Thursday, 29 March 2012

Changing fortunes

A couple of days ago, my mind still dulled by two sleepless days of planes and trains, I heard a goose call I didn’t recognise. This was odd: I like to think know my geese. This morning I woke before dawn and in the misty stillness of first light I walked along the river. The odd goose call came again and over me flew a pair of coal-necked, snow-bellied barnacles. This is the first time I’ve seen them anywhere along the river. Doubtless they’ve moved here from Pensthorpe where for years there’s been a self-sustaining, though highly sedentary, flock. Twenty-two years ago I began a life of sharing nature with others as a volunteer at Pensthorpe, so I told this morning’s barnacles I’d known their great-great-grandparents. I wonder whether this errant pair spells the start of an explosion of feral barnacles along the river.

This morning was all about waterfowl. Greylags flew over me too; now nothing special by this river, thirty years ago they would have been quite as remarkable as the barnacles were today. Three gadwall whirred by, two males harrying a female; more birds whose fortunes have improved dramatically in Norfolk, in part by human agency. A drake teal sprang from a rushy meadow pool and a pair of patterned shelduck stood by another. A dawn of ducks.

The fields and hedges were bustling too: the gravelly mutterings of linnets, the hesitant tut of a cock yellowhammer, the scraping syncopation of (also feral) red-legged partridges. Everywhere were hares, streaks of caramel across the fresh-tilled earth and flashes of black-white tails as they bounded away. The fields were full of black-headed gulls, their chocolate hoods and breathy calls the signals of their readiness to breed. I thought, as I always do, of Mediterranean gulls. My friend David North, of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, maintains I have a weird affinity with these lovely birds, and it’s true I stumble across them in the oddest places. QED: a little later over a newly-ploughed field there came the once-heard-never-mistaken yelp of this most glorious of gulls. Two celestial beings patrolled their field on bowed silver wings, bound soon no doubt for a breeding throng along the coast. Another immigrant to Norfolk in my lifetime, and most welcome here.

I crossed the road to reach the common and saw in the verge the chalky flowers of Danish scurvy-grass. This canny saltmarsh plant has spread apace along the heavily salted verges of our roads and now is found all over the country, miles and miles from its tidal origins. Nature never stays still and rarely reads the books. We do well to remember it.

Not all species are spreading though, not by far. This morning the RSPB releases the news that starlings have declined by 79% in UK gardens since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979. And as I write an RSPB newsletter falls through my letterbox, full of tales of birds and their habitats in critical need of help. In all the story of humanity nature has never needed our help more urgently, nor we more urgently needed the help of nature.

The barnacles fly again over my rooftop and my laptop, the greylags too. What’s their future along this river? I’ll let you know.

Humans seek out wild landscape. We do so, if not on a daily basis, then certainly on a weekendly basis. We need wild landscapes not to go birdwatching, but to go soul-restoring. These places enrich us. They help us endure life better or enjoy life more.

Simon Barnes
In RSPB Birds, May 2010  

New this morning


Mediterranean gull
Larus melanocephalus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 54
Birds: 433
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 2

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