Saturday, 17 August 2013


From the uncut meadow, where the purple-headed knaves of knapweed jostle with the flowering grasses, comes the song of summer’s end. The buzzing reel of Roesel’s bush crickets heralds the approaching shift in season and marks the slow transition from summer into autumn. That this small block of meadow is here at all probably owes as much to the economic downturn as it does to any ‘green thinking’ within the council’s services department. For many years this was a patch of manicured turf, the flowering plants suppressed by the mower’s blades, but now it is thick with growth and bursting with life. As if to emphasise that this mini-meadow is still ‘managed’ the edge nearest the path has been maintained as lawn, a short sward that beats the boundaries of what is considered wild. It almost seems to serve as a warning; ‘we can tame and subdue if we choose.’

While it is here, and I fear it will not be long before it is cut, the meadow is home to many different insects, from the large and obvious meadow brown butterflies that rise and fall just above the sward, to the small and insignificant, like the froghoppers safe within their froth of cuckoo spit. Many hundreds of tiny spiders live within the sward, their webs picked out on damp mornings by the dew.

It is great to see such a meadow so close to the centre of town, to see nature accessible and to hear the excited chatter of young children marvelling at the butterflies and bumblebees. Of course, the meadow is not untouched by the activities of other passers by. Beer cans collect on the edge of the sward, where the short turf provides an opportunity for some to drink away their days; the council’s litter bins, just feet away, are virtually ignored.

The meadow is at its finest first thing in the morning, before the drinkers arrive. It is spared from their attentions because, to them, it is rough, unkempt and wild, its thistles and biting insects the custodians of this little patch of wild here in the centre of town. The meadow is not fenced, nor does it carry a notice board proclaiming its worth, but it does not need these things.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Red in beak and claw

I received an email the other day from a lady who had witnessed a jackdaw catch and kill an adult chaffinch in her garden. Like many other members of the crow family, jackdaws are somewhat opportunistic in their feeding habits, taking mostly invertebrates but with fruits, seeds, scraps and carrion added to the diet when available. Very occasionally they will take eggs and young birds or other small vertebrates but they are not really equipped to tackle adult songbirds, which are generally considered to be too agile and too difficult to catch. This is a behaviour that I have seen just once, during a particular cold winter, when two jackdaws harassed and finally caught a chaffinch.

Such murderous behaviour has been reported for carrion crow, magpie and even rook but it remains rare. What interests me about such reports is just how often the behaviour is regarded as unnatural and, therefore, ‘wrong’. In fact, I have even come across cases where the reporter portrays the would-be predator as acting with evil intent; it is as if the act of predation was, in this instance, deliberately malicious. Rather than saying anything about the predator, such statements and responses say more about us and the prejudices that we hold with regard to the natural world. I have noted before how many observers will not tolerate the act of a predatory sparrowhawk killing a blackbird but remain indifferent to a predatory blackbird killing an earthworm.

Such double standards come from deeply rooted prejudices, which favour fluffy or feathered creatures above those that are cold-blooded. We have created a hierarchy of favourites, an unpleasant form of species-ism whereby some species are branded as unwelcome and their acts not tolerated. When a favoured species, such as jackdaw or great spotted woodpecker, takes another bird, the act is seen as all the more shocking because it falls outside of the image we have created for that bird. Yet, most creatures show some degree of opportunism in their diet: great tits have been known to feed on roosting bats and deer to take the chicks of ground-nesting birds, so maybe it’s time that we came to terms with the fact that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw.’

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The latest news on breeding birds

You only have to compare this summer with last to realise how much things can change from one year to the next, both in terms of the weather and its effects on birds and other wildlife. Short term differences in bird populations and their breeding success are of interest to those studying such things but it is the longer term changes that are of wider interest. In the case of birds, information on how well the populations of many of our breeding species are doing comes from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), the latest report from which has just been published.

As a volunteer myself, I appreciate the tremendous value of the survey and the importance of the information collected by the 2,592 volunteers who participate in BBS. Participation is simple enough, involving two visits to a survey square and the recording of what birds are seen and heard, and in what numbers. The survey, which began in 1995 as a replacement for the Common Birds Census operated by BTO, provides a measure of population change for a wide suite of species, highlighting those that have shown significant increases or decreases in their populations over time.

The latest report highlights the continued decline of turtle dove (down by 85% since 1995), cuckoo (down 50%), spotted flycatcher (down 49%) and starling (down 53%), among many others. Some species are, in contrast, increasing. These include: goldfinch (up 109%), blackcap (up 133%), nuthatch (up 88%) and great spotted woodpecker (up 139%). Not all of the increases are welcome, however, with Canada goose, greylag goose, ring-necked parakeet and red-legged partridge all showing sizeable increases in their populations.

One of the great strengths of the survey is that the information can be viewed at the regional level, something that has revealed some fascinating differences in how species have been doing. Cuckoo is one of several species in which populations in England are in decline but those in Scotland are stable or even increasing. There are a number of possible reasons why this might be happening, one of which is related to a changing climate, but more work is needed to be certain of what is going. Fortunately, the efforts of us volunteers provide the information needed to support this work.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Two-barred Crossbills

The final weeks of July saw an influx of crossbills arrive in the county, with small parties of birds much in evidence here in the Brecks and also noted elsewhere across Norfolk and Suffolk. That these were newly arrived birds rather than local breeders was apparent from the upturn in the number of individuals seen and heard. It had been a quiet year for the species locally and crossbills had been only an occasional sighting on my local forest patch during the first half of the year.

Arrivals of this kind tend to occur in late summer and reflect a good breeding season to the north (into Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia) followed by a poor cone crop, which forces the birds to move further afield in search of food. The recent arrivals may well prove to be the early part of a larger influx over the coming weeks, and it is likely that some of these birds will remain to breed next year, topping up the population breeding within Thetford and other blocks of conifer forest.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the arrival has been the presence of another species of crossbill within these small parties of birds. The two-barred crossbill is a superficially similar bird but has two broad white wing bars, white edges to the tertial feathers and a somewhat different call. Even so, it requires patience to work through a party of feeding crossbills with a telescope and to pick out this the rarer of the two species. There is the added complication that some common crossbills show similar barring on their wings, although this is less extensive and seen in only one in a thousand individuals.

Fortunately, I managed to catch up with one of the juvenile two-barred crossbills that have been present within the common crossbill flocks feeding in the larches at Lynford Arboretum. A late afternoon stakeout delivered the goods, so to speak, and I was treated to a wonderful 20 minutes of the bird feeding alongside some common crossbills, even managing to secure a ‘record’ shot with a camera pushed up against the scope. It was amazing to think that this bird had been born earlier this year somewhere in the boreal forests of northern Scandinavia.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sandy Stiltball

Although past its best, the sandy stiltball found on one of my regular haunts is still a striking fungus. It is also rather rare and one of a select group of fungi to receive additional protection through a provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Found on just 30 or so sites, half of which are located in Suffolk and Norfolk, the species is associated with dry, free-draining soils, typically sandy in nature and open in aspect. The preference for such open and dry habitats might seem a little unusual for a fungus, most of which are associated with damp conditions, but the sandy stiltball is characteristic of such sites, earning it the tag of ‘desert fungus’ from one of our leading naturalists.

This particular fruiting body sits just over a foot from the base of an isolated hedgerow pine on dry sandy ground but many seem to be associated with decaying elm stumps. It has a long stalk, robust in nature and resembling a piece of dead wood or – somewhat morbidly – bone, topped with a rusty puffball the colour of slowly rotting orange peel. To some extent it resembles an oversized safety match.

The species was first described as new to science on the basis of a specimen found growing on a bank near Bungay in 1782, the discoverer referring to it as an ‘extraordinary vegetable production’. It is easy to see why it caused such a reaction and it remains one of the few fungi that can be identified reliably from a passing car – several of the known colonies grown on roadside verges where the open and dry conditions are favourable. One of these colonies has even been designated as a roadside nature reserve, managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

The fruiting body that sits atop the woody stem, develops from a gelatinous ‘egg’ which forms underground. This thrusts through the soil’s surface and goes on to form the dry puffball-like structure on which the spores are carried. The spores are usually ‘liberated’ by the breeze or by rain; as this happens so the form and structure of the fruiting body is lost, eventually leaving just the tough stem behind. Now that I have seen the species at this site I will undertake a wider search next summer.

Monday, 12 August 2013

After the summer's heat

There is mist across the valley this morning, morphing the view into something less familiar and shortening my horizons. It is the first such mist for many months and hints at the approaching summer’s end and a period of transition. The recent rain has replenished the parched ground and the air hangs heavy with moisture, as if the Earth itself has exhaled to release her sweet breath.

Walking the short turf of the lawn wets my feet and leaves behind footsteps that outline my passing, each a darker patch of moisture etched within the carpet of silvery white dew. Should I walk the meadow I would return with my trousers soaked, the fabric covered with grass seeds and the bodies of small invertebrates, each held tightly to the cloth by a meniscus of dew.

The air feels deliciously cool but carries with it the first sweet scents of autumn, the merest hint of woodland fungi that will undertake the process of breaking down much of the season’s harvest. Two swifts pass overhead on silent wings, feeding as they journey south; they provide an echo of the noisy juveniles that were such a feature of July. It is a morning that feels like summer’s end, a shifting of the seasons and a sign that, to use a phrase from Ted Hughes, ‘the world’s still turning’. This transition can be a gradual one, a mix of days hinting at a return to summer but then switching to suggest that autumn is already here.

It is one of my favourite times of the year, with a strong sense that much of the natural world is on the move. Migrant birds from more northerly breeding grounds are already passing through on passage south. Many will attract the interest of birdwatchers, perhaps myself included, but for now I am content with my local ‘patch’ and the changes I can see within it as the hedgerow fruits ripen, crickets chirp and house martins and swallows gather on the wires. These cool mornings suggest renewal but of a different kind to that encountered in the spring and my spirits soar as I experience the pull of season’s end and look towards the approach of autumn.