November, 2007

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Close encounters of the bird kind

    Goldcrest. Photo by Steve RoundIt's a myth that you need binoculars to get a good look at birds. All you have to do is stand still and be quiet, and very often they'll come to you.

    At lunchtime, I went out for a potter around The Lodge's gardens to stretch my legs. I paused to admire the tree by the pond. It's a very strange-looking thing: a tangle of lime-green twigs armed with monstrous, inch-long thorns. Among the spikes are yellow, golf ball-sized fruits, like slightly furry limes.

    As I read its metal name tag - Japanese bitter orange - something else caught my eye. A goldcrest was interested in the tree, too. It was well-hidden among the branches. Goldcrests are the UK's smallest birds. They're a rather dull green colour with a yellow stripe on their head and a charming expression.

    They need to eat almost constantly at this time of year. As a tiny bird with a dainty, needle-like beak, the bitter oranges were no good to it - it was hunting for morsels of insect food.

    I stood still. The goldcrest carried on going about its business: clinging to the twigs, fluttering upside down and dodging the thorns. Then it perched on the edge of the tree and took a good look at me before darting over my shoulder and into the shrubs behind.

    It just goes to show you don't need to be dressed in camouflage or to sit in a hide for hours on end to have an eye-to-eye encounter with a wild bird.

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  • If you go down to the woods today

    Walking around The Lodge at lunchtime, there was a rustle and then the sound of powerfully whirring wings. A fat, brown bird flew from the crispy leaves in the sweet chestnut woodland and away up the hill from us.

    Woodcock illustration by Mike Langman (RSPB)It made me jump!

    For a split second, I thought, 'what on earth was that?' but then it became obvious. It was a woodcock, an enigmatic wading bird that lives its whole life in the... woods.

    It's very hard to see woodcocks while they're on the ground. They are very good at it: their feathers are a mixture of beautifully mottled, rusty browns - ideal for lurking among leaf litter. They have long, sensitive beaks for finding creepy-crawlies on the forest floor, and their large eyes (for seeing in dark conditions) are set far back on their heads so they can see what's behind them.

    When they spot you - long before you spot them - they're off like greased lightning.

    This is the time of year when many woodcocks come to the UK, flying non-stop across the North Sea, to escape the harsh winter. They can turn up in some odd places - we often get phone calls or e-mails from people reporting that a strange, brown bird with a long beak is poking around in their garden, or that they've found one dead underneath their office window after a collision.

    It's possible that, in spring, 'my' woodcock tapped its way out of an egg in a remote Russian forest, full of elk and bears and owls. Or maybe it bred in this country, performing a strange, grunting, squeaking, night-time display flight known as 'roding'. I'll never know, but it's nice to wonder.

    What do you think?

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  • Life's a beach

    Despite living 40 miles from the coast for all of my 28 years, saltwater definitely flows through my veins. The smell of the sea and the sound of breaking waves have accompanied many of the most memorable moments in my life.

    Summer weekends spent at the seaside, partaking in a heady mix of the things that teenagers enjoy and the wildlife riches of the Norfolk Coast have left me with a craving for sand, sea and surf - and an inescapable itch that has to be scratched regularly.

    Cranes by Andy Hay

    One of the most perfect moments of my life happened just the other week when a pod of killer whales - a lifelong ‘must see’ – surfaced off the beach I stood upon. It was entirely appropriate that the gasp of admiration I took on seeing them breach and panic the grey seals basking on the rocks between us filled my lungs with the scent of the sea.

    It was the lure of the coast that saw me spending every daylight hour by the sea at the weekend. I crunched along shingle beaches in the teeth of an easterly gale that whipped the North Sea into a frenzy and gazed inland over picture-perfect panoramas of reed, marsh and ditches laid out like silver ribbons between derelict windmills – a reminder these were once working landscapes rather than precious nature reserves.

    Watching a party of penduline tits extracting fluffy sea aster seed heads within touching distance, glimpsing flypasts from bitterns, chancing upon 23 regal cranes feeding at the roadside and a veritable swarm of marsh harriers over their afternoon roost was my antidote to painting the spare room, cleaning out the garage, or doing the Christmas shopping.

    And so I faced the inevitable Monday morning pleasantries of “Have a good weekend?” with a smug smile on my face and a windswept glow to my cheeks. I most certainly did.