(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
I used to be a very keen twitcher, driving hundreds of miles to see a rare bird. It sounds really stupid now, but it wasn’t. It was exciting…
Saturday, July 23, 1988
A late-night phone call and by 10:30 p.m., I’m being picked up to drive overnight in an attempt to see a Terek Sandpiper, one of the very few birds to have an upturned beak.
At the time, this wader was extremely rare in this country, and for reasons best known to itself, this particular individual was a very long way indeed from where it should have been. Yellow is summer, and blue is winter…
Our target bird is a good drive from Nottingham, at Stanpit Marshes, near Christchurch, far down in deepest Dorset…
We go past all sorts of romantic dual carriageway turnoff signs, Oxford, Salisbury, all places I wouldn’t mind seeing one day, but not tonight, or rather today, for as we arrive at Stanpit, Rosy fingered Dawn is just beginning to lighten the eastern sky.
I feel terrible, truly awful. We all sleep for the best part of half an hour, slumped in the car. When we emerge the light is really quite good, but the drawback is that it is pelting down with heavy drenching rain, which is the worst possible thing for glasses and valuable optics. We walk out onto the marsh, where there is the normal selection of shelducks and black headed gulls, sitting out on a shingle bank, but anything more subtle is going to be difficult in this appalling weather. Cleaning off my glasses has already soaked my one and only handkerchief, and I am very loathe to get either my binoculars or my telescope out from under my old waxed jacket. I hate the rain.
In the hour before we left, I did a little bit of research on the Terek Sandpiper. The literature that I read said that they were not amazingly different from Common Sandpipers, especially when seen badly or from a distance. One particularly good point, though, is that they feed at a much quicker rate than the Common Sandpipers with which they often associate. Bearing this in mind, I take a closer look at three Common Sandpipers feeding in a creek….
One individual is pecking away a lot quicker rate than the other two, and seems rather dumpy and portly to me. Whether its beak is upturned or not, I just cannot see, the rain is coming down too hard. I call Paul, but he can’t penetrate the gloom either. The other two birdwatchers I’m with are a lot more experienced than I am, so I just meekly point out the birds to them, say that I think that they are worth looking at, but don’t labour the point. Neither of them seems to be particularly impressed, because they stalk off into the middle distance, without even a backward glance. Unabashed, I try to get closer to the three birds, but succeed only in flushing them, and they all fly off along the edge of the creek. I presume that that is the end of it.
It isn’t though, because we soon come across a group of birdwatchers, all intently watching a Terek Sandpiper.
It has just flown in with two Common Sandpipers apparently (LOL, you would say nowadays). It is visible at the edge of the main creek. We watch it for a good while. It’s a rather delicate, if pot-bellied bird, as it feeds rapidly in the shallows. It even bathes briefly, preening itself with what in the telescope is obviously a wonderfully upturned bill.
Our next port of call is a little village called Corfe Mullen, a really posh place, compared to our pathetic Northern Hovels. All great big mansion houses, with huge country gardens, all filled with exquisitely trimmed conifers. Here is a beautiful Southern Hovel…
There’s a small triangle of grass in the middle of the village, surrounded by lots of lovely telegraph wires, all eager to support the delicate weight of a Red-rumped Swallow.
Not today, though. We stroll along the surrounding lanes, turning up a few swallows and housemartins. It’s not a great day for hirundines, because it’s a bit drizzly still, and somewhat cold. There cannot be many insects up there for them to catch. After a couple of hours searching, we suddenly hear a cry. I look up and see the bird, completely distinctive with its dark rear end, and nobody is any doubt as it disappears over a distant line of trees.
After this, we return to the M3, M25 and M1, all equally delightful in their own way. By the time I get to the services at Leicester Forest East, I feel like one of the extras in “Return of the Zombie Twitchers”. Still, you forget the distance covered, and the discomfort, when you look at your life list. Soon be two hundred.
A few months ago, I went into a Salvation Army charity shop, which was surprisingly crowded with people looking for second hand clothes. I was able to buy a very large pile of old BBC wildlife magazines which dated back some six or seven years to around 2007. It was interesting to see that all the concerns those few short years ago such as worries about climate change, the loss of wildlife habitat and the extinction of various rare species were pretty much exactly the same as they are now.
It was extremely interesting, though, to read an article by a gentleman called Richard Mabey who at that time was the vice president of the Open Society. Mr.Mabey’s writing stood out from the rest as being so very different and so very perceptive. He wrote, for example, of the richness, the biodiversity, of the English language, which he said, prospers because of its very complexity and because so many words have so many different shades of meaning.
He then developed Charles Darwin’s phrase, the “Survival of the Fittest”. Quite rightly, he made the point that, in the past, this simplistic idea has been used to justify Communist oppression, worldwide slavery and the persecution of the Jews. Mr Mabey extended this idea though, to the present day, with the observation that the phrase is nowadays being used to excuse the ruthless greed that runs unchecked through the world economic system. One banker recently proclaimed, for example, that the forces of the free market are merely the “Survival of the Fittest”. The most interesting point then made though, is that in nature, predation apart, one member of a species will hardly ever prove its fitness by directly killing another, weaker, member of that species. Mr Mabey argued, for example, that few, if any, animals indulge in bloody combat. Birds do not physically fight each other, but compete with song. Snakes may wrestle, but they do not usually use their fangs, and deer will not prolong their potentially life-threatening arguments, if their opponent exposes his unprotected flanks in a gesture of surrender.
When Darwin observed his famous finches in the Galapagos Islands, the thirteen different types of bird were not trying to eliminate each other forever, but instead were living more or less happily alongside each other.
They may have had differently sized or shaped bills, but all the birds were capable of exploiting slightly different food sources. Some birds drank nectar from cactuses. Some birds ate cactus seeds. Some birds stripped bark or chewed leaves or sought out ticks to eat. But all of these creatures were managing to survive alongside each other.
Different species will all be forced to fight their environment, but in the main, they are able to coexist together because of only slight differences between each one of them, differences which in the course of their lives, will always prevent direct competition.
In contrast, as Richard Mabey points out, the lack of regulation in financial markets merely allows the ambition and greed of a very small, very privileged and very hostile few to flourish without limit and without restraint. The financial world is then dominated by a very small number of what in nature would be seen as an aggressive super species. And it is ridiculous, of course, to justify this sad situation by bringing Charles Darwin into the argument.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the complete opposite of this. Evolution produces tens of thousands, if not more, separate species, all of which to a greater or lesser extent, can exist alongside each other.
And to apply Richard Mabey’s arguments to the everyday human sphere, it does not take a major genius to work out that we may eventually finish up with, for example, just three or four gigantic supermarkets who will be able to dictate completely what we should buy and what we should eat. There will be few specialist small businesses, selling their own spicy sausages made in the back of the shop, or cakes that the owner’s wife and family have made at home. There will be no handmade wooden toys for children, built by local craftsmen using their ideas as to what will be liked by their little customers. No health food shops selling organic food made by workers’ co-operatives. No butchers selling local meat and supporting local farmers by paying them a proper and decent price for what they have produced. No market stall which sells both British and Indian made fabrics, which young dressmakers can make into whatever they want.
Farmers will be driven to abandon all idea of leaving untended spaces where wild animals, birds, insects and butterflies can live. How can they afford to do this when a major supermarket offers them just four pence for a cauliflower, a price recently quoted to me by a Cornish farmer?Take it even further and we will have a situation where bankers, whatever their performance, will be able to award themselves gigantic bonuses every single year. Vast corporations will employ armies of people, the majority of whom will be earning the minimum wage, which is itself lower, of course, than the living wage.
And all this because of greed-stricken people, programmed only to make the maximum amount of money, with precious few reasons that they can remember about why they have to do it.
To my shame, I did not appreciate that July 13th, the 121st anniversary of his birth, was “John Clare Day”. I found this out by googling retrospectively “John Clare”, and coming across an absolutely superb article by George Monbiot in the Guardian.
Furthermore, I must confess that I actually knew very little about John Clare other than the fact that he was a poet and that, unlike the vast majority of poets, he was of working class origin. His biographer Jonathan Bate described him as “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
The first port of call, therefore was Wikipedia.
The bare bones of Clare’s life were that he was born into desperate agricultural poverty in the tiny village of Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire.
The area was amazingly rich in wildlife.
He would have seen and heard corncrakes everywhere.
Nightjars too, were as common in England then as they now are in this excellent film from Denmark…
There were ravens in the old, giant oak trees, wrynecks, which still bred in old woodpeckers’ holes, and the last few wildcats…
“Tasteful illumination of the night,
Bright scattered, twinkling star of spangled earth.”
Clare’s cottage, where he spent his childhood, still remains…
Like all his fellows, Clare became an agricultural labourer while still a child, but he attended the school in Glinton church until he was twelve. He also began to write poetry, something which was to cause him great problems throughout the rest of his life among simple farm workers.
“I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”
Clare’s first love was Mary Joyce, but alas, she was to die, by our standards at least, a premature death.
Clare was to marry Martha Turner in 1820. Her nickname was “Patty”.
Where are you going lovely maid
The morning fine & early
“I’m going to Walkerd”, Sir she said
&made across the barley
I asked her name she blushed away
The question seemed to burn her
A neighbour came & passed the day
&called her Patty Turner
I wrote my better poems there
To beautys praise I owe it
The muses they get all the praise
But woman makes the poet
A womans is the dearest love
Theres nought on earth sincerer
The leisure upon beautys breast
Can any thing be dearer
I saw her love in beauty’s face
I saw her in the rose
I saw her in the fairest flowers
In every weed that grows”
Clare, though, was to have many bouts of severe depression, which worsened as his family increased in size and his poetry sold less well.
Gradually over the years, his behaviour became progressively more and more erratic. In July 1837, he went of his own accord to Doctor Matthew Allen’s private asylum. In 1841, though, Clare absconded and walked all the way back home from Essex. He thought, in his madness, that he would be able to refind his first true love, Mary Joyce. He believed firmly that he was married not just to her, but to Martha as well, and had children by both women. He refused to believe Mary’s family that she had died accidentally three years previously in a house fire. He stayed a free man at home for a little while, but was back in the asylum by mid-1841, his wife having called for help from them between Christmas and the New Year of 1841.
Clare was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived out the rest of his life. He was helped enormously by the kindness and humanity of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to continue writing his poetry. It was at the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum that Clare wrote possibly his most famous poem…..
I AM! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky. “
Clare’s problems with depression had not been helped by having to watch his world disappear as, between 1809 and 1820, various Acts of Enclosure allowed the greedy, idle, useless rich to increase their already great wealth by putting fences across the previously open fields, heathland and woodlands., and declaring that everything now belonged to them.
This, of course, was the early nineteenth century equivalent of “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, and, as it was designed to do, prevented anybody poor from enjoying what abruptly became the rich man’s landscape.
In due course, the idle rich realised that they could make even more money by destroying the ancient countryside, and farming it in an exclusively profit orientated way. There was no room for five hundred year old oak trees or sleepy marshes, no more meandering streams or cool copses to give shade on a hot summer’s day. Faced by the onslaught of Agribusiness, the wild animals, the birds, the insects and the butterflies all began to disappear.
In other words, it was pretty much the beginning of the country landscape we are asked to tolerate today.
This poem was finished by 1824, but was published only in 1935.
Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed springs blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all–a hope that blossomed free
And hath been once no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came with evening morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now alls fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors loosing from the sight far smooth and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay”
For me, Clare’s best work is his nature poetry. Because he was a poor labourer, he saw far more details as he walked along than the rich poets who thundered past in their coaches. John Clare’s nightingale actually was a real nightingale, not another species misidentified.
George Monbiot in his wonderful article urges us to read the poem…
“…Everything he sees flares into life…his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations on to the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head.”
“The Nightingale’s Nest” is indeed a fabulous poem, and is just like going for a stroll into the woods with John Clare himself, to view a bird whose nest he has previously staked out at some point during his working day. The reader becomes a fellow birdwatcher, who can follow John Clare’s instructions about where to look…
“The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way –
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails –
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain :
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look –
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it: safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.”
I have not quoted some of Clare’s poems in full. They are extremely accessible on the Internet, and will fully repay your efforts.
The vast majority of his poetry can be found very easily.
Just find “Poets by Name” on the left of the screen, and click on “J” for “John Clare”.
The poet’s grave is at Helpston….
And, as one of England’s greatest poets, he has a memorial…
Man’s most faithful insect friend is the Bee. Not everybody may like bees. Some people might be frightened of their sting. But everybody respects their industry and their willingness to work hard for the common good. That’s why we have all been saying “As busy as a bee” for the last five hundred years. Buzz, buzz, buzz…
Unfortunately, though, there’s a new type of insecticide around. They are called Neonicotinoids, and appear to be killing indiscriminately vast numbers of insects which are helpful to Man.
I really do hope that this is not the reason that I seem to be seeing so few butterflies, bees, wasps or any other insects in my organic, insecticide and pesticide free garden.
Recent research in Holland has revealed, though, just how catastrophic the widespread use of Neonicotinoids may be, not only for bees and other helpful insects, but for birds and then for animals higher up the food chain. The story in full is revealed at greater length here, but I have selected the most important elements for you here:
Have the patience to read about this grim scenario…
“Neonicotinoids are causing significant damage to insects, and now a new Dutch study has revealed that these pesticides are having a significant negative impact too on birds.
Insects form a large part of the diet of many birds during the breeding season and are essential for raising offspring. We investigated the most widely used neonicotinoid, which is called “Imidacloprid”. Here in the Netherlands, local populations were significantly smaller in areas with high surface-water concentrations of Imidacloprid. At concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, bird populations declined by 3.5 per cent annually. Additional research revealed that this decline appeared only after the introduction of Imidacloprid to the Netherlands, in the mid-1990s. The birds most affected included Starling, Tree Sparrow and Swallow.
The overall impact on the environment is even greater than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of insecticides like DDT in the past.”
The BBC News Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, has several times reported similar worries about the declining numbers of valuable insects. In one report, it was argued that the process of evolution might lead us into some very bad places indeed…
“Neonicotinoids are causing great damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees…..the evidence of damage is now conclusive, and the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.
When seeds are routinely coated in these chemicals, the resulting plants will then grow up with an inbuilt ability to destroy many species of insect.”
Manufacturers deny totally, of course, that these pesticides are harming bees or any other species (surprise, surprise). Scientists, though, are extremely worried about their use. Professor Goulson, one of a team of 29 researchers, has developed this nightmare scenario one stage further…
“”The more neonicotinoids are used, the likelier it is that pest insects themselves will then become resistant to them. Using them like this is absolute madness.”
The situation is worryingly reminiscent of the crisis described by Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring”.
The Los Angeles Times recalls…
“Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” kick-started the modern environmental movement, it suggested that better protection for pollinators and plant life was required for healthy people and healthy agriculture. Without her intelligence and eloquence, we would already be living in a world of unspeakable impoverishment, one with silent springs and fruitless falls.”
Opposition to Neonicotinoids is already enormous.
In addition to protests, there is a large number of petitions you can sign. 363,258 supporters signed this one, which has now closed. There’s another petition for Ontario that has 54,984 supporters . Some other petitions are just starting up, with only 180 signers so far… This is not, though, a cranky minority issue. Another site has a staggering 331,872 signatures…. The comments on this particular petition are even stronger….
“The chemical companies are all and far too powerful – they have friends in high places, they lobby very strongly and are nothing more than drug-dealers. Just research the companies that ex-MPs work for after their stint in public service – that’s who runs the country…..”
“Of course the farmers are denying that they are the problem yet again, just like they claim poverty, always seem to running around in big fancy cars, polluting the atmosphere just like they pollute the earth, and the price of food spirals all the time”
We need to do something about this, or the world will be a much, much poorer place without bees. And a considerably hungrier one. Up to one third of our food is produced by bee pollination.
And then we will all start to be on the side of Alan Partridge.
This amazingly spikey plant is called a “teasel”, and it is easily the most fascinating plant in our garden.
It is a very thrilling plant from an English point of view, for, alas, we just do not seem to have the same exciting inhabitants in our gardens as they have in the USA…..
These American killers are deadlier than wolves or bears.
Our English plant, though, can consume a reasonable number of insects, medium sized mammals and small children.
It performs this valuable service by drowning them, and then absorbing their nutrients. Equally well, you can easily feed the plant yourself by tipping in the dregs from your cup of tea or coffee. On this caffeine based diet, our plant has now reached an amazing twenty seven flower heads. Here are two of them….
The biggest flower heads are now in bloom. They provide a fabulous source of nectar for all kinds of interesting flying insect, especially butterflies….
This is a Peacock…
This is a Red Admiral. Its Latin scientific name is “Vanessa atalanta”, which sounds a little bit like one of the old Admiral’s girls in every port…
The flowerheads are a lovely bluey-pink colour…
Eventually seeds will appear. Indeed, in our worryingly early autumn, many have already arrived as early as the fifth of August.
The seedheads are an absolute magnet to England’s most colourful bird, the improbably beautiful Goldfinch…
The population of these splendid birds is gradually increasing, and teasels are an excellent way to entice them into your garden.
This could easily be your garden…
I would be very surprised, though, if you managed to attract as many of these beautiful birds as Gunnar Fernqvist has done, although, to be fair, he does seem to have a VERY large garden.
Interestingly, the Goldfinch has always been of great symbolism in medieval European art. According to Wikipedia, because of the thistle seeds it eats, and the spiky nature of the adult thistle plant, the goldfinch is associated with Christ’s crown of thorns. When it appears in pictures of the Madonna and child, the bird is thought to represent the knowledge both Mary and Jesus had of the latter’s Crucifixion.
Teasel seeds can be found fairly easily on your local brownfield site in late summer or early autumn. Otherwise, it’s another expedition up the Amazon.co.uk….
You might not think so, but this is a good time to be buying a bird table. It will give the birds plenty of time to get used to the presence of this new garden furniture, and with a little bit of luck, they might even start coming to the table fairly quickly. At the moment, for example, there are lots of recently fledged baby birds who could all do with a little help to find food.
For me, the most basic thing to buy is a free standing weighted block in which to insert the framework which will eventually hold your food dispensers.
This is the type of thing I mean….. The top is like this….
Our bird table looks like this….
There are three metal bird feeders…
The leftmost one encourages them to nibble nuts…
They love the middle one, which contains a pretty revolting block made of suet and either insects or mealworms.
The tiniest birds, like baby Long-tailed Tits, can even manage to get inside two layers of anti-squirrel proofing!
On the right is a dispenser which allows birds to take away sunflower seeds.
In time, the birds will get used to it, and your bird table will attract lots and lots of them. At the moment, it is almost totally baby birds, who can make up for this summer’s apparent lack of insects by snacking on the food we provide. So far, we have helped out Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits. In winter, there are many other species which turn up, such as Dunnocks, Chaffinches, the increasingly rare House Sparrow and the showy Siskin.
If you want some extra variety, there is a fabulous bird table webcam, at the Cornell Institute in Ithaca, New York State. Every single bird here is different from ours, except, of course, the ubiquitous Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).
Your biggest enemy for a bird table anywhere in England is the pesky Grey Squirrel, but half an hour watching the Ithaca website at the moment will show that we in Nottingham are not the only ones with difficulties. The real problem is that what you think is just one Grey Squirrel is, in fact, two, the male and the female, but you, as a mere human being, cannot necessarily tell the difference. At the moment, the youngsters are slightly browner, but even then, there might well be five separate ones which you think is just one very fast moving individual!
So make sure that anything you buy is squirrel proof. They might be more expensive, but given that squirrels will not just eat bird food on the spot, but will also take it away to store for the winter, in the long run you might actually save money, as you avoid two or three kilos going missing every single day.
We bought all the different bits for our bird table from Amazon Marketplace. That is, of course, not the only place where you can purchase bird tables, but in my opinion, you would certainly be better to avoid garden centres, to avoid wood and to go for metal, and, above all, never ever to have a bird table with a nest box attached.
Above all, remember the five golden double entendres of bird table purchasing…
All of the above feeders are, in my experience, squirrel proof, although in July and August, smaller adolescents can get through the bars to feed, but, because they grow fairly quickly, this will not last for ever.
Don’t frighten them too much! A young squirrel dead from sheer fear will not be easy to get out of the feeder, and, from a moral standpoint, it’s not really very Dalai Lama.
Initially the expense of feeding the birds, and not the squirrels, can be rather high. It is reminiscent of when, in Monty Python, Michael Ellis goes to the pet shop to buy a pet ant….
“Is there anything I’ll need with my ant?”
“Yes, sir – you’ll need an ant house. This is the model we recommend, sir. And then you will need some pieces of cage furniture which will keep him entertained. Here’s an ant-wheel, an ant-swing, and a very nice little ladder. He can run up there and ring the bell at the top, that’s a little trick he can learn.
Here’s a two-way radio he can play with… and of course you’ll need the book. So, sir, that is, if I may say so, one hundred and eighty-four pounds twelve pence, sir.”
On the other hand, if you set up your metal fortified bird table a few yards from your panoramic dining room window, you will be able to watch the comings and goings of the birds, and relieve the stresses and strains of the day for the rest of your life, even if your camera is showing its age, the curtains cast a reflection, the sun is in the wrong place, all the usual excuses….
Any of my readers in either the Americas or Australia will wonder what I am talking about when I get excited about the European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)…
But that will be because, according to Wikipedia….
“A hedgehog is any of the spiny mammals of the subfamily Erinaceinae, found through parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand (by introduction). There are no hedgehogs native to Australia, and no living species native to the Americas.”
Hedgehogs are lovely, sweet animals, which often turn up in the more countrified or overgrown gardens just as darkness is beginning to fall on a warm summer night, and the bats are coming out to hunt.
It is a well-loved species, which has, however, declined sharply in England over the last ten years, with an overall decrease of at least 25%. Hedgehogs are, in actual fact, disappearing in Britain at a quicker rate than tigers are in their own jungle habitat in southern Asia. The problems for hedgehogs are the usual ones. Gardens are nowadays generally tidier with lots of neat wooden decking, and hardly any patches of weeds and rough grass, full of slugs and juicy snails. More efficient fences have fewer holes in them to allow hedgehogs to range far and wide. The extensive use of insecticide means fewer insects, and a greater possibility of being poisoned. Road casualties are high because the animals’ first natural defence is to roll up into a spiny ball. Not too effective on a busy highway.
Recently though, in our wonderfully overgrown garden, we have been visited by two, possibly, three hedgehogs. We think that they are either a mother and two different children, or possibly, a father, a mother and one rather small and cute child. They snuffle about in the leaf litter, and yesterday morning, in the wee small hours, at about three o’clock, it was actually possible to hear their chewing and crunching from inside the house.
This is the mother, we think…
And these individuals are all youngsters, although only their mother could tell them apart, and they may very well be the one and the same little chap photographed on three separate occasions. Spot the catfood…
I think the reason for the arrival of these lovely, sweet little animals is the prolonged spell of great heat and severe dryness that we are currently experiencing here in England. The drought means fewer insects than normal, and the hedgehogs are forced to try their luck closer to man than they might otherwise venture. We have fed our visitors with, for example, wet and meaty cat food, and they certainly appreciate a bowl of water. Traditionally, you are supposed to feed them a bowl of milk with lumps of bread in it, but this is not really a very good idea for a lactose-intolerant insectivore, even one who is willing to consume dog food when times are bad.
In this video, the mother is looking out for suitable scraps from the bird table…
My daughter had to stop filming when the hedgehog was on her shoe!
Here is our video of a cute baby hedgehog eating catfood:
The babies are called “hoglets”, and Mummy and Daddy are a “boar” and a “sow”.
If you are successful in finding and feeding any hedgehogs, make sure that you send your data to the 2014 Hibernation Survey which lasts until August 31st of this year. The more scientific data we have about hedgehogs, the more can be done to increase their depleted numbers.
There were some lovely visitors to our bird table this morning…….
Only a very few are still feeding their babies…
There were Blue tits….
With plenty of less gaudily coloured youngsters in attendance….
For some unknown reason, it can be spelt either Coal or Cole tit, but they were there anyway…
With what I felt were possibly the more dully plumaged youngsters…
There was plenty to look at, with lots of recently fledged youngsters in evidence, taking the easy way to find food.
Soon I will be taking a more in depth look at bird tables, and also at what I am seeing as an increasingly worrying lack of insects in our organic garden.
There is not too much time left this summer, but you should still be able to see a few lingering Swifts flying high in the sky, before they make their migratory journey back to tropical Africa. Of all birds they are the most stunning fliers, and can make mere earthbound humans very jealous indeed…
They are like a muscle powered flying torpedo…
They climb and bank with practiced ease…
Swifts feed on flying insects…
They are so committed to continuous flight that they even mate on the wing…
Swifts spend the first two years of their lives continuously aloft, before building a rather rudimentary nest in a crevice in a cliff. In a modern city, they might nest on high-rise buildings, perhaps even in a man-made nest box.
The bird’s Latin name “apus apus” means “without feet”, and indeed, if a swift should ever fall to the ground, it will have the greatest difficulty in getting back into the sky, and may require assistance from a kindly passing human.
With their scythe shaped wings, swifts are a fairly large bird, and can be seen easily from quite a distance, even with the naked eye…
They often fly with House Martins, whose buzzing call is distinctive…
Here are a few swifts in slow motion
In Italy, you can even have dinner and still bird watch!
Swifts often fly round in family circles, screaming to each other, as here in Denmark…