Saturday, 29 September 2012

With Friends

Dumyat is hardly a mountain, though it depends how you define it. It limps in at 418 metres above sea level and angles itself on the western edge of the Ochils as if leaning against the main range for support. It's a well trodden path. Blue sky brings the walkers of Stirling to it like wasps to a picnic, and the students who know that the best cure for whisky heads is being blasted with a brisk northern breeze.

It's still roughly 400 metres higher than anywhere in East Anglia. It's odd then that despite being known amongst the university's nature society as Steve from the flat south, I lead the way. Quicker than anyone else. I have no desire to run on flat ground, but there's something about an incline, peat and long grass that make me want to run up. And then down. And then up again. And to slap my hand against the grain of the igneous rocks and feel the grain from countless storms.

It could almost be that nature intended man, or me at least, to have a slope beneath its feet.

Friday, 28 September 2012

On heading east.

‘Oh fleeting joys / Of paradise, dear bought with lasting woes’ (Paradise Lost, Book X, L. 741-742).

At 6 am the mist rises off the loch into a cool blue pre-dawn. By 7am the hills are pinkish brown and invitingly autumnal, painted by rosy-fingered dawn*.

Oh Scotland: you rain and you rain and then you stop and then I fall in love with you some more.

The train ran away from the mountains though, to the south and east, to the coast of Lothian. It rides past the burns and rivers of the central belt, a landscape unsurprisingly, but unfairly ignored. From a viaduct you can look down upon the mist rising, turned golden by the sun. Up above is a saltire sky.

Sudden scarcity will do that to you. You don’t miss the everyday things until they’re gone. It’s a cliché but it really does rain everyday here: coming from one of the driest parts of England, September is a meteorological culture shock. It’s enough to turn you pagan and to worshipping the sun when it eventually appears.

I disembark at Dunbar. The hometown, oddly, of America’s first conservationist, John Muir. In this small corner of south east Scotland he has a wedge of land dedicated to him. A thin triangle of saltmarsh and dunes separates the waves breaking in Tyninghame Bay from breaking the roads of Dunbar and Belhaven. It has to be said, it’s not exactly El Capitan, Yosemite or any of the other American exceptional wilderness Muir helped preserve, but 21st southern Scotland is a different proposition from 19th century western America. Something now is much better than nothing. Even if the something is just a handy area for dog walkers to get a lap in.

The view though. Wet brown sand like a stained mirror: a paler blue reflection of the sky streaked with brown and stretching across the bay. White-capped waves seem to take the approach leisurely as if reserving their venom for the unsheltered side of Dunbar. Just the faintest cloud hovers on the skyline over Fife. Bass Rock disrupts the smoothness of the scene like a lumpy tooth thrust out of a gum. Still speckled white with Gannets. Unlike a tooth, that bit.

Several Guillemots float just off shore. Gannets were going haywire in the Firth; large numbers of adults, juveniles and immatures moving in every direction. They survived or missed the wreck. The Guillemot amongst the flotsam in the tideline was less lucky: a dogwalker leant over to inspect its penguin like corpse.

Twitching is lazy but it’s also an opportunity; one from time to time I see no reason not to take. The other Suffolk to Stirling culture shock is the birds. Or rather Stirling’s lack of them. Back home I can see all the waders you’d expect: my wader list for Stirling is… non-existent pretty much. Buff-breasted Sandpipers are heaven sent waders. Ruff are nice, but gangly and not particularly exciting. The Buff-breasts are American, nest-fresh juveniles that got lost somewhere over Nova Scotia and ended up old Scotland. But they’ve got such long wings you can forgive these juveniles for getting lost on their first proper use of them.

Over the dunes I get my first peek at what I came for. An artist slumped over a sketchbook on the edge of the dunes was rather helpful: several feet away a pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers ran over the saltmarsh, up to their legs in the marsh. Not wishing to break the skyline I crawled closer to the artist, using him as cover. I needn’t have bothered. These sandpipers were unusual: instead of flying at signs of danger, like the Starlings sharing the marsh did when a Sparrowhawk cruised lazily overhead, they merely crouched up to their heads in the vegetation.

At distance, birds remain impersonal. Up close you get something of their character. When you make mutual eye-contact, and the bird remains unconcerned, you can discern the elements that don’t make it into the fieldguide. There is no more special moment in birding than this. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise, but dry scientific objectivism can’t explain the quirks, the look and feel of a bird that lies beyond how it looks, how it walks. A Ruff would never crouch, it would fly. That a Buff-breasted Sandpiper crouches is endearingly different. You like them more because of it.

There’s worth in recording the arrival of a bird, and when it leaves, especially if it’s unusual. But twitching as part of a crowd is a purely selfish activity. I’m aware that this is using birds as prozac, birds as therapy. But birds make me happy, happier than slogging through the Latinate poetry of John Milton, so why shouldn’t I?

You see things that way. Places, animals, people you wouldn’t otherwise. So really, why not?

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ (PL, Book I, L.254-255).

*If you think that’s pretentious you probably don’t realise I stole it from Homer’s Odyssey. I stole it because it’s accurate and he’s too dead to sue me.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

William, it was really something

A text from Michael means a good bird: a phone call means drop your book, pick up your bins and leg it to the loch. We’re both guilty of taking campus listing far too seriously. He has Red Kite over me and that’s a sore spot but I’ve got Redstart over him and he’s not allowed to forget it. His attitude is better than mine though. His bins and camera have a permanent place in his rucksack, whereas mine live in my drawer. I’m used to not seeing anything on campus; when I do I’m birding by bare eye. It works: Wheatear and Waxwing didn’t escape me; but the Whooper Swans nearly did. I was out of signal in the library, only a chance meeting with him in the corridor did I learn that he’d found them. They were only around for the one evening.

I was midway through Paradise Lost when my phone vibrated. It was Michael’s number but when I answered it was Melissa. ‘There’s a Guillemot on the loch’ she said. ‘I’m coming’, I said, grabbing my bins and keys. She giggled as I hung up.

That giggle sowed seeds of doubt. I ran anyway. Down to the loch, aware of the likelihood that I was to run into a group of laughing ecologists. I couldn’t see them as I ran on to the bridge. Weezing, I clutched at the side, peered over, and splashing about in the loch I walk past every day, was a Guillemot.
I’m not sure what I felt more: astonishment at this seabird that had lost the sea, or gratefulness that I wasn’t the subject of a practical joke.

In the end I went for both.

It was still present at midday Thursday.

Monday, 17 September 2012


Somewhere in the East Midlands a Red Kite spirals over a slip road. It’s rusty red tail burns bright against the late summer sky. At the same time, the same somewhere, in the back seat of a passing car I can see the kite: turning over the road, head down, tail splayed out; until a lorry wipes out my view, and it’s gone. Just wispy white clouds and the faint left hand side of the moon and motorway anonymity. I’m heading north.

Later, in Yorkshire, the kites come more regularly: spiralling over verges, capping a kettle of Buzzards, drifting high over the A1. The route is one that is familiar to me, the birds are familiar too, but I’ve never seen so many of them. More than Kestrels in fact. Increasing populations? Increase in me paying attention? Sheer coincidence of the right kite in the right place at the right time? Take your pick.

Along the verges the dying embers of Rosebay Willowherb add colour to the late summer green.


Oh Stirling. You see the English summer and take it just one notch further. My highland friend says coming south to here is like returning to summer. To me it’s like being fast tracked to autumn. A particularly wet, miserable autumn.

This is, I think, why people are surprised to find I go to university in Scotland. It’s no surprise to me. Too much of England is blind to it and sees it (very wrongly) as the land that culture forgot. That bloody place responsible for filling the TV news with the irresolvable certainties of the yes and no campaigns that passes for the independence debate. Too many of my friends have set off to travel the world without seeing beyond their own corner of England. Sometimes I feel if my wanderlust is warped and only works for the four gorgeous corners of wild Britain. I think I bleed Irn Bru and breathe Iain Crichton Smith.

Almost everywhere in Stirling is within sight of a mountain range. From campus, on a clear day, you can see six different mountain ranges: from the Lammermuirs to the Trossachs. It’s a textured landscape. The peaty soil preserves the history, the battles fought (and thought), the ridges and furrows where the moor was once farmed. The contrast to Suffolk, flat Suffolk, couldn’t be greater. There’s no birds here though, or so it seems from regular walks up and down and through the land here. I don’t mind that sometimes. My abiding childhood memory are holidays in the hills of the Lake District. Sometimes I revert to childishness and use the land here as my own adventure play park.


The problem with writing anything with any degree of certainty is that sooner or later you end up looking like an idiot. Notice earlier, I said there were no birds in Stirling…

Scotland has a habit of starting raining the second you leave a building. I have a habit of not taking a waterproof jacket, and the correlation between these two occurrences is strongly positive. With my head down in my sodden hoody I walk up the stone streets of Bridge of Allan. It’s 12 o’clock. I glance up: the weather shows no sign of clearing. And then, in the uncanny way that this happens, a bird flew through my life. Or, more accurately, it flew just over house height, west along Bridge of Allan high street, barely comprehending I was there. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing: the long, thin, swept-back wings; long neck and wedge of a tail of a Gannet; the dusky plumage of a juvenile.

You feel very far away from the sea here, though the Forth is apparently tidal as far as Stirling bridge. A 6 foot wide, 3 kilo seabird looks very out of place here. It’s dreich, and it gets dreicher the further west you go: this Gannet was due to hit the lochs of the Trossachs before possibly making its way down to the Firth of Clyde, I guess. As unlikely as it seems, it actually fits into recent patterns of Gannet movement quite nicely: later that day forty (40!) were seen over Andy Murray’s victory parade in Dunblane; a somewhat more eco-friendly flypast than the RAF could’ve managed. Further up the Forth, at Bo’ness, Kinneil and Skinflats, three figure flocks of Gannets were reported from the 10th of September; though the first in land wasn’t seen until yesterday, with two over Doune (8 miles away), 4 over Thornhill and 1 flying along Loch Lubnaig.

I have no idea why this mini exodus of Gannets up the Forth has happened. It’s unpredictable, inexplicable and part of the incongruous fun of birding. As I stood by the Forth in a residential area, just east of the main city, a man proffered his opinion: no fish left in the sea. Or maybe it’s the weather. Maybe there’s a storm on the way, he said, straightening his cap before walking off. I waited for my friend. It wasn’t just Gannets. Also floating in the Forth were nine Guillemots; black and white and slightly disheveled. All facing up stream into the flow, vigorously paddling with clockwork feet: seven lost, drifting slowly downstream; two were winning and moving slowly up stream. All from a low bridge, the sort of view of a Guillemot you should never really get. You should never really be close enough to a Guillemot to see its feet paddling, to discern minute plumage differences in the head, body, wings. My friend arrived, a German this time, and keen to try birding. I started her with these, showing her how to use binoculars. She solemnly nodded as I explained that they shouldn’t be here. Then she burst out laughing at their feet. Sometimes you have to laugh. I just hope they don’t become Guillemorts.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

On Badgers and Politicians

 (Picture courtesy of James Astley: see his Blog, Twitter)

You know a Badger is close when you can hear the snuffling sound of it eating peanuts. And you know it’s really close when you can hear it but can’t see it because it’s too close to the hide. And there were four of them…

The Margaret Grimwade Badger hide is the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s best-kept secret. I’m not really sure why. The secret bit I understand. The location is rightly guarded like a state secret: upon booking you’re given a map, instructions and a time to turn up. It feels a bit like following a treasure map, like living out some childish dream: X marks the spot. It’s rather fun actually.

You follow the map and walk up a slope by a stream. Dusk resolves through the trees as we chuck out the allotted peanuts and unlock the hide. It was dad and me, a friend and four strangers making low, awkward conversation as we waited for nearly an hour; watching the light go grey, a Barn Owl fly quickly through, and Robins tussling. A flashlight flickered on from the side of the hide, casting a warmer glow to the scene.

At just before eight the first Badger turned up. Creeping out of the undergrowth to the left the first thing you see is two disembodied pale lines: then the rest of the head. It creeps back under cover. Too soon it seems. A minute later it fully emerges for the first time. It’s small. A cub and outrageously cute.

It’s my first ever good view of a Badger. My first, and only prior Badger, was on a single-track highland road at dusk. We’d stopped to let another car past when, caught in between two sets of lights, a Badger bumbled across the road and deep into the wood. To bumble is an awfully twee verb. The problem is that it suits a Badger in a hurry perfectly. I said the cub was outrageously cute: it’s hard to resist the anthropomorphisms that must be resisted. All objections seem to melt at the sight of their humbug striped snouts.

The Badger crept further out in the open. The fur is dense: you can see that in the remains of the light, and flecked with dark and paler hairs. The black head stripes extend surprisingly far down the neck, almost as far as the start of the squat legs. Their bodies hang surprisingly low. For all its definite cuteness, the Badger is a strange animal. It’s got the fur of a cat, the head of a dog, a body as long as a fox and the feeding action of a pig. It is thus, obviously, gloriously, a Mustelid and a relative of the Stoats and Weasels. It’s a carnivore, but one that chooses peanuts with as much regularity as worms.

Which is why it was currently shuffling over the earth in front of the hide, seeking out the peanuts we threw earlier. In the end three other Badgers, all apparently also cubs turned up: one noticeably smaller, probably the female of the litter. Through the glass window of the hide you can make eye-contact with them as they shuffle, blissfully unconcerned past. For half an hour, roughly, as they sought out the peanuts, the Badgers put on a staggering display: when it ended you felt as if you’d seen every hair, twitch, snuffle as they went about their feeding.

I’m not really sure why the hide isn’t better known amongst people. I have never had a wildlife experience quite like it.


On Tuesday the self-proclaimed ‘greenest government ever’ reshuffled itself: replacing Caroline Spelman with Owen Paterson. With the exception of the forest sell-off that failed (thankfully) Spelman was quite widely liked amongst environmentalists. Paterson is an unknown quantity: although his list of interests includes ‘trees’, his ideas for economic growth – of ending energy subsidies (bye bye renewables), fast tracking shale gas fracking, and airport expansion - are as ominous as a shark’s fin to a seal. I mention this because the government, the ‘greenest government ever’ (lest we forget), will be trialling a Badger cull this autumn for six weeks in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset. The aim is to halt the spread of Bovine TB and Badgers are a reservoir of this disease. It is a laudable cause in itself: nobody wants to see cattle dead, let alone 35,000 a year at an alleged cost of millions to the taxpayer.

Spelman’s high profile U-turns shows she listens and reacts. They’re not a sign of weak governance but of listening and responding. I don’t hold out much hope for Paterson: he supports the cull despite having once kept an orphaned Badger as a pet and the rest of his environmental ideas show up previous tory party environmental rhetoric as nothing more than weak greenwashing.

We need a U-turn now. There is a better way than to cull. After all, there are just a quarter of a million Badgers to over nine million cattle, yet for a cull to be effective you would need to kill every single one of these Badgers: for the disease simply passes on to previously uninfected areas outside of the cull zone (it’s called perturbation). Even eradicating Badgers, as ethically and ecologically disgusting as that would be, wouldn’t work. See the Isle of Man: no Badgers, but with Bovine TB. Scotland: lots of Badgers, no Bovine TB.

I’m not against culling and killing per se, but I’m also not against science and evidence. The rationale behind this cull strikes me as nonsensical. As nonsensical as Badger baiting is cruel and barbaric. There is also no doubt that the Badger is a persecuted animal. We’ve all seen them lying dead in the road far from any recognisable Badger habitat or sett. That’s because they get shot and dumped on the roads to look like road kill, by cowardly, ignorant criminals. We need to stop seeking scapegoats in nature and the short-term easy answer of the gun.

Further reading:

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Touch of Sun

Einstein, apparently, once described insanity as 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'. This wasn't running through my head as I stood under a Wedgewood Blue sky* in a line of birders at Landguard, expectantly waiting. They were expecting. I wasn't particularly. The winds were still westerly but that didn't matter today. Time was more of an issue. A week and a weekend ago a Spanish Sparrow surprised a photographer here before going into hiding. Then, as I was just returning from Blakeney Point on Saturday evening, it reappeared. And again on Sunday evening. Come Monday evening I was to be prepared.

On Sunday it was seen leaving its roost; today it wasn't. The twitch was to be speculative at best, based upon the hunch of a pattern the bird might have fallen into: roost in the docks, wake up, disappear into the gardens of Felixstowe, return to Landguard for a pre-roost feed in the bramble bushes, roost in the docks. Repeat until it realises that Felixstowe is not the Barcelona of the north. Nor the Bilbao. Not even the Benidorm...

That was the theory at least. In practice I wasn't surprised when I took my place in the line of telescopes to be told it hadn't been seen all day. Between here and 'the Butts' (a raised bank - I guess some kind of anti-tank defence?) bramble bushes lie strewn about short, rabbit grazed grass, with thistles lined up beside them. Linnets are everywhere, seemingly in every bush, chirping incessantly. Smaller numbers of Goldfinch exploit the thistles, deftly feeding from the seeds behind the spines. House Sparrows, gregarious yet rapidly vanishing from our towns remain in pleasingly healthy numbers here. Some dust bathe, others stain their breasts and bills feeding on the blackberries. We're over familiar with House Sparrows so we stop seeing them. We stop seeing the bundle of attractive, warm feathers, and we've stopped seeing the charisma they have. Every move they make seems an exaggeration, only to familiar eyes that stop looking as soon as they have seen, they don't notice these quirks. And they won't much further into the future. Our neatness and orderliness have pulled the plug on their lives: in the 80s alone their population halved. Yet at Felixstowe they survive on. Front gardens are a riot of untamed weeds instead of paving slab car parks; the pavements are cracked; wasteland between houses exists with long grass and bushes. A little space for sparrows is what this is. I think these thoughts as the sun burns my arms and forehead. A Whitethroat flits between bushes, a Chiffchaff lazily moves through the brambles. Another birders turns up, places his scope down and says, 'it's on the thistles'.

A fresh pair of eyes will do that. It's curious that getting your eye in can be counter-productive after a while. Telescopes swing in unison, following his directions. Hopping about the grass in front of the thistles was another, different sparrow. An all chestnut head, white cheeks, not grey. A thin sliver of white over the eye. Smudgy finger print streaks over its breast. And it flies.

For the next thirty or so minutes before it flew to the docks, it showed on and off amongst the House Sparrows and the brambles as the sun set behind our backs, pleasing the assembled twitchers. It's odd to think, given Landguard's history of repelling immigration and invasion that we've ended up celebrating one in the shadow of the fort.
I believe it to be the ninth British record of a Spanish Sparrow. I also believe it hopped off a container from Bilbao in Felixstowe docks instead of using its wings to get here: brains instead of brawn? I can only approve.
(House Sparrow photo from 2007)

*This description comes courtesy of too much daytime TV.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


Yesterday is the most annoying day of the week. Yesterday there was a Barred Warbler here. Yesterday’s yesterday and that warbler was a Greenish. Today, and the birding at Blakeney Point was so dire that when the sub-adult Spoonbill woke up, it flew away…

There comes, bundled in with life and associated life stuff, an irresistible urge to compare and contrast and reflect. Compare this unending grey with the sun and sky blue of the same place a year ago. 
Contrast the airless atmosphere and birdless air with that of last year: last year had Whinchats, Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails and Lesser Whitethroats. This year had several Swallows kicking around the old lifeboat house and two summer plumaged Grey Plover on the mudflats that appeared to have walked straight out of a linocut. Reflect on the three miles of shingle and sand you walked to get here, and how much longer that feels without avian distractions.

Think about how nothing ventured, nothing gained is fair enough, yet something ventured, nothing gained is most unfair. It's out of your control like some cosmic unfairness hard coded into the grain of the world, yet the reality is that most un-cosmic thing, the wind. The wind that just happens to always be in the wrong direction at the right time.

Don't think about the Spanish Sparrow relocated at Landguard Point.