Ferns

Each evening I followed the same routine – alight the train, walk down the narrow passageway, cross the road, follow the pavement to a T junction, turn right, cross five roads, unlock the door to my house and enter. Then I began to notice plants growing in the cracks between paving stones and trailing over walls. The walls are a haven. Lime-rich mortar and sheltering crevices provide a home for insects, spiders, plants and ferns. Replicating fissured rocky crags, these are like a fragment of mountain in my coastal home. At first I recognised maidenhair spleenwort (ferns have wonderful names). The stiff, dark stems bear chains of beaded leaves forming tufts standing proud of the stony scalp. Then I notice wall rue, a less conspicuous dull green mat, and polypody, pale green ‘proper’ fern like leaves. Occasional miniature hart’s-tongue ferns add to the diversity.
Maidenhair spleenwort 15,7,27
The identification of ferns is based on the careful assessment of detail, just as the appreciation of local wildlife is built on the observation of tiny elements which build to make my home.

Squaring up to nature

Looking out of the window I see green leaves fluttering in the breeze, grey clouds rising in a blue sky and gulls flying towards the shore. I see this every day but familiarity can dull appreciation. Travelling to new places gives an immediacy of new experiences but not the intimacy of local study. I want to know what happens if I stay at home and study, really study, all of the wildlife here.

My grounding is in birdwatching, my interests and approach are all of field identification of living, wild individuals. Birds provide challenges due to their extreme mobility. Some insects, marine mammals and pelagic fish share this. Other groups, such as plants, require careful examination of magnified detail and comparison with detailed, technical texts but stay still so a protracted consideration of features is possible. I am experienced in some groups but a beginner in others.

Recognising species involves the consideration of multiple pieces of information – season, size, shape, colour, movement, habitat, abundance, sounds and with plants even smell and taste. I have some basic principles.
1. Make a provisional identification based on features of the animal or plant. I do not look for species from a list of known occurence.
2. Identify each individual separately. Except for juveniles being cared for by their parents, individuals should not be named according to more distinctive companions.
3. Where a species is distinctive, however many species occur in a group, it is safe to identify. Where several similar species are known, particular care is required in identification.
4. Where an initial identification indicates a species that is not known to occur in a locality or habitat, re-examine the specimen to confirm that the identification is correct before reporting. Consultation with an expert in the group is wise in this situation. Photographic and/or physical evidence should be gathered whenever possible.

When I began watching wildlife (in 1978), submitting records involved evenings writing lists or filling in record cards to be posted to regional or national co-ordinators. Supporting evidence was written descriptions and sketches. Acceptance seemed to be based on reputation as much as evidence. Now technology aĺlows capture of an image, accurate definition of a location and submission to a national database in real-time. As well as data collection and verification, computerisation has revolutionised data analysis allowing an incredible depth of knowledge about the distribution and movement of our wildlife driven by thousands of amateurs like myself. Despite this impact of technology, the underpinning skill remains accurate observation.

I have gathered here my observations. This is my square, my home. It is special to me. You have your own special square near to you. Why not explore your square and discover the real lives living on your doorstep?

Beyond lists

It is now a week since summer started: calm, hot days with distant shimmering shades of green and brown. Grasshoppers grate from grass that tickles and pokes my legs. It is a time of year when the annual bird list stagnates – there are still rewards for looking, though. Like everything of value, devoting time and patience enhances my experience.
I am fortunate to live on the coast where wobbling waves alternate with an expanse of sand and mud. The mature dunes I walk through to reach the beach are full of new life. Goldfinch juveniles, streaky finches with a gold lightening strike on their wings, outnumber their parents and whitethroat jump out of every bush and tussock. A couple of weeks ago the only birds on the beach were a few immature herring gulls and a lonely oystercatcher. Today I can see new arrivals – adult black-headed gulls have appeared, still sleek and smart in their summer plumage, and the first common gull of the autumn has arrived. Instead of one oystercatcher, there are 36 and two curlew strut across the ooze. A gang of brown juvenile starlings now squabble amongst bladder wrack on piles of boulders.
I can only appreciate this start of the ebbing flow of the year because I am watching the area regularly. Beneath the superficial list of names I can hear the first exhalation of autumn. I don’t need the latest, most expensive optics or transport to notice this, I need time. The moment to stand and observe is so easily lost in our rush to change the world.

The dog’s paw

The streamlet glistens in the sunlight as it trickles over pebbles and stones. The sound of my dog lapping eagerly at the clear water drowns out the quiet tinckle of the flow. He eagerly returns to me with water still dripping off his hanging tongue, padding the hardened ground as he walks. I am just about to send him back into the water when my eye is drawn to the ground he has covered. Right where his paw fell there is a twisted piece of wood with a bold hatched pattern. That pattern is one that is familiar. This is not a piece of wood but a snake. It remains still but as I walk to its side I can see its head and tongue, pronged and waving like a wagging finger chastising us for disturbing it.

The pattern that caught my eye is of a common viper, better known as an adder. This is only the second time I have seen one, and I have contrasting feelings. My dog is still oblivious to it and I want to keep him that way. I can envisage the outcome of an inquisitive sniff. I want to look at this creature and get a photograph, though. With the dog safely down and staying I reach for my camera. As I do so the neck straightens and moves forward, the coils quickly trailing after it until it disappears behind a small wall. Shifting round I can see no signs, only cracks and crevisces between the rocks making the face. Looking now there are no signs that a snake was just here.

Still keen to capture an image, I try a trick. Nearby there is an abandoned farm building where I can retreat and watch the birds. Swallows nesting at the back of the buildings skim the turf of the surrounding slopes and continually twitter as siskin and linnet in the scattered trees give harsher calls. After 15 minutes standing, I walk quietly back to the stream and look over the wall. There at its base is the hoped for bold chevron pattern and now I succesfully get my photograph. Even as I press the shutter she starts to move off again. Within 30 seconds she is back in the crevices, hidden.

Today is a calm, sunny, early summer day. Nearby is Lynn Brenig, one of the largest lakes in Wales. A wind pushes wavelets along its length and creaks trees but here, sheltered, the air is warm. Winter is different, the ground crackles as snow and ice abound, yet this snake will still be here. I have seen no aggression from her today, even when trodden on. She has been shy and required stalking for my best views. Instead of feeling threatened I felt excited and privelaged to share these few minutes with her.

Adder

Adder

My orchids

Bee orchid

Bee orchid

For most of the year they are hidden, their narrow leaves looking like the grass that they grow amongst, but as we approach mid summer and the birds fade into the bushes, orchids flower. Amongst the pot pourri of plain yellow flowers, short spikes of pink and purple appear. My bee orchids always fascinate with their structure, a crown of normal pink petals displaying the central suede cherry. Getting down on my knees the detail in the centre is remarkable. A vivid red tongue is surmounted by a short green hood with fur cushions on each side. The cherry I saw from a distance is now delicately marbled.

I call these my orchids because they grow on my front lawn. They were not planted their, they simply appeared. This piece of grass measures about 5 by 3 metres, smaller than the smallest official nature reserve. Managed like a traditional hay meadow, it is home to yellow rattle, cowslip and grasshoppers as well as my orchids.

All of the neighbours have neat, closely mown sheets of velvet. To me, my orchids are far more attractive.

An atlantic expedition

Why travel to a collection of cliffs and stacks when the passage is never short, often rough and sometimes dangerous? The bait  that attracted me was the history of the seabirds here. Thirty years ago I read of the spread of fulmars from the only british breeding site – St Kilda. Then I learnt about a population of people who scaled sheer cliffs and rowed to offshore stacks to harvest seabird that provided food, oil and feathers – the St Kildans. Nowhere else in Britain has this relationship been so well documented with witness accounts and photographs.

There is always anticipation as a new place is approached, but the rough crossing denied me a first glimpse of the islands breaking the horizon. Instead I emerged on deck when we were anchored to see a cove cradled by hills and ridges. A group of green buildings like shipping containers behind a small, rocky beach stood out stark against the barren slopes. A road ran into the hills leading my gaze to a radio mast on the skyline. The St Kildans may have left but the stamp of a modern community is clear. Spreading out from the new village are softer shapes formed of coalesced boulders. Grey lines and circles wash across the low land around a single line of grey houses.

Once ashore I soon find the echoes of the old community now faded. The walls of the houses are intact but inside the floors are marshy grass or covered by fallen rocks. Where the people lived, sheep now wander and shelter. Starlings, dark and almost spotless, and wrens, grey and scruffy, now converse where parliament used to be held. Despite the isolation, the islands are crowded. Cruise ships anchor in the bay sending a continuous flow of tourists in black inflatables to race around the village and slopes. People wander without restriction, sometimes apparently without respect. On returning to the shore I hear talk of being struck by skuas and of finding nests with eggs.

After exploring the old village I explore the surrounding steeper ground. The slopes are covered by shrivelled heather and grass that barely reaches my ankles. Tiny dots of colour break through the brown mat like sparkles of sunshine on the sea. Blue violets, purple lousewort and pink heath spotted orchid crouch close to the soil. In wetter patches sphagnum moss shines green, clubmoss forms inch high forests and pale green rosettes of butterwort wait their insect prey. In a gully, primrose spatter the wall yellow whilst purple saxifrage is almost spent. There is a constant sound of birds. The chip,per,chip,per,chip,per call of snipe and grouse like growl of fulmar sound like they are coming from the plants whilst parachuting meadow pipit twitter softly and wheatear sing their short, chat like warble from rocky perches. Occasionally the stuttering whistle of whimbrel catches my ear.

Unlike the lost crofting community, the seed of seabird abundance that inspired me to visit is still here. Every piece of steep ground is dotted white where fulmar sit on their egg. Bonxie patrol the ridges like raptors looking for victims. Out to sea, uncountable numbers of birds appear as smoke blowing from rocky crags. As our boat pushes out of the bay rafts of puffin rise like shimmering black sheets and the nasal call of kittiwake echoes around cliffs. In open water gannets spear the water in a fountain of spray, dodging fulmar that bank and shear like fighter planes. The seabird heritage is alive and flourishing.

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.