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

 

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Exotic Travellers in Herts’

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

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

 

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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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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

Arrivals & Departures

Throughout June and now into July the seasonal tide has yet again been turning. It would be easy to feel sad as the flowers wither and the birds fall silent but it is this steady march of the seasons that makes nature observation so interesting. Each stage has its own beauty too, even in death and decay.

Walking through the now dry, brown grass, so different from the lush green of spring, there is a sense of nature having spent herself – flowers fading, pods popping and the wind carrying the seeds away like ashes in the breeze. I came across a lifeless form – a shrew – and wondered at its demise. Maybe in the heat of the day it had failed to find water or maybe its 14 months of life were simply up. I left it in the dying grass on parched soil, its final bed.

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But fluttering over this solemn scene of weary stems and finished life there rose a myriad of butterflies, delicate and beautiful, fresh from the cocoon – like other-world nymphs or Valkyries attending the slain. I watched dancing Marbled Whites, Ringlets, Meadow Browns accompanied by the occasional Common Blue and Tortoiseshell as they rose on the breeze coming back to settle for a second before flickering away over the grasses again. I could not help but marvel at the combination of their humble origins, their exquisite beauty and their ephemeral existence – barely touching the earth except to delicately sip sweet nectar. You get a sense that you are watching life beyond death, something extra special, a promise of another spring.

Of course, while all too easy to romanticize the spectacle, this plethora of insect life also supplies the hungry mouths of the growing flocks of swifts and hirundines gathering in the skies in anticipation of their journey south. The skies and telegraph wires become a great departure lounge as fledging birds join the adults feeding and resting before the long flight ahead. I noticed a still active nest of Swifts on our road a couple of days ago and empathized with the sense of parental stress as the adults tore in and out at break-neck speed, no doubt rushing to meet the migration deadline as one would rush to get all the family to the airport on time!

While there is a sense of departure in the air there still continues to be a lot of new arrivals. The adult bird song has been replaced by the raucous and squawky calls of young interspersed with the worried tut-ting of the parent birds. Many resident birds are on their second or third brood – I noted two families of new ducklings last week and have encountered countless baby Blue and Great Tits on my rambles. One particularly pleasing encounter was a family of Little Owls, the fluffy juveniles crashing around in some trees as they got the hang of their new freedom.

Today the heightened activity and calling of the Wrens indicates that their young too have fledged and are now no doubt precariously perched in various bushes as their parents flit back and forth with tasty morsels. I was also surprised to find an unopened Blackbird egg on the ground – evidence of yet another brood on its way. This is in addition to the three young birds that fledged successfully in our conservatory – a safe place but with one oversight by the parent bird: no easy exit for new fledglings! I obliged and the young birds can now be seen around the garden so far having avoided run-ins with cats, Magpies, foxes and whatever else might challenge their existence.

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Blackbird Egg

For some birds the fight to survive means they get to stay put and enjoy the garden throughout the winter. For others, like the Swallows, it means they get to go far abroad for a long winter holiday the other side of Africa. Others, like the family of Blackcaps in our garden, will maybe choose either to go or stay: staying being the increasingly popular option for this species. Either way, the changing seasons elevate this island land once again into a great transport hub as avian summer visitors prepare to leave and winter visitors begin to arrive. Some, of course, are just passing through, maybe even making an unscheduled stopover, and it is these more unusual and sometimes exotic species that get the pulse of every birder racing!