Monday, 30 April 2012

Too much to tell

All the beauty and the birds of spring were poured into this one bright morning. I woke before five and the sky said it would be blue for just one day. So I forsook my desk, my accounts, my computer and my words and thrust myself into the source of it all. I went to look for nightingales.

There are several nightingale territories on the heath and as I stopped at the first there came a blast of heart-melt song; only a blast, mind, and then a silence, softly studded with the chack of blackcaps. Strong chacks, insistent, what was going on? Aha, a tawny owl, cocoa-blotched, slept in unwonted view on the branch of a hawthorn peeking into jagged leaf.

At a second territory there was no nightingale, but a garden warbler burbled in the lovely free-wheeling way of his species. Behind him, for contrast’s sake, a blackcap burst into happy song. I love garden warblers. I love their kind faces and their subtle mushroominess. I love it that they’re a challenge to hear among the everywhere of blackcaps. I love it that they come each spring to the same quiet places; places that have written themselves into my story and will be written into the stories of naturalists yet unborn.

The third territory had no nightingale, nor the fourth. But here was a lesser whitethroat. Sometimes I amuse myself thinking that if you laid a chaffinch’s descending clatter on its side you’d have a lesser whitethroat’s hollow rattle. Years ago, as I conducted a birdsong workshop – actually conducted, with my hands – I was asked whether I saw birdsong in shapes and I realised that I did. A chaffinch’s song, as any right-thinking naturalist will agree, is shaped \_ and a lesser whitethroat’s is shaped --- (though it’s often introduced with a little under-his-breath scratchiness borrowed from his common whitethroat cousin).

At Cley, house martins were again in their busy cloud around Watcher’s Cottage and all about the grazing marshes were swifts, desperate for a mouthful of midge after days and days of rain. From Daukes’ I watched a posse of pochard in display, a sight I’ve never seen before. Three drakes stretched their necks and swelled their throats and pointed in towards a single duck, each in turn giving two so-soft quacks then a wheezy croon like a distant eider.

A lone fieldfare flapped west, wondering no doubt where winter had gone, but the reed-bed had surrendered to the spring. Sedge warblers trilled and dived, reed warblers (all five of them unseen) scratched and stalled, and Cetti’s warblers shouted. At the south end of the East Bank a newly green elder, poking from the reed, purred dryly with the song of a grasshopper warbler.

All along the East Bank the pungent alexanders quivered with birds. Wheatears bobbed and willow warblers whispered here; and for a moment a cock whinchat, bound for some bleak grouse moor to the north, perched in a wisp of reed. A whimbrel, last seen in the great salty gloop of the Sunderbans in February, gargled overhead and the sea was noisy with the scrapy three-note calls of Sandwich terns.

Back on the heath, hoping to see my nightingale, instead I saw a moth. My friendship with moths is many years old but has sadly faded to occasional encounters. Only a few stand out in my memory, like this one, Adela reaumurella, a tiny, day-flying speck of bronze-green brightness with tremendous antennae tipped in white.

At my mother’s a male orange-tip skipped under a blousy beige Yukon cherry, only my second of the year, thanks to the Noye’s Fludde weather we’ve been having. At Alethorpe a kestrel plunged to the verge and surged up carrying a vole (perhaps a field vole, which I still need for my list). And at home, over the pond, are swallows, swifts and house martins. All nature is alive to the spring and, after days of grey, I too.

New this morning


garden warbler
Sylvia borin
lesser whitethroat
Sylvia curruca
grasshopper warbler
Locustella naevia
Saxicola rubetra

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 455
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Trade secrets

I was up at four today to lead a birdsong workshop for Norfolk Wildlife Trust at Reffley Wood, where the Woodland Trust is coaxing broad-leaved trees and an ancient woodland under-storey to take back what had become a plantation of non-native conifers. They’re doing a great job.

At this time of year I do lots of early birdsong walks (two next weekend plus a workshop on bumblebees; very soggy bumblebees at this rate). What I hope participants will take from these workshops is the understanding that nature gets more and more enjoyable – dare I say more life-enhancing? – the more you invest your energies and interest in it; and that, in the case of birdsong, it doesn’t matter what the experts say or the books say – it doesn’t even matter whether you know what bird you're listening to – as long as the experience is valuable to you. I don’t give a stuff whether participants go home certain they can identify blackcap song from garden warbler song (believe me, they never can), as long as they’re fascinated by bird sounds and want to let birds and bird noises further into their lives.

(Have I started to sound like a self-help manual? The dunnock piping in my garden seems to agree with me at least.)

To me the most important thing when learning birdsong is grasping the personalities of the songs. The best way to learn is to pinpoint what the sound makes you think or feel. Once you can say, ‘That’s the trickly one that makes me feel wistful,’ you can easily move to, ‘It makes me feel wistful so it must be a robin.’

Or that’s the theory.

Here then are a few of my feelings on birds' songs, as we discussed them yesterday morning, a cold, bleak day on which relatively little was to be heard. Participants on my workshops don’t have to agree with them. Certainly not! In fact the moment a participant challenges one of my descriptions my little ornithological heart leaps for joy; for it’s then that he or she is starting his or her own relationship with birdsong. And I become irrelevant, which is what it’s all about.

Yesterday’s cast in order of appearance:

Chiffchaff: Does exactly what it says on the tin. A couple of other birds have rocking two-note songs but a chiffchaff’s is heavy and is slightly off the beat, slightly syncopated, giving a mild feeling of sea-sickness. Lifejackets recommended. A chiffchaff also generally introduces his loud song with a series of quiet, understated chirps.

Coal tit: In some loopy parallel universe it would be possible to confuse chiffchaff, great tit and coal tit songs, but each has a distinct personality. Coal tit song, like the little bird making it, is small and bright and pretty, much more delicate in tone than great tit. Coal tits habitually put all their emphasis on one of their two notes so, to me, it sounds like tsiWEEE tsiWEEE tsiWEEE or itsy witsy teeny weeny.

Chaffinch: Chaffinch song is easy, really, really easy. It sounds like Tom Daley standing on the edge of a diving board and losing his nerve (I am sure Tom Daley never loses his nerve on the edge of a diving board but you get my image). Someone gives him a jab in the small of the back and he falls off, finally hitting the water with a big splash. To me the whole thing sounds like dig dig dig dig (hesitates) diddly diddly diddly diddly (falls) CHINK (hits water). That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Wren: Succintly put, wrens sound like Rossini. Fast, bright, confident, rapidly-changing and cheerful. Unlike Rossini they often put in a loud dry drilling sequence which, even if you’re not familiar with the rest of the song, is a giveaway.

Robin: Some people confuse robin song and wren song. How? How is that possible? Wren is confidence and attitude while robin is wistfulness and introspection. Wren is Rossini to robin’s Debussy. Robins sound to me like water trickling over the pebbly bottom of a stream. Their song is heart-breakingly sad but at the same time you yearn for more. I have heard thousands of bird species vocalise all over the world and I have heard almost nothing equal in beauty to a robin.

Goldcrest: Goldcrest song is the ultimate in fine and high, and it’s sadly inaudible to many, especially older, listeners. Like coal tit song, it’s most often heard from conifers or, in the absence of these, from dense ivy. To me a goldcrest says diddlydee diddlydee diddlydee diddlydee chirrup in the finest most silvery voice imaginable.

Woodpigeon: Woodpigeons are very common indeed and the only song with which you could confuse theirs is a collared dove's. Collared doves, which in the UK live mostly in gardens, have a happy-sounding, albeit rather vacuous, three-note song: be CAREful be CAREful. Woodpigeons, by contrast, have a heavy, almost censorious tone. Their basic refrain is five notes in length, BE CAREFUL children, but it’s arranged into a complex and strangely beautiful whole:

Careful children
BE CAREFUL children
BE CAREFUL children

Blackcap: Blackcaps sound happy and fruity. In this respect they are like blackbirds but their song is faster and more jumbled (more on blackbirds in a moment). I was asked on yesterday’s walk how to tell blackcap song from garden warbler’s (which we didn’t hear). Garden warbler sounds a little faster-paced throughout and has a pebbly quality which is lacking from blackcap’s song. Blackcap also starts with a scratchy section, often quieter and with a hint of whitethroat about it, before bursting into unadulterated rich fruitiness (I'm making it sound a bit Marks and Spencer Christmas cake, but blackcap song really is fruity). Garden warbler starts as it means to go on (no contrast between initial scratchy notes and later fruity loveliness) and generally sings a longer song than blackcap. Both are wonderful singers.

Blackbird: Blackbird song is the sound of cucumber sandwiches in a vicarage garden in summer. Lovely, rich, languid, it could only really be confused with mistle thrush. Mistle thrush tends to start singing earlier in the year (though there’s plenty of overlap), often sings from very high in a tall tree and sounds like an opera-singer who is starting to forget the words: bursting into a loud Wagnerian melody and soon tailing off as if drifting into dementia. Blackbird song, by contrast, has a rocking quality and ends very abruptly, as though the bird had been grabbed by the neck, often with a small squawk (which helps you to visualise the hapless bird being snatched).

Yes, we were very chuffed to hear a singing firecrest extremely well and, briefly, to hear a second male responding. If you ironed the song of a goldcrest you would have the song of a firecrest. Take away the goldcrest twiddle and you end up with a very high song that’s flat, fast and lisping, a sort of pseee pseee pseee pseee pseee psEEE psEEE. Firecrest gets more insistent towards the end of its song and sounds somehow more urgent than goldcrest.

Song thrush: Up there with chaffinch where mastering-it-on-your-first-birdsong-workshop is concerned. A song thrush is a one-trick horse. He shouts a short phrase very loudly in a high bright tone around five or six times. He then shouts another short phrase half a dozen times. Then another. The effect is something like Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob… Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer… Nigel Nigel Nigel Nigel… Bob Bob Bob.

Great tit: The great tit is the politician of the birdsong world. He never says anything of significance but he always says it with tremendous confidence and with a conviction that it’s his voice, above all others, which ought to be heard. The tone is bright and strong (unlike coal tit which can say some of the same things) and the phrases, like so many of our politicians, are simple. The classic great tit song is a rocking great tit great tit great tit great tit but it’s common to hear repetitive one note chimes, lopsided two note chimes (strongly reminiscent of coal tit), even three-note or more complex phrases, all delivered with the same look-me-in-the-eye-I’m-telling-the-truth absolute conviction. I love great tits but to me they will always be the politicians of our woods in spring. Noise, conviction, light on substance.

Blue tit: Blue tit song is lovely. It has a bright silvery tone and one or two long, accented notes before a string of faster notes. The effect to me is something like P diddy diddy diddy or P P P diddy diddy diddy.

Marsh tit: In Spring Wood, nearby, we heard a single singing marsh tit (how appropriate to this blog). Marsh tit song is a fast series of very strident, bright chips. Though simple in structure, it’s almost wren-like in its confidence and tone.

Pheasant: Everyone in Norfolk knows the rough two-note crowing of a cock pheasant. Since, according to good old Google Earth, we were only three-and-a-half miles from Wolferton, we compared and contrasted it with the rarely-heard song of the golden pheasant. The latter also has a two-note crow but, unlike common pheasant in which the two notes are at the same pitch and the accent falls on the first note, the accent of a golden pheasant’s crow falls on the second note, which rises sharply and has the explosively fizzy tone of a shaken drinks can being opened.

Next weekend I’m leading a dawn chorus walk for the Hawk and Owl Trust at Sculthorpe Moor and another for Norfolk Wildlife Trust in the Walks in King’s Lynn. Tune in again for corny descriptions of the songs of reed and sedge warblers, nuthatches and, who knows, even the odd cuckoo.

Early summer days are a jubilee time for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp – everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeters and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says “Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallow swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.

E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web

Friday, 27 April 2012


The air was full of hints and signs. There was a flicker and a swishing along the river like the breezy snip-snap of barbers’ scissors before they swoop and slice. It was the skimming and twirling of newly arrived swifts.

Patrick Leigh Fermor
A Time of Gifts

New today


common swift
Apus apus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 451
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A little tiny wit

He that has a little tiny wit
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day.

William Shakespeare
King Lear


This has been the longest hiatus in writing since this marsh tit chipped its tiny egg at the end of last year. So long, in fact, that you might even call it a trial separation. I’ve been busy, marshtitters: busy hands and busy head. And it’s been raining. And raining.

However, I hate a hiatus so here’s a quick round-up of recent events chez marsh tit:

1)      Along the river the scritchity-scratchity song of a whitethroat is now to be heard and sedge warblers are back in force.

2)      My mother and I wandered through the rain in NWT Thursford Wood, which is quite my favourite Norfolk bluebell wood. The bluebells hadn’t quite happened but wood anemones, moschatel and wood sorrel were braving the dismal weather and many other ancient woodland plants – sanicle, pignut, wood speedwell, red campion, herb Bennett – were in leaf and bud and promising to look lovely very soon. Over the Andersons’ grave, which, according to their wishes on leaving the wood to NWT, is gently crumbling to nothing, a dense-flowered lavender-blue Rhododendron is in bloom. I know I’m not supposed to like non-natives but it’s part of the history of human custody of this long-managed landscape, it looks magnificent, and the Andersons were friends of my great-grandparents who farmed at Jex Farm in Little Snoring.

3)      A reed warbler was singing at Cley on Sunday but I couldn’t see him so he doesn’t count. I shall have to go back. I can probably cope with that.

4)      On Tuesday I led a bioblitz for NWT in Thetford. It rained but hardy souls still turned out to listen to clattering chaffinches and identify weeds poking through the tarmac and out of the walls of the mill.

5)      On my way to Thetford I stopped at Lynford. From an old hedge of hornbeams, in the rain, naturally, came a sharp tik tik: too sharp for a robin by far. Hello, I thought to myself (I may even have said it aloud as I spend far too much time alone), here be hawfinches. Despite craning my neck and bobbing up and down like a drug-crazed meerkat (Compare The… get it?) I saw no hawfinch. So I trundled along to a damp stream clothed in alders. A treecreeper trilled, a nuthatch tip-tip-tip-ped and a garden warbler (unseen, much like the reed warbler at Cley on Sunday) launched into his stony free-association jumble of a song. On the way back to the car park (through the rain) I heard again the sharp tik from the hornbeams. Again I craned, again I bobbed. A solid shape sprang from the top of the hedge, with a Hulk-Hoganesque neck and a strong flash of white through the wing like an eyebrow raised in surprise. Hawfinch.

6)      Bird cherry was in flower by the stream at Lynford and wild cherry all along the road from here to Thetford. Just lovely.

7)      This morning I have a cold and the sky is still grey. But there are house sparrows in the eaves, peregrine chicks are hatching all over the country, and swifts are all over Twitter. Soon they’ll be back over the pond too.

8)      As I write a swallow calls outside. Hello swallow.

One of the things I like best about animals in the wild is that they're always off on some errand. They have appointments to keep. It's only we humans who wonder what we're here for.

Diane Ackerman
The Moon by Whale Light

New since last we spoke


Sylvia communis
Coccothraustes coccothraustes

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 450
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Heath doggerel

These words happened to me, quite suddenly, on Salthouse Heath and thereabouts this morning. I am a little sheepish about them but, as Lear and most of Hardy's heroines well know, worse things happen on heaths.

I am this just back whitethroat song,
The vanished weak the singing strong,
Winging two continents along,
I am the heartless spring.

I am the not yet nightingale,
The blossom blackthorn fading frail,
A great tit chime a curlew wail,
I am I am the spring.

I am the muntjac mudprint hoof,
I am the spring sky cyan roof,
I am the low cloud cold reproof,
I am the spring I am.

I am the little bit of bread,
The yellowhammer's yellow head,
The yellow gorse the pheasant red,
The growing living and the dead,
I am the spring.

I am the lapwing tumble now,
The muddy hoof contented cow,
The orange greylag beady brow,
Life I death I am spring.

I am the snapped twig heart of spring,
In words in birds in chiffchaff ring,
I am the chaffinch clattering,
The spring the spring I am the spring.

I am all nature savagery,
The lark aloft cacophony,
This brittle reedstem symphony,
I am this brittle spring.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Multimedia marsh tit

Or: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

I have a dark secret that I’ve been keeping from you, loyal marshtitters. Sometimes I suffer from blog-envy. Sometimes I look at the blogs of friends, colleagues and mortal enemies, so shiny and pretty and full of interesting pictures, and I feel ashamed of my little marsh tit. Poor imageless, wordy little marsh tit. You see I’m a dyed-in-the-wool non-photographer. Mention ISOs or depths of field and my little eyes glaze over and I start thinking about what I’m going to have for supper. And I’m not much of a cook either.

Weighed down by the dreariness of my marsh tit I turned, as so often in times of gloom, to my great friend DTH. We left with the lark (two literal larks as it happens: a woodlark over Salthouse Heath and lots of skylarks) for a morning of watching wildlife and putting the blog to rights. We went first to Salthouse where the aforementioned lark (you remember, the one we were up with) was over the road. A short distance further nine ring ouzels were over the road too, tack-ing loudly as they flew west. Willow warblers were in song, and chiffchaffs.

But it was gloomy and grey and wet and so too was my mood.

We drove the short distance to Kelling and began the walk to the Water Meadows. Along the lane here a blackcap was singing his happy song, in exactly the spot where DTH had filmed a singing male blackcap, as I stood watching, a couple of years ago.

DTH: I tell you what. I’ve just started uploading my videos to my YouTube feed. Why don’t you embed my videos in your blog? That’ll liven it up a bit.

Marsh tit: Dave, what a brilliant idea. Thank you.

We walked a little further, to the pond, where swallows, sand martins and a single house martin swept and swooped over the cold grey water. Here we bumped into our friend Moss Taylor, just back from a long trip around the coasts of South America and buzzing with stories of albatrosses, prions and petrels. As we stood and chatted in the drizzle and the mud, meadow pipits and linnets passed overhead, lisping and muttering as they went.

We wandered back up the muddy lane, following the footprints of last night’s badger. Though I’d dearly like a badger on my list, just seeing a badger’s prints in Norfolk is a delight. As a child in North Norfolk this would have been unimaginable. It's wonderful to have them back. But enough cheeriness: back to my blog-induced gloom.

We hopped next to Cley where I had a meeting with my friend, generous, insightful yoga teacher Susanna Scamell. I confess I’ve been keeping another secret from you: I’m also a yoga teacher. And Susanna has asked me to help teach an upcoming workshop. We nattered and chatted over coffee and tea, gazed out over the marsh (grazing greylags, flap-wing lapwings, harried harriers and mate-minded mallards), and made a plan for our workshop.

Time to rejoin DTH in the hides. As I did so I rescued a brown-lipped snail Cepaea nemoralis from certain death under a birder's boot on the board-walk (appropriately enough as the genetics of this highly variable snail were the subject of DTH’s Ph.D. thesis), I admired the sharp green new growth of wild celery, and I came across a singing Cetti’s warbler in a tangle of bramble.

Marsh tit: Dave, I’ve just seen my first Cetti’s warbler of the year.

DTH: Oh, I took a photo of one here the other day. Do you want to post it on your blog?

Marsh tit: Dave, that’s excellent. Thanks.

DTH: By the way, there was a little gull feeding in front of Bishop’s while you were gone.

Marsh tit: There it is now. Shall we go and see it?

We saw it. DTH photographed it. Doesn’t it look lovely, sooty underwings and all? (Commercial Break: more of Dave’s photos of wildlife in Norfolk and all over the world may be found here).

What's more, we saw a parachuting sedge warbler, also the first one on which I’ve set eyes in 2012, four spoonbills, an adult Mediterranean gull, a tight flock of bar-tailed godwits and a sky-full of marsh harriers. We had lunch at DTH’s, where the garden was busy with bramblings in the full eye-thump of spring plumage and an exquisitely chestnut tawny mining bee Andrena fulva buzzed past between visits to nectar-laden flowers.

Do you know, I mused to myself over beans on toast, with the help of my friends this blog may yet look pretty too.

New this morning


Cetti’s warbler
Cettia cetti
little gull
Larus minutus
sedge warbler
Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 448
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

J. K. Galbraith said, ‘anyone who says he finds writing easy is either a terrible writer or a terrible liar.’ I do not find witing easy, nor is application one of my outstanding qualities. Like a twittering bird, my mind too often flits from twig to twig – from one fascinating subject to another.

Peter Scott
Observations of Wildlife

For a writer, nothing is ever as bad as it is for other people because, however dreadful, it may be of use.

Alan Bennett
Untold Stories

Thursday, 19 April 2012


A last reminiscence from my life in Bolivia:

In my first year in Bolivia, aged twenty-four, I went to live in Flor de Oro; and it was here that I became a naturalist. It is a place of joinings and of junctions. Here the exhausted Pre-Cambrian uplands of the Brazilian Shield, golden with their grasslands and gallery forests, collide with the swelter and hum of Amazonia. Here a river, an Amazon tributary’s tributary, divides two nations and is named two names: Guaporé to the north in Brazil and Iténez on the Bolivian shore to the south. Land meets water here and they tussle for turf. From December to March water has the upper hand, taking savannahs and varzeas for her own, and peopling them with fish and globe-eyed caimans. From August to October the dusty land has his revenge. And so continue their squabbles from year to year.

South of the river the people are indigenous. The true natives, the forest-clad Guarasugwe, are all but extinct, with only seven speakers of their language known while I lived there. They had been replaced by Chiquitanos, their nearest neighbours to the south, who had trickled here in suit of successive waves of prosperity: first rubber, later caiman skins and live macaws, and finally mahogany. On the Bolivian shore, everyone’s face was brown and round, a complexion like fresh conkers, and like them wrinkling quickly with age in this sun-cursed land. To the north of the river, in this remotest outpost of Brazil, forgotten in the malarial flooded forests, no indigenous people smiled their broad white smiles now. Here were African blacks, lean and handsome, and East European whites – polacos - of a startling whiteness shared in the Amazon by only manakins’ throats and peccaries’ muzzles.

Flor de Oro was a forest outpost, forbidden to anyone but wiry guards and one scrawny newbie naturalist from Norfolk. My first journey there was the dawn of my Bolivian life. It was February and on our way to Flor de Oro we landed in a little Cessna at El Refugio, in the south-west corner of the one-and-a-half million hectare park, to carry out a continent-wide, twice-yearly census of waterbirds. Southern screamers belched and yodelled from the tips of trees too tiny by far to bear their ridiculously plump bodies; blue-and-yellow macaws quivered their endless tails over the dark consommé of the river; hoatzins bashed through the trees and wheezed like smokers of forty a day; and giant otters – giant otters! – bobbed beside us, pushing the stench of their breath into our dugout.

North from here to Flor de Oro. We flew through an angry Amazon storm in a flimsy hull of metal and my years-long friendship with Chichi the pilot was born. A kindly man of European descent, he feigned loss of control of the plane as we passed through the lightning-spitting clouds and turned to me with a wink and a thumbs-up once we had left the inky clouds beneath. Clearly I had not looked as cool as I had hoped.

Nor did I look so cool when I arrived in Flor de Oro. Years later, by now great friends and conspirators in countless tall tales, the park’s guards confessed that, on first meeting me, their judgement had been: no aguanta; he won’t make it. Our disagreements began with a shit. Stepping from the plane onto the grass runway I was very chuffed to spot maned wolf scat. My mistake was to tell the guards. Doors came down. The scrawny, Spanish-mangling newbie had crossed a line. No. Everyone knew there were no maned wolves here. In the south of the park, yes. In the east too. But here in the north, no maned wolves. Aquí no hay borochi. Get it, newbie?

Stalemate. I stayed for months, working on a study of black-and-tawny seedeaters, a sweet bird found breeding only in a few inundated termite mound savannahs. Every day I would wander for hours through flooded pampas and through forests, mesmerised by the treasures which scampered and hopped through the trees around me. And most days I would find two types of canid poo. The crab-eating foxes, as scrawny and parasite-ridden as I was, left their little poos everywhere. But something else left heftier turds. Fewer but unmistakably heftier and full of the seeds of the tomatillo, the borochi’s favourite Solanaceae.

The guards stolidly continued to deny the existence of the borochi in Flor de Oro and I fumed. It became a great joke all over the park and guards in remote camps, whom I had never met, knew that the skinny gringo in Flor de Oro, who didn’t even eat meat, was hell-bent on finding the beast there. But the beast was in no mood to be found. A day of peculiar frustration saw me enter an island of forest in the grassland and emerge half an hour later to find fresh borochi shit steaming on the same path by which I had entered.

And it wasn’t just the days. By night I would sit at the top of the observation tower in camp, clutching my trusty Maglite, watching the comings and goings of the foxes, until the whining veil of mosquitoes drove me in. And always, by the following morning, there would be fresh turds in camp. Hefty turds. The final straw came late one night. I had sat in the top of the tower until one o’clock, when I heard a boat arriving from Brazil, bringing with it the manager of the camp’s basic tourist facilities. Game over, I thought: no chance of my borochi tonight. So I gave up and went to bed.

The next morning Olga the tourism manager beamed at me over breakfast. Ví tu borochi. I saw your wolf. I got back late and, when I turned on the lights in the kitchen, there he was, staring in at me. Seconds after I had left my vigil the wolf had walked right by!

Radios all over the park buzzed with the news. Only by now, instead of arms’-length condescension, I was viewed with amusement and with chuckling comradeship by the whole family of the park. I had survived the sweat-drenched wet season and what’s more I’d chosen to slog through it, day after day, alone in the forest. This was a source of grudging respect, that I would tread the snake- and jaguar- and mosquito-infested paths by myself for hours each day. ¿No tienes miedo? Aren’t you afraid?

The watershed had come in April, still in the days of standoff, when in the mud at the edge of a dwindling savannah pool I had found unmistakeably the long-clawed tracks of a maned wolf. I diligently sketched a footprint, life-sized, in my notebook and rushed back to the doubting guards. They fell over themselves to decry my discovery. Es la londra – it’s a giant otter – said Lerlis, stretching credibility to nourish our disagreement. The head guard Javier, a strong, masculine man and a natural leader, heard the discussion and came over. Es el borochi. That’s a borochi print. Enough said. Borochis were in Flor de Oro and the skinny gringo could stay. He’d been right.

Right perhaps but still incapable of finding the damned wolf. One morning I left the camp in the gloaming and returned, hours later, filthy and exhausted, to be met by my now-good-friends the guards beaming uncontrollably. The borochi has been wandering round camp all morning. They told the story as if they themselves had discovered the rare animal’s presence in this new stretch of the park.

But good things come, they say, to those who wait. Soon afterwards I was leading a private tour for a delightful couple from the United States. We sat at dinner, my clients the only tourists in months, in the screen-sided dining room. Chichi the pilot and I sat facing inwards, while my clients sat facing out towards the night. The lady of the couple gave suddenly a tiny whimper of surprise. Chichi and I turned to look out and there, peering in over my shoulder, a metre away, stood the borochi. I surrender, his look said. You’ve played a good game. He stared at us for a moment, unafraid, and swayed off into the night, out of the pool of our dining room’s light, on his absurdly spindly legs.

Later there were other borochis. There were jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters and innumerable tapirs. But with this borochi no other memory from Bolivia compares.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Dogs and more greenfinches

This afternoon was cold and grey and wet: fickle April. The phone rang. It was my mother, asking for help with her two gorgeous galumphing golden retrievers. They had eaten their bed while she was out and needed an emetic to bring said bed out of the top end of their digestive systems rather than the, generally more complex and expensive, bottom end.

I met her at the vets'; we spent a pleasant half-hour in the near-arctic drizzle with two dogs puking bed-stuffing on our toes.

There were greenfinches there too.

We keep two dogs in our home; we love them very much and they are excellent watchdogs; but most important of all they provide a kind of evolutionary perspective which puts us, as humans, in our proper place in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom. This relationship, which man has so frequently and flagrantly abused, is one of the most important elements that needs cultivating in our evolutionary progress towards a higher state of civilization.

Peter Scott
Observations of Wildlife

Cepe culón

A swallow was the first bird I noticed from my windows this morning and now there's a greenfinch singing in the street. There's never a greenfinch singing in the street. But today there is, and I hope he stays. These are the little pleasures that come from watching wildlife and letting wildlife watch you.

All this week I'm stuck indoors, with reports, accounts and plans, so I'll continue rooting out memories from Bolivia. This was written, in another context, in November last year:

November was also the month of the cepe culón; literally the big-arsed leaf-cutters. These winged automata, so briefly virgin, would emerge in clouds on heavy November days. Two-centimetres in length and disarmingly mechanical, each red-tan insect sported a large, perfectly round bum, charged with the fat, the eggs, the life necessary for forging her own colony. For singing her stanza of the song.

But most would never do so. These fat packets of protein were a too-good titbit to miss and all the birds of the barrio would swing into a frenzy on these cepe days. The flat black maúris – smooth-billed anis – would hop and shimmy round the emerging ants in an ecstasy of gluttony. With them would come their dishevelled cousins the sereres, flop-crested guira cuckoos, wagging their improbable tails and gargling their high sci-fi trills. On power lines above, the more circumspect tropical kingbirds sat in wait, the hot yellow of their bellies melting into their clean grey chests through a no-man’s-land of exquisite olive.

One November day friends and I walked for miles along the railway track, bound for the Chaco, which leaves the city to the south at Palmasola. This had been a common jaunt during the early days of my Bolivian life but by now work and responsibilities had conspired to render this walk rare. That day saw a magnificent emergence of cepe. The ants clicked their stiff legs along the hot metal track and we watched as, their flying done and their subterranean life beginning, they scraped off their own wings with their feet.

From the hot grass of these sandy pampas the big red-winged tinamous whistled their four-note plaints, answered by the sad single note of a white-bellied nothura. On fenceposts perched skinny-chicken upland sandpipers, newly here; and the chiñi – the burrowing owl – scowled his fierce scowl before flapping away as if tugged by crude strings.

Yes, these grasslands of Santa Cruz were a home to me and it is happy to recall them now.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bolivia and a storm

I drive to Reepham through the rain and on the radio Stravinsky scowls and crashes in C major. Stravinsky alone can scowl in the key of C major.

On a day when my thoughts have turned back to Bolivia, so too do the thoughts of the press team at BirdLife International whose partner in Bolivia, Armonía, where many good friends work, has published a report on the state of Bolivia's birds. In my heart I still hear the angry shriek of the blue-throated macaw in a beniano flooded grassland and see the handsome liver-chested Cochabamba mountain-finch perched atop a straggling queñua tree high by an Andean pass. I miss them but I'm happy Armonía and other tireless NGOs are there to fight for them.

In the afternoon the sun appears, a blackbird sings, a swallow hawks over the pond, and my one fat common carder makes her daily visit to green alkanet in the tangle of my back garden. Then lightning comes in the south; big drops of rain bang my windows and weep down them to the drought-weak earth.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

William Shakespeare
King Lear

I killed a man with a frog

In June I will be travelling to Peru to lead a wildlife-watching holiday. This will be my first South American adventure in more than four years since, at the start of 2008, I left behind a decade-long sojourn in Bolivia. After such a long immersion in Latin landscapes, the wildlife on the tour is all familiar to me. However, I'll admit it, faced with the world's greatest avifauna after almost five years away, I'm feeling rusty, so I'm spending time each evening revising the birds of Peru from the books. This itself is a luxury, as when I moved to South America in 1997 there were almost no books. No Ecuador book, no Peru book, no comprehensive Brazil book, no Chile book, a venerable Venezuela book, a lame Argentina book and a fast-ageing book of the birds of a then-inaccessible country far to the north: Colombia.

As I read the excellent Birds of Peru, the product of a quarter-century of research by many of the Americas' finest ornithologists, birds I once held as close friends fly hesitantly from the forests of my memory: trogons, tapaculos, toucans and tyrant flycatchers. I'm reminded too of a life I once lived in Latin America and of things I have felt and said and written about it. So I've hauled out some thoughts I wrote last year for a project which foundered in a sudden and surprising way. They bring back to me my South American life and a happy, creative time more recently.

Here is the first of them, in which I killed a man with a frog:

In November and December the rains came. September was dry, and hot winds from the north stirred the dusty streets and punished your eyes. October was sulky and small rains came, as if scouting a way for the big rains to come. But in November they came with purpose. Once a rhythm had been established, each day was the same: sweaty hot through the morning and at noon, swelling to a climax of rain in the afternoon. And once a week, sometimes less frequently, the whole day would be surrendered to the rain. The streets would flood, the buses wouldn’t run and the cambas would laugh their big laughs and enjoy the green and the sweat and the mosquitoes nature had sent them.

This was a fat time, after the mean dry dust of the tiempo seco. Now everyone breathed. The trees had flowered already during the dry, when no leaves stood in the way of their pollinators. In November they gave their energies to leaves: the sharp green five-fingered hands of the toborochis and the long leathery lobes of the yellow tajibos.

It was a time of noise too. After the all-day-rains each puddle and lank tuft of grass throbbed and clamoured with frogs, each singing his stanza of the song of life. Breed now, breed! On genes, on! The weird, sagging booow! of Physalaemus biligonigerus and the clogged-sinus yowl of P. albonotatus. In the cistern of our loo lived a putty-like Phrynohyas venulosa with burnished eyes. He cannily used the porcelain chamber to amplify his mooing song and was a favourite of mine.

I once, quite unwittingly, killed a man with this frog. Our housekeeper was Aymará, a woman of remarkable grace and beauty, born on the shores of Titikaka. Though Jehovah’s Witnesses, she and her husband maintained an Aymará’s belief in a world of dark spirits, near beneath the surface of our tangible world. And frogs, as everyone knows, are among the darkest of all: portents of evil and bringers of doom.

Their son, a sweet boy, badly affected by hydrocephaly in infancy, loved animals and was my firm friend. One day, while gardening I found a Phrynohyas and, mindful of the toxins in its skin, put it on a leaf to show the little boy. I strode to him bearing this treasure, quite forgetting the Andean fear-world of his parents. His father blenched and pushed his boy indoors, away from evil.

That evening news came from La Paz that the father’s uncle had died. For weeks he wore dark shirts and, perhaps I imagine it, shot me pained looks. I was, from that day on, wary of showing people frogs.

Monday, 16 April 2012

This weekend I...

1) Was visited by my south-coast-dwelling friends Hannah and Rosie. Hannah and I worked together during my first year at Norfolk Wildlife Trust and she now works at Chartwell. Rosie is a horse-whisperer, a genuine really-not-making-this-up horse-whisperer, who has trained and worked for years with Monty Roberts. So my house was full this weekend of stories of Churchill's Moroccan paintings, horses in therapy, digging for victory, worm-charming and belemnites on West Runton beach.

2) Visited Sarah at the luminous Pinkfoot Gallery in Cley, went weak-kneed at the paintings on the walls, wished to be rich enough to fill my house with them and developed a crush on a barn owl print. Offers of gifts gratefully received.

3) Dawdled with Hannah round our old stomping-ground, NWT Cley Marshes, tried goose-whispering with a handsome, contented pair of greylags in a grazing marsh, stopped to listen to the chesty display of a lapwing and marvelled - again, I know, again - at marsh harriers over a still winter-gold reed-bed.

4) Taught a beginners' birding workshop at Sculthorpe Moor, watched still more harriers in buoyant display, listened to the nose-blocked sneezing of a marsh tit, sniffed garlic mustard, smiled at burnt-sugar bank voles darting beneath the feeders and stroked the first fractal shoots of wild angelica in a damp wood.

5) Heard a Mediterranean gull as we sat around my kitchen table - a slab of an oak tree from my great-grandfather's North Norfolk farm - drinking bitterly delicious coffee at breakfast.

6) Was grateful to live in North Norfolk and to share such wondrous places with my friends.

The journey through the rolling countryside of north Norfolk always feels to me like crossing over into another land, another state of mind.

Roger Deakin
Waterlog, A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain

Saturday, 14 April 2012


Cley. Swallow. Swallow. Swallow. Hang on, you're not a swallow. You're a sand martin. Lovely to see you.

New this afternoon


sand martin
Riparia riparia

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 445
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Pesto and a newt

13th March

Home-made pesto, from home-grown basil, for lunch at DTH and Bizz's. Yum. Thank you. A brambling in their garden.

A female smooth newt in a dipping tray at Kelling Heath in the afternoon. At once strong and fragile. Siskins and bramblings call in the woods by the pond: tiuw and bzheeep respectively.

In the middle of the pond, fish surface to bask. Rudd or roach. Roach or rudd. Rudd I think but I can't see enough to be sure. I'm working on it.

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you have never had cause to be glad you have a nose, pesto might lift you to new realms of nasal appreciation. One of the most aromatic of human concoctions, pesto is to your kitchen as the first hyacinth of spring is to your garden.

Mollie Katzen
The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Other Timeless Delicacies

New this afternoon


smooth newt
Lissotriton vulgaris

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 444
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Friday, 13 April 2012

Soave sia il vento

I could not sleep last night, my mind migrating the waves and mountains of this complicatedly simple world. I set my iPod to shuffle and tried to doze. As I half-slept the sublime, arresting strains of Soave sia il vento brought me back to consciousness. The women pour their sadness at their suitors' feigned departure into prayers for their safe return. May the wind be gentle, may the wave be calm, may all the elements submit to our desires.

This month sees many journeys, among my friends. Friends feathered and featherless. I lie in bed with all these journeys in my mind. Some friends will sit in planes, crossing the Atlantic in both directions. In Asia the moaning bar-headed geese that studded India's lowlands are soon to cross the mighty mountains of Himalaya. In my once-home in Bolivia, vermillion flycatchers start to appear in the garden no doubt, fleeing the coming cold of the Southern Cone. Here, at the tipping point of spring, we wait for reed warblers, tree pipits and nightingales, winging through the night, surfing the stars, knowing the pull of the earth. It's silly, I know, but every tiny corpse which falls in the vastness of the Saharan nothing or in the salty Mediterranean pains me.

Soave sia il vento. May the wind be kind.

Soave sia il vento
Tranquilla sia l'onda
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai nostri desir.

Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Così fan tutte

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A day in six acts

Act One: a cottage by a river. A swallow calls over a duckling-dotted pond. Two lesser black-backs chase away a buzzard from the common. A common gull flies with them, shrieking all the while with glee.

Act Two: a garden in North Norfolk. Bizz and DTH weed their beautiful Alpine, Pyrenean and Mediterranean gravel-slopes. Pasque flowers, cowslips, saxifrages and gentians are visited by bees; among them a handsome red mason bee Osmia rufa. Fat tadpoles wiggle their tails blithely in the pond, oblivious to the blackbird who lurks in the hedge and soon will stalk the pond's edge and gobble them.

Act Three: a stony breck called the Hangs, on the ridge above Salthouse and Cley. Enter two naturalists: DTH and a marsh tit. The scene is scattered with the pointillist azure flowers of early forget-me-not. Glossy rooks high-step over the flint-strewn ground and shimmer in the splendid afternoon sun. A kestrel sits sentinel in a sycamore.

A loud tack-tack-tack is heard, harder than a fieldfare, less welly, more tap-shoe. In a hedge sit two male ring ouzels, wild, frost-winged and wonderful. On the breck slope above are wheatears, summoned as though from no-where. Pewter-and-black males and warm cinnamon females scud over the stony ground and flash their eponymous arses.

Act Four: NWT Cley Marshes, arguably the world's finest nature reserve (biased, who, me?). There's so much going on here that the whole thing could well have been directed by Baz Luhrmann (cue: Diamond's Are a Girl's Best Friend). Winter ducks and ducks who'll stay to breed, all in their shiniest nuptial plumage, doze at the water's edge: shoveler, wigeon, pintail, teal, pochard, tufted duck and gadwall. Eight mallard drakes pass in winged pursuit of a single duck; the look in her eye reveals she rues leaving her nest. An island of willows in a reed-bed hums with pollen-hungry white-tailed bumblebees and near at hand a Cetti's warbler plinks italianate. Swallows, DTH's first of the year, sparkle past and lapwings fizz and tumble. The sharp spring sunlight's somehow sharper still in the wings of Mediterranean gulls.

Act Five: a stand of pines in a secluded wood on the Holt-Cromer Ridge. Two coal tits shout their syncopated chime, but the high fine song of a firecrest may just be heard. This dazzling little bird appears to our two eager naturalists, flashing his tangerine crest and raising his strong black brows. His mantle is a wondrous weird chartreuse, repeated in nature only in a chestnut-sided warbler's cap. Our two naturalists' day is made by this spectacular speck of life.

Act Six: a cottage by a river, recently restored, with love and with traditional materials, in keeping with the cottage's age and character.

Caller at door: I'm here from ____ Home Improvements. Are you interested in any improvements to your house?

Marsh tit: No, thank you. I've just had a great deal done.

Caller at door: Aren't you thinking of having your windows replaced?

Marsh tit: No, thank you. I've just had them all replaced.

Caller at door (incredulous): What? In wood?

New today


ring ouzel
Turdus torquatus
northern wheatear
Oenanthe oenanthe
Regulus ignicapillus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 444
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 5
Fish: 3