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?


  1. Hi Stephen, if you've still got those photos of the frustrating white flower, feel free to e-mail them to and we'll see if we can id it for you. It's part of our 'back up' service for our app

  2. Hi Steve. I do but I'm trying to identify myself! I'll let you know if I fail completely though.