I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
I'll do anything to miss the Eurovision Song Contest but the alternative on Saturday evening was an easy choice - a visit to the RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve with local friend and artist Carry Akroyd.
We almost cried off as the skies were dark and there was rain in the air but as we neared the Washes the rain passed and we stayed dry.
Parking at the Eldernell car park, and walking back towards Peterborough, a corncrake started singing almost immediately from a field with cows (the time was about 2015). That was easy!
We walked some more and heard young herons growling from their tree-top nests, snipe drumming overhead, redshank yelping over the wet fields and yellow wagtails squeaking in the grass fields.
Carry has written and illustrated books about the Northamptonshire poet John Clare who is one of England's greatest poets - and one of the greatest wildlife poets. Clare knew the corncrake - I attach his poem on the land rail at the end of this blog. At the time he wrote, in the early 19th century, corncrakes were found in every county in the UK. Now they are absent from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and only found in the islands to the west and north of the Scottish mainland. Except for the Nene Washes where there is a reintroduction project in place.
This project involves captive-breeding of corncrakes at Whipsnade and then releasing birds at the Nene Washes. It's going quite well - as the singing bird we heard shows - but it's still rather in the balance as to whether it will be a success or not overall!
But it is amazing to think that the sound that John Clare regarded as commonplace ('tis heard in every vale' and 'tis like a fancy everywhere') is now such an unusual and rare sound. It would probably be a bit like future generations finding that kestrels had disappeared from the countryside and were now rare - corncrakes must have been that familiar to many country folk.
As an almost irrelevant side-note - I notice that the Green Party candidate for nearby Huntingdon in the recent General Election, who did pretty well, was one John Clare - and that other Green Party candidates with wildlife-friendly names included Juniper, Goldfinch and Moss. Do their names draw them to the cause?
Corncrake numbers are increasing generally in Scotland thanks to the contributions of RSPB nature reserves on Islay, Coll, and Balranald and the work of large numbers of farmers, crofters and land managers who are giving this secretive bird a lifeline for survival.
Rather surprisingly another species which the RSPB has done a lot to help, a bittern, flew past on our evening walk. I wonder how many people saw corncrake and bittern in the UK yesterday. Was it just us? There is very little overlap in their ranges!
I see there is an evening walk - booking essential - next Thursday evening at the Nene Washes - if you are local why not give it a go?!
As we left, the corncrake sang again. A rare sound in a wonderful place. John Clare might have thought it bizarre and sad that we made a special trip to try to hear what he would have thought such a normal sound.
John Clare's poem - the Landrail
How sweet and pleasant grows the wayThrough summer time againWhile Landrails call from day to dayAmid the grass and grainWe hear it in the weeding timeWhen knee deep waves the cornWe hear it in the summers primeThrough meadows night and mornAnd now I hear it in the grassThat grows as sweet againAnd let a minutes notice passAnd now tis in the grainTis like a fancy everywhereA sort of living doubtWe know tis something but it neerWill blab the secret outIf heard in close or meadow plotsIt flies if we pursueBut follows if we notice notThe close and meadow throughBoys know the note of many a birdIn their birdnesting boundsBut when the landrails noise is heardThey wonder at the soundsThey look in every tuft of grassThats in their rambles metThey peep in every bush they passAnd none the wiser getAnd still they hear the craiking soundAnd still they wonder whyIt surely cant be under groundNor is it in the skyAnd yet tis heard in every valeAn undiscovered songAnd makes a pleasant wonder taleFor all the summer longThe shepherd whistles through his handsAnd starts with many a whoopHis busy dog across the landsIn hopes to fright it upTis still a minutes length or moreTill dogs are off and goneThen sings and louder than beforeBut keeps the secret onYet accident will often meetThe nest within its wayAnd weeders when they weed the wheatDiscover where they layAnd mowers on the meadow leaChance on their noisy guestAnd wonder what the bird can beThat lays without a nestIn simple holes that birds will rakeWhen dusting on the groundThey drop their eggs of curious makeDeep blotched and nearly roundA mystery still to men and boysWho know not where they layAnd guess it but a summer noiseAmong the meadow hay
Cast any clouts yet? The old English phrase of 'Ne'er cast a clout 'til May be out' might refer to the month of May or maybe the may flower or hawthorn. Clouts are clothes. So it means don't discard your warm clothes until either the month of May or the hawthorn blossom is over.
On my regular walk at Stanwick Lakes today the two meanings came together. It was a breezy day towards the end of the month of May and the hawthorns were shedding their petals which carpetted the paths. I haven't seen the paths so white since the snows of January. Once or twice I was walking through a blizzard of white petals.
I saw an oystercatcher with two chicks, heard a grasshopper warbler (in addition to the 'full eight' of two whitethroats, garden warbler and blackcap, willow warbler and chiffchaff, sedge and reed warblers), heard cuckoo and saw a hobby.
Although the weather was a bit cool - I am glad I had on both a fleece and a jacket - it does feel like the wheel of seasons is spinning on. This is the end of spring and we teeter on the edge of summer as far as the birds' breeding season is concerned here in east Northants.
One day last week I was able to have a look at our Geltsdale nature reserve whilst chatting over policy matters with some visitors.
Meeting people out in the countryside often makes for a better discussion than being cooped up in an office, it gives us a chance to show people what we are doing on the ground and I, personally, always learn things from seeing things actually happening and talking about them on site.
We talked about hen harriers and the problems they create for grouse moor owners (there is no doubt that hen harriers eat grouse chicks alongside their more common food of skylarks, meadow pipits and voles) and of the problems that some grouse moor managers create for hen harriers (there is, similarly, no doubt that a lot of illegal killing of hen harriers is practised on grouse moors). This subject is a tricky one, and resolution of it is not looking at all imminent.
But as we talked, we saw plenty of curlews, redshank and lapwings which appeared to have young. A snipe drummed above our heads. A stonechat was singing nearby. A brood of fledged ring ousels flew around the path as we walked up hill.
But there was one bird which we did not see - and I had hoped we would. And that is the black grouse.
Our management at Geltsdale has gradually increased black grouse numbers over the years. We have maintained the level of predator control which existed when we took over land management there - some crows and foxes are killed. But I think that the large-scale land management which we have instigated is also showing signs of working. We have decreased the grazing pressure on the land and switched to an organic grazing system, we are using more cattle and fewer sheep, and we have planted tens of thousands of trees to re-clothe the sides of streams and gullies with native trees. All of these measures should help black grouse - but many of them may take many years to work - things happen slowly in the uplands.
In our discussions, before getting out on the hill, we had discussed the fact that over most of the north of England black grouse numbers appear to have crashed since last year. This is despite the fact that last year appeared to be quite a good breeding season - usually a good sign for the next year. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (with us the joint 'Lead Partners' for action on this threatened species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan) issued a press release on this subject entitled 'Severe winter halves black grouse numbers'.
And so, although I was disappointed that we saw no black grouse on our brief visit, I was delighted to hear that on our land, black grouse numbers have doubled since last year despite the bad news from lots of other sites. At Geltsdale, the counts of males at their spring gathering sites have gone up from 18 last year to 39 this year - that is an impressive increase. Now the black grouse is a tricky species - its numbers can go up and down a lot between years in ways that are only sometimes explicable - so the value of your black grouse population can go down as well as up. But it's obviously heartening that 'our' black grouse have done so well.
The GWCT release suggests that proximity to native woodland might be important in allowing black grouse to survive hard winters - that might explain why we seem to have bucked the trend - all that tree-planting and habitat work may be paying off. It's certainly too early to be sure, but let's hope that we are doing the right things!