Where People and Nature are thriving…

Please click on this link to read my Christmas 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:  Where People & Nature are thriving…

Where People and Nature are thriving…

This time, two years ago, we decided to get a dog.  It was a decision that marked the end of a long period of resistance on my part.  I was not so much a ‘dog-hater’ as a ‘dog dis-liker’, but a clever pincer movement by the rest of the family left me out-manoeuvred.  Added to this, chinks were beginning to appear in my own armour, as I had to concede that recently acquired pups of friends weren’t entirely unlikable.

And so, on Christmas Day, two years ago, we ‘unwrapped’ the decision to the absolute delight of the children.  There were shouts of glee, tears of joy and Christmas was made. A month later we collected a tiny black bundle of wobbly fur and our hearts melted, including mine.

Max, as we named him, was here to stay and, though there were occasional early moments when I wished he wasn’t, two years on and he is a fully integrated and accepted member of the family.  He brings much needed laughter, energy and madness to our lives that are all the more rich for it.

I think one of my fears as I surveyed the prospect of dog ownership was that my lovely quiet walks in the countryside would come to an end.  I had images of a dog routing every form of wildlife that could flee and relieving himself on every part that couldn’t.

Never for a minute did it cross my mind that rather than detract from my enjoyment of nature he would actually add to it.  Not only has he proved an excellent companion, warrant- ing the title “a man’s best friend”, but he has also, in subtle but significant ways, helped bridge the gap between the human and the natural.

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“One Man & His Dog” – Me and Max out on a walk – photo by Kathy Evershed

We are so used to hearing about the negative impact that we as humans have on the natural world that it is easy to assume a chasm exists between us:  the needs and habits of humans appearing irreconcilable with those of nature.  I think this perception underlay my concerns about getting a dog and that this human habit of dog walking would somehow seal that disconnect with nature.

I was wrong, and walking this domesticated animal has taken me down new paths (literally) and led me to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.  With the need to find suitable dog walks not far from home I have begun to explore what I think of as the “edgelands” of St Albans – the zones where houses and the built environ- ment give way to more rural areas and countryside.  There is an intensity about these areas as urban recreation mixes with farming practices and busy paths and roads parcel up the land.

In the past, I had chosen more remote locations for my walks, away from built-up areas, away from people and away from dogs on the assumption that my experience of nature would be that much richer.  But, led by the dog, I have discovered these busy ‘edge- lands’, a truly domesticated landscape, to be far wealthier in wildlife than I had ever imagined.  In fact, they appear to be more bountiful than the undisturbed and undoubtedly more scenic countryside walks I have done elsewhere.

One of my favourite “edgeland” walks is around Highfield Park and the surrounding farmland on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  Prior to owning a dog I hadn’t really explored this corner of suburban St Albans, albeit only a short distance from home, but it has proved itself a treasure trove of wildlife.

Despite the constant roar of the dual carriageway bordering the area, the hedgerows and fields are rich in birdlife.  Consequently an array of predators – kites, foxes, buzzards and the occasional peregrine – are regulars here.  Two sets of little owls have found a home in old tree holes, one overlooking the noisy games of kids’ football held every weekend.  The site is also home to some of the largest populations of breeding yellow- hammers in the area – a species on the conservation Red List due to its rapid decline in the UK.

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A Yellowhammer – photo by Steve Round

Clearly the park managers at Highfield and the local farmers are doing something right but what I find most striking is that all of this wildlife is thriving in the midst of busy human activity.  When we are so often cast in the role of either the destroy- ers of nature or its saviour it is gratifying to find evidence of a happy co-existence. I wonder if I would have appreciated this had not that domesticated dog, embodying the link between his wild ancestors and his human owners, demanded a walk?  Good boy Max!

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Same Nature: New Viewpoints

Sometimes in the course of my hobby as a birdwatcher I am conscious of moments of expansion in my experience and understanding of all things avian. With that increase comes a deeper and richer enjoyment of the pastime of a lifetime.

It is as if in walking the well-trodden corridors of my seasonal birding habits that a new door suddenly appears and opens, ushering me into a fresh and vital new experience of the natural world in which I live.

I am sure this is true not just of my hobby, but of others too. David Attenborough is a testament to the fact that 91 years on, new doors are opening with each new exploration, most recently the discovery of not just life in the deepest recesses of the oceans but also abundant, extraordinary life. Nature never fails to surprise and delight and is apparently boundless in its ability to do this. My own hobby is but a small part of that world, a lens through which I access that immense and beautiful whole.

Every autumn thousands of birds move across our skies as they either leave for warmer climes or arrive for the winter. It is a well known fact and even those with no natural interest will be aware of certain bird species vanishing at the end of the summer and others arriving. But do we ever see it happen? Is it possible to actually see the birds moving from A to B, after all there are thousands of them? The answer is of course yes, but you have to look up and preferably, but not essentially, you need to be on high ground.

This autumn past has seen and an extraordinary ‘visible migration’ across our skies involving many common birds such as woodpigeons, chaffinches and skylarks but also the less common as well – bramblings and redpolls. Already this autumn I have seen more of the latter two species that during the whole of last year. One bird in particular has arrived in unprecedented numbers – the chunky hawfinch. Usually a scarce bird seen perched high on a hornbeam or feeding quietly in the woodland leaf litter, most birdwatchers would consider themselves lucky to see even one or two in the year. However, this autumn, possibly as the result of storm Ophelia, hawfinches have been recorded in almost every part of the UK flying over in flocks, often totaling 50-100 birds over the course of a morning.

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A Hawfinch – photo by Steve Round

This movement has prompted a renewed interest in hilltop viewpoints with longtime favourites such as Parliament Hill in London’s Hampstead Heath providing daily reports of sightings. Most of the time the visible migration involves smaller birds making short journeys, maybe from one county to the next. The exciting element comes from the fact that amongst the commoner birds almost anything could appear – winter geese and swans, waders and birds you wouldn’t normally expect to see in your area. It does help of course if you are able to identify the birds by call, or to have someone with you who can, but the spectacle of continuous streams of flocks flying overhead is nevertheless worth witnessing. For me it is to be caught up momentarily in nature’s ageless seasonal shifts: just one movement in a great symphony of soft flight calls and wing beats, orchestrated across continents.

This year’s migration is largely over now, (although as I write this, hawfinches are still being reported across Hertfordshire daily), but the memory will stay with me. It is a ‘new room’ in my bird watching experience – it has always been there but now I have consciously ‘walked into it’ and begun to enjoy it. With it I have added a new verb to my vocabulary: “visi-migging” – the act of watching visible migration! It is another world with its own Twitter hashtag of #visimig that connects me with “visi-miggers” and their sightings across Britain.

As I parked my car on top of the Maltings Car Park in St Albans today (a kind of concrete hill and great viewpoint) I paused to observe the skies around me. A flock of over 30 fieldfare passed overhead and then a chaffinch, followed by 9 goldfinches. A peregrine patrolled, maybe hoping to cash in on the ‘visi-mig’. I left the car park but in just five minutes I had recorded 10 different species, but more importantly, like a breath of fresh air, I had connected anew to that wider world all around us that, in our busy lives, we are apt to overlook to our loss.

Please click on this link to read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes – Herts Advertiser 30th November 2017

 

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Please click on this link to read my November 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser: Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

I had been wondering if she would be there. I had encountered what looked like the remains of her feasting along the path. The telltale circle of piled feathers that indicated a pigeon devoured, plucked breast up, the carcass taken for final pickings by its captor.

Usually I would attribute such feathery leftovers as the work of a sparrowhawk but today the pile is huge, with a wide radius, as if something far more powerful has torn and plucked the bird. Around me too the landscape has shifted closer to winter when I would most expect to see her again.

And there she is, perched midway up the pylon, busy preening and cleaning herself. Her size and plumage tell me she is an adult female peregrine, returning hopefully to her wintering grounds – my ‘local patch’. Her dark black hood speaks suitably of the skilled executioner she is. Indeed at my very feet another pile of pigeon feathers ruffle in the breeze. She has been busy and now clearly is engaged in a post-postmortem cleanup.

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A juvenile Peregrine with its prey (a Moorhen) – photo by Steve Blake

Peregrines must bathe daily to clean off the inevitable blood and guts of their hunting lifestyle. It is a little observed behaviour of the bird, known better for its aerial supremacy and powerful stooping dives on prey. It is behaviour that I have been lucky enough to observe at a local gravel pit. I watched, in that instance, a young peregrine, bedraggle itself at the water’s edge, unusually vulnerable and ruffled. Nothing mobbed it, no crow swooped down to take advantage of the predator’s pause. I wonder if it was just simply because the peregrine was unrecognizable, stripped of its threatening prowess and hidden in its bath-time obscurity.

Such behaviour was written about by that great admirer of the peregrine – JA Baker, who found his local peregrines returning again and again to a quiet spot along his local river in Essex. More recently a peregrine has been filmed washing at the edge of the River Thames in Central London, observed by the many tourists along the embankment.

The peregrine before me today may be a bird that has bred not too far away. Increasingly peregrines are being observed in the breeding season in nearby larger towns such as Watford and Luton, usually perched high on an industrial structure, always with a precipitous view and teetering ledge. Wherever this bird has come from, she commands the airways as she hunts from her pylon peaks – her own corridors of power.

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A juvenile Peregrine looks down from its pylon perch – photo by Steve Blake

I, for one, welcome the return of the peregrine – I expect the local farmer does too for it is the ultimate bird scarer! The bird never fails to add a thrill to the wider landscape and makes those ugly pylons objects of interest, to be scrutinized carefully lest they conceal a roosting peregrine.

Autumn has its own spring for while leaves fall and plants die back there are new arrivals, like the peregrine, that are as welcome a sight as returning migrants in March. Though they arrive on cold winds to a damp landscape they revitalize it with their busyness and the drama of their flocks. On the dullest day there is never a dull moment and this is nature’s gift to us if we can brace ourselves in the cold months ahead and leave the dull subfusc eye of electric bulbs and ceilinged spaces to get outside in it!

 

A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

Please click on this link to read my October 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

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The humble Wood Pigeon – photo by Steve Round

 

Passenger Pigeon

The now extinct Passenger Pigeon – illustration by Nicolas Primola

 

Exotic Travellers in Herts’

Please click on this link to read my September 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Exotic Travellers in Herts’

European Bee-Eaters

European Bee-eaters – photo by Wim Hoek (Shutterstock)

 

Strange Summer Soundtracks!

 

Twice this year I have found myself listening to birds that do not sound at all like birds! The first occasion was whilst camping in Dorset amidst the wild and beautiful heathland bordering the edge of Poole Harbour…

On a still, warm evening in late spring and early summer you are almost guaranteed to hear the strange song of the Nightjar issuing out from dusk until dawn on the Dorset heathland. I say ‘almost guaranteed’ because on the very, seemingly perfect, night I chose to lead a small group out into the twilit heathland a deafening silence greeted us! We had to wait a long time but did eventually hear a distant male bird’s song, but not before my birding credentials had almost been teased to tatters. Of course, the very next night, the campsite itself played host to several male Nightjars happily calling loudly high above our tents!

The song of the Nightjar is best described as a continuous churring sound, rising and falling in pitch. If you hear it you may be forgiven for attributing it to an amphibian or even to a piece of machinery. The Nightjar’s song contains 1,900 notes per minute and in the warm, stillness of a summer’s evening, seems to fill the air, mixing with the rising heathland scent of heather and pine. It is a magical experience reminiscent of holiday evenings in the South of France listening to cicadas as the light fades and the day cools off. Perhaps this is what J.A. Baker had in mind as he wrote his beautiful descriptive prose of the Nightjar’s song:

Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It is an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out and none of it is lost.” (J.A.Baker, The Peregrine, 1967)

The bird itself is no less peculiar than its song with a wide, gaping mouth, reinforcing a sense of the amphibian. Indeed, its closely related family of foreign cousins are called ‘Frogmouths’. During the day, it remains perfectly hidden, its brown plumage matching the dry litter of the heathland floor – not revealing itself unless practically stood on.

Like the nighttime jarring of the Nightjar another, much smaller bird, has recently been singing its equally un-bird-like notes much nearer to home – at Heartwood Forest on the edge of St Albans. At this time of year, Heartwood is alive with the buzz of insects, cashing in on the abundant supply of nectar from the wildflowers blooming in the warm sun. Calling grasshoppers and crickets herald the start of lazy summer days while boisterous buzzing bees share petal space with the altogether quieter and more delicate butterflies.

Out walking the dog at Heartwood I paused to take in the scene and listen to the buzz all around me. As I listened I realized that above the stridulations of the grasshoppers a louder, more persistent ‘grasshopper call’ dominated. Almost identical to the song of its insect counterparts this was no insect but a little brown bird aptly named the Grasshopper Warbler.

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A Grasshopper Warbler – by Steve Round

Like the Nightjar’s song the Grasshopper Warbler’s reeling notes – likened to the sound of a free-wheeling bicycle or a winding fishing rod spool – rise and fall in pitch and volume as the little bird, its whole body vibrating with the sound, turns its head this way and that. The resulting ‘spray’ of notes has a ventriloquistic quality making it very difficult to locate the bird, often perched just above the long grass on a twig or bush.

Once spotted, the little bird is nothing much to look at with its mottled brown plumage and bright pink legs. Like the Nightjar, the Grasshopper Warbler is perfectly camouflaged and designed to remain hidden and, as a result, both birds are heard far more often that they are seen. This visual secrecy seems to amplify their strange un-bird-like songs and, although unlikely to be heard together, add a layer of mystery to the summer landscape wherever they sing.

The Nightjar is sadly now absent as a breeding bird in Hertfordshire but, as I write this, the Heartwood Grasshopper Warbler is still singing his heart out and proving unusually showy. If you do get a chance to hear him, or indeed a Nightjar elsewhere in the country, I’m sure their strange summer soundtracks will captivate you!

Published as Nature Notes in the Herts Advertiser on 13th July 2017