Sunday, 7 December 2014

Beans and buntings

After the rain today came sunshine. And Mike.

I should probably introduce you. Mike is a volunteer on the Norwich Cathedral Peregrine Project, on which I worked earlier this year. His is a blossoming love of birds: at first, over many years, a soul-union with crows of all kinds and all kinds of crows; then a passion for Norwich's dynasty of peregrines and an effortless talent for communicating about them to the public; and now a growing-by-the-day love for all wild birds and the wild places in which they are found, as he leafs through the field guides and dreams of yet more species he might see. I well remember that giddy falling in love with birds, though mine was many years ago.

Under Norwich Cathedral's spire, with the petulant shout of a female peregrine in our ears, we became firm friends and it is my privilege on occasion to show him birds he has not seen before. Today, as yesterday, there were tundra bean geese at Weybourne. To be unsparingly honest, if I had to choose a bean goose to love for the rest of my life, it would be a taiga. As I wrote at the start of February 2012, their slender elegance enchants me. I am not blind, however, to the stocky, snarl-billed charms of a tundra bean goose and I am weak before the hordes of pinkfeet with which they often find themselves. So to Weybourne we went today.

The first flock we stopped to scan was of brents. Two pinkfeet stood nearby, pious, ashamed perhaps to be grazing in such lowly company. Most of the pinks were by the road to the heath, thousands of them in a muddy field. I scanned but, though the horizontal winter light was perfect, there were no orange legs among them. The birds were shifting between this and a field uphill to the south, so to there we walked. Still no orange legs, no tundra beans. Then, as a flight of pinks moved to their original field, flying above them, from I saw not where, were four chocolate-dark geese. Beans.

Back to the first field, where quickly we found two tundra beans and spent much cold time watching one of them as it dozed, shuffled and sometimes stood. (Note to future bean geese: you're really a lot less fun, when mingling with thousands of pinkfeet, if you sit down and put your head under your wing, thereby hiding your only distinguishing features.)

Mike was patience itself while I gazed dreamily at grey geese, extolling their qualities; but what he wanted to see was his first snow bunting. There were rumours of a confiding bird at Gramborough, so to Salthouse we went, a year since the car park was buried in shingle by the rage of the sea. We tramped over the ridge and through the brackish pools, but no bunting was there. We went east, to try our luck with the twite on the north side of Salthouse Marshes. Linnets: check. Skylarks: check. Shoveler: check. Turnstones: check. Twite: nope. Emphatically no twite to be seen. But what were these? What were these long-winged passerines above the shingle ridge, their wings white in the last of the afternoon's egg-yolk light?

Snow buntings. They landed on the shingle by the pools towards the erstwhile car park, and there we watched them, happy. I don't remember my first snow buntings - so very long ago - but I know I have loved them ever since.

Joy to you too Mike in your fledgling love for tundra bean geese, for snow buntings, and for birds.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


It is cold as I walk to town today, that cold that clasps your face and tightens the corners of your eyes. It is grey too, the lingering barely-day grey of the shortest dates. On the river a pair of greylags crouches under swaying boughs of aspen, their waxy bills ectopic in the gloom.

On my return a blue tit sings - spring sings! - from the ribcage alders by the pond, and from a chimney pot a wind-up starling mimics night's tawny owl in his song. His winter song.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


At Cley yesterday the marsh was all noise. In the scant light over the North Norfolk coast we felt our way through the day, guided by sound. First there were pinks, thousands upon countless thousands of them, flighting along the ridge, filling the sky with excited talk of Iceland. Then the shingle's crunch under six booted feet and the shingly voices of linnets. To the east, on Arnold's, the triplet chime of redshank.

From Daukes' came much timid tealtalk and now and then an irresponsible whistling of wigeon. Here too the scraping of three mobile dunlin and the squelch of a snipe bounding from the long wet grass. Drake gadwall (spellcheck wanted that as goodwill: I'll take either) gave their seedy, knowing quack, their minds locked on next spring's breeding. Three avocets among the many gulls were silent.

Silent on a day of friendship and sound.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Of hares

On winter mountains are strong friendships forged. I spent today with Deb, whom I met on my first trip to Hemis National Park in search of snow leopards in February 2013. That we saw six snow leopards, including a mother near-missing a blue sheep, was remarkable. More remarkable still was what we humans shared in camp and on snowy mountainsides: Europeans, far from their own landscapes and thoughtscapes, learning from one another and from the skill, open-heartedness and diligence of Ladakhis. Therein lies the power of the trip.

Deb, a marsh tit and friends watching two snow leopards in the
Tarbung Valley, Ladakh, February 2013
(photo by Russell Scott)

Deb and a marsh tit in the Husing Valley
(photo by Russell Scott)

A map drawn by our Ladakhi friend Chitta of
the sites where we saw snow leopards in February 2013

This power and the dust-coloured mountain cats themselves saw me back in Hemis last February (only five snow leopards this time) and will see me there again in 2015. Next year will be in fact a year of cats for me and very soon my blog will be all talk of them. So for now I'll say little of snow leopards, nor Hemis, nor Ladakh.

Instead, more talk of Norfolk, where today Deb and I walked the banks and boundaries of NWT Cley Marshes. All the birds of winter were here, though winter's dramatis personae has changed greatly in the thirty years I have been here too. Among the many mutedly fluting teal on the marsh were little egrets. Stirring the purr-wing wigeon there were marsh harriers, so recently seen only in summer here. In the puddled grass were plenty of brents, bringing with them their many bar-backed youngsters from a successful season in the tundra. Ruff were here, commuting in quick-winged flocks between the marshes and the stubble-fields, and redshank, loud in the winter stillness. On the shingle goldfinches fed from the dried heads of the horned poppies, remembering in their wings the poppies' buttery summer blossoms. Rolling in the surf were bull grey seals who, unlike almost every other vertebrate about its winter business at Cley today, are at the height of their breeding: their harems are pupping in the dunes on the Point and no sooner have they done so than these precious females will come into season for the only time in the year.

After our cold walk and steaming soup in the visitor centre, Deb and I called at the Pinkfoot Gallery where Sarah was full of news of otters and pine martens in Scotland. We crooned and drooled over art and, stopping by a striking bronze sculpture of a hare, Deb, who has seen snow leopards (and woolly hares) with me in Ladakh, said, 'It's one of my dreams to see a hare in the wild.'

I did a double take. Perhaps I double-took (I'm not sure). The penny dropped. Deb had never seen a hare. I raced to Sarah's office my mind full of spots along the coast where hares could be seen. I needed a nearby site which I could be sure to reach before the afternoon's light left us altogether. I suggested the hilly fields above Salthouse and - yes - Sarah confirmed that Rachel often sketched hares there. I bustled Deb into the street and into my car. We raced (as fast as the 20 mile speed limit through the High Street would allow) to Salthouse. No hares in the fields by the first muddy parking spot. From the second we could walk across a winter cereal field - every hare's favourite - and scanning closely I found one hunkering like a lump of earth between the sharp green lines. I pointed out the place, lifted my binoculars again, and saw that it had gone. No lump of earth. No hare.

We rushed across the field to where the hare must surely be found, and there indeed he was, flattening himself millimetre by millimetre into a furrow. So we tiptoed along the field's edge, crisp with the fresh shoots of alexanders, as the hare pressed himself into the mud. Finally, after Deb had certainly seen her hare, he leapt to life, spun round, and bounced across the field showing how effortlessly he could give us poor bipeds the slip.

I have seen five species of hare this year - woolly in Ladakh, mountain in Kamchatka, Ethiopian and Starck's in Ethiopia (Starck's hare: what a beauteous thing and what a habitat in which to live!) - but this home hare in a cold field, shared with a friend, was the best by far.

Cups from Kolkata

The second time, of many, that I went to Assam I found myself stranded for a week in Kolkata. In the middle of long trips these orphan times in faraway cities are lonely, but equally they let me lose myself amid wild and human life in a way which is impossible while leading a tour. I love Kolkata and the Bengali people I know there but on this occasion it was my interaction with an immigrant Bihari which affected me most.

Each day during this week I had breakfast on the street, buying tea from a smiling young man - barely a man in fact - on a street corner. Being Bihari he was a native speaker of Hindi and was generous enough to tolerate my limping attempts to converse with him in his language.

One morning in my naivety I asked him where he lived and, pointing to the pavement, he replied, 'मैं यहाँ सोता हूँ. I sleep here.' I was mortified and, it being the only thing I could do to help him, I doubled my intake of tea, buying his largest cupfuls as often as I could.

I kept some of his big one-use terracotta cups, and carried them clumsily in my hand luggage through the remainder of my India tours that year. Changing my bedsheets this morning I knocked over two of his cups on my windowsill and my mind was at once back with him on a pavement in Kolkata.

I hope that somewhere a Bihari tea-seller with a kind smile is happy and well.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Recycled words

Norfolk Wildlife Trust has posted on its blog some thoughts and words of mine on nocturnal wildlife. If interested, you can find them here.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Peer review

I received today an email from a colleague in Africa with whom I worked for the first time recently. He is radiantly talented and, beyond this, kind; and part of his message read:

Nick you are the best guide i had ever my life i wish you long life !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am humbled and deeply touched and wish the same for him.

Primary feather of a white-cheeked turaco from Bishangari