Dark

It was the kind of evening that Slapton excels at. We started outside a lesser horseshoe roost at dusk, listening with delight to the pitch-shifted Doppler calls of the departing bats – an intensely alien sound like tiny accelerating spaceships. Later, in the full dark, we shone our torches into the freshwater lagoon. Worlds upon worlds of life were revealed, from pulsing zooplankton to spiders walking on water. Daubenton’s bats skimmed the lake surface to pick off caddisflies amid clouds of tiny mayflies.

When we dimmed our torchlights and looked up, seemingly countless* more worlds sparkled across unimaginable trillions of miles. Our final departure towards the field centre and deep sleep was accompanied by moonrise over the sea. The pale yellow harvest moon and sweep of the Start Point Lighthouse, both reflected in the sea; the stars; glow-worms in the road verge: a storybook lightscape that can hardly be real.

Given the right conditions, this evening excursion is always a highlight of our Devon field course. The dark heightens our senses; the very fact that more of the world is hidden seems to make that which we can see all the more revelatory. It helps that the skies in South Devon are dark. Perhaps not Galloway dark (the first Dark Sky Park in the UK; alas, during our visit last year we had precious little stargazing weather) but still a world and what feels like decades or centuries away from anywhere in southeast England, where the obscuring haze of London and outlying towns is near inescapable. Even in Slapton village itself there’s little light pollution, nestled as it is between the rural South Hams and the open sea beyond. A full, dizzying canopy of stars hangs over the streetlight-free lanes on a clear night, with an occasional abrupt security light the only interruption. The Milky Way is clearly evident as a broad linear cloud, a dispersed contrail left by the jet power of our galaxy’s formation. Longer study is rewarded by shooting stars; one flared brightly long enough for me to say ‘Oh…oh, look!’, before its moment was gone.

On return from the pub one night, I went back outside with my compact birdwatching telescope. It wasn’t designed for astronomy, but any device that makes things bigger will help. A decent pair of binoculars is enough to just about completely blow the mind by the numbers of additional stars they will bring into focus. My 12–36x scope brings Jupiter’s moons into range. This time Jupiter had sunk a little too low into the haze of Earth’s atmosphere on the horizon, but Saturn was still high enough to be able to see the flatness of its shape, an impression of rings just on the edge of vision. There’s such magic in recognising this most familiar textbook planet outline in direct line of sight, as though there is nothing at all between you and this smudge of light a billion miles away.

Back home in Newbury, although we live on the edge of town the stars show more dimly against an ever-present orange glare. My scope will still provide wonderful views of our moon, or Jupiter’s moons when high enough in the sky, but the ‘real’ night sky is a distant memory – something quite literally out of another time. It is never truly dark here. The clearest constellations to be seen are those at ground level, comprised of the scatter of garden lights that has been spreading through our neighbours’ gardens almost as though they are the fruiting bodies of a bioluminescent fungus. One of the houses now has fairy lights permanently lit along at least a third of the 80-metre garden: several designs, some multicoloured, some flashing. Look out from our upstairs windows at night and you see Christmas all year round. Yet I rarely see anybody out there making use of the light show.

When I go outside at night I prefer to walk into proper darkness. I understand why public thoroughfares are increasingly well lit by stark white LEDs – encouraging safe use of zero-carbon, people-powered transport must be a good thing. But perhaps we lose a little of something precious with every pocket of true night that is swallowed up by human industry. For example, I must admit to distinctly mixed feelings about the gradual creep of very bright lighting on Whiteknights Lake, where during my first year at Reading University a group of us Wessex Hall residents used to enjoy regular night walks. These wouldn’t be quite such an adventure now.

Are we afraid of the dark? Well, yes. Our pulses race faster; slight noises put us on edge more than they would during the day. Being out in the dark we feel more truly alive and in nature; perhaps for some people this is a sensation more akin to threat. But this can’t explain everything: the march of garden lights and the desire to eradicate every trace of the dark whether or not we’re safely indoors. We know an increasing amount about the effects of light pollution on wildlife. I wonder whether we know anything at all about what it does to ourselves.

Moon

*Accounting for variation in location and eyesight, there are actually only somewhere between 2500 and 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye from any particular location.

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.

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On Lunga in the Tresnish Isles, 2005. The hair!

Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on the Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.

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SeafarersIn that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ clichés often accused of dominating nature writing, so far as I can tell, though I’m probably susceptible to them myself and not an expert witness. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic.

It is also a highly persuasive read in places. The life-affirming simple joy of birding shines through. The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is ‘..a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day’, as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem…OK”. Couple that with the pleasure of catching up with old friends (the seabirds themselves), being reminded of favourite places from travels past (or places I’ve been wanting to spend time and I’ll most likely be seeking seabirds again sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t picked up this book.

The Seafarers is an original contribution, despite having elements in common with a number of other recent books. One notable similarity is that it weaves in biographical details of significant literary and scientific figures from the past. R.M.Lockley and James Fisher feature here and both seem good inclusions as perhaps slightly overlooked figures in 20th century ornithology. The biographical passages, together with elements of cultural history, are well-judged and put the authors experience into context rather than distracting from them.  The Seafarers also follows on just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabirds Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals. With The Seafarers Stephen Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.

Thanks to Elliot and Thompson for providing a copy for review. 

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April 20th (Beacon Hill)

Beacon Hill is a prominent point on the Wessex chalk ridge in Hampshire that broods over the A34. It was the outline seen from a car window that I learned to love, years before I ever visited. The long, unfenced open ridge, a great expanse of close-cropped green rising up to Iron Age earthworks at the summit, called to mind the hill and moor country of the north and west. An outcrop of remoteness and wildness, or so it seemed to a child of the south Hampshire suburbs. The climb from the car park is a short, popular walk but steep enough to knock the breath from you. The summit is not exactly high altitude, at 267 m, but it is lofty for the region and as a result views are fine in all directions, especially looking north with Highclere Castle in the foreground (much more famous than the hill itself, thanks to the in my view largely inexplicable Downton Abbey phenomenon) and the Newbury area beyond.

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Looking north and northwest from Beacon Hill

All in all, it feels like a ‘proper’ hill, though a close look reveals that the brooding, remote impression I had from quick drive-bys is something of an illusion. On Easter Saturday I found the hillside bustling with families on excursions, walking dogs, flying kites, and spotting orchids. I am usually a bit of a grouch about places being busy when I’m there to find wildlife, but on this occasion I was heartened to see such a varied group of people enjoying the outdoors, most of them not usually the ‘outdoor type’ if I may be permitted just briefly to judge by appearance and attire. It is good to see open countryside democratised, a place for everybody, even if our demands of it might differ quite widely. The landscape laid out below Beacon Hill is full of its own contradictions. Wildlife-rich grassland is adjacent to intensive pasture, pony paddocks and neatly mown verges. Skylarks and meadow pipits sang into the blue sky but may not thank those free-running dogs for disturbing their nests. Stray rubbish was caught up in bushes near the car park; further up the hillside, a sad lost helium balloon in the shape of the letter S twisted gently in the breeze like a charmed snake.

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A fine view to accompany a flask of coffee

I did find a quiet spot near the northwest flank of the hill and stopped in the shade of a small hawthorn to pour some coffee from my flask. This is a good place to see ring ouzels during migration, with birds bound for the ‘real’ uplands of the north stopping off at similar-looking scrubby grassland slopes on the way. I saw none on this visit but was delighted to hear a firecrest singing from a pine overlooking Highclere Castle. This diminutive, fiercely beautiful bird is beginning to be at home in even the smallest patch of suitable habitat in this part of the country, many probably overlooked. This firecrest in particular may well have a finer view from its territory than any other in the country! My favourite find of the day was a lesser bloody-nosed beetle. Like its larger relative, it is a charming animal that appears as a child might draw a beetle: a rounded, black, trundling creature that is all shine and smooth edges. The only other place I’ve seen this species is on St Catherine’s Hill outside Winchester, another steep popular walk up a chalk hill with views to a famous building beyond. Both hills have been special places to people for thousands of years, both will likely remain so for as long as we’re around.