It’s probably best not to habitually make excuses for my absence, but one very good one I can offer for the last, oh, I don’t know how many blog-free weeks, is that I was busily preparing a poster (and, crucially, needed to finish generating some data to put on it) for a conference that took place in Florence last week. Lest anybody suspect I’m asking for sympathy, I fully acknowledge that a conference in Italy seems like an excuse for a holiday, and, indeed, we managed to extend the trip a couple of days either side to take in some of the Tuscan countryside.
It goes without saying that binoculars were never far from my side, and since I was travelling in a country that I’ve only visited once before, more than half a life ago, I was eager to observe anything in the birdlife that was different to what we see here in the UK. One of the first things I noticed is that the sparrows of Italy are rather sharply attired, as befits a country renowned globally as a centre for fashion, with a chestnut brown cap, white cheeks and an extensive, chequered black bib.
On Friday morning I took a brief stroll in the Harris Garden before starting work, seeking to make up for the lepidopteron disaster that had occurred there the night before. As I passed the small pond along the northern fence of the garden, I heard a brief series of thin rising notes among the general hubbub of great tits and robins and wrens. It hinted at the presence of a firecrest.
Vying with goldcrest for the title of Britain’s smallest bird, I have to say that firecrests (sorry, goldcrests) are the better of the pair in every way: brighter, sharper, livelier, and blessed with the aura of prestige that comes with scarcity. They’re really very smart-looking, indeed; charming to watch too, flitting this way and that with short flicks of blurred wings, breaking occasionally into a hummingbird-like hover whilst they pluck some small insect morsel from a leaf.
Firecrests are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act as a rare breeding bird. But I’d suggest they are approaching moderately common in many parts of the southeast by now. A survey a few years ago put the number of pairs in the New Forest alone (where the species was first recorded breeding in Britain in 1962) at around 270. That’s certainly a good place to find them, but I’ve heard firecrests singing away in woods from Wiltshire to Oxfordshire to Kent, suggesting that a great many of the suitable habitat patches in our region must already be occupied.
The Berkshire Bird Atlas would seem to support that assumption, with the presence of breeding firecrests either proven or thought highly probable in 28 survey squares, including two right on the southern edge of Reading. Outside of the New Forest, our little county is probably the firecrest capital of Britain – a very happy state of affairs, especially considering that the most valuable and cherished position the firecrest has attained is that of one of my favourite birds.
For firecrest devotees such as myself, their continued success in Britain may yet be one of the silver linings – or perhaps gold, in this case – that sails in with the dark clouds of climate change. They tend to favour warmer, more humid climates, and outnumber goldcrests in southern regions of Europe. An interesting Croatian study showed that dominance increasing in mixed forests, so to give firecrests a further leg-up, perhaps we should be discouraging pure coniferous monocultures in southern England. As it happens, conservationists are already busy on that front, gradually seeking to weed them out in favour of native deciduous trees (as well as lowland heath, which in truth is somewhat less than helpful as firecrest breeding habitat, but is certainly desirable for other reasons).
The more I think about it, the more suitable Whiteknights Park – for the last 50 or so years the home of Reading University – seems for firecrests. The part-planted, part-natural mix of woodland that covers one corner of the campus, scattered with exotic conifers, tantalisingly resembles ‘Le Jardin Public’ in St Omer, near Calais in France, where I heard firecrests singing the spring before last. Their songs rose above the calls of serins and a short-toed treecreeper to serenade us whilst we munched on a fine haul from a nearby patisserie. That’s a scenario I wouldn’t mind recreating here in Reading, buttery cakes and all.
Enough daydreaming, and back to Friday morning. For a moment the general chorus hushed, and I listened to the firecrest – for, indeed, it was one – sing solo for a few minutes, the clear and distinct sound travelling around a tall holly whilst the bird itself remained out of sight. Eventually I caught a glimpse of it buzzing around the more open lower branches, and for a few seconds had an uninterrupted view as it paused in the sun, plumage glowing. Just as it darted back out of view, I almost simultaneously heard the song once more rising up from close to the treetop. This bird was clearly very fast, or perhaps it was throwing its voice. Or, more plausibly, there may have been two firecrests hanging around the edge of the Harris Garden on Friday morning.
So is this potentially suburban Reading’s first breeding pair of firecrests? We may simply have been blessed with such a good number of sightings of late due to it being the early part of the migration season. But I’m keeping fingers and toes crossed that at least one pair will choose to stay.
See here for the story of how I first fell for firecrests.
New beginnings don’t often happen in the first floor men’s toilets on the north corridor of the Harborne building. That is, as far as I know. It’s possible that some significant works of science have had their genesis within those windowless, cobwebbed walls, but somehow I doubt it. Tis not a place that anybody would chose to linger long.
Unless one happens to be a moth, apparently, for that is what I disturbed from the underside of a toilet roll holder on Monday morning, ushering in the moth year proper, in that it was the first decent sized, nicely patterned macro moth (i.e. larger ones – but not always!) I’d seen in 2014. Which means, of course, that I had to know what it was, and being a still inexperienced moth-er I knew this would also mean capturing it for later observation. I gave the moth, now motionless in the middle of the tiled floor, a quick but intense look. It was a beautiful, leaf-like mottled brown beast draped with tongues of glowing orange fire across the shoulders. “Wait there!” I cried, warning the poor startled creature with a wave of my index finger. “Just wait there a minute!”
Singing in the faux-dusk of LED streetlamps, two robins fling phrases back and forth. Each challenge in their musical duel is met with a rebuttal from the opposing bird, tauntingly similar in structure yet moving the duet on with new variations on the theme. This stream of sound, carrying gently through the descending drizzle, stops me in my tracks. I listen; the birds continue, the closest of them seemingly oblivious to my presence just a few meters from his song perch.
They say* that it’s been a mild winter so far, warm even. And whilst I suppose I can’t dispute that, it hasn’t been quite consistently warm enough to prevent the necessity of scraping the car in the frozen murk of 7am on a Monday morning. When I can’t feel my fingers and there is a fragile smear of ice crystals even on the inside of the windscreen, I almost sympathise with those scientific illiterates who are ready to dismiss the notion of global ‘warming’ at the first whiff of snow. “Mild winter?!”, I exclaim, shivering. “What mild winter?!”
Presuming that they lack the capacity even for unreasoned thought, the insects know better than I. For whilst the weather is, with some notable flood-related exceptions, for the most part a matter of inconvenience for us, for our invertebrate friends it is the difference between thriving and annihilation. This year they seem to be tending toward the former, provided most have been able to ride out the floods. In Reading, at least, even a few bumblebee colonies, grateful for the exotic winter blooms laid on for them by the university grounds staff, are keeping busy, even through the darkest months. The first speckled wood of spring was seen days ago, and I daresay other butterflies are emerging from their slumber in good numbers. Every passing moment of warm sunlight is snatched upon by small delicate flies, which leap out to join the jostling ranks of rival males in midwinter leks.
It’s been a – how shall I say this? – somewhat unusual few weeks. Life hasn’t seemed to flow in any predictable, regular way and nor have the words from my fingertips onto the screen. I don’t know if all good writers require routine, but I suspect it helps. So might a safe and stable home environment, or at least some fixed reference points from which to write. Rest assured that we have survived and so will this blog, from which I hope better things are to come in the remaining 352 days of 2014. But consider this my apology for lack of normal service, especially the missing USA trip reports, some of which lie on my hard drive in a semi-completed state.
I had grand plans for this year, new things to learn and a thousand species to find. But at present I seem to resemble nothing more than a madman in a hat and rollerskates, clinging desperately onto the back bumper of 2014 as it veers off into the future. Serious listing natural history enterprises can wait until I’ve clawed my way back into the driving seat. For now, it’s enough to find consolation amongst everyday birds. It’s when life is at its most troublesome and frustrating that I turn to them more often, taking comfort in their familiar company. Great tits brash and strident; their softer, jazz-tinged cousins, the coal tits; the hurried dunnock darting into his hedgerow, weaving a thread of song into the wind as he goes. Amidst gale and rain, mud, flood and frost, they are still surviving, thriving. What else can they do? And for that matter, what other option do we have? Life persists.
Passing the university library at dusk on Monday, I noticed soft, sweet music wafting down from the rooftop. A small, dark shape was dimly visible above me: a blackbird, singing slow and gentle with head cocked, as though struggling to recall a favourite air from seasons past. When I hear a blackbird in midwinter it’s usually in the dead of night, perched in a state of seasonal confusion by a streetlamp. This bird whispered his song into the darkness, increasing in confidence note by note, before stopping abruptly and striking up his usual nightly territorial alarm calls. Not confused, I would guess, but on the cusp of genuinely vernal vocalisations. Tunes with reproductive intent.
Similarly, our resident little owls seem to be getting noisier as the days grow longer, often calling to each other at dusk. They may be an introduced species in Britain but their curious hoots and shrieks add a welcome note of wildness to the Whiteknights soundscape. An unsuspected guest amidst the clamorous comings and goings of tens of thousands of students and staff. It’s a pleasing wildlife story, and they’re amongst the most characterful of birds – witness the world-weary expression on the individual I found sunning itself last Wednesday morning, wedged neatly in a tree-hole barely any distance at all from the recently constructed Henley Business School. It was clear that whatever business the owl has been attending to this week, it considers it to be of greatly superior importance to the financial education going on across the road. I quite agree. Who needs international capitalism when you have owls living on your doorstep?
Later that day, two goosanders were discovered loafing on Whiteknights Lake. The moment I saw the news I felt the first stirrings of competitive spirit for the year (there’s a contest afoot and I must help defend the university’s honour!), and set out to find them. Not much of a long-distance twitch – no more than a five- or ten-minute walk from my desk – and all the better for it. With just a little half-decent habitat, there’s no telling what could turn up close to home, or close to work, and whatever it is will be far more satisfying than a lost bird pursued along hundreds of miles of motorway. The best birds are local birds, from the song of the blackbird to unexpected ducks to the red kite breezing overhead. I can’t imagine what life was like before I began to notice them, nor could I ever imagine living without them again. I do believe my happiness and survival is tied to that of the birds.
Monday December 16th
There exists in American birding lingo a condition known as ‘binocular neck’, which is the result of spending too long in the car with – as the name suggests – binoculars weighing heavily around one’s neck. This being a vast country criss-crossed by often near abandoned highways, American birders are masters at birding from a moving car and it seems they’re prepared to risk even their spinal health to get that drive-by tick.
On Britain’s twisty roads packed with traffic, I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive with binoculars so close at hand, and prefer to keep them on the passenger seat (or perhaps tucked under the driver’s seat if I’m not alone) ready to grab once the car is safely stationary. Though I still must confess to having been called out on occasion for watching the birds, not the road. But what if one day it actually is a honey buzzard, identified even as I veer all over the carriageway? All that risk-taking might just pay off.*