Sunday, 7 December 2014

Beans and buntings

After the rain today came sunshine. And Mike.

I should probably introduce you. Mike is a volunteer on the Norwich Cathedral Peregrine Project, on which I worked earlier this year. His is a blossoming love of birds: at first, over many years, a soul-union with crows of all kinds and all kinds of crows; then a passion for Norwich's dynasty of peregrines and an effortless talent for communicating about them to the public; and now a growing-by-the-day love for all wild birds and the wild places in which they are found, as he leafs through the field guides and dreams of yet more species he might see. I well remember that giddy falling in love with birds, though mine was many years ago.

Under Norwich Cathedral's spire, with the petulant shout of a female peregrine in our ears, we became firm friends and it is my privilege on occasion to show him birds he has not seen before. Today, as yesterday, there were tundra bean geese at Weybourne. To be unsparingly honest, if I had to choose a bean goose to love for the rest of my life, it would be a taiga. As I wrote at the start of February 2012, their slender elegance enchants me. I am not blind, however, to the stocky, snarl-billed charms of a tundra bean goose and I am weak before the hordes of pinkfeet with which they often find themselves. So to Weybourne we went today.

The first flock we stopped to scan was of brents. Two pinkfeet stood nearby, pious, ashamed perhaps to be grazing in such lowly company. Most of the pinks were by the road to the heath, thousands of them in a muddy field. I scanned but, though the horizontal winter light was perfect, there were no orange legs among them. The birds were shifting between this and a field uphill to the south, so to there we walked. Still no orange legs, no tundra beans. Then, as a flight of pinks moved to their original field, flying above them, from I saw not where, were four chocolate-dark geese. Beans.

Back to the first field, where quickly we found two tundra beans and spent much cold time watching one of them as it dozed, shuffled and sometimes stood. (Note to future bean geese: you're really a lot less fun, when mingling with thousands of pinkfeet, if you sit down and put your head under your wing, thereby hiding your only distinguishing features.)

Mike was patience itself while I gazed dreamily at grey geese, extolling their qualities; but what he wanted to see was his first snow bunting. There were rumours of a confiding bird at Gramborough, so to Salthouse we went, a year since the car park was buried in shingle by the rage of the sea. We tramped over the ridge and through the brackish pools, but no bunting was there. We went east, to try our luck with the twite on the north side of Salthouse Marshes. Linnets: check. Skylarks: check. Shoveler: check. Turnstones: check. Twite: nope. Emphatically no twite to be seen. But what were these? What were these long-winged passerines above the shingle ridge, their wings white in the last of the afternoon's egg-yolk light?

Snow buntings. They landed on the shingle by the pools towards the erstwhile car park, and there we watched them, happy. I don't remember my first snow buntings - so very long ago - but I know I have loved them ever since.

Joy to you too Mike in your fledgling love for tundra bean geese, for snow buntings, and for birds.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


It is cold as I walk to town today, that cold that clasps your face and tightens the corners of your eyes. It is grey too, the lingering barely-day grey of the shortest dates. On the river a pair of greylags crouches under swaying boughs of aspen, their waxy bills ectopic in the gloom.

On my return a blue tit sings - spring sings! - from the ribcage alders by the pond, and from a chimney pot a wind-up starling mimics night's tawny owl in his song. His winter song.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


At Cley yesterday the marsh was all noise. In the scant light over the North Norfolk coast we felt our way through the day, guided by sound. First there were pinks, thousands upon countless thousands of them, flighting along the ridge, filling the sky with excited talk of Iceland. Then the shingle's crunch under six booted feet and the shingly voices of linnets. To the east, on Arnold's, the triplet chime of redshank.

From Daukes' came much timid tealtalk and now and then an irresponsible whistling of wigeon. Here too the scraping of three mobile dunlin and the squelch of a snipe bounding from the long wet grass. Drake gadwall (spellcheck wanted that as goodwill: I'll take either) gave their seedy, knowing quack, their minds locked on next spring's breeding. Three avocets among the many gulls were silent.

Silent on a day of friendship and sound.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Of hares

On winter mountains are strong friendships forged. I spent today with Deb, whom I met on my first trip to Hemis National Park in search of snow leopards in February 2013. That we saw six snow leopards, including a mother near-missing a blue sheep, was remarkable. More remarkable still was what we humans shared in camp and on snowy mountainsides: Europeans, far from their own landscapes and thoughtscapes, learning from one another and from the skill, open-heartedness and diligence of Ladakhis. Therein lies the power of the trip.

Deb, a marsh tit and friends watching two snow leopards in the
Tarbung Valley, Ladakh, February 2013
(photo by Russell Scott)

Deb and a marsh tit in the Husing Valley
(photo by Russell Scott)

A map drawn by our Ladakhi friend Chitta of
the sites where we saw snow leopards in February 2013

This power and the dust-coloured mountain cats themselves saw me back in Hemis last February (only five snow leopards this time) and will see me there again in 2015. Next year will be in fact a year of cats for me and very soon my blog will be all talk of them. So for now I'll say little of snow leopards, nor Hemis, nor Ladakh.

Instead, more talk of Norfolk, where today Deb and I walked the banks and boundaries of NWT Cley Marshes. All the birds of winter were here, though winter's dramatis personae has changed greatly in the thirty years I have been here too. Among the many mutedly fluting teal on the marsh were little egrets. Stirring the purr-wing wigeon there were marsh harriers, so recently seen only in summer here. In the puddled grass were plenty of brents, bringing with them their many bar-backed youngsters from a successful season in the tundra. Ruff were here, commuting in quick-winged flocks between the marshes and the stubble-fields, and redshank, loud in the winter stillness. On the shingle goldfinches fed from the dried heads of the horned poppies, remembering in their wings the poppies' buttery summer blossoms. Rolling in the surf were bull grey seals who, unlike almost every other vertebrate about its winter business at Cley today, are at the height of their breeding: their harems are pupping in the dunes on the Point and no sooner have they done so than these precious females will come into season for the only time in the year.

After our cold walk and steaming soup in the visitor centre, Deb and I called at the Pinkfoot Gallery where Sarah was full of news of otters and pine martens in Scotland. We crooned and drooled over art and, stopping by a striking bronze sculpture of a hare, Deb, who has seen snow leopards (and woolly hares) with me in Ladakh, said, 'It's one of my dreams to see a hare in the wild.'

I did a double take. Perhaps I double-took (I'm not sure). The penny dropped. Deb had never seen a hare. I raced to Sarah's office my mind full of spots along the coast where hares could be seen. I needed a nearby site which I could be sure to reach before the afternoon's light left us altogether. I suggested the hilly fields above Salthouse and - yes - Sarah confirmed that Rachel often sketched hares there. I bustled Deb into the street and into my car. We raced (as fast as the 20 mile speed limit through the High Street would allow) to Salthouse. No hares in the fields by the first muddy parking spot. From the second we could walk across a winter cereal field - every hare's favourite - and scanning closely I found one hunkering like a lump of earth between the sharp green lines. I pointed out the place, lifted my binoculars again, and saw that it had gone. No lump of earth. No hare.

We rushed across the field to where the hare must surely be found, and there indeed he was, flattening himself millimetre by millimetre into a furrow. So we tiptoed along the field's edge, crisp with the fresh shoots of alexanders, as the hare pressed himself into the mud. Finally, after Deb had certainly seen her hare, he leapt to life, spun round, and bounced across the field showing how effortlessly he could give us poor bipeds the slip.

I have seen five species of hare this year - woolly in Ladakh, mountain in Kamchatka, Ethiopian and Starck's in Ethiopia (Starck's hare: what a beauteous thing and what a habitat in which to live!) - but this home hare in a cold field, shared with a friend, was the best by far.

Cups from Kolkata

The second time, of many, that I went to Assam I found myself stranded for a week in Kolkata. In the middle of long trips these orphan times in faraway cities are lonely, but equally they let me lose myself amid wild and human life in a way which is impossible while leading a tour. I love Kolkata and the Bengali people I know there but on this occasion it was my interaction with an immigrant Bihari which affected me most.

Each day during this week I had breakfast on the street, buying tea from a smiling young man - barely a man in fact - on a street corner. Being Bihari he was a native speaker of Hindi and was generous enough to tolerate my limping attempts to converse with him in his language.

One morning in my naivety I asked him where he lived and, pointing to the pavement, he replied, 'मैं यहाँ सोता हूँ. I sleep here.' I was mortified and, it being the only thing I could do to help him, I doubled my intake of tea, buying his largest cupfuls as often as I could.

I kept some of his big one-use terracotta cups, and carried them clumsily in my hand luggage through the remainder of my India tours that year. Changing my bedsheets this morning I knocked over two of his cups on my windowsill and my mind was at once back with him on a pavement in Kolkata.

I hope that somewhere a Bihari tea-seller with a kind smile is happy and well.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Recycled words

Norfolk Wildlife Trust has posted on its blog some thoughts and words of mine on nocturnal wildlife. If interested, you can find them here.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Peer review

I received today an email from a colleague in Africa with whom I worked for the first time recently. He is radiantly talented and, beyond this, kind; and part of his message read:

Nick you are the best guide i had ever my life i wish you long life !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am humbled and deeply touched and wish the same for him.

Primary feather of a white-cheeked turaco from Bishangari

My Cley

In the dirty-linen light of a down day a mistle thrush sings and, just at the point where autumn surrenders to winter, spring is promised in this songster's syrinx. Two dabchicks flank a mallard on the river, the three of them half-hidden by a muddle of branches over winter water. They were here, these grebes, for the start of my last blog as they are here for the start of this.

Yesterday was another dull day, on which the sky grew too heavy and dropped on us its rain. All day. I was at Cley, as so many times before, but this time I was reporting for Mustard on the construction of the Simon Aspinall Education Centre and the management of Pope's Marsh, between Salthouse and Cley, which was purchased by NWT last year.

A visit to Cley is a going home for me, to the place where one long-ago winter I learned to love wildlife. They were there yesterday the throaty brents, picking through winter barley on the hill; they were there the cackling pinks, grey in the grey light of the un-sky; they were there the teal's peep and the wigeon's whinny. And thanks to the unrelenting work of Adam and his team on the marsh, to the generosity of the many who donated to the appeal, to the vision and daring of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and to the dream of a Norwich doctor and his friends in a North Norfolk pub in 1926, we can hope they will be there for years to come.

In 1926, however, Sydney Long realised another great idea that had long been simmering in his mind. This was that Norfolk should form a county trust – the first of its kind in the country – to acquire and manage nature reserves of its own. He began by buying in his own name the 400 acres of Cley Marshes, which lay to the east of Blakeney harbour, and were thus complementary to the National Trust’s Blakeney Point reserve. A week later, at a luncheon at the George Hotel at Cley, he put to a party of his friends the idea of a county naturalists trust. In a summary of his reasons, he was prophetic:

‘When one considers the changes in the face of the county that are being made or contemplated by Forestry Commissioners, Drainage Boards, speculative builders and the like, one is anxious to preserve for future generations areas of marsh, heath, woods and undrained fenland (of which there still remain a few acres in the county) with their natural wealth of flora and fauna. At the present time most of Broadland is in the hands of owners who can be relied upon not to interfere with the natural beauties of the district, but who can say what will happen in a hundred or even in ten years’ time?’

Eric Fowler
in Nature in Norfolk - a Heritage in Trust

Monday, 24 November 2014


Yesterday my mother asked me about wildlife-watching in eastern Canada. I referred her to a trip run by the company for which I lead tours, Naturetrek.

Inspired, perhaps, by my snow leopard tour, which is admittedly quite tough, or by who knows what preconception about my life, she replied, 'I don't want to start pooing in holes and things, though.'

It's a wonder I'm normal

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Preliminary skirmishes

In the soul-big sky of North Norfolk yesterday there were larks. On the mind-wide waves there were many scoters. On the heart-great beach were my oldest friends. And I knew, in the sole song of a lark in the dunes, that it was time again to write.

In 2012 I wrote a blog, which many of you were kind enough to read from start to finish. Since then the itch of another idea has been at me. Early this year I scratched at this itch and set in train an adventure for 2015, and a blog to record it. Being by nature a perfectionist and a lover of neatness, I planned to take up my blog again at the start of next year, when the journeys it describes will begin. But yesterday in the lark's song, and in many memories among dunes and pines, came my cue. So here again is a marsh tit, sharing his small thoughts with the world.

I will tell you of my plans for 2015 very soon. I am excited and daunted. For now let us wander yesterday on Holkham beach. Let us stand with the wind sand-whipping the ankles of our boots and gaze through telescopes at the sea. On the waves is a fidgeting raft of common scoter, mostly chalk-cheeked females with here and there a glossy black male, a neat yellow splotch on his bill. Among the common scoters are a dozen velvets, and some of you may remember that this was the 995th bird species I saw while chasing my 1,000th at the icy end of 2012. Here too is but one drake surf scoter, only the second I have seen in Norfolk, and it is - ostensibly - to see him that we have come, though to me a wild walk with wild friends holds a greater force.

2014 has been for me a year of scoters and of waterfowl. Early in the year, from Titchwell beach, I showed a duck-loving friend his first common and velvet scoters. In July it was my privilege to travel to Kamchatka and Chukotka, there to see a spoon-billed sandpiper on its nest; many whales, brown bears and walruses too; and innumerable arctic waterfowl, including Steller's, king and Pacific eiders, black and Stejneger's scoters and - everywhere - dapper flocks of drake harlequins.

A drake harlequin's flank feather, Kamchatka, July 2014

A marsh tit in Kamchatka (by Kenny Ross)
In September I visited British Columbia where, as we sailed through the fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest in search of wolves, humpbacks, orcas, American martens, grizzly bears and black bears (including the rare white form of the black bear, termed the spirit bear), we were often met by flotillas of surf scoters.

A marsh tit catching a chum salmon in
Canada (photos by Ze Carrapichano).
The salmon swam away unhurt.
In Ethiopia in October and November, there were no scoters, naturally. Instead there were blue-winged geese, there were yellow-billed ducks and African pygmy-geese, there were numberless spur-winged geese and Egyptian geese, and, ever so briefly from a speeding bus, there was an African black duck.

Geladas adopt a marsh tit in the Simien Mountains,
Ethiopia, October 2014
(photo by Hilary Lamont)
Last week, I showed another new friend - met under a peregrine's nest on a cathedral spire - his first common scoter drake. And yesterday I returned to Holkham, with my oldest birding friends, and watched - what else? - scoter, and by them in the surf an immaculate Slavonian grebe.

#surfscoterselfie by @GDH56

Peregines - two! - sliced over the waves, wanting the life of a blackbird, chasing him up the beach until, by some migrant miracle, he reached the edge of the pines to defy their talons. Over the mist-heavy marsh inland of the dunes there were harriers, looping in lazy circles in suit of their prey. On a post a common buzzard, in the gloomy distance a rough-leg, and far to the south a kite. What wonder that these birds, so recently absent, are with us in Norfolk again. A third peregrine - a male hatched in 2013 - relentlessly shuffled and reshuffled the pack of teal on the marsh. The kite dreamed by on drooping wings and white-fronts tugged at summer's sugars in the grass.

For there is joy in wildlife. And wonder. And in 2015 I shall travel to watch it, and think on it, and write. I should be honoured if you would follow me.

#lovethemotherland by @GDH56