As an ornithologist (and there are some who call me that!) I’m often guilty of viewing trees as architecture – static stages on which the more immediate lives of birds play out. As an entomologist (apparently I’m one of those as well!) trees are often no more than a bug-larder, a feeding place for thousands of hungry insects.
Such foolish notions are dispelled with the very first step into a storm-blown wood. Trees are not stationary, lifeless lumps of wood. They swagger and sway, rustle and creak, howl their protest against the gusts that would uproot them. The wood comes to life, and when I see trees for what they really are – vast, vibrant living things that stretch away to ten times my height – I’m appropriately humbled.
Trees from Chris Foster on Vimeo.
The richest of wildlife experiences are often to be had where two distinct habitats or landscapes rub up against each other. There’s even a technical word, and I think it’s rather a beautiful one: ecotone. Tone is a good word, for diverse tones is what you find in the edge spaces and in-between places. Our on-the-edge experience this past weekend was on a grand scale, at the very edge of Britain, sandwiched between the red rocks of Devon and the turquoise waters of Torbay.
Broadsands Beach sits right on the boundary, a marbled red and black slab of sand sloping damply into the waves. On a temporarily sunny Sunday it may as well have been called a dog park, given the number of canines out enjoying a run or swim. To the dogs’ owners this place must be a fairly ordinary diversion. To the sand mason worms squashed under the dogs’ paws, waiting patiently for the tide in their intricate tubes, this is home, the only world the scraps of neural tissue that pass for their brains will ever know.
Where the sand runs into rock the retreating tide leaves pools, the same in which we watched a heron go fishing last spring. No such high excitement this time, but they were filled with strange and wonderful things. Most delightful were five kinds of anemone, including one – Calliactis parasitica – more usually found squatting on the shells of hermit crabs.
Snakelocks anemone – a very white form I’d not seen before
The parasitic anemone Calliactis parasitica
We moved further round the coast, to Brixham. Under the looming presence of clouds that were about to spit horizontal hail at us, the sea turned the most remarkable lucent green. Gannets, flying in procession, began to glow bright enamel white, their wingtips dipped in ink. In the waters off the harbour, three more black-and-white birds shone: razorbill, guillemot and black-throated diver. Purple sandpipers, turnstones and rock pipits foraged on the rocks that line the breakwater. Finally a rainbow emerged over the bay, splitting the scene, all tones at once, setting off the diverse drama of the ultimate ecotone.
Montagu’s stellate barnacle (Chthamalus montagui)
Our friend Fish befriending a sea slater (Ligia oceanica)
Gannet, just about visible as a white and black cross against the sky
Pitting on the surface of some of the barnacles is caused by a marine lichen
Sea slater (Ligia oceanica)
Clearly it was nice weather for ducks, though it wasn’t raining. Out in the centre of the main lake eight shovelers were circling for food. These bountifully-beaked dabbling ducks like to feed as though on a merry-go-round, paddling in companionable circles as they corral snacks between them. It’s wonderful to watch. Another joy of shovelers is their voice. At times they make an abrupt rattling series of quacks; more mysterious is a high-pitched nasal grunt that’s impossible to describe but definitely contains multiples of the letter z.
Off to the left of the shovelers a single goosander was preening. This is a newer duck on the scene for Whiteknights Lake, a species that has been seen here every winter now for three years but was previously scarce. It’s a relative newcomer to Britain, too, breeding here only since 1871 – not long in the context of evolutionary history. This resplendent male with its clean cream and black lines, bottle green head and hooked beak could be from those adventitious populations in the north and west of the UK, or potentially from further afield in continental Europe. Either way it brings the spirit of wild upland rivers to the heart of our suburban winter, much like the grey wagtail.
Close in, three Cayuga ducks – an American domestic breed – loafed about waiting for bread. We don’t know where this trio came from or if they’ll ever opt to leave. They must have had as tame an origin as the goosander’s was wild, yet their exceptional beauty has found a welcome in our mixed-up suburban wildfowl menagerie.
Welcome too are the Mandarins, elegant denizens of East Asia introduced when this campus was a country estate. Some days they seem to be everywhere, feathers raised like sails as their flotilla cruises in open water. Today was one of those where they melt away, skulking on overhanging branches, or perhaps sulking because many of those branches have recently been cut down to reduce shading. With any luck, though, reduced shading and lower input of dead leaves will be good for the lake’s ecology, leading to even more ducks selecting Whiteknights as their winter home.
Cayuga ducks on Whiteknights Lake, 1st February 2016. The one on the left probably has a bit more mallard in it than the others, with a yellow beak closer to original mallard.