12 Birds to look out for this Christmas

If you’re not on kitchen duty over Christmas, forget slumping in front of The Sound of Music – instead, pull on your thermals, grab your binoculars and go out for a bit of birding. Winter is an exciting time for birdwatchers, especially in the lowlands and around the coasts, as there’ll be visitors from the uplands and from countries far north and east of us. Wild swans and geese, Scandinavian finches, moorland raptors and roaming seabirds could all turn up. Here are a selection fo species to look out for – some pretty common, others scarcer, but all of them easier for most of us to find in winter than in summer.

1) Fieldfare
You have to feel sorry for our resident Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. As autumn approaches they’ll be eyeing up the berry-laden hedgerows and ploughed fields full of worms, and thinking that surviving the winter will be a doddle. But then, around October time, the invasion comes – three-quarters of a million Fieldfares from Russia and north-east Europe. They come in big noisy flocks, with their sidekicks the Redwings, and together they eat the lot. Look out for these colourful thrushes anywhere in the open countryside. Sometimes a lone Fieldfare breaks away from the group and sets up home in a single garden, usually one with an apple tree, and fiercely guards the windfall apples from any other bird that goes near.

Fieldfares, Rainham

2) Stonechat

Heaths and moors are bleak and particularly chilly in winter, so most of their birds decamp to milder spots over winter. Stonechats tend to move to coasts and low-lying farmland in winter. They draw the eye because they like to sit at the tops of bushes, rather than skulking within like shyer birds. If you find one, you’re very likely to find another, because Stonechats defend their winter territories in pairs. Though these are invariably male-female pairs, the birds don’t actually stay together to breed next spring – they find new partners when back on their breeding grounds.

Stonechat, Rainham

3) Razorbill
Seeing Razorbills in summer isn’t difficult – go to a cliff-face seabird colony and there they’ll be, rubbing shoulders with the Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags. In winter, the colonies are deserted, and Razorbills and other seabirds disperse much more widely, meaning that you don’t have to live near the northern cliffs to stand a chance of seeing them. Try your nearest bit of sea – if you have a choice, opt for the more sheltered place, and pass an hour or so scanning the water. Weather has a strong influence on seabird behaviour – if there’s a day of storms, it’s always worth checking the next day in estuaries, harbours and other sheltered places for traumatised seabirds recovering and feeding before heading back to sea.

Razorbill 3

4) Goosander
Nearly all of the duck species that occur in Britain are easier to find in winter. Goosanders breed on fast upland rivers but in winter they turn up on lakes and reservoirs across the whole UK and seeing one (or more) is a highlight of any winter birding trip. Look out for a big, sleek, rather predatory-looking duck that makes frequent long dives (it’s busy chasing fish while it’s down there, to seize in its ‘saw-toothed’ bill). Males look black and white at any distance (though the head has a green sheen), while females are mostly cool grey with a chestnut head.

Goosander flap

5) Brent Goose
About 100,000 Brent Geese spend their winter in Britain, mostly on the south and east coasts. These Arctic geese are small and very dark, and lack the tidy discipline of the bigger geese in flight – rather than neat V-shaped skeins they tend to travel in clumps or straggling lines like unravelled knitting. They’ll stop to feed anywhere where there is saltmarsh and tasty eelgrass to eat, but you could see groups on the move over the sea from any seaside.

Brent Geese, RH

6) Black Redstart
This little bird is an oddity – a real rarity in Britain, but one that shows a distinct fondness for urban habitats – the grottier the better. Most of the handful of breeding pairs we have nest in old buildings in city centres. In winter numbers rise (a little – it’s still a rare bird) as visitors from the continent turn up, and they are then most likely to be found on the coast. Again, they show a liking for urban set-ups, particularly in the south-west, and if you live by the sea you might even find one in the garden, looking for all the world like a black or smoky-grey Robin as it hops pertly about and poses on garden ornaments.

Black Redstart 2

7) Peregrine
Many pairs of Peregrines stay near their nest sites through the winter. But those that breed in inhospitable uplands, plus young birds that are yet to find a territory, will roam about more widely and turn up in places where you won’t find them in summertime – especially marshy coastlines where there are lots of ducks and waders for them to hunt. When you’re watching big flocks of birds on the marshland, a sudden uproar among them is a good sign that a bird of prey – very probably a hungry Peregrine – has just hoved into view, and you could be treated to a dramatic show of predator versus prey as the Peregrine tries to single out a victim from the swirling flock.

Peregrine 1, Norwich

8) Goldcrest
Most of our strictly insectivorous birds migrate thousands of miles south at the end of summer, to Africa where insects are much easier to find than they are in the depths of a UK winter. One that doesn’t is the Goldcrest, our smallest bird. Its size, agility and needle-like bill make it expert at finding and winkling out the tiny scale insects that shelter between pine needles, and so it scratches out a meagre living (though huge numbers of Goldcrests will die in very harsh winters). Look out for it in the garden and anywhere where there are conifer trees, calling incessantly in its squeaky-mouse voice and hovering at the tips of twigs.

Goldcrest 2, SWR

9) Sanderling
If you’re still standing on that beach looking out to sea and trying in vain to see a Razorbill, have a look on the shoreline instead for our next bird. Most waders like squishy, muddy shores, but the Sanderling is happy to forage on all kinds of beach, from shingle to sand to rock. It’s also unusual in that it’s easier to identify in winter than in summer – if you see a small, hyperactive and pearly grey-and-white wader on a beach in winter, it’ll be a Sanderling (and probably it’ll be with a dozen or more other Sanderlings). They rush back and forth at the wave-line on sandy beaches to find morsels carried in on the sea, but on pebbles they search more deliberately, for flies, sandhoppers and other little seaside creatures. They are often very approachable and with a close look you’ll see another Sanderling trait – they have no hind toe. This helps make them extra fast when running after prey.

Sanderling, Shellness

10) Waxwing
For many birdwatchers, this is the winter Holy Grail of birding – a spectacular, colourful, outlandishly crested bird that comes our way from Scandinavia and further afield. Part of the excitement is that Waxwings are ‘irruptive’ – in most years they are rather rare and more or less confined to the north and east, but in some years we get absolutely loads of them throughout the whole UK. An irruption happens when there is a serious shortage of berries in between here and their breeding grounds, forcing large numbers to move further south and west than they would like. They love mountain ash, pyracantha and cotoneaster berries, and often descend upon shopping centre car parks that have decorative stands of these plants. They will also come to apples, so if you have a garden apple tree keep an eye on it.

Waxwing, Pitsea, Jan 2011

11) Snow Bunting
This is one of the most charming of all our ‘winter’ birds. In fact you can see Snow Buntings in Britain in summer, but only if you’re willing to climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm or other similarly huge Scottish mountains. In winter, though, the buntings descend the slopes (and more arrive from colder countries). Sandy and shingly beaches along the east coast are the best places to find them – in Northumberland you might find flocks 100 strong, while in Kent it’s more likely to be the odd one or two, but they are worth seeking out, being both very beautiful and almost totally unconcerned by human presence as they quietly pick their way along in search of weed seeds and other scraps among the stones.

Snow Bunting, Reculver

12) Robin
So you didn’t fancy going out after all? Never mind – you probably need only walk to the nearest window to see the most Christmassy bird of all. Or indeed to hear it – the Robin is so invested in territorial defence that it sings even in the depths of winter when other birds are too busy finding food to bother. With nearly 7 million Robin territories in the UK, chances are there’s (at least) one in your garden. If you want to make your Robin’s Christmas extra special, the best thing you can do is offer it some mealworms, either dried or (even better) alive and wriggling. With patience you should be able to persuade even a shy Robin to take mealworms from your hand – a lovely bonding experience for both you and the Robin. Happy Christmas and good birding!

Robin, SdA

Happy Christmas and good birding!

This piece was written by Marianne Taylor, author of: RSPB British Birdfinder, RSPB British Birds of Prey, RSPB Nature Watch, Where to Discover Nature on RSPB Reserves, Owls, Dragonflight, RSPB Seabirds, Watching Wildlife In London, 401 Amazing Animals Facts, Photographing Garden Wildlife, Wild Coast, RSPB Spotlight: Robins

Antpittas – A Call for Photos and information!

This week we’re hearing from Harold Greeney, author of the forthcoming Helm Identification Guide, Antpittas who is offering you the chance to contribute to his book, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife.

In recent years the nesting behavior of antpittas has become fairly well known. Concurrently, the development of feeding stations has made antpittas go from one of the least photographed to one of the best photographed group of birds out there. This latter change now provides us with the perfect opportunity to learn something about what happens to baby antpittas AFTER they leave the nest. As an example, let’s take one of the showiest (and rarest) of the antpittas, the Jocotoco Antpitta. Here is an adult feeding their youngster in early August of 2009.


Although its plumage did not even remotely resemble that of an adult, it left the nest a few days after this photo was taken. Flash forward 5 months and here is our little guy, still with its parents, in mid-January of 2010.


Help us figure out how the plumage develops in the Jocotoco Antpitta and other species!  Every photo helps to complete the timeline. For the Jocotoco Antpitta we are tracking plumage development in fledglings from 2006 to present. So, if you visited Tapichalaca and had the chance to take a few snaps, please send in your photos. In addition, at feeding stations across the Andes, we are beginning to track juveniles and plumage changes for many other species!  To learn how to contribute your images for possible inclusion in the book I am writing for Bloomsbury, and how they can help with research into these magical South American birds, please contact me at antpittanest@gmail.com.

Get Picking this Autumn

Autumn is upon is – and although it means saying goodbye to those balmy summer nights, it does mean we can turn our minds to something else: mushrooms. Time to get off the hammock, and in to the woods for some foraging.

Wild mushrooms are abundant in Britain and Ireland. They flourish in the warm, wet month of September and can continue right through the autumn. And whether it’s dinner you’re after, or simply a new unknown species, there is a whole other world to be discovered scrambling around on the forest floor.

But to make sure the goods that you bring home, won’t be your last supper, there are some essential guidelines to follow:

  • Wear disposal gloves when touching mushrooms.
  • Don’t mix mushroom types in the same container.
  • Don’t wrap mushrooms in cling film, but paper – they need room to breathe.
  • Examine each mushroom carefully for insects, slugs or grubs. If the mushroom has been nibbled in any way, discard.
  • Ignore folk tales on mushrooms like ‘Poisonous mushrooms are brightly colored’ – in contrast, two of the most deadly are white and brown.
  • Be careful if you are a pet owner and want to take the dog foraging – they are the highest on the list of victims of poisonous mushrooms.
  • Do not leave the house without a mushroom field guide to help you identify mushroom types.

Recommended mushroom books:




9781847739384 (2)


Happy musrooming!

Bloomsbury Wildlife

A passing otter

Nicola Chester invites you on a trip to see that well-loved British mammal, the otter.

I am obsessed with all manner of British wildlife, but particularly so at the moment with otters – having just spent the past year writing about them. I read about otters, track them and, very occasionally, see them.  But this winter’s flooding has meant my usual riverine haunts are off limits – changed and overwhelmed.

So I dream about them more, think I see them in unlikely places: I have an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.

The flooding will have displaced them, as it has so many other species, including our own. The tunnelled tracks through the grass, the slides and the sprainting ‘seats’ on the tumps of greater tussock sedge – all my touchstones, as well as their holts – are still under water.

On my last foray, I went as far as my welly-tops allowed, to stand in awe at lakes gated and divided by fences, drowned snowdrops gleaming below the surface like a submerged village. Half-forgotten streams, brooks and bournes had risen and swelled, rioting like a pack gone wild, hunting downstream to re-plumb their map of old routes and break over new ground to pour into a river already too full of itself.

Even now, as I look for the river’s edge through the wood, leaves from the tall poplars still carry the reverberations of all that rain like tuning forks; their frisson of rustling making the sound of rushing water. I find my way in at half-past-five, testing alternate steps for solid ground.  Barbed wire and bramble arches are festooned with rags of reeds tugged from the water’s flow.

It is impossible not to avoid the crack of so many fallen branches or creep quietly over such sticky, sucky ground. I concentrate hard, and before I have time to register a singing whine of steel rails, a train rushes up from Exeter and a brief moment of panic nearly sends me into the river as it blasts right by. I had forgotten the track was there at all.  I compose myself in the quiet afterwards, and find a tree to lean on.

This benign chalk stream, famed for its gin-clear clarity, is not like itself. It is flint green and grey as bath water and moving frighteningly fast. I think about the local stories of otter cubs being rescued downstream. Otters are intelligent, resourceful, curious and nomadic creatures and, although the challenges are many and varied, experienced, independent adults are equipped to deal with such a rapidly changing environment.

Photo by Ann-Marie Bentham

Photo by Ann-Marie Bentham

Just before the light starts to fail and I must go, something eel-like rises from the water in a curve and vanishes, downstream to where I’d been looking. There was no splash and it was not a fish. I watch the river until my eyes sting and run, but nothing re-appears. I know that, sometimes, this is all you see of a passing otter: a wave of its thick rudder tail as it dives, having spotted you first. What I saw whispers otter – but does not shout it. It could have been a branch, smooth and turning in the strong current – and I know, to be here at the precise time the otter was passing, in a river in spate such as this – and to see it? Almost – but not quite – impossible.


Nicola is the author of RSPB Spotlight: Otters



Also look out for:



Red dragons

Could today be the start of dragonfly and damselfly season? asks David Chandler…

Copyright Marianne Taylor

Copyright Marianne Taylor


April 17th. That’s my earliest date for seeing a dragonfly or damselfly in the UK. It was 2011, I was in Devon, and the record-breaking beast was a Large Red Damselfly. This species is normally the opening act of the dragonfly season. Most Large Red Damselflies emerge over a three-week period in the spring, though some emerge later and the further north you are the later they are likely to emerge. This is an easy species to identify – they are damselflies, they are red, and they are large! The only species you might confuse it with is a Small Red damselfly, which is much rarer. One way to tell them apart is to check out the leg colour – red on a Small Red, and black on a Large Red. As an adult, a very long-lived Large Red may hit the six-week mark. But most of its life is already behind it when it emerges from the water. Typically, its submarine larval existence will have lasted about two years.

Find out more in:





An Underwater Walk in a Beech Woodland

Easter holidays are here, take the chance to get out and about in a woodland near you. Tessa Wardley describes a recent trip:


I’m crouched down leaning against the smooth bark of an old Beech tree, it is a rare sunny day this winter and I’m hiding, as part of a game of ‘thicket’. I’m well hidden by the girth of the tree even in my layers of down jacket and I peer up to contemplate the canopy that reaches invitingly over my head. At this time of year there is little leaf cover but if I close my eyes I can imagine the light filtering down through the leaves, each one a tiny solar panel, carefully arranged to capture the maximum amount of light without stealing it from another leaf. The sensation of walking through a woodland in leaf is often compared to swimming in an underwater world.

As the weak, green light envelopes you, birds swim through the tree tops making shrieking dives through to the lower layers as if fish slicing through water. The clicks and creaks of underwater sounds are echoed by the activities of insects and small mammals in the trees and undergrowth, the rub of bark where branches overlap; and the ebb and flow of the wind in the leaves is very reminiscent of waves breaking on a sand and gravel shore

The quality of the attenuated light that filters through the leaves of a woodland canopy compares closely to the light that filters through the upper surface of water. In a mature beech wood just 5% of the incident light will reach down to the forest floor, the leaves filter out the long and short wavelengths of the blue and red ends of the spectrum for photosynthesis, leaving the mid length green light to dominate the light. Similarly when we are underwater the red and orange, long-wavelength, light is absorbed rapidly in the upper surface of the water leaving the greens and blues to penetrate more deeply and be absorbed more slowly. Biologically rich waters will also absorb the blue end of the spectrum, leaving again the green tinged experience reminiscent of the woodland walk.
My thoughts are wandering along in this vein when I am interrupted by the wet, black nose of our dog Alfie and my hiding place is rumbled – ‘Mum I can see you behind the tree!!

Have a go at Thicket with instructions from Tessa’s daughter.

Tessa Wardley is the author of:

The Woodland Book (April 2014, Bloomsbury)

The Woodland Book (April 2014, Bloomsbury)

Available now
Available now

Puffins pummelled by winter storms

Euan Dunn, RSPB’s Principal Marine Advisor and author of the new RSPB Spotlight: Puffins, looks at the effect of winter storms on Puffins.


We have heard a great deal, and rightly so, about the massive impact that a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Atlantic storms had on the Somerset Levels and elsewhere on land. But the waves as tall as church towers that battered the coast were, beyond the scope of telephoto cameras, meanwhile wreaking havoc on seabirds out at sea. The scale of the damage inflicted, especially on Puffins, is only now becoming clear.  Seabirds are well adapted to wintering far offshore but those that dive for their prey cannot cope when the surface waters are whipped metres deep into something resembling the spin cycle of a washing machine. Puffins are remarkable deep divers in pursuit of their prey, capable of plumbing depths to 70 metres, but they mostly fish in the top 10 metres where they are highly vulnerable to hurricane-force weather. The result has been mass starvation and mortality of seabirds along the Atlantic coats of France, the Channel and Wales.  In a phenomenon known as a seabird ‘wreck’, around 30,000 seabirds had been washed ashore, dead or dying, and mostly emaciated, by the first week of March (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-26440087).  It’s the tip of the iceberg as many more will have foundered at sea undetected.  Over half (nearly 16,000) of the victims were Puffins, followed by Guillemots (nearly 9,000) and Razorbills (over 2,000).  Casualties still alive were taken into care for rehabilitation but most have been beyond saving.

These birds were in the throes of homing in on their breeding colonies so it remains to be seen what impact this, the biggest wreck of its kind in living memory, might have on numbers breeding in spring.  Especially vulnerable could be very small, local Puffin populations including those on the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, and Lundy in the Bristol Channel where the species is just beginning to repopulate after rats were eradicated from the island.

Following hot on the heels of last year’s Puffin wreck in the North Sea which killed around 4,000 birds we know of, the fear is that increasing storm events associated with climate change will be a growing threat to our seabirds which are already under pressure. Their staple diet of sandeels (a small shoaling fish) is in decline in the North Sea, apparently linked to sea warming, which makes it harder for Puffins and other seabirds to find enough food for themselves and their chicks.

Organisations like the RSPB can and do help seabirds on land by protecting their breeding sites and undertaking island restoration projects to rid them of rats and other predators. But the challenge at sea is how to make them more resilient to the devastating effects of such storms. One thing we can do to give them a fighting chance is to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) such that critical feeding areas for Puffins and other seabirds are safeguarded. The UK’s network of MPAs is still more of string vest than a well woven wind-cheater and much remains to be done to bring it up to scratch.  In the end, however, winter storms on the scale just witnessed are overwhelming and demand much greater political will to reverse the root cause of global warming.

Euan is the author of RSPB Spotlight: Puffins


RSPB Spotlight is a new series introducing readers to the lives and behaviour of our favourite animals with eye-catching photography and informative expert text. The other title launching with Puffins is Otters:


Wildflower wonders

Author and photographer, Bob Gibbons suggests this is the perfect time for a trip to The Mani Peninsula to see amazing displays of wild flowers.

The Mani peninsula in spring - stunning display of flowers. Calabrian soapwort (magenta), peacock anemone (scarlet), stocks, cranesbills

The Mani peninsula in spring – stunning display of flowers. Calabrian soapwort (magenta), peacock anemone (scarlet), stocks, cranesbills

There’s a remote peninsula in the far south of mainland Greece that still, after more than 20 visits, seems to me like a little bit of paradise. It’s the central peninsula of the Peloponnese, pointing, like a bony finger, southwards towards Crete and Africa, and when you’re there it feels like the end of the line. The whole Peloponnese is a strikingly mountainous land, wild and unspoilt; just to reach the Mani, you have to cross the highlands south of Tripoli, and running like a spine down the Mani itself are some of the highest mountains in Greece. It’s a harsh land, with bare limestone, drystone walls and cliffs everywhere, and if you were to only visit in high summer or early autumn, you would think it was a sterile land, too. But come in late winter or spring, between February and May (and my very favourite time is the end of March or  the first week in April) and it is one of the most spectacularly flowery places in Europe. The ancient olive groves,  unspoilt roadsides, rough fields, wild hillsides, cliffs and churchyards are all ablaze with flowers, from blue vetches and pink cranesbills to intense yellow-green spurges, scarlet tulips, and dozens of species of orchids. It’s an endless visual feat if you’re lucky with the season and the weather (every year is different, and the very best is a wet winter that warms up in late March as the hours of sunshine increase) that takes your breath away.

Beautiful flowery old olive groves in spring, with Peacock Anemone, cranesbill etc on the  Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese, south Greece.

Beautiful flowery old olive groves in spring, with Peacock Anemone, cranesbill etc on the Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese, south Greece.

But the wonderful thing about the Mani is that these botanical riches drape themselves over a spectacular land that is rich in history and the long interaction between man and nature. There are prehistoric terraced fields from a wetter past, extraordinary numbers of gorgeous little byzantine churches often hidden away in olive groves or on rocky promontories, and lovely villages scattered up the mountain slopes. Perhaps the strangest features, to be seen everywhere – though many are now derelict – are relics of the Mani’s dynamic war-torn past. Two groups were at each other’s throats for hundreds of years and, because they often lived in the same villages as each other, they constantly strove to build higher houses than their enemies’; the result is the extraordinary Mani tower houses,  which point rigidly skyward in even the most barren and remote landscapes.

Flowery old olive groves in spring on the  Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese, south Greece.

Flowery old olive groves in spring on the Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese, south Greece.

Not a great deal has changed in the 25 years or so in which I’ve known the Mani; the motorway from Athens creeps ever closer, and more tourists fly into Kalamata, so it’s become busier and there are more hotels and second homes, though, as a result, the food is better, there are more places to stay, and more crumbling buildings are being saved and restored. Any time in the Mani is beautiful, but, I’d go in spring for the fabulous flowers, the spring sunshine and the lack of crowds.

Bob Gibbons is the author of Wildflower Wonders: The 50 Best Wildflower Sites in the World, available in paperback from May.


A place for the misfit

Conor Jameson marks the death of The Goshawk author T.H White.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of author T. H. White, probably best remembered by bird enthusiasts for his mini epic The Goshawk (1951), and by the general public for The Once and Future King, his Arthurian novels, and the blockbuster Disney and Broadway spin-offs that ensued. Like J. A. Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), White’s work has inspired a number of prominent naturalists. It seems timely to remember the man, and reflect on his life and influence. J.K. Rowling, for example, acknowledges White’s character Wart, the young King Arthur as depicted in his novels, as the ‘spiritual ancestor’ of Harry Potter.

First edition, 1951

First edition, 1951

White wrote The Goshawk in the mid 1930s but hid the manuscript until Garnett chanced upon it more than a decade later. Garnett managed to convince White that it should be published, even though the writer was sheepish about the various personal and practical imperfections his words lay bare. For if White was no expert ornithologist at this stage of his life, he was no expert falconer then either. But he did love birds, and animals in general, probably more than he cared for the grown-up world. ‘I had only just escaped from humanity’ wrote White of his captive. ‘The poor gos had only just been caught by it.’

White was an enthusiast – a ‘smatterer’, as his biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner put it – and an avid learner of new skills. He was driven by a need to preoccupy himself, his discontent stemming from a traumatic childhood. ‘Everything collapsed at a critical time in my life and ever since I have been arming myself against disaster,’ he once confessed to Garnett in a letter. By the mid 1930s White had given up a teaching career to rent an old keeper’s cottage, and he wrote to Germany for a goshawk. Weary of society, he hoped to ‘revert to a feral state’ – thinking that somehow winning over the hawk might give him this.

T H White (image from http://www.nndb.com)

T H White (image from http://www.nndb.com)

He sought to train the bird using medieval methods, and make a living from his account of their relationship. But he had overestimated his ability to do this single-handed. The archaic method usually involved more than one person ‘watching’ the bird – staying awake for days and nights while the hawk repeatedly ‘bates’ from the wrists to which it is tethered, until finally it must sleep, and thereby submit to its captive state. And maybe he underestimated the brute intransigence of the bird, taken as a well-grown nestling and already wired with a detestation of the human form.

The modern method of manning a hawk is much gentler on both parties, and takes longer, with the bird gradually accustomed to the proximity of humans and their paraphernalia, steadily overcoming its innate suspicion. But that wouldn’t have made such a compelling tale, or involved such an intense battle of wills. While the book tells us little or nothing about the goshawk in its wild state – it was extirpated from the UK by the Victorians and only the occasional escapee was at large in the landscape here – it tells us much about the relationship between people and birds.

In later life White gave up field sports and contented himself with watching instead. He birdwatched across North America between stages of a three-month lecture tour in winter 1963-64. He kept a journal of the tour, later published as America at Last, a revealing snapshot of the nation through a turbulent period in its history – encompassing the Kennedy assassination – and decorated with descriptions of birds and other natural features seen.

On the tour he lectured about his work and his inspirations, sometimes to audiences of thousands in open-air stadiums. He was ‘box office’ in America. The Arthurian legends played well here. The Disney deal had made him wealthy at last. This often shy, prickly and reclusive man had probably never been happier, appreciated and liberated in that vast continent beset with social problems but so alive, he discovered, with openness, optimism and possibilities.

Tour over, he said his tearful goodbyes. He returned to Europe by ocean liner, partly because he hated flying (despite having trained as a pilot to learn another new skill and to attempt to overcome his fear) and partly so he could visit Athens. His ship docked in Piraeus harbour there, and it was on the morning of January 17 he was discovered dead in his cabin. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure. He was just 57 years old.

The grave of T H White

The grave of T H White

He never made it home. With no family in England, it was decided that he could be laid to rest in the corner of an Athens cemetery, within view of Hadrian’s Arch. The Emperor Hadrian was one of his passionate interests. Within White’s oeuvre is a satire on field sports called England Have My Bones. He would have enjoyed the irony that England never got them. Nor did England get his archive, which is housed at the University of Texas. It seems that even in death he was ill-fitted to this country: a misfit, much like the bird of which he wrote so vividly.

In part to correct this estrangement it struck me that this year’s anniversary of his passing might be formally recognised in some way, perhaps with a modest plaque or sculpture installed at one of White’s many stopping off points here in a nomadic life. Maybe Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where he taught, and near where he took the keeper’s cottage and did his best work. Or Doolistown in Ireland, where he spent the war years. Or the Channel Island of Alderney, where he lived last. But my enquiries and promptings have left me with no strong sense of a lasting appreciation of White here, or much appetite for resurrecting him.

If his literary legacy is not quite assured – I’m guessing because his most famous work was written for children – perhaps his contribution to natural history, albeit by an unorthodox route, can be recognised now. The Goshawk may not add much to the sum of knowledge about the species’ conservation status, but it is the only British book written in the 20th century devoted to the bird. For The Goshawk alone we might doff our caps to Terence ‘Tim’ Hanbury White, and acknowledge the place – and the lasting legacy – of the misfit.

Conor Mark Jameson

This has also been published in British Birds, January 2014. www.britishbirds.co.uk/


1963 – 2013: birding at Southill Park revisited

Conor Jameson’s British Birds feature provides food for thought on the changing status of species at Southill Park over the past 60 years.

While doing some research for my book Silent Spring Revisited, I came across a 1963 issue of the Bedfordshire Naturalist journal that included an account by Bruce Campbell of a nesting bird survey that he and the (then) British Birds editor James Ferguson-Lees carried out that year. They were repeating a survey first conducted sixty years earlier.

Campbell takes up the tale: ‘On June 4th, 1903, Jannion Steele-Elliott, the great Bedfordshire naturalist and his friend Ronald Bruce Campbell, my father, spent the day at Southill Park and found nests with eggs of 27 different species of bird, a feat which can have few parallels in British field ornithology.’ Sixty years on: ‘On June 5th, 1963, Jannion’s nephew, Dennis Elliott, James Ferguson-Lees, like my father a Scoto-Bedfordian… and I celebrated the diamond jubilee of the 1903 visit.’ Nothing was published at the time of the 1903 visit, but Campbell had his father’s diary of the event for reference.

In 1963, the three searched from mid morning till around 9.00 pm, and only just failed to emulate their predecessors: ‘Allowing ourselves the Blackcaps [fledged young rather than the nest itself], our tally was 60 occupied nests of 26 species. Considering the effect of the previous winter and that none of us knew the area well, whereas Steele-Elliott was certainly familiar with it, we felt we had not done too badly.’

With the 50th and 110th anniversary of this unusual and occasional survey approaching, I felt that it ought to be repeated. Richard Bashford, Barry Nightingale and I approached the estate; the necessary permission was generously granted by the Whitbread family and we did a dry run in June 2012. It was clear that the emphasis of our informal survey would not – indeed should not – be on locating the actual nests of many of the species likely to be present and breeding, to avoid risk of causing disturbance. Times and of course ornithological conventions have changed.

And so, on 9th June 2013, the three of us met at 6.00 am on the edge of the Park. In common with 1903 and 1963, our spring followed a hard winter, although not on the scale of 1963’s fabled three-month freeze. ‘From a general comparison of the two days,’ wrote Campbell, ‘it [1903] must have been a late season, whereas 1963, in spite of the famous cold spell, had by June become rather an early one.’

A cold wind from the east made for thinner pickings than we might have expected at the Keepers Warren, where we set off. It was evidently heathland and not long planted, in 1963. The predated Wood Pigeon fledgling we found on the track may have been evidence of Sparrowhawk, absent 50 years ago. We found some other signs of life, such as the Muntjac Deer that trotted calmly across the track up ahead of us. The one that Campbell noted in this very part of the estate he described as his first glimpse of this recently introduced species in the wild.

At a clear-felled area we speculated on the species that might have occurred in days gone by – Nightjar, Woodlark, Whinchat, Tree Pipit – but we found nothing. We did pick up half a white eggshell, which looked good for Tawny Owl. I popped it in my bag for later verification.

The ’63 group had gone first to the lake, and enjoyed early success. ‘The boathouse gave us our first score, a House Sparrow with 4 eggs on a beam; there were several others to which we did not climb,’ Campbell reported. The boathouse is still there, crowded by trees, but the House Sparrows are long gone. The lake covers around 20 ha and remains a place busy with waterfowl and other wetland specialists. In 1963, Campbell recorded that ‘… herons lumbered off the tall trees on the island. The heronry was not in existence in 1903, so this gave us one species in hand for a start.’ We too were able to add Grey Heron to our list.



The 1963 search became ‘amphibious’ – the two men were equipped with gumboots and a mirror on a stick. They found Sedge Warbler and – curiously – a Bullfinch nest in sedges over the water. ‘The colony of Reed Warblers was known to Steele-Elliott but no nests were recorded on the 1903 visit… we tallied eight Reed Warblers with eggs.’

In 1963, the Turtle Dove accidentally flushed from its nest and young as the men returned to shore we could only dream of nowadays. They also stumbled on a Common Whitethroat nest nearby. We found a pair not far away, but only derelict nests were apparent.



For all their abundance over the lake we could add no hirundines to our list of breeders. The lake gave us one notable record – Egyptian Goose with goslings – and also something that our predecessors had noted, but of which we were unable to prove breeding on the day: Mute Swan and Great Crested Grebe.



Things improved after lunch, as we found Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers attending nest holes, Eurasian Nuthatches with a brood of five, and family groups of Eurasian Treecreeper and Goldcrest (‘a rarity in 1963’). Perhaps best of all were the Marsh Tits feeding recent fledglings.

The arable fields added little to our list, the winter wheat no doubt too high and dense already for ground nesters. The lack of hedgerows here ruled out several others. One real bonus was our discovery of the return of Spotted Flycatchers to the vicinity of Gothic Cottage. They were missing in 2012.

Ten hours in, and flagging, we went in search of what would have been number 26, returning to a Stock Dove nest hole we’d identified on our recce last year, but without success. We looked instead for Song Thrush, but chanced on a Common Chiffchaff gathering food. A pleasing one to end on.

What was most enjoyable was reflecting, as we strolled between habitats, on what these surroundings might have looked and felt like to our forerunners. Am I right to imagine that what has changed most is the general abundance of life?

It’s tempting to believe that there was just more in the way of life forms present, fifty years ago. Notwithstanding our competence, there is the definite sense that nests were easier to find, back then, presumably because birds were simply much more abundant. Perhaps insects were too. Campbell describes Ferguson-Lees being bothered by midges as he tried to locate Willow Warblers in a patch of Ground-elder. I wonder if this snapshot alone reveals a lot about the contrasting world they inhabited. We didn’t hear a Willow Warbler all day, and saw nothing resembling a midge. I don’t think we saw more than a single butterfly all day either, even after the sun broke through towards the end. What is perhaps more troubling is that this didn’t even occur to me as odd until I thought about it later that evening.

It also then occurred to me that I still had the eggshell in my bag, and towards midnight I checked it against the book. It made a perfect match with the Tawny Owl egg depicted there. So this gave us number 27, the same score as the class of 1903. And one more than in 1963.

So we could say that we matched their feat, more-or-less, though we did re-write the rules. In fact, the only intact eggs we saw all day were those of Common Coot, which would have been impossible to miss. What seems clear is that, not only were our predecessors’ nest-finding techniques greatly superior to and much less trammelled than ours, it also seems likely that there were, in all likelihood, many more nests to find.

Really, we can’t claim to have emulated the feat but that was not really the point. What is much more instructive is the glimpse the outing has given us of what has changed, and the pleasure of walking this interesting and varied landscape and imagining it five and eleven decades ago, our counterparts in tweeds or khakis, with their basic optics and much closer search focus. The need to prove nesting was novel for us. ‘It really changed the way we birdwatched,” Richard later reflected. It also gave us some life firsts – the family parties of some of the species, in particular. The Red Kites, Buzzards and Ravens that we saw would also have gladdened our fore-runners, I am sure.

So how will it be, 50 years hence, in 2063? One thing’s for sure, we won’t be the ones doing the 10-hour trek.


The year that was

1903  British Birds journal was still three years from its inception, but in spring 1903 the Society for the Protection of Birds (its Royal Charter was still a year away) was launching Bird Notes and News – the precursor to Birds magazine – to provide ‘news of the doings of the Society’ to its members. The first issue spoke of the challenges of tackling the ‘conspicuous brutality’ of the plumage trade – the absence of herons from the 1903 Southill survey may reflect a wider depletion of the heron family – and the practices of caging and often blinding songbirds.

1963  In spring 1963, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in the UK. The perils of which it warned were only just dawning on a wider public. And while we have no record of Southill Park being affected, estates not too far away had been reporting dead and dying birds (and other species such as Foxes) in great numbers. The RSPB, BTO and Game Research Association had formed an alliance to mobilise volunteer support and quantify the carnage. On top of this, resident species were recovering from one of the harshest winters on record. Barry Nightingale can himself recall field edges littered with the corpses of Wood Pigeons. Bird Notes was still two years from evolving into Birds magazine. It reported that National Nature Week had just been held.

Footnote  In July 2013, while browsing once again in the file of Bedfordshire Naturalist journals, I discovered that the 1963 group repeated the survey two years later. It is worth adding this for the record, and to pick out a few of the noteworthy aspects of that visit. They returned on 1st June 1965, a ‘dull but promising’ day, and the promise was fulfilled as they racked up 100 nests of 35 species, way in excess of their 60/26 score of two years earlier. It supports the theory that there were many more nests to find, half a century ago – even more so perhaps as bird numbers recovered in the wake of the big freeze of winter 1962/63. There are some other poignant reflections: ‘The Muntjac was certainly not dreamed of at Southill in 1903 nor, probably, was the Grey Squirrel,’ wrote Bruce Campbell. ‘Another striking change, we reflected, was in the variety of noises which have invaded the countryside. At least during working hours, tractors, aircraft, bird-scarers and a power-saw reminded us of the age of technology. Perhaps in another 60 years science will have conquered noise and our successors will not strain to catch the off-nest calls of Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler.’

It may be that there was more human activity and therefore more noise then than now. But I think Campbell may have been especially surprised to learn that, 48 years on, there are no Willow Warblers left to hear.

Conor Jameson

With thanks again to the Whitbread family and Southill estate staff for their kind permission to repeat this historic survey, and of course to Barry and Richard for their vital contributions.



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