Monday, 27 February 2012

Return of the hoi-poloi

The marshy pool in the sheep field across the railway bridge has been silent all winter. After the first freeze even the moorhens abandoned it for more comfortable quarters. I still went there once in a while - not only to see if anything was about but to enjoy the peace, and to admire the sepia-print patterns that the frosted reeds and rushes made, and the swirls of pondweed blown and frozen into contour lines by the icy winds.

Things have changed dramatically over the last few days. Our noisy neighbours have moved back in. The pond now feels less like a place of contemplation and more like a football stadium - with me as an away supporter who's accidentally strayed into the home end. Don't get me wrong - it's great to see the black-headed gulls back here to breed. It's just that the feeling is obviously not mutual. Once they return from their wintering grounds they guard the breeding colony increasingly assertively. For now they just lift off the pool as I approach, yelling mild obscenities and wheeling overhead to keep an eye on my movements. Once they've paired up and made their nests their language will get much worse, and the flypasts closer - despite me being several hundred metres from the actual breeding area. Luckily they're not as aggressive as their bigger cousins the black-backs, and so far they've never made actual contact.

For now it's still safe to approach the pool for a closer look. The gulls are sporting a range of millinery. Some are already wearing the full chocolate-brown cowl of their summer breeding plumage, others simple buffs that encircle their necks. There's even the odd bird still with just its winter head-spots, like two small fascinators perched at a jaunty angle just behind each ear - they won't get into the Royal box at Ascot yet! They're incredibly raucous, and the place now sounds more like a street market than a quiet country field. Surrounded by the hubbub are four mute swans - keeping mute of course. Sitting rigid in the water they look like a well-to-do family forced to sit too close to the hoi-poloi at the seaside. They'll be gone in a few days, but the black-heads are here for the summer now. It's going to be a riot.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Outside in

'Your mother...would always bring something home with her to brighten the caravan. In summer it was wild flowers or grasses. When the grass was in seed she could make it look absolutely beautiful in a jug of water... In the autumn she would pick branches of leaves, and in winter it was berries or old man's beard.'
from Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

About a month ago I noticed that the one horse chestnut tree in the field by the railway was tipped with toffee-coloured sticky buds. It was too tempting to resist. I snapped off a short branch (asking the tree first of course), brought it home and stuck it in a milk bottle on the kitchen windowsill.

For weeks it sat, unchanging. Buds still sticky but tightly closed, branch pale and speckled, with those eponymous horseshoe leaf scars along its length. Then quite suddenly the buds exploded into life. It was like watching one of those time-lapse film clips so beloved of 70s documentaries. Within a few days sharp green leaves unfolded at the end of slender, stretching stalks, following the light from the kitchen window in a slow, daily arc. I was inordinately pleased with myself for thinking to bring this tiny piece of life into the house.

I realise it's something I do right through the year without really thinking about it - something loads of people do. Today it's hazel catkins, the greeny-yellow male flowers hanging down like lambs' tails, the tiny ruby tufts of the female flowers just visible if you look hard. The way the hazel arranges its flowers all makes sense if you do. The catkins hang down so that the wind can catch all those tiny grains of pollen and whisk them off to the beautiful, but understated female flowers, which sit accommodatingly upright on the branch. No need to be showy like those blousy insect-pollinated flowers - hazels wear the Chanel of plant couture. That's one of the benefits of bringing things in, of course. The chance to really look closely at plants that we usually only glance at as we walk past.

As the seasons move on it will probably be pussy willow, hawthorn blossom, buttercups - you can guess how it goes. It seems to me that people, deep down, still have that atavistic urge to bring the outdoors in, to keep a connection with the real world. It's why children always want to pick wild flowers. I'm glad some of us never grow up.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Wild goose story No 2

There was a platoon of soldiers dressed in gunmetal-grey uniforms marching across the field on the other side of the river the other day. They goose-stepped over the grass in serried ranks, all facing the same way, all hunching their striped shoulders against the squally, stinging rain.

The pink-footed geese have arrived - there were over 100 of them on Tuesday - grazing in a tight pack on the muddy, just-growing sheep pasture. They arrive here every year at about this time - a couple of weeks after the first oystercatchers. They only come to the grass once they've exhausted the stubble fields - their dining rooms of choice when they arrive in autumn. Though pink-foots roost a few miles north of here I can't be sure these are the same birds. They may be geese starting to make their way back north from wintering grounds in England.  Either way they're yet another tick on my 'things that make it spring' list.

Talking of which ... oystercatcher numbers are building fast. While we were away my friend texted me to say there were 10 (he knows I'm obsessed) - up from the two I had last seen. Now there are over 40. They lift and wheel around in squadrons now, scimitars of bright white wings edged with black, piping anxiously if they think you're getting too close. Once they calm down they spread out in loose covies around the field, plunging those glorious red bills deep into the soil in search of a titbit. It's a fine sight on a dreich February day.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Wild goose story No 1

Last week we stayed in a Tardis. We arrived at what we thought was a holiday cottage after dark. Everything seemed normal. It was simple but cosy, just the job for a quiet week on the Solway coast. But when I stepped outside the next morning it seemed I had been transported to another planet, where the fields grow geese instead of grass, the hedgerows move and shudder with life, and the sky sings to you. Then I realised it was Earth after all - we had just been transported back in Time.

We were staying on the RSPB's Mersehead nature reserve, where there are over 6000 barnacle geese grazing on the fields and salt marsh. Farmland birds like yellowhammer, tree sparrow and lapwing are still common as muck, and the air rings with the songs of a thousand skylarks. Fifty years ago a fair bit of our lowland countryside would have been like this. A hundred years ago it all would have been. When we read the figures in the magazines ' 50% loss in this species'; '79% decline in that species' it's hard to imagine what it really means. This is what it means. When I walk around the fields at home I'm thrilled to see one or two skylarks; to watch a pair of lapwing displaying; to hear a yellowhammer demanding 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'. But here at Mersehead you can get a taste of what it must have been like to be surrounded by everyday birds - every day.

The barnacle geese, of course, are an exception. For some reason the whole Svalbard population - nearly 30,000 at the last count - has decided that the Solway Firth is the place to go - the Costa del Sol of brantian holiday destinations. They were never found anywhere else, as far as we know. There are other barnacle geese that frequent different spots around the Scottish Highlands and islands, but they come from Greenland, or Russia - not Svalbard. The Solway geese roost on the endless sand and mudflats that disappear out into the estuary like a mirage. At dawn I watched them flying in to feed. Skein after skein scribbling their dark scratchy patterns across the sky as they moved around to take turns in the lead. They filled the stubbly fields of the reserve with their doggy barks as they grazed and chatted. Despite their ubiquity I never once thought 'only more barnacle geese' when I passed them. They were in the right place.

While we were staying at the reserve over the week we heard about some rare geese that had been spotted locally - a red-breasted goose, and a Taverner's Canada goose. My daughter and other half duly went off in pursuit, and came back, triumphant. I'm sure they were beautiful birds, fascinating to see, but I couldn't get worked up about them. There is of course the remote possibility that they are naturally spreading our way - but it's very unlikely. More probably they were either swept off course, hitched up with the wrong crowd, or maybe even escaped from a collection. So not in the right place, you see.

For me, that's what it's all about. Species, habitats, ecosystems, biodiversity - all being in the right place at the right time in the right numbers. Nature reserves like Mersehead are a window back to a time when things weren't as bad as they are now - and a signpost to a future where things could get better again, if we followed them.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Nice weather for some

The cold snap has, it seems, sent the oystercatchers away again. I haven't seen them since the beginning of the week. So the river field was silent again today - the landscape blurred by a soft mist, the sky empty of birds. It felt as if the land was in suspended animation. The mud was solid as cold chocolate, the puddles and  pools crazy with trampled and refrozen ice.

But coming back through the gateway to the field where the cattle used to be overwintered I found some life where I least expected it. In the place where the cattle congregated by the gate waiting for the farmer to bring their feed there's a large, muddy, hoof-trampled area. It fills with rain to form a wide, shallow pool every winter. Of course it was frozen, but unlike most of the ice it still had a smooth, clear surface - very tempting to slide across on a dull day. I was about to launch myself, Torvill and Dean-style (in wellies?!) across this makeshift skating rink when a movement under the ice caught my eye. There, skulling around nonchalantly over the muddy bottom of the pool was a bevy of small, shiny-black water boatmen (Corixidae, the ones that swim on their fronts, not their backs). They seemed completely unaffected by the thick layer of ice in which they were trapped. A miracle, I thought, that these tiny, cold-blooded creatures can survive like that!

But apparently my amazement was misplaced. They not only survive, but thrive in such conditions. The colder the water, the more oxygen it can carry. The waterboatmen latch on to oxygen-rich air bubbles in the water beneath the ice and use them like tiny aqualungs, so they don't need access to the surface to breathe. They will be feasting on the rich detritus and algae in the cattle-poached mud, cocking a snook at their predators who can't get at them inside their own personal aquarium, and generally having a whale of a time.

Which brings me neatly to the other thing I wanted to say. As it's my daughter's half-term break the family is off to have a whale of a time ourselves next week. So no more blogging until 20 February, when I hope to be able to tell you about some of the wildlife we saw on the Solway Firth. Brace yourselves for many wild goose stories!

Monday, 6 February 2012

The blood-foots are back

The first of our oystercatchers arrived back last week. I feel I can say 'our' oystercatchers because apparently they are faithful to the same breeding sites year after year. And although only a few of the 100 or so that eventually turn up here each spring actually stay to breed in the area, surely it's likely that the others take the same routes on passage to their own breeding grounds each year?

Anyway, I saw the first one on Friday, strutting about over the just-ploughed section of the River Field in that jerky, clockwork toy way they have. Looking for earthworms I expect. Not many bivalves to be found around here. Despite the name - Haemotopus ostralegus, or blood-footed oyster gatherers - they are neither particularly red-footed (more a deep pink really) or oyster gourmets. They use that blood-red dagger of a bill of theirs to winkle molluscs out from between the rocks or mud at the coast, or, as in our field, to get at juicy invertebrates hidden deep in the soil. Sometimes it's hard to guess what the namers were thinking of when they chose the scientific tags for their discoveries. Maybe they thought bloody-billed cockle-winkler just didn't have the same ring to it?

The point is that this means, in my book, that Spring has officially arrived. Spring as a state of mind that is, as a sense of life truly stirring again in both the natural world and for me; a sense of freedom and release, rather than as better weather coming, or the position of the Sun vis a vis the Earth. If it hadn't been so damn cold I'd have been running around casting off garments in all directions when I saw it.

From now on, assuming that things go as they have done for every year we have lived here, the numbers of oystercatchers will gradually increase day-on-day. Unless we get a big dump of snow or a hard, long freeze, when the blood-foots will go back to the coast for a while to find more accessible pickings. In the end there will be a great flock of them, tucked away under the river bank early in the mornings; mooching in raucous crowds in the fields across the river in the middle of the day, bringing life, colour and noisy pipings to every walk in the field.

I can't wait.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Making a mountain out of a molehill

Size, as they say, isn't everything. This morning I climbed a mountain called Dumyat (pronounced Dum-i-at, not Dum-yat as I did for the first year we lived here, prompting withering glances from the locals). It's actually not much more than 400m high. There's a well-trodden path to the top, worn wide and bare by the hundreds of walkers that climb it every week. But it still has all the qualities of a very good mountain.

The view from the summit is spectacular. On a truly clear day the whole of the Forth estuary is spread beneath you: the factories and bond warehouses; the refineries at Grangemouth; then fields melting into the shining silver path of the Forth itself as it snakes its way to the sea, widening and wilding as it does so. Today was more hazy, the sunlight slanting at odd angles through the thin clouds, tinting the hills and river a rosy pink. Look the other way and the great line of the Highland Boundary Fault marches across the horizon - from Ben Lomond in the west to Ben Vorlich, then on to Ben Lawers and its cohorts in the east. A stonking sight today with those slivers of sun catching their snow-topped peaks.

And there's a trig point, and a beacon, at the top. And a nice place out of the wind to eat your sandwiches. But what really makes Dumyat a mountain is the fact that it's wild. What makes it wild? Today it was a raven, a bird as big as a buzzard, that glided high above us, cronking its rough, dark call. You only find ravens living in wild places - they need undisturbed cliff ledges (or high trees) in which to build their rough, branchy nests to breed. Though they're not adverse to the odd excursion to a rubbish tip or roadside to scavenge if times are tough. They seem dour birds, but they're fiercely intelligent. They remind me of Marvin the Robot in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 'Brain the size of a planet and here I am stuck on this godforsaken hillside making babies'. February is nest-building time for ravens. And the fact that ravens are on Dumyat, probably looking for a nest site, makes it a wild place in my book.

So there you have it. Wild, great view, trig point, sandwich spot - what else do you need in a mountain?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Live large and dream small

Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.


Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain's hearse,
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.


What's living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me


Mowing where the grass grew,
bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe.


What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.

Lore, by R.S Thomas

Thinking about my last blog, I remembered this poem. It's always been one of my favourites. I love its sense of defiance. In some ways it says in a few lines what I struggled to articulate in several paragraphs.

'What's living but courage?' 'Doing' requires courage. It means taking responsibilty for what's going on in the world and making an impact through your own actions.  But it also gives you back your soul. If you put time and effort into doing something you value it much more than if you are handed something on a plate. Or watch it on a screen. Or read about it in a newspaper.

Strangely enough the need to go back to doing seems to be a bit of a theme at the moment. Mark Avery, one-time RSPB Conservation Director and now on-line commentator on the plight of the country's natural environment, was talking about it in his blog yesterday. Even eco-household-name Dick Strawbridge of It's Not Easy Being Green fame was going on about it on the radio. So it must be an idea whose time has come, mustn't it?

Perhaps we could start a movement?