Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Too Close for Comfort

Guess I wrote too soon. Lazarus like, the summer reappeared, the winds still in the wrong direction. And I headed coast-wards anyway, as the lift was available. Not so far as a beach though, just a few miles inland by the Alde Estuary. Late summer visits to Snape Warren seem to have become traditional, but I don’t really know why. On this evidence I really don’t know why. An estuary mired in haze and glare and a heath encroached by sapling trees. You go where your lifts can take you and you go when you’re told. Today I was done early.

‘Did you see any birds?’ Mum asked.
‘Gigantic female Sparrowhawk’. She nodded. She’s been well trained. ‘And an Adder. First one for several years. It saw me before I saw it though. I only saw it slithering away under a bush several feet away from my own…’

And, in the spirit of life and (near) death, two days shy of a year ago I photographed this at the same spot. Apparently wasps only ever rarely attack freshly emerged dragonflies yet this is a fully adult Common Darter
 After some fight the dragonfly escaped.

Costa del Cambridgeshire

Irony: the whiteboard said the birding was slow, blaming it on summer floods; the blackboard said there was a Glossy Ibis, a Purple Heron and a Spotted Crake. Oh and a fifty strong flock of Garganey. If that’s slow then I imagine on a reasonable May day the RSPB’s Ouse Washes is like some kind of Fenland Hortobagy.

But I get ahead of myself: firstly, the weather. Grey again, obviously. Secondly: a bank holiday Monday, an afternoon, the atmosphere as airlessly lethargic as a vacuum. A vacuum through which caravans are towed slowly that is. Thirdly: you can see Ely cathedral shake in the haze from here. That’s to the southeast. Homewards. I’m hardwired to face north, so it feels weird to drive for an hour or so and turn to face home. But in between us and home is the floodplain between two raised banks, keeping the local area flat and free from reclamation by the sea. And although it stands in the way of nature, between these banks is a quite incredibly array of wildlife. And for me, right now, birds. The biggest spread of birds I’ve seen in far too long. Flock to flock, horizon to reedbed to open water. Ducks, everywhere, mostly asleep like students. Copious egrets stood considering the fish under the gently rippling waves. Waders scattered over the muddy fringes and a large dead pike slowly rotted on a bank between two gateposts. Sauntering past, a Glossy Ibis picks at the ground, as if it sees dead fish daily.

I’ve seen a few Glossy Ibises, but none as close as this and as with all these things, they’re better up close. You could see the delicate white flecking around the head, and the oily iridescent green to its otherwise dull, dark back. And as with all birds, they’re much smaller than you expect. They’ve also been turning up in Britain in recent years with much more frequency and in much bigger flocks than before. I don’t know why. I quite like it that way.

Then we spent roughly another hour sat in the hide, not seeing the Purple Heron or Spotted Crake. Instead, a few Greenshank - a wader that eludes me on some years and I can’t escape in others – stalked through the deeper water, stabbing with its bill.

It’s hard to make an eclipse duck exciting. Not even fifty-ish of them spread out across a marsh. But then I’ve only seen one or two per spring most springs since I started birding, seven years ago. So this monstrous, gargantuan, flock of small, highly contrasting ducks with funky faces, were also more Garganey than I’d ever seen in my life. That, is significantly more exciting to me that it seems in words written down. It was also a uniquely odd experience. It’s normally a duck you struggle to see. Here it seemed that every third or fourth duck amongst the Teal, Shovelers and Mallards, was a Garganey.

It’s tempting to see this one off afternoon as a glimpse of a globally warmed future for fenland birding and an excuse to burn your weight in carbon, daily, for more exciting birding in ten years time. This would be foolish: if melting polar ice knocks the gulf stream out, we’ll be as cold as Moscow. If it heats us up, that’s our exciting northern birds gone, forever. And, after all, fifty strong flocks of Garganey are vastly improved by their oddity.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Frack That

I've just read an article. Nothing unusual in that, but it's one I want to share with you. It's an analysis of fracking and the legacy of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. There was a paragraph that I had to read several times in disbelief to make sure it actually said what I thought it said. It did:

"In 2005, fracking was granted specific exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fracking is also exempt from key provisions within the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Chemicals used in drilling and fracking operations can be claimed as trade secrets; public release of their identity is not mandated by federal right-to-know provisions. The Environmental Protection Agency has limited jurisdiction over fracking." [Paragraph 9]

I guess you spotted the bit that struck me dumb with horror. So, tell me, what's the point of environmental law if what it legislates against can be made exempt from it? And tell me again, can you think of any other law that would so easily be ignored for money and fuel? And how do they get away with it? Why do we let them?

I think the only honest reaction is despair. You can chose anger if you'd rather.

This is, of course, American. Could it happen here? We've got precedent for what happens when the irresistible juggernaut of big money meets an irreplaceable environment, and they'll be fracking Britain too. With minimal regulation. And earthquakes.

Sunday, 26 August 2012


This feels like the rotting corpse of summer. It’s warm but not hot, not dry enough either and as we peer at September, it’s hard to see it performing a Lazarus like recovery.

And grey is all around us. Grey skies, grey shifting seas. Grey ex-military buildings, grey concrete paths over the grey-green common over which dull grey Woodpigeons argue with the wind and gravity and the inevitable. Grey backed gulls fling their selves into the breeze and along the shingle beach; a shiny grey fish leaps out of the North Sea and flops lazily back in. Grey, not white, is the face of the House Sparrow sat in a bramble patch. Six Turnstone scud over, dark grey in this light, whilst two Dunlin flew more purposefully southbound offshore.

Landguard is the shingle tail to the Felixstowe peninsula, a faded, greying seaside town, notable only for the docks that stole jobs from Liverpool. I’ve no idea if it kept them, but away from the arcades and candy floss streets the cranes dominate the skyline. They’re the tallest things this side of the Orwell bridge. I was rather hoping something else might dominate the skyline: something looking a little less reptilian, but with a closer biological relation to the herpetofauna.

It wasn’t to be. It never is. Not in these winds anyway. At Landguard, or I suppose, the east coast in general, you want to be buffeted by an icy easterly sweeping up big flocks of small, brown and Siberian birds. You don’t want to have the common-to-omnipresent Linnet flocks being blown about your head by a stiff wind from the rest of Suffolk. There’s only so many Linnets one can take before you lose the will to bird. Or dog walkers with dogs off leads. That’s the reason why on this nature reserve, only one Ringed Plover chick has survived out of eight. It won’t for much longer, I imagine.

From the point you can see the clouds breaking over Essex and the wheat fields of the Naze glowing gold against the grey of Harwich. Eventually the sun even comes out on the north of the river too, heralding two Yellow Wagtails flying and calling over. A welcome (and far too late) first sighting of them this year for me. All of a sudden a small flurry of bird movement happened: a few Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in the bushes, and a Whinchat briefly scurrying between bushes. But as soon as it happens it passes again. And we’re left with a Whitethroat, and not its grey relative.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Very Sound Approach

‘The drunkenness of things being various’ (Louis MacNeice)

‘When you come out of a meeting you’ve forgotten the contents in minutes, but see a good bird and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life’. (Catching The Bug)

I devour books. If a day isn’t spent in the field or in phrases than frankly it feels wasted. I also have cloth ears and bird sound was, still sometimes is, utterly mysterious to me. And then I read The Sound Approach to Birding. I’d never read a bird book like it: technical but not heavy, entertaining yet genuinely informative. Perfection, really. Nowadays it and its three iterations sit on the shelf alongside the Helm white jackets and the New Naturalists as one of the most recognisable series of books. Its brand, if you want to use that term*, exudes cool, as much as that’s possible for a Science-based bird book. It’s the awkward size that’s lap-wide and hand-high, the black background and Killian Mullarney’s illustrations. They work as objects, as well as books. And as books they work particularly well: Petrels Night and Day was a staggering work of ornithology that I will never ever have any practical use for and yet I still enjoyed and learned from it.

And now there is a fourth member of the family: Catching the Bug. Written by Mark Constantine and Nick Hopper, it describes itself as ‘A prĂ©cis of the concerns, puzzles and conundrums set by the natural world to a group of amateur birders meeting over twenty years in a pub in Poole’. What that means, in much less seductive language, is that it is a (very) social history of Dorset birding, and that’s fascinating. It works by focalising the debates and controversies of ornithology, such as Siberian Chiffchaffs or climate change, through the lens of Poole Harbour. Poole is the constant thread that runs through an intoxicating array of the variety of birds, tying up all the loose ends. This I really like. As I tell anyone daft enough to ask, eclecticism is the best thing about birds. Birds are not the be all and end all; they’re a gateway to so much more, but also the most interesting and attractive gateway there is. This book, whether intentionally, or unintentionally, is a celebration of that.

The writing is solid but not spectacular. It suffers from the previous Sound Approach: Birding from the Hip, by that wizard of the written word, Anthony McGeehan. But as a friend reminds me, it’s not about the lyricism but the ideas. I’m greedy and I want both, but this will suffice for now. I don’t always want to be untangling syntax with a dictionary to hand. However, whereas Birding from the Hip wasn’t as uniquely Sound Approach as the first two titles, Catching the Bug most definitely is. Sonograms are liberally used throughout the book in a supplementary role to the text: it is possible to read it without them but you lose more of the immersive experience of the book if you do. If you haven’t read The Sound Approach to Birding there is a rudimentary explanation of sonograms at the start of Catching the Bug, but I recommend reading the former first if you want to understand the sonograms better.

So, as an idea-lead piece of prose it is certainly very good. But are the ideas actually any good? Mostly. It varies of course. The predictions of globally warmed breeding species struck me as mostly idle speculation. That Dartford Warbler could be an English endemic doesn’t last long, but the most interesting thing here is how they treat the idea: they realise it isn’t but still work on, learning as they go and contributing to ornithology through failed thesis, as much as successful ones. That’s a lesson I think birding needs to repeatedly learn: there’s no shame in mistakes. The ideas that do work are backed up with their own impressive results from intensive patch based work.

Poole is the kind of patch we all wish we had and The Sound Approach are the kind of birders we all wish were local to us. Catching the Bug is another high quality work from them, and one that had me checking the trains to Dorset as if it was the new Norfolk. I wonder where next for The Sound Approach? I’d love to see them tackle the thorny issue of redpolls…

*Apologies if you don’t. I strongly dislike that word.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Post Birdfair Blues

And whites. Stripy whites. Sychronised whites like wide sky vertebrae.
But while The Cloudspotter's Guide sits on my shelf waiting patiently to be read, their cloud classification shall remain unknown to me...

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


‘Where should this music be? i' the air or the earth?’ (The Tempest)

You should know by now that I like butterflies. It begun with a cheap fieldguide and my dad's ignorance of the small orange things I pointed at, about a year after first becoming a birder. This was horrifying to someone who had cause to believe that his dad knew everything. Nowadays I still can't identify them all, and Suffolk seems to be in a hole in the distribution map for the exciting blues, fritillaries, Marbled Whites etc. Not enough grassland, and slopes, and thus hardly enough of the magic south-facing grassland slopes. Even the common butterflies have a certain magic about them: at rest they look like immovable withered leaves. When they open their wings they are of the air in a way that makes you wonder how they could ever appear earthbound. And amongst the generally demure British wildlife that vibrant splash of colour is quite wonderful. At least I thought so. I don't generally like captive wildlife without a good reason but I made a (hopefully) rare excuse in my principles for this one: Stratford-upon-Avon butterfly farm. Other than the RSC and an impressively healthy population of bookshops there seemed precious little to do in the town other than to wander around photographing things. And once my lens had demisted, my skin adjusted to the shock of the suddenly tropical humidity, I was astounded. How can you not be? I'll save the analysis of the effect of sanitised nature, the tropical experience without the leeches, rabies jabs and suspicious looking spiders for later. For now, just looking.
Sheer wings and an impossibly bright flower
Queen Alexandra Birdwing?

And sometimes they escape. This was just outside, on the highstreet I saw one the size and general appearance of a Purple Emperor fly past.

(All these were taken with the Nikon D50 with a Nikkor 18-55mm lens. The DSLR is fixed from the tern debacle, but is creaking with age. The ISO performance is really rather poor compared to the current crop of cameras and far too noticeable in the dark areas for my liking.)

Why aren't butterflies more popular? And why do they attract the sickly twee so terribly much?


I remember Adlestrop: it was a cold, rainy day and I was huddled over my A-level English literature anthology. It was the last lesson of the week and mutual resentment flowed between tired teachers and bored pupils. I sat unresponsive in the corner observing. It wasn’t a class favourite. Its wistful elegance didn’t sit well on a class raised on Harry Potter and thinking of the weekend, but I doubt even Prufrock would’ve. I didn’t click with it at first but it squirreled itself away in my mind to blossom later but I forget exactly when. My memory is not that crisp. I can remember why though. The moment it crystallises – and crystalline is what it is – is one every birder should recognise. The moment when birds suddenly enter in the most unexpected of ways. Thomas’s Blackbird arrives at an unexpected stop on a train journey just prior to the outbreak of world war one: the war that would take his life in the same year as he wrote the poem.

It was only three years ago I first read Adlestrop. It seems so long ago.

It was on an off chance we were passing. The parents were enjoying Moreton-in-Marsh (how it wishes it was Moreton-upon-Marsh!) with its cider coloured stone built boutique shops. I’d scowled along the high street, sleep deprived and coffee wired, rubbing along the grain of its charms. I pulled out the road map, examined the veins of England, and noticed a little word only a few miles from Moreton: Adlestrop.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the village hall car park.

Chocolate box villages flaunt their prettiness. Strict standards must be upheld, but people must be there to uphold them, and see them being upheld. Adlestrop is not a chocolate box. It doesn’t have a tearoom for a start – though the post office does cake on weekends – it doesn’t seem to have people there approving of its prettiness. It’s rarified in the best possible way. An aerial, and a red Toyota parked outside one of the houses was the sole reminder of modernity, whilst House Sparrows chattered in the riotously floral front gardens, Swallows swooped around eaves and Starlings chattered from thatched roofs of stone cottages. It’s not Arcadia, yet it’s hard to see how it could be improved upon.

And all the while I’m not sure I’m really convinced on literary pilgrimages. I’m aware that’s a strange sentence to write as I lie on a bed in a Stratford-upon-Avon B&B (the only one without a Shakespeare influenced name though): all we should need is the text. Place, though, is the shadow that we can’t shake off: it feels like a proper introduction at last to Adlestrop the poem to see Adlestrop the place; like putting a face to a name. It is satisfactory. The places of Shakespeare are different though: perverted over time, Tudor buildings holding high street chains only heightens the distance, tacky attractions leave nothing to the imagination and give nothing to the intellect. Shakespeare drew humanity with his imagination, and ‘every single character in Shakespear, is as much an individual, as those in life itself’ as Alexander Pope declared. There’s nothing much that reality can add to his fictions. Instead, I guess, its instructive that England’s abiding genius came not from London, but from a small town slightly too close to Birmingham.

‘My library was dukedom large enough’ (The Tempest).