Eating is probably my second favourite thing to do, after watching birds. This may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as that gaunt, faintly emaciated-looking fellow with binoculars and the dress sense, haircut and build of a scarecrow. But not to those such as Richard who accompanied me on many of last year’s more epic expeditions. For he would tell you that when I’m birding, I’m almost always hungry. Ravenous. Even if I’ve only just eaten breakfast. Birding and hunger, for me, seem to go together like, hmm, sage and squash, or chocolate and cherry. And when it comes to deciding what to eat in order to placate that ever-present rumble in my tummy, one of my favourite food gurus is Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall – you could call him my ‘Hughru’, if you like. Fellow former Reading MSc inmates may recall my dodgy impressions of his waggly eyebrows and enthusiastic voice. Anyway, I just got his latest book from the library – it’s called ‘Three Good Things….on a plate’.
At first I wasn’t sure about the concept. It sounds a bit gimmicky, suggesting that the three-ingredient trick is a short cut to culinary magic, and all the recipe titles are painfully trendy in their non-descriptive, shopping list style. (‘Potato, onion, chestnut’, for example.) But Hugh’s recipes tend towards the tempting, achievable, and often quite thrifty. No littering of your cupboards with exotic ingredients you’ll never use again. So, trendy or otherwise, there’s a lot in this fine-looking book I am likely to eat. I’m particularly anxious to try ‘digestives, blackcurrants and goat’s cheese’, for example. Yum, yum!
You might at this point ask why I’m wittering on about dairy produce and celebrity chefs, and I’ll concede that’s a fair question. I’d best get to my point. Which is that not only was I hungrily (of course) thinking of some of the recipe ideas from ‘Three Good Things’ as I walked this morning, but I was also reflecting that a walk too is often more than the sum of its parts, made a more splendid whole, when it features at least three good things. Three marvellous, wild, illuminating things.
Today’s first thing: chiffchaff’s autumn rehearsals. Chiffchaffs provide one of the favourite annual games that I play with myself – recording the date of both the first and last singing chiffchaff of the year. The first is easy: when you’ve heard it sing, you’ve heard it sing, that’s the first, and no contest. The last is more fun, for you have to keep on recording singing birds, never quite knowing if it will indeed prove to be the last. September 11th is by no means a record, and unlikely to be the last I hear this year, but it was very pleasant, nonetheless, to hear as many as three singing simultaneously. They’re not confused, of course, just testing out their voices whilst there’s still some warmth in the air. Young males, I daresay, the chiffchaff equivalent of rowdy, shouting teenagers attempting to establish a dubious claim to maturity. But much easier on the ear.
The second thing was insects. Since returning to Hampshire I’ve mostly been going outside early in the morning – at which point it is autumnally cold and insect activity is suppressed. Which is a shame, as I’ve become something of a fan of them. This morning I was out just about late enough in a bright blue morning for the sun to have roused the spineless from their stupor, adding a touch of late summer back to the soundscape. I caused chaos simply by walking too close to a patch of flowering ivy, scattering a little cloud of buzzing wings. Walking back more carefully, accompanied once again by a strong performance from the Roesel’s cricket chorus, I managed to sneak up unnoticed. A dipterist’s paradise of flies was revealed: green ones, black ones, black and gold ones, black and red ones, brown ones, brown and grey ones, and the very well-marked humbug-esque hoverfly pictured here. As you can see, I’ve been learning lots of the scientific names for flies.
Thirdly, and again probably thanks to the sun, it was a good raptor morning. A numerical rule of my own devising is that a four raptor species day is automatically a good birding day, and so it proved to be. A kestrel was up first, veering into view on nimble wings as I approached in my car. Along the edges of the westernmost field two scruffy young buzzards were perched, taking occasional, short, exploratory flights along the hedge. The buzzards and I carefully watched as a pair of kites drifted after each other over the field, steering with their glowing red tails in that fine way kites do. Finally, whilst I was motionless next to the ivy, still attempting not to spook the flies, I in turn was spooked by a sparrowhawk – nearly scalped, in fact, as it shot from behind me and away between the hedge tops*. When they fly like that – impossibly nimble – I could believe they are suspended on a zip wire. How else do they do it?
It may be a bit borrowed, entirely stolen, in fact, but I rather like the rule of threes. On my next few walks, I’ll try and count off at least three good things that I’ve seen – and I’d like to hear yours in return.
*To the best of my knowledge, all of the small birds in the area escaped with their lives: the majority of a sparrowhawk’s hunting attempts will result in failure. In fact, so lively were the bushes with small birds this morning that I’m inclined to believe raptor and songbird abundance are positively linked, not inversely related as some would have you believe. I often see a lot of raptors on my patch: six species have graced it to date, in the short spells of time that I’ve been watching. Buzzards and kites are ten a penny. I’ve seen all five native owls in the vicinity too. I also see a lot of songbirds, more than in most of the surrounding countryside. Q.E.D.…