Saturday, 29 March 2014

Let nature come to you

No matter how quietly you move about the countryside on foot, you often get the sense that many of its creatures are aware of your presence and retreat on your approach. How many times have you caused a hare to bolt, a fox to slink into a bit of scrub or a herd of red deer to trot away with the anxious upright stance of a chorus of young ballerinas scuttling into the wings. The alternative approach, to find a suitable spot and to simply sit and watch, is invariably more rewarding.

Just the other morning, sat in some rough grassland by a patch of gorse, I had the privilege of having a brown hare approach to within a couple of feet. The hare remained oblivious to my presence, behaving quite normally, until it had just about blundered into my legs, which were stretched out on the grass ahead of me. I had been able to watch the hare as it got closer and to take in the colour and character of its fur, unkempt in comparison with that of a rabbit. Then there were the hare’s eyes; these carried within them a wildness which seemed to accentuate the sense of scrawny hunger that appears ever present in these creatures.

I am not sure if the hare finally saw me, resolving my shape from that of the bush in front of which I was settled, or if the slight lifting of the breeze cast my scent in the hare’s direction. Either way, the hare turned and exploded away from me, its powerful hind legs making short work of distance. Perhaps unsure of whether or not it had spooked itself unnecessarily, the hare checked its run after forty or so metres, turning to fix its gaze on me as I continued to sit motionless. This pause probably only lasted for a few seconds, but it felt much longer, before the hare turned and casually began to work its way up the slope and back towards the pasture fields beyond, where the hares are most often seen. Encounters such as this leave a lasting impression and deliver a sense of the possibilities for interacting with nature in a manner that is more rewarding.

Friday, 28 March 2014

On being a naturalist

Perhaps spurred on by the first truly spring-like days of the year, I have been busy planning the season’s walks and trips. As always, I want to visit new places and to see and photography species and habitats that will be new to me. Many of these trips will be local, made within East Anglia, but others will take me further afield. There are, after all, still species of butterfly and dragonfly I have yet to see in the UK, not to mention many hundreds of plants and thousands of insects.

The need to get out and see things is particularly strong this year, no doubt a consequence of having spent much of the last two years head down and writing a book on owls. The process of writing and researching material meant that outdoor opportunities were restricted to the nest monitoring and other bird survey work with which I am involved locally. Trips further afield were a luxury that had to go. With the book done, the time now available means that I can get out and catch up with other wildlife. It feels that it is going to be a good year.

This newly found time means that I will also be able to spend more time on my local patch and be able to get to grips with some of the more challenging species, difficult to find and often hard to identify. Some of these smaller creatures need to be identified under the microscope and with the aid of identification keys. This is often a time-consuming task but it can prove particularly rewarding.

Being a naturalist is all about being out in the countryside and discovering new things. It is about the acquirement of knowledge and the gaining of experience, a process that has echoes of an old-fashioned apprenticeship. There are opportunities to learn in a more formalised manner, such as through the courses hosted by the Field Studies Council and the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society. If I can squeeze in one or two courses this year then this should help my developing interest in some of the invertebrate groups I have yet to tackle. Just thinking of such things makes me look forward with a sense of excitement.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Nightly visits

My parents’ edge of town garden does rather better for visiting wildlife than my own, hosting an impressive array of the larger and more obvious species over the years. I can even remember the day when, as a child, I called mum to the sitting room window to point out the sheep munching nonchalantly on the back lawn – a lorry had shed its load further along the hill!

More typical though were the visiting foxes, badgers and roe deer, the latter once hiding a fawn in our small orchard. The deer no longer visit and the badgers have become far less common than they once were, perhaps a consequence of the new houses going up nearby. The foxes remain ever present, however, and are often seen in daylight, just before the approaching dusk. One of the reasons for their visits must be the table scraps put out most nights. Not all of this food is eaten at a sitting but some is taken away and cached elsewhere. Foxes tend to scatter hoard, placing food items at various points around their territory to which they will return at a later time. These caches are probably found by memory, although some may be overlooked and others are found by different foxes or other scavengers.

Occasionally, the foxes can be seen to interact with some of the other garden visitors, the most common of which are the cats from neighbouring gardens. The two species seem to tolerate one another, the cats usually remaining at a deferential distance from the feeding fox, and I have yet to see the two come to blows.

Research has shown that people generally welcome urban foxes and the species has certainly adapted well to living alongside us. Urban living provides opportunities, particularly in terms of access to food, and it can support fox populations at much higher densities than seen in other habitats. It is not without its problems, however, the high densities of individuals often aiding the spread of disease. Sarcoptic mange, which is caused by a burrowing mite, can reach epidemic levels and lead to the loss of fox populations locally. Despite this, urban fox populations are doing well and they continue to delight many householders, my parents included.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

All the birds of England

It is a still dawn, warm for the time of the year but free from the mist that has been a feature of recent days. From this hilltop, which watches over the deeply wooded valley of my childhood, I can hear the rich songs of a dozen or more blackbirds. This melodic and reverberant chorus reminds me of ‘Aldestrop’, a poem written by Edward Thomas almost a century ago.

The poem centres on a break in a railway journey, made as a train halted at Adlestrop station in Gloucestershire in June 1914. The lines conjure up a moment in time, delivering a strong sense of place and of the landscape within which the station sat. While the poet does not disembark from his train during this brief pause in his journey west, the memory of that stop is captured and retained, to be released some years later when pencil is put to paper. Thomas was late to poetry, his 142 poems coming in a brief two-year period before his death in France.

The final lines of the poem link the station with the English shires and the wider landscape within which it is located, Adlestrop becoming England. The device used to deliver this sense of connection is that of singing blackbirds. Noting the blackbird song that he can hear from the train, Thomas senses that elsewhere across England, extending outwards from this single point, are other singing blackbirds; ‘’all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’, linked to one another in a great and expanding ripple of song.

This poignant poem is a favourite with anthologists and is often used to conjure up the landscape of southern England. Aldestrop station was a victim of Beeching’s cuts and, looking back from this modern, 21st Century world, the poem has an elegiac quality, mourning the passing of a lost England. The chorus of blackbird song continues, however, and if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in the countryside on a spring morning such as this, then you can experience the sense of connectedness that comes from picking out the individual blackbirds who sing at each other from across the landscape. Despite the changes we have made to the landscape, the blackbirds continue to deliver their song.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mining bees

It is not much to look at, this short section of bank. South-facing and largely free from grass, it is the sort of bare ground that you’d pass with barely a glance. I suspect that the commuters who park their cars just inches away on this residential road have not even registered its presence.

On this sunny day, however, the eye is drawn to the two dozen or so dark shapes, barely a centimetre in length, that can be seen hovering just above the soil’s surface. Closer inspection reveals that these are mining bees and each is returning to a tiny hole, just a few millimetres in diameter, in which it will lay its eggs. I suspect that the bees belong to the genus Andrena but without catching one and examining it with a hand lens I cannot be certain. The Andrena bees, of which there are 67 species nationally, nest in the ground and are solitary in habits, although they may nest in dense aggregations – such as is the case here on this bank – and they will sometimes share a nest entrance.

Invariably, the nest entrance will lead into a main burrow, from which radiate a number of short lateral burrows, each ending in one or more cells. The cells themselves are lined with a wax-like substance and stocked with a ball of pollen; it is here that the eggs will be laid. The early emergence of this species, prompted by the warm weather, indicates that this is one of the spring species, though some of these may have two broods during the course of the year. The early emergence is helped by the fact that the spring species tend to spend the winter within the burrows as adults, the males emerging a few days earlier than the females.

Even though I cannot put a name to the species from this brief encounter, it is reward enough to see these solitary bees active so close to town. The bank itself is not that high and the bare ground only present because of heavy-handed mowing, underlining the delicate balance of circumstances that has created this opportunity. It also suggests you could perhaps achieve something similar by creating such a bank in your own garden.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Feathering the nest

These early days of spring are some of the best of the year. There is a real sense of optimism, coupled with the promise of what lies ahead and a feeling that winter has passed. The weather of recent weeks has prompted a rising chorus of bird song and many species have already started their breeding attempts. From around the town have come reports of blackbirds, collared doves and robins with eggs, and the first fledged young of the year are already demanding food from their parents.

But today my attentions are elsewhere, as I try to identify where the local long-tailed tits have made their intricate nests. We have a dozen pairs on our local reserve and locating their nests for the BTO’s Nest Record Scheme has become a regular feature for the start of my ‘nest-monitoring’ year. Long-tailed tit nests are some of the easiest to find, but only if you can watch the adults back to the nest site. This is best done early in the season while each pair is still constructing its nest, which is made from moss, tied together with spider web and decorated with lichen. Once the domed structure is complete, the birds line it with feathers, perhaps delivering as many as 2,000 feathers over the course of several days.

Following long-tailed tits back to the nest is fairly easy if a bird happens to be carrying a white feather in its bill. It is not long until I catch up some birds doing exactly this, their presence first revealed by the calls that they seem to deliver almost continuously when in each other’s company. The birds flick along the hedgeline and then cross the track to enter a long bramble in which they have nested in previous years. Once the birds leave the bush, the feather having been deposited, I go and take a closer look. By squatting down low to the ground I can peer up through the bush, silhouetting the nest against the sky. It is on the far side of the bush; I know from past experience that it will be a painful approach through other brambles to reach it. With the first one found, I move off to find the others.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

A winter store

In moving the remains of an old fence panel I inadvertently stumbled across a great cache of hazel nuts, carefully stored away by one of the wood mice with which I share the garden. There were dozens and dozens of these nuts, each carefully opened and the kernel extracted through a neat hole gnawed away by the chisel like teeth of the mouse. Every single nut had been opened and I pondered how many mice had feasted on this winter store and over what period.

Wood mice are adaptable creatures, occupying a wide range of different habitats and certainly able to eek out a living in my urban garden. The local cats are probably the greatest threat to these mice, with studies revealing that cat densities in some urban centres are so great that they effectively prevent the mice from maintaining a viable population. Here in my garden the mice seem to do well and I see them fairly regularly throughout the year.

These particular nuts had not been carried far but I have found them on occasion closer to the house, stockpiled inside my wellingtons in a small shed. Mice have a reputation for damaging stored goods and many an item in the shed has been ‘tested’ by the visiting wood mice. Plastic bags containing shallots or other items have been shredded for bedding, and the sharp scent of mouse urine has been a feature of one pair of outside boots.

On occasion I have used a live trap to deal with the mice, the half dozen or so individuals caught over a few days liberated in a local wood, just far enough away to prevent their return. It is a balance though and I usually tolerate their presence; after all, the garden is as much theirs as it is mine. I make sure that the bird food is stored in secure containers, that seeds and other valuable stock are out of reach and that materials suitable for bedding are not left where the mice can get to them. The reward for such tolerance is the sight of a mouse at the feeding station or in search of fruit on an autumn bramble, coupled with the sense that the garden is rich with life.