Lost (December 2014)

At the tip of Portland — an island that is not an island — is a garden that sits just back from the cliff top overlooking the English Channel. A cold wind blew under deceptively blue skies. In the garden was a Barred Warbler, a young bird that got lost on leaving Eastern Europe and ended up clinging to the last bush in Dorset. And stayed there, not trying to relocate to the rift valley of Eastern Africa where it belongs at this time of year. A wintering record in Britain is almost unprecedented. 

The first glimpse I had was of a disembodied bird in the back of a bush. Against the light, haloed and fragmented by twigs, I could make out the stout bill and tip of the tail surprisingly far apart. I was expecting a grey bird, but found a delicately silver one instead, with a keenly staring eye. It hopped out and the stout bird turns graceful, clinging to the thin twigs and contorting its body to dismember the fruit donated to it by local birders, which it vigorously guarded from the local sparrow flock. Over the course of about an hour’s observation it revealed a subtle charisma; a behaviour more akin to a bolshy thrush than a small Sylvia warbler.

We laud birds for their migration feats and characterise them as epic and heroic. With that though comes something quite human; they got lost. Whether by winds, misfortune or a misfiring migratory impulse, they become transient visitors, a temporary taste of somewhere exotic in the bleak last bush in Dorset. If an interest in birds is built around a pan-animal empathy, I empathise most strongly with these birds. The lost and the awkwardly out of place.

Spiders (October 2014)

Spiders in Acton are a sign of seasonal change. I’ve not experienced anything like it, nor lived anywhere like it since the age of seven, when I was ripped from the suburban housing estate comforts of Hertfordshire, and rerooted to an ugly working village in the middle of Suffolk. In that village there was space, and the privacy that comes with four walls separated from the neighbouring houses. I discovered birds. Cocksure Pheasants strutting through the garden, the raucous Rookery over the road and Fieldfares raiding the apple trees in the garden of my neighbour too elderly to pick them. The first Chiffchaffs of the year became important to me. It signified spring. Autumn by the sky filling with birds again after the summer lull. Juveniles of many species locating due south and sailing over. 

Last summer I moved to London. To a job in deepest west London, where the grey and beige seep from the sky and the concrete and color everything. I lost my horizon to the perimeter of the street. My sky was no longer so full of birds. In its place I found spiders. I found spiders straddled across my front gate in the murky half light of the morning, only I didn’t find them until I found them on my face, silk breaking around me and feelings of both disgust and guilt. Sorry little guy. We repeated it for two months, gradually decreasing in frequency until around November and the arrival of winter in the city. 

Winter isn’t a season worth celebrating in London: it is damp, mild and filthy, and its citizens match the gloominess of their surroundings. It is mild enough so that the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps don’t have to leave, and this doesn’t give spring a headstart but spoils it’s grand arrival with the longer, brighter days. If the leaves never quite all fall from the trees than what is winter? Where does that leave spring?

So instead I celebrate autumn, and away from the countryside and coast that I grew up on, in and with, I’ve turned to spiders. I watch them on grey Saturdays as I wash away the past week with endless coffee. I learn their names. It seems the polite place to begin. The Garden Cross spider. With a name it can go beyond mere surface appearance. A surface that is stripy brown legs, alternating light and dark, with a crucifix of broken white stamped onto its abdomen. And I watch one weaving its web from the inside out, against the pale sky where the web can’t be seen, leaving her to space-walk slowly and purposefully, suspended by her own invisible lines. When woven the web is both intricate and massive, the size of the window looking out onto the garden. It collects a hoverfly and a small wasp, both quickly wrapped up in excess webbing and slowly deflated. A life transfusion. In it she finds the protein that gets metabolised into the white crucifix mark on her back

Meanwhile in the spiders I find a life that makes me feel better about being in the city. Amidst the rush that threats to drain the life out of me, I can still find new ways to mark the seasons, and keep in touch with the nature around me that’s different to what I’m used to in the country.

And then October. The spiders begin to fade away and the sky is pierced with the soft edged calls of Redwings and the clatter of Fieldfares amongst the traffic noise, jet engine roar, parakeet shriek and sirens, alarms and the hectic hurry. I miss the spiders just sitting there.

March 2014

Birds don’t sing with subtitles and I struggle to remember the identifying features of any birdsong for more than about five minutes. I’m deeply envious of the birders with a xeno-canto of the mind, as I can just about manage to hold twenty five species or so in my head at any time. For me there’s a reason why birder is a contraction of birdwatcher and not bird-listener. And yet…

March baked. The trees shook through the haze over heath. A Stonechat perched in a stunted Silver Birch, not quite in the brightest orange and black of its breeding plumage. Buzzards spiral high into the wind, surveying their territory over the Surrey commons; a fragment of the old English landscape. In the bones of a tree a lark sat. Not your typical lark. Through the haze of the telescope I could make out the salient details: black and white coverts on the edge of the wing interrupting the dull brown plumage, and a longer bolder stripe over the eye. A Woodlark. It is a classic boring bird. Important too: only 3000 or so pairs left breeding on the southern and eastern heathlands. And then it started to sing.

‘Teevo cheevo cheevio chee’

Initially tremulous – as if still warming up for the spring ahead – notes shaded the air. Then a torrent. At this distance the bill doesn’t appear to move, but stuck open directing its aria, descending through notes as blue as the sky, echoing.

Echoing. That’s what flicks the switch in my mind and it’s 2007 again. I am 15 and wandering the sanderling heaths of coastal Suffolk by myself. Cautiously, it’s spring, there might be Adders about. I found the heath by accident, following a track round from the adjacent estuary. It looked good habitat for Dartford Warblers, but I don’t see them. Instead, I enter a glade of pines and am struck by birdsong. The most intensely delicate, beautiful melody I had heard from a bird. And the volume! It seems like the exaggeration of memory, or of youthful exuberance but it filled the glade like a soloist in an opera hall. Volume and beauty. It moved that cold teenager — shy, and not much given to displays of emotions — to a moment of rapture. I never saw that Woodlark well, but I knew I would never experience one like it again.

The song from the bare tree fades, the lark flies to the ground and lands out of sight, but never out of mind.

It is a typical boring bird. One of my favourites.

January 2014

It could have been a scene from Scandinavia: the silver birch and the rusting bracken, thick dark mud and lashing hail. It lasted for two skin stinging minutes. The wood thinned out. Bracken gave way to heather, the hail to the numbing wind, and the path to a bridleway of finest sludgey mud, studded with white ice. Half a kilometre over the heath to a clump of pines where the Parrot Crossbills are and the clouds break up; the last hour or so of sunlight appearing over the distant pines. All around was heather, oak, pine and birch; damp and glittering in the light. It is tempting to lose yourself in this landscape that feels so old and right and proper. 

It is not Scandinavia. Not even Scotland. It is Nottinghamshire.

Behind the pines on the horizon the black edge of a slag heap can be seen. The product of a hundred or so years of removing useful things from the earth and putting it back somewhere else. The map is ridden with names that tell my dad – Nottinghamshire lad – of the old pits and collieries that were shut as he grew up. They’re just names on a map to me. Further back, and the animals that would’ve kept this area open and unwooded have been replaced by conservationists, counter intuitively pulling out trees in the name of nature. It’s in the name: Budby Common. Ignore the fences passed on the way here and it still appears like the common lands of a John Clare poem, though lacking in its people.
Curious landscape paradox. It is deeply coloured by human hand yet it looks and feels untouched.

Parrot Crossbills. Large red finches from Scandinavia, they are rarities that turn up on the back of a poor pine seed crop in the Arctic taiga, in search of food. I had tried and failed to see them elsewhere three times this winter. The itinerant nature that brings them here also makes them hard to catch up with. This time felt luckier. A birder we had met on the way here had successfully seen them and gave us directions to the pines on this heath.

We were not lucky. Damp and cold, we saw Common Buzzards shrieking over the woods and Jays flash exotically against the sky, but nothing particularly out of a birder’s idea of the ordinary. It’s only on the long dark train ride home that I begin to wonder why we do it. Why I, in particular, turn my nose up at the idea of twitching, but continually return to places where Parrot Crossbills have been seen and will be seen by seemingly everybody but me. I don’t keep doing it for the dubious honour of being Britain’s unluckiest birder.

I’ve been birding for eight years to general apathy from friends and occasional hostility from others. But oddly there’s been a recent flourishing of interest from several people, mostly focusing on why we do it, why we ‘just look at them?’. It’s a question that opens a gap of mutual incomprehensibility. They can’t understand the interest, and I can’t understand why they’re not. I have to explain my hobby and the seeming irrationality of it.

I’ve always been interested in animals, since childhood visits to the zoo, watching birds on the garden feeders and being sat in front of the Lion King and Free Willy, my favourite films as a kid. I’ve been a fisherman – fly and coarse – but thankfully never a hunter. I found watching wild animals to be the best route to knowing and to experiencing nature with as minimal an impact as possible. I would feel the thrill of catching a fish between the waits that seemed like they would never end. I would feel conflicted about hauling it on to land, looking at it, then putting it back. Better to have never taken it out in the first place? I recognise that need though, the drive that makes the fisherman spend days on the lakeside, waiting for the elusive fish bite. I don’t know why millions of people will watch Attenborough documentaries, but never try to seek out nature for themselves, unmediated and with the intimacy of real experience.

will keep trying to get to know nature. Nature may be amorphous and defies definition at every attempt, but for me that’s part of the attraction. It is at once full of things to learn and full of things that are unknowable. It takes me to silent places and a horizon without houses, but lets me hear the beating of my heart, and hold conversations with the most interesting people.

The box-ticking, blinkered, crowd mentality of twitching is something I find very distasteful, but with my attempted twitches of Parrot Crossbills it’s taken me to new places, on the Essex coast and in my own home county. It’s shown me the loveliest part of Nottinghamshire.

All without the actual birds.

All in the act of just looking.

Noup Head 04/09/13

Ravens hang in the white like crucifixes on church walls.

The wind that fixes the Ravens there is the wind that pushes the tops of waves over, picks up the scent of salt and the stench of manure and crushed crab fertiliser, and takes it to the gulls circling overhead like vultures.

The path to the cliffs is a rough track over damp grassy ground, becoming steadily bleaker as it extends out of the bays either side. Westray is an isolated Orcadian isle, the most north-westerly of them all, and the ferry from Kirkwall takes as long as the ferry from the mainland did in the first place. On the bus to Pierowall – the main village – we hardly lost sight of the sea. But if sea explains islands, it’s the wind that characterises them. It is the wind that carves the cliffs at Noup Head into the serrated stack of sandstone they are today.

But the wind purifies too.

I stood on the clifftop after a walk that felt longer than it looked, close enough to the edge to worry my mother. The salt and sand and wind that grinds down rock over millennia was gentle on me, rubbing away the tiredness accumulated from early starts and fitful nights in tents. With a wind like this I feel you can breathe again, properly. I can feel more than just air reaching down into the furthest alveoli. I feel the unexpected ecstasy of fresh air again.

The waves below literally boom as they collide with rock. Gannets cry. Fulmars chuckle.

And with the ecstasy, the fear. This is not a towering cathedral of rock but one that plummets, sheer, to the jagged rocks and white chaos of waves below. And I feel a twinge of the old vertigo that inflicts dad and lurks in me. My friend inched to the edge on hands on knees to peer over an overhang. I couldn’t bring myself to get more than a foot closer. Sweaty palms and leaden feet. Vision takes on the peculiarly sharp yet disorientated feel, as if your retina was an unspooling, like a tape measure, into a distance fathomable only by fear.

I stand back. Admire the naturally fearless Gannets folding themselves up and falling headfirst into the water at speed, emerging with a fish and returning to its identical sandstone ledge with its near identical chick; and repeating this with clockwork regularity, clockwork efficiency.

I stand back. Admire the view – greater than 180 degrees – of sea in almost every direction. The most northerly I have been and to the eye just sea beyond.