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.

 

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!

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)