Monday, 2 December 2013

Two Suffolks

The Sandlings lie a few miles back from the Suffolk coast. A long strip of heathland on sandy soil they, like the Brecks at the other end of Suffolk, have been ploughed up or planted with pine. But unlike the Brecks, the heather here still clings to more than just the edges. At Tunstall the heather veins with the Scots Pine and birch that run around the main body of the pine plantation. Orange leaves still cling to the birch, and the heather is still dark purple. It’s pretty for the Forestry Commission. But that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. East Suffolk is (to this Suffolk boy at least) the prettiest flat landscape in England.
I’m sure the riders on horses the colour of the pine bark would agree. And the dweller in the cottage surrounded by the wood. The flat-capped gent from the local church bell-ringing guild out for a stroll; and the half of London that bought homes out here to live like Mr and Mrs Andrews.  The other birder? He’s chewing his lip and staring into the tops of the pines. There is no sign of any crossbills, neither the resident Commons or the vagrant Parrot Crossbills, driven here from deep in the Scandinavian forests and found last weekend.

There is little sign of any birdlife at all. Flocks of crows from nearby pig fields fly over; a few Goldcrests slip quietly through the branches of the pines. It’s almost as if behind the façade of prettiness there’s not a lot here.

I stumble across what actually is there by accident. I have a habit from life as an introvert of naturally looking at my feet. Sometimes it comes in handy. Coming past a stand of birch my neck drooped, and amongst the grass and dying bracken I found a Fly Agaric, glowing redder than a Robin. 
It’s the ur-mushroom. Other than those you find in the supermarket, most people of my generation found their first fungi through Super Mario. In that pixelated universe of running and jumping a Fly Agaric-like mushroom will help you power up. In the real world it will make you hallucinate and, I quote, ‘cause sweat-inducing poisoning, stimulating the secretory glands and [induce] symptoms which include profuse salivation and sweating’. A severe case will apparently kill you. But the Fly Agaric is friendly compared to the other species of fungi in its genus, such as the Fool’s Mushroom, the Death’s Cap or the European Destroying Angel.


Day two. The west. Crisp winter air and a faded blue sky. The smell of sugar beet colours the air and a slight haze blurs the horizon over the fields. A Green Woodpecker flicks up from the cemetery and flies into the old oak. A Nuthatch calls. The woodpecker laughs, or yaffles in the old dialect. The beet is piled up by the field edges before being moved to the local sugar factory, whose cooling tower dominates the local skyline. Early winter on these roads is characterised by open-topped lorries thundering around the bends, occasionally shedding the odd beet that you can pick up from the verge. The lorries coat the road in a slick of wet mud and oil, and close to home, a dead badger. This is not pretty Suffolk, but a Suffolk, of tractors, lorries, towers on the horizon and a deep dark mud that stains my jeans, that sucks in feet and only begrudgingly spits them back out. This is the Suffolk of my home.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Brighter Later

It was a brighter morning than the last two, less wintry as well. The mud underfoot was soft and the puddles not iced over. An ice blue sky stretched over London, the backdrop to an insipid sunrise and dappled grey clouds. Still winter then. Breath clouded in front of me and everything seemed pale and calm. The cold keeps the dog walkers away, but makes the morning struggle with the dead weight of the duvet one I more often lose than win.

Walking out across the pitches I notice the gulls that roost here are already mostly gone. Only a few remain to be mobbed by the restless crows for any worms their pattering feet bring to the surface. I track one idly in flight. A first winter, it is already agile enough to keep the crows at bay, but maybe they’re not seriously pursuing it. Dull brown feathers are scattered across the wings and body like little autumn leaves. I continue to follow it as it comes back across and morphs from the expected Black-headed Gull into a Common Gull. I’d misjudged the size; and the everyday turns into something different. Not exciting – by coincidence the common in the name also suggests something of its regularity – and not something unexpected either, but something new. I’d never seen one here before. I look around and find an adult perched on the grass too. Crisp white and grey, as if it had been made of snow and shadows.

Maybe transformation was the theme of the walk.

Halfway across the park and looking back over my shoulder. A crow sailed across the sky. As crows have done and will do, it looked dark and angular and uncannily like a bird of prey. It came in across the park, holding my attention when it banked, revealing a pale barred underbody. In an instant I correct myself. Not crow but Peregrine Falcon. It flies into the sunrise but the light is weak and I can still make out the plumage; the black hood and white cheeks and the sheer muscular bulk of its body. It circles around and heads off towards the tall towers of the city.

Transformations. Formerly one of Britain’s rarest birds and inhabitant of the tallest cliffs in the remotest parts; a recently resurgent population has taken them into our cities. The towers make perfect cliffs, with a seemingly endless supply of pigeons. It could be one of London’s, or one from further afield. Peregrine, from peregrinate, was first defined to me as ‘winter wandering’: my dictionary only states ‘wandering’, but the winter part stuck. The idea of winter’s nomadic Peregrine Falcons can’t be moved from my mind.

As it flies off into the sunrise I involuntarily dredge up all the extraordinary facts about this species. But nothing quite compares to the experience of actually seeing it. It transforms the morning from pleasant to something electric. Not so much the spring, but the spark in my step.

A mixed flock of roughly forty Redwings and Fieldfares flew over the tall trees to the north. I wonder what awaits them in Willesden, maybe Wembley or perhaps even Watford? I wonder where they go, and where they roost. I figure I’ll never know and not everything needs extraordinary facts. I stamp off down the pavement to bring life to my numb cold toes. I walk past the tube station against the tide of suits. Nobody makes eye contact with the man with the binoculars, muddy-green coat and cheap wellies.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Natural Eye

There is an owl glaring down at me as I have a cake with my coffee. Its ear tufts are held in against its head, two bumps deviating from the v-shaped brow that makes up the owl-frown and culminates in the hooked beak, with piercing pale yellow eyes either side. The dull brown plumage is delicately notched light and dark and fades out in drips of paint down to the edge of the paper. It’s the most arresting image in the exhibition. And then you realise it was painted by a teenager*.
The Natural Eye is the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition in the Mall Galleries, London. It is the one week in the year when a scrap steel Giraffe towers over a limestone Ptarmigan within sight of Buckingham Palace. It’s an unusual location. Wildlife art exists in an unhappy hinterland between commercial twee and acceptance by mainstream contemporary art galleries, particularly when compared to landscapes or portraiture. It strikes me that nature writers such as Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey et al, never have this problem as being accepted as a valid voice in contemporary literature. Ted Hughes, poet of crows, foxes and hawks (amongst other things) became poet laureate, for example. But with a mayfly-like lifespan, this gallery in the heart of London throngs with the life and the rowdy, colourful chaos of nature.

After fifty years of the SWLA how is wildlife art looking? And what is the purpose of wildlife art?

Colourful. That, at least, is the impression on first glance of walls stuffed with paintings, woodcuts, linoprints and plinths of sculptures. And birdy: if it was renamed the Society for Bird Art it seems that not many of its members would complain. In Nick Derry’s art the two come together joyously. His paintings are riots of colour: Red Kites on purple paper; a Red-backed Shrike with a well-butchered hawker; Blue-headed Wagtails feeding amongst flowers, Swallows and a Greenshank. There is a vernal joy here that the artist sees and communicates in loose brushstrokes with all the life and energy of the birds themselves. That for me is the purpose of wildlife art: communicating the essence, the nature of nature.

The very best art here does that, and the best thing about the exhibition is its presentation of so many different ways of seeing animals. Darren Woodhead finds that nature through minimalism. Watercolours, painted in the field on a white background and mostly consisting of just a tree and a bird; they tell of windblown stories of migration, fleeting moments and occurrences on the Lothian coast. Harriet Mead performs a kind of alchemy in turning lifeless and rusty scrap steel into sculptures of hares, a heron, a giraffe. I have no idea how its possible to turn callipers into feathers. Like I said, some kind of alchemy. All these works are touched by abstraction. The natural eye at its best sees beyond what is merely present and invests it with something meaningful. The worst works here don’t do this. It feels unfair to criticise any in particular but a reliance on the habitual ways of seeing things, nothing beneath the surface prettiness that shackles a slightly disappointing amount of work on show.

Oddly there is a lack of work with an obvious conservation or cultural element to it. Very little of the art on display places an animal into a human or human altered landscape, which is something I can’t quite explain. Is there a fear of aestheticisng the ‘unnatural’? I found three exceptions. Carry Akroyd’s Big Turns and Little Terns finds an echo in the white angular wings of a foreground flock of terns and the blades of a distant wind farm. It is a scene familiar to any Norfolk birder and I like how it makes the connections in the scene, mercifully without picking a side. Bruce Pearson should need no introduction and his work from time spent on South Atlantic trawlers with the BirdLife albatross protection team is extraordinary: beautiful and timely.  Only one has made it into the exhibition but with fisherman, fish and bird as its subject, he provides more depth and balance than typically found in coverage of conservation issues.

The final exception is the likeliest to be hung as part of a collection of contemporary art. A Blush by Fran Giffard is a series of diary pages with exotic birds drawn in graphite and painted in aquarelle. Exotic birds perch on top of lists and numbers, notes to self and accounts of the day. This is how birds are for me. How they decorate the edges of the daily routine, bring a touch of wonder to the mundane, every day.

For a fiftieth birthday snapshot of the work of its members, The Natural Eye is eclectic, but the hits in this exhibition far outweigh the misses and I left with my head full of ideas and the urge to pick up a pen and draw for the first time in years. I think that counts as a success.

The Natural Eye is on at the Mall Galleries until the 10th of November. Entry is £3.

*Unforgivably I forgot to write down their name. It was the winning image in the 13-19 year old age category.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Do You Remember The First Time?

Just a standard Saturday night. Several crates of ale and ten friends round. Pre-drinks until late then a tube to the cheesiest club in Oxford Circus. Ten quid entry fee; a fiver for a drink. Bright lights and bad music and the night bus back at four in the morning. Emerging at ten and staggering with the pallor of the freshly dead into the kitchen, frying a small farm’s worth of pig for bacon butties and remembering the night that nobody needed reminding of. Just a typical Saturday night and Sunday morning for the flatmates.

I went moth trapping instead.
It’s a hard activity to explain to those whose biophilia extends only to their own species. Most people can understand birds and butterflies. Dragonflies cause mild surprise. Moths? Scepticism, questions, outright concern. Not that I haven’t been sceptical in the past: I was not particularly enamoured by the small brown things that flew in through my window to land by my lightbulb and were repatriated after a disorientating, mind-boggling flick through the field guide. The first time you pick up a field guide and flick through is normally a dizzying, exciting feeling. With the moth guide… 1000 small creatures that generally lack distinguishing features. It was not the most promising of starts to not the most accessible branch of natural history.

Moving to the city started it. I began to look down as well as up. The borders between the branches of natural history dissolved: a birder metamorphosing into amateur naturalist. I caught myself looking at plants, scrabbling around in dirt photographing bugs and reading E.O. Wilson; which was one of the reasons why I found myself with a variety of bright lights, egg cartons and plastic contraptions in the passenger seat of Fiona Barclay’s car, stationary in traffic and watching the last hour of light slipping away from the day.

The day: as grey as the city, stuffy as usual and mild for October. This was apparently quite promising. The destination: Perivale Woods, a private nature reserve just by Central Line, surrounded by a fence and bordered by a canal, a railway track and the suburbs. Dusk had descended by the time we’d met up with David Howdon, moth expert, at the wood. In the growing darkness I unwound extension cables and laid them as a trail through the wood for one moth trap, lugged a car battery around as power for another and watched as five sheets of plywood and two bits of Perspex morphed into the third moth trap. Bright lights above containers filled with egg boxes was not our only method: we were also sugaring for moths, which involved painting a thick and sickly smelling solution of beer, sugar, treacle and amyl acetate on the same oaks, in the same places, once a month.

A cup of tea later and grey dusk gave way to an orange night, a sprinkling of weak stars and a full moon hanging just above the trees. We headed back out with torches down the black and muddy path. Trees in the torch beam take on a skeletal pale appearance and falling leaves appear like excitingly large moths. Spiders’ webs just don’t appear at all until too late. I was walking behind Fiona and David because I didn’t know the way, excitedly peering over their shoulders when something was found. A couple of Chestnuts (a small, dull brown moth with two dark spots) and a Red-lined Quaker (a small dull brown moth with two dark spots) were discovered, along with some Southern Oak Bush-crickets were found on the sugar. A tiny-winged carnivorous katydid that made its way here apparently via the channel tunnel, this bush-cricket was the most unusual thing we found on our dusk walk. With three torches trained on it, I attempted to take a photo...
The morning after: 7am, the Westway was empty and the rain torrential in places. Places such as between my house and the carpark where I was being picked up. In daylight Perivale Wood appears even stranger. A pristine slice of rural England hiding behind houses. I normally disapprove of private nature reserves – nature is free and should be available for everyone – but I’m willing to turn a blind eye here. This wood is pristine. Semi-ancient oaks, dense undergrowth and the only litter was one can of strong lager thrown over a fence from the canal towpath. In a city such as London it’s warming to know that we can still give nature a place mostly free from human disturbance, and that an old wood can remain an old wood without having a supermarket dumped on top.

In the traps? Numerous Barred Sallows, in the attractive pink and yellows of an autumn leaf. Several Red-green Carpets, like bewitched and trembling lichen. Chestnuts, everywhere, like flakes of wood, and a single Silver Y: a moth passing itself off as a well-marked piece of bark. Harvestman spiders with legs like tripwires and a selection of mystifying flies, the likes of which I have never seen before, and have no idea where to begin deciphering their identification. And one more Red-lined Quaker, that sat briefly on the fence post for a photograph, before flying off as an intense thunderstorm broke overhead.
Mothing is eccentric. Mothing is an intellectual challenge. Mothing is several thousand more living things that are in the process of entering my life. Several thousand attractive, misunderstood and under appreciated creatures. I’ll take that over quizzical looks cast by friends.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Scrubbing Up

It's good to feel a cold wind slip over skin again. Yesterday the first real storm of autumn blew several thousand Redwings over London and many thousand more over Kent and Bedfordshire. I was variously in bed and in the office and definitely not seeing any Redwings, despite living a street away from the local park, Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs is a surprisingly good place for birding, actually, if you can wake up at six thirty, avoid the hordes of dog walkers and wear binoculars in public without feeling slight embarrassment. The first, I can just about manage. The other two I'm still working on.

But this morning, with the death throes of last night's storm beating themselves out on the concrete and brick, things felt different to before. The air chilled, the drizzle harder, the path with a layer of freshly dead leaves, irresistibly crunchy to the soles of my shoes. Autumn is marked by the first storm that clears the air and strips the trees. It was late this year.

Between the hospital and the prison I slip out on to the grass, between the pitches and long grass left for wildlife. Above, concrete clouds turned pink with the first rays of sun. The wind whipped across the park, invigorating with a touch of rain. On the grass: crows and woodpigeons, scattered across the pitches as if spectators to a game of football not taking place. Carried in the air, parakeets, from the thousands strong roost at the very eastern edge of the park, careering wildly off toward Ealing. A dog barks. And above the noise seeps the sound of two Redwing, taking off from a clump of trees, and heading off towards the office. I carried on in the other direction, buoyed. Two don't compare to the thousands of yesterday but they were my two, the seasonal spring in my step.

Urban birding is an acquired taste. It is a matter of perspective that has to be learnt, from the initial recoil of birding between railway, hospital and prison. You work hard for the unexpected gems, the surprises that don’t belong here. You get used to ignoring the looks the pair of binoculars earn you, and instead you take in the Goldfinches swirling across the uncut grass with a yellow more vibrant than an autumnal aspen. You seek out signs of avian life and in a weird way it gives you a bit of life back. A kick. A thrill that Goldfinches hadn’t for a good few years.

Three Herons flap sedately over, from the blue and yellow east to a still solidly grey west. Not the first I’ve seen flying low around here either, I wonder where they’re going and where they’d been. The thoughts are running through my mind as my eyes are lazily still trained on the sky. It’s white clouds off to the north. A bird materialised in my line of sight – as they have a habit of doing – dark, dumpy and long-billed. Birding is an instinct, inasmuch as I instantly knew it was a Snipe, a migrant that had ditched into the long grass of the park to spend a night sheltered from the weather. As it disappeared over the railway embankment, and then over Willesden, it sunk in that a bird I’m used to seeing in rural wet Suffolk or displaying over Scottish moors, can also be seen a ten minute walk from my new house in deepest west London. And if I look back over my shoulder I can see the Shard underneath a big bank of grey cloud, a thin white halo and an orange morning breaking over the city.

With that, a Skylark, another flock of Redwings, it started raining. I turn my back on the rainbow arcing over the north and walk away, towards the office.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


‘‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Ozymandias, Percy Bysse Shelley

Ozymandias is probably the most discussed 19th century poem this year. TV drama Breaking Bad – the inescapable Breaking Bad - referenced it frequently in its portrayal of the rise and fall of a crime-lord, sparking a number of articles exploring the poem. It’s a good poem from a poet I’m not particularly fond of. Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark, by contrast, does everything a poem can to switch me off. Instead, Shelley holds his subject in Ozymandias at arms length while showing us a snapshot of the consequences of the hubristic. The inevitable end of all things. Decay. Wreck. The vision of a bare wasteland.

That’s what gets me most about the ending. The wasteland, the dead civilisation in a land no longer hospitable; remembered only by its ruler’s desire to accumulate material things. That sneer.

I’ve seen that sneer before. It was on the face of the politician who says that global warming brings benefits, such as less people dying in winter due to warmer weather (if you don’t think about them drowning in floods). It was on the face of the politician who talks about fracking as if it were the second coming of the economic messiah. It was on the face of the politician who uses the language of environmentalism whilst delivering its polar opposite. Look on my works ye mighty.

I’ve read about the sands too. I’ve read about how the IPCC have 95% confidence in global warming as being caused by humans, and how Australia needed to create new colours for its weather maps to keep up with the summer heat. I’ve read how drought in the Sahel is keeping 10 million people in a state of famine and crushing poverty; and the correlations between climate change and violence. Look on my works and despair.

Poetry is truth in fiction. Poetry is not history, it is prescience not precedence. I’m aware that reading Ozymandias as an eco-poem is an eccentric thing to do from a literary perspective. But I’m more than keenly aware that reading global warming as a strictly environmental problem is no longer the right thing to do either. I also don’t have much in the way of answers. I was put on a cheap flight to France in September and have a dull ache inside where I know I’m part of the problem, despite my best attempts at recycling, eating less meat, and commitment to public transport (London to Orkney by train and bus is the feather in my cap). What we need is leadership and we need it quick, and certainly not with a sneer. And we need it before Ozymandias turns from prescient to prophecy.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Noup Head 04/09/13

Ravens hang in the white like crucifixes on church walls.

The wind that fixes the Ravens there is the wind that pushes the tops of waves over, picks up the scent of salt and the stench of manure and crushed crab fertiliser, and takes it to the gulls circling overhead like vultures.

The path to the cliffs is a rough track over damp grassy ground, becoming steadily bleaker as it extends out of the bays either side. Westray is an isolated Orcadian isle, the most north-westerly of them all, and the ferry from Kirkwall takes as long as the ferry from the mainland did in the first place. On the bus to Pierowall – the main village – we hardly lost sight of the sea. But if sea explains islands, it’s the wind that characterises them. It is the wind that carves the cliffs at Noup Head into the serrated stack of sandstone they are today.

But the wind purifies too.

I stood on the clifftop after a walk that felt longer than it looked, close enough to the edge to worry my mother. The salt and sand and wind that grinds down rock over millennia was gentle on me, rubbing away the tiredness accumulated from early starts and fitful nights in tents. With a wind like this I feel you can breathe again, properly. I can feel more than just air reaching down into the furthest alveoli. I feel the unexpected ecstasy of fresh air again.

The waves below literally boom as they collide with rock. Gannets cry. Fulmars chuckle.

And with the ecstasy, the fear. This is not a towering cathedral of rock but one that plummets, sheer, to the jagged rocks and white chaos of waves below. And I feel a twinge of the old vertigo that inflicts dad and lurks in me. My friend inched to the edge on hands on knees to peer over an overhang. I couldn’t bring myself to get more than a foot closer. Sweaty palms and leaden feet. Vision takes on the peculiarly sharp yet disorientated feel, as if your retina was an unspooling, like a tape measure, into a distance fathomable only by fear.

I stand back. Admire the naturally fearless Gannets folding themselves up and falling headfirst into the water at speed, emerging with a fish and returning to its identical sandstone ledge with its near identical chick; and repeating this with clockwork regularity, clockwork efficiency.

I stand back. Admire the view – greater than 180 degrees – of sea in almost every direction. The most northerly I have been and to the eye just sea beyond.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Up, on the Downs

Emerging from the shady wood I felt the change in atmosphere almost instantly. The path snaked down through long grass and a hotter, more humid atmosphere, one where you can feel the warmer air radiating up from the grass and the sun through the layer of high cloud. The cool of the wood allowed sweat free walking: this wouldn’t. A Dark-green Fritillary flew strongly past the path and over the fescue covered hillside. Early August is when their season starts winding down, after their plant and sun powered prime; its tiger-striped wings faded from sun, wind and ceaseless flying over its own patch of the hill. It clipped the edge of the wood and headed downslope, over a pair – male and female – of Brimstone butterflies, as bright as the first leaves of spring. These are signs of gradual change. It might still be summer but the single-brooded butterflies (univoltine), like the Marbled White lying in the long grass look faded, worn, exhausted. The double-brooded (bivoltine) butterflies are pristine, or, like the pair of Common Blues by the edge of the field, busying themselves with the creation a new generation to come. It’s spring for some, eliding with the autumn of others.


Downland is a new habitat for me. Chalk might be the material of southern England, these gently rolling grasslands what we as a nation think of when we think of the rural south. But it’s never been my England. A far removal from the fenland peat, the breckland sand and the gloopy winter mud of my village. The soils that I grew up with that remains familiar to the footfall.

The path underfoot is the white chalk of The Ridgeway. Not quite the ancient track but the modern end of the national trail that connects up to the equally ancient Icknield Way. It carves a muddy white line along this escarpment east of Tring and feels almost like the real thing. The footsteps feel fleeting, the trees look young and the arable farmland where the hillside slopes into the vale can’t be too old either, not compared with the bare bone appearance of the chalk through soil. The Red Kite skimming in slow motion the top of the wood is young too, from reintroduced stock. I doubt they’ve been here for more than ten years. A Roesel’s Bush-cricket stridulated from the weeds in the verge of the long fast road running through the vale. Stridulation – the rubbing of wing against leg – creates the evocative buzz of grasshoppers. It’s a sound I remember well from my childhood, but not so much over my teenage years. Not that I would’ve known it at the time but I wouldn’t have remembered Roesel’s Bush-cricket, a species that has undergone significant range expansion recently. I feel transitory. Not the youngest but the least rooted thing here. My search for a species of butterfly I hadn’t yet seen would keep me here only a few hours.


Past another woodland break and the land slips away to be replaced by the spectacle of distance – I can see Oxfordshire from here! – and weather. Across to the distant chalk escarpment on the horizon lies Aylesbury and villages stretch off north and south. The pale clouds of earlier had fallen towards earth, darker and heavier. Grey sheets of rain hung over Aylesbury, apparently immobile, but with the wind blowing into our faces it was impossible not to take a guess at the time it would hit us.

Directly ahead the downland kinked eastward; the kink hiding the path and the rest of the downs. Up slope was long grass thick with flowers gone to seed whose names I never properly learnt, have never been properly introduced to. Chalkhill Blue is the butterfly we had come to see. It is so inextricably tied to these chalk downs that it bears them as its name. As a caterpillar it only feeds on the Horseshoe Vetch that grows on slopes like this.

We didn’t have too long to wait.

Dad spotted it first, perched on a deep pink knapweed by the path. Embarrassingly I’d walked past it scanning the further ground. It had its wings shut tight to enable easy identification: much greyer underwings with large black spots and a lack of orange in comparison to the Common Blues downslope. It flew from the knapweed and onto the grass, opening its wings as the approaching rain chilled the air. A silvery blue, like a sunny winter’s sky yet an exotic touch on this darkening piece of England.
It’s not a species famed for its powers of flight and true to form it never lifts more than several inches from the ground. Instead it tolerates my close approach with the camera.

There was one last surprise as a pink and green Meadow Grasshopper leaps on to a grass head by me. It scurried round to put the bulk of the grass head between me and itself, and then carries on moving around as I try to angle myself in a position to photograph it. Eventually it stays still long enough for a photograph of its pink back to be obtained, before dropping down into the grass to better observe the shuffling, grunting creature peering down a noisy black object at it.

A few shots later I turn around. The sky is solid pewter. Heavy rain begins to drum into the hillside, washing the chalk slippy. We ran back to the trees.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

'His Majesty'

‘Steve, we have this mad plan…’


‘Tomorrow – on the hottest day of the year – do you want to film Purple Emperors with us?’

It didn’t take long to think about and I didn’t stop to enquire where the madness lay in the plan. We’d all seen Matthew Oates’s tweets from Fermyn woods.

By 9am it was so hot that to stand still in shade felt deeply unpleasant. By 10am we were crawling up the A1. Heat haze over parched brown fields, seen from the backseat in a traffic jam. This was the Hertfordshire of my childhood and some things never seem to change. Purple Emperors are changing though. When I lived in Hertfordshire I wasn’t that interested in the specifics of nature, though a nascent interest in birds was growing. If I’d been into butterflies I would have struggled to see a Purple Emperor: as with too much of our native wildlife its numbers dwindled throughout the twentieth century and colonies outwith its southern English heartland disappeared. Its mystique was formed in its absence. Regal characteristics were projected on to it, as if it was an actual emperor of English woods. It earned the nickname ‘His majesty’, was to be tempted down with offerings and talked about in hushed, reverent tones. Its elusiveness was a thing of legend; as was its peak time, the hour before lunch, when the chances of it deigning to descend to the ground in search of minerals, were slightly higher.

We arrived at Fermyn at peak time; peak temperature edging over thirty degrees. I knelt down to get my work camera from its bag and I caught a glimpse (and felt) a butterfly skimming over my head. ‘Purple Emperor’, Fiona said. I span around and saw a large purple butterfly disappearing over the road and into the wood. Purple Emperors are changing. It’s hard to imagine a collective noun for them. A parade? A stately procession? An enthronement? A commonwealth? But in the thick of Fermyn woods there are currently, literally, hundreds of them.

We were a short distance down the path, hardly into the wood when we found our second and third of the day. His Majesty has a foible, an earthy one for a creature with its rarefied reputation. His Majesty licks dog crap for minerals and the more fragrant the better. It allows close approach while it does this: you can wave a macro lens less than a foot away from it, and it doesn’t bat an antenna, flick a wingtip and disappear in a purple blur. I prostrated myself and fiddled with an unfamiliar camera, trying to ignore the stones in my knees, the dust in my face and the pungent stench of the excrement it was busily licking. Their proboscis is an unexpected lemon yellow and restlessly flicks over the surface of the scat. The underwings are delicate, clean white and maroon stripes on a grey base, with a thick red and black eye, complete with a pale spot like light reflecting from a pupil. However, we had copious footage of a Purple Emperor’s gorgeous underwings: we were really waiting for them to open those extraordinary purple upperwings, but I took the opportunity for practice. Using a Nikon for seven years and then turning to Canon is a little like trying to write left-handed after a lifetime of using your right-hand. The content is still there, but everything is in the wrong place. It no longer comes naturally and the end results are a little messy for the amount of effort put in. Not quite sharp enough. Not quite well exposed enough. Not quite stable enough.

We’d been here twenty minutes and I’d seen more Purple Emperors than in my entire life before. I think this was part of the madness of the mad plan. The other part was the bag carrying: hacking off down tracks through the woods in pursuit of my bosses, carrying heavy spare lenses and large camera bags. In this heat I was feeling frazzled already, sweating like my pores had sprung a leak to stop my skin catching fire. I grabbed shade where I could, a mouthful of warm water, look up as another Emperor flies overhead, and hope I don’t get sunstroke. Of all the days to not own a hat, this might well have been one of the worst.


There are roughly two reasons why a butterfly lands like it does. It lands with open wings when its cold, to bask and warm up from sunlight. It lands with wings closed when it’s too hot, to minimise the area hit by the sun’s rays. This is reductive, naturally, but it holds true on a day like this day. All Emperors held their wings fast shut whenever they’d descend to the ground, no matter if they were on excrement, on the track; in the middle of the shady woods or by the hedgerow that links the two parts of the wood together. But with the frequency we were finding them, we were never short of moments for the tense wait, with cameras trained upon the insect, waiting for it to open up its wings.

It would - of course - not be this simple.

The Purple Emperor is not really, properly, purple. It is a dark brown, with a purple-blue sheen from where the light refracts at certain angles from its skin of minute scales*. It can be sat wings open looking ordinarily dark brown, like an oversized White Admiral, when a slight change in angle or light causes it to flare with colour. Some can be an intense blue, most a shade of Cadbury’s purple. We also don’t mention that the emperor bears a passing resemblance to a chocolate wrapper elegantly blown by the breeze.

With the sun beating down with an unEnglish intensity at this point, no butterfly would seriously consider opening its wings. That didn’t stop us waiting, cameras in hand around everyone we could come across. Or other people for that matter. Whilst five people were crouched around one on the track another one flew past at eye level, eventually landing on my camera bag, where, amazingly, it started to mineral from where it had rubbed against my sweaty body. That was unexpected. That got attention. At that moment through the camera’s viewfinder a spider ran across the bag and clipped the butterfly: a flick of the wing and the spider was sent flying: the butterfly held its wings open for less than one glorious purple second.

With the footage slowed down we could work out exactly what happened. This was not a collision, but instead the spider had reared up and clambered onto the underside of the butterfly’s open wing. The instinctive reaction slowed down shows the butterfly snapping shut its wings and flicking them open, with an action similar to taking off.

That wasn’t the only open-winged one we found. In the true fashion of clichéd endings, we’d spread out as we walked back to the car. Fiona first, then me, then Max. Max came back bearing a big grin and a camera with footage of slow motion Purple Emperor upperwings.

It was an extraordinary day. One I’ve never experienced before and one I don’t really expect to see again. Butterflies can have these incredible local explosions in population due to an extraordinary aligning of many variables. The hatch this year must’ve built on an extraordinary last year for the species. It’s so extraordinary it almost feels churlish to think that it might have been responsible for putting a dent in the mystique of this species. This hardest, most elusive, most rarefied of species that happens to flutter to the woodland floor in search of dog poo, no longer seems so difficult, so elusive, or quite so mysterious.

*I have no idea why it should be so for this and no other species of British butterfly. Anyone?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Something Changed

I can’t remember why I’d decided it would be a good idea, but four days after turning up in London, my birding instincts kicked in. A screech from the sky: I instinctively looked up and through the deep blue sky sailed a parakeet.

Four days. That was as long as I could not look up, as long as I could go without birds. Before I had disregarded the Ring-necked Parakeets of suburban London as much as I had the city itself: a ghastly, unnatural place, with very few redeeming features. I still feel the same way towards the city. It’s a hot and horrible place of seething streets and airless spaces and good jobs that pay well. For a country boy these things are particularly hard to adjust to.

But something changed. It wasn’t that exact parakeet, it merely teed up the one that did. Two stultifying days later, the atmosphere was dense and the scent of traffic fumes inescapable. That was when I found it. After a sweaty day of flat viewing across the city, it was perched in a tree outside the house I’m currently, gratefully, staying at. Sitting flush to the branch, the long tail made more sense than it does wobbling through the sky. But it was the turquoise sheen – a colour I didn’t expect and couldn’t place on prior parakeets – that took me by surprise. It was the colour of the sky and sycamore leaves painted on to the exotic bird sat above me. It was that what made me see it for the jewel like bird it is. One that could not be more strangely appropriate for London.

So why had I been ignoring it? I think birders, myself included, can be too hung up on the purity, the naturalness, of nature. That is its own small unquestioned absurdity. Nature in the pristine, untouched sense doesn’t really exist. Dig deep enough and you’ll find an artificial element in its history, in any history. Birds for me are the most visible, joyous example of nature as it now is. Free, yet altered in most possible ways by human influence. Kept in a cage they are just animals. When the cage blows over, and they flex their wings and fly as they would anywhere is when they become nature for me. The lingering sense of dislike – that category C sniffiness – does nothing any favours at all, not the bird or the person. So you might as well celebrate it; at the very least acknowledge it.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Locustella Overdrive

6AM. I couldn’t tell if the shiver that ran through me was from tiredness or chill. For the first of June, this was a pitifully grey morning. Through the murk Lakenheath Fen sang with a cacophony of Reed Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers and Cuckoo echoing through the stands of poplar trees. Colour was sapped from the scene but summer’s deep vegetation wafted through a fragrant reminder of the season. We walked west on the track that runs through the waist-high marsh before abruptly stopping at west wood. The song of a Locustella warbler filled the air.

I hadn’t done my research, I’ll admit that now. If I had I’d probably have recognised that this wasn’t the song of a Savi’s Warbler, our target, and that the real twitch was about 200 metres further down the track. But I was lazy last night, the car park was pretty empty and here was a small knot of people looking through scopes. There was a whisper of Savi’s and confused directions were in the air. I get offered a look through a scope ‘at the bird’: a dark Locustella warbler singing from a reed-head on a nearby bank. And now excitement was in the air.

Locustella warblers all sing with a variation upon a drily unmelodic, insect-like churr. They don’t sing in repeated phrases but two quick notes, repeated with mechanical speed and frequency, ceaselessly for minutes on end. It’s an uncanny dirge because they rotate their heads whilst they sing, thus ‘throwing’ the song and making it incredibly difficult to pick out which patch of reeds or bush the sound is coming from. In the poor light we could make out a dark Locustella, throwing a song that sounded wrong. I find it hard to recognise species by song but I can tell what’s different and this didn’t sound typical to me. The other birders were very happy by this point. As the light improved it flitted from bush to bush before stepping up for staggering views as it sung. Facing us, we could make out the dirty brown but plain underparts, and the wide open bill from which the torrent of noise flooded out. And then it flitted around and showed a dirty brown streaked back.

The crowd’s assumption was still Savi’s. No dissenting words, so I whisper to dad: ‘I thought they were unstreaked…’ and curse my lack of preparation, assuming I’m in the wrong. Other birders drift off, happy with their Savi’s. I resort to googling from my phone to have my suspicions confirmed: we’d been had. At the same time a photographer ambles down the track and tells us that the Savi’s is actually about two hundred metres further on…
It was half seven by the time we’d found the actual twitch. It was fully light by now but our early morning advantage was gone – from here I expected the bird to get less active, the light worse and the crowd to swell, but after about fifteen minutes of Reed Warbler false alarms, a different Locustella song emerges from the reeds. Not long after, shimmying up a reed-head was the singing warbler. The position was the same as the Grasshopper Warbler before but in large. The bill catches attention first for appearing to be drawn on in marker pen: big, thick and black. It’s a style that seems to influence the whole cartoon Reed Warbler appearance of the Savi’s Warbler: bigger, thicker, darker. It sang for a minute before descending back into the depths of the reedbed. It’s quite hard to imagine how anyone could confuse a Grasshopper Warbler for it, but it’s been proven many times how hard it is to look with an open mind after you’ve been told you’ve found what you were looking for.

We didn’t see the Savi’s again: we could only cope with fifteen minutes more in the company of the crowd, in which time we manage to see three Bitterns have a hormonally-charged chase high over the reedbed. We traipse around the rest of the quiet reserve. A Cuckoo flew over: all lanky limbs and elastic wingbeats, and a handful of Swifts hurtled low over the cold reserve. By the time we’d walked around the riverbank back to the beginning of the reserve trails, we’d still not seen a Barn Owl.

‘As if we’ve not seen a Barn Owl’, I said.
‘Where’s the Barn Owl?’ replied dad, furrowed brow.
‘We’ve not seen one’, I say.

I raise my binoculars. Quartering the other side of the river was a Barn Owl as white as the sky.

Strange day.

Monday, 13 May 2013


They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come

I’d heard these words so frequently repeated and unattributed that it was a jolt to finally put them to the poem they came from. Ted Hughes, naturally. Words as fast and details as hard-edged as the birds themselves. A controlled scream is precisely what a Swift is in sound and vision and essence, and I’ll brook no argument about this.

The scream is how they announce themselves, every year, around the second week of May. Pushed ahead of storm clouds, or shooting through a clear blue sky; low over an English lake or roof-height between Scottish tenements; they are the most evocative of the late arriving migrants. The comma between spring and summer. More than being just a sign of season transition, the physical bird is itself extraordinary. Reduced to the most basic elements of ‘bird’, it one of nature’s starkest examples of form following function. A thrilling, Spartan flying machine; all shapely curved wings and not much else. Not much of a voice either, their scream is certainly not a songbird, but it is the sound of lazy summer evenings. The call to look up, to look around you. I remember watching them screaming around the old streets of Bury St Edmunds – houses old enough to still have the nooks needed for nesting – as I walked across town to school. All I needed was a Swift screaming with anthropomorphic joy of life and flight, and I forgot the crowded pavements, the fumes from congested streets, the itchy starchy school uniform…

It was eight o’clock when I left the library into a pale, cool evening. Walking over the loch, I paused to acknowledge the swans drifting in pale-pink water, the gathering crows and the flocks of Hirundines flickering in the dwindling light. I looked back over to the library and see, silently slipping through the sky, a Swift. Just briefly, before it disappeared over the trees, into a worryingly insect free evening. The silence unsettled me.

They’re back again. The globe is still working, just about, and summer is still to come.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Sheriffmuir Stooshie

Time ran away with me for a few weeks. Being suddenly free and working my way through a backlog of post-dissertation tasks meant walking and birding took a frustrating back-seat again. On a rare sunny interval, I managed to fit the Sheriffmuir circuit in: ten miles up the moors, around the historic battle site and down the burn. Just down from the battle site - a bleak, dark place - I found a more modern, natural battle. Two karate-kicking crows having a stooshie with a buzzard that lazily wheeled over the track, as if unbothered by the bullies. Two wide circles overhead and then the buzzard was off and the crows dropped back down to the field having seen the larger bird off their territory. My friend, walking with me, found it surprising. A reminder that if you haven't grown up birding, ordinary behaviour can seem rather illogical.
I'm quite proud of these photos, though I'll confess they were rather lucky. That doesn't mean that the government has any ethical right to allow companies to use them without my permission, or without acknowledgement or payment. But this is what the government has planned, and you can read about it here. Practically, when this becomes law, it will force me to question how I present my images online. Already I compress them to a size where theft and reuse distorts the quality beyond the point of acceptability. Although I have no desire to add a gigantic copyright logo over the subject, and don't see the point in not posting my photos, these are the only options I can currently think of. Until the government shoots itself in the foot (and not with a camera) and signs this legislation into law, please sign Will Nicholls's petition asking them to reconsider.

Friday, 26 April 2013


It was just a five mile stroll with friends up the moors to the inn at the end of the road. It might be just three miles east of Dunblane but it feels more remote: Sheriffmuir Wood hides the slope down to the upper reaches of the Forth valley sprawl; the horizon on north and south sides is moorland and to the east, Blairdenon Hill is the bare-backed lump hiding the rest of the Ochils. Its mood is usually bleak but it was a hot and hazy evening, the finest day of the year so far and the first of the cider days. Skylarks hung in the sky, singing; a sky faded to pale blue from the haze of the heat, and Curlew song rippled languidly from the moors. We took the quiet road that winds its way past rusting, crumbling shielings and conifer plantations, the Larch still brown after the long hard winter. Colt’s-foot lined the burn that runs under the quaint bridge sitting in a scar that seems to me too grand to be the burn’s own work. Two Sand Martins flit downstream into the slowly setting sun. Yellow, like the Colt’s-foot.

The evenings here are long. They start early and end late and normally catch me by surprise. Today it wasn’t so much the evening as its sepia brown accomplice that caught me out. As we strolled up the final slope to our waiting pints, the grass turns to heather and across the road swept a Short-eared Owl. With some fat, unfortunate rodent in its bill, it flew low and fast down the line between the heather and the grass. It dropped to the ground and stared, cross-eyed, back along the moor, before vanishing behind a veil of grass. My pint completely forgotten about.

Nature is best unexpected.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Personal Phenology

‘One Swallow does not a summer make’ is the one bit of Aristotle that every naturalist knows. It felt as if one Swallow would make a spring though, and bring some promise of summery weather to come. It has been a slow and silent spring, the first ever in which I hadn’t seen a migrant bird by the end of March. When the occasional sunny afternoons were spent walking through the woods, the only sounds were from the crashing Woodpigeons and Blackbirds rustling through the leaf litter.
Everything is two to three weeks late currently. The huge front of cold air that trapped winter here has kept the birds behind too. Swallows are not the first migrants, but they’re not far off. The Chiffchaff has the shortest flight back and is the first to ring spring in, with its joyful two-note song. Then the Sand Martins aren’t far behind. It’s a race between them and Swallows and they usually win, but by a matter of minutes over the last two springs in Stirling. It tends to be a few days back in Suffolk. We greet the arrival of Swallows with more fanfare though, despite both species having made it back from tropical Africa. They’re engrained in our cultural knowledge, whereas Sand Martins are much more of a birder’s bird. I can’t really explain why Swallows remind me so much of a pastoral innocence that never existed, but they do.

Nature always finds a way of confounding expectation. You could feel the gradual shift into spring: the overcast and rainy days weren’t so uncomfortably cold, the swans were building their nests and the insects had hatched in small clouds around the loch. I picked my day according to the forecast – a beautiful day – and walked around the loch, expecting the flash of brilliant, glossy blue and chattering calls that mean the Swallows are back. But no, nothing. Not a hint of a migrant, not even the Chiffchaffs of the previous days were singing. Then the next day it happened as I was leaving the university. A Swallow skimming the grass, flying into the teeth of a particularly aggressive headwind, in a break between showers. No grandeur, no expectation, just the beauty of life.
Thanks to Martin Goodey for letting me use his fantastic photo. See his twitter, Flickr.
I punched the very public air at seeing it. For a species in which we live in relatively close contact with, there is something joyous about the arrival of Swallows. As if they signify spring, as if they will somehow dispel the wintery weather that they seem too fragile, too delicate for.  For me it’s what Edward Thomas was referring to when he wrote:

            ‘Who seeks through Winter’s ruins
            Something to pay Winter’s debt.’
                                    (But These Things Also, Edward Thomas)

And the day after, as I hurried across the bridge over the loch in the wind and rain, for a bus I was late for, Swallows and Sand Martins were in their own large cloud over the loch, like a hatch of Hirundinidae.
From last August

Monday, 15 April 2013

14,969 words later and my dissertation is done, and I can emerge from underneath its weight like a woodlouse from a log. I've even timed it perfectly for spring: the day after I finished the conclusion I heard my first Chiffchaff of the year (three weeks late), a singing Jay and had what was most likely an Osprey drift overhead. Today I actually handed it in and went for a spontaneous stroll, the sort of stroll that after two miles turns upwards and into the moors, regardless of the rain. In a sort of miracle, as the track wound up into the Ochils, the wind and rain died down and the sun shone brilliantly on the golden-brown ground against the backdrop of glowering clouds. The moors here are never brilliant for birds, but calling Red Grouse, bubbling Curlew and a discordant flock of Fieldfare provided the accompaniment as the clouds dissipated into sky blue.

It feels good to be outside again. It feels good to be alive.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Surfin' Bird. Apparently.

It’s a duck with more front than the hurricane that helped it here but it was just a speck in my ‘scope. A black speck on the horizon with white in the right places. This, said birders with better than ‘scopes than me, was the Port Seton Surf Scoter. Only it seemed more accurate to say the Longniddry Surf Scoter, given its distance, floating at the far end of Gosford Bay. It was as disappointing as I’d always imagined an English one to be. Scotland is spoilt for scoters. Velvet as well as Common, and ones you can see well enough to actually make out identifying detail on. Not the normal case of guess the floating black flock and hope they’re all common. In Scotland, Velvet Scoters show well enough to make out the curve of the powerful mussel-munching bill and the white comma over the eye.

From Port Seton esplanade a few Velvet Scoters were floating in the Firth of Forth close enough for detailed study. It’s a really lovely, eye-catching duck if you take the time to watch its jet-black body against the sky blue Forth. The industrial orange of its bill seems almost shocking. Yet the rest of the flock – a significantly sized flock – was spread across the horizon, mostly beyond my range. A mixed haywire of scoters, mergansers, eiders and the odd Long-tailed Duck. No Wigeon though. The only one of those was floating past the shore, looking a bit lost with the company of Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Turnstones. A Shag shone bottle green, its Morrissey quiff quivering in the breeze.

Apparently I should’ve been here an hour earlier. They had good views then, and a Glaucous Gull too. After half an hour of staring at dots another birder gets excited. He’d discerned enough detail to make out the white patch on the back of the head and the novelty oversized bill. I swung my ‘scope around and took directions off of Fife and a handily situated merganser. I could make out a string of four Velvet Scoters and one big-headed scoter with white in all the right places.

It disappeared soon after and for several hours nothing much happened. Birders, birds and the sun all came and went. Then another birder finds it at the limits of human visibility. It’s frustrating for the first I’ve ever seen to show so poorly, yet it ends my barren run of twitching American ducks and not seeing them. I’ll settle for that. It means the next one can only get better.