Monday, 30 July 2012

Black and White

In all other respects it was a perfect Sunday afternoon twitch. Just a thirty minute drive east under fluffy clouds swimming in a summer blue sky. Just a short stroll from the car park to reservoir. Just a gentle flick of the binoculars to my eyes for an effortless connection with the target bird. It was a White-winged Black Tern: first found yesterday at Minsmere RSPB, and rediscovered this morning thirty odd miles (as the car drives, not as the tern flies!) southwest at Alton Water. Not a lifer, not even a county tick for dad or myself, but Sunday afternoons are not made for excitement, just gentle post-roast entertainment. And this marsh terns is entertaining: as elegant as a demoiselle damselfly, on languid wingbeats it corkscrews through the air and flings itself into the shallow water, emerging wet with a sliver of a fish between its mandibles. Other terns are adverts for grey: this one is an ambassador for crisp white and velvet black. Closer inspection reveals it is moulting out of its summer plumage: a winter white forehead interrupts the smoothness of its all black body. Daily its black will be fragmented by more and more white until it looks like a typical tern, but right now, it’s certainly quite something.
It was perfect actually. All too perfect. I’ve rubbed up against just enough life to be a certified pessimist, but when things go well we tend to forget that a kick in the face is just around the corner. In the scheme of things you can file this under the petty worry of the petit bourgeoisie, but it stills smarts as all bad luck does. The tern was doing laps of this corner of the reservoir and it was heading back around for another exceedingly close flypast. I slipped the lens cap off, flicked the camera on, focused on the bird, pressed the shutter and… nothing. I panned with the bird as it flew past, still pressing the shutter for no end result. CHR fault flashed up in the corner. Cue lip chewing, fiddling with batteries, memory cards, settings and menus, and all the while keeping an eye on the tern. I couldn’t find a fix whilst the bird still kept flying past, at times down to ten foot from the bankside. It was when it flopped into the water and stuck its wings up, showing off those unique, diagnostic black underwing coverts, did I give up. That would’ve been a truly special photograph and I was resisting the urge to boot my camera in after it.
The birding impulse is strong in me, stronger to stand and watch than to stand and pan and shoot and store in digital files until the next hard drive lets me down. So I watched it. And then I watched a storm roll in from the north over the reservoir: lead grey clouds boiling, smothering out the sky, rain falling in curtains over the middle of the reservoir and lightening crawling from cloud to cloud instead of shooting down. As it cleared up again the tern reappeared, having decamped with the rest of the birds to avoid the weather. Black on white on grey, with white-capped waves now rolling into the reservoir’s dam. This time, the temperature had plummeted from earlier: the wind had got up and summer clothes no longer seemed like a good idea: time to leave.

Saturday, 28 July 2012


Shelley wrote odes about the Skylark; I'd write elegies for this. My favourite insect, found dead and fairly well mangled on the pavement outside my house. A most unglamorous end for a most glamorous damsel. Mysterious too: I live in the midst of the agri-desert, more knee-high barley growing from cracked earth, than delicate, slow moving streams. The closest to that is ten miles away, where from a bridge over a reed-lined stream you can see them skim and flutter over glass-like water. I've seen them confused for butterflies and likened to angels. They look ethereal; this one found the pavement to be all too real.

Friday, 27 July 2012


The sky is thick with swifts like a cloud of insects. Just momentary; they don’t hang around, and won’t be around for much longer. Their screams could be the sound of the air unzipped by their wingtips: nitrogen from oxygen, particle from particle. We could do with more air though. Currently it’s thirty degrees Celsius, slightly less in the meagre shade of the parasol. The sky is pale blue like a shallow tropical sea. A young family of Blackbirds bask in the garden, dishevelled on the gravel between plants. I think they think I can’t see them. The Dunnocks lazy song seems to wilt between bush and ear. The only moving air is from passing cars. When I wrote a week ago of the unceasing rain I didn’t realise it would cease quite this soon or quite like this. Suddenly, and selfishly, it didn’t seem so bad.

Two evenings ago I sought Purple Hairstreaks with dad and a friend who tagged along for the walk. Back at the fritillary woods again, this time more thickly shaded by the setting sun. Only the oaks lining the scrub and pine centre of the woods are lit: it turns out the setting sun uses the same footpaths as us. The rusty leaves of the first oak were untouched by butterflies, at which point I realised it was a good idea to show my friend the hairstreaks in the field guide I still need to carry around the for inscrutably small butterflies. Is that embarrassing? I don’t think so. Ignorance spurs further learning, the chance to leave the awkward to carry field guide at home is impetus enough to learn the skippers again and not forget them over winter this time. Pretty, came the response, as she looked over the illustrations. And then she learnt a key lesson about wildlife: it never really looks like it does in the book. Flying with dizzying speed around the canopy of the second oak; tiny and silver undersided, dark on top, a small colony of Purple Hairstreaks living hyperactively in the spaces between the toothed leaves. But they’re not purple, she said. I think I was too busy watching to reply. With the scope set ludicrously high, neck ache setting in, I could see them spinning, duelling, fighting. Restless. Everything they do is apparently conducted on the wing in fast forward. They land briefly but never for long or with their open wings facing us. It feels almost like voyeurism, in the way that most wildlife watching doesn’t. Most wildlife occupies the same space as us. Life at the canopy of an oak is as removed as it is possible for a comfortable, familiar, English oak to be. Distant in more than just one way.

And now I’m back, sitting in the garden, marvelling at the swifts. In the faded blue sky they move more irregularly, exploiting the sudden abundance of insects. In the grey skies of earlier they were still transient, here one second and seemingly miles away the next. Yet the paths on which they fly are more consistent. Instead of the crazed flying they all trace regular paths through the air; invisible ribbons of what must be the warmer air where the insects are.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fritillary Fervour

The wettest June on record has followed the wettest April in a hundred years, and we’re already being warned about the potential devastation this will wreak on our butterflies. It happened this way merely five years ago. After the floods of 2007 washed out the breeding season, butterflies were at their lowest ever recorded numbers in 2008. This year we’re witnessing it again. Each day of heavy rain, clouds and low temperatures is another frame in this slow-motion car crash of a season.

And yet the spread of the Silver-washed Fritillary into East Anglia appears to carry on unabated. A few pairs first appeared in 2009, a few more in 2010, and now they seem to be fairly regular in certain woods in west and east Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex too. And, contra to how these things usually happen, their Suffolk stronghold seems to be a little wood, just ten minutes drive away…

Sun. Solid golden sun and a clear blue sky. Heat felt odd: odd enough to trick a few birds into singing again, late this Sunday afternoon. The path led up a long grassy slope (what’s known as a hill in Suffolk) behind the village of pink, picturesque cottages, tennis courts, and a church perched imperiously high above the rest. This is high Suffolk: the Suffolk as imagined by the city dweller. The Suffolk where comedian Mark Steel observed the local accent to be ‘well it was just a barn when we bought it’. Threading our way through a barley field we found the wood: at this time of the afternoon it was dark, densely shaded: an odd combination of oak and pine, and filled full of bramble. Ringlets, my first of the year, flitted through the bramble leaves, as dark as the shadows surrounding them. Speckled Wood were about too: a positive sign. Underfoot the rain had taken its toll, turning the path to a slippery bog from which baby frogs hopped into puddles, out of the way of stray feet. A Chiffchaff sung.

It’s exciting this: the discovery of a new place, twinned with the search for an exciting animal. And there is no doubt that this fritillary is an exciting animal. The biggest British fritillary by a centimetre may be one of the more common examples of its type, but it’s also eye-poppingly orange, with tiger stripes by the body and two rows of cheetah spots on the edges. This checkered orange and black pattern gives them the name – the same as the similarly marked plant family. I’d seen them before: Surrey, Northants, Hungary, and they hadn’t lost their wow factor after three iterations.

Our walk was more of a cautious stalk – each foot weighted regularly as our eyes darted wildly across the brambles, waiting for a powerfully flying flash of orange. The path widened out in the middle: bisecting the wood in a wide belt of mud and brambles. The sun still beat down strongly. A man’s head emerged from the undergrowth, peering intently through a camera at the brambles. A flash of searing orange above his head raised pulses – only for it to come from an incredibly fresh Comma. On the next tree along sat a White Admiral basking. In front of the next, a fritillary flew. A male. Brighter, it seemed, than the sun.

The next few hours were spent in front of these bramble bushes, with up to five fritillaries, three White Admirals, two Commas, plenty of commoner butterflies and a Common Hawker, absorbed in their movements and taking nearly two hundred photos. Butterflies are utterly captivating, and fritillaries are particularly diverting.

[The following photos were taken with a handheld 400mm zoom lens in harsh light conditions. The ISO level was high to compensate for light and shake, so the details are not as fine as they could've/should've been.]

Male Silver-washed Fritillary. Note the sex brands, which are the four thicker black lines on the forewings, that burst during courtship and 'shower the female in scent scales'*. It is also the only anatomical part of the butterfly (that I am aware of) to draw in unsuspecting google hits. The female, which I failed to photograph, lacks the sex brands, and has fewer stripes, more spots and is a slightly duller orange. [Update: Stephen Menzie has kindly let me use his photo of a female Silver-washed Fritillary to illustrate the difference. NB: this individual is of the argyrorrhytes subspecies.]
White Admiral. Admiral is a corruption of 'admirable' and not a comment on its seafaring abilities.

*See p.217 of The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland, by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington for further information.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


The clouds rolled in, snuffing out the evening as we were pulling up. Suddenly torrents of rain crashed into the road, turning it into a river in seconds. Parking up under tree cover the drops drum an impatient tattoo on the car roof. We had to be patient though: dad forgot his waterproofs…

Eventually a gap in the clouds saw us walking down to Livermere Lake on a sodden muddy track; strands of young ragwort populating the mud and pushing up through the frequent puddles, looking uncannily like saltmarsh. The skies to the south of Livermere were a foreboding mix of grey and black; over the lake they break into blue, flanked by grey and streaked by gulls flying over their roost. This is the summer doldrums. June’s final flourish of spring has long withered in the reality of fledging chicks and moulting ducks. The silence is… disappointing? You only appreciate the melodic clatter of Reed Warblers when they’re gone. It’s not a pretty song but it is reassuring; they’re still there and so is spring.

Midsummer has none of that. It has hardly anything it seems. A scattering of Shelducks of varying ages on the lake; a pile of Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the edges. A buck Roe peers at us, peering at it, then saunters off – not even bothering to bark. I can’t blame it. Carp fishermen have an expression for days when they don’t catch a fish; they call it ‘blanking’. Today was blanking for birdwatchers. No matter where you swung the scope, there was nothing to find to sustain more than a momentary interest.

Autumn will come. It will bring more rain, east winds, and more excitement than you ever thought birds could offer. Until then birding may just be a going through of the motions instead of the emotions; more about the chill in the freshening air and the scent of the grass after rain; an excuse to escape the house for the sake of escaping. And that, for now, is fine by me.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


There’s only so much pathetic fallacy one can take: my soul, more lachrymose than most was particularly weepy after a rough week; the rain torrential. The sky was crying Niagara Falls and I wasn’t. The clouds ahead were brighter and I’ve always found it pointless to correlate weather with emotions. Your misery never matches that of this glorious British summer that doesn’t give a toss: you’re getting rained upon.

I needed my head clearing. I needed distractions, I needed birds, and I needed the salt-scented clarity of a sea breeze. I got Minsmere. Somehow, despite aquaplaning down the A14, I also got staid air and the heat-haze of Hades. Minsmere is at least good for birds. It has a sentimental connection too: for six summers ago, visits at either end of the season were enough to get me hooked on birding, oddly enough with a Cetti’s Warbler and a dip. A rebirth, if you want to think of it as such, after a spring where the birding ran dry. Though the only thing running dry now was the water bottle: the sky was hazy blue and north marsh sweated damsel and dragonflies. My back dripped. It was an atmosphere as cluttered and stuffy as my mind. A Red Admiral landed on the path, fluttering black and red, and as twee as it is, it made me happier. This damp year has been so rotten for them it’s good to see any, regardless of the joyful flicking of their colourful wings. It’s also good to see the dragonflies, though their mechanical straight flight is not quite so life affirming; their mysterious thoraxes only reflect back my own ignorance of their identification.

Pale blue waves lapped lethargically into the shingle shore. Up the beach and over the pillbox studded dunes lies east hide, facing back in land over the Minsmere scrape. An explosion here in the Second World War resulted in the explosion of birdlife we see many years later. Across the small islands scattered throughout its shallow waters there appears to be thousands of everything. My memory of the first time I looked across is something akin to a garden of earthly delights for birders. Thus it always disappoints. It can never quite live up to the expectation, that false image of my own making of the scrape as Aves eden. Today it was stuffed full of breeding Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls. That first memory from late May of a scrape overflowing with waders has been replaced by the truth, and things don’t get much truer than birth and death. Screaming terns mating, incubating, and grabbing the tails of terns that fly too close to the wrong nest or chick. The chicks are fat, grey and quite ugly, the parents are angelic white and elegant: or they would be on their apparently effortless migration, except they’ve abandon elegance in the hormonal frenzy of gene spreading. Chicks are born a wingbeat away from long-dead terns rotting in the sun, and are themselves one wingbeat away from ending up in the gullet of a larger gull. The scrape is not pretty but we watch it because it’s real. We watch birds because they’re real. Wholly other organisms living wholly other lives, unmediated, apparently untroubled by anything beyond their primal instincts. Perhaps subconsciously we harbour to be like them, to step outside of society… Becoming at one with nature though, it’s fraught with difficulties and your mother wouldn’t approve. Mediation and civilisation don’t seem so bad when compared with the squabbling mess of a gull flock. Both terns and gulls scatter through the air, becoming a blizzard of birds as a young heron flaps lazily over. I guess sometimes even the birds themselves can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw.

As I leave the hide, I notice that kids had taken a marker pen to the walls of the hide, decorating beyond the sightings whiteboard with what people doubtless think of as graffiti. Overhead the hazy blue of earlier had been scribbled on with lines of hair grey, gun grey, and impending-rain grey clouds. The sun still shone from the east, over the North Sea, with force. From the open topped, open sided public hide it struck with a sweaty intensity, as I picked out Little Gulls as smaller, neater, blacker-headed than the Black-headed Gulls. Failed breeders I guess, rather than extraordinarily late northeast bound migrants. The southern end of the scrape (and I have no idea why this should be) held more than breeders. Also returning from further north were Dunlin and scruffy Spotted Redshanks; the pantheon of Black-tailed Godwits had probably only swapped ends of the scrape to moult out of their brick red breeding feathers.

I carried on walking down the beach, down to the sluice controlling the end of Minsmere River. It’s unsightly but vital to the wetlands, and with a bonus nest of Swallows tucked under the roof. The Minsmere levels get rather ignored, as merely an uninteresting swathe of Konik Pony grazed marsh beside the more interesting beds of reeds. It’s probably true: I only walk down the footpath for a view of the bushes and pools in the reeds that you can’t see from the main track. It’s unfair though: the 12th century ruin of an abbey would be much more interesting to other people than the avifauna attending its attendant cattle. Halfway down the track it starts spitting with rain. A minute later and I’m seeking shelter by a small tree as the clouds snuff out all light: the rain falls vertical and vigorously, overwhelming my waterproof coat in minutes, crawling down inside my trouser legs, touching my toes. Ten soggy minutes later I was running to find a hide.

Later I would learn that 70mm of rain would fall in this hour – roughly double the monthly average. From west hide I found a seat overlooking the reedbed as the rain pelted down, ceaselessly. Forked lightening cracked less than a mile away over Westleton, Eastbridge and out to sea; the thunder sounding like a steel toe-capped boat kicking the hide’s wooden sides to splinters. Inside the benches are packed with birders damp to varying degrees of sodden. I can feel the water slosh about my boots in the way my own current misery sometimes floods my brain, and sometime recedes, yet always lurks. It seems both human and inevitable that rain should be seen the sky’s tears. If it is then it is so much bigger than my own. I guess it brings perspective. The sky is not crying, though if it could it would look down on the earth we despoil daily and unleash paroxysms of grief. The earth suffers more than I ever will: daily extinctions knock out more cogs in the system of life; global warming wreaks an ever-increasing havoc on our climate. It’s nice to know then that, relatively; worrying about what happens to me is a meaningless self-indulgence. My nest isn’t being flooded out; my feathers aren’t waterlogged. My problems are small, my solutions simple.

Eventually the rain clears up.

Outside, a Cetti’s Warbler sings.