May is a generous month. Giver her the slightest opening and she opens like a single magnificent bloom, vibrant, rich and sweet-smelling. It’s a time of year that plays havoc with a naturalist’s schedule, for we can’t walk for as much as a minute without being waylaid by something wonderful. Last week the 10-minute tramp to my old haunts – through the Wilderness, down Beech Lane and round Maiden Erlegh Lake – took closer to half an hour, seconds turning to minutes whilst I stopped to admire the abstract splashes of various spring flowers unfolding in every rough patch, moving in closer to inspect flower heads for the presence of beetles.
This morning I set out to hear nightingales. And I did, two of them – one distant, the other ear-splittingly loud from somewhere unseen in a patch of dense scrub. Whilst I listened, I sat in the long grass and noted down a few other observations. Bee flies, holly blue, red-headed cardinal beetle, banded demoiselle. Orange-tip, peacock, blue-tailed damselfly, red-and-black froghopper, the last leaping away from my fingertip with a click. Around me, a spectacular dock-beetle city. Flashes of emerald-bronze reflected from their rounded wing-cases as they trundled about seeking mates, the females hugely gravid. I inadvertently brushed a few of their eggs off the back of a leaf with my finger, soft orange capsules like elongated jelly beans.
It was much like our visit to a beer festival earlier in the weekend. The atmosphere was relaxed, but time at the bar lay inevitably before me. I had to drink it all in whilst I could. I ambled further, noticing happily that the team at Dinton Pastures had only trimmed the very edges of the paths and allowed broad strips of verdant wild ‘weeds’ to grow free. As it should be, for this is the truth of what we call biodiversity: Darwin’s tangled bank and its attending endless forms are right here at our feet. They’re on the road verges and waysides, in the cracks in the pavement, in the scuffed and unloved places and the quiet and untrodden corners. The gloriously untidy and the richly alive.
Green dock beetle (Gastrophysa viridula)
Red-headed cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis)
Leucozona lucorum, one of the most attractive spring hoverflies.
Red-and-back froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata)
Blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans)
Dock bug (Coreus marginatus)
Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis)
Helophilus pendulus, sometimes known as The Sunfly or The Footballer
The River Loddon
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Darwin towers over modern biology like an intimidating, white-bearded colossus with a looming, furrowed brow. Even the theory which made him famous can come over as somewhat cold, clinical, almost cruel. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is not a warm phrase, though of course it is something of a misnomer and a set of words that Darwin himself never actually used.
Despite this seeming distance I have for a while felt a kinship with Darwin, given that he was in fact a somewhat shy, nervous Englishman who was never more in his element than when rooting around, finding and observing wildlife. In addition a number of Darwin-themed projects have helped to soften his image in my mind, chiefly the wonderful Darwin Song Project album of original folk songs and Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life In Poems.
In this charming book, Lyanda Lynn Haupt takes another step closer to Darwin the man. Focusing on his encounters with birds during the Beagle voyage, she affectionately narrates his transformation from feckless youngster – judged by his father to be interested in “nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching” – to fully-fledged naturalist, one who, as Haupt puts it, “could draw scientific truths from the simple stories spun by the creatures that crossed his path.”
I wish to alert regular readers of this blog to a new project over at chrisfosternature.wordpress.com.
Ever since starting this somewhat anonymous blog (if having my name at the top of every entry can be called anonymous!) I have resisted having a more eponymous web presence. However, self-promotion seems to be the name of the game in ecology and conservation nowadays – ironically for a field which purports to be all about wildlife – so for those times when it becomes useful, I have put together a simple site on which I can plug the various things I’m involved in.
Continuing with the marvelous WordPress platform that I’ve become used to means I also have a new blog space to play with. I’ll be posting more of a jumble of content on chrisfosternature, from quick nature notes and observations to updates on my PhD research. I will post more often and edit less carefully*. Don’t go to it expecting ‘art’, in other words, but I do hope it will be interesting! I confess I’m slightly pleased to have somewhere to blog that doesn’t have the word bird in the title, since I write about all kinds of wildlife nowadays.
What I hesitate to call my ‘polished’ material will still be arriving here on a roughly weekly basis (more or less, as time and inspiration allows). So have no fear, Considering Birds lives on and moves on, hopefully towards a great and glorious future! Every so often, I’ll also post a roundup here of posts on ‘the other blog’ as well as links to any writing of mine which appears elsewhere. Thanks for sticking with me.
*My wife Rebecca a.k.a. Bookish Beck is wholly responsible for the high standard of editing on Considering Birds!