Monday, 8 February 2010

Home-grown spider

I watch her some mornings as she moves across the wall; her eight, stiletto-tipped legs find unseen purchase on the plaster, gravity-defying and assured in their hold on this world that exists in a vertical plane. Her body is just a few millimetres in length, darkly patterned and with an arc of tiny glistening eyes on the top of her head. I have not worked out which of our many spider species she is, in part because I do not wish to disturb her daily routine.

She is not alone, as other spiders lurk in the corners of this old house. Some are rarely seen and I suspect that they indulge in nocturnal scurryings long after we have turned in for the night. Others are chance encounters, seen briefly as they race across the carpet and dash under the sofa; big hairy beasts that spook our rather feeble hounds. Then there are the daddy-long-legs spiders, Pholcus phalangioides, that hang in untidy webs where wall meets ceiling. These fragile looking spiders gyrate their bodies if disturbed, the motion so fast that the spider becomes little more than a pale blur, an effective and surprising defence for something so small.

Despite the ungainly appearance Pholcus will tackle other spiders, including those from outside that have ventured into the house in late autumn. Any that touch her web are approached and it is then that the long legs come into play. They give her greater reach, allowing silk drawn from the spinnerets to be flung over another spider with minimal risk. As well as other spiders, Pholcus will tackle small moths and mosquitoes, both unwelcome visitors to many homes, and I sometimes spot the body of a White-shouldered House Moth, partly wrapped in her silk.

One of the reasons why this house is so popular with these spiders is its age, lacking the dry warmth of modern houses, with their central heating and double-glazing. Like other house spiders, Pholcus can survive long periods without water but even she must descend to find it from time to time. Her eggs are thought to be prone to desiccation and presumably cannot cope in a modern house.

I do not mind sharing our house in this way. Most of these other residents are innocuous enough and have little or no impact on our lives. The occasional visitor may go away with the impression that we are a little untidy, perhaps, but the scatter of webs and their delicate residents provides a sense of connection during these bleak winter months. We are sheltering together from the elements outside, a community of lives whose daily routines sometimes bring us into contact with one another.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The swollen river

The river is a powerful force, especially now that it is swollen with last week’s rain. For much of its length the river gives the illusion of being inert; a soft-brown gently flowing mass that moves down an imperceptible gradient on a course that will, eventually, bring it to the sea. It is only where the river is divided, with part of its volume squeezed through a narrow weir, that its true power is revealed in a roar of spray and noise.

This winter river is very different from that of late summer and it is difficult to picture how it looked just a few short months ago. It is brown, rather than clear and the lush growth of aquatic vegetation has long since gone, rotted down and now part of the detritus held in suspension like some full-bodied broth. The bank-side willows are bare, their slim fish-shaped leaves cover the banks like a mass of sardines, once silver but now brown with the stain that decomposition brings.

While there is an air of decay about the river, the riverside creatures bring a sense that spring will soon be upon us and the river will once again return to life. On bright days, early Mistle Thrush and Great Tit can be heard singing, while three Great Spotted Woodpeckers indulge in ‘chase-me’ games high among the bare branches. The Grey Wagtails are often heard calling, their bouncy flight catching the eye as they move up and down the stretch of water near the weir. They have bred here in the past but in recent years have favoured a different nest site further downstream. It seems that there are still sufficient insects along the river to sustain them through this difficult season. A pair of Goosander hints that these sawbills might breed on the river again this year, a new and recent pattern that adds an exciting dimension.

The other week I heard of an Otter sighting a mile upstream; a cub just a few weeks old and the first confirmed breeding record for some years. It is another encouraging sign but, with the river rising by over a foot in recent days, I worry for its safety and hope that its mother will have found a secure holt. There is something remarkable about the river. Perhaps it is its changing moods, matching the seasons but also, in some small way, independent of them. The fact that on a bright summer day one part of the river can be shallow and babbling like the proverbial brook, while another, shaded by the willows, can be dark and sullen. Even in the depths of winter the river can be many things, always changing and ever my companion.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Time matters

We live in a changing world, with many interacting and complex processes delivering change across vastly different scales. There are the sudden and local changes that result from our seemingly never-ending demands for land, as new dwellings are added to an expanding urban fringe. Then there is the global concern over a climate that is warming, bringing with it the spectre of economic collapse and species extinction on a huge scale within decades. Behind these short-term changes there are things that happen on a much grander timescale, things that are so long-term that most of us find them difficult to comprehend. While an archaeologist would better comprehend the vast timescales that stretch back to the dinosaurs and beyond, even they do not grasp time in quite the same way as a geologist might.

Timescale is important when it comes to viewing our position within the landscape. In order to truly understand our landscape we need to escape from the narrow focus of our ‘three score years and ten’. It is easy, for example, to slip into some rose-tinted vision of how our countryside should look, based on some notion that the pre-war countryside was the one best suited to open country plants and animals or that our woodland should somehow return to ‘wildwood’. We have to understand that our landscape is continually changing as a result of processes that operate on lengthy timescales.

You can gain some appreciation of the process of change by looking at Norfolk’s fossil record. Even examination of a period that is short-term according to the timescale over which geologists work, you can see that Norfolk has been many different things. The presence of Woolly Mammoth, Arctic Fox and Woolly Rhinoceros in deposits associated with the Devensian Glaciation (which started some 70,000 years ago) reveal a landscape very different from today. Equally revealing are the records from the Cromerian Interglacial which contain Spotted Hyena, an extinct form of bison and a macaque monkey.

Of course, in some ways this misses the point. It is not so much that change happens but why the change comes about. Natural processes tend to take place over long periods of time and communities of animals and plants can usually respond but those changes brought about by our activities give wildlife little room for manoeuvre. Timescale can also cloud our judgement, leading us to suggest the reintroduction of a species on the grounds that it once occurred here. The thing is that lots of things once occurred here – it just depends on how far back you go. Surely it is better to look at why they ceased to occur before passing judgement on their return.

What's in a name

I have been leafing through the new edition of my favoured bird guide, a publication that will accompany me on my birdwatching trips around the county. I hope that it will serve me as well as the battered copy of the first edition that it is now replacing. The book contains new information and so recognises new species, created where previously recognised races have been split into two. So now, for example, I have Yellow-legged and Caspian Gull. Annoyingly, for me at least, the guide contains some of the creeping changes in bird names that seems to come from an increasing Americanisation of our language. Gone are the Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers, the ‘Diver’ now replaced by ‘Loon’. I cannot imagine any birdwatcher I know referring to the ‘Great Northern Loon’ at Whittlingham Country Park. At least the authors have not gone as far as those of a bird list that I saw recently; they’d replaced Common Gull with ‘Mew Gull’ and the term ‘Skua’ with ‘Jaeger’!

Somebody suggested that standardising the English names in this way is a sensible approach, enabling our New World cousins to understand which species we are writing or talking about. My natural response to this is that we already have names in place that enable those working on birds, in whichever country, to understand which species we mean. These are the Scientific names, based on the binomial system devised by Linnaeus.

Of course, such changes are not new and if you browse through bird guides from generations past, you will see many other examples of bird names that have changed. The Yellow Bunting of 1943 is now the Yellowhammer, the Hedge Sparrow is now Dunnock or Hedge Accentor and, going back further, the Red-breast is now the Robin. This last change of name is particularly interesting as the ‘Robin’ bit in ‘Robin Red-breast’ was a sort of country or folk name, in much the same way as some people refer to ‘Jenny Wren’. Imagine if we started calling the Wren, the ‘Jenny’!

I am often struck by how much more charm there is in the local names of birds than in many of the common names that we use at the national level. The ‘bee bird’ for Spotted Flycatcher is one of my favourite local Norfolk names but there are others: Bunt Lark (Corn Bunting), Blood Olp (Bullfinch – derived from ‘alpe’, the oldest known name for this bird and used by Chaucer) and the Sea Dotterel (Turnstone) are just three of many.

Whatever your views, names remain important because they enable us to communicate about these creatures and share our passions for the natural world.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Damp days should bring Siskins

It is on just this sort of damp day that I would expect the first of the winter’s Siskins to put in an appearance on my bird feeders. These small, streaky, green finches are a feature of late winter, arriving to feed alongside the larger and more robust Greenfinches, Great Tits and Chaffinches on sunflower hearts and mixed seed. The Siskins are around in the forest, though not in particularly large numbers this year and I wonder if it might turn out to be a fairly quiet winter for them.

Siskins breed in conifer forests across much of Northern Europe and while UK breeding populations are largely restricted to the north of the country, they do breed in Thetford Forest and similar woodland across parts of southern Britain, taking advantage of the maturing commercial plantations. During winter the birds may range more widely and they turn up as winter visitors to gardens across much of south-eastern England. Here, in the Brecks, I know of people who have them visit throughout the year, the adult birds arriving in summer with newly fledged young in tow. Despite this, they remain a predominantly winter visitor to my own garden.

The productivity of these small finches, and indeed the degree to which they use gardens, is linked to the size of the seed crop produced by the dark ranks of conifers. In years when the seed crop is large, the Siskins tend to enjoy a productive breeding season but, by the same token, when the seed crop is poor, breeding success is reduced. Food availability determines the extent to which Siskins turn to handouts provided in gardens. In years of a good seed crop the birds can remain within their favoured forest habitats and do not need to venture elsewhere. In such years, not only will our British birds remain in the forests but also the winter immigrants that we receive from continental Europe will stay overseas.

Even when the birds are here, the use of garden feeding stations will be influenced by the weather. On damp days the conifer cones remain clamped shut and the seed on which the Siskins feed remains locked away. It is only on dry days, when the cones open to disperse their seed, that the Siskins have access to their favoured food. Of course, it is not just conifer seeds that these birds take and if they cannot access these seeds you may find them feeding on riverside Alders. Only when such alternative resources have run out will the Siskins arrive in gardens in any numbers. While it is a shame not to have Siskins on my feeders it is a sign that things are well elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Roe Deer of German descent

Whenever I get the Norwich train out of Ely I always make sure that I take a seat facing forward and positioned on the left hand side of the carriage. This enables me to get a view of the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen Reserve and some of the damp grazing land that lies outside of its borders. More often than not this choice of seat will afford views of Marsh Harrier and Roe Deer, not to mention the very occasional glimpse of the Cranes which breed on the reserve. The Roe seem to prosper on the fen and whenever I visit I invariably see more Roe than Muntjac, anything up to five or six different individuals.

Interestingly, last week’s train journey brought with it a surprisingly large group of Roe, with 14 individuals feeding together in a field just to the east of the reserve. Looking back through my records it seems that this is the largest number that I have ever seen together, underlining the fact that Roe are usually solitary during the summer months and only form small groups in winter, the latter typically numbering between two and five individuals. Studies of the social organisation of Roe Deer have noted groups of up to eight within woodland and, amazingly, in excess of 60 in some open agricultural areas. Of course, the size of these winter groups is related to the size of the local population and the resources available to them within the local landscape.

In many ways the Roe has been ‘my’ deer since childhood, the species I most often encountered when growing up on the edge of the Weald, a mixed habitat of small woodlots, well-hedged fields and rotational coppice. It is only since moving to Norfolk that I have really ‘experienced’ living alongside our other deer – the Red Deer of Thetford Forest, the expanding population of Muntjac, the Broadland Chinese Water Deer and the mobile and elusive Fallow. For this, and other reasons (such as the Roe not being kept within deer parks), I have always regarded the Roe as being a true native but it turns out this is not entirely the case.

The fossil record shows the presence of Roe in Britain from the Middle Pleistocene but their presence here will have waxed and waned through a succession of ice ages. While Roe have been continuously present within the UK for the last 10,000 years, populations in southern England became extinct by the 18th Century, if not significantly earlier, because of hunting pressure. Reintroductions into East Anglia in the 1880s used German individuals and those present here today are likely to be their descendents. It appears that this most English of deer is not all it seems.

Monday, 1 February 2010

A roar of Starlings

On these dark January evenings I can hear them. From a distance they deliver a familiar but not quite identifiable sound. It is a sound that shifts and turns, taking different forms and stirring a multitude of memories: the sound of rain on stony ground or the quiet babbling chatter of a summer brook. As I get nearer to the source, higher pitch notes can be heard and the individual components of this urban soundscape begin to disentangle themselves. Finally, just 30 or so metres away from the dark outlines of three tall conifers, silhouetted against the harsh orange glow of the streetlights, I can make out the sharp chattering notes of individual roosting Starlings.

It is an amazing sound, several thousand conversations taking place at the same time. These are the same birds that a few hours earlier would have been whirling like some giant super-organism, pulsing in waves across the dusk. The birds will settle down and the noise will diminish as night deepens and other components of an urban soundscape come to the fore.

I’m up before dawn, part of my routine, and I can hear the Starlings stirring. It is not the cacophony of dusk and I rather suspect that some of these Starlings are early risers, while others slumber. By the time that I am back from walking the dogs, the Starlings are properly awake and soon they will be away. I look forward to this moment when they launch themselves into the day; an eruption of tiny black forms that lasts for just a few brief seconds. This is not the aerial ballet of dusk; these birds must disperse to feed, replacing overnight losses as quickly as possible.

On some mornings I am in the garden with the chickens when the Starlings depart, providing me with a front row seat in what, to me, is a marvellous spectacle. While the evening performance is an almost purely visual spectacle, this early morning show is predominantly aural. Most of the Starlings emerge together, the blur of wings powering the birds up into the air and away from their overnight roost. It is this that delivers a strong pulse of sound, like the drawn out roar of a wave that claws against the shingle as it is pulled back seawards. The exact shape of the sound is determined by the direction that the birds take as they leave the roost and pass overhead. It is when they pass directly over me that the sound is at its most intense. Such loud and imposing sounds are unusual in the context of other creatures but it is reassuring to hear one, such as this, which drowns out the traffic.