Pea Soup

My birding year ended in a thick veil of fog, the ground still laden with ice and thawing snow. Though visibility was down to maybe 50 metres at best, the Tuesday after Christmas found my family and me at Blashford Lakes in Hampshire. The woodland hide was still as delightful as ever, offering as it always does close views of siskins, redpolls and bramblings on and around the feeders that surround it. And though at Ivy Lake we couldn’t see the water for fog and ice, we did get a good look at an unusually confiding bearded tit close to the hide. However, upon walking into one of three hides that overlook a huge gravel pit, we quickly saw that the outlook was very foggy indeed, the view offering up not one single bird.

The following day on my regular fortnightly shift at the RSPB’s Otmoor reserve, and the fog was if anything even more impenetrable. We had nice views of yellowhammers and reed buntings feeding on spilled seed, but the reserve was for the most part hushed and still. My wife Rebecca asked the pertinent question “Where do the birds go when we can’t see them?” — one best left for another day because it is quite interesting. And I’m sure there is more to it than simply ‘nowhere, we just can’t see them’….

I have met a lot of people, some of whom get massively excited about exotic animals, whose reaction to our native wildlife is similar to ours to the view at Ibsley Water last month — entering the hide of Britain, they throw open the shutters, peer into the mists and declare there is nothing to see. Perhaps some of this is bird weariness; much of the wildlife scene here has to do with birds, but they are after all the easiest wild animals to see all year round in the British Isles. But I also wonder if there is a deeper cultural problem that I can’t really explain. I read recently about a Labour MP complaining of the government’s decision to withdraw funding for school trips to zoos. Amongst the comments they made, they stated there was ‘…absolutely no other way that children are going to learn about wildlife’. I find this absolutely incredible! In the last year I have seen a lot of amazing wildlife spectacles here at home, most of which were a lot cheaper to see than zoos and a lot more exciting. Whatever your opinion of government spending cuts, I hope I am right that access to wildlife is unlikely to be affected.

So what is there to see here? Taking my 2010 roughly in order, I started out the year mostly at work, but enjoying the daily rhythms of two local patches. At a lake very near my home I kept a regular watch on the duck numbers, rafts of pochards and tufted ducks coming and going with the ice. Turquoise blue kingfishers were regular visitors, along with majestic herons, prehistoric looking cormorants, and nesting greater spotted woodpeckers.     Across the road from my workplace I could daily take in the lives of the green woodpeckers, nuthatches, long tailed tits, a pair of mistle thrushes and one resident buzzard. In spring a pied wagtail took up territory by a small puddle and often sang his scratchy little song to me as I passed.

A few miles further afield, and many most interesting birds were drawn to the unlikely location of a network of reservoirs just east of the M25, south of Heathrow T5. Dodging the  cold or the flies, I was rewarded in April with stunning, delicate black terns and little gulls, and a lemon-yellow wagtail bouncing across the banks.

Early May found Rebecca and me in the wilds of west Wales, where we saw our first chough pop up its head and then tumble away over the grassy cliff top, countless wheatears hopping over the rocks beneath, a peregrine lording it over us at the top of Ramsey Island, and on Skomer, puffins — comic prince of the seabirds, waddling past our feet and posing for a picture. Surely there aren’t many wildlife spectacles in the world that can compete with a seabird colony in the height of the breeding season?

The tediousness of an endless drive to Inverness in June was made worthwhile by a week with friends in a wild cottage surrounded by wildlife. Garden birds that week for us were spotted flycatcher, redstart and whitethroat, all outside the kitchen window. Glen Affric was jam packed with wildlife encounters, with emerald green tiger beetles scampering all over the paths, wood warblers and tree pipits singing in the forest edges, and high up the valley side, a calling male ring ouzel, like a reverend blackbird with his white dog collar. During one day’s walk we must have seen four cuckoos, and heard lots more. Even plants got me interested when we found a carnivorous sundew — they have the benefit of staying still for photographs! We even managed to see some pretty nice mammals, with an obligatory red squirrel sighting at Loch Garten, hares on the road outside the cottage, and best of all a pod of dolphins going out with the tide up the Moray Firth.

July brought a touch of the exotic with a trip to the wastelands of Dungeness. A crowd of admirers had gathered to appreciate a very lost white tailed lapwing, which admittedly wasn’t doing very much. More exciting were the breeding purple herons, exceedingly rare in this country for the moment, and a brief flypast by a great white egret, both birds we may become more familiar with in time if a changing climate has its way.

Finally, I have to mention my first trip to Norfolk, the mecca of British bird-watching. No time to give a full low down of an action packed weekend, but to my mind you can’t beat the thrills of an afternoon spent on the very fringe of the east coast, migrating birds everywhere you look and the possibility of just about anything turning up. Or perhaps the thrill of 15,000 knots passing over your head at once.

It is true that I too would absolutely love to have an opportunity to see huge numbers of wild mammals on the African plains, or the bird diversity of a tropical rain-forest. I’m certain that at some point in my life I will travel to some far flung places in search of wildlife. To a certain extent I already cheat by having regular trips to visit family in America, though it is to another well populated, largely suburban area in a temperate climate zone.
But as a wildlife lover I find so much to sustain me here, that for the time being I am generally content to remain and put down deeper roots of knowledge at home before I spread my wings. With all that the nature of Britain has to offer, how could I not be?


2 thoughts on “Pea Soup

  1. What a well-written account, Chris. It amazes me that you can identify such a variety of birds. And our amazing God created them all! I, too, believe you will travel far and wide.

    Forgive my ignorance — what does RSPB stand for?

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