Thursday, 27 January 2011


Great week in Barcelona on the annual art college residential trip. Back at home the first shoots are sprouting up and snowdrops are appearing at the roadside as I cycle to and from work in the cold mornings. I even saw a butterfly in the garden last week but I think it was probably woken early from hibernation by me moving a log-pile and therefor destined for an icy demise.

In Barcelona the wildlife and landscape are different in so many ways. The land, although chilly and spring like, is dry and dusty and there are palm trees and cactuses on the hillsides. In Gaudi's wonderful landscaped Park Guell there were parrots everywhere squawking and pairing up in the palm tops. The females, I assume, were guarding the entrances to the nests while the males flew back and fro with oversize twigs and straws. In the fish market the counters were loaded with mediterranean species not seen here, black sea urchins, scorpion fish and mantis shrimps.

Monday, 24 January 2011

First Norfolk Snowdrops

We explored Burgh Castle yesterday. I've not been there since I was a child, and didn't really remember either its size (particularly imposing from river level) or how exposed it is. Strong winds blew across the marshes and Breydon water, where various duck floated in rafts. On a dull day, shelduck stood out amongst various smaller ducks. Gulls wheeled noisily around the walls and over reed beds, but it was not a day to stop and watch for too long.

To borrow a phrase from Simon Barnes, I am a bad birdwatcher. But I'm even worse at recognising flora, so I am making positive efforts to identify common British trees and shrubs. At Burgh we found hawthorn and ash (I told you I was a novice!) amongst others. I'm just going to try and fix those in my mind for now.

Stopping in the graveyard on the way back to the car we found the first snowdrops of the year, in amongst this larger carpet of yellow flowers - winter aconite?


A cold winter's day. Pulled some of the reeds out of the school pond as I do every year to stop it all growing over. Ice on some of the surface and although this should be the quietest time in the year, ref wildlife, things are clearly stirring in readiness for the spring. Saw quite a number of newts both smooth and great crested, and also several frogs and dragonfly larvae. The great crested newts are already in full breeding colours and not wishing to disturb them I decided to leave much of the weeds alone as they were clearly visible crawling up to the surface to breath. The Great Crested, or warty newt, Triturus cristatus, is very protected and we need to get more advice at the school about ensuring that we are doing all we can to help them. Such beautiful creatures, the males with their large jagged dorsal fin, white tail stripe and bright orange spotted belly, so much larger than the smooth newts that they share the pond with.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The sound of silence

Last Sunday was we were blessed with a beautiful day, with genuinely warm sunshine, and it was a pleasure to be in the garden - not spring but the hint of it. This warmth seemed to inspire the birds, particularly a robin that sang beautifully from the top of hedges and trees, presumably marking its territory and advertising its wares.

After a couple of hours almost uninterrupted song, I decided to try recording it. Inevitably the moment I got my recorder out it moved away, leaving me recording what I thought was silence. On listening back, I realised that far from silence, what I had was a soundscape of the garden on a windy day. In this extract you can hear the alarm call of a dunnock alerting others to my presence, nearby rooks chattering to each other, the wind in the trees, the neighbour's windchimes, my breathing, and even, far off, robin still singing. I realise that sometimes one has to find delight in these small things, even if the thing one is not hoping to see or hear does not happen as one hoped. If it were predictable, the joy would be diminished.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Good hunting

It seems to be a truth of birdwatching that the times that you go out looking for something, kitted up and expectant, you will be disappointed. The karmic balance is restored by days like today, when our afternoon walk was accompanied by a barn owl hunting in the fields and hedgerows seemingly wherever we went. It is always a treat to get even a brief glimpse of these ghostly predators, but this was a prolonged, close performance as it followed the line of the hedges and quartered the fields searching (successfully) for small mammals.

Almost literally stumbling on a green woodpecker and seeing a kestrel being mobbed by rooks topped off a delightful half hour of nature on our doorstep.

Dead Heron

I was given a dead heron by a friend at work. It was found dead in a drainage ditch underneath a footbridge. Having clarified the exact location and time, date of find etc I phoned up the RSPB to ask how I should declare such finds. This is also in relation to finding road-kill owls or buzzards because as a natural historian and artist, keen to re-assemble skeletons or to study and draw specimens, I want to clarify how to operate properly within the law. I certainly wouldn't want to fall fowl, no pun intended, of laws designed to quite properly protect certain species from persecution. Having spoke at length to the RSPB, and then Natural England, a clear answer still seems elusive and so they are going to email me information. Cleaned the mud off the dead heron and took photographs with the children who were fascinated by the heron's large scaly feet.

Also filmed the starlings flying over the house this evening, coming in with the sunset from the west and heading down to roost at Ham Wall and perhaps TV stardom ? They came over in consistent waves from 4.10 to 4.30, about 20 or so distinct flocks heading in from feeding on farms on the levels somewhere. Many of the squadrons flying high in the sky and hard to see approaching while other large groups strung out in lines and coming in low over the surrounding trees and houses, their wings making a swooshing sound which alerts you to their passing as you work in the garden.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Starlings Roosting

Watched the starlings coming in to roost at Ham wall reserve down on the Somerset levels about a mile from our house. Talking to the RSPB man there about the different reed beds that are being used by the starlings and 'Countryfile' are coming to film them next week. It seems that the starlings come in and once down into the reeds they then sometimes flit along amongst the cover to settle in the adjacent beds. Watched the murmeration for about 20 minutes as it coiled and fed back on itself low in the sky with Glastonbury Tor in the background. Tried to shoot a little footage but its hard to capture the scale of the events as birds are coming in from all directions and video just isn't as sharp as your eyes at picking out the thousands of little birds. Watched the starlings from about 4 until 4.20, noticeably later than even a week ago.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A trip to Horsey

Over the christmas break we undertook our first combined 'Hedgefinders' outing, accompanied by some of the family, to the beach at Horsey Gap, one of the main North Norfolk seal pupping beaches.

It has apparently been a bumper year for grey seals locally, with over 300 pups at Horsey and some 700 at Blakeney. It is a real privilege to be able to get so close to these normally sea-bound mammals, as they haul onto the beaches to pup and mate at this time of year. Most are on the beach (roped off to prevent interference which can result in abandonment), but some pups come into the dunes, where one can inadvertently almost stumble on them, especially on the foggy day that we visited. The presence of fog also exacerbated the unearthliness of their calls. The strange wailing that drifted towards us through the winter mists was at times canine, at other times almost human, and often quite eerie as you can hear in this recording:

Here are some links to other recordings:

Although I have recorded a lot of music, this is my first attempt at field-recording wildlife, and although there is a lot of background noise (the sea, passing children, camera noises etc), I'm pleased that I've managed to get a discernible recording of what I was trying to capture. For the record, I was using a Zoom H4n, and slightly EQ'd and compressed the recordings subsequently in order to optimise the seal noises, although the range of frequencies that the sea presents makes this a challenge. In undertaking this enhancement, I noticed that within the adult noises I recorded, there are two clear frequency 'spikes' at around 500 and 1200khz simultaneously, which I imagine with the right equipment and enough recordings, one could use to identify individual 'voices' through their signature frequencies. Hopefully in due course, I shall be able to improve the quality of my recording, as I learn more about both how to capture and enhance the sounds.

All in all, a highly enjoyable and memorable experience, both for being so close to the animals, but also because of the opportunity to share it with family and friends.