Friday, 28 September 2012

Burning bright

Live in Norfolk? Stuck for something to do on Tuesday night? Why not attend a fascinating talk on tigers and other wildlife of Central India, by a charismatic and gifted speaker, knowing that by doing so you're supporting the conservation work of the Hawk and Owl Trust?

Failing that you could come to the talk I'm giving.

Young tigress in Tadoba National Park, India, by Sheila Winton

Just popping out to South Africa

I was on the phone this afternoon to the PR and communications manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust when five swallows flew past my window. Our conversation went something like this:

Marsh tit: Crumbs, five swallows have just flown past my window. I shall have to blog about that.

PR and communications manager: Well that's not very interesting, is it?

So Rebecca, how many times have you flown to South Africa and back?

We once moved with the sun like swallows. And to witness them doing that is to realise what we have lost.

Tim Dee
The Running Sky

Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?

Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Schrödinger’s warbler

In recent days I have many times peered at bushes in search of warblers. Equally as many times the warblers have remained unseen.

If a warbler lurks in a bush unseen for days on end one may assume, as Schrödinger might have done, that it is equally likely that the warbler remains alive in the bush or that it has died there. In this Schrödingerian vagrant warbler scenario, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that, at such a moment of equal probability, the warbler is simultaneously alive and dead. Conversely, when the bush is chopped down, observers (in this case DTH, Gav and a marsh tit) will see that the warbler is either alive or dead and not both alive and dead.

The warbler was alive. We saw it. We didn't even have to chop down a bush. All we had to do was wade through an interminable flock of blue tits and long-tailed tits. We also admired a fine redstart and set a horde of meadow grasshoppers pinging from the long grass in the last of the year's warmth.

Schrödinger, I am reliably informed, is dead.

Yellow-browed warbler by DTH 

Redstart by DTH 

Same redstart, different bush, by DTH

Worth two in a bush (dead or alive)


yellow-browed warbler
Phylloscopus inornatus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 82
Birds: 855
Reptiles: 20
Amphibians: 8
Fish: 11

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Big dipper

Or: Neither booted nor barred

Autumn has come, people; autumn has come. It mooted its presence last week in the shape of a pectoral sandpiper at Cley. There were in fact pecs at Cley, Titchwell, Welney and Hickling. And did I see any of them? Nope. I was at Cley three times during the sandpiper's sojourn there. But I saw it not. I failed too to see a barred warbler at Holme. I was leading a walk there on sand dune succession. I saw interesting weeds aplenty, and bramble scrub weighty with blackberries, the very berries on which my barred friend was feeding, somewhere. I saw him not.

Nor indeed did I see the Sabine's gull which dallied for a day around Sheringham, Salthouse and Cley. I missed it by five minutes. As for the mini-fall of pied flycatchers around ten days ago; well, I was otherwise engaged.

I was excited therefore, in the wake of this impressive spate of dipping, to hear from my great friend Oli on Friday night. He would be in Norfolk on Sunday; would I like to go birding with him? Of course I would. So I did. We hit Walsey Hills first, where a yellow-browed warbler had been seen. Chiffchaffs lisped here and there, a bullfinch sorrowfully piped, a Cetti's warbler pizzicato-ed from Snipe's Marsh; but of yellow-browed warblers we saw none. We saw for that matter no yellow-browed anything. No bunting. No antbird. No oxylabes. (OK, I'll grant you that two of these were more unlikely than even the bunting, but it doesn't do to be complacent.)

This dip-fest continued on our walk from Stiffkey to Warham. There were young spoonbills with sooty tips to their wings in the saltmarsh and blue tits fidgeted in every hawthorn. But there was little else. The Gantletts shook their heads; they too had seen nothing of note. At Warham Greens, though, things looked a trifle perkier. Here Duncan from Wildsounds had seen a yellow-browed warbler and Pat from the Cley visitor centre had just heard one. Some folks had even seen yesterday's red-breasted flycatcher. So we searched, we waited, we walked, we peered, we stood. We saw dozens of long-tailed tits and scrutinised many a chiffchaff and dunnock. But the wind howled, and the drizzle drizzled, and during the whole time we were there no-one, least of all us, saw any rarer birds.

Oli and I didn't care too much, it must be said; it was great to be with an old friend, catching up on happy news. But birdwatching is about watching birds, so I was cheered on Monday afternoon to hear from DTH and his tuneful eldest son. Gav is the keenest Norfolk birder of us all, though he now lives in London, and on Monday morning he'd seen the Warham red-breasted flycatcher, in company with redstart and pied flycatcher. The word was that the dunes at Burnham Overy were now sizzling with rare birds, brought to ground by the northeast wind and the day's rain. So would I join them? As we spoke the heavens were rent asunder and pillars of rain crashed to earth outside my window. I would not join them. My decision was wise, as DTH and Gav were forced to turn for home on meeting this curtain of rain.

Undeterred we convened at seven this morning at Burnham Overy. Almost the first bird we saw was a beige warbler, the nothing colour of a 1980s bathroom. We saw it zip past at speed in a high wind. We saw it zip past again. And again. It was, no doubt, the promised booted warbler, but we could never see more than a bathroom-coloured bird whizzing by as the wind chapped our ears and the gathering pinkfeet yapped over the marsh.

We tried our luck in the dunes. Try, yes, we did. We tried jolly hard. There were reed buntings, plenty of those. There were meadow pipits, plenty of those too. There was almost certainly a tree pipit, though the wind was too strong to hear it properly as it sailed by. Yesterday's little bunting was not to be seen; nor yesterday's red-breasted flycatcher or wood warbler. On our return to the booted warbler twitch we saw a willow warbler and chiffchaffs, which the excited gaggle were trying at all costs to turn into a booted warbler. They couldn't. They weren't. We didn't.

News went up that in the mound of bramble, laden with fruit, at the end of the boardwalk a barred warbler had just been seen. I have form this week with mounds of bramble laden with fruit, and barred warblers; remember? True to it, we saw no warbler, though seconds before it had been sunbathing in plain view.

Golden plovers kited the wind and a grey plover wailed from the marsh (perhaps he too had dipped spectacularly). Two young marsh harriers blustered by and, in the company of these forever friends, I did not mind missing everything. I lie: we did not miss quite everything. Two dowdy quiver-tailed redstarts were in the dunes, my first of the year.

By way of illustration DTH sent a lovely photo of a much less dowdy male.

Redstart by Dave Horsley


common redstart
Phoenicurus phoenicurus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 82
Birds: 854
Reptiles: 20
Amphibians: 8
Fish: 11

Friday, 21 September 2012

In other news


Three evenings of late my father and I have visited a friend's farm in search of badgers. We've seen them here before; but three evenings of late we've failed to find any. My theory is that canny Brock is keeping a low profile until we have politicians intelligent enough to put hard science above political point-scoring.

To misquote the celebrated words of Captain Oates: this may be some time.

More beasts in black and white

Good old DTH and I have twice strolled along Cley beach in the past few days, and twice we've seen auks. The first time we saw guillemots in winter plumage, fresh from some granitic cliff to the north, and the second we saw both guillemots and a razorbill. DTH was kind enough to send these instructive photos of razormots, taken previously at Cley. More of his splendid photos and videos of wildlife all over the world may be found here.

To misquote J. R. R. Tolkein's Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring: The wolf that one hears is worse than the auk that one fears.

Guillemot in Norfolk 

Razorbill in Norfolk


It was only a matter of time before a biopic was made of my life. My exploits as a yoga teacher have now been immortalised in film by my good friends at West Runton Beach Cafe (hyaena poo in the kitchen, remember?). I am expecting a Palme d'Or and the commissioning of a full-length feature with James Franco as me.

To quote Gehlek Rinpoche in Good Life, Good DeathIt’s easy to give up food and possessions, but not our reputation. Even someone meditating in some deserted no-man’s-land still hopes that a solitary shepherd minding his sheep will find out about him and tell people in the village.


This morning but two swallows hawk over the pond, where two weeks ago there were fifty. A robin pours his melancholy into the morning and my mind heads south to Madagascar.

To quote Henry Williamson in Tarka the OtterSandmartins and warblers deserted their old haunts; kingfishers and herons remained. The reeds sighed in the songless days, the flags curled as they withered, and their brittle tops were broken by the rains.

New on a calm North Sea


Alca torda

2012 Totals

Mammals: 82

Birds: 853
Reptiles: 20

Amphibians: 8

Fish: 11

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Badgers, in others' words

1) Prophetic:

The moor is to the deer, the badgers, the foxes, the otters, the falcons, and the hawks, pitiless despoilers of rooted and blooded things, which man has collected and set apart for himself; so they are killed.

Henry Williamson
Tarka the Otter

2) Influences on our greenest ever government and its environmental thinking:

It took Margaret Thatcher herself to point this out. She said gloatingly at the time of the Falklands War: “It’s exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum things like the environment.”

Yes, we’re destroying the planet, how frightfully dreary, how terribly vieux jeu. 

Simon Barnes
How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher

3) Let us hope he is right:

“People come – they stay for a while, they flourish, they build – and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.”

Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows

Monday, 17 September 2012

Why badger the badgers?

The government is poised to issue the first licences to shoot badgers in its ill-informed, unscientific cull. Much more information on the cull may be found here in an article published yesterday in The Guardian.

No-one in the conservation community opposes the control of bovine TB or fails to feel for the farming families affected. However, the science conducted independently over many years and at huge expense to the taxpayer all indicates clearly that a badger cull will be ineffective and most likely counter-productive. The government is willfully choosing to ignore the hard evidence in the face of political pressure. If you are in any doubt as to the lack of scientific credibility of the cull, watch this short video, released by the Badger Trust, in which Sir David Attenborough, George Monbiot, Simon King and Mark Carwardine explain their misgivings.

If you would like to help badgers please sign the Badger Trust's petition against the cull, the link to which may be found on their website.

Quiet skies

Like summer's swifts my words are gone. Soon they'll be back, I hope (sooner than the swifts at least), but for now the skies of my mind are quiet.

I gave my word, though, that here I would record each vertebrate I saw in 2012 and on Friday, the laughter of autumn's pink-feet in my ears, I saw two new birds at Cley.

New on a west wind


Uria aalge
Manx shearwater
Puffinus puffinus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 82
Birds: 852
Reptiles: 20
Amphibians: 8
Fish: 11

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The stars

I wake in the night and the sky is a crush of stars. For every star a tiny heart beats in the heavens, surfing the pull of the earth and borne on migrant wings. On! On! On genes, on!

Try to comprehend what the earth is busy with in autumn and spring, in its exchange of light and feathers between the north and the south: on this day, say the third of September, there will be 45 million swallows in the air on their way out of Europe. We are in the middle of it, they fly right through us, but we hardly notice.

Tim Dee
The Running Sky

Monday, 3 September 2012


On Sunday I gardened at last, hacking and digging and bashing and making ready for winter. Swallows saw a hobby off the common, over my head, and two lone swifts went south. Next door a heady white Buddleja bristled with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks and small tortoiseshells and, basking on my flint front wall, a speckled wood.