Thursday, 31 May 2012


As I walked into town in the rain I saw, outside a pub, a group of lads smoking and drinking. These boys had chosen bad-ass as their style: loud expletives in mock Essex, tattoos, cigarettes, and backwards baseball caps.

As I walked back I saw one of them struggling to close an incongruous, effeminate little brolly. With a cheeky smile he handed it to the tiny, pearl-haired, eighty-something lady, whose umbrella it was, and whom he was helping close it. You gotta lovely face, he said.

How marvellous when life reminds just how unhelpful prejudices are.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Christening a 'scope

For as long I have been watching birds (so since around the time that God-saw-the-light-that-it-was-good) spotted flycatchers have nested each year in my mother's garden. I am again minding dogs and answering phones there as my indomitable, admirable mother is still visiting hospital and at the same time helping mastermind the Norwich Cathedral Flower Festival. This morning my aunt and cousin relieved me from ninety minutes of dog and phone duties as I had to visit Cley. Stepping out of the house I heard our flycatcher's buzzing dzeet and, looking up to his favoured ash, I saw him tumbling through the insect-busy air.

At Cley I gave a great deal of money to the fine folks of Cley Spy and in return they gave me a new toy. I have had my faithful telescope and tripod for eighteen years and they've been great friends. However, they've become something of an embarrassment to me in front of tour clients, not to mention a weighty encumbrance when packing for my many travels. The time had come for change.

Pulling into the car park at Cley, I met my friend Pat from the visitor centre, who pointed to a line of twitchers on the East Bank. They're watching a great reed warbler, he said. What a splendid bird with which to christen my new 'scope, I thought, as I hadn't seen one here since my old 'scope itself was new. But my aunt and cousin were watching two hot dogs so, the optics deal done, I eschewed the bird and headed dutifully for home. Do I get points for virtue?

Near Langham, in the bank, I spied a rare and glorious mix of colours: the flirtatious lipstick pink of red campion and the clear sulphur yellow of mouse-ear hawkweed. As one is normally a plant of shady woodland edge and the other of hot chalky grassland this was an unexpected combination. But what a coup!

And in the evening? Well, at my mother's I was already half-way to Cley. And I am very fond of Acrocephali. And he was a wonderful bird with which to christen my new 'scope. He was rather far away and the wind was behind us, so I could see him singing but not hear his raucous slo-mo. What struck though were his size, when a puny reed bunting came to sit in the same dead elder, and his shrike-like bulk and profile as he flew through the tops of the reeds.

On my happy way back to the visitor centre a female hairy dragonfly laid her eggs in a channel and I day-dreamed of all the animals my 'scope and I will see together.

New today


spotted flycatcher
Muscicapa striata
great reed warbler
Acrocephalus arundinaceus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 59
Birds: 464
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 4

A heath in summer

Work for NWT (more on that anon) took me to Cley yesterday so, on my way, diligent marsh tit that I am, I paid my annual visit to one of Norfolk's only clumps of May lilies. How these gorgeous, cool-loving northern plants ended up stranded on the edge of a Norfolk heath is anyone's guess: some say garden getaways and some say Ice Age leftovers, like Thompson's hapless pool frogs or the wood horsetails on the Lowes. Either way the liles seem very happy here and their frothy white flowers are a delight; so no spring in Norfolk is complete without a pilgrimage to see them. They are in this way, I realise, among my phenological touchstones.

Last year I took my group on Wildlife Travel's inaugural Norfolk tour to twitch these delicate flowers. On that day in mid-June we saw green tiger beetles and several species of grasshopper but the lilies had all but finished blooming. So far this year I've not seen or heard a single Orthopteran (oh the fun we'll have when they appear, my marshtitters) and, in the tail of a cool, damp spring, the May lilies are resplendent. Minutely resplendent but resplendent all the same.

The walk to the not-so-secret lily site is across a small patch of heathland, where summer is exploding into being. Tormentil, heath milkwort, sheep's sorrel and heath bedstraw all flower, their colours distilled by the softness of the grey sky, and everywhere is the coppery featheriness of purple moor grass. A coal tit itsy-witsies and from the sharp, hopeful new green of birches comes much clattering of chaffinches.

In the afternoon a friend rescues a bumblebee from her living room. It is a male white-tailed, which joins young queens of white-tailed, buff-tailed and red-tailed that I've seen this week, as a poignant presage that summer, barely begun, must also end. The queens will mate now and fatten themselves on pollen and, even through the heat of late summer, lie in wait until the first warming sun of the end of winter wakes them next year.

DEFRA buzzard U-turn

We won.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The night shift

On my way to yoga class this evening I called at Salthouse Heath. No nightingale sang; I’ve resigned myself, I think, to not seeing one at all this year, as the leaves are now thick on the trees and in a few days’ time the nightingales will sing no more this spring. By way of consolation two turtle doves purred, yellowhammers filled the heath with reedy rhythms and a small copper - butterfly bling! - fed at a creeping buttercup's bloom.

In the warmth of dusk tonight, Leanne and I set out along the river, detector in hand, in search of bats. Just a few steps from our doors we heard the high, insistent pssst of a woodcock (exactly the same, in case you’re ever in the Valles Mesotérmicos, as the call of the endemic Bolivian earthcreeper). Several woodcocks pssst-ed past before at last I saw one for a moment as he disappeared behind a stand of poplars.

Bats too were tricky, though in the last light we saw one soprano pipistrelle fluttering and quivering over shrubby sallows at the river’s edge. Many more of these we heard around the tall crack willows by the bridge; and behind our houses, as I'd had a hunch it would, our bat detector caught the juddering drill of Daubenton’s. We peered at the moonlit water as the bat juddered by, again, again and again, but nothing could we see, until I had a moment’s glimpse of a silver-bellied being slicing the water’s surface. The poorest of poor views but enough for me to count it on my list: Daubenton’s bat.

It makes me smile to think I have a creature fifty yards from my back door named after the same man as the aye-aye: Daubentonia madagascariensis. Perhaps I’ll see one of those too when I spend six weeks in Madagascar this autumn.

A glimpse would be quite enough.

New tonight


soprano pipistrelle
Pipistrellus pygmaeus
Daubenton’s bat
Myotis daubentonii


Eurasian woodcock
Scolopax rusticola

2012 Totals
Mammals: 59
Birds: 462
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 4

My ol' patch

What a jumbled-up sort of a week last week was for my family. A scare, an ambulance, a hospital, tests, dog-sitting, phone-manning, pulling together of splendid siblings, waiting, and ultimately relief.

These ups and downs have seen me spend more than wonted time at my mother's, in the house where I grew up. In Sunday's sunshine, needing time to think about a complex work-gig this week, I escaped to the wartime airfield, where I've watched nature for twenty-five years or more, that was, as long as I lived there, my patch.

The chalky Late Cretaceous bank under the flinty wall of the graveyard was loud with flower. The velvety blue of wild clary, the here-and-there magenta of common vetch, the sunny smile of oxe-eye daisies, all above an irresponsible tangle of hairy tare. Among these flowers were the leaves of the next wave of flowerers - bladder campion, burnet saxifrage and lady's bedstraw - and over them, against the sun-warm wall, three wall brown butterflies. How nice to see you all, old friends.

The male marsh harrier, of the pair that nests in our little valley, floated by, eyes to the ground in search of prey for his hungering chicks. The sky, as always here in spring and summer for as long as I remember, was a din of larks. Hares sprang away across the fields, flapping their leathery ears. Our oystercatchers shouted shrill morse code from the end of the runway.

In the crumbling concrete airstrip's edge field madder bloomed and rue-leaved saxifrage; and in its grassy verge were bird's-foot trefoil - that happy gold of summer - and the fractal fantasy of a too-precocious wild carrot. Over the woods three majestic buzzards soared in the summer heat (back off DEFRA, talk to the wing); and at the rabbit-riddled mound of gorse where every spring I'd see my first green hairstreak, I saw my first green hairstreaks in their nuptial chase. At the end of this strange, uncertain week, I was a boy again.

In local conservation, there is always that lovely heart-slipping moment when you suddenly realize that you are with a knower of the land, who keeps like treasure their stanza of the song, their knowledge, perhaps of that exact part of the fens, their observation, perhaps of that animal.

Jay Griffiths
A Tender Wildness (a speech delivered to the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, October 2009)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Today I...

Saw an adult Mediterranean gull against the sky over my mother's house: ice white, coal black, heaven blue. Summer.

Buzzard blizzard

Since my post yesterday morning, there has been much activity on the buzzard front, much witty, intelligent tweeting, much letter writing and much dismay at DEFRA's staggering loss of touch with ecological sense and the wishes of the electorate.

For my part I have written to DEFRA, to Richard Beynon MP and to my local MP explaining respectfully that I am wholly opposed to any measures which make the persecution of birds of prey easier or more acceptable. I still urge you to do so if you stand for a biodiverse Britain.

The Wildlife Trusts have entered the fray with a timely statement of opposition to attempts to weaken legal protection for buzzards. Mark Avery continues to agitate eloquently on the matter. His latest blog post is impassioned and well worth a read, as are many of the comments left by readers.

I explained DEFRA's plans to my hunting-shooting-fishing elder brother. He exclaimed, as I am sure do many shooting folk: That's absolutely ridiculous.

He's right too.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Return to normal service

Yesterday, as I walked to town, I looked into the river's clear water and saw an elegant shoal of European chub. Gavin, Rebecca, you wanted fish. I saw fish. Four fish species in five months. Woo hoo!

Yesterday's newbie

European chub
Squalius cephalus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 57
Birds: 461
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 4

Beleaguered buzzards

To date this blog has been more oh-look-there's-some-pretty-wildlife than stand-up-for-wild-birds but it's time we stood up. All of us. DEFRA has announced a plan to develop management techniques to reduce predation of pheasant poults by buzzards. Details of the plan, which includes removing buzzards to captivity and destroying new nests, may be found here. It is couched, naturally, in anodyne terms but it is based on a number of factual inaccuracies and philosophical sleights of hand, which we are supposed not to notice. Numerous more informed, better qualified and more eloquent voices have today expressed opinions on this subject, including the RSPB, the RSPB's conservation director Martin Harper and the RSPB's former conservation director Mark Avery (all of which you should read). Nonetheless, here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts.

Before I launch into them, however, a clarification. It is sometimes the case that a minority of the traditional land-management community accuses those who take a different stance of being ignorant townies or treehuggers. I've hugged a tree or two in my time but it is certainly not the case that I am a townie. I grew up in rural North Norfolk. Both of my grandfathers shot enthusiastically, both of my godfathers shoot avidly, one of my brothers used to shoot. I have two local friends who are gamekeepers, both of them also committed conservationists, as are countless of their colleagues. Both of these keepers I find to be thoughtful, decent, kind, witty men with a deep love of nature and an extraordinary knowledge of wild creatures. Furthermore, I recognise and honour the great contribution to conservation of many responsible shooting estates. Shooting is not to my taste but I am no ignorant townie; nor am I so small as to dismiss others because the views they hold are different to mine. Moderation in all things.

But I have my views and on DEFRA's proposed research into controlling buzzards to limit their minor depredations on pheasants they are as follows:

1) I read yesterday an article from the BASC in which a massive rise in the British buzzard population was quoted. What was not mentioned was that this massive rise was a recovery from a terrifyingly reduced population in the early half of the twentieth century, reduced - let's not mince our words - by persecution. Yes, there are many more buzzards than there were fifty years ago but this is because in many parts of the country they had been persecuted out of existence.

2) The buzzard is a native predator. The pheasant is a non-native (Asian) prey species. Any argument that it has become part of the British landscape is fallacious. Millions of pheasants are released in the UK every year, with the sole purpose of their being shot. They in no way form part of the British fauna. An argument I have not seen raised elsewhere is that these are not only non-native birds; they are domestic strains of non-native birds, specifically bred to have particular qualities. A quick search online for suppliers of chicks and poults will reveal this to be true.

3) I freely admit to hugging trees, but am I alone in thinking that releasing millions of domesticated non-native birds into the countryside every year (with the sole purpose of killing them later), and then wishing to remove native predators because of their minor predation of them, is an extraordinary twisting of logic?

4) The words predator and predation, very often qualified as voracious, are commonly used as if they bestowed moral judgement on wildlife (frequently otters, cormorants, sparrowhawks, buzzards and especially foxes). Predator = bad. This is deceitful. Human beings are predators and the predations of other species are no more or less cruel than ours. It is simply a fact that human beings and other predators kill animals, for food and in some cases for pleasure. The thought that lies behind most accusations that wild animals are predators, as in the case of this buzzard fiasco, is: you can't kill that, because I want to.

I clearly remember my first Norfolk buzzard. I was in my early teens when, walking between one school building and another, I looked up and there above me was a chunky brown and white raptor. I was thrilled and I ran to the biology block to tell my teachers. I didn't see another buzzard in Norfolk until I was in my twenties, when two friends and I would regularly visit the edge of a wood in North Norfolk where buzzards were breeding. This was top secret; top secret because through my whole life until then there had been almost no buzzards in Norfolk. Human beings had killed them all.

This is why the conservation and wildlife-watching community is incensed by DEFRA's plan. This morning I saw a tweet from a gamekeeping organisation asking, since conservationists opposed DEFRA's spurious research, what we had to lose. Simple: we stand to lose the buzzard. We lost it once through persecution and we refuse to allow even the smallest step towards losing it again.

Write to your MP today, asking her or him to urge DEFRA to desist from this shameful initiative.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


Today at last the bushes all along the coast were full of birds - bluethroats, red-backed shrikes, a bee-eater and a red-breasted flycatcher - but I saw none of them.

A friend, who understood, rang me and this meant more than all the shrikes in the WP.

"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps, I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that."
E. B. White
Charlotte's Web

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Tinker Bell

You remember the bit in Peter Pan where Tinker Bell is spluttering her last and Peter calls on all the children to clap to save her, to let her know they believe? Do you think it works for sunshine? Give it a try. What have we got to lose? If you read this and you believe in sunshine give a clap. Maybe one day we'll see some.

I've forgotten what it looks like.

I've spent today at home, by the fire, thinking about Peru and the daunting, wonderful wildlife which lives there and which next month I'm to share with Naturetrek clients. This evening my friend Gavin sings the bass solo part in Haydn's Creation at Salle church. I am going with his mother. (The heavens are telling the glory of God. Not round here they're not: clap harder people.)

In the garden red campion flowers. A kestrel hovers over the common. The local pied wagtails shoo a long-winged female sparrowhawk from the street. But I have ceased to believe in fairies.

'All of you out there, if you believe in fairies, clap your hands, clap your hands. Clap them hard, and go on clapping. If you don't Tinker Bell will die.'

J. M. Barrie
Peter Pan

Friday, 18 May 2012

Long ago birds

I was trying to be good today, trying jolly hard to answer emails, plot my comings and goings for next year, and swot for my upcoming tour of Peru. Then the phone rang. It was one of my dearest friends Gavin, eldest son of Bizz and DTH, opera singer, staggeringly gifted (and jammy) birder, and all round good egg. The conversation went something like this:

Gavin: You know there was a bee-eater over Cley this morning?

Marsh tit: Yes, but I assumed it was just a flyover.

Gavin: Yes it was, but now it's... (fumbles with Birdguides on smart phone)... at Cley, on telephone wires south of the Beach Road. I've had a rehearsal cancelled and I'm coming. Join me?

Marsh tit (weighing up the merits of staying at home to work like a good boy or romping off with one his best friends to see one of Europe's most dazzlingly beautiful birds): See you there!

I went to Cley. Birdguides had got it wrong: the bee-eater was at Salthouse (thanks to Duncan of WildSounds for the correct information). Thither I tore (safely and respectfully of course but that doesn't make me sound very Daniel Craig now does it?), only to find the bird had just flown away. The good news was that, scanning the gore-tex-clad masses, I found Gavin, who had seen the bird briefly before, nobly, setting off in search of a missing marsh tit.

At RSPB Strumpshaw Fen for the past few days there has been a singing Savi's warbler. This is a bird which Gavin, an ardent Norfolk lister, had never seen in the county. The last I saw here was almost twenty-five years ago at Wells with his father. Knowing Gavin would be itching to see the warbler I asked:

Marsh tit: Heading to Strumpshaw tomorrow morning at dawn?

Gavin: I was planning to go this evening.

So we went. A bittern boomed, marsh harriers yelped, black-headed gulls shrieked, lapwings fizzed, reed warblers chuntered and through all these marshy melodies came the loud dry trill of a Savi's warbler. A small brown shape appeared in the edge of the reed and Gavin had his bird.

The last Savi's warbler either of us saw was in the Costière de Crau when I lived in Provence some seventeen years ago. We were side by side then too. Only that day we both saw a bee-eater.

New this evening


Savi’s warbler
Locustella luscinioides

2012 Totals
Mammals: 57
Birds: 461
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Mollusca, Crustacea, Cnidaria and wet toes

Yesterday I spent indoors. A rare, bright, sunny day - perfect for green hairstreaks - and I spent it indoors. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking and talking about wildlife and its conservation. In the morning I gave a two-hour talk for Jerry Kinsley's students at Easton College. I'd chosen as my theme the dilemmas and cultural choices incurred in conservation when landscape-scale processes are interrupted. I'm sure it's a subject that I'll touch on again here, but my main point was that much, if not most, of British conservation is about stalling succession to prevent one habitat, which we value highly, turning into another. So we cut reed-beds, we graze heaths and grasslands, we bash scrub on sand-dunes, we dredge shallow lakes and ponds and we generally interfere with things. We do this, essentially, because British habitats are largely cultural in origin and, left to their own devices, would become something else, something inappropriate for the rare creatures we want to protect. In the ever-erudite words of Simon Barnes in his delightful How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher:

Bitterns may be great at wet reedbeds; but if you take the reedbeds away, they are buggered.

Reed-beds, of course, if you don't cut them and manage them, turn into willow scrub and all the bitterns move out. Where do they move? Well, that's the point. They die because there's nowhere else for them to go. In a completely natural landscape (a rare thing indeed on planet Earth) great natural events such as floods, fires, rivers shifting course, avalanches, volcanoes, migrations of millions of wildebeest, are forever reshuffling the pack, trashing old habitats - the ones ecologists call climax communities - and leaving open landscapes which are begging to be re-colonised by the move-in-fast-breed-then-move-somewhere-else specialists which depend on early successional habitats. In the UK, however, we don't like floods and we don't like rivers changing their course, we got rid of most of the big grazing mammals centuries ago, and we don't take too kindly to most other great natural events. We've suppressed natural process in the landscape and we've hemmed most species, at least the early-successional specialist ones, into tiny fragments of habitat. These tiny fragments are trying their hardest to become something else, because that's how succession works, and conservationists are fighting tooth and nail to stop them because the rare critters that inhabit them have absolutely no-where else to go in the British landscape.

So in a nutshell, most British conservation involves stalling succession to prevent early-successional habitats becoming something else. Hence we graze and we coppice and we burn and we bash and we generally interfere. I contrasted this at Easton yesterday with huge scale national parks in some of the developing world countries where it's my privilege to work, parks where there's still enough space for process and change to take place of their own accord, and Jerry's switched-on students had a great debate about the morality, economics and future of conservation on different landscape scales.

The afternoon I spent at Sculthorpe Moor, helping the Hawk and Owl Trust compile a list of suggested peregrine chick names from the splendid public response to the naming competition. It's a funny old life.

Today I got outdoors again. Once a year I take pupils from Taverham Hall School rock-pooling and fossil-hunting at West Runton. Despite the cold and the intermittent drizzle we had a brilliant morning of romping in the rock-pools. Alas there were very few new vertebrates but there was plenty to identify and talk about. Shore crabs Carcinus maenas and common prawns Palaemon serratus were in every pool and we found one young edible crab Cancer pagurus who tried very hard to looker bigger and tougher than he was. In the pools closest to the falling tide there were lots of common hermit crabs Pagurus bernhardus too (in the shells of grey topshells Gibbula cineraria for the mollusc nerds). While we're talking molluscs, edible periwinkles Littorina littorea were sprinkled over every rock, common limpets Patella vulgata were here and there, and common dogwhelks Nucella lapillus and their eggs were to be seen in clusters, particularly on chunky paramoudras. Of Cnidaria we saw but one: the beautiful wine-gummy beadlet anemone Actinia equina.

Overhead there were swarms of sand martins, visiting holes in the Ice Age cliffs. Herring gulls powered past and two fulmars, my first of the year, paid a visit. I was hoping for fish today but I was cruelly robbed. Some of the children saw European eels Anguilla anguilla, we found a long-dead long-spined sea-scorpion Taurulus bubalis (far, far too dead, alas, to count on my list) and we caught a goby. This too evaded me as we couldn't be sure whether it was a common goby Pomatoschistus microps or a sand goby Pomatoschistus minutus. This list is far too important for me to fudge a goby for the sake of an extra species (I'm sure you'll all agree).

So fulmar alone it is. Nonetheless we had a superb morning and, as always, it was a joy to see children excited at exploring a new environment, asking thoughtful questions and telling each other they'd be back in the summer to look for more.

New today


northern fulmar
Fulmarus glacialis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 57
Birds: 460
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Peregrine plea

The Hawk and Owl Trust's superb peregrine nestcam on the spire of Norwich Cathedral has been a riotous success, thanks to the interest of the people of Norwich, Norfolk and further afield, and thanks to sterling promotion by local institutions and media. To date there have been almost one-and-a-half million hits on the the site, thousands and thousands of them, no doubt, from people who might otherwise have little interest in nature or little chance to let it into their lives and minds.

My mother rings me virtually every day to tell me how the chicks are and what her current worries are for their future. Since she is a committee member of the Cathedral Flower Guild and of this year's flower festival she knows where all the ladders are kept and on one especially cold wet day I had to be very firm indeed to prevent her shinning up the spire to rescue the smallest chick.

Really mother, it wouldn't have helped.

But I digress. This hugely welcome swell of interest in Norwich's pioneering peregrines has left the Hawk and Owl Trust with a problem. A system that was set up with scant funds, and which runs on goodwill and volunteer time, is struggling to cope with such massive demand. The Hawk and Owl Trust urgently needs financial support, however small, to keep the camera running and to keep the Norwich peregrines on the laptops and in the hearts of the people of Norfolk. Making a donation is easy: simply follow the link under the webcam here.

I made mine.

Happy Birthday

100 years ago today the movement that became The Wildlife Trusts was founded. Since then many battles have been lost and won. We keep battling, for wildlife on land and in the sea, thanks to the vision of Charles Rothschild and other nature pioneers, and the dauntless commitment of everyone involved today, for whom nature is the weft with which life is woven. Well done The Wildlife Trusts. Thank you.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


The bogbean on the common is in flower. Just thought you'd want to know.

And still it rains

I lay in bed this dawn, feeling the rain thump the roof, longing for a bright spring day, for the birds, for the insects, for me.

I stepped outside the back door: a cuckoo sang. A lapwing gave his wheezy spring note, an oystercatcher yelled. I looked up: there blob-winged was the lapwing and there, no, you're no oystercatcher. A hobby. My first in the garden this spring, in the grey and the rain and the Atlantic cool of it all, snipping the sky with his thrilling wings.

A hobby. But still it rains.

Monday, 14 May 2012


Later, as I lingered on the Peru field guide's plate of oystercatchers, jacanas and lapwings, a pair of our oystercatchers piped past, approving vociferously, I'd like to think, of my interest in their neotropic cousins.

When I reached the pages on parrots, I heard in turn their voices in my head, the chesty snip-snap of dusky-headed parakeets and the raucous happy bleats of yellow-crowned parrots, surfacing from beneath five years of dust, of leopards, of lemurs, and of not wanting to remember.

Now I'm excited to be going back. Scared a little. And excited.


As I sat at my computer this morning I heard from the front garden a never-before-known birdsong, a constrained and barely audible sparkle of chirps. I went to the window, and there I saw three male blackbirds, joined soon by a fourth, posturing to one another, each within two feet of the next, heads dipped, backs puffed, wings drooped, tails lowered and fanned, and one singing this strange faerie-land subsong.

My blackbird coven went on until a family of starlings, young and old, trundled through the magic circle, shattering its spell, and leaving the blackbirds wondering, it seemed to me, what thing had happened here.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A week in words

It's been quite a week chez marsh tit, work-wise, life-wise and wildlife-wise. In the briefest of summaries:

On Wednesday morning at six o'clock I met a group of birdsong beginners outside the beautiful BTO headquarters in Thetford. Through rain, light and heavy, we trained our ears and our minds to blackcap and garden warbler songs, reed and sedge warbler songs, and the bright burbling of a female cuckoo. A kingfisher zipped past, a male cuckoo flew by singing, and, in spite of constant drizzle and rain, we had a marvellous morning of birds.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rebecca (NWT PR and communications manager, media guru, and creme egg dipso) made three more short films with me, in our series on The Wildlife Trusts' vision for Living Landscapes. At NWT East Wretham Heath it rained and at NWT Wayland Wood it rained. We finished the films all the same and in the wood I was tickled pink to see goldilocks buttercups in lopsided flower (little things... little minds).

On Wednesday evening celebrated US naturalist and tour-leader Rich Hoyer came to stay, at the end of his tour of colleagues and friends in Europe. I have known Rich since my early days in Bolivia and we shared much talk of Bolivian bird taxonomy and much gossip of the Bolivian birder community. Happy days.

On Thursday morning I helped Leanne at the Hawk and Owl Trust's beautiful Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve, introducing thirty primary school children to the muddy joys of pond-dipping. All the while a damp barn owl flapped damply over a paddock.

From there I took Rich to NWT Thursford Wood where the bluebells were ablaze and I saw my first two large red damselflies, indeed my first British Odonata, of the season. Having spent just a year in Germany, twenty years ago, Rich displayed a knowledge of European bird vocalisations, plant taxonomy and natural history that puts most of us British naturalists to shame. Next we visited a little owl nest tree, where one owl sat sulking on an ivy-covered bow.

On Thursday afternoon I had cause to visit Glandford. At Letheringsett, on my way back, a frost-winged Mediterranean gull floated over the road. I may have said it before: Med' gulls are heavenly creatures and I'm thrilled to see them more and more. In the evening I heard common terns along the river behind my house. Heavenly creatures too.

On Friday morning I skived. I woke early and the sky was clear so I hied me to Salthouse Heath. I spent an age lurking in the bushes in the hope of seeing the one singing nightingale I could find, but saw nothing. He was accompanied by a blackcap (whom I saw), a garden warbler (whom I also saw) and a bewildered reed warbler singing from a hawthorn bush at the border of a bracken heath and a field of rape (resplendently yellow under a cloud-unclad sky). Nearby my first turtle dove of the year flicked past and I forgot all about pesky, hard-to-get nightingales. What's not to love about turtle doves?

At Cley someone had poured swifts into the sky over the reserve, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Yellow wagtails blazed in the Eye Field, wheatears bobbed along the shingle, a little ringed plover and an equally little gull crouched on islands in Pat's Pool, and over the North Scrape little terns chittered and oh-so-slow-flapped in display. Behind the visitor centre a female black redstart quivered her liver tail on the fence.

On my way home I spent considerably longer stalking my nightingale. Nightingale 2, marsh tit 0.

On Saturday I swotted for my only-a-month-away tour in Peru and got very excited by the Dream of Gerontius. The first brood of starlings on the street left the nest in sunshine in the afternoon. Meanwhile magpies kept flying the same route backwards and forwards across the common; they too must have a nest nearby. In the evening I watched a cuckoo singing in a birch from my bedroom window.

At dusk Leanne and I renewed the search for nightingales. We didn't even hear one but we were happy to be out and, glowing ghostly in the gone-light, we saw a hummock of meadow saxifrage in flower. On the way back, at Little Snoring, my first hedgehog of the year did his best to end his woes on the road. He escaped to blunder across another road another night. Oh hedgehogs...

On Sunday I led walks for NWT at its Go Wild at Barton Broad event. I left home early (no change there then) and drove to Norwich listening to Radio Four. My cheer at hearing a five-striped palm-squirrel chinking behind Mark Tully, as he recorded an interview at Delhi's Craft Museum, evaporated at Lenwade where two badgers lay freshly dead by the road, their flawless pelage incandescent in the early morning sun.

Before the event I spent a quiet hour at the Broad's edge in the company of gadwall, great crested grebes and three-dozen common terns (so not so quiet really). In fens during the day I found my first grass snakes and common lizard of the year, and saw a holly blue, a green-veined white, many large red damselflies and my first two hairy dragonflies of 2012 (hurrah, at last the insects are appearing). Here too were plenty of orange-tips, while their larval foodplant, cuckoo flower, bloomed shyly nearby. In the edge of the woods was a speckled wood and stratospherically high above us were four tumbling buzzards.

On Sunday evening I slammed on my brakes in Hoveton and pulled off the road to watch an osprey circling placidly over the middle of town. How long until they breed in Norfolk? A year? Two?

Nine-hundred people came to our event today. It is an honour to be part of an organisation that contributes to the lives of so many people and perhaps helps some of them discover a love for the natural world and a commitment to its conservation.

Little boy (passing quiz trail image of pink-footed geese): What are they?

Marsh tit: They're pink-footed geese, but they're not here now; they're in Iceland.

Little boy: I've been to Iceland.

Marsh tit (trying not to sound surprised): Have you?

Little boy: To buy food.

He has a point.

New since last we spoke


European hedgehog
Erinaceus europaeus


European turtle dove
Streptopelia turtur

yellow wagtail
Motacilla flava flavissima


grass snake
Natrix natrix
common (viviparous) lizard
Zootoca vivipara

2012 Totals
Mammals: 57
Birds: 459
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


In the evening a happy sun shreds the mercury clouds and over the river the swallows chime at a sparrowhawk lazy-flapping through a ball of swifts. Sparrowhawk, yes, I think, but now it's time I saw... and for the the third time this year my mind makes bird. Under the ponderous hawk a hobby strafes the dark-light sky: stiletto-winged perfection.

Reaching home, I think my excitement can grow no greater: a hobby is my favourite bird. But writing this post I gaze from my desk and yell bl**dy h*ll as an osprey flies over my house, over the pond, and away along the river. And now on the common a cuckoo sings.

New this evening


Eurasian hobby
Falco subbuteo

2012 Totals
Mammals: 56
Birds: 458
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Maurice Sendak

Jacob Gordon has been kind enough to let me quote his eloquent tweet here:

The news of Farah’s death to me was hard to take into my mind and very hard to keep there. How could it be that he had gone away? He had always been the first to answer a call. Then after a while I recognized the situation: more than once before now I had sent him ahead to some unknown place, to pitch camp for me there.

Isak Dinesen
Shadows on the Grass

Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Constructive criticism

Meetings this morning at Norfolk Wildlife Trust in Norwich. My mother had called at the weekend to tell me to look out for a pure white rabbit in the verge at Attlebridge. What should there be in the verge at Attlebridge but a pure white bunny with pink eyes, eschewing the company of the brown numbers down in the floodplain of the Wensum? (I was in the bus so my eyes were free to rove wherever they liked.)

At NWT the PR and communications manager helpfully commented on my blog (imagine deadpan delivery in a Wigan accent):

You've only seen three fish. You need to go out and see some more fish.

The fish in question were a) blue panchax in a puddle in the Sunderbans, b) whalesuckers sucking pygmy blue whales off the south coast of Sri Lanka and c) three-spined sticklebacks in children's pond-dipping trays. I rate those quite cool fish. And besides, how many fish species have you identified this year Rebecca? (By the way, I'm really looking forward to spending the day with you in the Brecks tomorrow.)

From the bus on the way home I saw common vetch, common toadflax and mouse-ear hawkweed flowering on Norwich roundabouts, many days ahead of their congeners in cold North Norfolk. This made me smile.

Monday, 7 May 2012


I remember, when I came home from a decade abroad, standing by a strip of scrub sobbing at the song of a willow warbler. There were many more things in my mind that day but the channel for my tears was the lovely liquid languor of a bird.

I find as I grow older that old nature, known since childhood, moves me more and more. Spring birds are an easy metaphor for new starts, new hope, but a true one nonetheless.

This morning, after a long weekend with little sleep, and under the first blue-pierced sky in days and days, I was fit to be moved. As I walked along the riverbank a cuckoo sang, then flew to land in a seed-setting willow, barred and beautiful, continent-crossing, spring in a puffed-out throat. A second cuckoo began to sing, a major third higher in pitch than his relative, a huge difference in musically conservative cuckoo-kind: a Benjamin Britten or an Olivier Messiaen among cuckoos. I hope they would both approve.

Today spring thundered into being along my river. The songs of garden warblers tumbled from the willows and loud thrushes piped. As I walked back a long-tailed tit chick, minutes from the nest, whirred to a strand of briar a metre from my face and quivered there a moment in an agony of what-to-do. This little being cares nothing for who I am or where I’m bound but I care so much for him I sob.

I am a fool I know. I know no other way to be.

As for conforming outwardly, and living your own life inwardly, I do not think much of that.

Henry David Thoreau
The Bluebird Carries the Sky on his Back

New this morning


common cuckoo
Cuculus canorus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 56
Birds: 457
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Public facilities

There are times, when it's quarter to six on a grey morning and you're lurking outside the loos in a town park waiting for a bunch of strangers to tip up, when you wonder why you didn't heed your careers advisor and become a lawyer. Lawyers after all have warm offices and big desks and, well, money in their bank accounts. And lawyers most certainly don't meet strangers outside public facilities at a quarter to six in the morning.

At least not the sort of lawyer I know.

And then a magical thing happens. A stock dove starts to sing. A slaty grey bird with a sparkly black eye makes a lumpy two-note noise from the top of a dead sycamore and half a dozen faces start to smile. It's a smile that acknowledges a bird that none of the smilers ever knew lived in the centre of King's Lynn and that some of them didn't even know existed. A bird which five minutes ago didn't exist is now material, real, and singing right above us. Outside a loo.

And so it goes on. A robin pours his fluid song into the cold morning. A moorhen squeaks brrraap! as though someone had trodden on him. A treecreeper creeps trees: Turkey oak, lime, weeping willow and horse chestnut. A goldfinch buzzes and tinkles. And human perception shifts. Lives change. In a moment of birdsong on a cold morning.

Outside a loo.

Later in the day at Harding's Pits it's bumblebees who are unwitting ambassadors for nature, therapists and new-found friends. The bumblebees of course are just going about their bumble business, supping flowers of white dead-nettle. But human perception shifts. Walks from now on will have another layer of understanding, of questioning, of learning. Books will be bought and minds will be opened and, this most important of all, lives enriched. By bumblebees.

This has been a strange, gruelling weekend: a long yoga workshop on Friday night, a dawn chorus walk on Saturday morning, a birdsong walk on Sunday morning and a bumblebee workshop during the day. Tomorrow I must learn scripts for videos to be filmed on Wednesday, after yet another birdsong workshop. But if one life is richer because of something it's been my privilege to learn and to share, if one smile is smiled, or one tree spared, it's all worthwhile. And I'll stand outside another loo another day, many more days most likely, in the belief that another smile will be smiled.

I have one prime objective: to use such talents as I was born with, and such skills as I have acquired, to enrich the lives of other people, during my own lifetime, and if possible after I am dead. I have an itch to create, and my life is too short for all the things I want to make. 

Peter Scott
Foreword to the third impression of The Eye of the Wind

P.S. Despite the cold we saw four-and-a-half species of bumblebee: common carder, early, red-tailed, late-emerging garden bumblebee queens, and workers of either the buff-tailed bumblebee or the white-tailed bumblebee (note to taxonomy geeks: white-tailed and buff-tailed workers are all but indistinguishable and, in the field, are safely identified only as belonging to this species pair).

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sumer is icumen in

As I left my house at four-thirty this morning, to lead the Hawk and Owl Trust's dawn chorus walk at Sculthorpe Moor, I heard at last a cuckoo. Sumer, though you would never know it from the weather, is icumen in.

Tomorrow morning a dawn chorus walk for Norfolk Wildlife Trust in King's Lynn, followed by an all-day bumblebee workshop.

Is it any wonder I look haggard?

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Mediaeval round

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Mea maxima culpa

(It was my mother who rang to share the unfolding peregrine news with me, as I thrashed through my tax return. Shame on me for disparaging her iPad abilities yesterday.)

Other than that, today it rained and Elgar's cello concerto surged in my mind (Jacqueline du Pré, naturally).

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


At Holkham tonight we came upon a young stag in the track under the grey light of dusk. He stood and he looked, cocking his wide ears and tensing his Degas legs, then bounded to the safety of bracken, reed and holm oak. His mother, stately, staid, remained until her wayward teen came crashing back. Together then they sprang across the grazing marsh, into the coming night.

A grasshopper warbler reeled from a straggle of rose, two harriers tussled over nothing, the polished leathery leaves of spurge laurel caught the last light, and we, we were glad to be out on such a night.

New tonight


red deer
Cervus elaphus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 56
Birds: 456
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3