Wagtails – Home and Away

It has been a long time since I last wrote here – after graduating I went on a long trip to Africa with a Born Free project and immersed myself in the wildlife there, returning only last month. My home-coming was perfectly timed in autumn, easily my favourite season, and I was delighted to see jays, robins, and hedgehogs to welcome in my first few days.  Even magpies and rats looked positively exotic having not seen them in so long!

The similarities, more than the differences, between British and African wildlife was what startled me most, most particularly the ubiquitous presence of pied wagtails in the game reserve I lived and worked in. I’m not entirely sure of the difference between a pied wagtail and an African pied wagtail – both are domestic breeds rather than migratory so it must be more than mere geography – but they are certainly alike in their ability to take over a place.

The African wagtails were building a nest in the roof of my house. The roof was a sheet of corrugated iron over walls made of thick clay-mud, and provided perfect nooks and crannies for the birds (and, judging by the loud chattering that kept me awake most nights, for bats, too). Of course in Britain the birds are less welcome to be swooping in arcs over the dining table, but they are still easily found – I lived happily with the birds in Malawi because they reminded me so much of home.

There are three species of wagtail in Britain – grey and pied, which are here all year round, and yellow, which is a summer visitor.

Pied wagtails are the most common as they are less restricted to water environments than the other two, therefore you can see them in parks, churchyards, city hedgerows, and gardens as well as along rivers and streams. They are sprightly and cheerful souls, and can be seen dashing around in search for food when not standing and frantically bobbing its tail up and down. They are also curious, and very friendly – I worked in a café in Birmingham to save up money for my travels, and on my walk there would pass a church. The café would often let me take home the croissants and pastries which didn’t sell that day and I would scatter some of the crumbs for the birds in the churchyard. Soon, a young (with pale grey/brown markings rather than black) wagtail caught on to what I was doing and would always fly down to my feet whenever I walked past, waiting for the crumbs, and often following me all the way home. They make a characteristic ‘chi-sick’ sound, which has led to Bill Oddie nicknaming the birds Chiswick Flyovers.

Grey wagtails, though not rare by any means, are harder to spot, not in the least thanks to a very misleading name – they are far more distinctive than it suggests, with slate-grey/blue upper parts and long lemon-yellow tail. They are badly affected by harsh winters. Yellow wagtails are fairly easy to spot if you catch them at the right time in summer. Both of these species love water, and aren’t picky about it; they are just as likely to gather around an urban settling tank as a lake or channel. They are beautiful to watch on the water, their characteristic long swoops picking up huge dragonflies and skaters without a single pause or break, and flick up the water in sunlit droplets.

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For anyone interested in reading about my stay in Africa, in which I lived and worked on a rural game reserve, I wrote a blog there at www.apassagetoafrica.tumblr.com. It has lots of pictures of the wildlife and birds I encountered there, and I learnt a lot about the conservation work and issues going on in that part of the world, and the amazing animals that live there.

The Dawn Chorus

My hands have been itching as if they were covered in nettle stings to get back to writing here; after reading a small library of books, amassing a minor financial crisis of library fines, and spending more time in the glow of a Microsoft word document than any human should ever feasibly have to spend, 15000 words were finally written, handed in, and rewarded by delicious freedom.

One up-side to a month of late nights and early mornings spent at my desk has been catching the birds greeting the early hours of the morning with crisp and delicate music. The dawn chorus occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day: it’s especially noticeable in spring, when the birds are either defending a breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. They sing at dawn because the air is calmer and sound transmission is good: a time of night that is usually characterised as bathing in rich silence becomes a cacophony of sound and melodic trills.

The little birds work as a kind of feathery orchestra – each species has its own place to come in, so as the hours progress the different voices and melodies layer on top of one another. The order begins with blackbirds and ends with goldfinches, going through robins, wrens, thrushes, warblers and pheasants. David Attenborough is currently doing a really great radio series about different bird-calls, which you can catch up with online if you can’t face the 5:58am broadcast:Wren

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk/episodes/player

Most of what I know about the dawn chorus has come from my dad – he organises wildlife walks in a park back in Birmingham, and runs a dawn chorus walk in the early hours of a May morning. He really knows everything there is to know about nature, and I always make sure to ask him lots of questions.

The chorus starts as early as 4am (I can only assume the little birds have a bottomless supply of coffee to get them up so cheerfully) – but what, and why, are they singing? In general, only the male songbird sings, and his song has one of two poetical lyrics – “come here!” or “go away”. For all its prettiness, the notes pinging together like tiny coins, the dawn chorus is brutally competitive; full of plagiarism, trickery and feathered egos.

In order to attract a mate, a male bird has to obtain and defend a territory – a male claims his territory by singing in it and letting other males know to stay away. He throws down the gauntlet with a string of notes before leaving gaps to wait for replies to his challenge, so that he can locate other males and defend his territory to any strangers nearby. Some species, like chaffinches and great tits (snigger) use a number of voices and choruses to convince other males that there are lots of birds in the area. Some birds even mimic the calls of other species to increase the complexity of their songs (and desirability of them as mates) and to show the female that they have survived enough breeding seasons to have heard these other songs. Some migratory birds even mimic their international cousins; marsh warblers may mimic the sounds of 70 or so species, telling the females where they have spent the winter.Image

When male songbirds are advertising for a mate rather than marking territory, they sing songs that are longer and more complex (the territorial calls are more repetitive). It becomes an energy-intense activity that indicates his quality and fitness. Males will constantly develop and re-develop their songs in order to have the most complicated – and therefore most desirable – tune. Wrens, for example, have songs that contain over 700 different notes per minute and can be heard 500m away.

The new dawn chorus is probably my favourite part of spring, a sure sign that winter is wheezing its final breaths and nature is beginning to wake up with all the colours and sounds of a new season. Waking up at 4am may seem like a rather hellish suggestion, but it’s worth catching the chorus on a morning when you can’t sleep or are feeling particularly lively. I find it surprising that there hasn’t been a piece of music or a work of art based on the dawn chorus – it is masterful how the layers and layers of calls rise and fall past one another piling up like coloured grains of sand as the sky changes colour along with it. The little birds wake up the colour in the world, coax the sun out over the hills and expand the dark pocket of night into daytime sky.

“a light broke in upon my soul
It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased – and then it came again
The sweetest song ear ever heard”
Lord Byron

Bats

Daubentons Bat

Daubentons Bat

Blossom, daffodils, blue, green, pink; my wool winter coat has been cast to back of my wardrobe, the windows beam with sunlight and birds chatter at dawn. It seems that spring is finally blooming here in London, drawing out shy flowers from the hard winter soil and gently waking up a whole range of animals from hibernation. Snakes, hedgehogs, bats, frogs, and bees all (very sensibly, if you ask me) escape the cold winter weather by hibernating in special habitats, before spending the balmy afternoons of springtime seeking food, a place to roost, and a mate. Bats will be struggling the most in this transition – according to the Bat Conservation trust, all of Britain’s species are endangered. It is a very sad thought that they are struggling to maintain their numbers: bats are intelligent and unusual animals, and an integral part of British wildlife. The image of a cloud of bats flitting in great arcs over roofs at the arrival of dusk is something that is quintessential of the British countryside; an important part of the landscape we must do our best to preserve.

Bats have gained an unfair reputation as blood-sucking, rabid little vermin, but really they are lovely, shy creatures who mind their own business and actually play an important part in keeping natural spaces healthy and thriving. None of the 17 British varieties of bats will sink its fangs into you and drink your blood – ours are all insectivores – and the three vampire bats that do exist (in Central and South America) are harmless, painlessly extracting inconsequential amounts of blood from pigs, chickens and other livestock. The association between bats and all things spooky and supernatural stems from the ancient Celtic summer festival of Samhain, when huge bonfires would attract insects and, naturally, their predators – the bats. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead were present at these events, so they instinctively linked bats to messengers or signs of the spirit world.

Long-eared Bat

Long-eared Bat

Some cultures say that it’s lucky to have a bat in the house, but you’d be just as fortunate to have them in your garden. Just one of these little mammals can eat 2,000 – 6,000 insects in a single night, and even the teeny tiny pipistrelle bat can get through about 3,000. As for calling somebody “blind as a bat” – I suppose it could be taken as a compliment! Bats can actually see perfectly well in black and white, and have evolved echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey. [‘Echolocation’ is a system used by animals whereby the creature emits a (usually high-pitched) sound that reflects off the object and returns to the animal’s ears. The animal then works out the distance of the object from the time it takes for the echo to return.]

You can make your garden bat-friendly, helping to boost their dwindling population and thrive post-hibernation, in a number of simple ways. You can encourage insects by extending the flowering season for as long as possible, and plant hedges, trees, and bushes to provide navigation aids and good roosts. Ponds and standing water without fish are a haven for insects like hoverflies, mosquitoes and midges, and you’ll soon see bats swooping over the water’s surface to catch their prey. For the ambitious, installing bat boxes on mature trees or the side of buildings is the ultimate bat-friendly act, and you can find out more on the Bat Conservation Trust website. Such small acts pile up to form a barricade around these elusive and misunderstood creatures and allow them to thrive, flinging their tiny bodies over the horizon at dusk and darting like tadpoles through the growing gloom.

'Ophelia' by Arthur Hughes, 1852

‘Ophelia’ by Arthur Hughes, 1852

A Daubenton’s bat is added to the corner of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelite painting to portray a scene of rural English whimsy. Daubenton’s bats are sometimes known as water bats as they feed insects on the surface of the water. This one hunts in the bottom-left corner underneath the willow tree.

Magpie Moth

I have always been strangely fond of moths – where most people react with annoyance and a swift swipe with a rolled-up newspaper whenever one traipses in from outside, I’m always very glad to see one. I like their tiny feet, phantom wings, and silent flight. When I was at university in Durham I often used to sit with window open, trying to catch one as it flew into the light cast by my desk-lamp. I once caught a buff ermine moth down by the river Weir – after goading it into my hands I began the insurmountable task of trying to get my friends to touch its soft and fluffy coat, though my efforts were met with shrieks and flurries of feet pounding in the opposite direction.  Many of the moths in England are truly beautiful creatures – you’d be forgiven for thinking that all British moths look like those little brown things that tumble over the window sill like scraps of parcel paper, but many are astonishingly striking and exotic-looking.

 

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Magpie Moth (Abraxus grossulariata)

The magpie moth is a common sight throughout the summer, and loves light and shiny objects as much as its corvine namesake. These pretty moths were once a great favourite with collectors because they could easily be bred to create forms with new and unusual patterns – they were the perfect guinea pig. Their black spots and yellow splodges to me look like the ink splodges one might find in a psychiatrist’s office, or the print of a dress, reminding me of how often silly images can overlap human and nature.

 

 

[Small elephant hawk moth (Deilephila porcellus), caterpillar, and pupa].Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

This colourful little splodge is widespread in our gardens, parks and open country, cutting through the gloom with its rich pink and green colouring. The most astounding thing about these moths is their eyesight, which is perfect colour-vision, even when it is too dark to see at all. Its young larvae are especially striking – the moth gets its name from their long, trunk-like noses.

 

 

tumblr_lzxtrlQpyW1qk931ho1_500Death’s Head Hawk-Moth (Acherontia atropos)

A summer visitor from Africa, you may recognise these creatures from a certain well-known movie poster. If you look closely, you’ll spot an astounding pattern on the moth’s back, an eerily distinctive skull-shaped pattern. This huge (and huge they are – we found two in our garden shed last summer and my mum mistook them for mice!) and relatively rare moth loves honey, and will often sneak into beehives in search of its favourite treat. Once there, it displays another peculiar characteristic: it squeaks. It’s thought that this noise pacifies the bees, but if you pick one up it will make the same noise, so it may also be a defence mechanism. Or perhaps it just has a very excitable personality!

 

 

images (2)Large White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

The white plume moth looks like a wispy, skeletal fairy; a moth shape cut out from tissue paper. Its feather-like wings and long, spindly legs can be found especially dotted on wasteland.

The London Naturalist Pt. One

Living in London, it can be rather difficult not to feel completely cut off from the natural world. Most of the greenery I see all week comes from walking down a tree-flanked dual carriageway towards the Strand, and the abundance of wildlife in the capital can really be limited to an overgrown population of pigeons and the odd mouse scrabbling about on the tube-tracks. Luckily, though, the city becomes a wealth of fascinating natural history once you know what to look for. So here’s the start of a sequence of blogs on exactly that – little things to keep an eye out for that small enough for you to catch on your way to work or outside your window, but big enough to give you an idea of what’s going on in another world besides our human one.

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Firstly – the budding shoots of wildflowers, a sure sign that winter is singing a bitter swan-song. Taking a walk recently I was cheered to discover a green stalks, white flowers and dots of orange and purple of a cluster of snowdrops and crocuses all braving the odds in an old abandoned flower-pot. Bluebells clung to long grass like glitter to wool along the woodland paths, and  the crocuses and snowdrops splattered the old greens and browns of the countryside with rolling trails of colour. As soon as these wild-growing flowers start appearing, you can be sure that warmer weather and longer days are on the way, and best of all, that we are one step closer to summer.

Another thing I’ve been noticing recently are big clumps of twigs and grass in the skeletal winter branches, about the size of basketballs. I saw a lot of these in Regent’s Park, which is incidentally one of my favourite places to catch up on nature’s projects and indulge in some wildlife-spotting in the middle of the bustling city – as well as its famous collection of rare and exotic waterfowl, here (even in my limited experience!) you can catch glimpses of herons, butterflies and the odd hedgehog. It’s a lot quieter than the other royal parks in the centre – presumably because everyone is looking at the exotic animals in London Zoo next door rather than bothering with the quotidian offerings of  the park. Anyway, a bit of research told me that these constructions are made by magpies, and are the beginning of these birds’ especially impressive nests. These nests are amazing, really: huge, spherical, layered, intricately woven, and incorporating thousands of miscellaneous pieces. They are big messes but they’re strong – some smaller mammals,such as foxes, will live in them for years when they have fallen to the ground.

Magpies are also a very underrated bird, I have always thought. They have an absolutely terrible reputation as pests – their populations are soaring at a time when songbirds and garden regulars are struggling to survive. Their hoarse, cackling call  doesn’t endear them either, imitating their literary and folkloric associations with evil and misfortune .

Magpies will always remind me of my dad – when I was little, he told me a silly story about it being very good luck to salute whenever you saw one and greet them with “Morning Major!” (I still have to clamp my tongue down now to avoid any public embarrassment).The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified”, which I think is quite a perfect description. They are opportunists and scavengers – inquisitive, curious, talkative, and skilled in disclosing things that have been concealed. If they were people, they’d undoubtedly be journalists or academics, picking and picking at whatever they can find, putting together scraps of information to build strong and artful projects.

Everyone knows what magpies look like: they are truly striking birds. Look out for its bright patches of white off-setting an elegant black iridescence of bronzes, greens, blues, reds, and purples, like colours rippling on the surface of a deep lake.

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And next time you see one, remember to count them – you can read your future with this rhyme! (Yet another of my silly dad’s stories!)

“One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Starling

I suppose I should start this blog with an introduction of sorts. Hello! This is a blog I’ve just started up to share my life-long love of nature and wildlife. It’s not exactly the coolest thing for a 21-year-old to be writing about, and like most people whilst a mildly embarrassing hobby I completely blame my upbringing. My father, a maths teacher by trade, was a true naturalist at heart, and his influence, combined with a heavy dose of Ted Hughes and the Romantics from my English-teacher mother, meant that my childhood self forsook Barbie dolls and real friends for a life of fishing, bird-watching and spider-hunting. Whilst the spiders and I haven’t really seen eye-to-eye since one rudely ran up my sleeve when I was ten, my love of nature and the great outdoors has continued throughout my life. For me, being able to understand and interact with a world beyond the confines of human construction is a great gift. I moved to London last September and am slowly learning to cope with the dearth of green here by exploring the city’s parks and gardens and writing about them whenever I can. I also love literature, writing, and art.

For my first post, I thought I’d introduce one of my favourite birds; the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). I was going to save this one for a bit later, but a lovely I story heard today changed my mind, and pushed this little bird to the front of my th0ughts.

tumblr_mfc8zwCqI61qjnbwdo1_500The New Yorker Eugene Schieffelin is famous to many for introducing starlings to North America: he released sixty starlings into Central Park in 1890, and another forty in 1891. The birds, tough cookies as they are, were hardier than any other species Schieffelin tried to introduce: his attempts with bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks all led to nothing (except a lot of dead birds in New York). Perhaps a pretty boring story so far. But, his reason behind the release is, I think, really touching in its simplicity: he wanted Americans to hear and see every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. For Schieffelin, the starling, who we often dismiss as a nuisance, or overlook in it ubiquity, was a way to match ideas of literature and science, and to bring the stories of Shakespeare alive.

How can you spot a starling? Well, luckily its looks take after its name – look for a bird whose plumage reminds you of a beautiful night sky, nourishingly deep and full of stars. There’s your starling! If starlings weren’t so numerous, I’m convinced it would be treasured exotic. Its plumage shines with green, blue, purple and turquoise when it catches the light, and it is a dazzling flier. The female of the species is not so pretty – they are plain, brown birds and a little smaller. But all starlings are brilliant mimics – it has 15-20 imitations of other bird calls, and has even been known to imitate phones ringing and car engines. There are also local dialects of imitations, which is such an odd thought!

Yet for all its beauty and intelligence, the starling is a bit of a yob. It will push smaller birds out of its way to get food, and chuck seed around before it eats it. Starlings’ nests are just as messy, often being just a jumble of twigs and grass. They are very noisy neighbours, too – the female will choose the male with the loudest and most complicated song for a mate, and even when they flock together, the synchronised movement of their wings makes a ‘whoosh’ sound loud enough to be heard hundreds of miles away.

StarlingStarlings are one of my personal favourites for their pretty plumage and flock displays, which pull and gather in the sky like great elastic clouds. I befriended one in my first year of university, which has given me a real fondness for them (sounds like the start of a Pixar movie, right?). I was allocated a ground floor room in the spring term which overlooked a patch of land at the back of the college; a green lawn protruded by an oak tree that sprung up like a wizened finger and hushed the surroundings into soft quiet. My Dad, a life-long naturalist, used to send me big bags of bird seed in the post to feed the birds out of my window, which, painfully uncool as it seemed to my peers, I took great delight in doing. All sorts of birds would gather around my window like a circus of old friends – blackbirds, sparrows, blue tits and robins would weave ribbon paths around the shape of the old oak. But they were very shy and always kept their distance from me – except for one, a starling. After a few weeks this little one began to really trust me (or became increasingly desperate in his quest for food, who knows), and would perch on my thumb to eat seed from my hand. When some of the trees nearby blossomed, petals became his favourite food – they were like chocolate to him! So, they have been one of my favourite birds ever since.