Noticing nature 4: writing

If I offered you a slice of bread smeared with goo which had been regurgitated by insects, would you accept? Does bread and honey sound more appealing?

I’ve been reading about cleptoparasites, inquilines and parasitoids: exploiters of bees. Technical vocabulary can be as off-putting as explicit descriptions of food production. Put simply, in the complex lives of our British bees, there is infinitely more theft, deceit and murder than in all of Agatha Christie’s novels. I have no skill in identifying the 270 species of bees which occur in Britain and Ireland, but I find their behaviour intriguing. On Saturday, I watched mining bees skimming above their burrows on a dusty path patrolled by their cleptoparasites: black-and-yellow nomad bees. A female nomad invades a miner’s tunnel, lays an egg in the wall of an unsealed nest cell, then scarpers. When her grub hatches, it kills the host’s egg, or larva, and usurps its food supply.

In our garden, bumblebees are zipping in sip-and-go mode from one pink Flowering Currant cluster to another. Japonica is a favourite of the Red-tailed Bumblebee which buries its face and guzzles, fluffy bum and pollen-caked legs protruding from the scarlet cup.

My raised awareness of bees began on a coastal walk a few weeks ago. Willows, side-lit by the fierce, low sun, had golden halos. The halos were catkins, no longer the sleek, silver pellets of early spring, but open, ripe flowers, each anther tipped with a pollen clump, yellow as the best sort of egg yolk. Even before I had discarded my woolly hat, bumblebees began to zoom in, clambering over catkins and the image stuck with me:

Queen bee

Sable-furred and yellow-sashed −

nothing will stop her

        not wind not frost

big loud bold

    she brazenly plunders

        as monarchs were ever wont to do

dredges her stripes with catkin-coins

    stashes her gold in waxen pots

        unchinking, uncounted, underground

            offsprings’ rich inheritance.

This last year, sharing the wildlife I’ve seen each week has encouraged me to look more carefully, but so does any kind of writing.

Back in the 60s, when I was a budding naturalist, ALWAYS CARRY A NOTEBOOK AND PENCIL was the advice – nay, the command.  Now, many enthusiasts prefer to take photos or immediately use an app, but I still carry paper and pencil so that I can describe anything hard-to-identify and look it up later. I may take photos as well, but the process of looking at, let’s say a bumblebee, so as to describe the width and colour of its stripes, its size, its behaviour, forces me to focus on each detail and helps me remember.

Each January, I start a new wildlife diary, entering dates, places, observations, often just lists of species seen, with numbers and interesting behaviour. Writing up makes me aware of what I didn’t notice. When my husband and I have been out together, the scribe usually has to ask questions. ‘How many Orange-tip butterflies did we see?  Were they all male?’ Knowing that we will make notes later, knowing that these notes will be the basis of records submitted to bird reports or moth, butterfly or dragonfly recorders, encourages us to be alert, and often, to jot numbers down in that little notebook as we go along.

That takes me to another kind of writing: submitting records. Various websites make it easy for anyone to take part. At Nature’s Calendar you can record an annual event, such as your first Swallow, or Bluebell, or Red-tailed Bumblebee, or follow a favourite tree from bud burst through to leaf-fall. With the BTO you could regularly record your garden birds. Keeping and submitting records is a good way to give back to nature.

Scientific data and poetry may seem to have little in common, but both require a pruning of verbiage, a honing down to essentials. Both demand observation and its  careful organisation. The best poems can give us a fresh insight, a new way of looking at something familiar. Reliable wildlife data points up trends which we would otherwise have missed.

The conservation world is realising how much we need both. Scientific data gives us a sound foundation for research, policies and management, but poetry can touch our hearts, even inspire us to live differently.

All photos R&B Mearns

Noticing nature 3: ask questions

Yesterday, I listened to the clamour of wintering geese and watched Swallows preen hard-used flight feathers. Sometimes, it’s enough to delight in sound and sight, but often, questions come to mind, unbidden, persuading me to listen more carefully, look a bit longer.

Watching birds, I automatically ask, ‘What’s it doing?’ ‘Defending territory? Nest-building? Feeding itself? Feeding young?’ One question leads to another. ‘What’s that Bullfinch feeding on?’ This week, it was the buds of a Hawthorn tree. Sometimes, it’s Ash keys, or Ragwort seeds or a Dandelion clock.

Male Bullfinch on Ragwort (R&B Mearns)

‘What’s that Long-tailed Tit carrying?’ Recently I watched a pair of those tiny, pink and brown birds − apparently crafted from fluffy bedroom slippers − building a nest in the fork of a Silver Birch. The tits kept close as they flew to and fro, calling softly, taking it in turns to squeeze through their dome’s stretchy entrance hole. They had reached the last stages and were adding king size feathers to their bed, trimming the hole with a few, final, irresistible flecks of lichen. As one worked, the other waited patiently, then they flew off together again. If I hadn’t noticed that they had nest material, I’d have missed so much.

Long-tailed Tit (Peter Harris)

Animal behaviour is always intriguing. Peacock butterflies often spiral up in twos, but what are they doing? Is it a male courting a female? Or is it two males in a power struggle? If you don’t know, why not watch and see?

Peacock (R&B Mearns)

As we get older, it can become more difficult to chase after butterflies, or hear high-pitched calls. I’ve long had floaters which blur my vision at critical moments, and when my back’s jiggered, I can’t slip under fences like I used to. But I find that plants are unfailingly obliging. They also invite questions. ‘When will I see my first Bluebell this year?’  ‘Which species of tree will come into leaf first and which last?’ ‘Are the buds bursting late after such a hard winter?’

Why bother to ask all these questions?

It’s certainly good for me. Seeking answers by my own observations is endlessly fascinating. This last year, cut off from friends and family, I have not once been bored, not with a garden, woods and rivers around me.

The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.

It’s not just me – we are, as a nation, ecologically ignorant. In the April 2021 issue of British Wildlife I have just read a paper called ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’.  Since (by the estimation of the author) 70% of all 1,500 native plant species in Britain are insect-pollinated, you might imagine that we would know all we need to about the subject, but Prof. Ollerton concludes by saying, ‘familiar species can often produce surprises.’  So, we need more people to look at the common insects, the common plants around them, and ask questions − then work out the answers.

Foxglove is one of our many insect-pollinated plants. (R&B Mearns)

Of course, it’s not just what we know that matters, but how we use that understanding. Querying behaviour gives me insights into some of the local ecological relationships: the importance of lichens to some nest-building birds. The value of ‘weeds’ for various finches. It shapes my gardening: I leave many plants to go to seed, especially Dandelions. I tolerate nettles, so that Peacocks can egg-lay.

If only more of us could distinguish between a bird’s song and its alarm call!

I’ve often sat down for a picnic and had to move, because of anxious cheeping: parents unable to feed hungry chicks because I was too near their nest. I’ve also watched a man throw sticks to his dog whilst a Common Sandpiper has flown over his head, yelling, frantic, because it had small chicks crouching, whilst he, with his great big feet, ran up and down the beach, oblivious to a screaming wader which had flown all the way from Africa to Scotland, just to try and breed. 

What kind of bird call am I hearing?

Why is that tree growing here?

Where is that bee getting pollen?

Such basic, such important questions.

Noticing nature 2: by naming

‘At least one good thing has happened this year,’ said a friend, ‘I’ve got to know my neighbours better.’ It’s important, isn’t it? If neighbours greet us by name and stop for a friendly chat, it can cheer us up.

What about our non-human neighbours? Can you name the trees you pass? The birds you hear and see? What about the plants in the pavement cracks? If I couldn’t name the common species around me, I’d feel like a tourist. I’d lose my sense of belonging to my community.

Identifying our flora and fauna has never been easier. In the 1960s, my first Peterson field guide to the birds boasted over 1,100 illustrations,  but over 500 were black and white. Now, there is an abundance of full-colour guides to just about everything: mammals, butterflies, bees, snails, moths, dragonflies, trees, fungi, flowering plants … plus dedicated web sites, apps and facebook groups, as well as natural history clubs.

Spring is the perfect time to improve our knowledge of bird song: most species are singing and in the woods, trees are still bare, so we have a chance to see the songsters.Two small, greenish warblers which are pouring into Scotland just now look virtually identical, but sound different. If you are not familiar with them, you can compare the repetitive refrain of the Chiffchaff here and the melodic descant of the Willow Warbler here. You don’t need to live in prime habitat to enjoy the real thing, a friend recently heard her first Chiffchaff of the year from a supermarket car park.

Chiffchaff singing (Peter Harris)

This is also a good season to learn tree names, whilst the deciduous ones have distinctive catkins, or are bursting into leaf. Spring and summer are perfect for tackling flowering plants: I do it every year! And every year I forget many, and have to look them up again.

The botanist who named Bloody Cranesbill was referencing the petals and seed pod. (R&B Mearns)

If you find the sheer number of plants and birds daunting, why not tackle a less diverse group? Here in Dumfries & Galloway, there are only about 30 species of butterflies, 18 species of dragonflies and damselflies, and 8 species of crickets and grasshoppers.

Meadow Grasshopper: there are only three other species of grasshopper in Scotland (R&B Mearns)

Whatever you focus on, the identification process necessitates paying attention to a variety of features. I wonder if you can recognise this common bird, described as I saw it this morning.? Streaky brown upperparts. Pale breast. Brownish legs. Approximately sparrow-sized. Alone. Silent. Curved bill. Creeping up a tree trunk. Any birder could tell you, just from the last two details, that it’s a Treecreeper. It takes a little time and commitment to learn the key features: to know what to concentrate on if you have just a few seconds. A beginner has to start with the basics: to tell a gull from a tern, a butterfly from a moth, a grasshopper from a cricket. With practice, you quickly identify the family and try to name the species, to check the colour of a gull’s legs, the underwing pattern of a white butterfly, the shape and length of a grasshopper’s antennae.

The Horse Chestnut gets its name from the scar, shaped like a horse-shoe, which occurs when the leaf stem falls in autumn. (R&B Mearns)

Names are not just biological: they invite us to explore their origins, as with the following botanical examples. Scurvygrass saved countless people, deprived of fresh fruit and vegetables, from the exhaustion of scurvy. Lady’s Bedstraw was used to stuff mattresses and Sitka Spruce, Scotland’s most widespread, introduced conifer, originated on the west coast of North America, north and south of the Alaskan seaport of Sitka.  

Scurvygrass flowering on the Scottish coast in April (R&B Mearns)

For some people, naming is enough, but it’s also the key which can unlock so much recorded research. When I listen to my first Willow Warblers each year, I don’t just revel in their music. I know that the males have arrived first and are setting up territories. The females will reach us about a fortnight later: these tiny birds, which normally weigh about 8g, are even now flying across the Sahara by night, and resting in shade by day, or replenishing their fat reserves by snatching insects in the greener parts of the North African coast before launching out over the Mediterranean Sea.

The Willow Warbler has a distinctive, pure and melancholy song. (Peter Harris)

I don’t just know many of my neighbours, I sometimes peak through the curtains and report them! The status and distribution of our birds, plants and insects is changing. Fast. Far more recorders are needed to track the changes. Learning even a few of the easy-to-identify species can enable you to join the host of amateur wildlife recorders, ‘the unsung heroes of conservation*.’

State of Nature report, 2013, p 74.

Next week: Noticing nature 3: asking questions

Noticing nature 1: sitting still

A healer with a unique understanding of the human mind told his worried followers to consider the ravens and the lilies of the field.

Roll on 2,000 years and Phil Hammond, an NHS doctor, prescribes CLANGERS: eight habits for a healthy life. N is for noticing the beauty around us. ‘Try to be as still as you can be for fifteen minutes every day, preferably outside,’ says Phil. However, when I go for a walk, sometimes I need exercise and don’t stop until I must. Sometimes I’m with a friend, more interested in her news than in birdsong and butterflies. Sometimes, I’m wrestling with a problem and don’t want to be distracted until I’ve formed some plan.

Other days, I want to switch off from my ruminations and tune into my surroundings, so I sit for a while. Moving, I see the obvious. When I stop, I notice tadpoles in a puddle, delicate petals, a caterpillar hanging by its silken thread, a basking grasshopper. This week, walking on a riverbank, it was easy to notice the long, purplish Alder catkins, but only when I stopped, and examined them, did I pay attention to the mauve leaf buds and the small, raspberry-red female flowers.

Sphagnum moss: deep, soft and damp (R&B Mearns)

When I stop, I touch, enjoying rough lichen, soft moss, sharp grass blades, icy river water, hot sand dribbling through my fingers.

I deliberately sit where I can smell wild garlic, or pines, or catch the sweet scent of May blossom or the coconutty whiff of whins.

I’m looking forward to the scent of Hawthorn blossom in May (R&B Mearns)

Roe Deer have come within inches of me. Once, in a wood, my back against a tree, I heard crashing and a buck ran by, leaping in fright as he drew level – I felt the air stirred by his passing. Another time, my husband and I were on a scrub-fringed seashore, enjoying a quiet cuppa from our flask. Hearing steps behind, we turned and looked up into the big dark eyes of a doe.

Dragonflies land on me when I rest by a pond – and sitting for prolonged periods is certainly easier in summer. Usually it’s a darter, red, ochre or black. They wait for prolonged periods at a choice hunting perch, then – as their name suggests − dart out for prey and return. It’s fun to become a favourite spot!

A freshly emerged Black Darter (R&B Mearns)

Listening is easier when I stop. I usually notice bird songs first: often a Wren, going off like an alarm clock, then bees, flies, distant sheep, cars, planes or the pleasant lack of them.

If I stay long enough, I may get a once-in-a-lifetime moment. One April morning, I sat on a fallen, mossy tree trunk in a boggy wood to enjoy the early chorus and closed my eyes. When I opened them, a long-tailed grey bird was flying into a birch right on front of me. The high fork held a half-built nest and she had a twig in her bill, which she poked into her tangle of sticks. When she turned, I could see the grey barring all down her white breast – a Sparrowhawk − a wary beast, but totally unaware of my presence. She worked her way along a branch, trying unsuccessfully to break off some of the living, dangling, branch ends with her hooked beak, then took off and snatched a twig in flight, using her feet. She landed, facing me, transferred the twig to her bill and flitted back to the nest to weave it in. Then she flew away and I breathed normally again, left quickly, before she could return.

Mary Oliver was one of the most observant and joyful of poets, delighting in familiar species as she walked each day near her home. Any of us can look, with our arms open, as she did, in Where Does the TempleBegin, Where Does It End?

‘There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too. …’*

Next week: another way of noticing.

* From Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver, 2004

Enjoying wildlife

In March 2020, I challenged myself to write a weekly essay, for a year, on some recent encounter with nature. I wasn’t sure that I would last the course, but it’s been easier than I expected, partly because I am surrounded by varied habitats.

Along the river Oystercatchers are in display flight, yelling as they circle, beating their wings in slow, shallow ‘butterfly-flight’. Even though they won’t lay eggs before May, their breeding season is already underway.

The Kirkmahoe Herons have moved from a ridgetop pine wood into a spruce plantation. As I stood on the road, watching a male fly in with a stick in his luminous, pinkish-yellow bill, a passing friend stopped to chat. ‘I’ve been watching them kill frogs,’ he said, ‘big ones!’ I’m not surprised. There is freshly-laid spawn all through the boggy woodland just now, in pools and ditches.

Spawning Frogs (R&B Mearns)

In several small but noisy Rookeries, the birds are constantly in attendance, or returning to find that their twigs and moss have been pilfered by neighbours. Wheeling above the scattered stands of Sycamore, Scots Pine and Beech, they are just raggedy-winged black corvids, but seen up close, their plumage is purple, glossy, gorgeous.

Buds are bursting on my favourite roadside Horse Chestnut. I love the stickiness of their brown leaf-scales and the luxurious softness of their white-furred, palmate leaves which unfurl to reveal a teeny-weeny bunch of grapes. Or so it seems, but of course each green cluster is a tight flower-head, which will become a huge white and pink bloom.

Horse Chestnut leaf unfolding (R&B Mearns)

Along streams, silver pussy-willow catkins are already turning to gold as their pollen ripens, attracting bumblebees. So, I am fortunate to be able to roam in woodland, scrub, riversides and fields.

Another advantage: Covid restrictions have not usually allowed me to go far. Looking back through 51 essays, I find that 32 of them (62%) were based on observations within a mile of home and 42 (82%) were within 10 miles. That may seem counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to write about less familiar parts of the country? Perhaps, but on my doorstep are the species I know best. I know where to find particular birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants − and when to look for them. A few years before he moved to his cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Thoreau wrote ‘ … my friends ask what will I do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?’

Pussy willow catkin (R&B Mearns)

I have thoroughly enjoyed recording the progress of the seasons and it has been a therapeutic discipline. Thank you for following the blog, and for your encouragements, for ‘a writer must be read,’ as we are poignantly reminded in The Wife.

This series is not quite over yet, as I’ve been invited to contribute, throughout April, on ‘noticing nature’ for Autumn Voices, an online community of people who want to grow old creatively. I’ll also post the four blogs here for you.

Spring rush

Moths can be enjoyed in every month. Those named for their flight period include May Highflyer, July Belle, August Thorn, Autumnal Rustic, November Moth, December Moth and Winter Moth. This week we’ve seen March Moth and Early Grey.

Early Grey (R&B Mearns)

Yet, although we sometimes record an interesting selection in winter, last week we plugged in our light traps for the first time in four months. It has been a colder-than-usual season, especially at night. Now, with milder weather, there is a spring surge of moths which have been waiting to emerge: we’ve had over a dozen species, almost all of which overwintered as pupae, which might seem to be the ideal way to spend the harshest months, tucked up in a cocoon, deep in leaf litter, or underground. But is it? If you had to guess: egg, caterpillar, pupa or adult, which life stage would you expect to be commonest in winter among the British macro-moths and butterflies?

Since most of these 950 or so species are nocturnal, long dark nights might seem ideal for mating, safe from predators such as migratory Nightjars and hibernating bats, but warmer temperatures are far more important:  only 3% overwinter as adults, and some of them  hibernate.  Just 17% pass the time as eggs. Pupation narrowly takes the lead,  at 41%, but almost as many are caterpillars (39%), perhaps because there are obvious benefits in being able to move around if dislodged by wind or snow. (The Natural History of Moths by Mark Young, Poyser, 1977).

Twin-spotted Quaker (R&B Mearns)

Almost all the moths flying in our garden just now needed green leaves to eat when they were larvae. One of the loveliest, as an adult, is the Early Grey, which, when freshly emerged, would be better called the Early Lilac, or the Pinkish Flush. As a caterpillar, it’s a fussy feeder, just using Honeysuckle. We were delighted to find that two Yellow Horned (named for the colour of their antennae) had come to our light. As larvae, they only feed on native birches, but the other moths in our trap: Small, Common and Twin-spotted Quakers, Hebrew Character, Pale Brindled Beauty, Oak Beauty and March Moth will chomp the leaves of most broad-leaved trees.

Oak Beauty (R&B Mearns)

Oak Beauty is well-named, being the biggest and most impressive of all the moths coming to light just now. It’s abundant in mature oak woodland, and like the trees, broad and sturdy, with a fat, furry body insulating it from the chills of early spring. Face on, small black eyes disappear under bushy white eyebrows. From above, brown and white wing bars are highlighted by black edges.

Oak Beauty (R&B Mearns)

One moth which we handled this week is different from the others in both diet and phenology. The Satellite emerges in September or October and flies on mild nights – if there are any – through to April. The caterpillars feed at first on the leaves of various deciduous trees, but as they grow, they also prey on the larvae of other moths, and aphids, rapidly gaining weight from such a protein-rich diet.

There is a fabulous diversity in moth behaviour.

Pale Brindled Beauty (R&B Mearns)

Reducing risk

For the first time in nearly a year, I’ve reached Sunday without having some wonderful wildlife encounter to share. The weather’s been too raw for me to enjoy a long walk. The nights have been too cold and starry for moth-trapping.

And I’ve got toothache. Now that my dentist’s waiting room is his doorstep, I shivered in the street, mask on, pressed into the lee of the portico, watching the opposite rooftop. Lesser Black-backed Gulls were flying around the chimney pots under a rain-washed, azure sky. They threw back their heads, calling raucously, claiming their windy nest sites. I thought about some of the sunny places where they could have over-wintered: Spanish beaches, Portuguese estuaries, Madeira, the Canaries, Morocco.

My other excuse is that I’ve spent a record number of hours (since retiral) online. My pastor asked me to assess Tearfund’s Bible studies on Christianity and Climate Change. Nine short films feature atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, responding to questions from Scots. She clearly explains why climate change is a threat-multiplier, and has to be a priority for anyone concerned about poverty and injustice. One issue she addresses is the fear and guilt that often surrounds climate discussions: fear of what will happen to the planet if we don’t reduce our fossil fuel use and fear of change if we do. What if adapting means higher unemployment or less exciting lives? Even she was surprised to discover that in Texas – of all places – more people are now employed in solar and wind energy than in the oil industry. 

Once, asked to speak to a Texan oil company, Katharine felt daunted – what common ground could she find? So she began with gratitude for the benefits of electricity: longer, healthier lives, freedom from the darkness and drudgery of the past. Oilmen who had expected to be lambasted, listened with relief. When she moved on to the need for change, discussions lasted twice as long as planned: they were imagining a cleaner, better future together.

Mute Swans in flight (R&B Mearns)

I’ve just had my own heartening experience with an energy provider. Last Sunday, walking past our local swan flock, I noticed one freshly dead below the power lines. It was the third this winter, so I emailed a photo to SP Energy Networks on Monday, asking them to make the lines more visible. They replied in the afternoon, an engineer checked the site on Tuesday and on Friday three of their vehicles rumbled past my door. I went to watch, curious as to how you mark high, live power lines above crops. A man with a long, light pole simply attaches the marker and hooks it over the wire. I should have contacted them sooner, but to be honest, I didn’t expect an instant response.

I’ve strongly recommended the Tearfund videos to my pastor. They’ll provoke our fellowship to talk more, think more, pray more and respond more creatively to climate weirding. The swans reminded me that even small, easy actions can help to reduce risk.

Mute Swans in flight (R&B Mearns)

Tattie field diary

17 November

The potato-harvesters arrived late afternoon, as light was dwindling. From our living room we watched the powerful headlights going to and fro across the distant field. Heavy rain forecast.

19 November

Followed the stream, over-spilling its bank, up to the field, where most of the crop has been lifted, but some tatties lie scattered. Couldn’t get into the field, as the gate was under water.

21 November

The burn still swollen, but lower. Fieldfares are feeding among the potatoes, taking invertebrates in the sodden soil. When these thrushes perch up on the ridges I can admire their boldly streaked chests, grey heads and rumps, catch a hint of olive on their brown backs, but mostly they disappear into the furrows. Trees along the burn are full of birds: a Robin is using a Hawthorn as a perch from which to pounce when something moves on the bare earth. Over 40 Redpolls gathered in the same tree, sun shining on a male’s lovely pink breast and red poll. They are feeding in the Alder and amidst the thistles along the field edge. Long-tailed Tits are rapidly pecking at the undersides of willow leaves.

Wood Pigeon (Peter Harris)

23 January

Wood Pigeons feeding, as usual. In a sudden flurry of snow, they all took off: over a hundred birds, white wing bars conspicuous, taking shelter in the dark conifers.

18 February

From my kitchen, I watched the Whooper Swan flock, 28 at present, flying into the potato field for the first time. I approached using a thick hedge as cover – and protection from the wind. The birds looked dramatically pristine against the dark earth, which has thawed, the furrows pooled with ice-melt. The yellow leg ring on one of the swans is too mud-stained to be read. I can’t see if the birds are eating the leftover potatoes, which have frozen and thawed many times, and are now shrunken within their dry skins. I’m reminded of a story my brother told me when he worked in a Clyde shipyard. He had a colleague who − like the Whoopers − was from Iceland.  One night they bought chips. The Icelander ate half, then re-wrapped the rest to enjoy at breakfast, cold and congealed. Perhaps these swans are not so keen on cold mush, for within the hour they returned to the young wheat where they have been grazing since Christmas.

5 March

Late afternoon, a blue tractor began ploughing the tattie field. I loitered on the ridge above, eagerly anticipating a feeding frenzy of gulls, Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, Buzzards and Red Kites. That’s what usually happens when the earth is turned. Nothing came. After 20 minutes or so, a couple of dozen gulls wheeled overhead, then drifted off. A crow flew over, but didn’t even slow down.

Sometimes, I can predict bird behaviour. Sometimes I can’t.

Flood bonanza

My home was built at least 170 years ago. It’s long and low, with two-feet-thick walls. The 1851 census shows that four families squeezed into accommodation now filled by only two of us.

All the inhabitants were women and children. The oldest, at 77, was Jean McKie, a pauper, formerly a farm labourer. Agnes Stevenson, 40, had two small boys and a baby, and Agnes Edgar, 32, was a seamstress with two little girls. Janet Patie, 42, lived with her niece Mary, 20, who did ‘domestic duties’.  Of course, they didn’t have indoor toilets or even taps. The iron water pump can still be seen, 70 paces down the hill − and maybe 100 paces back up. Though our lifestyles differ in countless ways, there is one blessing we share: the house sits high and dry above the floodplain of the River Nith.

If I step out of my door and turn right, 150 paces take me to a humpbacked bridge where willows overhang a stream. After days of heavy rain, you realise why it’s called The Lake. Last week it lived up to its name, but the level soon dropped, after attracting just a few gulls. I followed The Lake southwards, to where the bank had previously burst. Two grassy fields were inundated: it looked and sounded like a wetland bird reserve.

Hundreds of Black-headed Gulls floated on the ripples and as they rose, screeching and swirling, I was reminded of the snow dome I used to shake as a child. Some returned to the water, swimming with tails tipped back, balancing heads tipped forwards, pecking daintily at the surface. Others formed irregular, stretched out lines with Common Gulls, walking steadily across the grass like a search party – which they were, for drowned worms and stranded invertebrates.

Several thousand Pink-footed Geese have been grazing locally for months, and a few dozen were drinking. Each goose took a sip, then raised its head, scanning warily as it swallowed. Rooks and Jackdaws waded deeply to bathe, the sunshine glossing their ruffled black feathers and sparkling the spray.

Curlew (Peter Harris)

Curlew, the first I’ve heard in the valley this year, fed along the edge, on their way to breeding grounds. A flock of Peewits flapped over and around, like black-and-white flags. To my surprise, there were nine Goosanders. I’ve never seen these ducks in fields before: they’re fish-eaters, yet they kept diving. Fish must have got swept in and would, I suppose, be easy to chase in shallow water, free of weed.

Oystercatchers feeding in fallow field (R&B Mearns

Walking home, I found sixty Oystercatchers probing around a wheat field pool. Like Curlews, away from the coast they’re a welcome sign of spring’s approach. When I woke on one of the wet, windy nights, I heard one calling in the darkness. Oystercatchers love displaying in wild weather. Those women who lived here in the 1850s wouldn’t have heard them. Curlew, Snipe, Redshank, Peewit, yes, in abundance, but not the midnight pipers. Oystercatchers only began to nest inland, in Dumfries & Galloway, about 70 years later, adapting to raise their chicks on earthworms, instead of cockles and mussels.

Signs of spring

When I awoke this morning (Saturday) I felt as cheerful as Eeyore. After a wet, windy week, today’s forecast was for heavy rain and southerlies of up to 50 mph. Since Christmas we’ve enjoyed frosts, snow on the hills, blue sky days, proper winter. Now the weather is reverting to type. I needed cheering up. I needed signs of spring.

At 8.30 am it was calm and dry, despite the leaden sky. Chaffinch, Great Tit and Dunnock were singing in the garden.  From our doorstep I could hear a Mistle Thrush, his flutings far-carrying, clear and sweet. He lured me out, past a field with already-sturdy lambs. Two male Blackbirds dashed past me into a roadside hedge, fenced on both sides. They ran up and down between the wire mesh, first one chasing, then the other, their bills as golden as our crocuses. They fluttered up, battering through the hawthorn mesh and rose into the sky, facing each other, striking out with their feet, not tangling, but testing, then dropped back down and chased to and fro again. I left them to it, and as I walked away, two Blue Tits almost flew into me, so intent was their pursuit. Clearly, breeding territories are being won and lost.

A fresh rash of Mole hills had appeared in the field, the ground at last soft enough for tunnelling. The soil was full of stones. I wonder if they grumble, in a moley sort of way, when they have to loosen chuckies and shove them to the surface, or scrape round the bigger obstacles with their broad, pink paws.

Male Chaffinch in Sycamore. (R&B Mearns)

From a plantation of Norway Spruce, high, thin, ‘see-too, see-too’ sounds gave away the presence of Coal Tits and beyond, the large tree-shaded pond had thawed. Mallard took off in threes and twos, quacking in alarm. I headed for the ridge which I wrote about in May, when it was the luscious spring woodland of calendars: all fresh greens and Bluebells. Now it is dank, dull browns and greys, daubed with moss. A Starling burbled from a high, bare branch. Great Tits chimed and scolded. Blue Tits wheedled and churred. Hole nesters need to stake their claims early: there is fierce competition for a limited resource.

Displaying Blue Tit. (R & B Mearns)

Drumming drew me on. Soft smirr had turned to rain, so I leant against a tall Silver Fir – one of many local specimen trees which poke up through the native canopy − and listened. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming, one fairly distant, from a perfect, dry snag, its rhythm fast and furious, the other closer, the roll not so prolonged. Then a loud, bass drumroll and I felt it. The bird was in the fir, far above me, its vibration passing all the way down the trunk. I didn’t know it was possible! Rain driggled my hair, rain dripped off my glasses, rain stuck my old khaki trousers to my thighs, but I didn’t care.

The wood was rockin’ and rolling.