Of Eagle’s Nests and Missing Goats: Goblin Combe, 20th January (Nature Diary)

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The small car park in the quarry is packed to capacity with sardine-tin precision, as unsurprisingly everyone else is using their Sunday afternoon for a bracing walk. But thankfully the site is big enough that between nodded greetings of “t’noon” as I cross walkers on the footpath more often or not with a dog, there are moments when I can stop and just absorb the overwhelming silence – a silence that is, paradoxically, very loud. The windless cold at the bottom of this gorge holds sound like an invisible clenched fist around me, such that small notes like a twittering long-tailed tit or ruffled leaves from a foraging squirrel break it in a pure, practically crystallised note. Meanwhile, much more notable noise rings like someone coughing in a cathedral, reverberated by the steep sides of the gorge. The sounds of a woman talking on her phone about rescheduling her meeting tomorrow can be heard long before she appears, the mundane conversation ringing through the trees like a bureaucratic monsoon.

img_7873Next comes a leashed Labrador clearly very excited by something encountered up ahead, wheezing and trying to skirt his way back to the opposite direction. His owner nods at me half-heartedly, his face red and flustered from working reasonably hard to keep him heeled. Carrying on, I naturally assume the white and brown form, partially obscured by a few adults and held round the collar by a boy of about 9 or 10, I was coming up to in the path is a bitch in heat, and that this family were quickly reassessing their decision to take her out to a public space on Sunday afternoon. When she bleated however, I adjusted my view to realise the bitch was a goat. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Bennetts Patch Whales, 6th January

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I’d been meaning to recce this site for harvest mice for a little while now, having moved to Bristol a couple of months ago. Keen to make new connections like an over-enthusiastic fresher, I’d suggested to a local nature group I’d be happy to run a nest search session for the species, without having a single clue on where I might find them with their rather specialist requirements for untidy grasslands. This place was first on my checklist – a stretch of meadow about 4 hectares in size beneath a wooded hill in the Avon gorge, bounded between a railway line on one side and the A4 on the other. While much of it is short turf beloved by picnickers and dog walkers, the edges are grizzled with large grassy tussocks. Exactly the sort of unkempt stubble where a harvest mouse might feel at home.

I trudge across to investigate, the slight ringing in my ears still inherited from last night being drowned out by the sound of the road. It’s a fair punishment. I had only intended to go for a couple of pints with a friend, and spend a decent day out and about afterwards. But by beer number 4, we seemed to realise that at this middle ground of young-professional life, spontaneous nights on the town were becoming increasingly rare and would only become more frowned upon, leading to decisions that resulted in the evening’s conclusion at about 4am. At least by dragging myself outside to ruffle through some vegetation I’ve not entirely wasted the day.

Despite that, the search for nests isn’t going particularly fruitfully. Despite appearances from afar, many of the grass species here don’t have the stem strength necessary to keep nests in place, and those that do are relatively few and absent of evidence. Obviously that does not imply evidence of absence from this casual search, but I did have doubts about this spot. I dig out my phone, swiping my way through google maps to check out the surrounding landscape to assess how well connected it is with potential habitat (such is ecology in the 21st century). The answer is ‘not very’. Sandwiched between the city and the River Avon, there’s not much cover for harvest mice to move through, which has been shown to be a big predictor of where you find them. Continue reading

Nature Diary: The Year’s Close at Fishlake Meadows

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It always astounds me just how exciting a soggy clump of dying grass can be. I saw it after a couple of minutes looking in a swathe of reed-canary grass, perusing through dripping fronds of the stuff as casually as you can make crouching down and searching foliage look. It’s a harvest mouse nest – more specifically, a former breeding nest that has been abandoned with the coming of winter.

The first one I’ve found here this year, in fact. I’m intrigued as to whether it will be a bit more difficult to find them this season. While I’ve no doubt the warm summer boosted food productivity, the breeding nests are woven from still-living stems of grasses or reeds, which in the formers case would have been desiccated and lacking in stability over the hottest days. Whatever the case, the harvest mice will have it tougher now as they descend to the ground layer over winter, and the young born in the dark comfort of these nests now face the greatest test of their lives.

IMG_7463Knowing that trying to see harvest mice in the wild is about as easy as getting a Glastonbury ticket (we tried and failed on both releases this October – we cling to the vain hope of March re-sales in the face of all odds), finding the old nest leaves me satisfied enough on this whistle-stop visit to Fishlake at the afternoon’s end. Close to sunset on a December evening is not exactly widely held as a prime time for nature watching, and I’ve already completed the end of the walk circuit. Above my head, more and more cormorants appear flying into roost, and even in the middle of a reedbed spanning almost the entire floodplain valley, the “chack-chack” of restless blackbirds echoing the end of the day can still be heard from the scrub around its edges. Continue reading

Nature Diary: North Devon, 8th February

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Image: Pete Cooper

Three months into a winter of fieldwork, I’ve become used to the ‘treacle tracks’ now.

A time in which this barely-recognisable footpath along the hedgerow could be walked in clothes that grew sweaty with heat, immersed in the sound of cavorting insects or birdsong, seems so distant as to be a fable. Bar the whispering rushes of the strengthening cold wind, all I can hear is the slop-clop-glop of the mud protesting at each of my footfalls. Liquid enough so that my walk becomes an un-even yoga class of splits, solid enough so that I have to put in some effort to free my boots, the quagmire gurgling pathetically in response.

A cold wind is building strength on the top of the valley, whistling threateningly with growing intent past my ears; grey drizzle moving in on the horizon. Bleak, but certainly not lifeless. Hard to believe, when the hedges look like tangled brown skeletons in their seasonal death, and the only actual animals I have seen are a flock of redwings that took off into an oak from the rushes on the hillside below.

Yet winter is the time to witness life in memory. Not what is dead or slumbering, but of the traces those creatures that still stir leave in the land. Continue reading

Nature Diary: Lizard Point, October 2017

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Photo: Ben Porter

I remember as a child always being fascinated yet somehow let down by those beautifully painted dioramas; the ones that adorned double-page spreads in my nature books, and even the laminated mats my parents slapped below my plastic dinner plate to spare the table from baked-bean stains. A snapshot of a beautiful piece of British countryside, with animals spilling across the scene. They gave the impression that stepping outside would result in spotting hoards of wildlife while barely having to crane your neck.

Of course, reality is never as simple. But this day on the Lizard Peninsula, Britain’s most southerly point comes pretty damn close. Against a summer’s sky that has snuck into October and the churning Atlantic below, the movement of wildlife on this panorama of blue cavorts through the frame like the emboldened cast at the finale of a West-End musical. For once I am witnessing something close to a dinner-mat diorama of a British west coast cliff-top.

The black-headed gulls and jackdaws form the bulk of the chorus, riding the wind, chacking and wooping. In the grassy bank beside me on the coast path, the field grasshoppers and grey bush-crickets complement this by extending their summer prom, stridulating their one-beat rhythms in a glorious pool of heat where the sun has fixed its light. Continue reading

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