I was confined, constrained, locked down. A ‘hiraeth’ for the natural world had overcome me. My sagging shoulders and listless limbs needed to be outdoors.
The Arctic conditions spawned sub-zero temperatures. The dry air seared every inhalation. The birds would need extra food. Sunflower seeds, suet crumbs and cereal filled the bird feeder. The birds would come soon, wouldn’t they?
Soon curiosity overcame me. Had the birds arrived? The feeder sits between two St. John’s Wort bushes, the gateway to my Secret Garden. My eyes are drawn there. Here wilderness prevails. Life in that wilderness in winter is hidden and subtle, but it’s my wilderness.
My mental image was of countless birds fighting over the bounty. There was nothing. Not a single bird was seen. Then, a flicker, a flash, a flare of light: movement at the base of a bush. Garden sprites were ready to spin their magic. In the briefest of pulses a Great tit darted out, snatched a seed and retreated rapidly to the security of the bush.
I was bewitched. The theatre was entrancing. Twiggy branches shielded perching birds, their palisade against predators. The bully arrived. The robin stayed longer, its rufous breast blazing when it paused feeding. A blackbird sifted through the fallen sycamore leaves, turning each over like a Primark customer in search of a bargain. It found the apple I had left for it. It ate voraciously, glancing up guardedly, that golden eye ring signalling its alertness.
The slightest movement within a bush marked a hint of a bird ready to feed. Soon Blue and Great tits, robins, blackbirds, chaffinch and greenfinch had all taken sanctuary in between feeding spurts. Now I see the bushes in a different light. I might have felt confined, but the bushes had opened my eyes to another world. The outdoors seen from indoors.
I was still confined, constrained, locked down, but my garden had provided a fix for my nature yearning. My ‘hiraeth’ had softened and I hadn’t even left home.
My lovely River Mersey was in lazy languid mood, the grey waters flowing imperceptibly as the tide ebbed towards Liverpool Bay. I too was drifting towards the end of 2020, a year that gave us more than we could have imagined. I was at my local nature reserve, a place I came to for peace and reflection so many times during the year. My place of release and healing. Nature’s therapy.
Across the channel chimneys shed plumes which also seemed to be steering towards Liverpool Bay. It was at this time of year many decades ago that I went in search of chimney plumes: well, how else would you spend a Christmas break? I was a first year undergraduate and we were taught climatology by a rather fierce, but highly competent young lecturer. She would later become an internationally renowned professor of climatology. At that time she advised us to go out on cold days to watch out for chimney plumes. Apparently, the form of the plumes gives an indication of atmospheric conditions. My fragile first year intellect found this challenging. Little does she know though that I have never forgotten that experience, so every time I see a chimney plume especially at this time of year, I am transported back to those heady undergraduate days.
I am at the reserve to fill the bird feeders. The birds are ready and waiting, almost forming orderly, socially distanced queues. I have become the Pied Piper of Pickering’s Pasture. Robins (always the first), blue and great tits are the eager ones while skulking blackbirds eye up my dispensations of seed. I move away slowly from the feeders, my sideways glances witnessing the sequence of birds making the most of this instant bounty. It feels worthwhile to have trudged through the marshy morass to ensure a food supply for the birds.
This year has not been without its challenges, but I have much to be grateful for. The natural world has continued to heal and inspire me, as it has done for so long. Every visit to the reserve is different; I imbibe it all and value it. As I prepare to leave I know that I shall witness my river in so many moods in 2021; the trees will once again burst fully into leaf; birds will come and go, their movements driven in part by the imperative to breed. The meadows will bloom and insects will thrive. The soundscapes will vary and I will immerse myself in them as oystercatchers pipe, geese call and curlew will gift their haunting call to the waters. I will attempt to capture all these moods in my writing.
Happy New Year everyone and may the natural world keep you grounded as it does me. As I leave the reserve my spirits lift as I sight clumps of snowdrops in bloom. There truly is light after dark.
[Note: some content relates to the poem The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an uplifting poem. The use of the word ‘windhover’ for kestrel dates from the early 17th century.]
The cliffs at Oglet slip and slide slowly towards the River Mersey. Water dominates here. Rainwater percolating through surface soils escapes the cliff’s clay matrix transforming it into a slurry. The foot of the cliffs is pounded by high spring tides which gnaw at the clay. It is borne away to furnish a sediment bed for the river.
It had been several months since we had said we would visit the shore, but our diaries never agreed. My friend, an avid birdwatcher, had heard of the pressures on this coast, ten miles from Liverpool city centre. The land adjoining the cliffs is currently Green Belt, but likely to have that status removed to allow for airport expansion and development. There are considerable concerns for the impact on the local ecology.
The unstable cliffs challenge the vegetation. The result is a mosaic of coarse grasses, thistles, and occasional teasels while tottering shrubs and exposed roots speak of the ravages of the tides. Willow and hawthorn provide temporary roosts for roaming birds. This day blackbirds, dunnock and robins shuffled among the undergrowth. From late spring perching passerines pause to gather strength.
We gaze upwards as a kestrel flies into view. Another then appears along the cliffs. In their paired hovering they focus on potential quarry in the cliff vegetation. They beguile us. We are transfixed. A behaviour never seen before puzzles us. Instead of the usual head down pinpointing of prey, the nearest bird keeps looking around as it hovers. Left – right –down: at regular intervals it is monitoring its aerial territory.
My friend shouts, “There’s a third one!” I am too slow to see it. Then the pace shifts. Tension abounds. A clash of wings and a tumbling of feathers alert us to a battle taking place. Two kestrels are fighting: a windhover war of wills. They land on the ground, pause with wingtips touching. Is this the end or waiting for the start of an avian pas de deux? It feels more like a subliminal, ‘Seconds out, Round 1’. The female of the pair is forced onto her back on the ground. Does her supine submission denote the end? She fights back. It is vicious, but she is floored again. The male kneads her breast. His vivid yellow feet and black talons are capable of destruction. Are we to witness a kill? As if reading our thoughts the female rallies. Wings clash. Here we understood Gerard Manley Hopkins’ description of ‘brute, beauty and valour’. Two windhovers in combat, but why? The season was wrong for breeding, so perhaps the clifftop territory was the heart of the battle. Maybe it was a toy fight; two juveniles testing their skills.
We will never know the reason for the skirmish, but both of us agreed that this encounter was truly memorable. All that we witnessed after that seemed tame. A grey heron glided past, a sergeant surveying the shallows. The cool breeze had chilled us. It was time to retreat, but we were uplifted by what we had seen that morning.
It is 08:30 and the outdoor temperature is 11oC. Forecasters warn of the coldest August Bank Holiday for many years. I sense a scent of autumn or have I imagined it? The sky is tantalising, the 6 oktas of cloud teasing at the potential to fill the sky, or to fragment to allow some late summer sun to penetrate our bones. I hope for the latter, but I’m not here for the weather. I’m here for wildness.
I am alongside the River Mersey at Hale Head once again, one of my favourite haunts. Despite the lurking shadows of housing, warehousing and factories, there is some sense of ‘wildness’ here. August Bank Holiday carries a certain resonance. Hints of summer ending, memories of returns to school (with exercise books backed in sugar paper, new school uniform and highly polished shoes) and thoughts of a downward slide to winter. The grey, cool conditions and the relatively early hour reassure me that my walk should be devoid of people. Perfect for reflection and contemplation.
High tide will rule in two hours. Channels are filling, fingers of gurgling eddies penetrate the rockier parts of the shore and waders adjust their feeding positions. The lane down to the shore marks the route of a former ford across the river, and implicitly reminds us how river courses change through time. There is no hint of a ford now. Apparently, Prince Rupert’s army took this route across the river during the Civil War. No self-respecting military would chance that now. The website www.halevillageoneline.co.uk relates the tale of a nineteenth century man wishing to test the integrity of the ford by walking to the opposite shore and back. Allegedly, he returned with the incoming tide up to his neck and holding his clothes about his head to keep them dry!
A narrow, clay path separates the fields from the marsh which, in turn, separates land from the water world. The muted call of a Reed bunting tests my ability to find it but the bird wins. It must be secreted deep within the Phragmites reeds. Field margins are marked by a ribbon of wildflowers with Corn marigold dominant now, its yellow dispelling some of the day’s grey. Most flowers are now past their best, but the presence of countless white butterflies attests to the continued provision of nectar.
Any perception of solitude is soon dispelled when a man with binoculars, ‘scope on his back and pushing a bicycle, stops to enquire if I’ve “seen anything good?” We chat for a while. He’s clearly much more experienced and accomplished at bird watching than I am. He is a regular recorder of breeding birds on the river and I fear that he may discover my novice status. A short distance along the path something in the field distracts us. A contour line embroidered in brown, black, and white alerts us to something unusual. Binoculars reveal hundreds of geese making the most of the newly harvested cereal crop: a high quality takeaway. Mainly Canada geese, but my companion reports the presence of some Barnacle geese as well. I spot one lone white goose and, whilst hoping that it might be something rare, realise that it is more likely to be a domestic bird wanting to adventure with the throng.
Mr Super Birdwatcher and I part, he clearly keen to be divorced from this novice. The tide is filling more estuarine channels now and sun appears to be winning the battle with cloud. The distant Welsh hills look alluring, but I am happy with my patch. Small flocks of goldfinches bounce low over the fields. I hear the distant ‘kronk’ of a raven, pause to assess its direction and then am rewarded with the sight of the Corvid flying over the fields. Ravens always inspire me; I am not sure why. The margin between land and water is thinning. Soon the tide will nibble the salt marsh. The unmistakeable profiles of several curlew are rewarding. A grey heron is vigilant of the incoming waters seeking a more diverse breakfast menu.
Moving towards the lighthouse I see yet more geese contouring across two fields. People in search of wildness have increased in the past hour and I start to hear them commenting on the geese: “Wow, look at all those birds”, “I’ve never seen anything like that before”, “What are they?” Novice I may be, but I enjoyed explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the spectacle. It is always a joy to enlighten re the natural world.
The tide is now only 30 minutes away from its fullness and waders are congregating in preferred locations. A group of 20 Ringed plover partner with a smaller group of dunlin. They are spooked occasionally and take flight, but soon return to their dining table. Some small, pure white birds drift with the ebb and flow of the water, until my binoculars tell me that I’m not seeing birds; I’m witnessing the journey of moulted feathers as they drift gracefully and vulnerably at the water’s edge.
It was a delightful ramble among the natural world. My August Bank Holiday has been one of growing sun, depleting cloud, incoming tide, diverse bird sights, flowered benevolence to insects, and other humans just enjoying what they see. It is a marked contrast to Dylan Thomas’s memory of an August Bank Holiday in Swansea, but I am grateful for mine:
August Bank Holiday
A slap of sea and a tickle of sand.
A fanfare of sunshades opening.
A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water.
Pickering’s Pasture is a small Local Nature Reserve on the banks of the River Mersey close to the north-western town of Widnes. Its current status as a honeypot for visitors during these days of Covid-19 belies its past. Sited on the margins of a salt marsh in the 1940s and 50s the site became a dumping ground for chemical and municipal waste. In 1982 Halton Borough and Cheshire County Councils cleaned up the site and restored it to its natural state, creating a publicly accessible and maintained nature reserve for people to enjoy. The site was opened to the public in 1986, officially became a Local Nature Reserve in 1991 and achieved Green Flag status in 1999.
Long after I left university I attended a lecture given by Professor Tony Bradshaw at which he outlined the restoration of Pickering’s Pasture. Tony had taught me during my undergraduate days and had inspired my fascination with urban ecology. Little did I know then that years later I would become a Friend of Pickering’s Pasture. The Friends are a group of volunteers who carry out various roles across the site from ensuring that bird feeders are filled during the autumn/winter months to maintaining benches and picnic tables, to establishing a wildlife garden and generally fostering public education about the flora and fauna of the site.
The reserve is a complex of woodlands and meadows with footpaths that allow access to all ecologies throughout the year. A bird-watching screen overlooks a small scrape adjacent to Hale Marsh. This can gift beguiling avian sights, particularly during the autumn and winter for the Mersey’s Ramsar status reflects the huge numbers of waders that frequent it then.
Covid-19 has curtailed the meetings and activities of the Friends so I had not visited the reserve for some time. A few weeks ago I realised that had to change so I invited an ecologist friend to join me. The scenes spread out before us were overwhelming. The meadows were the epitome of fecundity. My friend gasped in ecstasy as she listed all the plant species in flower. Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) crept along, interrupted occasionally by yet to flower Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Seed heads of Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) reminded us that this plant that parasitizes grasses would help to suppress the more invasive members of this family. Patches of Bush vetch (Vicia sepium) on the river side of the reserve spoke of a shift in soil conditions that clearly suited the plant.
Ten days ago another friend visited the reserve and told tales of meadows alive with butterflies and dragonflies. I felt compelled to visit. Yet again the reserve did not disappoint. It was an ecological feast and even more satisfying when I reflected that these meadows had arisen on a site with such a chequered history. The diversity of life there was dizzying. Should I gaze on the Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) or allow my sight to be distracted by the white butterflies cavorting among the plants? Large, small and Green-veined white butterflies danced and dashed among flower heads. Tall candles of Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) caught my eye, but then so did the Speckled wood butterflies making the most of sunbathed leaves of geranium. The battered wings of some of these butterflies bore witness to the intensity of challenges they face during the all-too-short summer. The pale lilac of Field scabious (Knautia arvensis) was outshone by the more intense mulberry of the now flowering Black knapweed. A sudden movement in the corner of my eye drew me to look down among the leaves and I was uplifted to see a tiny Common blue butterfly. I see these so rarely that it was a joy to encounter it here. Flora and fauna were stupefying; I was inebriated by all that lay around me. The exhilaration continued when the rear path of the reserve opened onto a sunny glade. Brown hawker and Emperor dragonflies fluttered and hovered in ways that were both mesmerising and frustrating, the latter from a photographic sense.
As my visit drew to a close I wished that I was artistic and could convey the beauty of the spectacle of a kaleidoscope of muted pastels on a huge canvas. Or could be a composer who could allow sequences of chords and arpeggios to coalesce the glories before me. Sadly, I possess neither talent and am conscious that my word weaving fails to impress the glories of nature resurgent at the site. I did come away with hope and an uplifted heart that nature can colonise the most unusual of sites to allow flora and fauna to thrive for future generations.
I will leave it to a visitor who posted on TripAdvisor to convey some of what a visit meant to him.
“No matter what the weather Pickering’s Pasture leaves a lasting memory.
There’s something about walking along a fast flowing river that inspires you.
In the winter the chill off the river makes you snuggle into your coat and in the summer you can sit there and watch the meadows come to life with the beautiful array of flowers and wildlife in abundance.” [Tomreed 264, posting on TripAdvisor, July 2020]
Gaze on a landscape, breathe it in and inhale its wholeness. Hear its words; read its story. Eyes can move from the coarse resolution of the entire landscape down to the fine tuning of an individual field, gully or turn in a path. I am on the summit of Hartside Pass, almost 600 metres up into the intoxicating upland air. Before me a landscape, beautiful yet contrived; behind, the bleaker lands of the northern Pennines also bearing scars of human influence. This location is the favoured destination of motor cyclists who prefer to gaze on landscapes of mean machines – Harleys, Yamahas, Suzukis– and where talk is of speed, acceleration and implicit aggression. I prefer to speak to the land. Here is to gaze on what Rob Cowen has called “the deep past and the far future”. Here I can discern what was and what might be in the landscape.
From this vantage point, the horizon is marked by the Lakeland fells, testaments to an era when the earth trembled. This was a time when, with much rifting and writhing, the earth’s crust was crumpled and crenulated to form the hills of today. Casting my eyes to the middle distance I gaze on parts of the Eden valley. Here are fields and woodlands, fragments of what once was. Here are delineations and divisions almost certainly a fraction of what they once were. Hedgerows replete with hawthorns for nesting, damp recesses for Jack-by-the hedge were removed to make for larger, more efficient economies (or so we were led to believe). There is a beauty in this landscape, but in our dialogue it is talking to me of lost habitats, neglected niches and diminished diversity. I can linger for only a short while, yet in that time I neither see nor hear a single bird. Now I must head to Garrigill.
My companions to the north are the blanket peats of Benty, Meethaw and Scarberry hills. Coarse, bleached cotton grasses soon to boast fluffy, cotton-ball flower heads intermingle with vulgar heathers and secretive Sphagnum mosses. Later in the year bilberry will flaunt its fruits. Occasionally, the blanket is torn and I catch sight of the beautiful black peats furtively secreting sagas of ecologies gone-by. Ornate pollen grains, faceless macro-fossils and smooth spherules of burnt carbon can all tell tales of land-use change through the centuries. To the south, lands drain into Black and Rowgill Burns. Here the landscape wears a very different face. This is a landscape of mosaics, the practice of moor burn writ large. This is “prime grouse shooting moor”: birds dare not linger here on the Glorious 12th. As I enter Garrigill my doused spirits are boosted: birds are abounding here! House martins chatter around the lane, perhaps sharing reviews of village nesting sites: here is rampant fecundity. I catch sight of a swift scything across the skies. Soon I realise there are more. I can’t look for long – I’m driving! In minutes I arrive at my cousin’s home to be greeted with tea and cakes (always delicious!). Flitting between the lounge (where bird feeders are in sight) and the kitchen I am given updates on the recent birding activity: which birds are nesting where, what has been seen recently and what has been the impact of some tree felling in the adjacent churchyard. My cousin and I are soul-mates and our souls are sharing news of the natural world.
It is now 04:30 and I am wide awake. This is not unusual for me, nor is my getting out of bed to head for the window. I gaze out on a lingering gibbous moon soon to cede to the ever-advancing dawn. For now it is an opalescent orb presiding as a sentinel over a sleeping world. These are the secret hours when all seems quiet and clandestine. Movements are slow and steady, predator and prey skulking to eclipse the other. In a few short minutes the sun will rise, so with the strengthening light I can see more. The mist over distant Cross Fell is splintering into wisps that will succumb to the growing warmth. The break of slope opposite me is marked by an array of buttercups, a ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold. Momentarily I think I sense movement, but perhaps it’s the day-spring light playing tricks. Rabbits begin to mooch, but then there is a different movement. A curlew has awakened, its decurved bill prospecting the soft soils for earthworms, insects and larvae. It appears to be alone: is there a mate nesting somewhere awaiting the bounties of its partner’s probings? More light and a scuffle. A Carrion crow and lapwing are tussling in the sky. This is not a head-on, battle to the death, more a ‘keep off my land’ warning. The ungrazed fields and wet grassland nearby provide the low cover the Lapwing needs for nesting, but can leave it vulnerable to marauding corvids. Lower down the field one rabbit is motionless. I fear it is dead. Suddenly, those fears are assuaged. The violet head and red face-sides of a male pheasant appear and, as the bird wanders languidly across the field, the ‘dead’ rabbit scampers off. Day is now with us and my increased acuity enables me to look to distant fields to an unexpected sight. Roosting on the fields are many Black-headed gulls. With no large bodies of water nearby I puzzle over their wanderings. Cow Green reservoir is 15 km away. Would they travel from there to spend their days in a field in a Pennine village? Perhaps these were failed breeders, gathering to share their disappointment, a collegiate commiseration of sterility.
The final gazing experience of my stay was along the banks of the emergent South Tyne River. Storm Desmond had wrought its wrath here and all had changed. The river no longer flowed along the meandering curve of its north-east bank preferring now the ease of a straight channel. Perhaps it was in a hurry to join its cousins to become the great River Tyne as the waters neared Newcastle. The abandoned channel, now bereft of water, revealed the energies of past storms with pebbles and boulders evidence of upstream geologies. As I approached the river a noisy and excitable cacophony of sound erupted: the oystercatchers were nesting nearby. My cousin always reports their arrival, but this was my first experience of their piping gatherings. No-one would dare interfere with their nursery.
My bird watching always provides opportunities to watch and gaze, whether on birds, landscapes or habitats. My north Pennine wanderings this time were not abundant in diversity, but were rich in sights that touched my soul. I had reflected on the deep past and the far future and was the wiser for it.
Good Friday. For some a day of solemnity and liturgy. For many a welcome escape from work, while for others an opportunity for a lie-in or a shopping expedition. For me the day of solemn reflection and worship. Despite this, my river was seducing me, urging, compelling, and calling. I would succumb. My sojourn could be one of quiet reflection as befitted my version of Good Friday. My worshipping commitments could still accommodate a quick visit.
En route to the river I stopped at a field edged by a reed bed. It was an apology for a habitat, but it was a habitat nonetheless. Recent rumours had whispered of a bittern lurking here. Here was another seduction. This small, degraded fragment of reed bed on the margins of a field was not typical bittern habitat. It might though appeal to a weary bird in search of a temporary roost. The reeds fingered the edges of ponded water that had delusions of something larger. This was to be a visit of sounds, not sights. Fragmented the reed bed may have been, but there was sufficient to conceal those treating it as a temporary refuge. Sadly, a bittern booming would not be part of today’s soundscape. If it was there, it was lying low and camouflaged. This absence was countered by the whinnying presence of Little grebes. The dab-chicks were courting or arguing: it was difficult to tell which. Suddenly, a burst of beige and energy and a Jack snipe silently took flight from the margins of the bed, only feet away from me. It would provide only a brief sighting before it took a rapid dive down to another reedy covert. Mallards called to each other, while coots pik-pik-ed. From the inner recesses of nearby Big Boar Wood a Great Spotted Woodpecker drummed. Here were sounds of a rising spring, of urgency and increasing energies.
my river was seducing me, urging, compelling, and calling
These post-equinoctial days seem to have acquired a light that imposed a different palate on the estuary. The day was hinting at warmer ones to come. The estuary looked good, very good. The bronzes and ambers of last year’s exhausted marsh plants contrasted with hints of emerald, sage and aquamarine of newly emerging shoots. Soon the sea scurvy, samphires and sea asters will begin their daily battle with the tides. A gentle breeze whispered around the cliffs, the tide had just turned, the waters scurrying in filling creeks and gullies and evicting Redshank, Shelduck and Canada geese. All felt very alive. Skylarks carolled, each bird reaching a crescendo with its increasing height.
The more extensive reed beds here harbour one of my favourite birds of wetland margins: the Reed buntings. Unlike their flaggy namesake these birds are noted for their veiled presence. I sat awhile hoping that buntings might appear, my watch accompanied by a distant, gentle murmur of a bee. The battalion of reed stems shivered and there was a movement, a subtle stirring. Another nervous flick confirmed that my birds may be there. Perhaps a female reed bunting was exploring the depths of these blond stems for a suitable nesting site. Then, they emerged and were off. A pairing of buntings shot out of the reeds, flying in unison then making a synchronised landing on a nearby hawthorn bush. I raised my camera to capture them when, perhaps in fear of some perverse paparazzi, they took flight again. Soon tiring of this avian hide and seek, I went on my way. Then, only metres along the path, they were there. This time confident and defiant picking out whatever might be lurking among the particles of the gravel path. Grab camera; click, click, click. Secretive birds now preserved for public showings.
Reed buntings: secretive birds now preserved for public showings
Buoyed by this contact I then noticed a man sitting on the next bench. Two terriers sat patiently at his side seemingly knowing that he needed to be quiet and reflective. He then emerged from his reverie: had I disturbed him? He smiled, stated “I am not a birder” (a confusing statement given the binoculars around his neck) and then reported that he was “a bit dyslexic” and with “a touch of autism”. Interesting, but strange disclosures given that, at this stage, I had not uttered a word. An enthusiastic conversation then ensued in which he disclosed that cats don’t eat starlings because they are very greasy birds (I wondered which feline had reported this culinary fact) and that he loved the Latin name for species. Sturnus vulgaris is the species name for starlings and “the Latin phrase for today is Erithacus rubecula, the Latin name for the Robin”. With that he strode off along the path and I was left marvelling at this brief interlude in which I had learned much. Distracted by my reflections I almost missed a longed-for arrival. A flash of blue-grey merged among the grey-brown clods of the ploughed soil. Then an orange flush and I could have flushed with it. My spirits and excitement soared. A wheatear had landed only metres away. It was the first of the season and a definite harbinger of spring. Here was Oenanthe oenanthe – yes, my dyslexic, autistic encounter had made an impact. This beautiful, pert, erect visitor had voyaged from its wintering grounds in central Africa to grace the edgelands of the River Mersey. What sights had it seen en route and how could it look so alert after all its travails?
Further along the path another bench was occupied by a mum, dad and two little girls. Mum was taking photographs while the others pointed out the location of birds, trees and other natural features that they deemed worthy of her endeavours. We shared greetings then I just had to proclaim excitedly that I’d seen the wheatear. The parents looked impressed; the children looked confused. Once I explained that it was a bird and that it had travelled from Africa the children smiled broadly and I could sense their awe. The natural world was weaving its spell.
Time was pressing so I was forced to leave my river. I passed a house where a man was working a pile of rich brown topsoil. Sighting my camera he called out, “Did you get some good photos?” “I saw a wheatear, all the way from Africa”, I enthused. “Faaan-tastic”, he replied. I wanted to reply that I thought his soil pile was fantastic, but I restrained my exultation! My visit was over. It had been a visit of two halves. The first was a time of quiet reflection while I interacted alone and in silence with the river, its sediments and its wildlife. Then the second half was a time where my love of the natural world could be shared with others. It had indeed been a very good Good Friday.
Humans seem to find the act of counting birds strangely beguiling. Thus, our metric towards Christmas includes four calling birds, three French hens, two Turtle doves and that old partridge in the pear tree. Edward Lear’s hirsute gent bemoaned the two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren populating his beard while, as a child, I was introduced to the two little dicky birds sitting on a wall (“One named Peter, one named Paul”!). It would appear that birds invite us to count them. So, it is for me during October and November. I am compelled to observe and count birds during that most enthralling of natural phenomena, the autumn migration.
Each morning Lady Aurora taps at my window to alert me to the dawning of a new day. Her awakenings are later at this time of the year yet they still leave me wanting to remain cocooned in my bed. Once fully roused the reality of the joys that might await me urges me to dress and head out to the riverside patch. The streets remain largely unpopulated and cars are few on the roads. Most drivers look impassive possibly reflecting on their arduous day ahead. I, in contrast, am uplifted, eager and readied for another voyage of discovery. What birds will we see today? What geographical stories could they tell of places seen and climes to come?
“the blushing skies of sunrise”
The dawning of days in October and November is more exciting than at other times. They challenge my knowledge of meteorology to determine whether a morning’s dismissal of Morpheus would be worthwhile. Migration at our patch is at its prolific best when the winds are from the south-east. My friend uses the direction of aircraft over his house to determine the suitability of the day. I live too far from the airport to use that litmus test so I have to refer to weather forecasts. I watch these assiduously, but generally then ignore them because, for me, any day out there with my eyes to the skies is valuable. It is immaterial whether I am greeted by the blushing skies of a sunrise so warned of by sailors or the gunmetal grey of a rain-threatening, lowering blanket of stratus. So-called ‘poor’ days enable me to value much more those rich days when bird traffic is almost too great to measure.
The process of ‘visible migration’ (or ‘vismig’ to use the ornithological vernacular) involves watching, identifying and counting any birds that pass over a particular location. I discovered only a few years ago that a lane most familiar to me was a migration ‘hot spot’. How could such a mundane lane, bounded on either side by hawthorn hedges which in turn marked the transition between wayfare and field be of such significance? This area that abuts the ‘edgeland’ of Marion Shoard or the ‘bastard countryside’ of Victor Hugo (q.v. Ch. 8, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane) cleaves desperately to its rural character while on the opposite bank of the river the land has ceded to the march of industry. How could this be a migration magnet? Apparently, the juxtaposition of river and highways provides a nexus of reference points that enable the birds to orientate themselves. Thus, I have my ready-made, off-the-peg, local migration hotspot.
It is for this reason that I can be found with several others many mornings in autumn with my neck craned to the skies. Join us and you will soon hear a strange litany: “Eight chaffies and two Brambling”, “One hundred and twenty Woodies”, “Forty Fieldfare and eight Redwing”. My fellow scrutineers are of great expertise and eminence. I marvel at the speed with which they can integrate the size, shape and call of the bird to identify and then count them. My paltry contribution to the process is simply to alert them to groups of birds heading from different points of the compass. Old Birders do learn albeit slowly. I can now differentiate the Redwings from the Fieldfare, the Stock doves from the Wood pigeons, and on a good day the Bramblings from the Chaffinches. I have learned how to count large groups of birds. Count to 10 then work out how many multiples of these are present.
I am invigorated by the spectacle and, occasionally, the excitement is enhanced by the passage of relative rarities. Thus, one morning, one observer seemed beset by a sudden bout of stammering: “L-l-la-la Lapland BUNTING!!!” his voice cascading upwards ever louder. The thrill of this traveller’s fleeting presence was so great that my friend’s tongue contorted strangely conspiring to strip him of an ability to cohere. Another day, this same friend alerted us to the presence of a Hawfinch. We could neither hear nor see it, but our colleague’s bionic skills set could detect it from the top of the lane. The rest of us waited, our sight and hearing stretched to their limits until suddenly, it was there. We could see and hear it, this giant among finches. This bulky brute with its huge conical bill was soon gone, but we were enriched by its presence. A lone bird on a lonely journey.
Occasionally, some birds looking steadfast in their flight plan suddenly change course returning from whence they have come. It is as if they have hit some invisible barrier which prevents their onward movement. That barrier may not be invisible, but may be the river at the end of the lane. To a bird’s eye this may look uninviting, a potential source of danger. It is not uncommon for them to make several attempts at crossing often not progressing until they have been joined by other flocks reaching an apparent critical mass. Perhaps confidence comes with numbers.
Each year there seems to be one spectacular day when the count exceeds expectations and may provide a record for our site. This year it was a day at the end of October. It was relatively balmy for the time of year with almost complete low cloud cover. The birds were flying at relatively low altitude – much kinder on the observer’s neck. Five of us covered the observation period from 07:00-11:30. Redwings were soon flying through, followed a short while later by the more robust Fieldfare with their characteristic ‘chack-chack’ call. Passage soon increased apace with flocks of Wood pigeon in excess of one or two hundred. Then more notable visitors graced our eyes: Hawfinch, Lapland bunting and Woodlark, the latter a real rarity for our site. Our adrenaline was flowing. This day was to be a mega-watch, a special day. Birds seemed to be coming from all directions but, as is common for this site, all were flying south-east, heading for those warmer lands whose call they were responding to. On that amazing morning we counted at least 18,000 birds flying over our lane.
Vis mig raises so many questions in my mind. Perhaps I’ve been a scientist for too long. Where have these birds come from? Where are they going to? We know the answers to these questions for some species, but not for all. They will not all make it. Migration is physically challenging. Some will not have accrued sufficient fat reserves to survive. Others will succumb to depressions and storms. Those creatures that left me awe-struck may not reach the other side, but I am grateful to have encountered them fleetingly. Humans have been fascinated by these annual movements since ancient times. John Ray, writing in the 17th century, asked:
“What becomes of Swallows in winter time … To us it seems probable that they fly away into hot countries, viz. Egypt of Ethiopia etc. then that either they lurk in hollow trees, or holes of rocks and ancient buildings, or line in water under the ice in Northern Countries.”
We now know the answer to where the Swallows go, but until such time as funding is available to enable us to answer these questions for other species, I shall simply wonder and marvel in my lane on balmy or chilly autumn mornings.
Robert MacFarlane (in Landmarks) uses migration as a synonym for his discovery of new words:
“I have had such pleasure meeting them, these words: migrant birds, arriving from distant places with story and metaphor caught in their feathers”.
Visible migration for me allows encounters with birds who may never pass my way again and who may not survive the arduous and threatening journey of migration. In that brief morning rendezvous during October and November I am touched by them. I cannot know the story and metaphor in their wings, but I have had the greatest of pleasure meeting them and I shall return to my lane by the river next year to repeat the process. Fare thee well dear birds. I await your arrival back here in spring.
September has dawned and with it thoughts of summer’s end, school returns and seasonal changes. To meteorologists this first day of the month marks the beginning of autumn. This is a time when my real world and my dream world are filled with anticipation and trepidation for that most inspirational of natural events: bird migration. Scott Weidensaul describes this time as one of the “great pivot points of the year … when the continents are swarming with billions of travelling birds”.
There are signs already that it has started. The whinchats have graced my patch with their presence in recent days. Rarities are touching down, catching breath, boosting fat reserves then continuing their southward journey. This natural event never fails to impact on me, that impact is visceral. By early October I will be down at ‘the patch’ daily, watching, holding breath and urging onwards those swarms of Fieldfare, Redwing and others that use our river as their navigation. I’m leaping ahead, though. Let’s return to August.
August began and ended with pivotal birding events. On 9th August I joined many hundreds in the magnificent Goyt valley to raise our voices in support of the Hen harrier. The paths to the meeting site streamed with people, veins of fervour leading to the heart of the event. It was a day of friendships renewed, new friendships made, of shared applause and despair as we reflected on the plight of this masterly bird. It provided an opportunity for me to meet those wonderful young naturalists who I befriended on Twitter, but could now put faces to names. It was good to meet you Georgia Locock, Findlay and Harley Wilde. Those great warriors Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Chris Packham were amongst many who spoke eloquently and passionately about the battles ahead to save this bird. We were inspired and returned along those valley paths, now arteries of zeal each compelled to spread the news of this bird’s plight and to reverse its decline. In his excellent book Inglorious, Mark Avery writes, “one year there will come a time when driven grouse shooting is a thing of the past. What, I wonder, might that look like?” This must not remain a dream; this must become reality.
The birding event at the end of the month was in marked contrast to that in the Goyt Valley, but driven also by a fascination and fervour for all things avian. It was the BirdFair, an annual event held at Rutland Water. This was my first visit and we decided to include an overnight stay so that we could imbibe all matters birding for 2 days. They were a magnificent two days; we returned both inebriated and sated. It is difficult to highlight one event, but a special moment for me was listening to Iolo Williams’ inspirational presentation of the Wildlife of Wales. Wales has always been in my bones (that surname Jones might have something to do with it!), so the talk already held promise. I have given presentations all my professional life so can be critical when watching others. Iolo leaves little to criticise. He combined passion with knowledge, humour with wisdom and had the audience entranced for 45 minutes. Passion was the feature of the two days. The superb organisation of this huge event, together with shared knowledge of and love for the natural world provided a greater ‘high’ than any drug could achieve. I was left with thoughts and dreams of ‘if only’. If only there had been more young people there; if only my friends and family knew what they were missing; if only, if only, if only ….
With this ardour pumping through my veins I had a dream (with apologies to Martin Luther King). I dreamed of a land that might have been. It was a land where soil was cared for and no longer bled into the seas. It was a land where the waters were crystal clear, where they skipped then meandered to the oceans, carrying only a chemical load it was right to carry. It was a land where oceanic gyres were no longer burdened with plastic waste, where marine organisms would no longer mistake microplastic spheres for food. It was a land where birds flew freely to the heights and back. Hen harriers flew across moorlands liberated from the tyranny of gorse butts. Songbirds made their southward journey free from the risk of entanglement in nets or the scourge of being killed for ‘sport’. Hedges and acacia forests thrived to provide habitats for Turtle doves and Spotted Flycatchers were no longer threatened. In this bountiful and flourishing land insects abounded, no longer threatened by those chemicals used so perversely to make life ‘better’. In this land the air was clean and clear, freed of its burden of humanly-generated particles and noxious gases. It was a land where the climate could find its balance, where glaciers would no longer meet their watery death, where seas would no longer be forced to flood or where drought-ridden soils were no more. This was a land where children knew to treasure every organism. Freed from the inane world of social media and computer games, where bedroom walls were too confining, these children sought the outside world and explored wide vistas to distant horizons. They relished every moment. They no longer berated the ecological sins of their parents and grandparents.
I had a dream last night. It was a dream, but some of it could become reality if only we would listen to the lament of our ailing planet. The young naturalist Elliott Monteith (www.birdboy101.co.uk) writes “Mother Nature is slowly and painfully slipping into darkness never to return”. I and many of my friends will ensure that doesn’t happen, Elliott. I had a dream and I want my dream to become a reality for all.
It’s 05:30. My aching joints implore, “stay in bed a little longer”; my brain proclaims, “it’s a glorious morning, get up and enjoy it”. The brain won. With comforting mug of tea in hand I glance out of the window and realise that much is afoot in my suburban garden. It draws me in and for the next hour or so I am to be entranced. It’s Day 10 of 30 Days Wild, the Wildlife Trust initiative that is encouraging us all to connect with nature daily during June.
My mother always warned that ‘blue and green should never be seen (together)’, but this morning the cobalt blue sky complemented perfectly the many shades of green of the vegetation. I was grateful that the natural world was ignoring my mother’s caution. Beech leaves flickered subtly as gentle zephyrs skipped across the garden. Sycamores sported their leaves newly released from the velvet cocoon of the leaf case. The flaxen leaves of the variegated ivy contrasted beautifully with the lime green of the St. John’s Wort bushes planted to provide cover for smaller birds. My brain was right; it was indeed a glorious morning.
My eye was drawn instinctively to the avian visitors to our garden. The first to arrive were those intelligent corvids, the Jackdaws. Five were squabbling around one of the feeders. Two contorted themselves on the feeder while the other three were on the ground ready to collect any falling titbits.
As soon as one had finished feeding it flew across to the bird bath to drink. For some reason, I am beguiled by the sight of a bird drinking, in part because we don’t often witness this. Meanwhile, panning across to the other side of the garden, I noticed the arrival of a Starling. Departure of the Jackdaws provided some subliminal signal for three more Starlings to occupy the feeding station. At this point I felt that there was something different about these birds. They lacked the glorious blues and greens (which should never be seen!) that I expected of these passerines. These birds were grey-brown and rather bland. Then I had a moment of realisation. I was viewing juvenile birds. These four were this year’s brood. I was watching avian adolescents.
A faint flicker at the corner of my eye drew me to another quadrant of the garden, this area now colonised by smaller visitors. The tremor that had alerted me was the movement of a House sparrow rummaging for insects in the lawn. Close by was a Blue tit and at the edge of an adjacent apple tree was a Great tit. These observations were a signal for another moment of clarity. Bird feeding in my garden seems to have a chronology. Each species appears to have its own temporal niche. That chronology seems to be related to size, the large species feed first while the smaller ones follow on behind. This fact may be well known, but it had not occurred to me until now. The 30 Days exercise had motivated me to linger longer with my garden watch and I was seeing so much more.
At this point my already heightened senses were excited further when I caught a monochromatic flash. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (GSW) had landed in the Mock Orange bush. This species has visited our garden regularly since last year. At that time I was entranced by the arrival of an adult and a juvenile, a novel experience for us. Since then an adult had visited our feeders regularly. This time I concluded it was the same bird on its scheduled daily visit. Then the imperative of observation stimulated me to look more closely. This was not our usual adult visitor. This bird was sporting a smart red beret on top of its head and the normal scarlet of this species’ nether regions was much subdued. It was a juvenile GSW. I was having a morning of adolescents! Within minutes a feeder on the opposite side of the garden featured more monochrome: an adult GSW. It was woodpecker party time. The dynamic between these two birds was captivating. The juvenile flew up into a tree and began to peck at the trunk. Was it practising for adulthood? It was then joined by the adult who proceeded to feed the juvenile. How glorious to see this juvenile transitioning from fledgling to adulthood. On the one hand feeding independently and drilling; on the other, readily accepting food from the parent. I watched this pair for fifteen minutes and was transfixed.
The bird numbers lessened and the feeding rave seemed to be ending. Suddenly I was alerted by the alarm call of a Robin at the bottom of the garden. This became louder and more frantic so I decided that I should leave my window hide and head outdoors. The cause of the Robin’s anxiety soon became clear. Next door’s cat was lurking in the undergrowth. I despatched her to her own garden, but then had the glorious realisation that the impetus for the Robin’s angst was that it had a nest in our ivy hedge. So much going on in my garden, but my failure to linger and watch had shielded this from me. Thirteen bird species visited my garden that hour. In addition to those reported already, I saw Blackbird, Wood pigeon, Feral pigeon, Goldfinch, Long-tailed tit, Dunnock and Magpie.
In his Introduction to the 2005 Edition of J. A. Baker’s wonderful account of The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane suggests that bird watching is “a sacred ritual”. If that is true then I was witnessing creation’s Glorias and Hosannas as the natural world proclaimed the arrival of a new day. These birds had crept into my heart and my mind. The emotional impact was visceral: my heart beat more rapidly, my stomach jumped with joy and my breath took on a different rhythm. Yet again, the natural world gave me a memorable experience.