And if that didn’t scare you, nothing will. It is, of course, Halloween here in north Hampshire. Plagues of small children scuttle to and fro, cunningly disguised as comedy skeletons or white-sheeted ghosts, hauling bags of organic chocolate cookies and tangerines. Two and a half hours after the sun’s miserably early descent, I braved the pitch dark gloom and the depths of the local shop, dodging past a flock of ravenous zombie ducks by the pond. ‘Breeeead! Breeeeead!’ they seemed to quack. Yes, not-so-remote commuter villages are pretty hairy places at this time of year.
Joking aside, many of my best wildlife experiences of 2011 have been in the half light, or the gloaming. When our familiar, comforting dominion over the waking world seems, for a few hours, to subside, and we revert from hunter to hunted, predator to prey, namer and keeper of the animals to what in truth we each are, taken alone: small, vulnerable, fleeting.
Whilst in truth very few creatures abroad in the night hours will do us any real harm, darkness brings disorientation, and the slightest noise becomes seriously spooky.
And what better festival could there be to celebrate the power of night-life than Halloween?
Countryside near White Horse hill, Oxfordshire. In need of patch champions?
Birding a local patch. It’s the in thing. In an age when good environmentalists like us suffer from ever increasing carbon footprint angst, it’s hard to justify petrol-fueled listing mania. Nurturing a patch is like tending a garden, too, or so I’m told – over time, your relationship with it will grow, and it may reward you with untold wonders. Perhaps you’ll find a mega rarity, and the kingdom, the power, and the glory will be yours. For five minutes or so. The ‘Urban Birder’ David Lindo is pretty evangelical about the subject, probably because his patch, Wormwood Scrubs in west London, has hosted 138 species since 1980, including little and Ortolan buntings, a Richard’s pipit which I believe he found himself, and such London oddities as oystercatcher, whimbrel and white-fronted goose. Not too shabby. I suppose birds in that part of the country have few other places to go, so that does make things somewhat easier.
I’ve moved around rather too often in the last few years to develop a patch of my own that sizzles with excitement in quite the same way, but in North Hampshire I think I’ve hit a little gold mine. I haven’t been around here for long, but my patch list already boasts rough-legged buzzard, long-eared owl, red kite, stone curlew, quail, wheatear, yellow wagtail, lapwing and golden plover. I cheated a little bit by adopting it after seeing those first two rather fantastic birds, but it is only a few miles away, so I think I’m justified in claiming it. My even more local patch just outside the village has healthy populations of linnets, yellowhammers and house sparrows, and red kites are again frequent visitors. We’ve seen barn owls, hares, bats and stoats around the village and lanes. In other words, wildlife here can be pretty brilliant, and I’d be surprised if any random part of the country didn’t host something worth looking at.
Ten o’ clock yesterday morning found me wiping the steamy windows inside my damp car, pulled over on a residential street, staring at a bush in the pouring rain. Trying to twitch a house sparrow.
Yes, its the early part of the year when us birders are seized by listing mania — drawing up targets and wish lists, planning trips, and dreaming of all the bird year might bring. I have absolutely no idea why numbers should matter to me at all. I get untold pleasure from simply watching wildlife, in fact my most memorable bird encounters each year are generally special views in special places, rather than my one hundredth bird of the year, or whatever. Though it is nice when the two coincide. But matter to me numbers do, since if I don’t see a good number of species in a year it feels like a kind of failure. Perhaps I’m just subconsciously forcing myself out to do what I love, with adding to the list as a fairly weak excuse against laziness, perhaps it’s a form of competition (and it does feel exceedingly competitive now I’ve started finding other people to compare numbers with!). There probably isn’t anything wrong with it, anyway. More useful than collecting train numbers, in my opinion.
So with numbers in mind, I gathered as many extra pairs of eyes as I could (which wasn’t many) for a ‘big day’ round Reading. We set a 10k-from-the-centre limit partially to prevent our ideas getting out of hand, partially because it might help with a piece of coursework.