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
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
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
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
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
For 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
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
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
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.
“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
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.