Saturday, 20 December 2014


At the tip of Portland — an island that is not an island — is a garden that sits just back from the cliff top overlooking the English Channel. A cold wind blew under deceptively blue skies. In the garden was a Barred Warbler, a young bird that got lost on leaving Eastern Europe and ended up clinging to the last bush in Dorset. And stayed there, not trying to relocate to the rift valley of Eastern Africa where it belongs at this time of year. A wintering record in Britain is almost unprecedented. 
© Max Whitby / NatureGuides
The first glimpse I had was of a disembodied bird in the back of a bush. Against the light, haloed and fragmented by twigs, I could make out the stout bill and tip of the tail surprisingly far apart. I was expecting a grey bird, but found a delicately silver one instead, with a keenly staring eye. It hopped out and the stout bird turns graceful, clinging to the thin twigs and contorting its body to dismember the fruit donated to it by local birders, which it vigorously guarded from the local sparrow flock. Over the course of about an hour’s observation it revealed a subtle charisma; a behaviour more akin to a bolshy thrush than a small Sylvia warbler.

© Max Whitby / NatureGuides
We laud birds for their migration feats and characterise them as epic and heroic. With that though comes something quite human; they got lost. Whether by winds, misfortune or a misfiring migratory impulse, they become transient visitors, a temporary taste of somewhere exotic in the bleak last bush in Dorset. If an interest in birds is built around a pan-animal empathy, I empathise most strongly with these birds. The lost and the awkwardly out of place.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Spiders in Acton are a sign of seasonal change. I've not experienced anything like it, nor lived anywhere like it since the age of seven, when I was ripped from the suburban housing estate comforts of Hertfordshire, and rerooted to an ugly working village in the middle of Suffolk. In that village there was space, and the privacy that comes with four walls separated from the neighbouring houses. I discovered birds. Cocksure Pheasants strutting through the garden, the raucous Rookery over the road and Fieldfares raiding the apple trees in the garden of my neighbour too elderly to pick them. The first Chiffchaffs of the year became important to me. It signified spring. Autumn by the sky filling with birds again after the summer lull. Juveniles of many species locating due south and sailing over. 

Last summer I moved to London. To a job in deepest west London, where the grey and beige seep from the sky and the concrete and color everything. I lost my horizon to the perimeter of the street. My sky was no longer so full of birds. In its place I found spiders. I found spiders straddled across my front gate in the murky half light of the morning, only I didn't find them until I found them on my face, silk breaking around me and feelings of both disgust and guilt. Sorry little guy. We repeated it for two months, gradually decreasing in frequency until around November and the arrival of winter in the city. 

Winter isn't a season worth celebrating in London: it is damp, mild and filthy, and its citizens match the gloominess of their surroundings. It is mild enough so that the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps don't have to leave, and this doesn't give spring a headstart but spoils it's grand arrival with the longer, brighter days. If the leaves never quite all fall from the trees than what is winter? Where does that leave spring?

So instead I celebrate autumn, and away from the countryside and coast that I grew up on, in and with, I've turned to spiders. I watch them on grey Saturdays as I wash away the past week with endless coffee. I learn their names. It seems the polite place to begin. The Garden Cross spider. With a name it can go beyond mere surface appearance. A surface that is stripy brown legs, alternating light and dark, with a crucifix of broken white stamped onto its abdomen. And I watch one weaving its web from the inside out, against the pale sky where the web cant be seen, leaving her to space-walk slowly and purposefully, suspended by her own invisible lines. When woven the web is both intricate and massive, the size of the window looking out onto the garden. It collects a hoverfly and a small wasp, both quickly wrapped up in excess webbing and slowly deflated. A life transfusion. In it she finds the protein that gets metabolised into the white crucifix mark on her back.
Meanwhile in the spiders I find a life that makes me feel better about being in the city. Amidst the rush that threats to drain the life out of me, I can still find new ways to mark the seasons, and keep in touch with the nature around me thats different to what Im used to in the country.

And then October. The spiders begin to fade away and the sky is pierced with the soft edged calls of Redwings and the clatter of Fieldfares amongst the traffic noise, jet engine roar, parakeet shriek and sirens, alarms and the hectic hurry. I miss the spiders just sitting there.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Funny how your ideas of nature can seem so solid and yet change so quickly.

Scene one.

Last week I was in Madeira, up a dry riverbed and halfway towards the summit of an old volcano. The steep sided rock faces were covered in laurel forests, thick and lush. They seemed primordial, untouched; the habitat of the Trocaz Pigeon said the book. We saw two. Distant flyovers, weaving along the fringe of trees at the edge of the cliff top. Later we tried another valley. Just next to the go kart track, down the valley from the gravel quarry. The bottom and top were orchards mostly, scattered with houses. Lorries thundered past, temporarily turning the world to dust. And when it settled: Trocaz Pigeons, perched not too distantly in the trees. The colour of stone, but shaped more athletically than you might think possible for a pigeon. When they flew up the valley they were darker: Jackdaw-like actually, with large pigeon tails and thick white and black bands.

Further down the valley by the main road, the river has been diverted by concrete to take it under the go kart track. Pallid and Plain Swifts fed in a frenzy on the insects just above the water. It’s cooler here by the bridge. And you need the dark background to work out the shade of black-brown on the swifts. All the while the smell of burning petrol, the whine of two-stroke engines and the screech of tires and the site of swifts careering chaotically.

Scene two.

I got a text just as I was leaving work. A Wryneck at Wormwood Scrubs, the second ever record for the park. It hastened my step.

I had given up on birding the park for the summer and never quite gotten back into the swing now it’s ornithologically autumn. It can be the most dispiriting place. I am still young enough to struggle with a 6:30am start for diminishing returns of Meadow Pipits and Whitethroats, and the staring mutual incomprehension of joggers and model aircraft flyers. But a Wryneck. They’re not supposed to turn up at west London parks with views of brutalist council estates, the Shard, the Heathrow flight path and the London eye… 

I got there for the last hour of light. As the sunset burnt up over distant building; I watched the open grass, searched amongst the brambles. I found teenagers smoking in the bushes, people drinking beer by the benches, artists sketching the umbellifers in the long grass and football practice. Multiple aircraft flyers and joggers tracing rings around the park; British Airways and parakeets shrieking through the sky, and a multitude of friendly dogs. No migrant birds. No Wrynecks taking a quick break between Sweden and Africa in this islet of green grass, or any of the as-advertised Whinchats either.

Nevermind. It’s the promise that nature can surprise us still — can turn up where least expected and in the least promising of places —  that sustains.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Elegant was the first word that came to mind. An elegant cycle of gulls, carving irresistibly
through the current of air up above the tower block roofs. There must have been over a hundred of them, black hairlines against a lumpy mass of grey cloud. I could see the birds stretching their necks out, apparently taking gulps of fresh air.

Flying ant day. Crawling in the cracks by the kerb a couple of winged ants remain earthbound; by this evening most were airborne. The gulls were a feeding frenzy, though frenzy is the wrong word entirely for an action where grace seems to replace effort. Starlings scythe over the street, momentarily filling the sky in their pursuit of the ants.

Thunder starts to rumble. The sky began to empty.

I remember flying ant day from my childhood. I remember cars cooking in the sun and the pavement beating heat back; and both carpeted in flying ants. An annual day of plague in the suburbs. You don’t seem to get those numbers anymore. It's almost cliche this nostalgia for the animals of childhood that are missing now.


His eyes were inscrutably dark, and nestled under a furrowed brow of his own intentions. He never turned his restless gaze from me, yet muttered quietly to himself. He was smaller than the female -- about a third smaller -- and resting on the borrowed glove over my hand. Simultaneously heavier than I'd been led to believe but lighter, much lighter, than you'd guess. I decided I liked him.

I have always preferred the company of animals to people. Sandy (he) was a Long-legged Buzzard, an elegant bird of arid places, and the rich colour of a desert sunset. With his dead weight in my held out arm, I found myself entranced by the agile power hidden behind those eyes, and those quick movements as it kept its head stable under my trembling arm. It stretched its wings, lightly brushing my face with its outermost flight feathers, as if with disdain. Human, know your place.

I was just another passing face at the falconry place, another awkward shuffling land creature like its master, but without the supply of raw chicken and rabbit. And yet…


From the crest of a rolling wave of Chiltern chalk you see southern England spread out before you in its summer browns. In the haze of this hot day it seems to stretch out endlessly, but I know this is nonsense. I mentally clone out the M40. Underfoot: scabious and vetch, a Pyramidal Orchid and a hundred other flowers I don't know. Beyond: a cloud of Chalkhill Blues and a Dark Green Fritillary, Small Skippers everywhere and a few Marbled Whites still. A place such as this writes it's own poetry.

Red Kites spiral above -- and beyond -- until passing out as specks in the haze. I found a Silver-spotted Skipper by the path, it's wings shut tight and proboscis rooting around the blue sun of a scabious flower. A new species for me, with large flecks of silver in its greeny orange underwings, distinguishing it from the other orange skippers, that aren't so closely tied to this habitat. It flits off, scudding low over the flowers, chases off a burnet moth and goes in search of other quarrels. A fun butterfly.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

In Remote Part

Blair Atholl is a quietly overlooked corner of the Cairngorm national park, despite being tucked beside the A9 less than an hour north of Perth. The station is served by two trains an afternoon, doesn't sell tickets and has a pair of House Sparrows breeding in an old House Martin nest. It's quiet outside of the castle walls — the only tourist trap in the village.

I took the track north up the river Tilt, to Glen Tilt. A Red Squirrel hurries away from me up a dead branch leaning against a pine, curls it's tail up behind it and waits for the danger to pass. I carried on quickly up the path, joining a gravel track that services the few crofts down the glen. There is nobody around but the landscape holds the fingerprints of humans. From an opening I saw a cow stood upon a hummock in a field full of the scars of old ridge and furrow farming. Rifle shots crackle around the valley from the nearby firing range. From a grand stone bridge you get a clear view of either bank of the river Tilt: thickly forested with spruces, weedy birches and small clumps of larch trees. 

The larches are important to Blair Atholl, which beyond its diminutive size has had a disproportionate effect on the look of the highlands. A non-native tree, larches have been planted on Scottish estates since the 17th century, but never with such fervour as by John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl. To a maxim of 'for Beauty, effect and Profit’ he carpeted his corner of highland Perthshire with 21 million trees by 1830 — 14 million of which were larches — chosen to grow straight and strong for the construction of naval ships. It was the most extensive plantation of its time and its hard not to see the effect of it across Britain. Think of the uplands and its hard to not to picture an autumnal larch waning gold somewhere in the scene.

I am alone, yet it is a solitude achieved whilst being surrounded by a nature as much human as it is self-willed. A sort of industrial nature with a purpose and a price tag beyond its mere existence. 

A Wood Warbler sung. A Roe deer with velvety antlers trotted through as more rifle shot cackled through the glen. Forestry moves on. ‘Planter’ John Murray passed away; the navy made their ships out of iron instead of larch; hunting became more profitable than blanket trees. The forestry here is a fragment of what there once was, and mostly spruce now.

The path exits the forest, a sign post promising me a shortcut to Glen Tilt. It takes me over a lightly grazed sheep field covered in Common Spotted Orchids and the orange peel of Small Heath butterflies. Past the sprawling croft, Wheatears nesting in a stone wall and Swallows still singing. It takes me through a cloud of flies that will buzz around my ears for the next ten minutes until the track returns me to the river, lined with lush deciduous trees and a slight breeze. Ahead of me the valley kinks towards Carn a'Chamain then on the map kinks back and properly becomes the Glen Tilt of famous natural beauty. 

I never get there. 

The sun broke out from behind cloud and the buttercup lined track came alive with butterflies. Many Small Heaths, by far the commonest on these grassy mountain slopes, but whites also, and a Northern Brown Argus. My first encounter with this Scottish specialty, freshly emerged from its pupae and shining copper and verdigris, with a single white fleck in the middle of its forewing.

Navigating the remoter parts of Scotland by public transport is a fraught exercise, bedevilled by trains that stop irregularly and three to four hour waits for the next one. I gave myself two hours to get here, two and a half hours to get back and I had run out of time with the Glen just out of reach, distracted by orchids, butterflies and trees. 

I don’t mind.


The next day I walked up Ben Cleuch, highest of the Ochil mountains. A short walk that climbs up 721 metres from the bus stop at sea level over the length of a couple of miles. It is knee knackering, despite the spring of peat and bed of grass. Ben Cleuch sits half behind, half on top of Andrew Gannel hill and does the trick of disappearing from view until you crest what you think is the peak and see several hundred metres more of ascent over the sheep smooth grassy sides. And when you reach the top -- the view of Dale-like Ochils gently falling away to the north, to wind farms, reservoirs and the Grampians beckoning on the horizon. To the south: the steep flanks of the mountains either side shield the central belt from view. You see Tillicoultry and Alloa, the bending Forth a ribbon of reflected white sky and Scotland's bread basket stretching into the southern haze.

I feel it in my knees, my calves and my thighs. After a week of walking it's time to give into the exhaustion and have an ice cream.

The way up is clouded by (relative) summit fever; the way down reveals the industry that was once here, whose death led to the mill villages at the foot of these hills decaying. The woods at the bottom are laced with rusting pipes that used to funnel water into the mills, the jagged peaks of an abandoned quartz-dolerite quarry look like a mock Cuillin mountain, the steps cut into the rock of the path and the old iron hand railing far too grand and permanent to be for the stream of middle aged hikers converging on the highest point around. Bracken and foxglove coat the lower slopes, the woods are a mash of natives and exotic trees, and stink of recreational drug use. The path spits you out at the top of the village, beside the well shepherded concrete sided burn that runs past an old mill, now housing. A Grey Wagtail flits up river as I poke my head over the fence. It uses the concrete steps that are now the river bed to forage for insects in a blur of yellow on grey.

It's the same story in all the villages on the south side of the Ochils. They make great walks, up the rivers and into the hills but shackled by the melancholy of the post-industrial and what once was but is now no more.

Monday, 2 June 2014

I was, as they say, walking it off. London life is a bombardment of stimuli which — after they exhaust you — keep on coming until you are eroded to the bones of anxiety and inferiority. The only cure I've found is walking. Lewes to Brighton looked long enough.
The first thing I do on leaving Lewes station is get lost. The south coast messes with my internal bearings. North becomes south. East is no longer where it should be and I tell Anna her compass is lying and plough off in the wrong direction. Twice. We find the correct lane to Brighton, miss the correct turning off and pass through a mazy series of farm tracks through the levels of the river Ouse instead. The soil is dark and damp, the path strewn with yellow snails with a variety of dark swirls on the shell. We gingerly picked our way through as a mark of respect to the creatures that belong here, who aren't lost and passing through on a moment of map reading incompetence. We emerged through a tunnel of trees into the next village along from where we should be. No problem -- we'll just take the path through the fields of mud and take the next track into the downs. This is a way marked path, well trodden and over a beautifully worn old stile, yet it runs through the middle of a sown field. We both think it feels a little wrong to walk these paths.

Rain on chalk hisses like an insect stridulating on a summer's evening. It catches me out, has me staring at the long grass confused until it makes sense. There are no insects here today: not the spectacular Adonis Blue butterfly nor humdrum flies too small and fleeting to identify. There is just the persistency of rain sweeping in over the downs, as it had the whole morning and would for the rest of the day. Skylarks hover above the crops, defying gravity in a fat brown flutter of wings, whilst singing the most quintessentially English of bird songs; in the most English of summer weather.
What I found on the downs was a Corn Bunting. Beside a ploughed up and planted down — wheat and rapeseed where it should be wildflower rich grassland — one sung from the top of a manure pile. The sound and smell of the old countryside. Through the rain I find it with my binoculars. Unashamedly fat, brown and streaky, the Corn Bunting is the most unspectacular of special birds. A bird that fitted so well into the old systems of agriculture that it took its name from them. A bird of messy inefficiency, it was swatted aside by intensification, the destruction of hedgerows and the ploughing of margins that now... The 90% declines since 1970 tell a grim story; that I can't remember the last one I saw before this tells another. It seems doomed to become a feathered folk memory: the barley bird, so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects. Too local to survive the 21st century.
What I also found on the downs was space. A horizon not hemmed in by buildings and a landscape where the name makes sense. It lacks the magnificent up of mountains: instead on the summit the horizon appears flat, the space inbetween drifting down like the hollow between waves. I find a landscape both of comforting old Englishness but also bleakness in this weather. As well as birds I watch the rain rolling over and falling on crumbling farmsteads and rusting machinery.
The walk took us over the final crest and dropped us back on to roads until we hit the chalk cliffs of the English Channel. A shingle beach and the milky grey of the English seaside. From here it was a long slog to Brighton, past millionaire yachts and Asda; marina apartments and concrete flyovers; promenades and graffiti covered fences. And flowers growing from every crevice. 

The next day I feel fantastic.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

A type of paranoia infects me when I’m looking for Adders. Each step becomes overthought for fear of landing on top of England’s only venomous snake, hidden in ankle deep heather and half-awake in the cold easter sun. It would be just my luck. With each step the heather trembles, its dried kinked roots snap and shake. It’s a little like learning to walk again with due care and distrust, a head bowed thoroughly inspecting the ground and short shuffling steps.

It is also utterly stupid. The chance of finding an Adder seems remote, the chance of two fangs injecting me with a mild venom and becoming one of 100 people a year who seek medical attention — or one of 50 people a year to whom this happens who didn’t try to pick up the Adder first — seems remoter still. Or being the first person to die of one since 1975, or the fifteenth since 1876… You can balance the odds against the 'fatal haemothorax [and] massive haematemesis’* of the bite itself. But to experience that (and no fun thing is ever prefixed with ‘haem’) you first need to find your snake.

West of the reedbeds and woods lies the Suffolk Sandlings. Purple-brown heather, Scots Pines and exploded yellow gorse bushes stretch around for miles; part of a chain of sandy heaths running parallel to Suffolk's shingle shoreline. Or from a snake's perspective, a thick band of warm, dry and undisturbed habitat.

We take a path at random. The 'we' this time included another Stephen. I joke that he is a modern day St Patrick, with a tripod for a staff, Agnosticism for Catholicism and Oakley sunglasses; for he’s never seen an English snake (it is not my best joke). The closest he’d come was the day before, when we found a shed Adder skin on a heath in the west of Suffolk. The weather then was predominantly overcast, with a biting northerly wind. The skin was tucked in long grass like a piece of litter, stiff, clear and plasticy. A ragged, torn approximation of the Adder’s shape, wider at the head end than at the tail, and indented with the pattern of scales. A tactile ghost. The living animals remained a more traditional ghost, making their presence felt but never seen.
The wind swung easterly overnight; the clouds dissolving by late morning to a deep summer sky. Taste the air on your tongue. Coconut, pollen and salt on the breeze. It tasted good. It felt good weather for basking on a bank in the lee of the breeze. New returned Nightingales sang, tuning up their extraordinary vocal chords. A Dartford Warbler flicked across the heath, scrawny and barely visible amongst the fronds of heather. A Kestrel hovered, seeking out the same small rodents as the snakes. Green Tiger Beetles and Common Lizards scurried across the track and under the bracken, heather, brambles. My attention becomes diverted to the bumblebees and the miniscule moths buzzing around our feet, and the primitive looking black and scarlet wasps probing the sandy soil.

Ghosts: apparitions, to be sensed and not seen. Figures of fear, a fear that seems absurd in the light of day. A light too cold to reveal anything but their absence. We never found our Adder amongst the diversity of life on that heathland floor. The paranoid hesitancy now feels like wasted energy. Like being afraid of ghosts: why be scared of being bitten by a thing you can't find?

The English countryside is at times cripplingly, stultifyingly safe. No matter how vanishingly unlikely a bite is, Adders are a remnant of a more dangerous fauna, a more exciting fauna. A teasing folk memory that lurks out of sight but never quite out of mind. They require a respect, and remind us that man is not always the alpha animal. If we had more snakes it’s possible I’d be a herpetologist: the love of creatures intermingled with fear is a heady compound indeed. It helps you feel alive.

‘And so I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness’

D H Lawrence


Monday, 7 April 2014

The Lesser Spotted

Rosy dawn.


Half remembered motions of getting up and dressed and heading to the tube and running for the doors and jumping on and realising it was the wrong train. Fifteen minute delay. The sun is up and burning through the haze when I eventually arrive. I shovel dry cereal from the packet into my mouth as I walk through suburban streets, hoping no one would see me.

Chiffchaffs sing and the dew in the grass sparkles. Old oaks emerge from the dissipating haze, raking at the jet contrails that scar the sky even at this time. The birdsong grew stronger: Blackbirds and Robins mostly, and other common species shading in. The sharp kicking call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker raised excitement, the sharp shriek of a parakeet took me by surprise. I'd forgotten I was in London. I was searching for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a species that is quickly and worryingly disappearing throughout England but which remains in some of London’s wooded edges. It remains a secret though: I was told about this wood on the condition that I would tell no one else.

Magpies loitered like bored teenagers. Cackling and chasing each other, as if waiting for something, anything to happen. I loitered with them for two hours in that small wood between houses, quietly seeking out calling birds, unwilling to admit defeat until the sun rose above the canopy and the paths filled with dog walkers and the city roared into another sunny Saturday.

I may not have found what I was looking for in the wood, but I found something else. I found solitude in the city.

The single most exhausting thing about London is the lack of solitude. I can handle the hours I work and the hours I socialise but for a person predisposed to be out of the house; to be alone in some quiet place is the missing link. This is not a city built for introverts, for people like me who find chaos sapping and calm restorative. To be in the woods with the rising sun and surrounded by birds, not people, is the greatest simple pleasure I know.

Monday, 24 March 2014

I have many excuses.

Pardon? I’m half deaf you see. Discovered Led Zeppelin too young. And I’m more of a visual person anyway. It’s sort of like I'm audio-dyslexic or something — the melody never sticks but the words do.

And so on.

Birds don’t sing with subtitles and I struggle to remember the identifying features of any birdsong for more than about five minutes. I’m deeply envious of the birders with a xeno-canto of the mind, as I can just about manage to hold twenty five species or so in my head at any time. For me there’s a reason why birder is a contraction of birdwatcher and not bird-listener. And yet…

March baked. The trees shook through the haze over heath. A Stonechat perched in a stunted Silver Birch, not quite in the brightest orange and black of its breeding plumage. Buzzards spiral high into the wind, surveying their territory over the Surrey commons; a fragment of the old English landscape. In the bones of a tree a lark sat. Not your typical lark. Through the haze of the telescope I could make out the salient details: black and white coverts on the edge of the wing interrupting the dull brown plumage, and a longer bolder stripe over the eye. A Woodlark. It is a classic boring bird. Important too: only 3000 or so pairs left breeding on the southern and eastern heathlands. And then it started to sing.
Photo by Stephen Menzie

'Teevo cheevo cheevio chee'

Initially tremulous - as if still warming up for the spring ahead - notes shaded the air. Then a torrent. At this distance the bill doesn't appear to move, but stuck open directing its aria, descending through notes as blue as the sky, echoing.

Echoing. That's what flicks the switch in my mind and it's 2007 again. I am 15 and wandering the sanderling heaths of coastal Suffolk by myself. Cautiously, it's spring, there might be Adders about. I found the heath by accident, following a track round from the adjacent estuary. It looked good habitat for Dartford Warblers, but I don't see them. Instead, I enter a glade of pines and am struck by birdsong. The most intensely delicate, beautiful melody I had heard from a bird. And the volume! It seems like the exaggeration of memory, or of youthful exuberance but it filled the glade like a soloist in an opera hall. Volume and beauty. It moved that cold teenager — shy, and not much given to displays of emotions — to a moment of rapture. I never saw that Woodlark well, but I knew I would never experience one like it again.

The song from the bare tree fades, the lark flies to the ground and lands out of sight, but never out of mind.

It is a typical boring bird. One of my favourites.
Photo by Stephen Menzie

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The first slope is always the steepest. Motivational slogan turned muscle-straining reality on the road up past Logie Kirk. It was my favourite old walk, last done nine months ago when I had by feeling, not thought, developed the habit of jogging up and running down 'my' mountain. With the intervening nine months spent with my legs furled under a desk in London, that idea felt practically lethal...


It was a delicate Scottish morning. Silver sky and smirr and Blackbirds softly singing. I'd been back in my adopted home of Stirling for a couple of days. Long enough to reacquaint myself with the murmurations of daffodils and the neat borders of Starlings, Goosanders surfing the muddy Forth, and the amount of rain the sky above Scotland holds. While London sweltered (21 degrees!) Stirling was chilly and overcast with breaks of torrential rain, hail and the occasional flurry of snow. Smirr was a relatively clear break and I headed for the hills with Mareike. She’s from the flatlands too — the East Anglian part of Germany — and also feels drawn to the north and to mountains, and to walking quietly in each other's shy company.

I set an asthmatic pace, but one at which I made it up the first slope without pausing, until the sheep replaced the trees. The smirr was dissipating and the first hazy view down the valley emerged. I take a glug of water. I don't feel as bad as I had expected. The road hits the path, a broad and well trodden track over long brown grass, damp green moss and squidgy black peat. It feels good to have it under foot, as if the tread of my boots feels at home here too. Four Ravens cackle and tumble through the sky. Sheep bleat and Stirling gets rained upon. We peer down glens to the hillfoot villages and Forth valley sprawl, clouded in the hazy air of mild wet March. Menstrie, Alloa, Kincardine. Defiant patches of blue appear in the sky.

Pushing on. Each thigh stretching step up seemed to slough off the dust from desk bound muscles. A stirring in the sinews that says that hills should really be taken at a canter and with a manic grin. Towards the summit the moss and the grass get gradually replaced by heather, then rock. Sometimes there are grouse here but only Skylarks sung between the ground and the sky.

From the south these mountains appear suddenly out of the Forth valley like a doorstop, keeping the highlands out of Southern Scotland. Up close they are mostly smooth lumps with the exception of this one. Dumyat is rough and ragged, craggy and the only one with significant patches of bare rock. It is the most visibly volcanic of them all, and the most dramatic, despite being a domestic 418 metres high. The wee pet. A mountain in geographer's definition only. But its character defies its height. When I was at university here I walked it religiously in a physical counterpart to the austere pews and psalms of the church in the next village along. I didn’t, couldn’t, get bored of it. Brooding or benevolent. Golden still afternoons or mornings lashed by weather. The lamb and the Raven.


You can take this mountain far too gently. It can still spring surprises.

Three quarters of the way up I turn to Mareike and remark on the kind weather. She smiles. I scramble up the next outcrop of bare rock and turn onto the final rocky slope to the summit, and a slap of wind takes the breathe from me. We double over and carry on, hands on the rock for extra grip. From the summit cairn we can view from the Braes of Doune to the Forth rail bridge and beyond, the firth disappearing into hazy sky that reaches around to the Lammermuirs and loses half of Fife to flat nothing. Moors ripple away over outcrops of rock to the valley, or to the rest of the Ochils to the north and east. The rest of the Ochils are the land of hill farmers and their flocks, an off brown baize stained with bracken and gorse where the sheep can't reach, the odd crumbling shieling and one thin reservoir carved into the contours. A Raven skims the summit, low and flexing its body to sail across the wind. It turns back and flies once again low over us, to check if we were dead — I assume — and it flies away disappointed. I hadn’t felt this alive in months.

And the wind buffets us again, in the space of half of a minute going from mild inconvenience to shivering cold, pulling on new layers and trying not to be caught like a parachute. Mareike leans back into it, gleeful. I give up attempting to stand straight, and the joy of irresistible wind catches me too.


On the way down I would slip over twice. Mareike didn’t, so covered herself in mud out of sympathy, and then slapped me around the face with a little more, to weird looks from other walkers. Exhausted and covered in mud: my childhood requirements for fun still exist. I hope I never let them leave.

Monday, 27 January 2014

It could have been a scene from Scandinavia: the silver birch and the rusting bracken, thick dark mud and lashing hail. It lasted for two skin stinging minutes. The wood thinned out. Bracken gave way to heather, the hail to the numbing wind, and the path to a bridleway of finest sludgey mud, studded with white ice. Half a kilometre over the heath to a clump of pines where the Parrot Crossbills are and the clouds break up; the last hour or so of sunlight appearing over the distant pines. All around was heather, oak, pine and birch; damp and glittering in the light. It is tempting to lose yourself in this landscape that feels so old and right and proper. 

It is not Scandinavia. Not even Scotland. It is Nottinghamshire.

Behind the pines on the horizon the black edge of a slag heap can be seen. The product of a hundred or so years of removing useful things from the earth and putting it back somewhere else. The map is ridden with names that tell my dad - Nottinghamshire lad - of the old pits and collieries that were shut as he grew up. They're just names on a map to me. Further back, and the animals that would've kept this area open and unwooded have been replaced by conservationists, counter intuitively pulling out trees in the name of nature. It's in the name: Budby Common. Ignore the fences passed on the way here and it still appears like the common lands of a John Clare poem, though lacking in its people.
Curious landscape paradox. It is deeply coloured by human hand yet it looks and feels untouched.

Parrot Crossbills. Large red finches from Scandinavia, they are rarities that turn up on the back of a poor pine seed crop in the Arctic taiga, in search of food. I had tried and failed to see them elsewhere three times this winter. The itinerant nature that brings them here also makes them hard to catch up with. This time felt luckier. A birder we had met on the way here had successfully seen them and gave us directions to the pines on this heath.

We were not lucky. Damp and cold, we saw Common Buzzards shrieking over the woods and Jays flash exotically against the sky, but nothing particularly out of a birder's idea of the ordinary. It's only on the long dark train ride home that I begin to wonder why we do it. Why I, in particular, turn my nose up at the idea of twitching, but continually return to places where Parrot Crossbills have been seen and will be seen by seemingly everybody but me. I don’t keep doing it for the dubious honour of being Britain’s unluckiest birder.

I’ve been birding for eight years to general apathy from friends and occasional hostility from others. But oddly there’s been a recent flourishing of interest from several people, mostly focusing on why we do it, why we ‘just look at them?’. It’s a question that opens a gap of mutual incomprehensibility. They can’t understand the interest, and I can’t understand why they’re not. I have to explain my hobby and the seeming irrationality of it.

I’ve always been interested in animals, since childhood visits to the zoo, watching birds on the garden feeders and being sat in front of the Lion King and Free Willy, my favourite films as a kid. I’ve been a fisherman - fly and coarse - but thankfully never a hunter. I found watching wild animals to be the best route to knowing and to experiencing nature with as minimal an impact as possible. I would feel the thrill of catching a fish between the waits that seemed like they would never end. I would feel conflicted about hauling it on to land, looking at it, then putting it back. Better to have never taken it out in the first place? I recognise that need though, the drive that makes the fisherman spend days on the lakeside, waiting for the elusive fish bite. I don’t know why millions of people will watch Attenborough documentaries, but never try to seek out nature for themselves, unmediated and with the intimacy of real experience.

I will keep trying to get to know nature. Nature may be amorphous and defies definition at every attempt, but for me that’s part of the attraction. It is at once full of things to learn and full of things that are unknowable. It takes me to silent places and a horizon without houses, but lets me hear the beating of my heart, and hold conversations with the most interesting people.

The box-ticking, blinkered, crowd mentality of twitching is something I find very distasteful, but with my attempted twitches of Parrot Crossbills it’s taken me to new places, on the Essex coast and in my own home county. It’s shown me the loveliest part of Nottinghamshire.

All without the actual birds.

All in the act of just looking.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Slow, Steady

If a pan-list is a survey of the wildlife that I can find then it doubles up as a survey of my natural history knowledge, and it didn’t take long to find the edges of that. All it took was a single white flower. My knowledge with wildflowers is appalling, but this is winter; it’s small, white, and sort of resembles an Umbellifer, but bunched into a ball instead of spread out on a flat circle. I took a couple of photos and moved on. How hard could it be? Very, apparently. I flicked through my copy of Harrap’s Wild Flowers several times and couldn’t even find a resemblance, let alone an exact match. This feels like beginning again without a teacher. Exciting to think about but frustrating in practice.

If a pan-list emphasises the limits of what I know, then it celebrates what I do. I know it feels as though it has rained for the last forty days and forty nights. And after that? Sun. A sky the colour of a Caribbean sea and Song Thrushes singing from a bare brown tree, bathed in the winter sunshine. I know I didn’t feel the cold either, despite being ankle deep in a puddle and the shards of ice not yet thawed out from over night. It wouldn’t take long. After all that rain it doesn’t feel as if the life has been washed out, but renewed. The grass is verdant green, and the gorse is flecked with its first yellow flowers. And the birds carry on singing.

I know I achieved the zen of the birder too. In the absence of a genuine solitude, it’s the next best thing. In one of the corners of the park, Redwings and Blackbirds flocked. Imperceptibly I stopped looking about me, and a quiet, calm concentration descended. Thought evaporated and movement became by instinct, and the tracking of the flocks of thrushes took on a rhythmical meditative quality. I glance up out of instinct and my eyes cross the flight path of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, then the next time, a Sparrowhawk. Both were new for the list.

I know I miss that state when the path takes me away from the birds and towards the eastern end of the Scrubs. The bare end, of football pitches and a small gull flock that would be to dogs what catnip is to cats, if only they could catch it. They never do. The trees here line the edges between the grass and the road. It feels bleaker and more lifeless, colder and windier. I don’t enjoy this end. The birder zen evaporates and the simple pleasures found at the other end, of three species of thrush in one tree, aren’t to be found.

I don’t mind, particularly, The urban naturalist knows you take those pleasures where you can and hold on to them as you tramp down the cracked paving slabs, past the tube station and back towards home.

15. Robin
16. Song Thrush
17. Dunnock
18. Redwing
19. Hawthorn
20. Goldfinch
21. Great Tit
22. Buddleia
23. Great Spotted Woodpecker
24. Sparrowhawk
25. Wren
26. Gorse
27. to be identified?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014


After the bang… the whimper of wind and dull percussion of rain. I peak behind the curtains and see grey and roll over. An hour later I’m at the local park being cold spin-washed by the weather, with added hail. The path is a quagmire. Beside me a steady stream of neon-clothed cross-country runners splash past. I am sober and with not even the slightest hint of a hangover. I look up as the eleventh species of the day – a parakeet – flies overhead, all dark against the sky.

I slip my welly off to shake out the dried old mud digging into my sock. 11 pence falls into a puddle instead. In the bush to my left a Blackbird cocks its head at me, quizzically (or so it seemed) before flitting into cover.

New year, new list.

I haven’t listed since I was a teenager, when it was a useful method of working out which of the three or four other teenage birders I talked to were ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than me. I realised the absurdity of this soon enough. I didn’t like the idea of being able to distil the richness of my birding experiences into a spreadsheet of seen and unseen. I didn’t like the way it compelled me to have a hit list of species I shamefully hadn’t seen; or gave me a number with which to judge myself with - and find myself wanting. Giving up the list was one of the best things I have ever done as a birder. Among the other best things: Lepidoptera, Odonata, Orthoptera, etc. Entomology filled in the gaps and gave me new horizons.

And this is where listing reappears. Last year the birders of Wormwood Scrubs cumulatively reached 98 species of birds for the year, a phenomenal achievement for a London park with no standing water and a skyline including the Shard and the London Eye. In the process they turned up such birds as a Common Rosefinch and a Short-eared Owl. I dipped the Rosefinch in the pissing rain on my first visit. It’s still a species I haven’t seen. The Scrubs is in the odd position then of having a proven track record of turning up good birds, but also great potential for turning up more in the most unexpected of ways. I was amazed by the snipe I saw here, I can’t imagine what I’d do if I saw that Short-eared Owl here, let alone that Rosefinch.

But that’s not quite good enough to sustain through the long summer months, of getting up at 6am and traversing it before work. So I plan to do a pan-species yearlist. At the moment it seems to be the perfect motivator, to get out and around the Scrubs and to carry on broadening my entomological knowledge, and those of other taxas. I might not be saying that come September, but we’ll see. My list at the moment is fourteen and I see no rush. At the start of January a year seems a very long time indeed.

1: Starling
2: Feral Pigeon
3: Black-headed Gull
4: Homo sapiens*
5: Canis lupus familiaris**
6: Common Gull
7: Carrion Crow
8: Magpie
9: Blue Tit
10: Long-tailed Tit
11: Ring-necked Parakeet
12: Blackbird
13 Grey Squirrel

*Mark Telfer, aka Mr Panlist, says I can.
** And the rules allow you alien species whose existence is entirely reliant on humans.