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 Further back, and the animals that would've kept this area open and unwooded have been replaced by conservationists, counter intuitively pulling out trees in the name of nature.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.