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?