Turn Your Eyes to the Skies!

Please click on this link to read my April 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Nature Notes – 20th April 2017 (photo of Osprey by Steve Round)

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A Hoopoe – a rare discovery at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits in 2013 (photo by Steve Round)

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The Herons of Verulamium Lake

Please click on this link to read my March 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Nature Notes – 23rd March 2017

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Grey Heron & chicks at nest in Verulamium Park – photo by Andrew Steele

 

Jewels of Spring

Last week I went out for a walk with my son and our new dog. My son took his bike and after rambling for a while, jumping ditches and puddles enjoying Max the dog’s enthusiasm for every nuance in the path, we found ourselves in a wood. Patches of fresh bluebells and older daffodils gave the woodland floor a garden feel but the uncontained vibrancy of the greenery and contrasting sculptural timber debris invited the feeling of being in a woodland playground.

So we set about building a den: pulling dead branches from where they lay and setting them against the trunk of a tree. Dead bracken lay all around, the perfect thatch for our structure. However, the weather had other ideas and, as only the month of April can deliver, the temperature plummeted from a pleasant 17 degrees Celsius to just above freezing. Hail began to fall and we realized that, with only a basic structure in place we needed to seek more effective shelter and quick!

A nearby spruce gave us the umbrella we needed and we ducked under and watched the little white pellets bounce on the leaf litter. As we stood there unbeknownst to us, a mother Song Thrush was weighing up her options: sit tight and go unnoticed or assume discovery and flee. She chose the latter option and with a sharp tsick alarm note ducked out of the fronds just above my head alerting us to her presence.

With a sudden rush of guilt mixed with boyish excitement I realized we had flushed the thrush from her nest. Guilt because nesting for these shy (and increasingly scarce) birds is always a hazardous time of the year and disturbance is never welcome. But also an excitement that is difficult to explain but that goes back a long way to childhood memories of discovered nests, invariably in out-of-the-way places in the midst of some adventure or exploration. Discovering a nest, especially with eggs in it, is to discover one of nature’s secrets and be ushered in to a hushed world, out of sight of the noise and bustle of human activity. It is as if we have had the privilege of suddenly being invited in to royalty’s home to be shown their most treasured possessions. They are not there but surely they will be return soon so we back out quietly, whispering with wonder but careful not to let on what we now know.

That at least is how I responded, quietly ushering my son and the dog out too, but not before I had confirmed that the thrush was indeed sitting on some eggs. The nest was perfectly hidden at my head height but using my phone camera raised above my head I was able to take a bird’s eye shot of the nest. A moment’s pause as we bent over the phone while the photo loaded and we both gasped! Nothing had prepared us for the startling turquoise blue clarity of the four eggs lying in the soft brown bowl of the nest. Like jewels in an open case they sat there, objects of perfection in a mud-lined bower.

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The Song Thrush’s Nest

We left quietly, hoping that the thrush would quickly return and see her task through to completion. In that nest lay her hopes and legacy – not just a mechanical ‘continuation of the species’ but a marvel and a miracle of beauty evidenced in every carefully woven twig and piece of moss. We are so used to seeing chicken eggs in boxes that seeing eggs in their true context – the nest – is a revelation of nurturing love and watchful care that does not just get the job done but does it with spectacular grace and beauty.

For my son and me, our ‘Boys Own’ adventure will stay with us (he is already asking when we can build dens again) and, for me, be filed with a similar memory of discovering a Dunnock’s nest at a similar age. Searching for a cricket ball during a school game I chanced upon its nest perched amidst brambles and nettles behind a pile of rubble. A Song Thrush’s nest in miniature, I remember marveling at the little turquoise blue eggs, vowing to return with my camera and then remembering I had a cricket ball to find!

Come the winter, I always wonder at the number of nests revealed when the leaves have left the trees. There are so many and yet each year can pass with out me ever discovering more than one or two! And of course, that is how it should be so please don’t go out looking for nests and eggs. Our breeding birds are thin enough on the ground and need their privacy. If, like us, you stumble on a nest by accident, know that you have been privileged to witness one of nature’s best-kept secrets and above all, endeavour to keep it just that: a secret!

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A Song Thrush

Nature Notes – A Risky Time of Year

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The cordoned-off nest at Willows Farm amidst the new pumpkin crop! – photo by Rupert Evershed

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The cordoned-off nest at Willows Farm amidst the new pumpkin crop! – photo by Rupert Evershed

Please click on this link to read my July 2015 ‘Nature Notes’ column in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes -16th July 2015

Nature Notes – The Merry Month of May!

The Watercress Wildlife Association Reserve                                                                           and a regular visitor – the Kingfisher (photo by Steve Round)

Please click on this link to read my May 2015 ‘Nature Notes’ column in the Herts Advertiser:

21st May Nature Notes

This one was published a week later than intended and it may already feel out of synch with nature out there.  It’s amazing how much difference a week makes in spring time – a week on and the Bluebells are fading, the birds are quieting down to nest and everything is shifting gear once more to settle into summer.

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!

Back to Noting Nature

Over two months have passed since my last blog as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Of course, that is not true and spring has marched in with all its usual glory…it’s just me that’s been busy, let’s say feeding young, finding fresh twigs for the nest and generally trying to be the early bird that catches the worm! Apologies though to those who may perhaps have hoped for something more regular in the past couple of months…and thank you to those who just today, re-encouraged me to keep sharing and writing!

This is of course, the most exciting (and beautiful) time of the year in my book. Everything is fresh, new and green, and if we’re lucky, set to a background of clear blue sky. We were mostly lucky yesterday when, as a family, we headed down to the New Forest for an impromptu bike ride around the tracks near Burley. A few showers passed but with all the tree cover, didn’t bother us.

Birds sang their hearts out and in between the usual voices I picked out some New Forest specialities. Wood Warblers flitted through the leafy canopy accelerating out their notes at regular intervals while Redstarts sang out from high but hidden perches on the edges of the high forest. I wasn’t able to pause long enough to find either to look at – after all we were on a family cycle ride and long pauses to find small dots in trees didn’t combine well with the activity! However, my ‘patience’ was rewarded later with a fine (and very visible) Curlew displaying over the heathland only a short distance from our car.

Back home today and we have had a wonderfully family-accessible afternoon of nature and wildlife at the children’s primary school. The grand opening of the school nature area brought a host of families along to see the newly tidied, signed and pathed corner of the school field. The children had built three nest boxes and two bat boxes that have only really been up about a month. However, already a pair of nesting Blue Tits have taken up residence in one and don’t seem too bothered by the regular hoard of screaming children and flying footballs in their neighbourhood!

It is fantastic to see how quickly nature can be encouraged in even a small area by a few strategic efforts on our part. What a great experience and lesson for those kids who can now point to a family of Blue Tits enjoying the box that they made only a few months ago.