A derelict church

     It is mid November and the factories of tourism are closed. Guest houses have no vacancies and no occupants; tea rooms and cafés are dark and lifeless. Pitlochry is still bright with light decorations adorning lamp posts and Christmas music spilling out of gift shops, but away from the trunk roads and railways the smaller towns are shrivelling. Gift outlets are closing and being replaced by fast food outlets. In a small village starlings whistle and gather on a slated church spire. The thick stone walls of the church are in good condition but the wooden, padlocked doors are bleached with wisps of faded green paint. Wooden boards back the arched windows. Many of the small glass panels making the mosaic are missing, some of those remaining are shattered. A few rectangles of red glass remain to show the pattern – a crimson edging to a plain glass centre. Parts of the lead frame holding the glass pieces in place are broken and twisted. Inside the empty space is as dark as a coffin. The death of this church seems to represent the withering of the community. Tourism may still be viable but this is imported wealth, the land is impoverished.
     Above the village dark blocks of trees are plonked onto the hills ending abruptly in stark, straight lines. The plantation is broken into blocks by tracks. Within the shadows the trees are crowded together like matchsticks in a box, their branches clattering like children playing with swords. This is mere farming of trees, hardly a habitat but a crop, yet it can still provide an experience. I come here to savour the space, a space that allows thoughts to expand and meander. Sounds are minimal but, like a well-constructed dish, each is distinct yet combines into a balanced dish. The distant whisper of running water provides a subtle marinade for the squeal of jay and ting of coal tits. The dripping of water from the branches into puddles provides the sauce. A subtle aroma of musk and soft moss pillows smothering boulders are the seasoning. Occasional flocks of small birds rove through the woods yet in the villages finches and tits fill the bushes like lichen dripping off branches. Goldcrest hover over the tips of conifer branches like humming birds, tits fizz across roads. Bird feeders adorn shrubs like baubles. The birds have become garden entertainment driving a modern industry – I receive catalogues from companies built entirely on the supply of bird food and feeders. We seem to deflect our responsibility from maintaining an environment where our wildlife thrives by providing farmed seed. We continue to crave our wildlife as our communities shrivel and fade. The starlings roosting in the church now have more use for it than the community it used to serve.

The land of the wolf

Crow and raven fly to roost in conifer woods above Pitlochry. The hill fades to darkness as the Corvids sit on the upper branches of the trees, silhouetted against the grey clouds. They call across the glen, croaks and caws mixing in a conversation that I cannot understand. From nearby undergrowth a bark like that of a large hound echoes through the gloom. I hear branches snap as an animal pushes through fallen trees. Instinctively I pause to look for the beast but it has fled. What would my reaction be if wolves still lived here?
At Braemar a shard of original woodland survives. Looking from the village, the whole of this birch wood can be seen dressing the nearby hillside like a well-tailored suit, a delicate purple haze drifting over the moor. The balance between ground, animals and sky determines the distribution of the trees, the density of which waxes and wanes in response. Dense stands of interwoven branches alternate with open areas flooded with light where the ground is smothered in heather, juniper and grass. There is no abrupt ending to the wood it simply thins to isolated trees. Near the village a group of 14 birds flies over with a direct flight and occasional folding of the triangular wings that at a glance could be mistaken for starlings. The call could not – a soft, high-pitched trill that is as much felt by my ears as heard.
I splutter a name – ‘waxwing!’
After tantalising views they settle amongst juniper, clambering over the bushes calling constantly. They cling to the ends of branches, dive into the depths of the bushes and hang upside down flapping wings. For quarter of an hour they ransack the vegetation like starlings attacking a bird table. The juniper remains green, yet all I can see is a mass of spine covered branches. Although soft to touch, they are not waxwing food. I imitate the waxwing by lifting branches up to look beneath. There were the wrinkled, blue berries about the size of petit pois nestled at the heart of the bush. This is waxwing food.
These birds breed in birch forest in Scandinavia. They have learned the intricacies of this habitat through the pressures of survival. The wolf still roams amongst their extensive Northern woodland. Here in Scotland the waxwing have been drawn to a mere fragment of a habitat edge. It should dominate the glen. Next to the village, a deer fence crosses the forest. On the outside of the fence there are old trees with gnarled trunks and dying branches scattered amongst dense heather. Inside the fence there is a dense mass of saplings smothering the ground, regenerating the forest. This is a habitat out of balance. The deer are magnificent, great rough-necked beasts with head-dresses of pointed antlers appearing to reign over the glen, but it should be the wolf which reigns. Deer are everywhere – I see them outside the cottage where we are staying, in the woods and on the moors where a single stag still roars. In tangled vegetation, a pair of bright, sparkling branches catches the eye before I realise they are antlers and notice the grey face looking straight at me. The large, dark eyes do not blink and the erect ears are fixed. The pale rear defines the extent of the body that is motionless. The deer should be nervous of a canine pack, not the hunter’s gun. The carnivore is attracted to the weakest leaving the strong to thrive. The carnivore is ever present; the deer cannot stand and decimate a patch of ground before wandering on. The deer and habitat both become stronger when wolves are present.
Back at our cottage an unseen pack of foxhound howl across the glen in an echo of history. My pulse quickens, I look around nervously and feel a few degrees warmer.

The eye of a gull

A bird’s character starts with its eye, and the eye of this black-headed gull is looking at me. It’s not frightened but hopeful, a plea for me to provide food. The scene is reflected in the eye, the sky forming a highlight, coot and mallard also hoping for food and a tiny image of me sitting on this bench made of weathered wooden slats. The gull’s world in miniature is projected in microscopic clarity, a mirror of the image shining on the bird’s retina. In this tiny drop we are sharing this world, sharing this moment.
The gull may have been looking at me with hope, and it may have seemed as though we were connected, but there is a barrier between us. There is a film of fear which is taught to every one of us. I noticed this whilst walking beside the canal at Llangollen. The towpath is so close to the water that I can easily reach down and touch it. The smoothly flowing, tea-coloured water is cold, stinging my fingers. Children are constantly told to stay away lest they fall in. I think about tasting it, but recoil after a lifetime of teaching that wild water is unclean, dangerous. Ribbon like leaves of water plants waft in the current like hay meadows in the wind and plump roach swim slowly upstream, rising occasionally to snatch an autumn fly. I imagine Tarka swimming past. Despite this picture of purity, I recoil from contact. It is ingrained in me that this un-processed wildness is dangerous. Everything we need must come from wildness, but it must pass through the film, be processed into the human world, to be safe. Are we so driven by technology that things which have not been purified by it are harmful? Is the world we occupy so contaminated, so poisoned, that real contact with it needs to be regulated?

Footprints

I am following footprints, a pattern of tracks along a forest trail. A multitude of opposed arches, the marks of cloven hooves, leave blades of mud. The prints mark the passing of a herd of herbivores along the path I am walking. The marks are crisp, fresh. I listen but all I can hear is the swish of wind in branches and occasional calls of coal tit and goldcrest. The tracks continue for half a mile. To leave the track in the wood I have to climb a low bank where the ground is smothered by a sponge of grass, bramble and branches. With each step the sponge is squashed and branches snapped. Beneath the trees the ground is brown pine needles and hidden branches. This ground feels hollow. A tangle of dead, scaly, reptilian twigs stops my progress beneath the trees, threatening to impale my eye. The decision to follow the obvious track is easy.
The hoof prints stop where the track emerges from the pines. Wind turbines stand on the hill. At first these are silent, but closer there is a soft hush like a distant jet plane. They stand like weather vanes rotating in unison. A derelict stone hut stands proud on the skyline, two gable ends and a single crumbling wall, whilst sheep graze quietly and chew the cud on the sward beneath the blades. A buzzard drifts slowly between the turbines, balanced on the wind as each wing makes minute adjustments, feeling each ripple of air. Flocks of fieldfare, shouting their chackly call, fly past like dust clouds in the wind. The sound of the turbines competes with the wind in the trees. The trees win. As I spend a few moments next to the wind farm the noise recedes from my attention like a fading echo.

Bird of the month – oystercatcher

Some of the birds that frequent the Wirral are so distinctive that they can be recognised by anybody. One of these is the oystercatcher. This bird is present on our shore all year round, although the numbers are far higher in the winter. One of its old names is the ‘seapie’. If you think of a bird coloured like a magpie but living by the sea you have an idea of what this bird looks like – black and white. Unlike the magpie, it has a long, straight, bright orange or red bill and it does not have a long tail. This bold plumage and bill is so eye catching that you almost fail to notice the pink legs. In flight it has black wings with a bold white stripe running along its length and white lower back and base of the tail, again producing a very bold pattern.
As well as bold plumage, this bird has a strong, piping call that is constantly present on the Wirral shore. Some birds have a white collar over the throat. These are not a separate species.

Flocks of oystercatcher are commonly seen flying low across the beach and sea ahead of people and dogs in an attempt to find an undisturbed area. This causes the birds to use energy instead of feeding, and it is not unusual after hard weather to find dead oystercatcher on the shore.

The bill of oystercatchers varies in shape. Some birds have broad, chisel shaped bills with blunt tips. Others have slightly longer, narrower bills with pointed tips. These birds have been described as hammer’s or stabber’s and reflect the birds feeding habits. The shape is not fixed, though. Bird’s bills are composed of keratin, like our finger nails, and their shape is due to a balance between growth and wear. As the birds change food, either as a result of local prey abundance changing or moving habitat, the shape of their bills changes. This importance of wear on determining bill shape can also cause grotesque shapes when there is a slight misalignment between the mandibles. This weekend I saw an oystercatcher feeding in fields by the Wirral coastal park that had a bill almost twice as long as usual with narrow, crossed tips. It could only feed by putting its bill side on to the short, grazed grass and trying to pull small items into its mouth with its tongue. Sadly, the likelyhood of this bird surviving the winter are slim.

There has been a change in breeding behaviour by this species over the past century. The traditionally nesting area is a flat beach but increasing disturbance has caused declines in many areas. From the Liverpool area northwards birds started nesting in fields and by rivers beginning in the late 1800’s. Now inland breeding is widespread in Scotland and parts of Northwest England. This fundamental change in breeding habitat is not confined to England, but has been seen in many area of northern Europe.

The formation of large flocks of oystercatcher is a northern European phenomenon. Whilst several other species occur in the world, they rarely reach the abundance seen on the Wirral shores in winter. When Roger Tory Peterson (of field guide fame) visited Hilbre islands in the Dee estuary in the 1960’s, he was moved to write ‘the oystercatcher is the star of the show’. He simply was not used to seeing such large flocks of the American oystercatcher in comparable areas. It is easy to forget how special are common birds are. They are our legacy for the future and deserve our protection just as much as rarities.

Missing species

Many waterways, both natural and man made, traverse England. One of these, the shropshire union canal running from Chester to Ellesmere Port, was visited yesterday. In the built up areas this is the textbook ‘green corridor’. Mallard escort their ducklings between narrowboats whilst the males gather in groups to moult. Moorhens sit on their untidy mat of vegetation which serves as a nest.
In the rural areas, the banks are the haunt of warblers. Five species are breeding here, with both chiffchaff and whitethroat being well through the breeding cycle, many pairs feeding young. Despite the obvious vitality of the bird populations, some birds are missing. Warblers in general are abundant but no willlow warblers are present.The woodland are also devoid of spotted flycatcher. Water meadows and damp pasture are conspicuously missing yellow wagtail. Perhaps a little less obviously, an extensive area of marsh and mixed grazing is missing marsh harrier. It is too easy to think of this as a rare bird, as its British population was at one time reduced to four pairs, but it should be present in this habitat.
As our understanding of the habitat requirement of species grows, our assessment of unexpected absence becomes more robust. Perhaps as well as concentrating on what is present in a habitat, we should pay attention to what is not there. This is more difficult to ascertain, but if we ignore it we run the risk of watching whilst the diversity of our wildlife dwindles. I can only suggest that missing species such as these show that something, somewhere is wrong.

A yellow wagtail that is not a yellow wagtail

With the dry weather the lagoon at RSPB Conwy is drying up. This has produced an area of shallow pools and mud which was being frequented by a wood sandpiper, a great bird to see on a day when I expected theWesterlywinds to have stopped new arrivals. Whilst watching the bird I had a conversation with a photographer, who was enjoying the bird with me, about the small number of people around and the relatively small number of birds turning up, speculating on a causal relationship! With that I looked left and scanned the islands and muddy patches. My eye was caught by a passerine flitting in front of Benarth hide (about the furthest bit of shore). This was clearly a wagtail and had an obvious yellow head and breast. I commented on this yellow wagtail, another fairly scarce migrant at this site, and started to describe where it was. As I was describing its position I was thinking that this was not quite right for a usual yellow wagtail and started to consider if it was one of the scarcer races. The bird then turned side on and I noted a black collar. I quickly scanned the bird and noted the head was a completely yellow golf ball, the black collar did not extend onto the face, the upperparts were grey with no green tones and the underparts were yellow. This promted me to swear! I was almost shaking as I shouted  ‘citrine wagtail’ and urged the photographer to get onto it. After a few seconds he succeeded, and managed to get a single shot off, at which point the bird flew and I lost it. I swore again!!

There was only one thing on my mind now; spread the word and get people looking. I still was not sure if I had seen it well enough to submit the record, but the best chance of rectifying that was to get everyone looking. I ran to the coffee shop and shouted the news, then shouted into the visitors centre with the same message. Back at the boardwalk I scanned the mud again. There it was!! Right where the wood sandpiper was feeding. At one point I had the wagtail and wood sandpiper in view at the same time. I followed the bird, putting two other people onto it, until it disappeared behind some reeds. It was moving in the direction of the coffee shop, so I once again headed back there to tell all that I had relocated it. As I walked in they said ‘we’ve got it’. My immediate response was relief. I was desperate for others to share this bird.

The bird was on the nearest mud, working its way along the water’s edge, again feeding. This allowed me to confirm the features I had already seen and see far more detail to cofirm the identification. Further photographs were also obtained to corroborate the sighting.

For the next hour I was jittery. I could hardly sit still and was jibbering like an impatient child. I now felt no apprehension about the identification being challenged, knowing there was sufficient evidence to prove the record. I was also genuinly pleased for others to be seeing ‘my’ bird.

The bird stayed for most of the afternoon, allowing a number of twitchers to see it. After walking around the reserve I again saw it later in the afternoon when it was again in front of Benarth hide, performing to a group of birders. Everyone I met, including the staff, had a smile on their face. This one bird, as a result of getting disorientated, had made numerous people’s day better. It was not only hardened twitchers who were pleased. Families, both parents and children, were all stunned both by the appearance of this adult male breeding plumage bird, as well as the understanding of its rarity and the journey it had made. There was frequently a look of disbelief when they were informed that this bird probably should have been inRussia. Children’s faces lit up as they spotted it. All that is left now is for me to submit the record to the British Birds Records Committee and complete my claim as the finder.

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