Isle of Wight is ‘Go’!

dramaticflight

Now that we have the Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) back in Cornwall and, therefore England – something that’s been dear to my heart all my life, certainly since I started working with them in the 1970s. They took up a good five years of my life in the eighties, as anyone who knows me knows.  The results of all that work can be seen in my thesis here https://chough.org/research-papers

So it was great to be involved in someone else’s project for once and view it from a more dispassionate angle.  This is part of what I wrote to Steve Jones – indefatigable and a huge source of knowledge about the island’s wildlife – after I visited last week and was shown  lots of key sites.  His energy and imagination will I’m sure achieve results.  

Dear Steve,
Thank you very much for taking the time to show Sam and myself round many potential Chough sites on the island on Tuesday. It was an exciting, if very hot, visit which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

The experience far exceeded my expectations. I was not prepared for such a varied and extensive range of different highly suitable habitats.

Despite the fact that it was high tourist season, with increased numbers due to ‘staycation’, large areas we visited were devoid of human (and dog) presence. In contrast, the invertebrate populations were more dense than anything I’ve seen on the mainland recently, so prey resources are well catered for – the richness of bird life, resident and visiting the island on migration, supports this view – nesting sites similarly.

There is ample short-grazed / naturally exposed sward available with plenty of mosaics and earth exposures of different kinds with good areas of varied wild cliffscape and inaccessible coves and beaches; the quality of geology and botany is extensive and rich. In short, I was deeply struck by the extent and variability of suitable Chough habitat; it was difficult to think of anything which was lacking! 

Considering the island is (surprisingly!) large, all compass points and aspects are available viz a viz shelter, breeding, feeding, and exposure (including east for early morning solar irradiation).  There is generally sympathetic stewardship with the National Trust being principal, and also wealthy independent landowners keen on chough re-establishment. The entire island contains within its ca.150 sq mi (380 km2) and coastline of approximately 70 miles (113km) a surfeit of extensive fine habitats.

We talked quite a lot about suitable sites for the location of captive-breeding/soft release sites, and you showed me a few possible places. 

I can only send my the very best in your endeavours and just wish the birds were available now for you to progress quickly. To sum up briefly, I have no doubt the island, as it is, can support a viable Chough population. 

Thank you once again for the expert guidance you gave us and your kind hospitality.

[NB. The Chough is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, in other words, if it can support this top species it can support everything else ‘beneath’ it (in food chain terms).]

The Robin I wrote about last time is still with us but now in perfect adult plumage; I still find it hard to believe that a totally wild animal can, after all we throw at wildlife, be so trusting.

IMG_20200809_142834_292

Revenge of the Introverts

The Merlin and a Raven-Buzzard dogfight
(plus a sneaky look at a drab little bird with a remarkable sex life)

April, 2020:  Unless you are affected medically, or trapped in an impossible (or just very difficult) domestic situation, this is a unique time. Especially for naturalists and for all those who savour the spectacular sound of silence which now covers the countryside in a sublime shroud, although it is slowly being removed. For sound recordists of natural phenomena, it is an unparalleled opportunity: so little traffic and aircraft noise, and I’ve even noticed a quieter strimmer serenade – one of the more irritating sounds of summer – or maybe they just haven’t quite found their voice yet.

Unable to travel to nature reserves, beauty spots or just one’s favourite haunt, be it a gravel pit, reservoir, park or wood, we can stay at home with a chance to get to know better what used to be called Common or garden birds.  And we notice they are not so ‘common’, in fact they are rather rare and fascinating; and we realise how little we actually do know them. The humble Dunnock (Hedge sparrow, or even ‘Hedge accentor’ if you will) for example possesses a sex life to be marvelled at, and you may notice their polyandrous trios bumbling about hedgerow bottoms; Mrs Dunnock is very free with her favours. I haven’t myself counted but Dr Tim Birkhead has, and he advises that male Dunnocks can copulate 100 times a day.

Dunnock-minDunnock Prunella modularis

The intriguing sex life of Dunnocks apart, I was sitting in my North Devon garden in April with Mij (a non-polyandrous wife), enjoying the astonishing quietness all around and waiting impatiently for our first Swallow (my daughter, Josie, saw hers ages ago, but she always beats me to everything), a bird come fleeting up the valley over the woodland. “A Swallow,” I cried; Mij immediately, “No, it’s a bird of prey” (she always contradicts me and is frustratingly usually right), but I, quick as a flash, came back, “A Merlin then.”  And we watched in awe as this little falcon flew quietly over us, not hunting just waving. Only the third I’ve ever seen.

My son, Sam, phoned that night from his home in rural Hampshire. I told him about the Merlin, and he said he’d never seen one but thought he’d spotted a Hobby once. “Where could I see a Merlin?” he asked, I replied, “Well, you’ve just got to be lucky, like we were. I wouldn’t like to say ‘Hey, Sam, we’ll go up to Exmoor and I’ll show you a Merlin, it’s not like that.'”

So, what have I learned?  You can stay at home, save your petrol (and the environment), and have just as much chance of seeing something interesting and beautiful as if you trek off somewhere special in full birding gear. It might be a sexy female Dunnock or even a spectacular Will-o’-the-Wisp Merlin.

It could even be as exciting as the sequel to our Merlin adventure. For immediately after he had winnowed off, the stage was taken by a contest between a nesting Raven and loafing Buzzard. We watched these two sparring for twenty minutes before a second Buzzard arrived. I don’t think they were really interested in the Raven chicks (probably quite a size by early April) but gave the impression of just enjoying winding-up the parents. In effect we were greeted to a dogfight worthy of Manfred von Richthofen: the Raven swooping down from… out of the sun? I wouldn’t like to say… but it was pretty spectacular.  As the Buzzard turned over to meet it, the Raven would come within inches of its tormentor plummeting to the nadir of its descent, and from there, with the momentum gained, rapidly climb high for the next assault. The Buzzard appeared merely to flick the Raven aside and continue riding the thermals in carefree arabesques.

It is not always so charming. In a book I wrote under another name many years ago*, I included a photograph of a Raven with its top mandible ripped off by a Buzzard (it was then being cared for in a Wildlife Hospital, and survived by swallowing day-old chicks whole).

I so hope that whoever has a window on the world – preferably one which opens – can get a glimpse such as this. My daughter, Emma, who lives in a high flat in Ealing can see Sparrowhawks from her window, and I wouldn’t doubt Peregrines, and her partner, Raoul, a sound recordist, has sent me a recording of their dawn chorus. On it I can hear Nuthatches, tits, Blackbirds, sparrows, Wood pigeons, and ‘seagulls’ of course.

There is no need for isolation, birds and bees obey no human social distancing. I am sending Emma a window bird feeder and some seed. She claims they are too high up to attract small birds, but I challenge that. We will see who is right; if things run according to rule when it comes to women and me, I know the answer. Rosie Wood, a badger colleague, sent me an epithet which said, ‘If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?’ And I know the answer to that one too.

* As Richard Mark Martin, First Aid and Care of Wildlife, David & Charles, 1984.

On not learning from history: The fate of the badger.

Sometimes events in your life collide…

In this case ecology and painting of the human figure

First…

On the history of the fate of the badger.

A new article just published in

The 

Home

 

Badger

https://theecologist.org/2019/mar/25/fate-badger

Please read, it is really important. Many thanks.

After that something completely different: a painting in a new exhibition… (see previous entry)

 

 



 

The snow owl

Night after night I sit and look out
Hoping to see a barn owl about
As white as a surrendering flag;
This gliding wraith-like spirited rag
Would ghost the dark field in looping strides
To scan the rank grass with razor eyes.

A facial disc, ears set obliquely,
Picks up murmurs sent non consciously
By vole and mouse – but, yes, lost to me.
Signals that were never meant to be
From deep inside the raked-over grass:
To all those as deadly as Arras.

This floating thing of deathly beauty
With fine synchronous duality
Is the most sublime killing machine
I am sure that I have ever seen;
And I’ve worked with tigers and lions,
But this owl alone brides its talons.

Yet, see, its peril is also white,
As soft a shroud as wings in the night.
Snowfall that covers the killing ground
Blankets out unwitting sight and sound
And shields for one and for all the voles,
Who may now venture without their holes.

Yet what brings life in train brings death, and
Will fate Her players as chance demands.
For beneath the snow, still in the fray,
The brown fox now ventures into play.
And snow, which enables voles to crawl
Out of sight, masks the deadly footfall.

Nature weighs, measures and will balance
All the players in Her endless dance.
No design and no manufacture,
Refined, eternally year on year,
Until parts all slot in their places
Until…
Until man kicked her traces.

His ‘god-given’ urge to dominate
Set himself above Nature’s mandate
Does with sublime precision tamper
And monkey with the blind watchmaker
Those parts that never can be put back
Become young future’s brains to rack.

So the barn owl, in microcosm,
Sets the stage therein Nature’s prism.
One immaculate crafted species
Details Her overwhelming thesis.
And would, with infinite patience, show
The magic of the owl and the snow.

Devon, January 2019

Two hedgehogs

Sonnet:

We saw two hedgehogs.



We saw two hedgehogs feeding side by side
And it wouldn’t be our fault if they died.

They had been grunting through the summer night.
Safe from traffic – we thought they’d be all right –
In an island garden bordered by woods.
Each evening we offered them special food
In a plastic box wasted and surplus.
They went straight there the first night with no fuss.
Though far too nervous to come out in light:
This their entrench’d anthropogenic plight.
Now mangling their nightly excursions are
(New dreads but) most of all the motor car.

And remember bonfires roast them alive,
As one did a guy on November Five.

North Devon, 12 October 2018

Brute tractor

A monster was coming on at me,
Devouring the world, all I could see,
Such was its all-consuming presence,
That nothing else composed an absence.
Crashing there, pulverising closer.
A beast advanced over the border.

*

Now, sounds of the English countryside,
Herald a fresh hell of herbicide.
An incessant whine of brute machine
Counterpoising the crack, crunch and scream
Of advancing chains flailing hedges,
Even trees and all the quiet edges.

Fields once in early autumn slumber,
Bough and branch in myriad number,
Are beaten into low submission.
Heavy-handed ironbound precision
Bullies countryside’s casual borders
Into tame and abased neat order.

Now reducing full forage hedgerows,
In all their blowsy carefree billows,
Into managed new factory walls;
As close as the jackboot tractor crawls.
Those linear woods, trashed in thoughtless
Haste, make a sad wake in wakes of mess.

These linear woods are all that’s left
Of a landscape that is now bereft
Of the deciduous eternal
Hanging woods which once clothed the feral
Land from east to west, from south to north.
A greenwood cover of endless growth.

Now, ev’ry year hedges try anew,
To regrow once more and save a few.
Hawthorns! Their remembered sweet fragrance
In blossom clouds of creamy cadence,
But there they are, hacked back more and more
Till all that’s left is jagged and raw.

They won’t be laid traditionally.
Every advance drives more fiercely
Into older and thicker timber,
Till the gross impact upon your ear
Is in due accord with the ravaged
Scene: wood and nerves together shred.

Now, never mind the long standing tree.
And farmers won’t see the bird or bee.
For what cannot be seen counts as nought.
Subtle lessons like these can’t be taught
To those immured within tractor walls,
Or logged into cool persuasive malls.

Then his tea, in towered splendour, he sips.
And with insouciant fingertips
Nudges on hundreds of horsepower might.
Never giving one thought to the sight
Of tangled despoilment left behind
After the flailing chains’ savage grind.

Now, with protection wrapped round his face,
Headphones musicking a deaf embrace,
To insulate the remote cabbed man
From all consequences of his plan.
So deafness mutates this crashing hell.
With never a witness left to tell.

Aye, the crashing sound above all else
Has no regard of pastoral sense.
It surely would dumbfound old hedgers
Thankfully safe now in quiet slumbers.
Would they swap craft’s old occupation
For this new gross manifestation?

Now, a poet wand’ring in Nature
Seeks his peace in this secret treasure;
For wind and song are quintessential;
Listen! And be mute deferential.
For there is peace and sweet harmony
In measuring life’s geometry.

Still the brute tractor masticates on.
Jaws chewing; weight thrown about; and strong
Enough to pulverise any foe.
What hope can there be of tomorrow?
Yet wait! The pregnant buds still prepare
To try yet again another year.

Now the ogre leaves the margin’d stage
(And a poet impotent in rage!),
The hedging tree will lick its spirit.
And the only good to come of it,
If calm reflection matters a toss,
Is to help us value what we’ve lost.

(c) Richard Meyer,
Winswell Water, N. Devon, October 2018