Monday, 31 October 2011

Sun-seekers

I escaped from under the blankets yesterday. Seeing me hunched under the weight of the ongoing gloom my other half suggested the family headed east for the day, to the coast - and the sun.

Sure enough as we drove out beyond Edinburgh on the A1 we emerged blinking into the warm, coppery light of a perfect autumn day. Aberlady Bay, our destination, sits on the southern shore of the Forth Estuary, just a few miles east of Edinburgh. Low tide reveals a goblet-shaped inlet of mud and sand - a magnet for waders and wildfowl in the colder months. At its mouth the sand spills over into impressive dunes and beaches facing out into the wide entrance to the Forth.

We walked out onto its eastern flank across a long, narrow, rickety wooden bridge, stopping to watch the curlew and redshank probing about absent-mindedly in the sun-glossy mud. We were heading for Gullane Point, where the bay meets the North Sea. The way slowly morphed from muddy track to loose, sandy path across the dunes. A poster at the entrance had advertised a work party to help clear the sea buckthorn that is encroaching onto the species-rich grasslands here, but today it looked magnificent. Huge stands of it bordered the path, sprays of branches studded with lines of apricot-orange berries exploding like fireworks against the grey-green leaves.

At the point a perfect strand of pale gold stretches east to the point. A few couples, families and dog walkers dotted the beach, playing in the sand or dawdling along holding hands. We were halfway along it, Holly and I barefoot, enjoying a last taste of cool freedom before the winter, when Dave pointed out a dark bird sitting incongruously among the gulls at the shore, 50 metres ahead of us. It was an Arctic skua, donkey-brown against the sun-brightened white of its beach-fellows. I expected it to move away as we got closer, but as we approached it lifted, harried by the gulls, and flew directly towards us - passing within a couple of metres of our heads. I've been this close to Arctic skuas before, last summer on Fair Isle in the Shetlands. Then they were harrying me, driving me away from their young. Now this bird was the unwelcome interloper.

Outside the breeding season these birds head south beyond the Equator to Africa or even South America. Strange that a bird that chooses some of the coldest, harshest parts of the world in which to breed should seek out the sun every winter. Maybe the gloom gets them down too. The gulls were keen to move it on because Arctic skuas make their living by mugging other birds. They chase and mither their victims in the air until they regurgitate their last meal - then eat it themselves. That explains their less than flattering scientific name, Stercorarius parasiticus - parasitic dung-hunter. When the Arctic skua got its name 'dung' meant anything that came out of orifices at both ends!

Once we'd watch the Arctic skua disappear over the dunes we finished our walk at the Point, perched on the rocks looking out to sea at the rafts of eider ducks and common scoters lifting and dipping on the swell. Not satisfied with the surprise view of the Arctic skua, Holly stared intently across the Forth through her binoculars, trying unsuccessfully to spot the pomarine skuas we'd been told were about. Me - I was happy - I'd had my day in the sun.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Weather blues

Up here, on what we affectionately call the Ashfield Tundra, we had a cold, grey summer, which is now being followed by a similarly miserable autumn. There have been few days when it's stayed dry. Even fewer when a malicious wind hasn't strafed across the fields from the south west, keeping the trees around the village in constant, swaying motion, like bewitched dancers. And of course, no sun. Days of lowering clouds like army issue blankets draped across the sky. The dullest summer since 1922 - I can't believe autumn will be score any better.

I wonder how the sun-loving, warmth-seeking butterflies and moths have fared. I've seen very few on the wing this year - where do they go? How do they feed when the rain and wind make flight impossible for these tiny aeronauts? Do they huddle under the dripping leaves, grumbling about the weather like I do? I remember a line from D H Lawrence:

'I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.'

Perhaps I should take a leaf from their book.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Village lovers

If I had to choose one sound to describe this village it would be 'chack'. A raucous, echoey, many-voiced 'chack' that explodes from rooftops, trees, even telegraph wires, whenever I'm walking round the village.

Jackdaws live here, roosting in the tall trees that surround the play park, nesting in the chimneypots of those whose fires stay unlit, and hanging about on rooftops like bored teenagers waiting for some action. The British Trust for Ornithology says they love living in villages - near to people, but also near to fields where they forage in unruly groups for grassland invertebrates.

Like arable weeds jackdaws get little attention. They're too common - with over 500,000 pairs in the UK at the last count. But just like many arable weeds they are quite stunning. I watched a flock of them this morning, feeding in one of the horse fields to the north of the village. Spearing the ground with their short, spikey beaks, they were searching for breakfast. They moved across the field like clockwork toys: walk, stop, probe, look about... walk, stop, probe, look about... The field guide describes they gait as 'jaunty', but it looked more purposeful than that to me. More like a military goose-step, I'd say. From a distance they appeared to be black, but through the binoculars I could see the steely grey, lawyer's wig on the nape of their necks that marked them out from the bigger crows they were feeding with.

Away from the fields I sometimes see them from the skylight window above my desk, sitting in the top of the sycamore opposite in couples, preening or daydreaming. Apparently they pair for life, and stay in their couples all through the year. Even the usually very proper Collins Bird Guide describes them as looking 'amorous' when they sit like this, so I don't have too many qualms about sounding anthropomorphic.

Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, means 'raven that eats money', a nod perhaps to their reputation as thieves, stealing jewellery and money to decorate their nests. This trait may have been the origin of the Greek myth of Arne of Thrace, who was turned into a jackdaw after she shopped her country to Minos of Crete in return for a bag of gold. It's a great story - far from being commoners and rogues, we are surrounded by Greek princesses in disguise!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Gone fishing II

I've been reading about salmon farming, and the disastrous effect it can have on wild salmon populations. It's depressing. Farms sited in the wrong places, with the wrong management, can cut a wild population in half, by spreading disease, parasites (especially sea lice), chemical waste, and nutrient loading. Sorry to start in a such a gloomy vein. There seem to be so few fish going up the river this year. Perhaps I'm being alarmist. It may well be just the high water levels here masking their progress.

As it's getting to the end of the season for the salmon run I walked down to the weir again this morning to see if there were any fish still coming through. I'd checked the SEPA website, which reported that the river was at 0.7m. I've no idea what that means really, except that the angler I met the other day said 0.4m was ideal - so I knew I'd have to be lucky to see any. It had been another stormy night - rain cracking on the windows, blown by the stiff south-westerly, and keeping the water levels high.

By the time I ventured out the rain had cleared and the wind had dropped to a softer breeze, though the skies to the north were still low and dirty. Birds seemed to be taking advantage of the lull, scattering along the hedgerows as I walked past, too quickly for my untutored eye to identify them. Nice though, whistling and calling to each other like schoolchildren.

The river at the weir was calmer this time. The ocean rollers at its base had been replaced by fast-moving, foamy whirlpools and rapids. It was ten minutes before I saw a fish. A faint pattern appeared in the churning water - a line of lumpy ripples heading in the opposite direction to the flow. A grey, submarine shape sketched below the foam. It was there for two seconds at most before disappearing in the flume.

It was my only sighting. There may have been more - I didn't have time to wait any longer. That might be it then, four fish for the entire season. Some years it's been hundreds. I really hope it is because the river's been so high.

Note to self:  find out more about farmed salmon - and only buy it if I'm sure it's OK for the wild fish.  Advice welcome please!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Second-class plants?

On most weekdays I take Jake, my friends' young, excitable collie, for a lunchtime comfort break while they're both at work. We usually take a turn round the field to the north of the village, a small triangle of old arable land bounded by the railway line on one side and the river on the other. Jake runs ahead while I mosy along behind - checking what's about, when I'm being good and concentrating on the now - but often drifting off into my own parallel world of things-to-do lists and other mental doodlings. I'm embarassed to admit that I sometimes get back to the village and realise that I remember hardly anything of the 15-minute walk.

But there are times when this tendency to mind-wander can reap some rewards for my work - Friday was one of them. As I walked through the field I was vaguely aware that it looked different. A candyfloss-pink haze hovered about a foot above the sodden, green tangle of weeds that carpets the field. I looked more closely. The haze was made up of thousands of licorice allsorts - the ones with the clear jelly inside, coated with tiny, pink sugar balls - except that they were oval instead of round. They were redshanks (or maybe redshank - do plants keep the singular like groups of birds?) - persicaria maculosa. It's a tallish plant with reddish stems and small pink flowers that you can find in many damp overgrown fields at this time of year. An arable weed - a plant paria to most farmers and a second-class citizen to many wildflower lovers. But it was beautiful in a drift like this.

So I looked more closely at the 'weeds', and spotted something different. A patch of plants with delicate, frondy, lime-green leaves. Some kind of dead-nettle, I guessed. The flowers were amazing. They were large, cream and yellow orchid-like blooms with dark maroon spots on the top lip and purply-red lower skirts - quite stunning. I had no idea what they were called, so I walked on, making a mental note to look them up when I got home. Then the drifting started.
Why don't I know the name of such a striking plant?
Because arable weeds don't get a mention.
Why don't arable weeds get a mention?
Because we think they're common, and because farmers think they're a pest.
I must find out more about them....

So I got home and looked up the mystery plant in my field guide. Large-flowered hemp nettle. Very prosaic - probably an indication of its place in the hierarchy of plant-sexiness. I went further. Looked it up on-line. The links led me on from large flowered hemp nettle to arable weeds in general. And I found out something far less prosaic. Something I didn't realise. Something I think ought to be better known.

There are 150 plants described as 'arable weeds'. Of these seven are counted as extinct in the wild, but there are another 54 - over a third - that are counted as 'threatened' by Plantlife, including the lovely large-flowered hemp nettle. Are arable weeds going to be the next passenger pigeons? So common as to be overlooked; so unloved as to be undervalued, until they've ben wiped from the earth? So I've put them in my blog - one microscopic step towards raising their profile with people who might care enough to notice them on a walk - if they're not mind-wandering too much.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Wild list

Even though I tell myself that going out into the natural world is part of my job, if I'm serious about making some kind of career (maybe that should read 'life') as a nature writer, it still feels like skiving. It's hammered into us pretty early on, isn't it, that unless what we are doing has some clear and immediate output, or is something we don't really like doing, it doesn't count as real work.
Thanks to my e-mail provider crashing yesterday I managed to supress the guilt long enough to escape for an earlier than usual walk. I returned an hour later feeling that, if I was looking for material, I hadn't been very successful - nothing on the river, no unusual encounters with wildlife, a grey, average sort of day. But in the spirit of  my new role I have decided to start making notes each day listing what I have actually seen. Guess what? I saw loads. I heard amazing things. As artists are often banging on, I found the extraordinary in the everyday. This is my list.
Bird sounds. Not the cacophany of a spring morning - in some ways better for a not-so-good birder like me. I heard individual birds, well spaced apart. A robin - easy - one of the only birds still singing as opposed to calling at this time of year. Skylark flying overhead, singing just the first note of its summer song like a stuck record. Long-tailed tits, calling to each other as they moved from tree to tree: 'I'm here'; 'I'm here too'; 'I'm over here now', all in their high fluty whistles. Rooks and crows cawing to themselves as they made their arrow-straight flights across the sky, like black-suited businessmen muttering to themselves as they rush to a meeting. Skeins of greylag geese (or maybe pink-foots, I can't tell yet) yelping like husky teams mushing through the air.
I saw the first ice of autumn, stretched like cellophane around the edges of puddles and pools, sometimes suspended between short tufts of grass like torn clingfilm. Flooded meadows. The rushy hollow at the edge of the sheep field is a lake. Earlier in the year it was full of drifts of rushes, reeds and grasses in shades of ochres, yellows and russets, like one of those chic minimalist gardens they feature at Chelsea. Now it's back to being a wild, messy, marsh, the haunt of teal and mallard (though there were none there yesterday).
In fact, I could have gone on. The list, as they say, was endless. I'm sometimes teased about my propensity for list making - shopping lists, to do lists, holiday packing lists - but yesterday I think I proved that lists have their uses.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gone fishing

Walked through the woods, over the footbridge and along the far bank of the river to the weir yesterday, to see if I could see the salmon leap on their autumn run upstream. 'Run', I thought as I walked along, is a strange word to use of a fish - why not 'swim'? As I got to the bottom of  the steps down to the bridge I caught sight of four goosanders huddled on the opposite bank in an eddy of the river, and out of the churning flow. The river sits in a deep, rocky cleft here, and when, as now, we have heavy rains it swells to cover the red, sandy beach that normally edges the river below the bridge. The slim, elegant ducks I saw looked like females, with cinnamon heads, grey backs and pale bellies. I checked when I got home and found that they could have been males in eclipse, the casual, 'not-on-the-pull-at-the-moment' plumage they adopt outside the breeding season. Had I been a better bird watcher I would have known to look for the large, white patch on the wing which would tell me they were males. Too late now. As soon as they caught sight of me they shimmied into the flow and bobbed away downstream like plastic ducks in a race.
Once over the bridge the path doubles back along the top of the opposite bank, some twenty feet above the river. I walked through a narrow corridor of woodland and crossed a stile that led me down the steep slope, slippery with beech mast, to the edge of the weir.
It's a strange place to be. The weir is almost like a door between one world and another. Above it the river is a broad, tranquil sheet of water, glossy and black, except where the breeze shivers its surface to a nap. The only intimation that it's moving comes from the light scattering of foam across its surface, which heads towards you at surprising speed when the river is in spate. But as the water breasts the weir it changes completely - as does the landscape through which it flows. Soft, gentle wooded banks give way to hard, rocky outcrops and cliffs. The water crashes over the concrete, creating metre-high waves that seem to be trying to get back up the weir. The river becomes a narrow, stormy, mud-brown sea lurching between the rocks.
It's through this maelsrom that the salmon have to battle to crest the weir and get to their spawning grounds in the calm, gravelly pools further upstream. I didn't really expect to see a fish with the river so high. I was ready to move away when I spotted a dark shape that lifted from the water for an instant. I thought it was a salmon. Anyway it made me wait a little longer. As I watched a dipper zipped across my vision heading downstream on a mission. Then another shape in the water. No doubt this time. Caught it hovering horizontally in an arc of spume in front of the face of the weir. Then another, even better sighting. A salmon launched itself out of the water and crashed sideways into the concrete of the weir before being swept back down.
I was suddenly conscious of another presence and looked round to see an angler studying the water. 'Seen any?', he asked. 'Three', I said. He seemed surprised, despite carrying a rod ready for action. 'Thought the river would be too high, though it is dropping. 1.6 metres yesterday, down to 1.3metres today, according to SEPA's website. Tomorrow will be better. Still, worth a try.' And he headed off to a spot above the weir. I didn't know what the figures meant, but resolved to check out the SEPA website and find out, if it helps me choose good days for my own fishing expeditions - strictly without a rod.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

SAS bird

The other day my 12 year-old daughter and I braved the heavy rain and ventured out for a walk. We headed south from the village, through a meadow, under the railway bridge and back into what we call the Big Field. We walked around the edge of The Pond - the weedy, reed-fringed pool in the centre of the field. A moorhen sat in the middle, but tail-twitched an exit into the reeds on the other side of the pond as soon as it detected us. We stayed still, hoping it would reappear. Suddenly a sharp, high-pitched piping came from the reeds on our side, followed by a querrulous screech. 'Sounds like a water rail', said my daughter, who's pretty knowledgeable about these things, 'but I'm fairly sure we don't get them round here'.
We followed the piping, but as we got closer to the source of the sound it went quiet. Stalking isn't easy when you're picking your way through thick, tussocky grasses and marshy rafts of reeds and rushes. We got as close as we could to the edge of the more open water - my daughter close enough to fill her wellies with pungent, marshy water - and waited.
As I looked across the thin, green porridge of weed-blanketed water, one of the larger lumps of weed lifted a couple of inches, trembled, then slowly subsided again. I thought I saw a dark shape underneath it - a frog maybe. It happened again. This time I had my binoculars on it - and to my amazement saw the head of a moorhen rising out of the water like a freshwater Neptune, its head crowned with dripping emerald weed. It looked around gingerly, spotted us and slowly sank again beneath the surface, like an sinister diver in a James Bond movie, waiting to make his move.
This happened several times, until the bird obviously felt the coast was clear enough to blow his cover, shake off his weedy disguise, and swim back to the opposite reeds. At the same time another, smaller moorhen appeared on our side of the water, behaving in just the same way. It gradually worked its way over to the other side, camouflaged as a lump of weed. The moorhen had been on an undercover operation to rescue its chick.
Mission accomplished!