About rupertevershed

An Englishman who loves the great outdoors and enjoys sharing his observations of nature with others.

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

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Dragonflies & Drones

One of my favourite summer activities as a child was pond-dipping.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house with a fairly large pond in the garden and so my pond-dipping activities often extended over days and weren’t as much dipping as a thorough exploration of the life in the pond.

Using a net and numerous containers of various sizes I would sift through the murky waters, peeling layers of rotting leaves apart, to see what might be hiding there.  Invariably anything alive would wiggle vigorously on exiting the pond so I would lay the contents of my scoops out and watch for movement.  Anything of interest would be plopped into one of my containers for closer inspection.

I was fascinated by the tiny bouncing daphnia or ‘water fleas’ that I would sometimes extract for even closer examination under a microscope.  Water beetles also scurried away seeking any corner they could find but best of all were the newts.  These tiny lizard-like creatures always delighted and were big enough to hold in the hand and examine close-up.

Just occasionally, another creature would appear amongst the siftings – a menacing-looking larva with six legs and bulging eyes.  Inhabitants of the dark recesses of the pond, these creatures, 3 or 4 cm in length, seemed to be from an alien world.  They were in fact dragonfly nymphs, biding their time at the bottom of the pond, eating voraciously and devouring whatever small creature crossed their path, from snails and tadpoles, to water fleas and worms.

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A Dragonfly nymph – photo by Vitalii Hulai (Shutterstock)

Fearsome predators, at least for much of the tiny pond life, I always handled these nymphs with nervous respect just incase (in my child’s mind’s eye) they nipped my finger.  Of course, dragonfly nymphs are prey themselves to larger aquatic life such as fish and birds but nevertheless, moulting up to fifteen times during their life in the pond, they can afford to lose a leg or two before their final form.

And that final form are the beautiful winged insects that we know and love, that having climbed heavenwards from the depths of the pond as full-grown nymphs, emerge in late spring and summer to whizz around bejeweling rivers and ponds with their sparkly metallic and iridescent colours.  Yet, in reality, we see only a brief few weeks of the dragonfly’s life for up to two years of its life is spent as a nymph growing in the shadows.

Every summer I would examine the tall flag irises at the pond’s edge to find the dried-out exoskeletons of the nymphs still clinging to the stems, a fading memory of a life spent in the dark underworld of the pond.  It is perhaps this murky past that has often given the dragonfly a sinister reputation in folklore.  Certainly, their huge, bulging, high-performance eyes give a sense of the alien and the discovery of their prehistoric ancestors with wingspans of up to two feet fuels the notion that these insects are from another world.

With the help of a number of fantasy movies it is not hard to imagine dragonflies and their nymphs being cast in some futuristic role to terrify us and threaten human extinction, but the future, as far as dragonflies are concerned, could be even stranger than science fiction.  Research engineers at Draper, a US research laboratory, have been working on a project called DragonflEye that blurs the lines between insect and machine. By genetically modifying a dragonfly’s nerve system the engineers are able to fit a tiny backpack to the dragonfly that ‘plugs-in’ to the insect’s nerve cord and allows engineers to steer the dragonfly remotely.  The result is a new kind of hybrid drone that combines miniaturized navigation, synthetic biology and neurotechnology to guide the dragonfly.

The ability to control such a small flying insect opens up incredible possibilities in many fields: for instance, it has been suggested that honeybees, whose population has collapsed by half in the last 25 years, could one day be equipped with Draper’s technology to assist with pollination.  I must admit that I personally find these developments far more scary than any fantasy film but recognise the significance of such pioneering work.

The technology is still being developed and we are hopefully a long way off seeing dragonflies with mini-backpacks on!  If there’s one thing that the research engineers agree on in trying to harness the dragonfly’s steering mechanism it is that the dragonfly itself cannot be improved on.  So let’s enjoy the real thing this summer – there’s nearly 60 species (including damselflies) to look for in the UK – and why not have a closer look at the reedy margins of ponds and rivers to see if you can find their empty nymph cases still clinging to the stems.

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

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A Southern Hawker Dragonfly Aeshna cyanea – one of about 3000 species worldwide (photo by Steve Round)

 

Make an Appointment with the Dawn Chorus!

This last weekend, on Sunday, it was International Dawn Chorus Day: an event instigated in the 1980s after Chris Baines, a then TV presenter, reputedly invited friends to celebrate his birthday at 4am so that they could listen to the dawn chorus of birdsong.

Of course, the dawn chorus had been going on for many millennia before that, but it was the official day established in 1987 that ever since has highlighted, celebrated and promoted one of nature’s great wonders and one which we, living in a temperate region of the world, get to enjoy every spring.

Living in suburban St Albans the dawn chorus in spring is almost guaranteed from your bedroom window wherever you live.  You may not think there are that many birds in your garden but thankfully birdsong is not defined or contained by our fences and boundaries.  Instead, quite the opposite is true as birdsong declares and defines nature’s boundaries through song.  The dawn chorus is a bout of aural jousting between birds that the writer and naturalist, Mark Cocker, describes as “their version of territorial warfare conducted through music”.

Rising to the top of the singing charts in spring is the Blackbird whose patient and quiet practicing of his song during the winter months from the dark depths of a bush finally pays off. His squeaky winter sub-song endured the punching tones of his relative the Song Thrush and now emerges as the sound of spring – a soft warbling meditation that is the soothing backdrop to every first barbecue.  The song brings a depth to spring and a richness that wasn’t there in the winter months for each Blackbird is answered by a rival bird, maybe a few gardens away, and that in turn is gently rebuffed by another even more distant bird.  A luxuriant layer of sound is added to our landscape and enriches the balm of a warm spring day.

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The Blackbird (Turdus merula) – photo by Mirko Graul (Shutterstock)

The name ‘Dawn Chorus’ is bit of a misnomer in that if you rise as the sun appears the chances are you will have missed the main performance that actually begins a good hour before sunrise. It may be that you are well aware of this having been woken recently, like me, well before the alarm clock is due to go off, by the repetitive ‘squeaky wheelbarrow’ song of the Great Tit or the angry cries of Crows seeing off a skulking fox before first light. This is no way to enjoy the dawn chorus and if there is one thing I would encourage every person to do this spring it is this:  to make an appointment with the dawn chorus and get out in it!

This of course means setting the alarm clock for 4am, maybe even earlier, and getting outside, ideally in as rich a natural habitat as possible.  Sticking your head out of the bedroom window will give you a taste of what’s on offer but to be out in nature as the dawn chorus swells, rises and unfolds all around you is intoxicating.  Birdsong is beautiful but when combined in unison with the first light of dawn, the sweet smell of May blossom and the cool dew on shining gossamer threads you are left looking for your next fix.

Every year I make a pilgrimage to Kent in May for a mad day of birdwatching – the rough aim being to see as many different birds in a 24-hour period as possible.  It is a hangover from university days when a group of us raced around Kent as part of a yearly countywide sponsored competition. However, it is not the ‘day count’ as such that draws me back and the competitive flavour to the day has long since gone:  it is the chance to be out in nature at dawn and experience one of the best dawn choruses that the UK has to offer.

In an undeniably crazy rejection of the messages our bodies naturally give us we start in a marshland setting at midnight where the birds never really go quiet.  Bitterns boom, cuckoos call and marsh frogs holler – at times it is deafening.   We then move on to a parkland setting at 4am where the tentative song of redstarts ring out in the pre-dawn darkness, interspersed by the amphibian calls of roding woodcock and squeaking baby owls.  And then it breaks, slowly at first but quickly overwhelming:  the full voice of the parkland birdsong rises with the sun, banishing the lingering mist patches and warming every leaf in a carpet of song.

It is exhilarating, uplifting, deafening and any thoughts that it would have been better to stay in bed vanish as nature’s drug takes full effect.  My appointment with dawn is this Friday…when will yours be?

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

 

Spring is all about the birds & the bees!

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

I saw something I had never seen before the other day:  earthworms having sex!  It was about as fleshy and yucky as that sounds but nevertheless intriguing and a moment of profound wonderment on my part.

Of course, spring is all about copulation – why else the birdsong, the buzz of bees and the pollen-laden stamens amidst scented petals?  But it doesn’t get much more down-to-earth than the worms I saw.  Their bodies half submerged about 20cm apart and the exposed halves side by side, joined in two places.  I moved a blade of grass and they vanished at lightning speed.  I felt guilty for spoiling their earthworm fun but, in truth, the joy of the new discovery far outweighed any shame on my part.

Spring has sprung, albeit a little falteringly this year, and while the earthworms are a reminder of where it’s all headed, the flowers, the birds and the bees elaborate nature’s great love song and in doing so invite us into the romance.  Nature has a way of kindling passions in us be it in the giving of a simple bunch of flowers or in a lifetime of devotion to a particular aspect of nature.

A friend of mine has recently written a book about those most sublime of plants: the orchids.   I have bought a copy and am enjoying reading about his summer of orchid-hunting – a quest to see all the species of orchid native to Britain and Ireland.  I would be the first to admit that I personally know very little about orchids – I have found at most two or three species on my rambles locally – but I was intrigued to discover more, especially from the pen of a friend with whom I shared some of my earliest encounters with nature.

I have always thought of orchids as the butterflies of the plant world with their fragile beauty, their ephemeral existence and their, more often than not, extreme rarity.  Such qualities invariably inspire awe and wonder with each encounter and attract devout followers who go to great lengths to locate and study the plants.  It should have come as no surprise then that, on opening my friend’s book, I did not find detailed species descriptions, distribution maps and site guides but instead a tale of passion, of personal endeavour and of mystery and intrigue.  If the monasteries of old sought to counter the age-old vices of money, sex and power with their oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience, then they would have done well to acknowledge the orchids’ part in all three!

As far back as pre-Roman times orchids have proved alluring not just for their exquisite beauty and extreme rarity but also for their medicinal properties – their roots among other things believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Botanists and herbalists across the world and over the centuries have been employed by kings, emperors and the wealthy, to supply orchid specimens, either for private collections or one-off elaborate show pieces. Like ermine in a royal gown, orchids speak of wealth and power…but they also speak of sex.

If flowers give us a language for love then orchids take it to another level.  Not only are they beautiful flowers but the extraordinary precision of their petal arrangements and associated parts also gives them an edge in vying for the attentions of insect pollinators.  As an orchid researcher from the University of Naples expressed it, when it comes to attracting pollinators, “Sexy orchids do it better!”

A case in point is the Fly Orchid whose petals mimic the outline of a fly so perfectly that male digger wasps (wholly unlike the stripy picnic pests!) find them irresistible.  In addition, the orchid scent closely resembles the pheromones of a female digger wasp further encouraging the males to land.   There is no reward for the wasp in this act of ‘pseudocopulation’ but the orchid’s deceit ensures its pollen is carried off, onboard the wasp, to fertilize other orchids.

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Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera by Martin Fowler (Shutterstock)

It was Charles Darwin who first observed the sexual deception of Fly Orchids.  He was one in a long line of ‘orchidophiles’, my friend among them, engaged not just with the matter of scientific observation but in a love affair with orchids.  For each of them, their discoveries were not so much eureka moments as moments of passionate love.

While I have not (yet) gone out in search of orchids I recognize that same passion in myself.  It is a passion for those uniquely beautiful and unexpected experiences that arise in the secret moments when you discover something rare or new in nature.  They are unforgettable moments, deeply personal and become part of your life’s journey, sometimes informing it and sometimes inspiring it.  May you all feel the love this spring!

Jon Dunn’s “Orchid Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2018) can be bought on Amazon.

 

Spring Tarries…but the Sap is Rising!

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

Waiting is a big part of life. We are all used to waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes unwillingly: in waiting rooms, on platforms and at bus stops, and sometimes just in front of the pot on the stove. The question at the forefront of our mind is, “Is it now?” – “Is it now that they’ll see me, that the proverbial bus will arrive or the pot boil?” Of course, nine times out of ten, we end up waiting longer than we wished or anticipated but, once the wait is over, we go on with our business with relief and renewed enthusiasm.

Most of us, I imagine, whatever we may have to wait for on a daily basis, will find ourselves waiting for spring to arrive. Winter, for all its beauty and drama, has a way of dragging on just a bit too long. No one can refute the beauty of a hoar frost on a clear, sunlit day or the fun and playfulness that snow brings, but it is nevertheless cold, wet, slippery and generally disruptive. Each of us begins to look hopefully for the signs of spring, becoming increasingly sensitive to even the smallest temperature changes, the first buds and the increase in birdsong.

And yet spring is never hurried. As I write we are emerging from the ‘Beast from the East’ that just as the first crocuses and daffodils flickered into life, arrived and shrouded the land in snow and ice, snuffing out those tender shoots of light. I visited the local gravel pits in the midst of the icy blast and found nature thrown about and in disarray caught by the icy grip of the sub-zero elements.

Snipe, usually comfortably and perfectly camouflaged in the reeds, stood dotted about, out in the open by any puddle that had not yet frozen. Lapwings strung across the skies, heading west in search of non-frozen ground on which to feed. A kingfisher sat along the frozen river above the one small pool of unfrozen water. If that froze too the kingfisher would have to move on, keeping ahead of the ice to feed and giving it its German name: ‘Eisvogel’ or Ice Bird.

Up and down the country people reported many garden “firsts” as fieldfares, redwings, siskins and redpolls sought out garden feeders and last year’s windfall apples to tide them over the lean times. Even waders such as lapwing, woodcock and snipe were found taking refuge in gardens.

All this forced movement undoubtedly takes its toll on wildlife but it is also nature’s defibrillator: providing the shock and impetus to transition into spring. March is a month of highs and lows, a mix of some of our worst weather but also, often some the most promising spring days, when we feel our energy returning and even consider a bit of spring cleaning!

Traditionally this early spring rejuvenation has been referred to as the “sap rising” when energy for life is renewed and amorous appetites rekindled. However, it is not an entirely unscientific notion and the increased activity of nutrient-rich sap within many plants and trees in early spring is a necessary precursor to the emergence and growth of buds and leaves.

If you enjoyed pancakes on Pancake Day then you many well have poured tree sap on your pancakes. Of course we call it Maple Syrup but it is the sap of Maple trees harvested when it rises in early spring in Canada. The Canadians, understandably, have invested heavily in scientific research to find out exactly what makes for a good maple syrup harvest. Theories abound but one thing is clear – the frequency of the freeze-thaw cycle is critical. Without a series of freezes and thaws the yield of sap from the maple trees just won’t be as great – the sap will not rise. It seems the dramatic temperature fluctuations are crucial in creating pressure differentials within the trees that get the sap or syrup moving.

I found myself standing in front of a Maple Tree in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London recently. Planted in 1998 by a former Canadian prime minister it looked bare and lifeless and yet I knew that within, the syrup would be flowing, pushing new life to its young branches. We may not always see it but Spring is coming and if ever there was a positive way to view March’s fickle and sometimes fierce weather it must be this: it is nature’s way of shuddering back to life and maybe, if we embrace the elements too, we’ll feel our own sap rising too!

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The Maple Tree (Acer Saccharum) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London

Seagulls are for Muggles!

 

To read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – 22nd February 2018

 

There is no such bird as a seagull. I had to learn the hard way: early in my birdwatching career, at the tender and self-conscious age of about 13, I found myself in a group of older and wiser birders and was audacious enough to suggest a seagull had just flown overhead.

A confused and awkward silence followed and I was quietly but firmly corrected that there was no such thing as a ‘seagull’, instead my bird was most likely one of the five common species of gull (no sea) found in the UK!  I felt foolish as I was aware of different sorts of gulls but had never thought to be more specific.  And that really is the story of being a bird-watcher in a nutshell: be more specific and how specific you are will determine how much of a ‘muggle’ you are when with other birdwatchers!

The incident reminded me of another ‘awkward’ occasion whilst watching seabirds off Portland Bill in Dorset – thankfully this time it didn’t involve me directly.  Picture a group of mainly middle-aged men staring out to sea down their high-powered and extremely costly telescopes, scanning the sea for whatever seabird might be passing at the time. Portland Bill sticks right out into the English Channel and as a result allows views of some of the scarcer passing wildlife that might otherwise be invisible from the mainland.

We had spent enough time there so prepared to leave but as we did so my friend mentioned quietly to me that we would need to stop for petrol on the way back.  Never has such quiet, suppressed panic ensued as every birder began to desperately scan the sea, with sharp calls of “Where?!”… “Location please!” and, “Was that at 2 o’clock?” It suddenly dawned on us that we had inadvertently dropped a bombshell into the midst of the watching birders – the trigger-word “petrol” or I should say “petrel”, a small and rare little seabird that flits like a swallow over the high seas.

Like searching radar the combined senses of the assembled group had immediately picked up on the word ‘petrol’ and simultaneously started scanning the waves for it.  We beat a hasty retreat, the disgruntled mutterings and murmurings already audible as we neared the car. We would get petrol but not Storm, Leach’s or Wilson’s Petrel, just unleaded.

It is moments like these that you realize the hobby you enjoy has an addictive quality: sea-watching and gull-watching being just two of the drugs on offer.  As with real junkies, the thrill of the chase and the needlepoint accuracy needed in the moment of identification, fuel intense and devoted habits. When you are in the presence of such people you feel an outsider, unable to access the higher realms of knowledge that they possess.  Hours and hours of observation, recording, photographing and reviewing have made them experts, able to dismantle feather-by-feather what at first appears to be a regular Herring Gull (the sort that steals your fish and chips) and reassemble it as what it actually is: a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull!

The idea of a “seagull” is as bewildering to them as the sheer array of gulls and plumage variations on view is to others! Their dedication to the task of gull identification has produced a wealth of new information about the gulls that visit our isles. Within many gull species it is possible to identify separate races – birds that visit Britain from different geographical zones, each having distinctive variations to plumage and body characteristics. Some of these races in turn have been reclassified as separate species – most recently a large gull, easily dismissed as ‘just another seagull’ and even by birdwatchers as ‘an odd-looking Herring Gull’, has now been recognized for what it is: a Caspian Gull, a full species in its own right.

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Gulls at Verulamium Lake – 3 different species and 3 different age groups – from left to right:  a second-winter Common Gull; a first-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Black-headed Gull; and an adult-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull

So, if you’re looking for a challenge this winter it doesn’t get much trickier than gull identification. Of course, the starting point is to banish all thoughts of “seagulls” and instead take a good look at the different gulls in front of you. Verulamium Lake is an excellent place to start: the small and noisy Black-headed Gulls (unhelpfully they don’t have black heads in winter!) will even feed from your hand. Amongst them, some of the larger gulls will also come in to roost – Common Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls. Learn to separate them and who knows? You might become addicted!

Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

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Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

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So switch off the TV for an hour and tune in instead to the natural world on your doorstep – you may be surprised at just how many birds visit your garden in an hour. For more information and to participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch visit: www.rspb.org.uk