May 8th

Spring arrived this year on a wave of cloudless days and early heat. Sunshine records smashed; lockdown days marked by eerily blue skies and equally unnatural quiet. Most people relish a clear blue day, but as one of my fellow meteorology undergraduates used to complain, they’re quite dull if you are interested in weather. I tend to agree – give me some drama. In a marked improvement, today is one of those warm, humid days with banks of thin cloud aloft and towers of cumulus frothing up from below, giant mimics of the hawthorn blossom heaped beside the canal. The sky is alive and, as if in response, our garden thrums, too. It is verdant, vibrant, but in a hurry to get somewhere – some way from the bedded-in, satisfied but slightly exhausted air of summer.

Kites and buzzards, drifting in on the thermals, are given short notice to vacate by the pair of crows nesting at the far end of the garden. I watched one kite pursued by a crow, itself tailed by a jackdaw – a comic chase by birds of diminishing size. The crows themselves, but more especially the magpies, get plenty of stick in turn from the blackbirds, whose noisy chack of alarm is familiar background noise in the garden. The other constant in our spring soundscape is a cuckoo, which has hardly stopped calling today. The first time each spring it is thrilling – we’re fortunate to live within earshot of cuckoo habitat and I fear one year the magic will wear off. After a few weeks it gets almost monotonous, though I feel moderately heretical for even thinking that.

When banks of heavy cloud roll through on a warm evening like this, swifts can be seen riding the wave, picking off insects that are caught in the rising air. The architectural presence of clouds reminds us that for many animals the world has another dimension; movement and migration can be vertical as well as horizontal. The first swifts I saw this year were feeding on an evening flight of insects; there is also an equivalent but lesser known ‘dawn flight’. Both would show up on vertical radar as a haze of life gracefully ascending and descending, like the breath of the earth.

Mud (11th January)

The river level has dropped but the floods remain. The field I wrote about last week has since hosted five wigeon, in addition to the gadwall and gulls that are still present, and a growing number of little egrets, 10 at my last count on Saturday. A fine thing to see, yet still I had already begun to find the bird-mania of my last post subside as the busy-ness of a new university term took its place. So, later that day, instead of tearing off after more birds, I took a short but more focused walk around our garden, with a mind to finding my first ground beetle of the year. I inherited the mantle of ‘recording scheme organiser’ for this group last year, so I figured it was time I started generating some records of my own again to set a good example!

For about the first two years we lived here I maintained several pitfall traps in the garden, to help build up a list of the species that inhabit the place we’re responsible for looking after. The traps are just plastic cups buried in the ground with a few bits of leaf litter or moss in the bottom as cover for whatever falls in. The most successful of them was in what I grandly like to call the ‘woodland’ at the far end of the garden, close to the K&A canal, in the shade of a large ash tree. In a week or so it invariably caught at least a few rove beetles or ground beetles, among the springtails, spiders and increasingly ubiquitous landhoppers, even in the middle of winter. As with any mode of trapping, it was like a mini entomological Christmas every time I checked the traps; I never quite knew what would turn up.

A species I enjoyed seeing regularly was Asaphidion curtum, a small (4–5 mm) beetle with a bronze-gold metallic sheen. It is said to prefer heavier, moist soils. Well, the soil in that part of the garden is certainly that now, sitting as it does under several inches of water. Luckily, I haven’t set the traps in over a year, so no beetles will have been drowned by my recording efforts at least, but it does raise questions about the impact of floods on invertebrate life. Many species of damp places must be able to escape or cope with inundation, or at least have populations resilient enough to bounce back after local losses. Where my local Asaphidion population resides at the moment, I’m not sure.

I did check under an old bin lid close to the limits of the groundwater flood in the garden. No Asaphidion, which I think would prefer to be among leaf litter, but immediately on lifting it I noticed two beetles sculling off into wet mud the consistency of thick icing. I plucked one out of the ooze, holding it between thumb and forefinger. A square-headed, blunt-jawed bruiser of a beetle, revealed as the mud sloughed off to have a bright orange thorax as well as a distinctive orange pattern on its wing cases. I had my first ground beetle of the year. Badister bullatus is a common species but no less beautiful for it, and apparently one that, like Flanders and Swans’ hippopotamus, is most happy when wallowing in glorious mud. Or, at least, it can survive those conditions if it must – lucky beetles: if the rain continues in this vein, mud will be all that is left of our garden.

New Year, Old Habits

When I started this blog it was very much about birds and birdwatching. There’s a big clue in the name. I was – and remain – a birder, but it is fair to say that recently I have not been birding with quite the fervour that I did in the early part of what is apparently now the last decade. I may simply have forgotten the sheer joy, the uncomplicated pleasure of watching birds. I may have been distracted by delving into other taxa, the endless further avenues of enquiry offered by the natural world, and indeed if I were starting this blog again in January 2020 rather than 2011 it might well have been called “Considering Beetles”. Or perhaps birdwatching has become too complicated. Is twitching fun or basically evil? Within what radius from home is it acceptable? Should all our birding be zero-carbon? If looking at a bird doesn’t render us instantly cheerful – nature cure! – are we doing it wrong? Is it possible to enjoy looking at wildlife when everything is basically doomed?

Coincidentally, somebody remarked to me today that they were enjoying Isabella Tree’s Wilding because here at last was an actual conservation book in the nature section, rather than being yet another ‘I went outside and saw / didn’t see a bird’ narrative. I understand where they were coming from and share an occasional weariness at the ever-expanding number of samey-looking nature titles on offer. Yet I also know that I quite enjoy reading ‘I saw / didn’t see a bird’ books, that in fact I’ve read some exceptionally good ones, and might even harbour ambitions to write one or two of my own. I think there might be a few books they’ve missed too, and conservation stories lurking in plain sight behind ‘I saw a…’ frameworks, but perhaps this is a discussion for another day.

Yes, we live in a fearsomely complex world. A world that sometimes seems to be unravelling so quickly that fear might be the only available response. But if we live mired in fear and complexity, overthinking every angle and every possibility, we wind up spending the days remaining to us in this world agonising over existence without ever getting on with it. So, despite my hesitation to arbitrarily make a life change right now just because the calendar has hit January, I’m resolving this year to be a simple birder again. To walk in our garden and by the canal, river and marsh nearby, on the campus where I work, to enjoy just watching birds. To build a year list because I enjoy the challenge. Some twitching permitted if I feel like it because very occasionally I do enjoy the chase, but nothing too daft – by bike, train or shared lift in almost every case (but let’s not overcomplicate matters with too many rules).

In reconnecting with the hobby through which I became a nature-centred person, perhaps I’ll find new enthusiasm for the other natural history pursuits that theoretically I enjoy but in practice don’t give enough time to. I might write a few more ‘I saw’ blogs, with no particular expectation that they’ll have an audience. Getting into the practice of writing again may enable me to collect, in an unforced way, some of the more complicated thoughts lurking at the back of my mind into something cohesive and, who knows, possibly publishable. And in among all that, I might just be refreshed enough to live better in this difficult world, and face it with a little more hope than I’ve been able to muster of late.