January 30th (Firecrest)

The cloud of uncertainty looming fretfully over 2019 began to burst into precipitation, perhaps even earlier than I feared. I felt some days as though it would drown me. There was little to feel positive about, even as I considered my relative good fortune compared to many of the world’s poor and marginalised. Somehow our minds don’t do rationality as much as we might like to. When I could, I took myself away to the woods or the lake. A cold, bright late January afternoon tempted me outside, but by the time I finally left the shelter of my office grey clouds had scudded in on the easterly breeze. A few pellets of graupel, that curious polystyrene-like soft hail, made it through the oak canopy to bounce on the path in front of me. I made my way through the Reading Wilderness towards the gate where firecrests have wintered for most of the last seven years, the hail picking up as I approached the spot. I took shelter under a laurel to wait out the storm.

I’d already tried this corner of the Wilderness for firecrests several times this year, as well as other places I’ve seen them on campus in the past, hoping for the little lift these dazzling little birds always give me. Firecrests are in some ways the perfect birder’s bird: just scarce enough to be challenging to find; just common enough for you to chance on at least once a year—or more regularly if, like me, you are blessed with knowing a regular wintering or breeding haunt. They are, of course, also quite beautiful; I would say objectively so, their eye stripes and bright lemon-green plumage giving them a stylistic edge over the more common goldcrest. Perhaps it is my imagination—along with the intense sternness of their expression compared to the more demure goldcrest with its short moustache—but everything else about them seems bolder too. Firecrests have a louder and sharper call and song, and their quick, precise darting movements through dense foliage are particularly tricky to follow.

Shortly after ducking into the shrubs I heard an insistent three-part call from a nearby holly. Hoping I was identifying it correctly, I broke cover, the shower now receding anyway, and caught a glimpse of movement ahead. There indeed was a firecrest, sheltering closely within a few holly bushes with occasional forays into a low patch of rhododendron. Every minute or so it let out a short burst of song, a rising series of notes to match the lift in my mood. I almost audibly sighed with relief—relief that firecrests were still among us, that I had been gifted this small moment of transformation. A foolish response, for just one little bird? I don’t think so. It truly is the most wonderful mystery, that a simple encounter with a fellow wild creature can bring such a dose of uncomplicated joy. That isn’t to say that to fix all our problems all we need to do is go birding. But it might be a bigger part of the answer to life than we often suspect.

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Firecrest wintering habitat on Whiteknights campus, busy Wilderness Road just beyond.

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Inside the Bypass

I got an email invitation to a walk a while back that pointed out the surprisingly rural nature of some land within two miles of Newbury, ‘inside the bypass’. It is indeed one of the most pleasant surprises about the immediate environs of our town, that between the busy A34 and the built-up area a slice of relatively ‘rough’ countryside persists undeveloped. It has issues, like anywhere – some of the sheep grazing is a little heavy for my liking, and a large block of mostly alder and willow was felled last summer in the name of combatting ash dieback, opening unwelcome new sight and sound lines to the speeding traffic. But overall, it is wonderful to have an accessible slice of countryside right on the doorstep of town, with a well-marked circular walk that is studded with display boards offering information on local history. It’s perfect for a muddy tramp with friends in the winter or for seeking out interesting insects that nectar on hogweed among the swampy blocks of woodland in the summer.

The Newbury bypass route was, of course, the scene of famous environmental protests in the 1990s, which I remember watching on TV as a child, along with those at Twyford down near Winchester, not all that far from our home village. I often wonder what it would have been like to live in West Newbury without the bypass, whether we’d notice the reduced road noise, if the predicted traffic apocalypse in central Newbury would ever really have happened, or if the bypass might in a strange way actually have saved this part of town from further development by reducing the value of the land. In a neat twist of history, much of the hardcore for the bypass was recycled from the Greenham Common runway, thereby weaving our town’s two famous protests into one story.

Most of us live inside the bypass – or motorway or ring road – in the UK. Perhaps we don’t think deeply enough about how all-pervasive the impacts of roads are. Our lifestyle and infrastructure planning (or lack thereof) make us dependent on cars, much to the detriment of the climate, air quality, wildlife and beauty of the countryside. I am grateful that we live in lovely West Newbury – life can be very good here – but it seems not before time to radically reconsider our relationship with the car, starting with not approving any more unnecessary bypasses or expressways to nowhere. Yes, I own a car and sometimes drive it along that infamous stretch of tarmac. Personal vehicles are going to be an essential for the field ecologist for some time to come, and for plenty of other professions too, certainly for anybody who lives outside of major towns and cities (rural bus services remain pitiful to non-existent). Fundamentally, it comes down to convenience and money, however green we may think ourselves*. We need the right nudges from government and preferably some radical action; unfortunately, our current political leaders are either too preoccupied with other matters or literally driving in the wrong direction.

*I recently researched a trip to York in mid-March for which our options are return train tickets for at least £175 or driving for £70 petrol (plus an appropriate portion of our car’s running costs). If you are starting from a position of owning a car, those economics rarely work out in favour of long-distance rail travel, though for comfort it would be my preference over driving.

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January 17th

Finally, the so-so mild weather broke. Quite dramatically so, in an intense flurry of wet snow that exactly coincided with my morning cycle commute. The air filled with fat flakes that looked stereotypically fluffy but stung when they caught me in the eye; still, I was glad to see some real winter weather and enjoyed struggling against adversity. Twenty minutes later I arrived at my destination, soggy but not anything like as soaked as I had been by rain from a similarly well-timed active cold front earlier in the winter. Fortunately, while like most people I see a little rain as an inconvenience, the meteorologist in me loves being out in extreme weather. If it’s going to rain, it may as well be spectacular!

Within what felt like just a few minutes the clouds melted and we were left with one of those perfect bright winter days. After a morning teaching I made it out into the real world of the Whiteknights ‘wilderness’, enjoying sharp air interrupted only by the funk of fox or a whiff of weed smoke, this after all being a university campus. On a brightly lit patch of laurel several blowflies loitered, occasionally taking off to reshuffle leaves before resuming their solar charging.

These are the moments on the very frontier of spring, when the air is still cold and any warmth in the low sun is still barely discernible, but birds know the days are getting longer and seem to ramp up their activity to match. The bright clear calls of long-tailed tits and blue tits in roving flocks matched the freshness of air and sky. Subtly moving among the tit flocks, goldcrests hovered and darted. Sticking to the cover of ivy or evergreen, they are all movement, though perhaps not as restless and lightning-quick as firecrests. When I’ve had a longer run of watching both species together I can almost pick them apart by behaviour alone, but I’m rusty. No reports of firecrest from Whiteknights since November, but the memory of past sightings haunts my watching of many quiet corners of campus and I feel sure I will catch up with one soon.