Watching Nature Watch

As a birdwatcher I am used to watching.  I like to think that I have honed the art such that not much avian life escapes my notice.  Combined with a good set of ears my walks are walks of watchfulness, looking and listening as a hunter would for nature’s never-ending bounty of sights and sounds. But there are times too when I sense I too am being watched!  If I thought my senses were fine-tuned there are others in the wild whose powers of perception go way beyond what I could hope for.

Yes, binoculars give me an advantage – allowing me unnaturally close-up views from a distance, but often I have been spotted or heard before I’ve even started looking!  Scanning an old oak tree yesterday and the two ‘eyes’ of my binocular lenses were met suddenly with the equally cold stare of a Little Owl!  He had been there all along, a dumpy ball of feathers, enduring the cold and watching me all the while.  Did his heartbeat quicken I wonder as I approached? Or was he not worried about my presence and maybe instead, a little bit annoyed that I was disturbing his daydreaming?  Either way, he didn’t show it but those yellow eyes continued to follow me, unblinking, until I had passed by.

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The watching Little Owl!

Having been a ‘watcher’ all my life I have noticed just how much time is spent watching and waiting by wildlife. Long periods of the day can pass with no apparent activity or even movement but at some point activity resumes either to look for food or to avoid becoming food.  Sometimes this waiting allows the performing of maintenance tasks – I recently watched a Peregrine Falcon preen its feathers and dry off after a quick dip in the nearby gravel pit.  Without this regular bath the falcon’s feathers would become congealed with the blood of its suppers – it is the assassin’s cleanup.

At other times, the inactivity is simply to rest but this is never uncoupled from watchfulness.   For us as humans, sleep is by and large an ‘on-off’ thing – we are either awake or fast asleep – but for birds and a few other creatures the ability to ‘half-sleep’ is a scientifically established phenomenon. Known as ‘unihemispheric slow-wave sleep’ the brains of birds and some aquatic mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have been shown to be able to operate in two halves:  one half of their brain is awake, including an open eye, and the other half shows the electrical signatures of sleep.  This appears to be a protective mechanism, enabling the animal to fly or swim and monitor its environment for threats with one hemisphere while the other gets some rest.

More recently this kind of half-awake vigilance has been shown to extend to humans too.  Tests on volunteers sleeping in an unfamiliar environment showed that one half of their brains remained more active or ‘vigilant’ during their first night of sleep.  Once the environment had become more familiar so their sleep deepened on subsequent nights.  This ability to ‘half switch-off’ has obvious benefits to wildlife, allowing them a secure but not deep sleep, but is perhaps more stressful to the tired human traveller wanting a good night’s sleep on arrival.  I do however believe that I may have perfected the technique to my advantage during some long lectures at university!

Watching the watchers undoubtedly brings a greater affinity between the wild watched and the human watcher.  Not only is an insight into the lives of the birds or animals watched gleaned but also a sense of what they are watching too. A sudden alertness amongst the ducks and gulls heralds the end of the Peregrine’s snooze, the tilted head of a wader – eye to the sky – signals the arrival of a Buzzard overhead and a change in call note of the feeding Pied Wagtails suggests that somewhere out in the distant ether a Sparrowhawk is peeling off in a lethal stoop.

Of course, it is not always threat that concerns wildlife.  After a particularly stormy period of weather I took my dog out for a walk.  The wind had gone, the skies had cleared and the sun sat low, bathing everything in a soft and welcome warm light.  It was a moment to breathe and take in the beauty and I was not alone.  Perched magnificently in the top of a dead tree sat two Red Kites, their rusty tones glowing in the winter sun.  A little way off a lone Buzzard also sat soaking up the rays.  A sense of contentment conjoined the watcher and the watched and all was well in that moment.

Happy New Year whatever you’re watching!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

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Red Kites enjoying the winter sun

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The nature on our doorstep needs a voice – will you speak up for it?

I should probably have taken the hint!  Walking out into the garden recently an unprecedented flock of thirty or more crows raucously greeted me from the treetops at the bottom of my garden.

Cawing and croaking these big, black birds clung clumsily to the top most branches and twigs, jostling and flapping to stay balanced in a constant flurry of feathers.  There is always something ominous about crows – they are after all Carrion Crows, the vultures of the bird world – always watching for scraps and weakness that might mean their next meal.

Their presence did not unnerve me but did remind me of their long association in folklore, along with their cousins the Rooks and Ravens, as omens of ill. Perhaps this is why the collective noun for a flock is a ‘murder’ of crows!  It is not a history I take too seriously but it is perhaps fitting that I should find myself, somewhat reluctantly, addressing one of the great sadness’ of loving the natural world.  Any one who loves nature and who regularly gets out to engage with it will sooner or later, and probably sooner, realize that it is under threat from many sides.

Last month I wrote about my ‘local patch’, Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits, and the sense of ‘ownership’ and enjoyment I have from having visited the site regularly for nearly 30 years.  I had not expected to be writing about Tyttenhanger again so soon but events have conspired to compel me to put pen to paper.  I know that my love for the area is shared by many: not just bird-watchers, but dog walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and many people who just enjoy being out in the countryside.

It was with considerable shock then that I discovered an axe hangs over the future of Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits threatening to destroy it and its wildlife forever. The axe takes the form of neighbouring Hertsmere Borough Council’s Local Plan for development for growth – providing more housing and jobs over the next 15 plus years.  While that in its self does not sound like a bad thing and is driven by the need to meet government targets, the consequences for the Greenbelt land of which Tyttenhanger is part would be catastrophic.

The proposed ‘garden village’ for 4000+ homes would swamp the Tyttenhanger area, effectively connecting London Colney with Colney Heath in a new urban sprawl of an additional 6 km2.  Beneath this site would lie the memory of one of Hertfordshire’s best sites for birds and home to a huge variety of other flora and fauna – badgers, deer, foxes, butterflies and orchids.

Most significantly, with the loss of both Tyttenhanger and Coursers Farms the nationally important colony of Tree Sparrows would also vanish.  The Tree Sparrow is a red-listed species meaning that, following their population crash since the 1970s, they are now of greatest concern conservation-wise.  I know from the many visitors that I have guided to the ‘Tree Sparrow Hedge’ at Tyttenhanger that people come from far and wide just to see the sparrows.  For the regulars at Tyttenhanger, Tree Sparrows are seen most visits, but for most people in most of the UK they are absent.

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A Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

Tree Sparrows are of course just one species amongst many.  I walked around Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits this Sunday and the site excelled itself.  Not only did I record 76 different species of bird (the RSPB’s flagship reserve, Minsmere in Suffolk, would struggle to match this) but also among them was a magnificent Osprey migrating south, two rare gull species and four species of wader. In April when numbers are swelled by migrating birds it is possible to record well over 100 species in the month.

There is no doubting Tyttenhanger’s credentials when it comes to birds but it is much more than that.  For many people it is that little piece of wilderness away from the hustle and bustle of built-up areas, a place with wide-open views where the march of the seasons can be witnessed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes serene, but different every day.  It is a place to breath and to have one’s state of mind changed for the better as, if you allow it, nature will always find a way of surprising you, be it in the distraction of a beautiful flower, the watchful stare of a hunting fox or the noisy pandemonium, as on Sunday, of an unexpected Osprey sending every bird skywards in a panic!

So this is a heartfelt plea to take a moment to look at the proposals and, most importantly, express your views!

Have Your Say:

  • Read the document: Final-version-of-sites-document-printed-version (pages 146-149 refer to Tyttenhanger or “H2”)
  • Comment via the Hertsmere Council website portal: Click here and click on “Read & Comment on the Document” then click on “10 – Other Locations” in the left-hand menu.  Scroll down to find “H2 – The Tyttenhanger Estate”.  Then click “Add Comments” at the bottom of the H2 section.
  • Deadline for comments: 20thDecember

Stay up to date:

Follow @TyttGP on Twitter and use the hashtag #savetyttenhanger

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

A Little Brown Bird’s Shout of Approval!

Just recently I proudly added the 204thspecies of bird to the list of birds recorded at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  The bird itself was nothing to write home about in terms of looks – a Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced ‘chetty’s’), very similar in appearance to a large wren.  But the sighting was nonetheless very rewarding for this little bird had never before been recorded at the gravel pits despite the regular visits by birdwatchers every week since records officially began in the 1980s.

Though it is just another ‘little brown bird’ that skulks around in the reedy margins of waterways, the Cetti’s Warbler can boast one of the loudest voices of any bird – literally a ‘shout of notes’ that startles anyone walking through the otherwise quiet reed bed.  That voice alone is a pretty good assurance that until a few weeks ago a Cetti’s Warbler had not visited Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits:  if it had someone would have heard it!

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A Cetti’s Warbler shouting out his song.  This photo & featured image by Steven Round

Named after an 18thcentury Italian zoologist Francesco Cetti the Cetti’s Warbler has been expanding its range northwards, first arriving in Britain in the 1960s and appearing in Hertfordshire from the mid 70s.  Unlike many of our native songbirds Cetti’s Warbler populations have been doing quite well though it is vulnerable to harsh winters with the ‘Beast from the East’ decimating populations along the east coast of Britain earlier this year.

Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits has become the latest place to become connected to this little part of natural history and, as I write, the warbler is still shouting out its arrival to birders and dog walkers alike. It is a bird that many birdwatchers would consider long ‘overdue’ at Tyttenhanger, after all the habitat seems perfect and other sites around the county can boast resident Cetti’s. The Cetti’s arrival now suggests, at least to me, that Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits as a natural reserve has come of age.

I have been visiting the site regularly since I first discovered it as a teenager in the late 1980s.  Over the years I have seen the gravel pits develop from a barren treeless landscape, freshly created from the gravel workings (still active today), to one encompassing a huge variety of different habitats, from open water, reed beds, river and grassland to mature woodland, farmland and all the transitional areas in between.

It is a landscape that many would consider man-made and even tarnished by the extraction of sand and gravel.  It is true that the original water meadows of the Colne valley have long gone and a noisy conveyor belt now traverses the site, carrying the excavated material back to the processing plant.  The constant encroachment of the human on the landscape is very evident, be it walkers, dogs, fishermen, horses, bikes and sometimes motorbikes, not to mention the daily activities of farmers and the gravel works.  In the 1990s the woods resounded with paint-balling wars while the surrounding farmland played host to partridge shooting parties.  Disturbance is and always has been the order of the day and yet wildlife abounds.

For me there is a beauty and wildness to Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits that is quite unique, brought about by this constant interaction of the people with the natural landscape.   The ongoing gravel workings ensures daily change, be it in the fluctuation in water levels as water is pumped in and out to wash newly extracted gravel, or in the carving out of new landscapes to accommodate machinery or access. Farmland is ploughed, sown, harvested and then ploughed again.  Pathways and hedges are strimmed and cut back.   The overall effect is as dramatic as a tidal flood – demanding responses from wildlife and people alike.  But what can often feel violent at the time seems to produce exactly the kinds of habitats that attract wildlife, not least birds.

For me, Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits represents my “local patch” – an area fondly adopted by every birder as ‘their own’ local place to birdwatch:  small and near enough to cover in a few hours but large and varied enough to ensure continuing interest.  The ‘ownership’ of such sites is purely in memories built up over years of visits and observations such that the landscape and all it contains becomes personally known and any little changes are immediately evident.

The arrival of the Cetti’s Warbler is the most recent of those memories and is special not so much because of the bird itself but because it hasn’tbeen there previously.  That it turned up on my watch confers a renewed sense of ‘ownership’ on me, at least for now.  With so many actual different owners and invested parties Tyttenhanger’s future as a place for wildlife always hangs in the balance but, to date, it remains one of the best places to see birds in Hertfordshire.

For more information on the flora and fauna of Tyttenhanger please visit http://friendsofthgp.wixsite.com/ornithology

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits

Nature’s Master Builders

Last weekend we, as a family (minus two of the kids), visited The Lodge RSPB reserve in Sandy, Bedfordshire.  I had never been before, which is perhaps amiss of me as a birdwatcher as it is the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or RSPB and only 45 minutes drive from home.

On arrival we were given a short introduction to the reserve at the visitor centre.  The beautiful heathland and woods were very quiet bird-wise we were told, but someone had just found a wasp spider in its web just earlier in the day.  We googled ‘wasp spider’ and discovered that this is a very striking, large spider (at least as far as the females are concerned) with, as the name suggests, yellow and black stripes on its abdomen.

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A Wasp Spider – Argiope bruennichi – photo by Violart (Shutterstock)

We headed out along the reserve paths and, as predicted, the birdlife was very quiet and so we began to look for spiders.  It took a while to adjust my eyes – so used to scanning the treetops and skies for birds – to focus in on the gossamer constructions in between the foliage at knee height.  My daughter was far better at spotting the webs and we found many but sadly no wasp spiders.

What we did discover however was a world of tiny beauty often revealed by simply lifting a leaf.  Many webs did not at first appear to have spiders, but an inspection of the underside of adjacent leaves more often than not revealed the owner and hunter, hidden and poised to strike should the web do its work.

I had never walked through a nature reserve in quite that way before – pausing, stooping and cricking my neck to see what tiny worlds might be hidden just beyond my nose.  I might be a relative expert in the world of birds but here were new frontiers, unexplored and complex, whose intricacies I could not fathom.

Walking back towards the visitor centre we passed a number of young oak trees.  With our newly adjusted and fine-tuned eyes what had formerly appeared to be just oak leaves and acorns surrendered more to our vision.  Little brown balls, easily dismissed with just a cursory glance as acorns, turned out to be oak marble galls – the fruit not of the oak tree but of an insect:  a species of gall wasp.

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An Oak Marble Gall – home of the Oak Marble Gall Wasp Andricus kollari – showing the hole where the new wasp exited

Contained within these little spheres is one of the most astonishing works of nature you’ll come across – it has to do with one of the most efficient house-building schemes on earth!  We are all quite used to living in houses built using various materials sourced from far and wide involving many man-hours of labour, but the gall wasp takes house-building to another level.  By harnessing the growing power of trees they not only get the job done for them with materials they never had to find, but also ensure a well stocked larder within their new house!

Sometime in early spring, gall wasps inject their eggs into the developing buds of an oak tree effectively putting a deposit down on a house.  But this deposit is all that is needed for the work to begin and as the new wasp larva hatches so it stages a chemical takeover of the oak tree’s resources, hijacking the tree’s natural growth patterns and genetically altering them.  The result is that the tree grows a ‘gall’ that provides a safe home for the developing wasp and a supply of nutrients for it to eat.  In the case of the oak marble gall wasp this home is a little round marble-sized ball, initially green but browning as the summer goes on – it is after all part of the tree!

It is hard to imagine human engineering being capable of such a feat and builders would be out of work if a genetically altered plot of land produced a three-bedroomed house complete with fully stocked larder!  Parasites they may be, but I think the gall wasps have it figured out when it comes to providing a home for their young, and their galls do not appear detrimental to their host trees.

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The Knopper Gall – home of the Knopper Gall Wasp Andricus quercuscalicis on an acorn, showing the exit hole

As we discovered on our walk, it is a great time of year to look for these secret worlds of insects, be they webs or galls.  One of my favourites galls to look out for is the ‘robin’s pincushion’ gall – a fuzzy, red flower-like growth found on wild rose bushes and appearing to all intents and purposes part of the plant.  But don’t be deceived – it is the genetically modified home of yet another species of gall wasp – as flamboyant as any grand design, yet beautifully camouflaged!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

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Robin’s Pincushion Gall – home of the Bedeguar Gall Wasp Diplolepis rosae on a wild rose bush

Wasps are great! But there’s a sting in the tail

A few years back I was fixing a shed in our garden and had enlisted the help of my young son.  We were busy moving rotten pieces of wood from the side of the shed when suddenly I felt sharp stabbing pains in my lower legs.  Before I had a chance to investigate my son started screaming in pain and it took a few more seconds to realize that we were trampling on a wasps’ nest!

They were very angry so we ran inside the house, stripping off as we went.  My son had been stung all up the legs and was crying in pain.  I had been stung quite a few times too but tending to his stings thankfully provided just the distraction from the pain I needed.  Twenty minutes later we were both virtually pain free but seared on our memories was the experience of encountering the wrong end of a wasp!

Thankfully neither of us had any allergies to such stings but there are very few people for whom the mention or sight of a wasp does not immediately induce revulsion and varying degrees of fear.  It is not hard to see how our dislike of the wasp, often extending to raw hatred, has come about.

With their yellow and black striped ‘jackets’ and facial markings that give the impression of an angry masked bandit these little insects fit the bill as ‘the bad guys’.  Reinforced from an early age with children’s TV programs such as ‘Fifi and the Flowertots’ featuring Stingo the nasty trouble-making wasp, the wasp is one of the first characters of natural history we will become familiar with.  On the appearance of a wasp, adults and children alike quickly recite that ‘bees only sting once and then die, while wasps can keep on stinging’!  The ever-virtuous bee is cast as the noble character whose power is only exercised as a last resort in contrast to the evil wasp who may sting at will…and will sting!

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Stingo the ‘bad guy’  (Fifi & the Flowertots by Dreamworks)

As if this isn’t enough they are at their most annoying at this time of year and into autumn – plaguing us at picnics and outdoor parties and refusing to leave either our food or us alone.  Their scientific name –vespula vulgaris– seems to capture something of how we feel:  they are ‘vulgaris’ (everywhere) and well, vulgar.

The ‘vulgarity’ of wasps is exacerbated because, by and large, we see them at their worst.  From late summer onwards, they have become little insect vagabonds – unemployed social outcasts who have hit hard times and now, drunk on fermenting windfall fruit juice, hungrily seek whatever sugary sustenance they can find.  With winter approaching their fate is sealed. It is perhaps no wonder that we, who love sugary food too, should clash with this desperado at this time of year!

But the wasp’s sorry state at this time of year is not the whole picture and earlier this year I got a glimpse into the world of this social and industrious insect that can equal any ant or bee in organizational efficiency.  Walking along a footpath locally I was stopped in my tracks by a persistent sawing sound next to me.  Pushing aside the foliage I eventually found a wasp busily sawing away at a dead and dry stem.

Just last week I found the fruit of its labours just a few yards along the bank. A hedge-cutter had torn over the surface of the bank and revealed a wasps’ nest built in the cavity of a fox’s hole.  The nest was ruined and hundreds of wasps crawled over the remaining surface busily repairing as fast as they could.  Built from chewed-up wood pulp wasp nests truly are a work of art with thousands of perfectly hexagonal cells to house the new wasp larvae.  These larvae are fed by adult worker wasps who in turn can feed on sugary droplets secreted by the larvae.

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The exposed wasp’s nest

The nest is the very definition of organization, initiated by a single queen wasp and then built up and policed by thousands of worker wasps, the one aim to raise more queens to start next year’s nests and males to mate with queens from other colonies.  Once this has been accomplished (or a hedge-cutter passes by) the work of the majority is done and the worker wasps must leave, jobless and in search of sugary sustenance now the larval supply has gone.

This knowledge of their honest and hardworking beginnings may not be enough to move us to feel love and compassion for the wasp but perhaps we can recognize that they are a more than just a pest to be swatted.  As predators they play a vital role in controlling other potential pest insect and caterpillar populations and have been shown to be a vital contributor to the work of pollination.  Without them we might just we worse off!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

 

 

The season’s changing, but take a breath first!

It never ceases to amaze me how swiftly nature moves through the seasons.  The intense heatwave we are currently enjoying perhaps masks the seasonal movement giving us the sense of eternal summer days and slowing us to a more leisurely pace.  And yet, come 1stJuly, or maybe the Summer Solstice, some invisible magnetic compass swings 180° in the internal mechanisms of nature’s inhabitants.  The impulse to move, to return, to leave and to migrate is awakened literally, it seems, overnight.

At the local Tyttenhanger gravel pits near London Colney migrating waders have begun to appear at the muddy margins – Green and Common Sandpipers, a few Redshank and a Black-tailed Godwit – all just passing through.  More dramatic is the increase in gulls with Black-headed Gulls now in excess of 500 birds and yet only a month ago there were none.  For us summer is in full swing but for these birds winter has come into focus.  For many wild creatures it is a time to feed and move, feed and move until they find themselves in a safe place for winter and well fed enough to survive.

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A Green Sandpiper at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits near St Albans

Of course, not all our birds and wildlife are looking to move off.  Many of our resident birds are busy with second or even third broods of chicks.  Woodpigeons with their hastily thrown together nest of twigs will keep raising young into September.  We have a Song Thrush nest in our garden with unfledged chicks perched precariously on top of the fence but cleverly tied into the adjacent hawthorn bush.

On my recent walks I have come across a number of young Little Owls sitting out in the open and calling noisily for food. Both the baby Song Thrushes and the owls were located because of their persistent squeaky calling but I do wonder how they survive predation by marauding magpies and crows.  The parent birds must be constantly torn between hanging around to fend off attacks and leaving their noisy young in search of food!

While many species have bred or are about to finish raising young there are others, like the Painted Lady butterfly, that are only just arriving to breed.  Migrating up from the desert fringes of Northern Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, these long distance migrants arrive in the UK to breed and feed.  Some years can see a huge influx of these butterflies and, in 2009, breeding conditions in North Africa were perfect and millions of Painted Lady butterflies headed north following warming Spring temperatures to arrive en masse in the UK. That year hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies were recorded, sometimes in swarms or ‘kaleidoscopes’ from almost every corner of the British Isles and as far north as Shetland.

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A Painted Lady butterfly – by Nimblewit (Shutterstock)

They are beautiful butterflies that are often easily approached as they feed.  Sadly however for the Painted Ladies that arrive here it is a journey’s end as they are unable to survive our winters.  If weather conditions are right a few may make the return journey but for the most, like so many of our butterflies, they are an ephemeral gift to us, the final flourish on the heights of summer.  So look out for these little travellers – the new arrivals will be pristine rouge in colour that fades towards more autumnal browns as August progresses.

This year has been a good year for butterflies and this summer continues to provide plenty of sunshine for these aerial dancers so it’s a great time to go out looking for them. There are of course the familiar ‘cabbage’ whites and Red Admirals of our garden borders but venture out to different habitats and others will appear.  Grassland commons are a great place to look for Marbled Whites and Common Blues, while shady woodland edges are home to Speckled Woods and the occasional White Admiral.  A walk through Symondshyde Great Wood on the edge of St Albans recently took me through dancing Silver-washed Fritillaries – one of our larger butterflies that love the sunny rides and clearings in mature woodlands.

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A Silver-washed Fritillary in Symondshyde Great Wood near St Albans

If you come across a tattered-winged, orangey-brown butterfly you have probably found a Comma butterfly – so called for the tiny white ‘comma’ mark on its under-wing.  The ragged-edged wing when closed perfectly mimics a dead leaf on a branch but once opened the beautiful orange and black markings are as striking as any butterfly.  For me the Comma is the perfect bridge between summer and autumn – the beautiful flickering colours of its upper-wing closing to the leafy autumn browns of the underside.

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A Comma butterfly – note the clear white ‘comma’ mark on the underwing

It seems very fitting that this aptly named butterfly, the Comma, should punctuate the seasonal shift.  It is time to take a breath and take in the beauty of summer before the cycle starts again.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Have you heard the Cuckoo Clock?

In April come he will,

In May he sings all day,

In June he changes his tune

In July away he will fly

And in August, go he must!

This old rhyme sets a natural calendar for spring and summer based on the Cuckoo’s activities.  It is now July when ‘away he will fly’, but I wonder how many of us have seen or even heard a cuckoo this year?

I haven’t, at least not locally in the St Albans area.  I have enjoyed them in the oases of RSPB nature reserves in Kent, Suffolk and Somerset but not on my doorstep – and yet they used to call in my garden, a herald of spring and a sound of summer.

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The Cuckoo Cuculus canorus – photo by ERNI (Shutterstock)

The sad truth is that Cuckoos are in decline and over the last 20 years the number of birds visiting our shores has decreased by over half.  This iconic bird – famous for its simple song and infamous for its cuckold ways – is in danger of vanishing from our cultural experience.  No other bird is perhaps as imbedded in our cultural conscience as the cuckoo that has for centuries kept time and marked the spring and summer seasons.

From Aristotle, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and beyond, the Cuckoo has been given mention and lent it’s name to many colloquialisms such as ‘cuckoo’s shoe’ for bluebells, ‘cuckoo’s leader’ for the wryneck (now extinct as a British breeding bird) and ‘cuckoo spit’ – the frothy blobs of foam found on plants in the springtime.  None of these – bluebells, wrynecks or cuckoo-spit – have anything to do with the cuckoo other than timing – they all coincide with the Cuckoo’s arrival and of course, the arrival of the much looked-forward to springtime.

But our cultural ‘cuckoo clock’ is fast becoming merely a cultural memory – a redundant reference akin to Beyoncé singing about ‘pagers’ or the hip-hop duo OutKast telling us to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.  Craig David sings, “you left all your money on the TV” but I can’t help feeling that, just like our modern ultra-thin TVs are no longer the place we can reliably put things on, so the Cuckoo has ceased to be a substantial part of our natural furniture.

Spring has come and gone and, by and large, we did not see the Cuckoo come, sing all day or change his tune.  This has led the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up The Cuckoo Project to investigate why Cuckoo numbers have declined and specifically to ask the question what happens to Cuckoos when, come July, away they fly to Africa?

Now, thanks to developments in technology, Cuckoos are being satellite-tracked on their journeys across Europe and down into the impenetrable swamp forests of the Congo basin of central Africa where they will over-winter.  Already the data has revealed that Cuckoos must decide on one of two routes:  a western route via Spain and Morocco or an eastern route via the ‘boot’ of Italy. Most birds it seems have a preferred route while a few alternate routes year to year.  The western route to date however has shown a lower survival rate.

One Cuckoo, nicknamed ‘Chris’ after the TV presenter Chris Packham, successfully made seven trips across the Sahara before meeting his end.  The tracking project is still live on the BTO website and individual Cuckoo’s progress, each with their own nickname, can be viewed on a day–to-day basis.  True to the rhyme, this year, most of the adult parent cuckoos are leaving or have already left and are now headed south through France.

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The BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project – find out more here

As I write this article, ‘Cameron the Cuckoo’, having left the New Forest on 7thJune arrived in northern France on 12thJune.  Even keener to get going was ‘Raymond the Cuckoo’ who has already reached northern Spain and has obviously decided to take the western route.  ‘Larry’ on the other hand is in the Balkans, clearly preferring the eastern route. Not so eager to leave is cuckoo ‘Carlton II’ who remains at home in the coastal marshes of Suffolk.

It is a fascinating project and viewing the live maps of the birds’ progress south one cannot but help feel concerned for the cuckoos’ safety and wellbeing. Hopefully each bird will return successfully next spring but with each mile they provide valuable data.  Much is still to be learnt about ‘our’ Cuckoos but the research is beginning to fill in the picture as far as the risks facing Cuckoos are concerned.

Hopefully, with more than just the summer snapshot we have had of Cuckoos in the past we will now be better placed to conserve their numbers.  Maybe, a little like the Polaroid camera, Cuckoos will after all enjoy a comeback in Britain and their simple summer soundtrack will be current again!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here