Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 19th April


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


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


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.

Nature Diary: The Lizard, 10th March

Skylarks, the first I’ve heard this year, are serenading cloudless skies once more in their simultaneously mad yet exquisite song. Bumblebees buzz languidly over the fields while the first butterflies of the season – peacocks, red admirals, a couple of small tortoiseshells – flitter their way into your peripheral vision before settling centre stage onto sun-soaked embankments. I can start to feel the sun burning on to my skin, and rather unhealthily, I don’t care. It’s only the 10th day of March, yet it feels like the perfect Spring has already settled here in Cornwall after what seemed like an eternity of almost psychologically damaging heavy rain and ‘mizzle’.

But of all the signs of Spring our poets, composers and romantic novelists waxed lyrical over, I find it rather disappointing none of them gave merit to the re-emergence of the natural jewels I was here to find today – adders.

Stumbling upon one of these beautiful snakes curled in the bracken, it’s perfect zig-zag get up perfectly mirroring its home staring up at you with that feral and hypnotising ember eye, is one of the most rewarding sights a British naturalist can discover at this time of year – and thankfully, it was only ten minutes or so before I found one. A plump female, her toffee-gold body sprawled royally across the ground at the foot of a hedge akin to any human sunbather making the most of what little sun we get in this country.

Like any observation of elusive and sensitive wild animals, it’s important to keep a strict coda in regards to where you are and how you behave around adders. Over-excited wildlife photographers have even been cited as one of the primary factors driving disturbance at hibernacula and basking sites, given that the energy cost of constantly moving off when we come barging along when you’re still trying to build it up is dangerously high. So while the temptation to get even closer for that perfect view and photo was itching inside me, keeping a good distance from the bank and rolling each footstep as delicately as possible ensured my presence was barely registered.

Although the thing with rule books is that they are often broken, as my next adder sighting proved. Moving northwards across the reserve, the rough pasture gives way to the maritime heath that the Lizard is famous for. Following the track bisecting this there are frequently placed sheets of tin and felt – reptile refuges, or a herpetologist’s treasure chest. It was while searching for a sturdy stick to lift one with (it’s not unusual for conservationists lifting up these hideaways to be met with a disgruntled adder’s venomous bite the moment they stick their fingers underneath), that my ears picked up that unmistakable sound, like a rope being dragged through dead leaves, of an adder on the move.

Cursing myself for having spooked off an unseen individual nearby, as I looked down I found to my surprise a male adder, slightly slimmer than the ladies and as silver as polished steel, actually slithering lithely towards me. Upon reaching his basking spot a couple of feet from where I was, he curved himself neatly around a mat of brambles and withered grass, leaving me in a state of amazement as I gawped for several minutes at the sight of him, followed by meticulous mental planning as to how I was going to move away without scaring him back off the way he came. Moving backwards as softly as my boots would allow, the adder was still more concerned with warming up his body temperature for the day, and even allowed me to take some half-decent shots.

The whole site is a herpetologist’s dream, and along the same track that I saw this adder, a common lizard scuffled away beneath a small shrub of gorse, and slow worms coiled themselves tightly like thick, amber spaghetti under one of the tin refuges. Turning back onto the heath, it’s not long before you come across a huge, shallow and sandy pond, and peering into the sun-lit water’s edge is like entering an amphibian sweet shop.

With every footfall there appears a palmate newt, minute and almost mistakable for small fish as they dart across the pond bed. In the aquatic jungles of parrot’s feather, the common toads, pumped up and horny, take centre stage. I counted two females who were subject to the amorous of attentions of a further half dozen or so suitors, though unlike the sometimes lethal orgies of I have observed of common frogs in my own garden pond, the toads seem somewhat more dignified: The girls each had one male attached in the amplexus grip, while the others dallied around the periphery like fidgety commuters waiting for a late train. Already you could see their strings of spawn, like jelly-encased necklaces of black pearls, tastefully adorning their breeding grounds.

Especially when compared to what you find on the European continent, Britain has a rather pitiful diversity of reptiles and amphibians; yet what we do have is fascinating, beautiful and charismatic at the species level. To see it all wake up again in Spring is a wildlife ritual to be treasured, especially given the fact they’re one of our most vulnerable taxa – isolation from continual habitat loss is a worsening threat for most of our reptiles (especially the adder), and diseases from rana virus to chyrtid fungus have ravaged amphibian populations globally, and are certainly not unheard of on our shores.

So as I saw a further two adders walking back to the car, time seemed to drift away as I stood back to appreciate them . Next time you think about the signs of Spring, spare a thought for the glorious return of our scaly neighbours alongside lambs, daffodils and swallows.



Nature Diary: Winnall Moors, 14th June

Settled right on the edge of Winchester and barely a stone’s throw from the historic city’s centre is Winnall Moors, a wetland oasis of lush reedbeds, marsh and wet meadow fed by the River Itchen and it’s winding tributaries. Historically used as grazing meadow, the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Trust restored it back to biological glory whilst providing sensitive yet engaging access to the public as a nature reserve, creating a rich biodiversity from the otters that fish along here and through the city at nightfall, to the scarlet tiger moths that flitter among the yellow flag iris at summer’s height. And all of it free for anyone and everyone to experience.

Leaving behind the city and re-aquainting with nature as I walk in on this heavily overcast and rather showery June day, it is like catching up in the pub with a friend whom one sees far less frequently than before. Whilst in my A2s attending the local sixth-form college last year, I would drive down to the reserve every Friday after finishing my day’s lessons at quarter to three, spending my time just wandering with my camera and binoculars before picking up a friend who would finish his college day two hours later.

Since finishing college last summer, it’s become harder to find the time to come down to Winnall as often as I like – despite being on a year out, near-daily work and volunteering commitments and the constant bugbear of fuel saving mean that when I do get the chance, such as today, the visits are fresh and almost feel as new as when I first found this gem. I’ve only just entered through the wood-carving arch and already nature abounds – a bloom of buttercups, marsh saxifrage and ragged robin adorns the grassy bank at the entrance; mayflies are scattered across the wildlife trust’s information panel, including one newly emerged subimago individual, the husk of it’s adult form still left behind; and a shower of seeping calls cascading down the river hails the arrival of the kingfisher, shooting above the bank as if someone has launched a shard of sapphire from a cannon (the kingfishers are breeding, and the wildlife trust has set up a camera into their nest).  More self-centred folk may call this a welcome, but such early ecstasies are just part of the everyday package when it comes to Winnall Moors.

Heading North along the edge of the reserve, I come to my favourite walking track within the moors. An almost islanded thin strip of land, the path is sandwiched between two tributaries, on the right managed as part of the reserve and the one to the left belonging to the adjacent recreation ground. The contrasts between the two are striking. Where wildlife is the priority, the banks are an explosion of colour and greenery. The edges of the stream are impossible to see so rich is the vegetation, which themselves are alive with the songs of reed buntings and sedge warblers, and brown trout are visible drifting placidly in the clear waters typical of a chalk-based wetland, remaining stationary in the current with a demeanour rather akin to a bored pensioner waiting at the bus stop.

On the other side, maintained for ‘public leisure’, the banks are compacted and guarded from any sort of growth by neatly aligned wooden girders. If the reserve stream was the hedgerow, its neighbour’s little more than an A-Road. How anyone thinks this is more appropriate to a setting designed for people to relax than one where wildlife can flourish goes beyond me.

Carrying along the bank, eyes to the right, I’m searching for the sight that always proved to be the highlight of my Friday afternoon visits to Winnall Moors – water voles. Their relative abundance here is an illustration of what most rivers and streams would have once been like across the country, before the ‘tidying’ of river banks as shown in the recreation ground and the introduction of mink took their toll. But it isn’t long before the ‘jizz’ of the water vole (to most naturalists this is the term used to identify a brief bird sighting going by certain characteristics, but can apply just as well to mammals in my case at least), a flash of brown in the corner of my eye just a small shade paler than the soil of the bank, rapidly paddling down towards me along the stream’s edge at a rather static pace like a fluffy clockwork toy on the water’s surface. With myself remaining still, the vole stops briefly to pluck a rather large blade of old reed from the bank, before carrying on past me and down the way I came with his newfound prize clutched in his incisors as a dog would swim with a stick.

It’s not long after this sighting that the rain really begins to fall, and despite not having anything vaguely waterproof to wear I linger on to the wet meadows at the end of the reserve – the city is barely visible here, just the famous cathedral looming distantly over the reeds in the South, and to the North woods and hills forming as the South Downs ‘begins’. Whilst I may not be able to come here as often anymore, and even less so once I begin university, it makes those savoured opportunities when I can all the richer.

Nature Diary: Fishlake Meadows, 22nd April

“Summer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu!”

Such is the ecstatic opening passage of the famous medieval folk song ‘Summer is Icumen In’, glorious words which in their old english dialect glug from the mouth like a cool and thick ale out of the barrel. They have become stuck in my head since my brother first discovered them, and since seems to recite it on any bright day walking in the country where bird song is rife, regardless of whether the ‘cuccu’ in question is present or not.

But on this afternoon, it is here. My brother is not, so its up to me to recite the olde english ode to its arrival. Sitting in the highest possible perch in the tallest poplar, the cuckoo sits like the conductor to the orchestra to the reedbeds below: Upon seeing it in the distance, his ‘cuc-koo’ call that everyone can recognise since childhood seems the dominant cry in the first quarter of the meadows. Here the wet grass is dominant and the reeds and sedge short – murmurs of birdsong emerge from here rather than symphonies, where the song of one livens the background level of sound instead of being an integral part of it.

But pass the row of poplars in which cuckoo sits into the heavy cluster of reeds behind his back, and his orchestra comes alive. It is a chorus of birdsong integral to the British spring and summer, yet one that not many will recognise given it’s distance from the woods and our gardens. The warbler orchestra is savoury where the woodland songbirds are sweet, but just as two wildly different music genres can be equally beautiful, so to are the songs of the sedge, the reed and the cetti’s warblers. The reed is the more unsure of the three’s songs, a sharp crackle that sounds like a once-fluid note has been broken into pieces; in Mike McCarthy’s excellent piece of writing on our summer migrants, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, he notes how naturalist Mark Cocker describes the reed warbler’s song as sounding nervous “I-I-I-can’t-can’t-quite-quite-get-get-get-my-words-out-out-out”. A remarkably apt description.

Then there is the sedge warbler, and if the reed was the unpopular kid lacking confidence in the classroom, then the sedge is the extroverted king-of-the-playground everyone wants to be friends with. From a high-pitched tweet to a rasping grate then a bubbling whistle in a matter of seconds before it starts over, the variety of the sedge warbler’s song makes it stand out in star billing.

That is until the cetti’s warbler decides to make himself known. This small, inconspicuous bursts into the chorus from his place of hiding without warning, and pierces it like a needle in a balloon. It’s short, sharp and loud call is more akin to ‘typical’ birdsong in sound, but in rhythym sounds like someone of a large degree of importance stepping up to the front and declaring “Right – I’m – GOING TO RABBIT ON, GOING TO RABBIT ON, GOING TO RABBIT ON!” In appearance the cetti’s may be unassuming – a typical ‘little brown job’ – and keeping itself hidden away under the reeds and brambles. But its unmistakable voice makes it more than a memorable cast of this ‘warbler-chestra’.

Of course, the idea of this orchestra of warblers welcoming the warmer weather with song is just another anthropomorphic musing – in reality, it’s a fierce competition to establish their territories since arriving from Africa, so perhaps a riot would be a more apt term. Even the conductor cuckoo is of a darker nature to our eyes. There’s a reason they are common in reedbeds, given the plentiful supply of nests from their favoured host species, the reed warbler. But then, nature was never meant to be taken quite literally – it has guided and inspired us, even if what we perceive isn’t the reality. The cuckoo isn’t signing in jubilation of warmer days and better harvests – but where would our jubilation at spring’s arrival be were the cuckoo not here?

Nature Diary: Beggarspath Wood, 10th April

It is the first time I have walked in these woods – my ‘local patch’ – since February, having arrived home from New Zealand the day before. Having expected a carpet of bluebells and  simmering sunlight reflecting off lime-green leaves, fresh from the bud, to an ecstasy of birdsong, the revelation of it appearing much the same as I left is curious and somewhat disheartening. When I look ahead, there is no mosaic of different greens, yellows and purples, but the same grey-brown wall of bare trees of a wood still in it’s winter slumber. A winter that has continued throughout my absence, no doubt due to the profound effects our fossil fuel-vomiting way of life has had on our climatic processes. Normally, the gulf stream pushes up West across the Atlantic, bringing with it the warmth that sparks the bursting of this season of renewal by mid-March – but melting ice and its desalinating effects are slowing it’s progress. Such things only serve to remind us of how we are still dependent on nature for our wellbeing and what we term as ‘everyday’ in our lives, and just how fragile it is to our ignorance.

This state of being in the woodland’s year is beautiful in it’s own way. Edward Thomas described a February woodland-walk brilliantly in his long-rambling book  The South Country; “The Earth lies blinking, turning over languidly and talking like a half-weakened child that now and then lies still and sleeps though with eyes wide open… It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known.”

Unfortunately, that dream is still on-going when the woods should be wide awake. As I drift under the bare canopy, I can sense nature’s protests around me. The woodland floor among the more ancient strands of oak and hazel is pea-green with the shoots of the bluebells I had been looking forward to seeing upon my return, but instead they remain in a half-grown state, frozen like agonised racers crouched at the start and awaiting the gunshot-signal of just a few more degrees warmth.

The chorus of birdsong is far greater than when I left it two months ago, when the woods remained silent bar the mumbled twitterings of mixed-species feeding parties, as tits, wrens and goldcrests weeved as one cautious wave through the treetops, picking out the few morsels of food whilst relying on each other for predator protection in the exposed environment. But by now they expect the food to be bounteous, and their song is like a plea of discontent at such shortcomings. Whilst this wintered spring may be little more than inconvenience to our eyes, it is life and death to them. The thought of how many chicks will be successfully raised when the cold and subsequent lack of food is lingering into the nesting season is not something I am keen on dwelling upon.

A spot of white bouncing above the woodland floor some distance to my left betrays the presence of a roe doe. She stops and turns her head towards me, fixing me in her gaze to ascertain whether I pose a threat. Then, just a few metres to my right, a woodcock that had been  resting in the leaf litter has already decided not to hang around, and shoots from the ground in a blurred clap of wings. Its exquisite camouflage and long, straight beak for probing mud for worms making it look as if a couple of dead leaves attached to a twig has magically flown off the ground and gone shooting through the trees. The sight of such an enigmatic & shy bird in the day fills me with child-like excitement, but still brings me back to the out-of-sync seasonality; bar a declining few that stay to breed, most woodcock in the UK fly here from Scandanavia to over-winter. It’s not surprising then that this individual would want to remain here a little longer.