Well, there you have it. It turns out I’m now officially old enough to reminisce about how things were different when I was young. Maybe it's a symptom of approaching 40, or more likely because nature really has changed in the 30 years in which my life has been immersed in it.
I now see a lot of things I would have thought unthinkable in my home county of Cambridgeshire when I was at school - nesting peregrines and black-winged stilts; resident, and thriving, red kites and great white egrets; silver-washed fritillaries and purple emperors in my local wood. When I was a lad though, I saw some things that I no longer see.
Dear diaryI’m a prolific/compulsive lister and all the notable nature I have seen since I was 11 is religiously logged - and written about - in A4 diaries (42 of them to be exact). Rare things get the capital letter treatment and sadly, there are now several species whose names appear in caps, but I really wish they didn't. One of these is TURTLE DOVE.
In the mid-late 1990s, I saw turtle doves in every hedgerow or “purring” gently from the telephone wires that criss-cross East Anglia’s flatlands. Turtle doves were everywhere, so didn’t qualify as particularly noteworthy and certainly didn't make the diary each time I saw one. They were just there. Between May and September; turtle doves were an expected part of the landscape like tractors, fields and the never-ending Fenland skies.
Now, the idea of not bothering to record a turtle dove that I see is unthinkable. This is the first year of my life that I have failed to see or hear one of these gentle, beautiful birds, so it really hit home just how rapid their decline has been.
Getting a turtle dove in my binoculars wouldn't have raised an eyebrow, "when I was a lad". Now I'd be punching the air (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
You're doing your bit to help by being an RSPB member or supporter. Operation turtle dove has swung into action, including tagging birds to help our scientists learn about their movements, both in this country and on migration and wintering grounds in Africa.
You might also have read in Nature's Home Summer 2017 about a new initiative called Gloves for Doves. You donate your pre-loved unwanted 100% cashmere knit sweaters or cardigans to give them a new lease of life and turn into fantastic recycled accessories. For every one received, £5 will be donated to the RSPB to help the conservation of the turtle dove.
Water vole patrolAnother creature that “got rare” in my lifetime is the charming water vole. Summer holidays spent playing by rivers and ditches wouldn’t be complete without the tell tale “plop” of Ratty diving into the water (apparently they do this to warn other water voles of danger). Now, I’ve had to delve into my little black book of friends and acquaintances in the world of wildlife to find out where I can see some near me. It turns out one spot is in Cambridge. With a little bit of time off due to me, I spent a lovely morning walking up and down a chalk stream with crystal clear waters inhabited by sticklebacks. The males looked lovely with a red glow to their bellies.
Cute much? Water voles experienced a drastic drop in numbers, but there are positive signs of recovery (Ben Hall rspb-images.com)
After an hour of walking, I was feeling a bit despondent. A brown rat had swum across the narrow stream, but its large size and long, thin tail revealed its identify instantly. A grass snake that jumped in from the near bank before zig-zagging frantically across briefly got the blood pumping. As with all the best wildlife encounters, It was just as I had given up and was heading back to my car that I got lucky. I heard a rustle from within a patch of reeds and stopped and stared. I saw brown within the lush green stems – and not feathers, but fur!
The water vole hopped up and posed in classic style, nibbling a fresh young shoot. Seconds later, just to me left, another one swam across the channel – the second classic water vole experience secured.
Whether munching on a reed, or swimming across a stream, water voles are an absolute delight (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
Time to dust off the little black bookSo, with water vole nicely in the bag for the year, it's time to reach for the little black book again. I need to see a turtle dove this summer and luckily still know a couple of people that have them on their local patches. I never thought I'd need to be asking where I could find a turtle dove. Times have definitely changed.
This week, I've been finding all my evening entertainment in our resident swift colony. But let's just say the photographic evidence leaves something to be desired.
I have absolutely loved this ‘heatwave’. I used to live in Sydney, Australia, and this week’s weather has reminded me of innumerate summer evenings on my little apartment balcony overlooking the vast Pacific, with groups of wild rainbow lorikeets splashing noisily in the bird bath, and licking mango juice from my fingers with their tickly black tongues.
Gratuitous rainbow lorikeet shot – just because I still love these old Aussie friends.
So this week, after each long, swelteringly hot day of RSPB magazine-making, I’ve been recreating that Antipodean scene on my typically English back patio, but with friendly collared doves in the birdbath and the gaggles of friendly lorikeets replaced by my favourite British summer bird (albeit a much more aloof one): our resident swifts.
On such deliciously balmy evenings, I’m not interested in watching TV (except Springwatch) or being indoors. Having got the kids in bed, you’ll find the two of us chatting on the back patio, with the swifts soaring metres above our heads. The sound of 20-plus swifts shrieking through the sky is a summer lullaby to my children.
Every now and then, our conversation is interrupted with a ‘wooooaaaah!’ as half a dozen swifts zoom really, really close to us in perfect, noisy formation.
And all week, every evening, I’ve been trying to take photos of them on my phone. It has really NOT been going well.
A ‘woaaah’ moment, captured in this – the first of many swift photo fails.
Swifts move seriously fast. They’ll happily zoom around at over 50mph on those boomerang wings of theirs. Peregrines can stoop faster, but swifts hold the speed record for level flight. That’s definitely faster than I can move my camera. And they’re precision fliers – turning on a sixpence in mid-air without warning. When they’re flying high, it’s easier to at least get them in shot, but they come out looking like this.
I have about 100 similarly indistinct photos sitting on my camera, if you’re interested.
And when they’re flying low, you can see them more clearly, but the speed at which they flash past usually results in shots like this:
They’re too quick for me!
They never touch ground, so apart from the odd second or two on a windowsill or eaves, they don’t keep still long enough to snap.
We have at least one swift family nesting in the edge of our attic. The adults will loop a couple of close fly-bys before hurtling straight at the building at full tilt, and we suddenly hear the ‘thwump’ of feathers as they slip through the tiny gap under the roof tiles, to be immediately yelled at by an unknown number of shrieking swiftlets hiding in the eaves.
Sometimes, part of the adult – a wing or a tail – remains visible for a moment, overhanging the edge of the building, or they might perch for a second on a windowsill, but by the time I get the camera going, they’ve vanished inside. Then there’s no telling when they’ll emerge again. It might be moments later, or not until the following morning. I’ve run down my phone batteries from training its camera on the eaves, to no avail.
They usually wait until the moment I give up and put the camera down, then I’ll see a brown head and shoulders peer mockingly down at me, before the parent launches into the salmon-pink sunset. She joins the wheeling flocks and they fly low over my face, laughing heartily at my total abject failure to snap this spectacle.
Go on then. Giggle away.
I’m intrigued by their lives, and listen to them socialising. They clearly all know each other, these guys – it’s the same families turning up year after year, and the adult hidden in my eaves will shriek loudly in response to calls from others zooming close by. Perhaps they’re her children from a previous year, or her siblings.
Perhaps they’ve asked her to join them for dinner and she’s just telling them, “Yeah yeah, I’ll be out in a moment, Mbuyi – I’m just getting these pesky kids to bed!” (I like to give them African names, since that’s where they spend most of their time).
There’s certainly an awful lot of late-night chatter between those in the eaves and those in the air. I’m dying to have a look at the family hiding in my attic, but I daren’t disturb them – even though my favourite summer shoes are up there somewhere!
Eventually, my camera and I are defeated by darkness. I head indoors and their screaming fades, albeit only slightly. Apparently swifts can power-nap on the wing. I wonder how they manage to zoom around at insane speeds while sleeping, and not even crash… imagine if we humans could do that – the global economy would be steaming.
My swifts returned from central Africa to their ancestral breeding grounds – our street – on the last day of April and, judging by the cacophony in my roof, the family is doing very well. This is despite earlier spells of cold and wet weather. Swift chicks are unique in being able to enter a torpid state and survive without food or parents for several days, so the parents can commute away to seek sustenance in more benign regions. I thought I might have lost them. All seems back on track now, though.
Last year, they vanished suddenly, one day in August. The young will launch themselves from my eaves from their first flight, head straight off back to Africa, and the skies will fall silent. It’s a sad day for us, but they’ll be back next year to start families of their own. And then I can start another season of patio-based photo fails.
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Have you managed to successfully snap any swifts, swallows or even house martins in flight? All tips and inspiration welcome – share your snaps by emailing us at the magazine!
Big Wild Sleepout, supported by Rohan, is taking place from 28–30 July, so to help get you in the mood for a night under the stars, here are my 10 top night time wildlife delights to look out for...
Are you a lark, or an owl?I can get up early when I must, but am much, much happier in the twilight and always have been. It's that mysterious period when the day shift gives way to the creatures of the night and spooky things happen (allegedly). So as a self confessed night wildlife nut, I thought I’d share my favourite experiences of watching nature by night. Please let us know about your favourite night time wildlife, and your best experiences, by leaving a comment below, or emailing email@example.com
What goes on in your garden as the night shift takes over? (Chris Shields rspb-images.com)1) Badger paradeI’m really lucky to be able to watch these stripy-faced animals literally on my doorstep in the evenings. I’ve been feeding my local badgers for a few years now and they come about half an hour before dark every night to parade a few feet from our back windows – more precisely, they come to stuff their faces. For a truly wild experience to put your tracking and fieldcraft skills to the test, seek out a badger sett at dusk and wait patiently with the wind blowing into your face to keep your scent away from these super-sniffers and watch their fascinating behaviour.
2) Go batty for batsMuch easier to see than badgers, and just as much fun to watch, are our bats. There are several species in the UK, many of them rare and localised, but if you get a bat detector you should be able to identify several from their echolocation calls, that help them locate food. Common pipistrelles are easily seen around gardens and you might also find the rather brilliant brown long-eared bats with their Batfink style ears and habit of hovering at vegetation to pick off insects. Noctule bats are big and fly high across the sky on long wings.
3) A kaleidoscope of mothsThere are around 2,500 species of moth on the UK list and they come in a tremendous variety of shapes, sizes and colours. From the angle shades that looks like a crumpled leaf to the super shiny burnished brass; the colourful chunky hawkmoths to the ghostly swallow-tailed moth. If you thought moths were all small and brown, you’re in for a treat.
You might even get tigers visiting you at night (tiger moths that is) – this is a garden tiger (Tom Marshall rspb-images.com)
4) A quartet of owlsTawny, little, barn and long-eared – four owls that you could find near you if you tune in to their calls at dusk and through the night (there are no tawnies in Northern Ireland though). Barn owls have an unearthly hiss that will really make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It doesn’t fit their cute, dewy-eyed appearance, or graceful look as they patetiently fly over a field or roadside verge looking for small mammals to eat or take back to their nest. Little owls are full of character. Look and listen for them before it gets fully dark. We have one that pops up on a tree by our garden every evening.
Barn owls are surely on everyone's favourite night wildlife list? (John Bridges rspb-images.com)
5) Anyone for cricket?One of my favourite sounds of dusk is the “chirp” of this secretive cricket coming from hedges, bushes and taller plants. Have a listen between July and October and you’ll realise it is one of those sounds you hear all the time, but perhaps have never checked out what’s making it. When you hear it, approach carefully and slowly, peer in and you should be able to see the cricket.
6) Take a moonlit walk along the beachIt might seem a strange entry to the top ten – but bear with me... Waders are returning from the Arctic throughout July, stopping off on our beaches and estuaries to rest and refuel on the abundant, often slimy, goodies that live in the soft sand and mud. Not all birds go to sleep at night, including waders who take the opportunity to continue feeding. You should be able to pick out several wader calls, from the excitable piping of oystercatchers to the "cour-lee" of curlews. Choose a still, moonlit night and enjoy.
7) Hedgehogs!The decline of the nation’s favourite animal has been all too apparent in my part of the world. I rarely see them on my patch now, but when I do it’s very exciting. I know many of you do enjoy them regularly though, from the great pictures and stories you send. Keep them coming – it’s good to know they are still around.
8) Glimpse a goatsuckerAs you’ll see on the next cover of Nature’s Home magazine, nightjars look like nothing else you can see in the UK. There’s still plenty of time to enjoy these crepuscular crackers over the next few weeks, so head to a heath, moor or woodland clearing and peel your eyes and ears for the males’ churring calls and their erratic, graceful flight. They also have lots of spectacular alternative names, including the goatsucker!
Mysterious nightjars come out at about 9.30 pm at this time of year – well worth staying up for (Chris Shields rspb-images.com)
9) The sweet smell of honeysuckleWe have three honeysuckles in our garden and they smell nice in the day. In the evenings, they smell amazing though! To attract night time pollinators such as moths the scent increases, and what a smell it is! Just brush past a honeysuckle bush and you’ll be immersed in one of nature’s nicest niffs.
10) Stay up late for a stag partyI thought long and hard about including this one because the truth is I have never seen one. I am assured though that it really is an experience to savour! It remains my most wanted to see species of UK wildlife and there is a horrible stag beetle shaped hole in my “lifelist”. I was confident of breaking my duck at the end of June when I made back-to-back visits to a hotspot where they had been seen just the day before, but no joy (just its lesser stag beetle cousin).
For more ideas of things you can do at night to make your Sleepout extra special, check out Anna's blog post from the summer solstice.
A special offer for RSPB membersTo help you enjoy your Big Wild Sleepout and enjoy nature by night, we’ve teamed up with our partners at Rohan, official supporters of Big Wild Sleepout. They pack a whole load into their clothing from sun protection to waterproofs and are offering RSPB members 10% off, including sale items. Plus Rohan will donate 5% of sales from this offer to the RSPB. Simply visit rohan.co.uk and enter code NHM3 at the Basket Page or mention the offer at your nearest Rohan shop. Offer ends 13 August 2017 and cannot be used to purchase gift cards.
Watch the Big Wild Sleepout film!Make sure you also check this superb Big Wild Sleepout Film from our friends at Rohan! It's sure to get you in the mood for a night under the stars.