothered. These sandpipers were unusual: instead of flying at signs of danger, like the Starlings sharing the marsh did when a Sparrowhawk cruised lazily overhead, they merely crouched up to their heads in the vegetation.

At distance, birds remain impersonal. Up close you get something of their character. When you make mutual eye-contact, and the bird remains unconcerned, you can discern the elements that don’t make it into the fieldguide. There is no more special moment in birding than this. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise, but dry scientific objectivism can’t explain the quirks, the look and feel of a bird that lies beyond how it looks, how it walks. A Ruff would never crouch, it would fly. That a Buff-breasted Sandpiper crouches is endearingly different. You like them more because of it.

There’s worth in recording the arrival of a bird, and when it leaves, especially if it’s unusual. But twitching as part of a crowd is a purely selfish activity. I’m aware that this is using birds as prozac, birds as therapy. But birds make me happy, happier than slogging through the Latinate poetry of John Milton, so why shouldn’t I?

You see things that way. Places, animals, people you wouldn’t otherwise. So really, why not?

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ (PL, Book I, L.254-255).

*If you think that’s pretentious you probably don’t realise I stole it from Homer’s Odyssey. I stole it because it’s accurate and he’s too dead to sue me.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

William, it was really something

A text from Michael means a good bird: a phone call means drop your book, pick up your bins and leg it to the loch. We’re both guilty of taking campus listing far too seriously. He has Red Kite over me and that’s a sore spot but I’ve got Redstart over him and he’s not allowed to forget it. His attitude is better than mine though. His bins and camera have a permanent place in his rucksack, whereas mine live in my drawer. I’m used to not seeing anything on campus; when I do I’m birding by bare eye. It works: Wheatear and Waxwing didn’t escape me; but the Whooper Swans nearly did. I was out of signal in the library, only a chance meeting with him in the corridor did I learn that he’d found them. They were only around for the one evening.

I was midway through Paradise Lost when my phone vibrated. It was Michael’s number but when I answered it was Melissa. ‘There’s a Guillemot on the loch’ she said. ‘I’m coming’, I said, grabbing my bins and keys. She giggled as I hung up.

That giggle sowed seeds of doubt. I ran anyway. Down to the loch, aware of the likelihood that I was to run into a group of laughing ecologists. I couldn’t see them as I ran on to the bridge. Weezing, I clutched at the side, peered over, and splashing about in the loch I walk past every day, was a Guillemot.
I’m not sure what I felt more: astonishment at this seabird that had lost the sea, or gratefulness that I wasn’t the subject of a practical joke.

In the end I went for both.

It was still present at midday Thursday.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Alba


Somewhere in the East Midlands a Red Kite spirals over a slip road. It’s rusty red tail burns bright against the late summer sky. At the same time, the same somewhere, in the back seat of a passing car I can see the kite: turning over the road, head down, tail splayed out; until a lorry wipes out my view, and it’s gone. Just wispy white clouds and the faint left hand side of the moon and motorway anonymity. I’m heading north.

Later, in Yorkshire, the kites come more regularly: spiralling over verges, capping a kettle of Buzzards, drifting high over the A1. The route is one that is familiar to me, the birds are familiar too, but I’ve never seen so many of them. More than Kestrels in fact. Increasing populations? Increase in me paying attention? Sheer coincidence of the right kite in the right place at the right time? Take your pick.

Along the verges the dying embers of Rosebay Willowherb add colour to the late summer green.

**

Oh Stirling. You see the English summer and take it just one notch further. My highland friend says coming south to here is like returning to summer. To me it’s like being fast tracked to autumn. A particularly wet, miserable autumn.

This is, I think, why people are surprised to find I go to university in Scotland. It’s no surprise to me. Too much of England is blind to it and sees it (very wrongly) as the land that culture forgot. That bloody place responsible for filling the TV news with the irresolvable certainties of the yes and no campaigns that passes for the independence debate. Too many of my friends have set off to travel the world without seeing beyond their own corner of England. Sometimes I feel if my wanderlust is warped and only works for the four gorgeous corners of wild Britain. I think I bleed Irn Bru and breathe Iain Crichton Smith.

Almost everywhere in Stirling is within sight of a mountain range. From campus, on a clear day, you can see six different mountain ranges: from the Lammermuirs to the Trossachs. It’s a textured landscape. The peaty soil preserves the history, the battles fought (and thought), the ridges and furrows where the moor was once farmed. The contrast to Suffolk, flat Suffolk, couldn’t be greater. There’s no birds here though, or so it seems from regular walks up and down and through the land here. I don’t mind that sometimes. My abiding childhood memory are holidays in the hills of the Lake District. Sometimes I revert to childishness and use the land here as my own adventure play park.

***

The problem with writing anything with any degree of certainty is that sooner or later you end up looking like an idiot. Notice earlier, I said there were no birds in Stirling…

Scotland has a habit of starting raining the second you leave a building. I have a habit of not taking a waterproof jacket, and the correlation between these two occurrences is strongly positive. With my head down in my sodden hoody I walk up the stone streets of Bridge of Allan. It’s 12 o’clock. I glance up: the weather shows no sign of clearing. And then, in the uncanny way that this happens, a bird flew through my life. Or, more accurately, it flew just over house height, west along Bridge of Allan high street, barely comprehending I was there. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing: the long, thin, swept-back wings; long neck and wedge of a tail of a Gannet; the dusky plumage of a juvenile.

You feel very far away from the sea here, though the Forth is apparently tidal as far as Stirling bridge. A 6 foot wide, 3 kilo seabird looks very out of place here. It’s dreich, and it gets dreicher the further west you go: this Gannet was due to hit the lochs of the Trossachs before possibly making its way down to the Firth of Clyde, I guess. As unlikely as it seems, it actually fits into recent patterns of Gannet movement quite nicely: later that day forty (40!) were seen over Andy Murray’s victory parade in Dunblane; a somewhat more eco-friendly flypast than the RAF could’ve managed. Further up the Forth, at Bo’ness, Kinneil and Skinflats, three figure flocks of Gannets were reported from the 10th of September; though the first in land wasn’t seen until yesterday, with two over Doune (8 miles away), 4 over Thornhill and 1 flying along Loch Lubnaig.

I have no idea why this mini exodus of Gannets up the Forth has happened. It’s unpredictable, inexplicable and part of the incongruous fun of birding. As I stood by the Forth in a residential area, just east of the main city, a man proffered his opinion: no fish left in the sea. Or maybe it’s the weather. Maybe there’s a storm on the way, he said, straightening his cap before walking off. I waited for my friend. It wasn’t just Gannets. Also floating in the Forth were nine Guillemots; black and white and slightly disheveled. All facing up stream into the flow, vigorously paddling with clockwork feet: seven lost, drifting slowly downstream; two were winning and moving slowly up stream. All from a low bridge, the sort of view of a Guillemot you should never really get. You should never really be close enough to a Guillemot to see its feet paddling, to discern minute plumage differences in the head, body, wings. My friend arrived, a German this time, and keen to try birding. I started her with these, showing her how to use binoculars. She solemnly nodded as I explained that they shouldn’t be here. Then she burst out laughing at their feet. Sometimes you have to laugh. I just hope they don’t become Guillemorts.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

On Badgers and Politicians


 (Picture courtesy of James Astley: see his Blog, Twitter)

You know a Badger is close when you can hear the snuffling sound of it eating peanuts. And you know it’s really close when you can hear it but can’t see it because it’s too close to the hide. And there were four of them…

The Margaret Grimwade Badger hide is the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s best-kept secret. I’m not really sure why. The secret bit I understand. The location is rightly guarded like a state secret: upon booking you’re given a map, instructions and a time to turn up. It feels a bit like following a treasure map, like living out some childish dream: X marks the spot. It’s rather fun actually.

You follow the map and walk up a slope by a stream. Dusk resolves through the trees as we chuck out the allotted peanuts and unlock the hide. It was dad and me, a friend and four strangers making low, awkward conversation as we waited for nearly an hour; watching the light go grey, a Barn Owl fly quickly through, and Robins tussling. A flashlight flickered on from the side of the hide, casting a warmer glow to the scene.

At just before eight the first Badger turned up. Creeping out of the undergrowth to the left the first thing you see is two disembodied pale lines: then the rest of the head. It creeps back under cover. Too soon it seems. A minute later it fully emerges for the first time. It’s small. A cub and outrageously cute.

It’s my first ever good view of a Badger. My first, and only prior Badger, was on a single-track highland road at dusk. We’d stopped to let another car past when, caught in between two sets of lights, a Badger bumbled across the road and deep into the wood. To bumble is an awfully twee verb. The problem is that it suits a Badger in a hurry perfectly. I said the cub was outrageously cute: it’s hard to resist the anthropomorphisms that must be resisted. All objections seem to melt at the sight of their humbug striped snouts.

The Badger crept further out in the open. The fur is dense: you can see that in the remains of the light, and flecked with dark and paler hairs. The black head stripes extend surprisingly far down the neck, almost as far as the start of the squat legs. Their bodies hang surprisingly low. For all its definite cuteness, the Badger is a strange animal. It’s got the fur of a cat, the head of a dog, a body as long as a fox and the feeding action of a pig. It is thus, obviously, gloriously, a Mustelid and a relative of the Stoats and Weasels. It’s a carnivore, but one that chooses peanuts with as much regularity as worms.

Which is why it was currently shuffling over the earth in front of the hide, seeking out the peanuts we threw earlier. In the end three other Badgers, all apparently also cubs turned up: one noticeably smaller, probably the female of the litter. Through the glass window of the hide you can make eye-contact with them as they shuffle, blissfully unconcerned past. For half an hour, roughly, as they sought out the peanuts, the Badgers put on a staggering display: when it ended you felt as if you’d seen every hair, twitch, snuffle as they went about their feeding.

I’m not really sure why the hide isn’t better known amongst people. I have never had a wildlife experience quite like it.

***

On Tuesday the self-proclaimed ‘greenest government ever’ reshuffled itself: replacing Caroline Spelman with Owen Paterson. With the exception of the forest sell-off that failed (thankfully) Spelman was quite widely liked amongst environmentalists. Paterson is an unknown quantity: although his list of interests includes ‘trees’, his ideas for economic growth – of ending energy subsidies (bye bye renewables), fast tracking shale gas fracking, and airport expansion - are as ominous as a shark’s fin to a seal. I mention this because the government, the ‘greenest government ever’ (lest we forget), will be trialling a Badger cull this autumn for six weeks in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset. The aim is to halt the spread of Bovine TB and Badgers are a reservoir of this disease. It is a laudable cause in itself: nobody wants to see cattle dead, let alone 35,000 a year at an alleged cost of millions to the taxpayer.

Spelman’s high profile U-turns shows she listens and reacts. They’re not a sign of weak governance but of listening and responding. I don’t hold out much hope for Paterson: he supports the cull despite having once kept an orphaned Badger as a pet and the rest of his environmental ideas show up previous tory party environmental rhetoric as nothing more than weak greenwashing.

We need a U-turn now. There is a better way than to cull. After all, there are just a quarter of a million Badgers to over nine million cattle, yet for a cull to be effective you would need to kill every single one of these Badgers: for the disease simply passes on to previously uninfected areas outside of the cull zone (it’s called perturbation). Even eradicating Badgers, as ethically and ecologically disgusting as that would be, wouldn’t work. See the Isle of Man: no Badgers, but with Bovine TB. Scotland: lots of Badgers, no Bovine TB.

I’m not against culling and killing per se, but I’m also not against science and evidence. The rationale behind this cull strikes me as nonsensical. As nonsensical as Badger baiting is cruel and barbaric. There is also no doubt that the Badger is a persecuted animal. We’ve all seen them lying dead in the road far from any recognisable Badger habitat or sett. That’s because they get shot and dumped on the roads to look like road kill, by cowardly, ignorant criminals. We need to stop seeking scapegoats in nature and the short-term easy answer of the gun.

Further reading:

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Touch of Sun

Einstein, apparently, once described insanity as 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'. This wasn't running through my head as I stood under a Wedgewood Blue sky* in a line of birders at Landguard, expectantly waiting. They were expecting. I wasn't particularly. The winds were still westerly but that didn't matter today. Time was more of an issue. A week and a weekend ago a Spanish Sparrow surprised a photographer here before going into hiding. Then, as I was just returning from Blakeney Point on Saturday evening, it reappeared. And again on Sunday evening. Come Monday evening I was to be prepared.

On Sunday it was seen leaving its roost; today it wasn't. The twitch was to be speculative at best, based upon the hunch of a pattern the bird might have fallen into: roost in the docks, wake up, disappear into the gardens of Felixstowe, return to Landguard for a pre-roost feed in the bramble bushes, roost in the docks. Repeat until it realises that Felixstowe is not the Barcelona of the north. Nor the Bilbao. Not even the Benidorm...

That was the theory at least. In practice I wasn't surprised when I took my place in the line of telescopes to be told it hadn't been seen all day. Between here and 'the Butts' (a raised bank - I guess some kind of anti-tank defence?) bramble bushes lie strewn about short, rabbit grazed grass, with thistles lined up beside them. Linnets are everywhere, seemingly in every bush, chirping incessantly. Smaller numbers of Goldfinch exploit the thistles, deftly feeding from the seeds behind the spines. House Sparrows, gregarious yet rapidly vanishing from our towns remain in pleasingly healthy numbers here. Some dust bathe, others stain their breasts and bills feeding on the blackberries. We're over familiar with House Sparrows so we stop seeing them. We stop seeing the bundle of attractive, warm feathers, and we've stopped seeing the charisma they have. Every move they make seems an exaggeration, only to familiar eyes that stop looking as soon as they have seen, they don't notice these quirks. And they won't much further into the future. Our neatness and orderliness have pulled the plug on their lives: in the 80s alone their population halved. Yet at Felixstowe they survive on. Front gardens are a riot of untamed weeds instead of paving slab car parks; the pavements are cracked; wasteland between houses exists with long grass and bushes. A little space for sparrows is what this is. I think these thoughts as the sun burns my arms and forehead. A Whitethroat flits between bushes, a Chiffchaff lazily moves through the brambles. Another birders turns up, places his scope down and says, 'it's on the thistles'.

A fresh pair of eyes will do that. It's curious that getting your eye in can be counter-productive after a while. Telescopes swing in unison, following his directions. Hopping about the grass in front of the thistles was another, different sparrow. An all chestnut head, white cheeks, not grey. A thin sliver of white over the eye. Smudgy finger print streaks over its breast. And it flies.

For the next thirty or so minutes before it flew to the docks, it showed on and off amongst the House Sparrows and the brambles as the sun set behind our backs, pleasing the assembled twitchers. It's odd to think, given Landguard's history of repelling immigration and invasion that we've ended up celebrating one in the shadow of the fort.
I believe it to be the ninth British record of a Spanish Sparrow. I also believe it hopped off a container from Bilbao in Felixstowe docks instead of using its wings to get here: brains instead of brawn? I can only approve.
(House Sparrow photo from 2007)


*This description comes courtesy of too much daytime TV.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Yesterday

Yesterday is the most annoying day of the week. Yesterday there was a Barred Warbler here. Yesterday’s yesterday and that warbler was a Greenish. Today, and the birding at Blakeney Point was so dire that when the sub-adult Spoonbill woke up, it flew away…

There comes, bundled in with life and associated life stuff, an irresistible urge to compare and contrast and reflect. Compare this unending grey with the sun and sky blue of the same place a year ago. 
Contrast the airless atmosphere and birdless air with that of last year: last year had Whinchats, Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails and Lesser Whitethroats. This year had several Swallows kicking around the old lifeboat house and two summer plumaged Grey Plover on the mudflats that appeared to have walked straight out of a linocut. Reflect on the three miles of shingle and sand you walked to get here, and how much longer that feels without avian distractions.

Think about how nothing ventured, nothing gained is fair enough, yet something ventured, nothing gained is most unfair. It's out of your control like some cosmic unfairness hard coded into the grain of the world, yet the reality is that most un-cosmic thing, the wind. The wind that just happens to always be in the wrong direction at the right time.

Don't think about the Spanish Sparrow relocated at Landguard Point.