Saturday, 12 October 2013

A sense of place

Although I have been living in Norfolk for more than 20 years, I still feel a comforting rush of familiarity whenever I return to the Wealden landscape of my youth. It is a strange feeling, delivering an air of homecoming security and the sense that I have never really been away. It is the woodland in particular that helps to shape this response; this part of the Surrey-Sussex-Hampshire borderlands is the most wooded part of lowland Britain, cloaked with hazel, beech and other deciduous trees. These trees were the backdrop to my childhood. They were the architecture to youthful adventures, providing the dens and sticks for our games and hosting the wildlife and fungi that so fascinated my first nature rambles.

I often wonder if my attachment to this small corner of England goes beyond the simple nurturing it provided to my early years. A dabble of curiosity a few years ago led to the creation of a family tree and revealed that generations of my family had lived, worked and died within just a few miles of each other, here in this tucked away corner of the county. Knowing this strengthens my connection with the landscape, making it all the more personal and giving support to the possibly fanciful notion that this landscape is in my blood. The sense of historical depth adds to the feeling that this is my landscape and that I have been as much part of its creation as it has of mine.

There is no doubt that I am not alone in having such feelings and many readers will carry with them a sense of place that will never leave them. The increasing mobility of our lifestyles suggests that succeeding generations will have less of a connection with particular places. The links across generations will be the first to be lost and, with more people now living urban lives, there is a real risk of a disconnection between the landscapes that make up England and its inhabitants.

While there has never been a single ‘England’, the individual ‘Englands’ of succeeding generations have been an important part of our social fabric, delivering a sense of community and place. To lose them would be a terrible thing.

Friday, 11 October 2013


The sun is somewhat against us this morning; low in the sky, its strengthening rays silhouette many of the birds that are feeding or roosting in this large coastal lagoon. Even so, it is a pleasure to be out and to feel the late summer warmth cut through the thinning mist. Over the next couple of hours the sun will continue on its journey and distant waders and gulls should prove less challenging to identify.

Close in, just a few metres from where we are stood, a small party of dunlin feed in the shallows. In with them are a couple of curlew sandpipers, more elegant and refined than their dumpy counterparts probing the mud. A water rail squeals from the reeds and, not long after, puts in the briefest of appearances. This are one of my favourite birds, full of character and bubbling with personality. A few duck are drifting across the deeper parts of the lagoon, a mix of teal, wigeon and shoveler, while many more doze, heads tucked in, on the small islets that poke above the silken surface.

A change of position and we are better placed to tackle the straggling flock of waders and gulls that extends part way across the lagoon. A dozen avocet are easily spotted, among the large number of godwits – both black-tailed and bar-tailed. While some of the godwits snooze, others stretch and preen. Scattered in with these leggy birds are some smaller waders – mostly knot but with a few ringed plover present. Behind these a run of spotted redshanks is revealed; about time, as we had been hearing their calls for much of the morning. A flock of golden plover arrives, providing a nice comparison with the grey plover – many still in breeding plumage – scattered on one of the quieter parts of the lagoon.

Further away, where the forms of feeding birds are still difficult to resolve in the light, three spoonbills stand in the shallows. These fantastic birds provide a taste of the exotic. Newly established as a breeding species, they are now a common sight here on the north Norfolk coast. It is a wonderful scene and one worthy of such an early start to the day.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Black flies

The other week, sat outside in the dusk of a late summer barbecue, I received a painful bite on my arm that left a truly impressive bruise lasting for many days. It was a sharp reminder (literally) that we provide feeding opportunities for certain insects, many of them small and easily overlooked.

Perhaps the most familiar of these insects are the biting midges, a large family of flies of which just a few – all belonging to the genus Culicoides – bite humans. It is in the north and west of Britain that the impact of midges is most strongly felt, and I remember countless childhood holidays where evening activities were curtailed by the presence of midges. It is the female midges which bite, the small amount of blood taken to aid the development of their eggs. One reason why midges can prove so troublesome is that a feeding midge releases a pheromone, alerting other individuals to the location of a potential meal.

Elsewhere in Britain it is other biting flies that have developed a formidable reputation. The blackfly Simulium posticatum makes a particular nuisance of itself along the River Stour in Dorset, earning itself the local name of Blandford fly and occasionally prompting coverage in the national papers. Blackfly larvae, and those of the various midges, are aquatic and this means that you tend to encounter more of the biting adults in areas close to rivers, lakes and other water features. Some species are associated with fast flowing stretches, others with still or stagnant water.

Some of these biting insects act as vectors for particular diseases. Although not so much of a problem for us here in Britain, elsewhere in the world they can be associated with diseases that are quite serious, including river-blindness and the transmission of certain blood parasites. It is not just humans that are bitten and these flies target many other warm-blooded creatures. Work on owls has, for example, highlighted a high prevalence of blood parasites transmitted by these flies. Owls whose territories contain more waterbodies suffer more bites and carry more parasites, highlighting complex interactions between parasites, hosts and vectors. Of course, knowing this probably provides little consolation if you, like me, have been nursing a sore arm for the last couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Pirates harass coastal travellers

Autumn is a time of movement for many birds, with summer breeders departing our shores and the first winter visitors beginning to arrive. It is a great time to be up on the Norfolk coast, particularly if the weather conditions are favourable. This morning the conditions weren’t quite so favourable, at least for delivering a fall of migrants. It was clear and bright, the early mist burning off quickly and helped by a gentle breeze out of the west. What the conditions did deliver, however, was a comfortable morning of seawatching from the beach at Titchwell.

Seawatching at this time of the year can be rather rewarding, especially for a beginner. What remains of summer’s warmth, coupled with good light and a calm sea, means that you tend to get decent views of the passing birds and avoid the challenge of picking out dull shapes in poor light, while the telescope shakes in the biting wind. What you don’t get are the numbers and rarities that an autumn storm can deliver.

This morning saw good numbers of gannets, with many juveniles in various stages of moult, their smoky black plumage a contrast to the crisp white of the adults. The sea also supported a dozen or so great crested grebes, the occasional individual of which could be seen in flight, and the odd red-throated diver was also noted passing low and fast. Small flocks of waders, typically knot, godwit and ringed plover, flashed overhead or flicked low above the sea and a single razorbill drifted slowly west.

Also evident was a steady passage of sandwich terns. On more than one occasion the terns attracted the interest of a passing Arctic skua. These large birds are the pirates of the sea, taking much of their food from other birds by harassing them in flight. Arctic skuas leave their breeding sites in late summer (some pairs breed in the north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland), heading south and often moving through our coastal waters before moving towards wintering grounds that lie off South Africa and Argentina. They seem to shadow migrating terns, presumably to steal food from them, and the presence of a good tern passage often suggests one of these pirates will not be far behind.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Better times for House Sparrows

The end of summer always sees a peak in the number of house sparrows visiting my garden, as the young from this year’s breeding attempts join the local flock at my feeding station. Judging by the numbers of young birds present over recent weeks, I suspect that it has been a good breeding season despite the slow start to the year.

More widely, there is also evidence that house sparrows may be doing rather better than they have for a while. The weekly observations made by the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch volunteers (, for example, suggest that the long-running declines in the house sparrow’s fortunes have levelled off. Of course, any improvement needs to be viewed in the context of several decades of decline – house sparrow populations have fallen from 12 million breeding pairs in the 1970s to just under 6 million breeding pairs now.

The reasons for the longer-term decline are unclear, at least within the urbanised landscapes where the bulk of the breeding population is to be found. Loss of nest sites and feeding opportunities are likely to be the main drivers behind the decline but other factors, such as increased levels of competition, predation and pollution, may have also played their part. Although adult house sparrows feed on seeds, they require invertebrate food for their chicks and this resource is likely to have suffered as gardens have become more tidy, with greater use of pesticides and the preference for exotic plants and shrubs over native ones. Interestingly, a study carried out in urban Bristol showed that house sparrows fared better in areas of lower quality housing than they did in more middle class housing – a reflection, perhaps, of the different levels of house and garden maintenance that come from inequalities in household income.

Just as the reasons behind the decline have yet to be unravelled, it is unclear why things might have improved over recent years. Is the message about wildlife-friendly gardening now hitting home, or could it be that house sparrows now face less competition from a greenfinch population hit by the 2006 outbreak of disease? More work will be needed to find out but, for my part, I am delighted to have my sparrows back.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Small whites on the move

It wasn’t the sort of sight that leapt out at you, a series of small white shapes fluttering across the salt-marsh, but with a bit of studied thought it became clear that we were witnessing an ‘event’. The white shapes were small white butterflies and the unending procession of individuals, moving from west to east across the marsh, implied that these were not simple random wanderings; these flights were a population on the move, an autumn migration on a grand scale.

The small white is well known for its powers of dispersal. It is a wanderer, whose loose and open populations are to be found across virtually the whole of Britain and Ireland. The second brood, which tends to emerge in late June or early July, is much larger than the first, which may suggest that its numbers are boosted by the arrival of immigrants from the Continent. Later in the year comes the suggestion of a return movement, the butterflies moving south and east as autumn begins her tenancy of our countryside.

There has been some debate around the extent of migratory movements made by this species. That large numbers may arrive here from the Continent has been well documented. Writing in 1846, the Reverend Morris (a renowned lepidopterist) reported a case where a cloud of small white butterflies passed over a continental steamer and obscured the sun. Upon making landfall in England the great cloud of butterflies broke up and dispersed inland. Evidence for autumn movements is less striking but many lepidopterists will tell you that it does indeed occur. Work elsewhere in Europe, looking at the movements made by other species of butterfly, has revealed that complex migratory movements do take place, the different stages of the movements occurring within the different generations of the butterflies.

Whatever the underlying reason, it was clear to us that a great many dozens of these insects crossed out path that morning, all heading in the same direction and all flying into the prevailing wind. The total number of individuals involved must have been staggering, so great the area of coastal salt and grazing marsh over which they were passing. Some could even be seen passing offshore as we scanned for seabirds.