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

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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

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

 

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)

 

Let Ivy Create A Buzz

Featured Image: Photo of an Ivy Bee by Tom Speller

Please click on this link to read my October “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:  Nature Notes – 6th October 2016

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The “Haircut Shed”

Leaving Our Shores – The Last Days of Summer

 

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Willow Warbler – photo by Steve Round

Please click on this link to read my September “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser:  Nature Notes – 8th September 2016