I’ve endured half a lifetime of being misunderstood. As an undergraduate meteorologist I lost count of the number of people who thought I was studying rocks in space, and those that did understand the weather connection generally brought up Michael Fish’s ‘hurricane’, or asked if they would one day be seeing me on the telly*. After ending my degree disgracefully with a dismal Desmond**, and fruitlessly searching for any kind of relevant work, I eventually set the weather aside awhile for other loves which had lain dormant.
Moving from weather to birdwatching was clearly not a great choice if I was trying to pick a socially acceptable, respected hobby, though birders are so common nowadays that we’re almost hip. From Punk-birding to Packham to those Sound Approach guys down in Dorset, we’ve come a long way from the bearded, balding, anorak-clad stereotype (though I’m heading rapidly toward it). Striding out purposefully into the world with binoculars round your neck might garner the odd second glance, but rarely out-and-out derision.
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.
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.