Nature Diary: College Reservoir, 5th April

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Bullfinch male. Photo by Ben Porter – visit his website here.

The April shift is well under way, and what begun as a gentle segueing of the season in from the winter – the first snowdrop, the first trill of a chiffchaff – has now descended into a full blown rush to get the important business of the propagation of genes underway.

The normally skulking, introverted wren is now singing as loud as he can from exposed perches, zipping from each one in a chocolate flash. In defence of his nesting territory, he zips out a high-pitch rant with his stumpy wings flapping vehemently by his side, like a tiny man trying to egg on someone clearly too big for him. A pair of long-tailed tits preen lichen-encrusted branches for nesting material with the air of browsing weekend shoppers, daintily selecting suitable clumps of green fluff while twittering away to each other contentedly.

The blackthorn blossom is in riot. Branches that appeared foreboding all winter, seen only by dagger-like thorns and worn bark, have now, like Tom Waits transforming into Marilyn Monroe, exploded into a glorious white bouquet. Continue reading

Nature Diary: A Cornish Wood, 5th February

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Image: George H Higginbotham/BTO

The classic Cornish wooded valley, so steeply sloped that my footsteps slide horizontally into a porridge of treacle-like soil and it’s soaking oak-leaf carpet, the seemingly solid looking ground behaving more like wet snow. It’s one of those bright late-winter days with the first hints of warmth, and in the oaks, hollies and sycamores that root themselves precariously on the near 60-degree hillside, the long-tailed tits, robins and goldcrests are singing jubilantly and, I like to think, with an impatience to get nesting akin to children pleading for dinner to be ready.

These well-drained slopes are the ideal resting spot for a far more mysterious bird. Secretive, nocturnal and enigmatic in its ecology – as a mammal specialist, this instantly puts it near the top of my favourite bird list. There are clusters of bramble here, the kind that jeer threateningly at any humans who might foolishly bluster through them and receive snags in their clothes and cuts on their skin in response. But to the woodcock, this makes them an ideal fort in the day, a place of solitude before it flies to the swampy valley bottom of the wood or the mucky fields beyond at night to feed. Sure enough as I continue my way past these bramble islands, I send up one bird from its haven, and another some way on. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Samburu National Reserve, 16th January

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Vulturine guineafowl

There’s something about the almost-desert that lingers in the mind. Here in Samburu National Reserve, the arid climes of Kenya’s north paint an ecosystem a world away from the un-breached horizon of golden grass seen in more familiar locations such as the Mara, and is so much richer for it.

From a raw and jagged terrain of sandy earth and rock as red as Mars, bony shrubs and ragged acacias spring from the hard ground in remarkable abundance from this seemingly harsh landscape. Doum palm trees twist high to the sky, their fanned heads ungainly topping skinny trunks that branch off on another like a botanical hydra, and the occasional desert rose bush throws spotlights of here otherworldly pinks and scarlets over the orange-brown rockery. Overseen wherever you look by looming hillocks of rock that block out the morning sun from their roots well until midday, it’s a dreamscape that could have escaped the mind of Salvador Dali. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 22nd December

romsey-abbey_400x400For a celebration, which in its pagan roots at least, is about banishing the lingering cold and dark and embracing our loved ones in the warmth of our homes, the third day before Christmas this year is remarkably Spring-like. The sky is perfectly blue, the temptation to loosen the zipper on my coat is burgeoning, and while the clacking of sedge warblers and the bubbling of cuckoos is still a long way off, the golden reed beds hardly feel dead.

Reed buntings bounce over and make ungainly landings upon the heads of the sedges, knocking them to and fro like broken jack-in-the-boxes. At least two pairs of stonechat have settled here for the winter, something I’ve certainly never seen on the Meadows before; but they are remarkably unphased as they inspect me closely from the branches of dead poplars like suspicious police officers, and flit about the reeds in satisfying defiance of their Collins bird book description of ‘a bird of heath and scrub’. And the pig-squeals of water rails is raucous, casting one to imagine the birds having their own EastEnders-worthy Christmas drama somewhere deep in the reeds. Unusually, one even breaks it’s cover as I flush it from the path. It’s almost the reverse of your typical bird; it looks perfectly acclimatised to its hidden world as it skulks along the ground, but in flight looks rather like a badly stitched together child’s sculpture, with it’s gangly pencil thin legs straddling clumsily behind it. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 19th April

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I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t recognise the call of the cuckoo. Perhaps with the exception of the most urbanised of people living within city centres, even if you’ve never actually heard it yourself it’s so ingrained in popular culture that from an early age it’s unmistakeable. Not that many people on the whole have actually seen it, probably making it one of the few (if not only) animals that more people can recognise by sound rather than sight.

However, seeing the cuckoo was far from difficult today. At Fishlake Meadows, the Spring choruses are rousing like an anarchic orchestra, with both the residents and the recent migrant returnees putting 110% into their effort to establish territories and seek mates as quickly as possible. Chiffchaffs speed up their repetitive two-beats with increased frenetic, Cetti’s warblers explode into scattered song from their concealment in the brambles, and the sedge warblers drown out the rest in an improvised staccato ramble even the most creative jazz musician would be proud of.

But old cuckoo chimes superiorly over them all. Flying across the reed beds from the old poplars, his flight is unmistakable – cutting wings dart him precisely through the air remarkably sparrowhawk-like, a deliberate move on evolution’s part to fool potential nest hosts to desert their brood, thus allowing the wily cuckoo to swoop in and deposit it’s own egg in a process of natural cunning. Equally admired and despised, depending on the observer. Today, he perches in the bows of a weeping willow, and through my binoculars he is absolutely resplendent. Continue reading

Nature Diary (& Poetry Corner): A Cornish Wood, 21st November

The change from the lukewarm cosiness of Autumn to the first days of ‘Christ it’s cold’ statements upon the fall of Winter are well

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Mirkwood from ‘The Hobbit’, as depicted by Alan Lee.

documented, and this blog has been no exception.

Cornwall gets to linger in slightly milder climes than the rest of the country for longer, but those icy winds can only be bayed for so long. A quick trip to see the spoonbills and massive wigeon flock at Hayle estuary today (successful on both counts – with a goosander appearance for bonus points) was slightly overwhelmed by blasts of Atlantic gale Jack Frost seemed to have left his signature upon.

Driving down to my ‘secret’ wood near Gweek, the hedgerow-guarded country lanes bore dwarfed and gnarled oaks now stripped to skeletal form. Rather than dead leaves, it was a flock of several dozen fieldfares that scattered from their branches in the wind – one of the few songbirds that only comes here in cooler times to the live out the season of not-so-plenty.

Setting up my camera trap at a busy badger latrine, I was suddenly struck by how quickly the woods had changed character to it’s winter self. Bloody hell, it barely felt like a month had past since I was admiring the blooms of bluebells and wild garlic.

And so the wait begins.

Snag and crack! How Winters chill grasps the hazel roots,
And through the oak leaf, ivy and bramble, they tangle round my boots.
But while it may hide sweet scents and shades, to dance upon a distant Spring’s breath,
It is now under the grey sky, coppice brown and bloated stream,
The wood becomes a living death.

Nature Diary: Gylly Beach, 3rd October

IMG_0656“So you go to university in Falmouth? You must spend all your time on the beach then!” and variations thereof is a frequent response from others when I tell them about my university hometown. Sometimes I reply with an exaggerated ‘yes’, as if non-sunny days and other activities that can also fill your time during the Summer don’t exist, which probably leads to the image of me turning into a dreadlocked surfer tanned as a sweet potato for two thirds of the year (which to be honest a lot of students do tend to become). Or probably not, but either way, it makes it clear we’re not your average university.

In reality there aren’t quite so many beach days for the aforementioned reasons. Yet the ones you do have fix in the memory through sheer good-times value, and looking back on each year, it can seem like whole weeks were subsequently spent on the sand. But moments like sunset barbeques, playing a slightly out-of-tune ukulele and burying your mate up to their neck are just one element of what makes our local beach, Gyllyngvase, such a fantastic student retreat. What really made me fall in love with of it was the fact it contains the best rockpooling known to man.

It’s ecstatic enough just turning over rocks, uncovering biological treasure in a game that never fails to excite with age. It was always rockpooling that struck me as the main reason humans would want to get sunburnt, sand stuck in their clothing, beaten up by waves and the various other niggling hazards that come with a trip to the beach, and it was certainly mine. But today’s game was enhanced. One of the first sausages to christen our disposable barbeque that late lunchtime made a post-abattoir bid for freedom, and ended up coated in sand. So, heading off towards the barnacle-crusted swathe of rockpool with this greasy prize in my hand, the typical beach day of a student ended, and that of the naturalist begun. Continue reading

Nature Diary, 26th June: Bashing Bracken

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If a traditional English oak woodland in Spring is nature inviting you to a party, hosted in a well lavished and bright house adorned with flowery buntings of bluebells and stitchworts, with a calming background of melodious birdsong as she casually asks you how you’ve fared over winter, Summer is very much the lingering trailing end when most are too drunk to function. It’s already peaked, and a mess of bracken has sprung up in place of the flowers, greedy to snatch up what little sunlight is left now the leaves are fully immersed out and darkening the canopy. Until the break of Autumn (which I suppose in this metaphor is the DJ playing ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic as the lights come on and people clear out in search of kebabs), this will remain the status quo in my local woodland back ‘home-home’ in Hampshire.

I’ve not been here since the Easter break, when the party first got going, and since no one else seems to walk in these woods anymore – even the local kids in the street don’t bother playing here, a stark contrast to my upbringing here only ten years ago – the paths have been swamped by bracken. In the open gap between the newer, sweet chestnut coppice and alder/birch woodland dominated half of the wood, and the much more ancient hazel and oak side to the South, there is barely a patch of the ground spared by the plant. I don’t have anything against it per se, but since we wiped out Britain’s only animal capable of consuming it in enough quantity to make an impact (the wild boar), it invades our shrub layer with no survivors.

Picking up a sturdy old hazel branch from the ground, I turn it into an improvised machete and begin hacking away a fresh trail between the two portions of woodland. The smell that emanates from the cut bracken is one that instantly transports your mind back to halcyon Summer days of childhood in this very place. We could be doing the same practice as I was today, beating new paths to explore new depths of the wood, which seemed gargantuan in scale in those days (in reality it’s a rather petite 17 acres); or pulling out the leaves in great bunches, our hands green and sticky from ‘bracken juice’ and that brilliant scent, like cut grass but mingled with the Earthy, forest-floor aromas of the wood itself to remind you of its wildness, would stick around well until we’d gone back home for dinner to remind us where we really belonged.

Within 15 minutes or so, this year’s path through the middle has been sculpted. The bumblebees and speckled woods already flitter in to bask themselves on the newly created sun bed, while I dust myself down for ticks (as hindsight has told me, I wasn’t successful in clearing all of them off). These ‘rides’, even if this one is small in scale, are frequently utilised by the former, while larger animals such as deer and badgers will be likely to utilise this newly created open space to save the effort of pushing through vegetation, in turn playing victim to the aforementioned ticks. Yet I suspect I’ll be the only human they’ll snack on reguarly this Summer, or at all – I doubt whether anyone else will be utilising the new path. Nice in a way; but I think I’d be happier knowing the new generation growing up in this wonderful setting for my childhood were out getting bracken juice all over their hands as well.

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 12th September

Examining a patch of bare land, stripped of all vegetation till it resembles a passable replica of Mars’ surface, is not the most pleasant way to begin a morning at one of your patches. It was once one of the top breeding sites for nightingale in Hampshire, and surely once host to a myriad of invertebrate life in its extinct tangled banks. The site’s owner, with sick cunning, evicted these residents by force, hoping to make a few extra bob if he had the permission for a few houses. And that was before he invited the ecological consultants down.

I was meeting up with Andy Lester, a good friend of mine whom I do much of my conservation work at Fishlake in conjunction with, for the first time since April. The purpose was for a combination of catch-up, wildlife watching and discussion over the future work of the site. So it was unfortunate we had to witness this bombshell first. What this landowner had done was a literal microcosm of what wildlife across the country is facing every day.

Both me and Andy had been at keystone events in conservation last week, set to try to odd the stakes in favour of the conservationist in the future, hopefully to prevent occurrences such as these on a national scale. Andy had spoken at the RSPB’s conference in response to the State of Nature (Andy is also the UK conservation director of A Rocha), while I took part in the first strike of the UK’s youth conservation movement, Vision for Nature (more on that in the next blog). Continue reading

Nature Diary: The New Forest, 18th June

The bliss of beginning a summer liberal of commitments (or at least ones I rather wouldn’t do). Having come home to Hampshire from university five days before, the sadness of leaving behind the Cornish landscape, the constant ‘happening’ and great friends is equally balanced out by the old familiars of the homestead, and in particular the local natural history I’ve grown up with, and as equally keen to catch up upon as I am with family and college friends. With the ‘real stuff’ been done down west now, coming home always feels like returning to Tolkien’s Shire – where good company, good food, and above all comfort, take precedence.

Now, if I could just get this bugger of a summer cold out the way.

One of those irritating ones where you’re still perfectly capable of functioning, but are considered to do toss all in terms of productivity, it’s been a waste of a day so far with the sun glowing smugly outside. Between re-enactments of Vesuvius’ eruption with truly Oscar-winning performances from my sinuses, the idle sitting has got too much, and as the day gives way to cooler, more operational climes, I clamber back into ‘Hugo’, my trusty Peugeot 107 (who’d almost certainly hate me if he was human, the way I treat his buzzy form lithe for urban driving like a 4×4 as we batter down country lanes), and head out for a midsummer evening’s performance that should be a highlight of every New Forest naturalist’s calendar

It’s only been a few minutes since driving past the first post that marks the boundary of the national park that I’m pulling up to the venue. Not particularly assuming, and not the most characteristic of settings in the Forest – a tiny copse of firs sheltering little more than bracken and pony-cropped grass upon a small rise. Yet stepping outside, the cool dusk air of a half-woken dream compares favourably to the atmosphere of dog walkers and picnickers in daylight hours. Nature is reclaiming the world. Just stopping to listen will reveal minute yet endless scuffles in the bracken litter, the bedtime chorus of blackbirds punctuated as the sense of sight dims.

It only takes two minutes walk to reach the top of the rise, and though the view stretches far towards Romsey and Southampton in the distance, the immediate vista is somewhat bleak – a vast plain that was once a conifer plantation. What appears now is a bleak waste of bracken interspersed with occasional birch trees, standing idly like stragglers at a wrapped-up party. It’s a textbook example of a managed manscape for forestry, that sits as the New Forest’s ying to the yang of ancient woods where royals once hunted.

But in nature, nothing’s ever completely deserted. And this waste is Shangri la to the enigmatic bird I’ve come to visit.

They’re all over the Forest, but previous visits have marked this place as my top spot. And sure enough, my reasoning is proven within ten minutes. Following a brief prelude appearance from a shrew, yittering like a bicycle wheel in need of oil as it scurries through the heather at my feet, that unearthly reel chorusing across the heath signals the first bird rising for the evening. A monosyllabic churr that sounds neither natural nor man-made – a signal from a UFO would be the closest thing I’d attune – is the first I’ve heard this summer, and all thoughts dictated by the bugs in my throat and sinuses disappear.

It’s not even dark yet, and the bearer of that cry reveals themselves. The nightjar’s flight pattern is always said to be akin to a raptor, but floating seemingly effortlessly in a hypnotising lull makes it entirely unique – even the wings, long and appearing paper-thin, seem far more like a butterfly’s than a bird’s.

Bursts of white underwing appear with each flap like a flashing can-can dancer, and as it disappears to a perch the churring starts anew. These are the males, eager to please the hens and equally concerned for their own bravado, as performances kick off from all corners, echoing like a music hall despite the vast openness of the scene. At one point there may be up to 4 or 5 males calling, while 20 individuals in a square kilometre alone isn’t unusual.

As the light dims, further denizens of the night join the spectacle. Starling-sized noctule bats, with a low, placid flight and clearly audible squeaks as they echolocate the same moth prey as the nightjars. From afar, the growing shadows and similar flight pattern can even confuse the two. A trio of fallow deer bucks drifts across the heather from the far left – two of them, perhaps only a year or two old, have only the single-root like beginnings of the antlers they will grow into. The older individual’s still aren’t spectacular, but have at least developed their first points, and a clear message of who’s the leader in this cervine lad-gang can be seen as his comrades follow him obligingly.

The unmistakable silhouette of a nightjar once again flies directly within my line of vision, and takes perch in a birch. Hunchbacked on the branch, its figure sits within an uncanny valley between a crow, a falcon and an owl – like an otherworldly goblin taking an avian shape. One can see easily how it earned its folkloric name and mythical behaviour of ‘goatsucker’.

As it takes flight, the wings emit a slow, deep clapping sound akin to an (undeserved) mocking applause. The excitement as a hen is located perhaps? It’s only then the sound of another churring male blasts out so suddenly my ears almost begin to ring. It’s probably in the shrubs about 30 feet away, but the ventriloquistic quality of the call makes it sound as though he is at my feet.

The intruder is swiftly dealt with, and I just put my binoculars down in time to feel the air from their wings wiff my hair as the two weave and dart in a high-speed chase, passing within arms reach.

The churring and clapping wings continue as the world darkens relentlessly. In the horizon, the ugly lights of Southampton’s docks and tower blocks spew an unhealthy orange murk into the distant sky: yet silhouetted against that, nature brings it back with the most bizarre and beautiful of our summer migrants skimming over the bracken. Even in our seemingly inescapable man-made world, both rural and urban, nature triumphs once again with the at once gothic and Lewis Carroll-esque life of the nightjar.