Planet Of The Ants

Ants pour from a nest alongside Pepper Lane, Reading

Ants pour from a nest alongside Pepper Lane, Reading

As I crossed campus yesterday in the heat of the afternoon, I felt a gentle tickling sensation on my forearm. A winged ant, crawling and questing as ants do, before finally recalling that – O happiest and most fortunate of ants! – it could fly, and launched itself back into the thundery air. Memory jogged, I recalled seeing a mass ant emergence and subsequent feeding frenzy of gulls in Bristol mentioned on Twitter that morning. I looked up expectantly – you don’t have much luck as a birder if you go around staring sullenly at the ground – and there was the same scene, being played out in the skies above Reading.

We’re never a town to be outdone in the urban wildlife spectacle stakes, you see. And spectacle is the word as 50, 60, 70, maybe more than 100 gulls, mostly lithe, silvery-white black-headed gulls with a few lesser black-backed gulls mixed in for good measure, looped and swooped and tied knots all through the urban airspace north of Whiteknights. The more I looked across the sky, the more gulls I could see, spiralling up in broad columns towards the clouds.

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Summer Of Love

July arrives like a sigh of relief. The dawn chorus fades to the gentlest of murmurs, a peaceful hush interrupted only by the thin cheeps of those self-sufficient youngsters still cheeky enough to raid the home larder. In the hedgerows, verges and meadows, spring’s urgent growth has set and dried in the sun into an unruly brownish mess of woody stalks, fading flowers and seeds. The partying of spring is over, and the world sits back, puts her feet up, and feasts on leftovers. The clean-up can wait until winter.

Above, ravens. Stern black crosses in languid transit across the blue. Breaking off from a long glide, the pair forks – one south, one north – and intercepts a red kite apiece, seeing off the longer-winged yet gentler scavengers with a few deft twists of wing. One kite whistles in alarm, the ravens croak solemnly back and forth to each other; order is soon restored to the skies. In nearby scrub a marsh tit sneezes exactly twice, and is silent. No other bird makes a sound.

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Tough Love

In an idle moment one day last week I calculated that I’ve got up at or before dawn approximately 160 times just in the last three years. In other words, I average one preposterously early morning a week, and rarely make up for it by sleeping longer in the evenings. There may be a certain magic to starting the day whilst most folk are still slumbering, but spending the remainder of it yawning like a foghorn is somewhat less enchanting.

Early morning. Brutal. Well, actually quite lovely. But also brutal.

Early morning. Brutal. Well, actually quite lovely. But also brutal.

Now it’s fair to say that birds often make it worthwhile, whether I’m counting, watching or ringing them. They’re the good part, the wouldn’t-miss-it-for-the-world part, full of wonder, peace, surprise and glory. The flip-side is rubbing the sleep out of your eyes at 4 in the morning, and again at about supper time in a desperate attempt to convince your body that it hasn’t quite made it through a full day yet.

Last Wednesday, just for a change, I ventured out in the evening to a local heath in an attempt to catch and ring nightjars. Three hours and the closest we got was one bouncing off our net, and I didn’t return home until after midnight. The closest I got to making a contribution to nature conservation that night was in the quantity of blood I donated to local mosquito populations.* I’m a generous chap.  So on Sunday it was back to being up with – no, before the larks. I got up at 3 – 3! – so early that it was still just about dark, despite being the second earliest dawn of the year.

So why do we do it? Ringers, surveyors, ecologists, just-for-pleasure birders? Is it all in the name of science? Well, maybe. But it’s hard to see the great significance of much of what we do. Conservation? In that conservation is more than or perhaps primarily not a science at all, yes: what data we do generate will hopefully be used to enhance wildlife conservation, and the very act of engaging with nature in a way that is quite hard work tends to inspire a deeper commitment to the cause.  And sometimes we have to honestly say that our efforts are made in the name of showing off, or keeping up appearance. Ego is our primary motivation more often than we like to admit, I think.

However, I must say that knowledge, worthy causes and human vanity only explain so much.  I always come back to that fluffiest of words: love. It has to be love.

But as we’ve seen, it isn’t so fluffy, love. It’s hard as nails. It’s the willingness to risk mosquito and midge bites, swollen eyes full of pollen, being frozen to the bone, over-heating to the point of exhaustion, sweating, shivering, getting soaked, hunger pangs for third breakfast before the sun is even up, bramble scratches, nettle stings, not to mention an alarmingly high risk of contracting Lyme disease or some other tick-born nasty.  And that’s just me. There are places in the scarcely imagined depths of the world in which people risk their very lives for conservation. For nature. For a simple feather-and-bone bird.

So there we have it: we conservationists are all deeply, utterly, irredeemably in love. That or we are all just completely crackers. That’s certainly how I feel, when I come home exhausted, weather-beaten and licking my wounds.

*I should add that it was a great experience nonetheless, lest I sound ungrateful. I hope to write more about it, and a more successful outing from last summer, very soon.