Saturday morning dawned bright, crisp and clear. Something of a surprise in the summer we’re having – a merciful release from both torrents of rain and the preceding week’s stifling heat. A good omen, I hoped, for what promised to be an action-packed weekend of ‘Bioblitzing’.
Bioblitzing: finding as many species as possible – plant, animal, fungus, they all count – within a set time period. Usually 24 hours. The aims depend on which Bioblitz you attend or who is running it. But in general, they promote the charms of otherwise overlooked species groups (each obscure lichen or miniscule fly adding as much to the total as a charismatic bird), encourage the virtue of recording what you see, and hand whoever manages the site a more complete list of species which reside under their care.
Having never ‘bioblitzed’ before, save for a half-hearted attempt at taking part in the nationwide garden version the previous weekend, I was eager for my first taste of a really ‘serious’ blitzing event. And I speak at least for myself in expecting to learn a lot from the experts on hand, not to mention gaining a significant boost to the flagging ‘not-birds’ section of my bio-list. So even though the event was happening in Cornwall – and the Lizard peninsula at that, Britain’s most southerly point – we felt it would be more than worth the five to six hour journey. We had binoculars, enthusiasm, and most importantly, two giant tins of cake. We were ready. And of course, the likes of us listers have previous history of such foolishness. So after a much-needed stretch and a cup of tea, we began to ‘blitz’ almost the moment we arrived.
As a location to be introduced to this most intense of biological recording activities, it quickly became apparent you couldn’t ask for anywhere more pleasant than Windmill Farm. In the words of site warden Andy Pay’s blog (well worth a look) it’s “205 acres of grassland, heathland, arable fields, willow scrub and ponds”. That captures something of the variety present – variety being not just the spice of life but good for biodiversity too – but to understand the beautiful serenity of the place one has to experience it in person, and preferably at the storming pace we set on Saturday afternoon. That is, approximately 1/3 mile/hour. Allow me to explain.
When birding, I often succumb to the temptation to hare about in pursuit of the rarities I’m convinced will be hidden round the next corner. I have been, to put it in crude birding parlance, a ‘legger’, not an ‘arser’. That is, one who covers as much ground as possible in order to build a species list, as opposed to one who simply sits and waits for the birds to come. But when looking for everything, not just birds, that simply doesn’t work. At regular walking pace delicate wildflowers and skulking insects are passed by unnoticed and unloved, so you have to slow down and search for them – slowly, surely, almost meditatively. It’s a revelation. Moving in that calm, deliberate way, you get under the skin of a place. Breathe it in. Its scents, textures, sounds and secrets are revealed one by one, fresh wonders emerging from beneath each stone or leaf. Barely seeing one third of the reserve in an afternoon didn’t seem to matter, as we encountered as much wildlife as I normally would in a walk of several miles.
Of course, a more prosaic reason for our lack of pace was complete indecision over how to find our way out of the mire*. A privilege of being semi-official for a weekend, i.e. taking part in an event as opposed to merely visiting unannounced, is the chance to go off the beaten track. This proved somewhat unwise – the heath is studded with ankle-height tussocks, making for quite a wobbly walk. Needless to say, it is currently quite soggy in places. And, alarmingly, the dense heather and rushes concealed one of Britain’s few mildly perilous creatures, the adder: seen by one of our number sliding away from a spot I was probably about to tread on.
Upon making it to the relative safety of a gate, we resolved to stick with boardwalk, path or short(ish) grass from then on, and things continued to go startlingly well. We found two more adders, this time safely coiled up and basking under a sheet of corrugated metal. And after wolfing down a hastily reheated curry, we made it out into the fields just in time to run into a barn owl, hunting in long loops increasingly close to our location, before having a good look at us on a flyover and disappearing over the hedge. A prelude for the creatures of the night: a bioblitz doesn’t sleep. It was time for the moths.
*As Karl Marx didn’t quite say, you can work out the navigational skills of a bunch of naturalists by taking the average length of taken to pick a route, and then multiplying it by the number of naturalists.