Saturday, 10 December 2011

Landscape and Loss

A couple of Saturdays ago I attended a conference that was held in the small church at Helpston, a village just outside Stamford in Lincolnshire. Many know the village because of its association with the poet John Clare. One of the conference sessions, which was titled ‘landscape and loss: inspirations from John Clare’, had particular resonance because Clare’s grave lay just beyond the thick walls and stained glass windows of Helpston Church. Clare had witnessed the ‘loss’ of great chunks of countryside to enclosure and many of his poems stem from the impact that the act of enclosure had on his relationship with the landscape with which he was so intimately associated.

Helpston stands in the Soke of Peterborough, bordered on three sides by river and on the fourth by the Great North Road. It is an area to which enclosure came late but for a sensitive poet, born of the labouring classes, it brought great sadness expressed in wonderful verse. Much of our greatest nature writing has been fuelled by the same sense of loss and it is a theme that weaves its way through the works of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Eric Ennion and Richard Mabey, for example. Reading these writers individually reveals the painful sense of personal loss that they felt in response to changes in landscapes dear to them. Reading them as a whole reveals a much deeper sense of loss, however, as each writer becomes a chronicler for part of a larger narrative; this narrative affects us all.

Our lives are short within the grand scheme of things. We are not endowed with the ability to gauge the true impact of changes that act over long periods of time; subtle changes are easily missed, their full meaning lost all too easily. That we find John Clare’s sense of loss relevant today underlines that the changes heaped upon our landscape are continuing. Should we read John Clare simply as one of our most gifted poets or should we shift our attention to the messages that his beautifully crafted verse delivers?

There is a danger that we, the audience, are reluctant to hear messages that speak of loss, messages full of negative news and lacking the all-important glimmer of hope. Clare’s landscape has changed, in most cases dramatically so. What remains is predominantly bleak arable, missing the species he would have recognised, but there are patches where work to ‘restore’ landscape is producing tangible and positive results. I think that we need the reassurance that these restored landscapes provide but we must not accept them too readily, lest they cheapen what has been lost; better to prevent loss than recreate a poor copy.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A changing palette

It’s early, though only if you judge the day by the time of its dawn. These short late autumn days give me longer in bed in the morning, the dogs stilled by the lingering dark outside, but soon after first light I am out in the forest. In many ways these December mornings are richer, the colour palette firmly based in deep blues and a raft of browns now that the dominant greens of summer have been sloughed. Although weakened, there is enough strength in the rising sun to draw out the tanned chestnut browns of the beech and soft yellows of the birch, leaves that have clung so late this year.

On days when rain waits in close approach the sky is a deep paynes grey. This dramatic backdrop frames the stand of beech, less than a dozen trees deep, that separates the forest block from the road beyond. The air is damp and holds within it the richly rounded scents of earth and wood. The resinous smell of freshly cut pine reveals some recent felling, a windblown giant cleared from the main track. At my feet, the rains from earlier in the week have rearranged the soil’s surface. A dark, serpentine shape has been revealed, as water has found the path of least resistance, carrying off the lightest grains of fine sand to expose the darker, more solid geology beneath.

Elsewhere in the forest, on the scruffy triangle of land where the Willow Warblers had their nest, the bracken has collapsed upon itself in a great seething mass. Its rough undulations give the appearance of a flooding torrent, swollen with browns of varying shades. Where the bracken has grown up through the scattered hawthorn it takes on a more dynamic form, appearing as waves of decaying fronds breaking up against the hawthorn.

On the duller mornings the colour palette is much reduced, pared back to simple tones: soft brown and charcoal predominate. The landscape feels flat and, at times, almost two-dimensional. On other mornings, when dawn breaks following a clear night, frost tints the forest white. The once straw-brown stems of grass now glisten. Fallen branches from which the bark has been lost take on the appearance of polished bone. Curiously, the presence of a light frost seems to enhance the few patches of green that remain. There is, it appears, some fresh growth even at this season; opportunistic plants that have exploited the unseasonal warmth. Even the grand conifers have toned down their greens, the bright green of summer growth now hardened into darker tones. It is a more brooding palette, one that suggests a land hunkered down and waiting. Come spring, the palette will change again.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Things that go screech in the night

Foxes are a bit thin on the ground around these parts, no doubt a reflection of the game-rearing interests and their need to protect naïve pheasants released for the shoot. Although this pattern is repeated over much of the county there are places where foxes seem to be doing well. One of these is Norwich, where an urban fox population has become well established. In some parts of the city foxes can be seen abroad in daylight; nonchalant in their habits, they can be seen wandering down the quieter suburban streets, stretching out on sun-drenched lawns or scavenging discarded food.

It is at this time of the year that some of these urban foxy goings on may attract the attentions of the city’s human residents. The fox mating season is underway, and will continue through into March, with peak activity from December to February. Fox courtship is a noisy affair, the characteristic triple bark now accompanied by a blood-curdling scream. Once, during my student days in Southampton, I returned home to discover that my housemates were about to call the police. Being a mixture of geologists, engineers and media students, they were unfamiliar with fox vocalisations and had mistaken the ‘scream’ for that of someone being attacked on the rough patch of ground that bordered our house!

Foxes are territorial, typically living in family groups that share a joint territory. Under certain conditions, such as where there is an abundance of food, subordinate individuals may also be present. These tend to be young from the previous year and they may help to rear the dominant vixen’s cubs. Fox society varies according to habitat, so the patterns seen in the wider countryside often differ from what is seen within urban areas.

Courtship is centred on the female’s reproductive status. Although she undergoes a single period of oestrus, lasting for roughly three weeks, fertilisation appears to be limited to a much smaller three-day window. Because of this the male shadows his female very closely, the male adopting a characteristic posture in which he holds his tail higher than usual. Contrary to popular belief, successful matings can occur very quickly, perhaps lasting just a few seconds. However, pairs can become ‘locked’ together, adopting an uncomfortable looking position that may be held for an hour or more. The resulting pregnancy lasts for roughly seven and a half weeks, delivering young just as winter releases its grip. It will be another month, however, before the cubs will first show themselves above ground. They will then remain with their mother, developing their hunting skills, for several months, making the most of summer’s bounty before reaching independence with the approach of autumn.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A late season

Up until very recently, it has felt as if the mild damp of autumn would never relinquish her grip. Warmer than average temperatures, trees reluctant to drop their leaves and a scattering of late summer migrants has blurred what should have been a clear shift in the seasons. It has been a strange autumn and now, with bare trees and clear night skies, we still have the odd day that feels more like a herald of spring than a harbinger of winter.

I am not alone in being caught out by the warmer, brighter days. Great Tits, thrushes and Blackbirds all engage in song, a cheerful chorus that will halt abruptly once the weather systems shift around to their more characteristic positions. A lingering Swallow on the East Anglian coast, together with a late tern and at least one Common Swift, are echoes of the summer that should, by now, be a distant memory. One thing that has remained unchanging, however, is the reduction in daylight hours. While it is mild enough to work in the garden with pleasurable comfort, turning over ground that is still loose and pliable, the short days slip rapidly into darkness from mid-afternoon.

The generally mild conditions leave garden bird feeders unused for days at a time, only for a sudden spurt of activity off the back of the occasional cold night. On such nights, it is reassuring to feel the bite of falling temperatures and to gaze up into the clear sky and watch the stars. On one such night the other week, I was surprised to make out the white form of a Little Egret passing low overhead. The lateness of this bird made me wonder if it had been spooked from a roost or had it continued feeding, as many shorebirds do, under the light of the autumnal moon.

A few creatures have read some signal of the changing season. Harlequin Ladybirds have suddenly amassed in the corners of rooms and outbuildings, hunkering down ahead of the winter that will surely follow. The large wasp nest above the kitchen has finally fallen silent, the last of the increasingly drowsy workers now stilled, and it will soon be time to explore its extent within the small attic space it occupies. There is still some insect activity around the ivy, a plant that provides late season resources for birds and insects alike but soon this too will fall silent. A late Red Admiral butterfly, seen on the wing in town, most surely seek shelter before it is too late. It has been a surprising transition from autumn to winter and one that makes one wonder about our changing climate. Will this blurring of the seasons become the norm?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sticklebacks glisten

For the first time in several years of trapping Crayfish on this particular stretch of the River Lark, I have caught a sizeable haul of Sticklebacks and Minnows. While I might normally catch the odd individual here or there, the two smaller-meshed traps positively glisten with tiny fish this morning. Such small fish would be no match for the Signal Crayfish so it is fortunate that there are few of these voracious crustaceans in the traps today. I do not know why there should be quite so many fish this morning but seeing them here in such numbers brings back memories of childhood.

Like many budding naturalists I had my first experience of sticklebacks as a child, pond-dipping in some old mill ponds at the bottom of the hill below our house. I then read about them in biology text books, kept some in a tank and watched enthralled as the males built their delicate nests and wooed females with their bright red bellies and construction skills. It is perhaps unsurprising that the stickleback should be one of the most well studied fish in the world. One of the neat things about them is (in most stickleback species) the ability to live equally successfully in freshwater and the sea, two very different environments presenting different challenges.

Sticklebacks are small fish, typically some three to seven centimetres in length, with a series of short spines along the back from which they derive their name. The spines are modified fin rays; those on the back are erect and obvious, while those on the side less so and apt to catch out the unwary child, removing a prize fish from a shrimping net. The lack of true scales gives these little fish a rather soft-skinned appearance. They may carry a series of bony plates along their flank, although the extent of these may vary between individual fish, a useful feature by which individuals can be identified within the confines of a cold-water aquarium.

In weedy waters, Three-spined Sticklebacks tend to be solitary in their habits but in more open water, such as this stretch of the River Lark, they shoal. Shoaling provides safety in numbers, with more eyes alert to predators and an individual’s risk of being predated falling as the size of the shoal increases. Minnows often form part of these mixed shoals, so maybe I have just got lucky and attracted a shoal into the traps. Sticklebacks are visual hunters, with well-developed eyes, feeding on small invertebrates. Although short-lived (most will spawn only once), they are a successful species with a wide distribution. This, coupled with the relative ease by which they can be caught, may explain their attraction for children and researchers alike.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Being in the know

It was here, just as the track sweeps around to the left, arching along the shallow incline, that the Long-tail Tits nested over the summer. I am sure that if I looked I could find the nest again, assuming it has not yet been degraded by the weather or ripped apart by an opportunistic predator. Last year, it was a Whitethroat that nested here and the year before that a Blackcap held territory in the scruffy bit of bramble which now tumbles towards the track. Today, on this flat winter morning, the recollection of these birds brightens my walk and lifts my spirits. Having a regular beat strengthens my association with this place; it has become rich in memories and each new visit adds layers to an ever deeper connection.

This connection is important to me; even though this patch of plantation woodland is nothing special, it helps me feel rooted here. As well as being able to draw upon previous encounters, I can look forward to those that lie ahead; the Whitethroats and Blackcaps and Long-tailed Tits will be here again next summer, some of them on the same territories and nesting in the same bushes as were used this summer. Of course some of the individuals may change, and it may be young birds recruiting into the breeding population for the first time that take over these territories. Even so, the sense of continuity remains. As the poet Ted Hughes put it when describing the return of Swifts each summer, such continuity shows that the world is still turning.

There will be change though; in this case the loss of many of the traditional Whitethroat territories that ran in linear fashion along the old snag rows. This block of forestry has been cleared, the rows of dead stumps that were so well used by the Whitethroats are gone and the birds will have to seek opportunities elsewhere. The forest is ever changing, however, and just as old opportunities are lost so new ones will emerge for the Whitethroats. 

Other changes may be more subtle, taking place over more protracted timeframes, and these are certainly less obvious if you are simply comparing one summer with the one that went before. If I look at my notes, I will see that there were many more Willow Warblers here five or ten years ago than there are now. Their loss has been gradual, largely unnoticed but it reflects wider problems for this species across much of southern Britain.

Having a patch, this patch, is quietly comforting but I suspect that, in some small way, I have become possessive of it and the creatures that share it with me as the seasons cycle on.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A daylight owl

It has been something of a remarkable autumn, with fantastic numbers of Short-eared Owls arriving in the county from breeding grounds further north. Many of these birds are likely to have made a substantial sea crossing; setting out from Scandinavian breeding grounds their arrival ‘in off the sea’ charted by birdwatchers all along the Norfolk coast. This autumn, there was a report of fifty of these stunning birds arriving at Titchwell in a single day, very much a red-letter occasion for the owl enthusiast.

Short-eared Owls are generally recorded arriving from mid-September onwards, with numbers peaking during October and a few stragglers arriving into the beginning of December. Some will remain on the coast, haunting the grazing marshes, but others move further inland to the fens or the riverside marshes at places like Halvergate and Chedgrave.

These owls are often portrayed as opportunistic wanderers, nomads that track the volatile breeding populations of their favoured small mammal prey. In a good vole season the owls do well and I suspect that this has been one such season. Come the end of summer, however, the small mammal population may sometimes crash, prompting the owls to look further afield for a meal. This combination of a good breeding season followed by a decline in prey abundance may drive the mass arrivals here but there is still a great deal that we do not know about these birds and their movements.

With its piercing eyes, tendency to hunt in daylight and buoyant flight, the Short-eared Owl holds a special place in my affections. Seeing one lifts the spirits on those flat winter days out on the marsh. Seeing several in the air together leaves me grinning from ear to ear! The buoyant flight, a characteristic shared with the Barn Owls that also hunt these wild places, comes about because of the shape of the wings. The broad wings are energetically efficient, allowing the owl to slowly quarter the fields and marshes over which it hunts, while scanning the ground for prey.

Examination of Short-eared Owl pellets – like other owls, Short-eareds cough up the undigestible parts of their prey – reveals that their winter diet in Norfolk is dominated by Field Voles, with other small mammals and small birds making up the balance. These pellets can be collected from the rough vegetation in which these birds roost. Some of the roosts can hold a dozen or more owls, the birds returning to the same site over many days. Knowledge of favoured hunting areas and their accompanying roosts make the Short-eared Owl one of more reliable winter visitors, providing viewing opportunities for the birdwatcher. In cold weather they can be surprisingly approachable (with care), affording stunning views.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Adventurers Fen

If you follow the formidable Devil’s Dyke – a Dark Age earthwork that cuts across the chalk escarpment north-west of Newmarket, you will come to Reach and the edge of the Fens. It is border country, a line of Fenland villages that sit on a narrow strip of land between the slowly rising chalk behind and the vastness of the Fens beyond. Running north from Reach is a fenland lode (a drainage ditch) that joins the River Cam at Upware, just to the west of Wicken Fen. To the north-east of Reach is the village of Burwell, with its own lode, also tracking north-west and skirting Wicken Fen before joining the Reach Lode. Sandwiched between these two ditches, in a block of land that narrows to a triangular point, is Adventurers Fen, made famous by the artist and nature writer Eric Ennion.

In the early 1990s and new to the area, I had arrived already carrying knowledge of Wicken and its Fen, the last remnant of rich fenland vegetation, but I knew nothing of Adventurers Fen and its champion. Eric Ennion was born in June 1900 and grew up in Burwell; he went on to become doctor there in 1926. It must have been an exceptional time to be in Burwell in the 1920’s and 30’s. Secure in a reliable profession, Ennion was spared the hardships of the agricultural depression but able to watch nature’s return to a landscape that was ‘falling into disrepair. His interest in natural history, which had germinated in his childhood years, was channelled into sketches and paintings of the fenland wildlife. His sketches, often made from beneath a tarpaulin flung across his punt, are vibrant and alive; Ennion’s fellow inhabitants captured in pencil and watercolour. The combination of artist and naturalist, documenting a landscape soon to be lost.

With the outbreak of the Second World War everything changed. The fens around Burwell were drained and returned to agriculture, something that prompted Ennion to write a lament to the landscape he had felt so rooted in. Adventurers Fen, the book that was published in 1942, displays the intimacy that Ennion had with his local patch, not just the wildlife but also the villages, ditches and waterways. While it marks the sad passing of a watery world it also champions the local naturalist, highlighting the value of working a local patch over many years. Redshank, Coot and wild duck would have been Ennion’s everyday birds but, even so, he writes about them and paints them with enthusiasm and passion. His work has relevance today, with efforts underway to recreate something of this lost landscape, and through this work you can see something of the man and his world.

Lead beetles not always welcome

The Chrysomelids or leaf beetles are one of our more accessible groups of beetles. Most are rather colourful, many are relatively large in size and quite a few have an English name by which to refer to them. Although one of the largest beetle families worldwide, we have just 260 or so species here in Britain, some of which will already be familiar to farmers and gardeners as pests of agriculture, horticulture and forestry.

As the name suggests, leaf beetles feed on plant material, taken from a vast range of plant species, including ‘primitive’ plants like mosses and horsetails. Most show some degree of specialism, again highlighted in the name, for example: Rosemary Beetle (Lavender and Rosemary), Belladonna Flea Beetle (nightshades, Henbane and Thorn-apple) and Lily Beetle (lilies and fritillaries). The association with particular host plants may explain the seemingly steady arrival of species new to Britain, transported here on plants shipped around the globe to satisfy gardeners’ demands for the new and exotic. The Rosemary Beetle, a specimen of which was presented to me just the other day by a work colleague, is a recent arrival from the Mediterranean. First recorded from Surrey in 1963, it is now found in many counties across Britain.

Some of the larger Chrysolmelids, like Rosemary Beetle, are fairly long-lived (lasting two or more years). Others are interesting because of the ways in which they seek to avoid being eaten. The flea beetles, for example, have enlarged hind femora. These work in association with muscles to store energy that can be released with a spring-like action, catapulting the beetle away from danger. Some species feign death when disturbed, e.g. Lily Beetle, while others make a noise by rubbing two rough surfaces together in a stridulating action. Perhaps the most impressive forms of anti-predator device are deployed by the Bloody-nose beetles, who are able to deploy reflex bleeding from their joints. The ‘blood’ that emerges contains noxious and often toxic compounds which are quite enough to deter most would-be predators.

Many of the leaf beetles are capable of flight, taking to the wing on warm days. Mind you, perhaps with the exception of ladybirds and maybugs, we don’t tend to think of beetles as flying insects. This may be because their wings are so well concealed under the hard wing cases or elytra. Some of the leaf beetles are particularly good swimmers, with some species associated with waterside habitats. Again, this is a somewhat unexpected behavioural trait that is easily overlooked.

While the leaf beetles may be unwelcome by those of a horticultural bent, they are a fascinating group for the entomologist. Varied, colourful and sometimes unexpected in their habits.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Goldfinches attain clown-like masks

The garden has been teaming with Goldfinches over the last few months, with the good numbers of young suggesting it has been a successful breeding season for these delightful little birds. Initially, the young Goldfinches could be told from their parents by their lack of the characteristic red and black facial markings. By now, however, they have moulted through into their adult plumage and can no longer be distinguished by eye, as I watch them on the feeders through the kitchen window.

In the hand, when caught during a ringing session, it is possible to identify juvenile Goldfinches by looking at subtle differences in the shape of the tail feathers and the colour of certain wing feathers. Such differences come about because of the way in which these birds renew their feathers during moult. In most small birds that breed and winter here, the adults undergo a complete renewal of their feathers once the breeding season is over. Some species undergo a second, ‘partial’, moult just before the start of the next breeding season. Many of our summer-visiting migrants, however, will not undergo their annual moult until they have reached their wintering grounds, although some start the moult here before interrupting it just ahead of their long journey south. 

Most young birds follow a different strategy, replacing some feathers after the breeding season and growing others for the first time, but not acquiring full adult plumage until after the next breeding season is over. You can see this for yourself by looking carefully at male Blackbirds in the early summer. If you spot a male Blackbird who is all black apart from a few dark brown feathers in his wing, then he will be a bird born the previous year.

Getting young birds out of the nest quickly is an important strategy because it reduces the period when they may be particularly susceptible to predation. Young birds grow rapidly in the nest and need to be able to fly when they fledge. Because of this, the young tend to invest relatively little in the growth of body feathers, concentrating their efforts instead on the all-important flight feathers. As a result, newly-fledged young often look rather fluffy and ‘loose feathered’, but they will soon grow the remaining feathers, often acquiring adult body plumage over a period of several weeks. These different moult strategies are useful for me, as a ringer, since they enable me to age most birds with relative ease. There are, however, some species where the young moult through into full adult plumage soon after leaving the nest – House Sparrow and Long-tailed Tit are two examples – and these birds cannot be aged once they have gone through the autumn moult.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Pallid Swift makes for tricky identification

The final week of October saw many Norfolk birdwatchers turn their attention to the skies above some of our coastal towns. Reports of one or more Pallid Swifts set pulses racing, as people grappled with the tricky task of clinching an identification of this rare visitor.

Up until fairly recently, the commonly held view was that any pale swift, seen off the back of a warm southerly airflow in late October or early November, was likely to be a Pallid Swift. Although this species breeds throughout the Mediterranean, from Greece west to Iberia, it is absent from many parts and rare in others. It has only recently been found breeding on the Atlantic coast of France and also in Switzerland, highlighting that our knowledge of the species is still far from complete.

The difficultly of securing an identification comes about because of potential confusion with late Common Swifts, either juveniles or birds of the Asian race pekinensis, both of which look similar to Pallid Swift. Many of the key identification features are difficult to pick out on a bird that is not only moving but also often viewed in silhouette against a paler sky, making the assessment of colour difficult. There is one structural feature that can prove helpful, however, as the two outer wing feathers in Pallid Swift are of similar length, giving the appearance of a blunt wing-tip. In Common Swift, the outer of these two feathers is longer, giving the wing a more pointed appearance.

The presence of any swift in these late autumn skies gives pleasure enough, a last glimpse of summer’s sprite and a sense that part of summer lingers still. Our Common Swifts will be in Africa by now – in fact many will have been there for some weeks – their brief sojourn to Britain a faded memory. Unlike our Common Swifts, the Pallid Swift is double-brooded, squeezing in a second nesting attempt from late July which delivers newly-fledged young from early October. It may well be these individuals that reach southern and eastern Britain on the back of strong southerly airflows, such as the one we experienced in the first few days of November.

That there should be discussion over the identity of those Swifts seen here over the last couple of weeks, highlights the complexity of movements made by these cracking birds. It also underlines the identification skills needed by birdwatchers seeking to add a new species to their list. It will be interesting to see how the recent flurry of records is treated by the Norfolk Rarities Committee, a group of knowledgeable individuals who assess records of rare birds by looking at the evidence provided in support of the claim that has been made. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

The stench of success

It is not so much the stench that gets you but the waste, the sheer volume of household detritus that is scattered layers deep over such a vast area. This is my first time on a waste tip and it is truly shocking to see the fragments of furniture, unwanted toys, endless plastic trays and countless shoes that have ended up here for landfill. This is not a place I want to be but it is where we stand the best chance of catching gulls for a colour-ringing project with which we are involved.

Setting the net is a well-drilled exercise; we roll out the hessian, onto which the net is neatly folded, then set up the ‘cannons’ whose projectiles, when fired, will carry the net over the feeding birds. Everything is checked and double-checked before we retreat some distance to wait. One of the bulldozer drivers adds some fresh refuse to the catching area and then the gulls appear. 

Hundreds of gulls that had been loafing around the site take to the air and I am reminded of sleet against a dark November sky, such is their number. The first birds down to feed are the Black-headed Gulls, but the larger gulls quickly follow them: mostly Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, with the odd Great Black-backed lurking menacingly. The net can only be fired when the safety-zone is clear of gulls so we miss taking several catches because of gulls stood too close to the folded net. The flock feeds quickly and then is gone. More fresh refuse is added and the process repeated until, finally, we can fire. There is a loud bang and the net is up and over the birds in an instant. We rush from our hiding place to secure the net and carefully extract the gulls, which are then placed in hessian sacks to keep them still and calm.

It is only when you get these birds in the hand that you appreciate the delicate nature of the Black-headed Gulls and the brute strength of the Herring Gulls. All of the larger gulls are immatures, either born this year or last, and we work our way through the sacks, ringing and recording before the colour rings are fitted. These also carry a number and are visible enough for birdwatchers to read the number and report it. It should tell us a lot about gull movements, something already evident from this morning’s catch as we have caught a bird ringed in Denmark and one from the Czech Republic. One of the gulls, its foot covered in the expandable foam used by builders, highlights the hidden dangers of feeding at landfill sites and underlines our impact on the natural world.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bat Haiku

Moth wings decorate
the floor of our sheltered porch
bat in residence

This haiku of mine won the overall prize for the European Bat Weekend Writing Competition 2011. It reflects the relationship I have with one (or more) Brown Long-eared bats who we very occasionally see hanging on the wall of the covered passage that runs up between our house and our neighbours. It is the bat's feeding leftovers that more often reveal they have been using the passage, presumably as a sheltered spot to handle and eat prey

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The pull of the light

In the dark before dawn it sounds like rain falling on the window but it isn't. Instead, it is the sound of dozens of wasps flying against the glass, attracted to the bright light of the kitchen within. Looking out, I see a multitude of yellow triangles, each one with three small dots of black, below which hangs a series of black and yellow bands; a head separated from its body by the inky black background against which I see them fly.

These wasps have, no doubt, come from the nest in the attic space above the kitchen, accessed via a gap in the barge board. Last thing at night, when I let the dogs out, I can see the rigid-legged forms of the sentries that guard the nest entrance. The stragglers in, the nest shuts up shop for the night.

It must be the the timing of the light, coming as it does just before dawn, that triggers a response from the wasps. It does not happen in the dark of these late autumn evenings so there must be some form of calibration going on within each wasp, a trigger that leads to the expectation of the coming dawn and which, ultimately, allows the kitchen's artificial light to trick them into emergence. I suspect that somewhere work has been done on the emergence patterns of wasps in relation to daylight but I have not yet stumbled across it. It would be interesting to know how the response is triggered and managed. For now, however, it is enough to witness this strange spectacle.

Monday, 17 October 2011

October at Kelling

The north Norfolk coast at dawn is a magical place, particularly so in October. A favourite haunt at this time of the year is the narrow lane that runs from Kelling down to the sea. The thick hedgerows here have the potential to hold newly-arrived migrants and the occasional gaps in this berry-laden screen afford views over the surrounding fields. At the bottom of the lane things open up, a small expanse of water attracts waders and duck, while short cattle-grazed turf is great for wheatears, finches and buntings.

This morning looked promising, even though the wind had moved round and there had been clear skies overnight. The numbers of less common migrants reported along the coast over recent days, including dozens of Short-eared Owls, several Bluethroat and a Radde's Warbler, not to mention that Rufous-tailed Robin, were more than enough to give the local patch some added allure.

A tit flock feeding in the upper part of the lane held at least one Blackcap but there was no sign of of Chiffchaff or Goldcrest, both of which can be encountered here in numbers on some autumn days. What was particularly evident, however, was the large number of Starlings and Skylarks passing overhead. Small groups of Skylark peppered the soundscape with their calls, while the Starlings whooshed by on hundreds of noisy wings. Trailing off the back of one of the smaller Starling flocks were two Redwing.

The numbers of Chaffinches either passing overhead or dropping into the hedgerows also suggested a movement of some size, my highest count for the patch at any time of the year according to my BirdTrack records. There were also good numbers of Goldfinches, with fewer Greenfinch and no sign of the Linnet flock that had been engaging a fortnight ago.

While the pool held 28 Teal and 4 Snipe, it was the short-turf behind the sea wall that was busy with birds. Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails were here in reasonable numbers, feeding alongside Egyptian Geese and a solitary Little Egret that stalked the wetter ground. Also present were three Wheatears, still moving through from northern breeding grounds.

It did feel like things were on the moving, the crossover between summer (Wheatear and Blackcap) and winter (the arriving Starlings and Redwing), and this is one of the reasons why patch birding in autumn is so rewarding. The combination of your familiarity with the site, the sense of arrivals and departures, and the chance that something rare might be about to pop out of the bramble, make for exciting birdwatching.

39 species in total, not bad for a couple of hours on this particular patch.

Mike Toms

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Nature on foot

The poet Edward Thomas believed travelling by bicycle to be an unsatisfactory mode of transport, stating that it moved too quickly for him to pick out the detail he needed for his poems. Thomas was also a naturalist, his often-lyrical diaries full of notes concerning observations of the natural world and the creatures that filled it. When comes to observing nature I am in complete agreement. You cannot watch nature by bicycle; it is too much stop-start and ‘ooh, what was that I just missed?’ To be on foot gives you more opportunity to take in what is around you, to move or stop quietly, to crouch or drop to the ground. Being on foot keeps you connected, engaged with what is going on, immersed in the landscape. A bicycle denies you these things, even if you can cover more ground.

My perambulations are punctuated with moments where I simply stand and watch and wait. More often than not something will show itself, particularly if your stopping is in response to a soft call, a harsh alarming churr or a gentle rustle in the vegetation. Moving slowly and quietly also lessens the chances of you blundering into something, panicking a whirr of partridge wings or the white-rumped leap of startled Roe. More attuned to movement and noise, you can hear the approach of a mixed flock working its way along the hedgerow or the soft sound that will lead you to a hidden cricket.

There is a selfishness that sometimes accompanies my wanderings. Although happy in the company of friends, particularly when out for a day of birding, my solitary walks have their own private space, one which I am reluctant to share with the inevitable walkers who blunder about noisily on the route march from ‘a’ to ‘b’. This may be why I seek out the tracks less often walked in an attempt to engage with the natural world and escape from my own species. I am sure that some who have encountered me have thought me rude, unwilling answer the question of what’s about and share in some polite chatter.

Being on foot often allows me to side-step these encounters, as I duck behind a hedge or settle into the folds of rough ground. I sometimes speculate as to how many other creatures are also doing this, taking cover as the noisy humans approach, and wonder whether I have more in common with them than with my fellow man. Being out on foot is about engaging with the natural world and, as such, it is not so much the linear journey that I make that is important but the temporal one; time well spent and richly rewarded.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The forest in autumn

The scent of the forest has changed these last few days. The full and rounded odours of summer have been replaced by a ripeness that contains the sharp edge of decay. Autumn is upon us, the evenings are drawing in and the leaves are turning as trees retreat back into the security of their heartwood. Two Roe haunt my morning walks; feeding on the clearfell they no longer retreat but watch from a distance, marking my progress as I beat the bounds of my regular circuit. The other day I encountered a small group of Red Deer. More nervous than the Roe they slip away, heads stiff and upright, with a curious almost equine gait – Red Deer dressage.

Small parties of crossbills can be heard some mornings, their sharp, excitable calls ringing out from the tops of the pines. Blackcaps alarm at me harshly from the snowberry, like resonant pebbles brought together in anger. These warblers may be passing through or perhaps they are part of the local population into whose nests I peered earlier in the year. They will soon be gone, as nature changes her guard alongside her seasons.

The vegetation is shedding its greenery and adopting more sombre tones. One large patch of clearfell is particularly brown, the grass long dead and I suspect it has been sprayed ahead of a planned bout of planting. This is where the Tree Pipits were nesting – three or possibly four different pairs – and I wonder what they will find when they return next year. The mosaic of different-aged blocks will, however, ensure that they have suitable nesting habitat somewhere within the vast acreage of this working forest.

Every few days or so I will stumble across a plump ground beetle, a carabid, deep black and with a sheen of purple that dances across its wing cases with the changing light. These beetles seem to do well in the forest and, much like a black cat, I am warmed by seeing one cross my path. My almost daily walks around this patch of forest mean that I am sensitive to the subtle seasonal shifts in its appearance. It may be going too far to suggest that it has changing moods but this does seem a sensible way by which to describe how it feels to be in the forest on different mornings. The differing combinations of light and cloud cover, the subtle shifts in temperature from one forest block to another and, most importantly, the changing animals and plants, all influence my experience of the forest from one day to the next. Some of these changes tell me that autumn is come, that the bountiful days of summer are gone. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

From the bottom to the top

You may well recall that I’ve been involved in something of a challenge this year. Along with colleagues at the BTO in Thetford, I have been attempting to record as many different species as possible on the Nunnery Lakes Reserve in Thetford. This is part of a challenge with RSPB and their reserve at Sandy in Bedfordshire. While light-hearted, though in some quarters rather competitive, the challenge has the underlying aim of identifying the species we have on our respective reserves, particularly beyond the large and more obvious groups like birds, butterflies and mammals. An inventory of what we have on the site is the starting point for targeted conservation measures.

Last week, we turned our attention to the offices themselves, seeking out the creatures with which we share our daily lives. The BTO offices are centred around an old nunnery and chapel; with such a long history we hoped that they might support some particularly interesting species. We have a small population of Wall Bedstraw, for example, a rare plant nationally that is found on very old walls. Our population is centred on the 12th Century ruin in the grounds that was once used to accommodate visitors and treat the sick. It is not an impressive plant, unless you happen to like your plants small, unobtrusive and best viewed from a ladder!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the offices themselves have not turned up a great deal in the way of species new to our growing list. Last week, however, we decided to investigate some of the more tucked away parts of the building, the first of which was the cellar. I have always had something of a romantic notion of what our cellar would be like: a bit damp, rather dark and hosting some interesting spiders, woodlice and slugs. To say I was disappointed would be something of an understatement. The cellar was very dry, shockingly clean and there seemed little chance of finding anything of interest. The one creature that seemed to be doing well down here was the Daddy-Longlegs Spider Pholcus, several individuals of which hung from loose, fragile looking webs. Quite what they were living off was difficult to comprehend. Thankfully, they were not the only spider present and Iain, our spider expert, soon had several specimens to take away and identify with the aid of a microscope.

We then turned our attention to one of the attics, where there were more signs of invertebrate life. The attic was clearly the hibernaculum of choice for the dozens of lacewings that were perched on most surfaces and the presence of several large wasp nests hinted at several summers’ activity.  It was good to see so much life making home alongside us.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Butcher bird success

The recent news that Red-backed Shrikes have bred in England for the second year running is particularly welcome. While it does not necessarily mean that the species is going to recolonise the country, it gives hope that we might see an increased number of successful nesting attempts in future years.

There was a time when the Red-backed Shrike, or ‘butcher-bird’ as it is sometimes known, was a common breeding species across much of the country. Bits of scrubby habitat, thick with bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn, were favoured for nesting, as were the newly established conifer blocks of the dry breckland soils. Victorian ornithologists were the first to note that Red-backed Shrike numbers were in decline, even though the species was still widespread as a summer-visiting breeder. During the 20th Century, however, the population collapsed and the loss of birds from previously favoured sites seemed relentless. As the numbers of breeding pairs shrank, so the population retreated to heathland habitats and their protective gorse. The last of these haunts was near Santon Downham in the brecks, where the last pair nested in 1990, the year I first moved to Norfolk.

The reasons behind the decline are thought to be linked to agricultural intensification, but egg-collecting almost certainly played a major part in the decline. The colourful and often variable eggs were particularly attractive to egg-collectors and as the birds became increasingly scarce, so the eggs became all the more prized. Although much less common today than it once was, egg-collecting still continues. For this reason, the shrikes nesting near Dartmoor have had to have round-the-clock protection. This highlights the dichotomy in our society; there are those who will selflessly give up their time to help protect and conserve rare species, acting as wardens, managing habitat and liaising with birdwatchers. Then there are those whose selfishness sees them take eggs and put the future of a species at risk, simply because they seek ownership over something that is not theirs to have.

For me, the Red-backed Shrike remains a passage visitor. It is a bird I catch up with most autumns, usually in some scruffy bit of scrub on the coast. The ‘butcher bird’ is probably all the more special to me because I do not encounter it that often. Mind you, it is such a striking and charismatic species that, even if it were once again a common breeder, I am certain that it would still hold a special place in my affections. I guess you might be wondering about the ‘butcher bird’ tag. Well, this comes from the shrike’s habit of impaling prey items on thorns and barbed wire, maintaining a larder, much like an old-fashioned butcher’s shop window.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Finch disease spreads

That Britain has an important role in the wider pattern of bird movements is particularly evident at this time of the year, as many species – both rare and common – are noted arriving and departing by birdwatchers. As the first of our wintering geese arrive, so the last of our summer-visiting warblers depart. The scale of these movements is sometimes more difficult to gauge, however, particularly when it comes to common and familiar species like Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch.

It is easy to assume that these finches, together with our other ‘resident’ species, are here all year; after all, they fill our hedgerows and woods with song in the summer and make use of our garden feeders come winter. Thanks to the efforts of licensed bird ringers we know that many of our wintering Chaffinches and Greenfinches arrive here from elsewhere, and that some of our breeding Goldfinches leave Britain for a winter spent in France and Spain.

The degree to which our finch populations are connected with those elsewhere in Europe was brought home to me recently through a piece of work with which I was involved. For several years now, I have been studying the impacts of an emerging infectious disease in finches. This disease, caused by a protozoan parasite, is known as trichomonosis and was first seen in wild finches in 2005. During 2006 we had our first outbreak, centred on the West Midlands and the Southwest of England, but in 2007 we saw it hit East Anglia. Our work has shown the disease to have reduced the Greenfinch population in affected regions by a third and the Chaffinch population by a fifth. This is the first time that anyone has been able to document a population level impact in a widespread European bird resulting from an infectious disease.

Worryingly, in 2008 a case was diagnosed in Sweden, followed by others the same autumn in Finland and Norway. Working with vets at the Institute of Zoology in London and molecular biologists at UEA, we have found that the trichomonad parasites taken from these birds are identical. This implies that the parasites arrived in Sweden, Finland and Norway via birds that had migrated from Britain. By examining bird movements we have been able to demonstrate that the most likely candidate is the Chaffinch, individuals of which migrate from eastern England to these countries come spring. Wintering Greenfinches, on the other hand, tend to migrate between eastern England and western Norway, away from where recent cases have been seen. With a foothold in these northern European populations we may see the disease emerge elsewhere in Europe, as migratory individuals mix over time. More on the disease can be found at

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tiny passage of globally threatened bird

Recent weeks have seen the now annual handful of records of the globally threatened Aquatic Warbler from sites along the south coast of England. This cracking little bird, which resembles the more familiar Sedge Warbler in its general appearance, is something of an autumn speciality, a rare passage visitor to these shores.

It has been several years since I saw my one and only Aquatic Warbler and I can still picture the bird sitting quietly in the bottom shelf of a mist net (used by licensed ringers to catch birds for ringing) in an East Sussex reedbed and the look of joy on my colleague’s face as he reached to extract it from the net. The entire world population of this warbler, estimated at just 18,000 pairs, breeds in central and Eastern Europe, favouring extensive areas of river valley marshland, sedge bed and damp hay meadow. Drainage and agricultural improvement have led to a significant decline in the breeding population, which is why it has been given such a high profile conservation status.

At the end of the breeding season Aquatic Warblers migrate southwest across Europe, heading for wintering grounds situated in West Africa, south of the Sahara. The precise wintering grounds are unknown and more work is needed to work out where these are in order to determine if conditions there are deteriorating for the birds. If, during the early stages of the autumn migration, the birds encounter winds from the east, then they may be displaced across the English Channel to reach sites spread along the south coast of England. In exceptional autumns they may be found further north, with several Norfolk records and birds reaching as far north as Northumberland. There are even a few spring records, though these are even less common than autumn ones.

One of the things that makes the Aquatic Warbler such an interesting bird, aside from its rarity here, is that the male Aquatic Warbler has taken promiscuity to unprecedented levels! Females tend to be rather elusive, living skulking lives within the complex structure of vegetation in which they make their home. When a male encounters a female he copulates with her, remaining in copula for up to thirty minutes; in most birds, by contrast, copulation lasts just a few seconds. The male does this to prevent other males from mating with the female at the critical time and to introduce sufficient sperm to swamp those of any previous matings. In order to deliver this quantity of sperm, the male Aquatic Warbler is particularly well-endowed. Having mated successfully he will then seek out other mates, leaving the female to rear the young all on her own.

Friday, 16 September 2011

A festival of harvestmen

Scrabbling around on your hands and knees may not be the most dignified of occupations but it does mean that you can get down amongst the vegetation, a useful thing when looking for invertebrates. This morning I took the opportunity to search the grounds at work for woodlice and harvestmen, two groups for which there are a few species we have yet to find this year. The woodlice have been fairly well covered, thanks to a concerted effort early in the year, but there are additional species that I suspect may well be present in the BTO’s Nunnery grounds. So far, we have found three different species of harvestman which, based on a Norfolk fauna of 18 or so species, leaves others unfound.

Harvestmen are probably familiar enough to most readers. The combination of a small round body and long legs hints at the relationship between harvestmen and the closely related spiders and mites. These are arachnids but not ones to be frightened of. Writing in 1977 Savory decribed them as ‘the comedians among Arachnida: animals with rotund bodies ornamented with little spikes, with two eyes perched atop, back to back, like two faces of a clocktower, with ungainly legs insecurely attached, with feeble jaws and an undying thirst…’ Savory’s description is spot on, though to really appreciate this you have to view a harvestman through a handlens or binocular microscope.

Odiellus spinosus

As well as being interesting creatures, harvestmen have an interesting name and one that deserves further mention. There is a clear association with agriculture in the name, and a seasonal timing as well. Although many can be found year-round and others are most commonly encountered in spring, they are most abundant in late summer – harvest time. While we call them harvestmen the French refer to them as les faucheurs (the reapers). Writing in 1634, Dr Thomas Mouffett knew them as ‘shepherd spiders’, explaining that English shepherds thought that a field with lots of harvestmen made excellent sheep pasture. The association with sheep is still retained in the nomenclature used in harvestman classification. The order in which harvestmen are placed for classification is called ‘Opiliones’ and has its origins in the Latin ‘opilio’ which means shepherd.

Harvestmen are predators, feeding on a wide range of small, often soft-bodied, invertebrates. They tend to live on the ground, particularly the more robust species with their shorter and stouter legs, but some may be found on brambles and nettles. The species I was searching for this morning, successfully as it happens, was one of the stout ground-dwelling species, hence my being on my hands and knees and searching through the debris at the base of an old wall.

The river at night

Even on an overcast night there is still just enough light to make out the river as it flows inky black through the wood and on into town. It is the movement of the river that reveals its presence, the ever-changing nature of the surface film, which ripples and catches the eye. Other than the gentle murmurings of the river itself there is a reassuring stillness that envelops you, drawing you in with soporific ease. I don’t come down to the river that often at night unless I have dropped a car back at work after an evening talk. Rather than take the short route home, I sometimes follow the meander of the river through the woods and up to the bridges that mark the point at which the ancient trackway once forded the river.

I am not the only creature out at this late hour. Occasional sounds reveal other inhabitants pushing through the vegetation; muntjac startled at my presence, or small mammals flitting between the safety of their burrows and the patches of fruits or seeds on which they feed. It is the bats, however, that draw me here. I can just about make out their high-pitched calls as they make feeding passes up and down the river, presumably catching midges and moths as they go. More often than not, I will have my bat detector with me. Switching it on, the high-pitched calls are transformed into a pattern of beats and pulses that I can hear more clearly. Adjusting the dial across different frequencies I can make a stab at their identification.

From earlier visits, with more advanced detectors, I know that many of these bats will be Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, with good numbers of Daubenton’s Bat and the occasional Brown Long-eared. The Daubenton’s fascinate me, their series of echolocation calls reminiscent of a jazz drummer beating out a rhythm that slows and then accelerates with consummate ease. These small bats feed low over the water, typically between five and forty centimetres from the surface, taking insects from the water’s surface through the use of their feet and tail (contact of the prey with the tail membrane triggers a ‘strike’ with the feet). Since suitable prey are most readily recognised on calm water, these bats favour the more sheltered, slow moving parts of the river, away from surface vegetation and out of the wind. This particular stretch of the river, as it meanders through a block of alder woodland, seems ideal. It is only when I reach the bridge, with its solitary street light, that I can see as well as hear the bats and watch them as they skim the dark water for food.