Cold Blows the Wind

Windmills. Useless without wind.

Windmills. Useless without wind.

I’ve always been fond of blustery days. And not just as part of the weather obsession that led me from youthful attempts to fashion a homemade Stevenson screen out of an ice cream carton, all the way to a degree in meteorology and subsequent swiftly aborted career in the same field.* I enjoy the way a bracing wind puts us in our place, reminding us that our dominion over the earth and her elements is not yet complete.

A stiff breeze brings drama, too; indeed, it can make it feel as though all the world really were quite literally a stage, and the shifting, creaking trees mere props, flimsy wooden frames that change with each scene and might come crashing down altogether at any moment. Leaves and branches are a swaying, swishing spectacle. Birds are flung hither and thither, displaying in their attempts to remain airborne a varying degree of mastery over the weather from unfazed kite to careening woodpigeon.

Flags. Rubbish without wind.

Flags. Rubbish without wind.

In its slightly untamed way, the wind must be quite beneficial for wildlife. It aids the dispersal of seeds and small insects. It rings the ecological changes by bringing down large branches, sometimes whole trees, which provide dead and rotting wood habitats for various invertebrates, fungi, and the creatures that feed on them. Back in the pre-modern British wildwoods a good storm would have been, alongside fire (and depending on which paleoecologists you listen to, herds of super-sized mammalian herbivores) about the only source of widespread tree felling, opening up ground for early successional vegetation.

But I wonder if the wind can be problematic for mid-sized flying animals, those that are too big to be carried far, or at least have no present need to disperse in an uncontrolled fashion, yet lack the power and agility of the rudder-equipped red kite. By way of example, earlier this year I stumbled across a French study which found a link, based on several decades’ worth of swallow nest records, between unusually windy summers and poor breeding productivity. Whether this is because swallows – which feed on the wing – find it more difficult to glean insects from a turbulent air mass, or because there are fewer insects actually flying about for them to catch, I couldn’t say.

Seawatching. Potentially dull without wind.

Seawatching. Potentially dull without wind.

And as a naturalist I’m as debilitated by strong winds as are hungry hirundines. Not only is it unkind enough to frequently carry in from the north or east air of such utter frigidity that my whole face, hands and feet are numb within minutes, a strong wind plays havoc with almost any form of survey I can think of. Scudding by on a gust, birds may look spectacular, but they’re a lot harder to hear, and often harder to see in a world that’s suddenly all in motion. The movement of invertebrates is similarly obscured by the restless vegetation around them, and funnily enough this makes plants hard to look at closely too. Windy weather can leave carefully planned fieldwork schedules as useless as a broken umbrella.

All this serves to temper my ‘ventophilia’, to coin a word. These days I’m cursing the wind as often as I’m praising it. Still, if I ever moved somewhere with a calmer climate I’d miss the protracted blowy spells we get in the British Isles; the ones which make it feel as though, as I often say, we’re ‘living at sea’. Keen as I am to see plenty of settled conditions over the next few months, such that my scope is steady and the birds sharply in view, I’m also looking forward to days where there’s nothing to do but go out, spread my arms wide, and go wherever the wind takes me

 

*When I say swiftly, I mean as in never actually got so far as securing a job! Perhaps ‘career’ is too strong a word!

The Naked Eye

On Friday I broke the first rule of birding: never get caught without your binoculars.

IMG_8530Out on an insect-collecting fieldwork session, I was too busy concentrating on the first rule of entomology – never get caught without pots – and, to a lesser extent, the first rule of botany (since my fieldwork also involves being able to identify the plants I’m collecting from), though I’m not sure what that is. Always carry a camera? Use a hand-lens? Wear a feather in your hat? Speak only Latin?

 

IMG_8982Whatever, thanks to that oversight – perhaps I should say under-sight – I can’t be certain whether the bird I was hearing calling from a small wood on the other side of a cornfield was a lesser-spotted woodpecker or a kestrel. This may sound like an alarming admission from somebody who prides himself as a half-decent ‘ear-birder’, one who spent quite a number of hours last spring and summer in the company of Dendrocopos minor whilst living and working in Kent. But factor in the heat, humidity, tiredness, unusual context and the fact that the two can sound surprisingly similar at a distance (compare this clip to this one, for example) and I think I can be forgiven.

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Bottling A June Afternoon

IMG_7997A couple of weeks back we went, with some friends, to one of Berkshire’s pick-your-own farms. These provide probably the tamest sort of back-to-nature experience possible: a controlled, regimented and essentially wholly manmade environment that still allows a frisson of contact with our inner hunter-gatherers. Freed from our suburban shackles, we were a band of plundering monkeys, with eyes, noses and taste buds fixed on the tasty prize. Sweet, yielding strawberries, sherbert-sharp rhubarb and unpromisingly tart yet ultimately delicious gooseberries: all this and more could be ours! So for once we really worked for our supper, labouring quietly in the hot sun. If we spoke at all, we employed language only for what I recall reading is supposed to have been its original purpose: telling each other where the ripe fruit was.

IMG_7987The only potential draw back of the PYO I can think off (besides sunstroke, nettle stings, cleaver-induced rashes, etc.) is that our ancestral urge to gather as much good fruit as we can combines with temptingly low prices to ensure that one often comes away with a nearly unmanageable haul of rapidly decaying fruit. So what followed after our afternoon’s picking was a rather frantic few days in the kitchen attempting to capture the fresh, fruity, floral flavours at their best before rot set in. Jams, sorbets, ice creams, cordials, fruit sauce, curd – two kitchens can seldom have been more productive in such a short space of time (nor, alas, can dirty dishes ever have mounted up so fast).

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