In all my years as an arranger and leader of wildlife guided walks one thing I've learnt - we'll actually I've learnt a lot of things, but for the purpose of literary effect - the one thing I've learned is never ever ever call your walk by the name of the animal you intend to go looking for. Do this and you can be ASSURED you will not see, or hear, or even smell, the creature in the title.
The 'bittern stroll' will leave your group damp and cold without so much as a distant 'boom' (their call - bit like someone blowing over a bottle top) never mind a fleeting glimpse of streaky brown in the reeds. The only hens you are likely to see on the 'hen harrier watch' are those clucking in the farmyard by the meeting place. And absolutely and completely for sure, the only seabirds seen on that cruise where the text waxes lyrical about 'exotic shearwaters and petrels' will be herring gulls. And you would probably have got better views of these by the pasty shop on the sea front.
With this in mind, it was with some surprise I found myself a few years ago leading a 'Nightjar watch'. It wasn't my event, but a friend asked - and how could I refuse - it did after all mean a trip to the Lizard in Cornwall - one of those places that you become inordinately fond of but can't quite put your finger on why.
The walk had been advertised as starting at 8:30pm from Kynance Cove - as well as 8:30pm from Lizard village and even 9:30pm from Kynance on an earlier leaflet that, fortunately had not been widely distributed. One of those things with advertising events, is that, try as you might you will always end up getting dates times and places confused - no, honestly - just try it, you'll be amazed how easy it is.
With a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing though everyone interested eventually managed to get to the right car park at the right time for the walk and stood their eagerly clutching torches and with copies of 'Nightjar spotting monthly' open on the back seats of their cars. Following the health and safety announcements ('this heath is a nasty dangerous place that may cause multiple deaths by just being looked at in the wrong way - so remember to wear good walking shoes if you have them") I introduced the evenings star in the waiting - the nightjar.
Now, I'm actually quite fond of nightjars, on many a 'heathland night-walk' the birds have performed marvelously. They always seem, if anything, quite curious of groups of people and will fly directly overhead to the thrill of the everyone who instantly assume you have some sort of telepathic communication with the animal world. I've even had them land in front of people. They are, in short - good value - the sort of creatures that deepen your enthusiasm for the natural world (unlike, say, leeches).
So, I spoke about their falcon like shape, their strange 'churring calls', how you can tell they are in flight by their 'gweek-calls'; their wing clapping displays; the fact they used to be rare and now are making a come back and so on and so forth. I also spoke of the folklore around them - the fact that, for some reason, farmers used to think (and probably still do in some remoter parts of the region) that when their goats and cattle went dry it was due to the milk being taken by nightjars - hence the 'traditional' name goatsucker. I actually wonder if 90% of these bird myths were the creation over-zealous Victorian folklorists eagerly led on by any old rubbish they were told down the Dog and Duck in return for a pint. Still, it’s a good story and always goes down well.
Having built the group up - I then warned against over-enthusiasm, because, being a WILD creature, there is a chance, a tiny one, that we may not see a nightjar. I don't really think anyone believes you when you say this though. I said it a few more times as we set off to the heath though, just to make sure.
As we crossed the car park I also introduced the two blokes who we're staring blankly at a small white wooden box with a huge light bulb on top. After we'd seen the nightjars, we'd be coming back to see the hundreds of moths caught in their moth trap.
And so, on to the heath. This was the 'growing expectation and excitement' part of the walk - everyone chatting happily, with occasional interruptions from me and others to mention the rare Cornish heath or talk about stonechats. In short, so far so good.
But, all too soon, with the sun going down, it came to the part of the 'nightjar walk' where it was necessary for us to stop and listen. When hunting nightjars, you have to use your ears and listen for the males churring - a proclamation of his territory. It is a strange and otherworldly sound - but perfectly suited the strange and otherworldly heathland landscape at night.
We stopped. We listened. For once, the group managed to listen quietly - for many people, standing quietly is impossible. Its not that they chatter, its just they seem incapable of remaining still without shuffling, rustling, or coughing.
We listened some more. After what always seems like hours, but was proably no more than a couple of minutes I started to feel uncomfortable. No nightjars. I felt, after a little while longer, the pressing need to say something. It was starting to move from 'growing excitement' to 'dashing expectations'.
So, and goodness knows why, I started to talk about the crickets and grasshoppers. Well, talk is a loose description, it was more of a waffle. In two rubs of a grasshopper's leg I found myself trying to explain the finer points of acoustic communication in orthopterans. To make matter worse, I also started to badly confuse everyone by saying it was possible that some people might not be able to hear some of our chirruping crickets - instantly splitting the group into those that could hear the little beasts and those that could not. I wish I hadn't started, because now those who could hear were rather cockily trying to point out the calls to those who could not. And all the while the nightjars were still not churring.
The group settled back down to listening - while I started inwardly to curse the birds. The sun was now firmly set and I was trying to frame an excuse as to why the birds were not performing - but it was neither cold nor windy so I couldn't blame it on the weather. So, I limply said I didn't know why they weren't performing, and suggested we wandered back to look at the moth trap - at least I knew that would be interesting as moth traps are ALWAYS good value.
On the way back, by way of some recompense, we found a glow worm. Fortunately these had not been mentioned in the walk promotion.
The moth trap lamp was shining brightly - after all this was a serious trap with a mercury vaopur lamp and everything. We approached. Hoever, our moth guide for the evening was stood in roughly the same postion and posture as when we left some two hours previously. He was not animated. He was not pouring over bottles full of flapping moths.
My heart sank further on the news that for some reason it wasn't a good night for moths either. Apparently it had been brilliant a few nights previously - which is probably the last thing people need to hear on occasions like this. Still, at least we had a few, and, to save the day, a lovely large elephant hawk moth. We also amused people with moth names - which are wonderful (my personal favouite being 'the confused').
After a little while, people started to make their way back to their cars. Everyone was very polite and said that, despite the fact they'd seen very little they had enjoyed the evening. I think, with hindsight, in a funny sort of way I also quite enjoyed it too. yes, there were times when I was cursing the birds, but its still better to be out on a lovely evening than stuck in front of the TV.
The full moon was now high and the last person had said their goodbye's. We started to pack up.
That's when the nightjars started churring.
Swallows have a remarkably cosmopolitan distribution and breed across much of the Northern hemisphere from North America to Europe and on through Asia. Outside the breeding season they move south; European birds flying to Africa south of the Sahara from the Ivory Coast in the west to Kenya in the east and on down to South Africa.
The UK is home to somewhere in the region of 375,000 pairs, give or take one or two, which represents about 4% of the European population if you like statistics (which most conservationists do). In the UK they are found in most places, save for some remoter parts of the Scottish highlands and some of the larger urban areas - unlike many common birds they do not have a taste for urban sprawl.
Its difficult to pin them down to a particular habitat - all swallows need is an abundant supply of insects and a sheltered ledge on which to site a nest. Somewhat poetically E M Nicholson in his 1951 book, 'Birds and men' wrote of the swallows habitat being 'entirely invisible' as it consisted of a well defined 'shallow layer of air from immediately over the land or water up to … some five hundred feet'. He never got round to writing the sequel 'Birds and women' - pity really.
However, despite their occupancy of a layer of air, they do favour certain sorts of air or, more to the point, air over certain traditional habitats - especially open pasture with nearby open water or marshland. In these places they feed on insects of a huge variety. Most of these are scooped up in flight - mother nature having provided swallows with a large gape (mouth) relative to its size. I like to think of them as the avian equivalent of a basking shark - albeit a lot smaller. And not aquatic. Or in any way fish like. Think about it - you'll get the analogy.
One of those 'simple pleasures' is watching swallows while on the wing feeding. They are enormously acrobatic - darting here and there with almost impossible turns, or flying inches over the ground at lightning speed - all the time chattering to one another, for one thing swallows like to do - its talk. Their voice has, rather cruelly, been described as harsh and not at all musical - but for me, alongside skylarks singing and grasshoppers chirping, it’s the keynote sound of a balmy English summer; the perfect accompaniment to cricket on the green and warm beer.
Swallows start to return to the UK in March, with most coming through in waves in April with a few stragglers in May. Once in, birds start to search for their nest sites. Remarkably, established breeding swallows are incredibly faithful to the previous years nest site. In a study i it was found that 80% of sites from one year were used by the same males the next year. Think about it - a bird that can fit in the palm of your hand flies to south Africa, spends five months there, flies back and remembers that it nested on that beam in that barn in that field just outside Exeter. And, in case you were wondering, the remaining 20% of males in the study that didn't use the same nest did nest nearby!
Most pairs are solitary - but occasionally small swallow colonies are found, usually consisting of no more than five pairs. Swallows site their nests on suitable ledges, in the UK almost entirely in man-made structures, often in derelict buildings, most typically on beams at between six and fifteen feet above ground. The nest is quite basic (compared to, say, their relatives the house martins) - consisting of a shallow bowl of mud lined with a few feathers for comfort. One of the few times you may find them on the ground is when they are scooping up mud from river banks or the sides of ponds to build their nest.
Most of the work bringing nest material is done by the male while the female arranges things 'on-site', the whole process taking eight days, with two extra days for lining and finishing touches - which seems like quite a long time to me to build an object only 7inches in diameter - especially when its often just a matter of a few repairs to the previous years nest.. But then they are quite small.
Swallows lay on average between four and five white eggs, marked lightly with reddish spots. Incubation lasts up to 15 days and is done almost entirely by the female. Once hatched the young then take a further 19 days to fledge, in which time the adults bring regular mouthfuls of partly digested 'insect pate' (know technically as a 'bolus') - nice. Each swallow pair will have between two and three broods each season.
As autumn approaches, and nesting finishes, swallows gather together in groups, for theirs is a communal life most of the year. This is when they are perhaps most commented on as swallows perched together on wires is a sure sign of the year's passing. Roosts, especially when birds move south, can reach enormous sizes. One of their favoured haunts is reedbeds where numbers may reach in to the ten's of thousands. This however is nothing when compared to their African winter roosts. At one well known site at Boje Elbake in Nigeria numbers reach upwards of 285,000 nightly!
The migratory routes of European swallows are particularly well known due to extensive ringing of birds. UK birds winter in South Africa, or western Cape Province to be precise. To get there they make their way south through western Europe then inland across the Western Sahara down to West Africa and on down to Cape Province. All this takes a matter of a few weeks and once at their destination they spend their time in groups scooping up insects much as they do in the UK, albeit over a dramatically different landscape.
Sadly, swallows are on the UK's amber list - this means their numbers are showing evidence of decline, but not as bad as those on the 'red' list. Its every birds ambition of course to get on to the green list - the group of birds that are all doing rather well, thank-you. Like quite a few birds on the amber list, reasons for their decline are not clear. It may be linked to overall decloines in the numbers of insects in the face of agricultural intensification both here and in their wintering grounds. It may also be linked to climate change leading to drought and desertification (I love that word) in Africa - the last thing a swallow wants is to find its desert crossing, bad enough at the best of times, suddenly growing longer.
Lets hope that the efforts of conservationists to discover more about these birds results in some positive changes - for they really are a quite remarkable species.
I spent the last couple of days in the company of a small group of eager wildlife enthusiasts sharing the simple pleasure of bird song. “I wish I knew more about bird song” is one of those questions that is frequently asked by event participants. I always suggest the range of CDs, downloads, web services and gadgets to aid learning – but to be honest you can’t actually beat getting out there and using your own ears in the company of those that have experience of those things.
It’s not easy though, and working with groups I really don’t think birdsong can be taught in a weekend. But as one participant put it “It makes you realize that there’s a lot more going on out there than you think”. And this is a good thing in my opinion, that through a weekends careful listening we can open up the senses a little more and make the world an even more fascinating place.
As always with these sorts of events I tried to encourage familiarity with the common songs. The sorts of songs that, once you know them, you hear everywhere. Robin, wren, blackbird, chaffinch are good for starters, with song thrush thrown in for good measure. Chiff-chaff is easy too, and its nice if you are in a place with willow warblers so that you can make the point that on many occasions songs and calls are the surest way to tell birds apart. As I said in my last blog; birdwatching is 70% listening.
From those we branched out into the slightly more challenging species. Goldcrest is one such. Not so much because it’s song is easily confused with others, but because its high frequency makes it difficult for some people to hear. Persistence paid off though and we were also rewarded with delightfully close views of a very inquisitive bird that came within a few feet of us.
Alongside goldcrest in the slightly more challenging department were some of the bird’s calls. Great spotted woodpecker is one such. Once you know it you here them everywhere, but trying to point out the birds distinctive `chip’ call from a distance amongst other songs and calls proved a little tricky. The same with the `rattles’ of a group of mistle thrush.
We also tried the difficult species. And some of these I find infuriating myself. Around our camp for instance we had both garden warbler and blackcap. I really thought I `had’ garden warbler song. To me its slightly thinner than the more full bodied blackcap song, and the phrases are longer and `more scratchy’. But there were a couple of occasions when, from a distance I wasn’t completely sure. But one of the neat things with these two is that have different calls, and if you are patient you can simply wait for your quarry to stop singing and start calling. Blackcap sound like two pound coins being tapped together and garden warbler do not. I know you may want me to describe the garden warbler call there, but I’d find it difficult to represent in a word. Check it out on a CD and you’ll get what I mean.
Best of all though there were a few things that I had never heard before. There were mistle thrush singing just before dawn, completely alone from the top of an oak. While it wasn’t a new song to me, I had never heard one like this. There was the `buzzing’ of redpoll as they flitted around the tops of the conifers. There was a siskin weaving mimicry into it’s song with a very passable house sparrow call. And most unusual of all, at 11am in the morning, there was a brief “churr” of a nightjar. I’ve heard numerous nightjar at dusk and dawn, but only on one occasion had I ever heard the bird during the day. It appears they do this if they are disturbed at the roost, but as we were no where near the place the sound was emanating from I can only assume another creature had disturbed the bird.
Hearing these things certainly reminds me how good it is to get out as there is genuinely always something new to be experienced, even on your own doorstep. And, as with this last weekend, it’s great to share these experiences with others.