Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Es ist vollbracht

It is done. Edited, almost. On my chimney pot a collared dove singing I’m FREEzing, I’m FREEzing and on iTunes the inexorable logic of Bach.

Shriven and exhausted: wordstorms and St. John. Bed.

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!

J.S. Bach

Monday, 30 January 2012


Today has been my fourth day of editing an upcoming publication on the importance of engaging people with wildlife and wild places in Norfolk. Editing is hard work, especially, as is the case for me now, when the document to be edited has been spliced together from numerous others, each with its own conventions on punctuation and spelling, each with its own tone, and each with its own internal logic. In the worst cases, the constituent chunks of text I edit seem to come from documents which have none of these.

I feel like a sheepdog tearing round an unruly flock of words, speech marks and ideas, trying hard to herd them into a coherent whole. Just as I make a decision on which hierarchy of headings to employ, from the three styles used in the text I am tasked with weaving together, just as I feel the word-flock is at last heading uniformly towards its pen, a sub-flock of commas, of misspelled scientific names, or of ill-used terminology will break off, leaving this poor word-dog panting and staring and hoping that somewhere there's a shepherd who will come to sort the whole mess out.

One of the constant refrains of conversations with friends who, like me, work in wildlife conservation is how much of our time is spent doing things which, on the face of it, have nothing at all to do with wildlife. I would like to believe that somewhere a square metre of marsh is safer because of my daily skirmish with underscores, semi-colons and bold fonts. I wonder.

The sky all day has been the barely grey of promised snow, and of wild things I have seen only my chaotic swirl of black-headed and common gulls, joined on and off by a jackdaw. Thank goodness for Haydn's Theresienmesse; and the knowledge that in ten days' time I shall be in Kolkata.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sunset through limes

Through skeletal limes on the common, a sunset of pearl grey cloud, starling swirlings, and kindly apricot light; somewhere else in the world the same sun gives dawn to another avifauna.

Look I made a friend

I lay in bed this morning, steeling myself for a day of writing and editing, and thinking about a friend in India from whom I had not heard in many months. Getting up, I turned on my computer and there was an email from him.

Look I made a grebe.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The birds sang today

Today, as if by agreement, the birds began to sing. It started with a chaffinch at Cley where I was talking and walking with Reg, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s conservation manager. This chaffinch was singing from a hawthorn in a not-really-spring-don’t-listen-to-me sort of way. Later though, chaffinches were singing confidently everywhere and they weren’t the only ones. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to visit the East Bank where a water rail was screeching from a wisp of ditch-side reed. I continue my curious run of luck with this reticent bird; it’s as if their resolution for 2012 has been to get out more. Over the bank on Arnold’s Marsh were plenty of dunlin and redshank but no western sandpiper. From the great beds of reed bearded tits pinged cheerily to themselves and an out-of-sight Cetti’s warbler gave its sharp electric call. Meanwhile the sun beamed for a second day.

Next stop Blakeney Freshmarsh, from both sides. At the Cley end were more bearded tits, a drumming great spotted woodpecker, and another invisible calling Cetti’s who plinked briefly into exuberant song. From the Friary Hills end we watched squadrons of too-distant pinks in the grazing marshes and gave up any hope of finding a tundra bean among them. Here the chaffinches were all a-clatter and a greenfinch, my first such singer of the year, wheezed from a stand of pine. In the harbour a herring gull shrieked its demonic laughter of a song. The birds have most definitely decided it’s spring.

At Burnham Overy a black-headed gull gave a snatch of its breeding-colony call and, with annual mercury and alexanders flowering around us, things felt distinctly springy. The beach was bare, except for a single bar-tailed godwit flying over a dejected collection of gulls. Back in the saltmarsh two pipits loudly lisped from the dishevelled mat of sea purslane and Reg and I turned to each other in wordless agreement: rock pipits. The grazing marshes here heaved with lapwing, curlew and golden plover (singing too: how I love their dippy sci-fi song). Overhead were marsh harriers and, our most-hoped-for-bird, a single rough-legged buzzard which thoughtfully flew past a common buzzard (for ease of comparison) and landed on a grassy mound. Reaching the road we disturbed a green woodpecker which flew along a hawthorn hedgeline flashing its mustardy behind.

Still more was to come: by the beach road at Wells a handsome, stocky black brant grazed the golf greens in the company of many hundreds of his Russian cousins. It’s a fine place for birds this Norfolk of ours.

Driving home I found myself in the village where I grew up so I nipped to the two crooked old oaks where the little owls lived. They still do. At least one of them does, hunkered today almost invisibly in a thick bed of ivy.


common stonechat
Saxicola torquata
grey partridge
Perdix perdix
bar-tailed godwit
Limosa lapponica
rock pipit
Anthus petrosus
rough-legged buzzard
Buteo lagopus
green woodpecker
Picus viridis

black brant
Branta bernicla nigricans
little owl
Athene noctua

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 117
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Friday, 27 January 2012

Fens and films

A busy day today has been, from start to end. I spent it with my great friend Rebecca, PR and communications manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, making three more short films in our series on Living Landscapes.

Rebecca and I seem quite remarkably jammy where weather is concerned. Last time we were up to our tricks, in the Bure and Thurne valleys in Broadland, we hit the only sunny day in a fortnight. It was ferociously cold but the sun grinned at us and, a big bonus for me, female ring-necked and ferruginous ducks were both to be seen in a big flock of pochard and tufted ducks at NWT Ranworth Broad. I have not alas coaxed these two ladies onto my 2012 yearlist but once again today, in West Norfolk, we struck the week’s only sunshine; so much so that, thanks to a sprightly wind too, my nose is now quite rosy.

The morning we spent at NWT Roydon Common, one of Norfolk’s finest heaths and our county’s last great swathes of wildness. Here I was hoist by my own proverbial petard, or rather by The Rules I’ve made for my yearlist. In neighbouring sandy fields a grey partridge scraped his strange song but, since I could not see him, he did not count. And, would you believe it, as I spoke to the camera a woodlark broke into song above me. The song of the woodlark is the soul’s voice: at once happy and sad, at once wistful and joyful. But could I look up from filming?

I saw no lark.

I did manage a single, small, streaky, greeny addition to the yearlist today: a siskin. This afternoon we were filming at one of NWT’s most exciting reserves, Hilgay, where from the rich black soils of a fenland farm more than 60 hectares of reedbed and marsh are being carved by a happy yellow digger. Here a big flock of goldfinches wove through a ribbon of alderwood. Among them I could hear siskins but such is my scrupulous devotion to The Rules that I would not count the culprits until I was sure I they were directly in my sights. Ticking on the law of averages will not do. Happily for me a single siskin split from the flock giving its introspective little call. Siskin. 110.


Eurasian siskin
Carduelis spinus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 110
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Thursday, 26 January 2012

On estuaries and airports

As anyone and everyone interested in birds knows, the remarkable spoon-billed sandpiper is on its last legs. Despite the heroic recent efforts of conservation organisations including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the sandpiper is, so to speak, in extinction’s waiting room and its appointment may well be soon. One of the chief reasons for the species’ cataclysmic decline has almost certainly been the reclamation for industry of great areas of its migratory and winter habitat in South and Southeast Asia. This habitat, of course, is estuarine mud.

Now spin your globe a long way to the northwest, to where a rotund and generally jocund mayor proposes a new airport, an airport to be built on Kent’s estuarine mud. This airport would spell destruction for a big slab of the gloopy biological powerhouse of the Thames Estuary. In addition to countless other species, this mud, so featureless in the vote-centric minds of our politicians, is the migratory and winter home of hundreds of thousands of wading birds: close cousins of the spoon-billed sandpiper. Equally vulnerable.

Are we really so stupid?


I heard, as I walked past the mill, the one bright note of a grey wagtail and, looking up, saw a slender shape bound through a brief blue moment of sky.

Nearby a goldfinch sang his sparkling jumble of a song and on the pond the mallard and mallardesque drakes pipe and bob their willingness to mate. Spring comes, however slowly.


grey wagtail
Motacilla cinerea

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 109
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Two nations divided

I have a good friend in Cape May, who is quite the most brilliant naturalist I have ever met; rather gallingly, he is also among the most brilliant human beings I have ever met. We have birded many times together in Bolivia, when I lived there and he often visited for work, and in New Jersey, where he showed me my first snowy owl, harlequin ducks, wild turkeys and many other goodies. He writes of his parallel vertebrate yearlist:

I now stand at 135 for the state/country and 130 for Cape May county. The last was a rufous hummer which is overwintering at a feeder, one of two doing just that in Cape May this winter - remarkable. I am still beating you on amphibians but have not yet added another mammal (I am at five, not counting humans the way you rabid twitcher ticker ornithogolfers do). Strange that you have seen more mammals on your over-hunted over-civilized arctic isle.

How readily one goes off people, though he has a point.

The rain it raineth

A day in the company of friends and colleagues at the office of Norfolk Wildlife Trust. All day it rained and of wildlife I saw almost nothing, until in the evening pied wagtails fell like heavy raindrops from the saturnine sky to roost in the young planes around the railway station.

An enjoyable production of Twelfth Night this evening at Norwich Playhouse:

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night 

Monday, 23 January 2012

'Man the hunter'

In this afternoon's beautiful weather a friend and I set out along the river towards a field where I knew we would see red-legged partridges. I don't imagine I've ever spent this long in the UK in January without seeing one. What we had not counted on seeing was the partridges hurtling to earth as they flew over waiting guns and hitting the ploughed mud in pathetic puffs of exquisitely-marked feathers.

Some words from Sir Peter Scott, five of whose beautiful Wetland Centres I have visited in the past ten days, on his gradual conversion from wildfowler to conservationist:

I have taken a wildfowler round the pens of the Wildfowl Trust and heard him say when a flock of Snow Geese came low over his head - "My word, I could knock a couple of those down." When those same Snow Geese landed at our feet and walked up to feed from my hand I could sense that he was very much ashamed of the remark. The expression suggests a blunt stick to beat the beautiful birds out of the sky. Are these phrases the healthy symptoms of 'man the hunter' or something less healthy; or are they perhaps quite superficial - a relic of the tradition which has persisted from the time when the only reaction to a bird (more particularly if it was rare) was to fetch a gun and kill it?

Peter Scott
The Eye of the Wind 


red-legged partridge
Alectoris rufa

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 108
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0


For the past ten days I have been charmed, humbled, entertained and encouraged by the brilliant company of Paul Stanbury and David Tattersfield of Naturetrek. I thank them for hours and hours of tummy-scrunching laughter and of shared, passionate love of nature.

Weeds too Tattersfield. Weeds too.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Swan song

Fittingly enough, we gave our swan-song Naturetrek slide show today at WWT's superb Welney reserve in the Ouse Washes. With time on our hands we watched the well-loved swan feed where whoopers and mutes bustled and hundreds of pochard and mallard frothed and foamed in the water. Further afield was a lone Bewick's, while the marshes teemed with wigeon and lost in a small flock of greylags grazed a single European whitefront.

Home this evening. And smiling.


European white-fronted goose
Anser albifrons albifrons

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 107
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

From the Solway

21st January

This travelling circus of Naturetrek leaders called today at WWT Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway, between events in Edinburgh and York. Whooper swans shone from the rushy pools and great herds of barnacle geese grazed the marshes, where a ringtail hen harrier was buffeted by an ice-vice wind. In the visitor centre, a highlight for me, were two tadpole shrimps Triops cancriformis in a tank. These weird, ancient creatures, unchanged in 270 million years, have recently been rediscovered in the Solway marshes, only their second site in the UK. Long may they flourish here in the excellent care of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

At the feeder in the car park was a busy horde of chaffinches, joined at times by a posse of yellow-flash greenfinches, a foursome of house sparrows (three males and a female), a solitary tree sparrow and a startling male yellowhammer. And all the while and all about were the clanging of barnacles and the breathy burbling of curlew.

How beautiful our birds of Britain are.


barnacle goose
Branta leucopsis
hen harrier
Circus cyanus
tree sparrow
Passer montanus
Emberiza citrinella

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 106
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0


20th January

On a brief scouting visit to WWT’s lovely Martin Mere: pintail, mallard, shelduck, greylag and dozens of noisy, upper-crust whooper swans.


whooper swan
Cygnus cygnus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 102
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


17th January

Two iconic landscape lifers in a week: yesterday Glastonbury Tor and today Stonehenge. Um, wow. You know, it's not just about the birds.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

In the Vale of Avalon

16th January

In Devon and Somerset today; at sites including Natural England's Shapwick Heath and RSPB Ham Wall:


Sitta europaea
Phylloscopus collybita
great egret
Egretta alba
lesser redpoll
Carduelis flammea cabaret
lesser black-backed gull
Larus fuscus
Bucephala clangula
Regulus regulus
common snipe
Gallinago gallinago
101tawny owlStrix aluco

2012 Totals
Mammals: 9
Birds: 101
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Monday, 16 January 2012


15th January

Dozing under the famous picture window of Peter Scott's house, from which he and his family watched the lives of generations of Bewick’s swans, was a single vagrant female lesser scaup, trying very hard to look at home among the tufted ducks.


red kite
Milvus milvus
Bewick’s swan
Cygnus columbianus
Botaurus stellaris
lesser scaup
Aythya affinis

Mammals: 9
Birds: 92
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Frost fits the land like a glove

14th January

This once-wetland of the Fens is quick still with wildlife and bright today with frost. By the train’s track the delicate tracery of birch and the drooping grandeur of ash are heavy with hoar. To the east, a long low ledge of cloud is lit by the coming sun.

In the fields a fine-footed company of roe and in the almost-light of the sky above them an effortless buoyancy of rooks. A foxtrot fox and a tumble of hares are here too. This list grows and today is to the mammals.

This train is for London King’s Cross via Ely and Cambridge.


brown hare
Lepus capensis
roe deer
Capreolus capreolus
red fox
Vulpes vulpes


tufted duck
Aythya fuligula
grey heron
Ardea cinerea
Turdus pilaris
Turdus iliacus
Aythya ferina

Mammals: 9
Birds: 88
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

Friday, 13 January 2012


High in the blue beyond, a stock dove, not identifiable by colour or feature, but by feel: a neat double flick of the carpal joint, too confident for a woodpigeon. Close by, a stock dove has a timid choirboy face (a trait shared with common gulls and that's an illusion: a common gull is a rogue!); but in the sky he is a master. His sonorous song too is among my favourites: wooWOO wooWOO. I look forward to it every spring.


stock dove
Columba oenas

2012 Totals
Mammals: 6
Birds: 83
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0