Rooks are not black birds. They flash electric blue in the sun; brilliant livewire sparks of intellect and curiosity. Some say that the contemporary British countryside was ordered and laid out for the benefit and convenience of man: the rooks beg to differ. Setting sail each morning in roving piratical bands flung from the rigging of their copse top roost, they see all and know all. Rooks own the countryside as much as any other creature.

Few birds are as entertaining to watch as a party of rooks, alighting on a bright green pasture and setting to plundering it of juicy invertebrates. Yet there’s also a haunting air to them, their skin and feathers taught over canvas frames, the ghoulish grey hatchet of their beaks, the sinister guttural rasps and squeaks that make up their vocal repertoire.

Once we found a rook skull resting in a Hampshire hedgerow. We waited for the elements to pick it clean, coveting its neat, cold lines. Alas, we eventually forgot about it and it lay unclaimed, except for by the soil which first gave it life. An earthy bird taken back into the dust.


“You’re a twitcher, aren’t you?”

I still get that, from time to time, and for the most part I issue a full denial. I haven’t left the county, or the town even, in pursuit of a bird in a long time, and rarely chase one unless I was going to go out birding anyway. However, I suppose there are still birds that would push me over the edge and back to the dark side. For example, an undeniably, outrageously beautiful bird that I’ve yet to see anywhere in the world, a bee-eater or a roller, say – providing I wasn’t taken too far out of my way. It would need to be no more than an hour’s drive, and I’d want somebody to take with me. Preferably there would be other good birding to do in the area so we could make a full day’s outing of it. That would be an acceptable sort of twitch.

Better, much better than even this modest form of twitching is to watch birds on one’s home turf. Local is where I am, where we all are day to day. To encounter something wonderful in the places we usually live or work is, I would suggest, a deeper, more transformative experience.

So when I got a text from The Ricebirder (now returned from his sojourn in the Philippines) on Friday morning that simply read ‘Yellow-browed on site. You around for lunch?’ I panicked, just a little, at the thought of missing a pretty high-quality patch bird. What did he mean on site?! He couldn’t possibly mean campus! Some other site nearby? I was about to depart with a minibus full of students for a morning field trip. This was incredibly inconvenient timing.

What was truly incredible was the manner of this bird’s discovery – it was seen by a meteorologist through his office window. Just as I’m pretty sure birds of this caliber aren’t supposed to turn up on campus, they certainly aren’t supposed to be found by so huge a slice of luck. On the other hand, luck is about the only way a leaf-coloured bird the size of a goldcrest paying a fleeting visit to a 320-acre park is ever going to be found.

A little piece of his luck stayed with us, in that once I made it back to campus we managed to relocate the bird over four hours since it was first found and a mere half hour after beginning our search. Yellow-browed warblers, along with the closely related, rarer Pallas’s warbler, are often referred to as ‘sprites’, and it was clear why. As bright and fresh and sharp as a lemon, it zipped and flitted about a small stand of silver birch trees, charming all of us who saw it, a glimpse of wonder that opened up the magic in our everyday surroundings.

For a first-hand finder’s account and a bit of background on yellow-browed warblers, see the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog.

Only Sleeping

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

It’s an oft cited phenomenon of our time that our lives pass at such a pace we’re unable to truly experience them. I don’t know if it’s simply because we’re all so busy – I don’t exactly feel in a hurry right now, as I sit at a clunky old desktop computer with a glass of wine to hand – but certainly many people I know have complained of time’s acceleration as we age. I experience it all the time, and am often chided not to be constantly remarking upon the astonishing passage of years. “But that can’t have been almost a decade ago!” I might say, but it really has been that long since my first graduation, or the holiday in Scotland which kick-started my birding life, aspects of which are still fairly fresh in my mind.

There are moments, almost every day, when I do persuade the seconds to stick around a little longer. When I gaze at the intensity of autumn colour for a few still seconds, get wrapped up in watching the insects on a patch of ivy, or watch a robin singing whilst he regards me with a bright, intelligent eye. Yet when I look so closely and genuinely start to lose myself in a particular time and space, it often starts to dissolve before my very eyes. Like when you stare so hard at something your eyes lose focus, and everything is lost in a dim blur.

This time of year occupies a lot of my head space. I associate the closing quarter of the year with memories of so many new beginnings – new terms at new schools, family birthdays, the rich, fruity sensations of autumn – that sometimes the present manifestation of a thing, be it the rich lacquer of a freshly hatched conker, the sharpness and wood-smoke of an autumn dusk, or the papery rustle of falling leaves, seem only to be a dim echo of a deeper reality, ungraspable for now yet remembered.

I suspect it stems from a deep-seated tiredness, a sadness, a feeling I can’t shake that adult life is something of a disappointment. That this is a parallel world we inhabit, drained of colour. I’m in an elaborate childhood dream from which I expect to wake up at any moment, back in the village, in the early 90s, pressing my nose against a steamed-up window one winter’s morning to watch a real-life flesh-blood-bone-atom nuthatch plundering peanuts in the garden.

Maybe there is indeed very little that is solid about matter, as a physicist would point out. The hardest of substances is nothing but a sparse constellation of particles, held together by mysterious charges. Neither is perception immutable. How am I to know that the things I see, hear, taste and feel are anything more than accidents of brain chemistry? Can they bear any relation to what others experience? Perhaps when we were children, our lives were so imminently real to us that the tenuous nature of reality hardly seemed to matter. Life was more immediate. Joy and sorrow came and went in a heartbeat. Hope almost always overrode despair.

Wide-eyed, innocent, expectant, full of awe, seeing what they really see and not what they’ve learned to expect to see – a childlike person, in the idealised, untainted sense of what it means to be a child, would be a great observer and therefore the consummate natural historian. How do we begin to overcome the sorrow of the world and regain that sense of wonder? How I long to stop sleepwalking through life and become fully conscious to the wonders of the world. To be a born-again naturalist: what finer ambition could I have for the rest of my life?

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