Category Archives: Birds

Watch the birdie: capturing wildlife on camera

There is something very powerful about an image. It captures a moment in time and creates a memory that can be shared and viewed time and time again.

Digital technology means that we’re all photographers now. Where-ever we go we have a camera in our possession: smartphone cameras are astonishingly good and produce really high quality pictures. And with social media channels, such as instagram and Facebook, we have the places to share the stories of our life and what matters to us.

Photography has always been an essential ingredient of telling the story of the natural world. But now its a much more democratic process where beautiful pictures of wildlife can be used on popular TV programmes such as Springwatch, sourced from the hundreds of thousands of fans that connect with the series via twitter, or can be liked thousands of time on instagram feeds.

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Puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands

The ornithologists of the twenty first century want to get the best shots they can of birds in flight and butterfly collecting is now about the exchange of images of Large Blue’s rather than pinning them to a board.

Wildlife pictures work whether a close up of a particular species such as a beetle or a landscape picture of a meadow, orchard or bluebell wood. They are very important ways of helping us to understand what is happening to nature and also our place in nature.

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So, why note use your camera to help us find out more about the wildlife in the places that we live and love to visit time and time again.

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Swift times

Every year I wait for their return. As the days pass my longing for their return grows stronger. With their impending arrival comes the promise of summer and those warm barmy evenings that feel as though they’ll last for ever.

And then the sightings start popping up on social media. Swifts have made it back to the mainland. Slowly they move like a wave northwards across the country, sweeping back to the places that they have returned for countless summers. And then they’re here; the date marked in the diary.

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My connection with these tiny and amazing birds seems to get stronger every year. That longing for theses charismatic dare devils of the sky is linked to the passing of time. I feel that I notice them more and more as though the ticking of my biological clock is intrinsically linked to their arrival.

Their return home gives me that deep sense of hope that the turning of the natural world is ok. The seasons pass and the swifts come and go. I know that nature is under pressure like never before but these little symbols of summer (like butterflies) bring joy to everyone who notices  and watches them.

Watching the swifts is one of those simple pleasures in life. I can guarantee that they’ll be more drama watching swifts for half an hour than tuning into the latest turns and twists of Eastenders. The aerial gymnastics of these tiny birds is astonishing as they rise and fall out of the sky, as they weave in and out of buildings.

Standing in my back garden I can just watch them. Individuals flapping furiously as they look to join a gang, taking those extra risks to join in. Or groups of swifts flittering through the air at high speed, buzzing just above ground level and then climbing high into the sky until they’re just little dots.

For me nature is a tonic. I love spending time wandering or watching wildlife. And the show that swifts put on year after year is one of the highlights of nature’s calendar.

Corridors of wild power

When we think of places where we connect with nature our minds often turn to open fields, deep forests, mountain ranges or the rugged coastline.  Its a natural instinct in-built through thousands of years of tending the land that we associate nature with rural places. After all our diet of wildlife telly beamed into our living rooms or devoured on smartphones has a particular countryside bias.

And yet for most of us its the everyday experience of urban living where we can potentially connect with the natural world. However, in our busy, fast-paced and hard-pressed lives, we often miss the obvious signs of wildlife right in front of our eyes or beneath our feet.

The nature of our towns and cities means that wild oases can be found in the most unusual places. You just need the time and patience to look in the right places.

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Not far from where I work in Swindon there is a lane sandwiched between the mainline railway and an office car park. Its no more than a few hundred metres long and about 5-10 metres wide; and connects one of the station car parks and path into the centre of town. In reality its one of those non-descript places that people pass through in a hurry, either on their way to work or heading home.

This slightly unloved grey/green corridor, however, is full of wild life. Stroll along the footpath on a sunny day and the noise of the trains and hum of urban life drains away as the birds sing in full throttle, the bees buzz past in a real hurry and butterflies rest on nettles to soak up the sun.

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Over the last few weeks the foilage of the trees and hedgerows has come alive with hawthorn bursting into brilliant white and the mini meadows filling up with buttercups, dandelions and forget-me-nots. Blackbirds and robins have been getting busy building nests for the breeding season and the lane has come alive with cabbage white and orange tip butterflies.

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Throughout the rest of Spring and into Summer this will become a place where I go to get my fix of nature, to daydream and let the troubles of the world disappear.

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For me its these edgelands, these arteries of urban life, that can re-awaken people’s interest in nature. We can all find them near to where we work or live. Just take the time in a lunch break or on the way to home to linger and tune into the intensity of nature or just watch as insects fly this way and that.  It doesn’t matter whether you can identify the species you see; the act of just connecting with the wild place where you live will enrich your life.

Securing the future of cider

Once-upon-a-time the countryside from Dorset to Herefordshire would have been filled with traditional orchards. The west country was at the heart of England’s status as an apple superpower. Orchards would have formed an important part of the fabric of rural life. And yet within a couple of generations orchards have almost disappeared from the countryside – statistics show that up to 90% of orchards have disappeared since the 1950s.

George Holmes, National Trust Area Ranger for South Somerset. Credit National Trust, Steven Haywood

Area Ranger George Holmes planting some of the Somerset cider apple varieties at Montacute House

Stumbling across an orchard is a little bit like finding a treasure chest. They’re places whose riches keep on giving whether with the arrival of spring and the blooming of the trees with the fragile flowers or the harvesting of the fruits in the golden glow of a warm autumnal day. These often small patches of land with knarled old trees are important havens for nature too – butterflies, bees, bats, birds see them as important food sources and wild flowers will carpet the orchard floors.

Orchards matter because of this rich cultural and natural heritage. There is an orchard near where I live, on the route up towards the summit of Solsbury Hill. It feels like a place untouched by the pace of modern life and I get a real sense of connection to the people that have loved and cherished this special place before me. The fruit trees come in all shapes and sizes and there is a slight wildness to the orchard, with its light-touch management. Wandering through this orchard always feels like a magical experience.

That is why the news that the National Trust has been given the national cider apple collection is so important. Over time 300 varieties of cider apple including Slack-ma-Girdle, Netherton Late Blower and Billy Down Pippin will be planted at eight places across the west country. It’s thanks to the vision and passion of Henry May that this collection exists at all and now the plan is to secure the future of these beautiful varieties and hopefully see them used by local cider-makers.

A countryside without orchards is unthinkable and the rise of community orchards, the work of organisations such as the Trust and People’s Trust for Endangered Species and growth of craft ciders, provides a hope that these fragile and wonderful places can survive.

A nature diary with a twist

Welcome to 2016. Time for people to write their New Year’s Resolutions and tell the world about it. So, it would be rude not to join in.

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Writing a sentence of nature news gives you a chance to reflect on the changing of the seasons

Its always refreshing, I think, to look ahead to a new year and ponder some of the things that you’d like to do, or the challenges that you would like to set yourself. The papers are full of the big trends for 2016 and what you should be doing. Often, as we all know, these resolutions barely make it out of January.

This time last year I talked about the wild time memory box – something I’ll repeat this year. Its always good to capture those moments: watching a sparrowhawk hunt its prey or being amazed at the stars on the Isle of Wight, with the benefit of no street lights. And then at the end of the year you can spend time looking back on all of those amazing experiences.

For me personally I’m going to pen a nature diary with a difference. A few years back I set myself the goal of writing a diary about the natural world. Like all good intentions it started off well but gradually faded away once I got into February. I loved challenging myself to find the words to describe my experiences and feelings based on nature and the weather.

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A favourite walk could generate loads of memories

This time I’m going to write a sentence, or maybe a paragraph, about something I see or hear in the natural world each day. It could be the appearance of daffodils in the garden, the arrival of swifts or the gently fluttering of butterflies flying across the garden. Just penning the words will mean that I reflect on the nature that I’ve come across that day; adding new content to my nature memory bank.

Hopefully this bite sized nature journal will work for the whole of the year and lead to bigger and better things. Taking the time to connect with the natural world each and every day, where-ever you might be, is so important; at a time when most of us spend pretty much every waking moment staring at some sort of screen it does recharge the batteries or refresh the soul to look and listen.

 

 

 

Sunday morning in a bird hide on Gower

I found myself sat in a bird hide at 8.30am on a Sunday morning. It had rained heavily over-night and the promise of a rainy day had given way to a sunshine filled morning.

Alone in the hide I peered out of the windows and just watched and listened. There was no background noise just the sound of nature going about its business. I had no distractions either and could indulge myself in being immersed in nature.

In the foreground the meadows hummed with activity. Butterflies were busy soaking up the rays of the sun; meadow browns and gatekeepers fluttering and zig-zagging, all with an apparent sense of purpose and a destination in mind. Swallows were limbering up for some aerial acrobatics. I was spell-bound seeing them flying so low and at such high speed. It felt like I had a unique window on their world during the morning play time period. The endless energy of swallows always amazes me.

Gradually the horizon of my gaze broadened, focusing in on the distance. I could make out the squawk of a crow, the regular disturber of the peace in the natural world. Then I picked up the Little egrets and the pure white of their feathers as they sneaked through the marshland. And then there was the distinctive and persistent sound of a lapwing. With my binoculars I could just make it out as it scrambled along the ground.

All this time the wood of the bird hide began to creak with the warmth of the day starting to intensify. I noticed the bee highway in front of the hide with the buzz of passing bees heading for home. That lovely sound of the grasses, of varying heights, blowing gently in the breeze, became part of my soundscape.

This bird hide is the perfect place to just watch the natural world go by. You don’t feel rushed. There is no sense of urgency. And you really do feel at one with the wildlife that you’re watching and listening too.

Situated on the fringes of Cwm Ivy on Gower in south Wales this little hide, installed by the National Trust this year, helped me to connect with this special place.

It was just a brief affair before the kids arrived but my time alone engrained on me a sense of calm and tranquillity. Nature has the ability to refresh and recharge.

The return of the swifts

For a third of the year the skies above our house are full of swifts.  This annual summer treat always has me  smiling. It’s something that I look forward to with a real relish and I have a sense of anticipation about their return as I type.

I love all four seasons for the diversity and changing of natures guard. However there are always specific things that light up the natural world for me in each season: it could be the starkness of a tree bereft of leaves in winter or a summer field of wild flowers.

The return of the swifts in April is one of them. I’ve seen my first swallows of the year; a pair flying with purpose across the road between Burton Bradstock and Bridport in Dorset.

And talking to my neighbour I know that the swifts are getting nearer. Tom has seen them eight or so miles South of Bath. It can only be a matter of days now until they are back in the neighbourhood, soaring high with that ever so distinctive call as they fly their loop the loops.

For me summer isn’t summer without the swifts. These birds with their astounding feats of migration across the hemispheres enrapture and delight. I always need my fix and will spend many an hour during the long hours of daylight just watching and listening; whether in the garden or looking out of a window.  

In many ways swifts neatly sum up the powerful bond that we have with nature. We need the changing of natures guard as the seasons change and the ebb and flow of the natural world provides us with a real re-assurance. Swifts provide a sense of awe and wonder as the huge distances that they travel.

When the young swifts appear their playfulness creates the effect of aerial gymnastics as they chase each other through the sky; with a steady in increase in excitement building by the minute.

Think of those warm and barmy summer evenings that we all love and it’s likely that swifts will be part of those thoughts and the accompanying soundtrack to our summers.

I need to hear and see the swifts. It lifts my spirits when they’re back and I really do love seeing them command the skies.