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.
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.
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.
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/
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  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.
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.
Author Tim Harris gets a rare opportunity to watch critically endangered vultures dine…
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in a covered trench in pitch darkness. Beside me, my friend Neil crouches behind his enormous lens, waiting for the first indications of a new day. The odour of rotting flesh wafts through the screen in front of us, not too bad but enough to remind us that the previous day a cow’s carcass was dumped on the ground a few metres away. Time moves slowly and I’m constantly trying to find a more comfortable position. No padded seats here. In fact, no seats at all, and the log I’m sitting on was definitely not ergonomically designed. We speak not a word, however, since silence is all-important.
Just after 6:00 now, and the ‘whoosh’ of a very large bird passes directly overhead, followed by some flapping and an evil-sounding hiss. I risk parting the reedy screen a few centimetres and notice that the sky has lightened by a few degrees, revealing the silhouettes of several vultures in the top of a tree. Much closer, several of these giants are already jostling with each other on the ground, just 30 metres away. I’ve never had a problem watching others eat but this is very special. The vultures spent yesterday afternoon investigating how best to gain access to the deceased bovine’s best joints. Clearly that is no longer an issue since the animal has been reduced to a pile of bones and offal.
As the sun comes up over this corner of dipterocarp forest on the northern plains of Cambodia, the diners’ identities are revealed. Most are Indian White-backed Vultures but there are also a handful of Red-headed Vultures with their strangely perplexed expressions. The latter seem to spend most of their time standing around, doing very little, but they are clearly one step up in the pecking order. Then there are the Slender-billed Vultures with their black, snake-like necks, perfect for going deep inside any dead animal. It is quickly clear that they always get what they want. The others back away when the Slender-bills hiss out a warning. Screams, hisses and the sound of wings flapping … this is the accompaniment to the end game as bones are stripped of their last morsels of flesh.
Apart from their love of carrion, these vultures are sadly united by one thing: their extreme rarity. The 60-odd birds we are watching represent a significant proportion of the world’s population of each species. All are classified as Critically Endangered, and extinction is now a real threat. It was not always so but vulture populations have crashed catastrophically since the 1990s, down by as much as 99 percent, due to the treatment of cattle with Diclofenac. Those populations that remain are now disjointed.
The drug was never used in Cambodia and only on the northern plains of that country are the vultures holding their own. In fact, here they are just about increasing in number, largely thanks to a series of ‘vulture restaurants’ where geriatric cows are slaughtered on a regular basis to provide a supplementary food source, a strategy driven by the Sam Veasna Center (sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society), which works with village communities to encourage them to engage with their local wildlife.
Visiting birders and photographers pay for the privilege of witnessing the vultures (and other threatened species such as Giant and White-shouldered Ibis) and the cash goes into the hands of the villagers who provide the carrion. To be fed and guided by local villagers, who also maintain the hides, is an inspirational experience. Families gain extra income; villages are able to fund water pumps, schools and roads; the community is actively involved in conservation. Everyone benefits. This is a magnificent model for sustainable conservation and ecotourism, one that should be adopted elsewhere. Even if you couldn’t stomach the spectacle of vultures poking around in a dead cow’s digestive tract, it is an initiative worth supporting.
For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see
Photos: Neil Bowman
Tim is the author of RSPB Migration Hotspots. You may like to read more on critically endangered birds in Facing Extinction.
Photographer Mark Sissons shares his passion for Puffins.
They are often called the clown prince of the cliff tops and with good reason given their comical appearance, but for many nature photographers here in Britain the summer just wouldn’t be the same without heading to the coast to spend some time with one of the most enigmatic and amazingly approachable birds, namely the Puffin.
For me they are an addiction. Not simply from a photographic point of view (although I have tens of thousands of Puffin images on my hard drives it has to be said) but also because of the sheer enjoyment that I have had over many summers spending time in their colonies. These colonies have been spread far and wide too – from the nearest major one to my land-locked home county of Shropshire at Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, through the Farne Islands in Northumberland, multiple colonies in the Shetlands, their main breeding grounds in Iceland and also in the late grasp of winter in northern Norway where there was still snow when the early birds returned ashore.
There is simply always something going on in a Puffin colony especially if you have an eye and a love for such things. Whether it be the head shaking, bill raising acts of courtship, the digging out of a new burrow, the bill tapping communication that can sometimes lead to aggression and some amazing beak-locked squabbles, the appearance of a new parent on the cliff top with a beak full of sand eels for the below ground Puffling to consume, the agony of watching the effort of said fishing expedition grabbed away by a marauding Gull, or the delight of a late summer evening when the youngsters make their first wing flapping ventures above ground before literally jumping off the cliff to the sea below probably not to return to shore for a year at the very least. A Puffin colony is much like a classic soap opera really and the more time you spend there the more you understand in terms of just how these pocket rockets of the bird world live and interact.
Photographing this iconic bird for ‘The Secret Lives of Puffins’ was therefore so much more than just another assignment or project and one thing is certain – I’ll be back on the cliff tops once more next summer!
Copyright for all photos: Mark Sisson.
Conor Jameson has a mystery to share…
It has some of the hallmarks of a Conan Doyle murder mystery, complete with period costume, a shooting, a body, a fairytale Victorian Highland setting, suspects, big city and small town locations, journeys in between, and – for good measure and Hollywood appeal – a strong American angle. In fact the central character is a ‘Yank’ – Accipiter gentilis atricapillus to be precise – the fabled Northern Goshawk.
It’s spring 1869 and there is unrest in the British Empire – Canada, this time. The finishing touches are being put to the Cutty Sark in a Glasgow shipyard. She will be one of the last of the tea clippers built, as the age of sail gives way to steam power. The journal Nature is also launched, and the People’s Friend. A gamekeeper called Stewart is patrolling the slopes of Schiehallion – the ‘hill of the fairies’, some say – in Perthshire. Spying a bird of prey, in the tradition of the day he shoots it dead.
By and by, he gets into conversation with a road surveyor called Menzies, who relieves the keeper of the bird, which has been crudely gutted. Menzies takes it to the town of Brechin, on the east coast, and a shop owner there by the name of Lyster. Lyster can turn his hand to taxidermy, and sells many things, chief among which are fishing lures, for which Red Kite Milvus milvus feathers are particularly suited. But the skin he is presented with is no kite, or gled, as they were then known. In any event he has better things to work with, and puts it aside.
Some time later a man called Gray drops in. He’s a keen ornithologist in his spare time and an inspector of banks by day. It’s not in great nick by this time but he recognises the bird skin as that of a Goshawk. He takes ownership of the specimen, and arranges for it to be sent on to Glasgow. There, he has another taxidermist clean, stuff and mount it. Goshawks were by this time rare, even in Scotland. It would be extinct as a breeder in Britain in little more than a decade. Having collected his order from the stuffer, it is only now that Gray realises there is something particularly unusual about this Goshawk. It is of the North American race atricapillus. At face value, this is the first record of its kind for Britain. The record is generally accepted. Gray later becomes a renowned and respected ornithologist and author of books on the subject.
Fast-forward a century, and cutting a long story short, this American Gos is dropped from the Scottish list. No one today seems very sure why. By this time there were several records of American Goshawk from Ireland and one from England (Tresco, Scilly, 28th December 1935). In each case the birds were evidently shot, enabling close inspection.
Forward again, this time to the present day, when the Perthshire record is reviewed once more, and officially rejected. Over at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, experts are once again peering at the mummified corpse. The identity of the bird is not in dispute, but there is apparently sufficient doubt over provenance, with the possibility that a different (American) Goshawk skin replaced that deposited by Gray in the Glasgow shop.
The verdict suggests a general doubt over the American Goshawk’s ability to cross 5,000 km of ocean, a doubt in which it is easy to share. Even with a hurricane at its tail (there was such a weather event and a major fall of Goshawks in the USA in the late 1860s) and/or with the help of a boat, believing the gos can achieve this feat assumes a voyage of weeks or even months rather than days, and a diet of seabirds caught on the wing, over the waves, en route… unless Roger the Cabin boy had taken pity on the stowaway in the rigging, and was bringing it ship’s rations, or rats.
Some ornithologists I’ve spoken to have shrugged at the idea of atricapillus being capable of crossing the Atlantic. ‘Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius and American Kestrel Falco sparverius can do it,’ they’ll say. But this is to equate the talents of Mo Farah with those of Usain Bolt. The Gos, we know, is a bird that will spend most of an average day loafing, waiting for prey to come within ambush range: a sprinter, not a distance runner. They are three times as heavy as harriers. We know they can cross the North Sea, but show a peculiar reluctance to do so, if the low number of records for Shetland, the oil rigs and coming in off the east coast are anything to go by (one Scandinavian ring recovery, ever).
But is it any more feasible that a Victorian trader would import such a specimen, and not label or market it for maximum value as an exotic? That it would be so casually or carelessly switched by a professional taxidermist for no apparent additional fee?
In the end, we can only speculate. Despite some of the finest minds having been trained on it, the Perthshire Goshawk saga will probably remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of ornithology, and just one of the many riddles surrounding the enigmatic, spectral, much-studied yet poorly understood and dare I say widely overlooked Northern Goshawk.
Conor Mark Jameson
Footnote – the Irish goshawk records are also currently under review. The fact that two of the Irish records occurred within days of each other (both birds shot), and within weeks of the Perthshire gos, merely adds further intrigue to the overall tale.
Conor’s book Looking for the Goshawk has recently been published by Bloomsbury.
Freelance wildlife and natural history photographer Adrian Davies, author of Digital Plant Photography reminisces on the fungi of 2012!
Of all botanical subjects, fungi are probably the most unpredictable in terms of numbers and species. An area brimming with specimens one year may be virtually devoid of them the following year, even though conditions are seemingly favourable. 2012 was no exception here, with a dearth of specimens during the main fungus season in September and October. I even heard of fungus forays being cancelled due to the lack of specimens. I visited several of my favourite sites, but shot very few images during the main season, though there was an unexpected flush in November.
At my favourite fungus site, Ebernoe Common in Sussex, I always make a point of visiting my favourite Beech tree, complete with excellent specimens of the Artists fungus, (Ganoderma australis). I have known the tree for over 10 years. This is one of those specimens where a wide angle lens is very useful, enabling you to show the fungi in their environment. Visiting the tree in October I was taken completely by surprise to find that the tree had blown over during the previous winter. It was like losing an old friend. However, of course, fungal attack on trees, causing their eventual decline, is all part of the natural process , and this tree will eventually rot down to provide food for a new generation of trees, keeping the woodland healthy.
In the first shot I used a 17 – 55mm zoom lens at 20mm to capture the fungi growing at the base of the tree, and still show the trees in the background. Note the reddish brown spores which have fallen from the brackets.
I always make a point of going out looking for fungi with experts if possible, on a foray. Not only are they usually much better at finding them than me, but can also identify them for me! By doing that, even though specimens were hard to find, I did manage to see some fascinating specimens. I would never have found this tiny Earthstar fungus (Geastrum fimbriatum), growing amongst the leaves on the woodland floor without their help. I used a 105mm macro lens, couple with a 1.4x tele-converter to try to throw the background out of focus.
Bracket fungi are long lived and often have wonderful patterns underneath, such as the aptly named Oak Mazegill (Daedalea quercina). Someone had knocked this specimen from its tree, and it was a simple shot to prop it up against a tree stump, and shoot it with my 105mm lens.
My favourite fungus is the Magpie Fungus (Coprinus picaceus) one of the inkcaps. They are not common, but when you do find them they often grow in abundance, and when I visited this woodland in November there were hundreds of them, lit by early morning sunlight shafting through the trees. I shot this with my 17 – 55mm lens at 24mm, making sure the lens hood was in place to prevent excessive flare.
I always look for different viewpoints when photographing toadstools, and a view looking straight down onto these again aptly named Earthy Webcaps (Cortinarius hinnuleus) seemed most appropriate.
For practical advice on photographing plants and fungi, try:
Conor Mark Jameson writes …
The RSPB holds its annual weekend for members at York University each spring during half-term. The students are away and the wildfowl own the campus. Members (and staff and volunteers present) are treated to a range of stimulating talks and activities, guaranteed to recharge the batteries, and remind us what multi-tentacled beast is this organisation, grappling with challenges on all sides. Most of all you leave York with the strong sense that there is hope yet for saving nature. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk that I call Silent Spring Revisited – Rachel Carson’s legacy.
As I did a bit of last-minute adjustment I realised the significance of the date. Tuesday 14th April was the day in 1964 when something very significant happened that is much less well remembered than Silent Spring itself, published just over a year earlier.
On that spring morning, Rachel Carson died. It comes as a surprise to people when I tell them this, just as the event itself came as a shock even to many of those who knew well the naturalist, scientist, author and campaigner. They didn’t know she’d been ill, and they didn’t know because she hadn’t told them. She thought that knowledge of her condition would be used against her by her opponents, deniers of the widespread harmful effects of indiscriminate pesticide use.
In fact Rachel Carson had been battling cancer and a succession of illnesses for a large part of the four and a half years it took her to research and write Silent Spring. Arthritis required her at times to use a wheelchair.
Forty-nine years on, this anniversary Sunday morning fittingly brought strong, mild blustery winds from the south and west. With them came the long awaited and much delayed spring migrant birds from the south, where they had been backing up around the Mediterranean and beyond. Chiffchaffs at last were calling from the bare treetops among the halls of residence on a misty Yorkshire dawn.
The turbulent air also encouraged our Scandinavian visitors to head once again north and east. Redwings streamed overhead and out towards the sea, and we craned our necks seeking our first glimpse of swallows arriving to replace them. Someone reported seeing a waxwing and a willow warbler in the same hedgerow – an unusual collision of arrivistes and the departing. But it wasn’t till I’d made the journey home afterwards, south by train against this general flow of returning nature, that I found my first swallows. There were three of them, surfing the wind over the village a few hundred metres from the house, by way of welcome. They’ve made it again, as always oblivious to all that’s going on below them, in our increasingly uncertain world.
Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s passing. It would be fitting to mark the occasion then not with a minute’s silence, nor even with a minute’s applause, but with a minute’s birdsong, and other springtime sounds from nature. Perhaps we might even officially designate it Rachel Carson Day.
People wherever they are might then listen for the birds, and take a moment to recall Rachel Carson’s determination, courage and sacrifice, in the face of powerful opposition, in raising the alarm about the danger of biocide misuse. She didn’t live to find out what came next. She did this work not for her own benefit, but for those who would follow. This is one hero we mustn’t allow to be unsung.
Conor’s book, Silent Spring Revisited, is now out in paperback.
Conor Mark Jameson describes his meeting with the elusive Goshawk…
Berlin. Late February. As chill, and still and drab as all the Cold War, spy thriller clichés. I am here with ‘Altenkamp!’. That’s how Rainer answers his hands-free, as we drive to the fourth and last of our destinations this afternoon, here in the east of the sprawling city. This is Rainer’s ‘precinct’. This is where he does his stake-outs, stalks his quarry, makes his notes. We aren’t looking for dissidents, however. Those days are gone. We are looking for goshawks.
Improbably, we are in a swing park. And not a very big one. It makes a change from the first three venues of my whistle-stop tour – cemeteries. We found evidence of goshawks in all three – plucking sites, nests, tantalising goshawk calls.
The park is dotted with people. The quiet is punctured by the cries of children and small dogs. There is a tennis court, a roundabout and swings. Mallards loaf on a tiny duck pond, ice still intact around its muddy, scummy rim. It doesn’t look promising, all this. I’m still stuck in my image of the goshawk as a bird of remote and expansive conifer woodland, where they remain strangely invisible.
The trees here, however, are towering in places. In one, Rainer points out a gos nest from last year. Further on, we spot what must be this year’s: another huge, dark cone against the grey, in the highest fork of a beech. And I notice dark feathers on the ground. They catch my eye because some are still stirring in the faintest breeze. Not
wet and stuck to the grass like in the graveyards. Fresh. There is a trail of them. And I notice downy feathers too, and some of these are in fact still airborne.
I absently follow these round in the air with my finger (I realise now this probably looked like the exaggerated, gormless gesture of someone in pantomime). Without realising it, I am looking up open-mouthed and pointing at the source of this feather trail: a hooded crow, prone on the branch of an oak, ten feet above our heads, in the firm grip of a juvenile female goshawk.
It is a hyper-real scenario. The phantom of the forest, the grey ghost, the bird you normally see well only in books or glass cases – glass-eyed – now close, animate, fiery-eyed, moving, pulling and tearing, twitching as she dips her head. Purposeful, focused, alert and aware, yet somehow not really looking at us. Looking beyond us, or through us; as though maybe we are now the ghosts, the phantoms. A little disconcerting. Haunting. And quite amazing.
‘Don’t point at her!’ hisses Rainer. Of course, I immediately feel like the gauche, rooky cop, liable to give the game away in his enthusiasm after a prolonged investigation that has led finally to the clinching encounter. I pull my hand away abruptly.
‘We need to not look at her – she might not like it,’ he whispers. ‘We should take turns to look over, while talking to each other – like this…’ As he demonstrates the ruse, I sense that Rainer, even after 15 years of study, is nearly as excited as me. Not old and cynical like the veteran cop of cliché. In a way, I’m also gratified to confirm that I can still have feelings like this myself. I’m like the kid that once was me, seeing my first buzzard, up close.
We attempt a rather awkward, stilted semi-conversation while I at least am struggling to disguise my excitement, stealing glances at this mythical bird, come to life. The goshawk – ‘the bird you know is there, because you do not see it’, as they say in rural Germany – plain as day, relaxed as a pet, more beautiful than books, pictures, films and of course taxidermy can ever hope to emulate – is right here before us: in a city centre swing park.
It becomes steadily clear that she has not batted a mad, raptor eyelid. This is confirmed when a pram-pushing couple stop immediately below the branch and, as one, look up at her and, yes, point. Perhaps they too have noticed the crow’s stomach on the path, discarded by the dining hawk with the bulging crop. Or maybe they just couldn’t miss her.
She is 26-inches long, lean, muscular, saffron-tinted and streaked with chocolate-coloured arrowheads. She has that goshawk glare – looks invincible. Perhaps she is. Perhaps the routinely persecuted goshawk has at last found real sanctuary, so close to us now no one could find it in their heart to hate it, far less shoot it, or trap it, or poison it, or put it in a glass case. In Berlin at least, the goshawk is now out of the woods, and back in our lives, and no longer considered a threat to the state.
This story first appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, as the winning entry of the 2010 Nature Writer of the Year competition.
Looking for the Goshawk, the full story of what happened next, is out now.
Tim Mackrill, author of The Rutland Water Ospreys has some news…
Picture the scene. It’s early March on a West African beach and 03(97) – Rutland’s most successful breeding Osprey – is tucking into a Needlefish which he has just caught. He glances up to watch a fishing boat drift past, a mixed flock of terns alights nearby and a Pied Kingfisher zips past, calling noisily. The early morning sun is warming the beach; by the middle of the day the temperature will have reached more than 30 degrees. Things couldn’t be more tranquil.
Fast forward a few weeks and the scene is very different. Yesterday 03 returned to his nest at Site B to be greeted by a blizzard and thick fog. Yes, you read that right, 03 is back in Rutland!
The weather of the past week – not just in the UK, but in much of France – meant we were expecting many of our summer visitors, Ospreys included, to be delayed by a few days. 03, though, has confounded this by returning two days earlier than either he, or any of the other Rutland birds, has ever done.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Our recent satellite tracking studies have demonstrated the extraordinary migratory ability of Ospreys. For instance, unlike most other birds of prey, they don’t rely on thermals to aid their migration. In his urgency to get back to the nest where he has raised 27 chicks since 2001, 03 obviously just powered on through the worst that the European ‘spring’ could throw at him.
Once back at the nest Sunday morning – he may even have arrived on Saturday evening – 03 set about rebuilding his nest. It wasn’t long, though, before heavy snow forced him to take shelter on the nest tree. A couple of hours later the nest was shrouded in thick fog. The contrast with his wintering grounds could hardly have been more pronounced.
03’s early arrival will ensure that he has no competition for his long-established nest, but it is likely to make fishing difficult for a few days. The temperature is forecast to drop below freezing most nights this week, meaning fish in the reservoir, and 03’s other regular fishing spots, will retreat towards the bottom of the water column, making them more difficult to catch that usual. However, many Scandinavian Ospreys return to find snow at their nests each spring, so we know that 03 will be fine. If a little colder than usual.
With 03 back in Rutland, we wonder who will be next? Last year 5R(04) returned to the Manton Bay nest on 19th March. So keep a close eye on the webcam over the next few days! Even better, why not come and pay us a visit at Rutland Water. The Lyndon Visitor Centre is open 7 days a week.
Read the whole story of the successful rentroduction of the Ospreys to England in:
Marianne Taylor shares the drama of the bird race…
First light on a January morning, hot tea and bacon sandwiches in Nigel’s conservatory. There is a cheery babble of conversation around me but I’m not joining in, because I’m staring at a bird feeder. The birds come and go like lightning. I keep my binoculars up at my eyes, aimed at the feeder, it’s the only way. Then, sneaking in among the colourful Blue and Great Tits, a little mousy bird with black cap and bib. ‘Marsh Tit! On the feeder now!’ I yelp and everyone snaps round to look. There are congratulatory noises and I scrawl its name down on a list already more than a dozen strong. We’ve got what we were waiting for, now it’s time to go.
We follow tight, high-hedged country lanes towards the coast. In and out of Hastings town, then eastwards to Fairlight. We park up and scramble across a squashy mudbath of a field, over the pulled-down barbed wire to the crumbling cliff edge. A sheer drop and a wide, still expanse of English Channel lies before us. Nigel scopes the sea, the rest of us watch a pair of Foxes as they gingerly explore the scene of last year’s rock-fall over to our right. Out on the water bob rafts of Great Crested Grebes, among them the odd diver and scoter. Fulmars hang-glide over the tiny wave crests. Any moment now a Peregrine or Raven might round the Cliffside and give us a jaw-dropping flypast. But we have limited time and lots more to do.
Pett Level is just a few miles along. Here we look out across miles of intensely green, soaking wet pasture, interspersed with shallow pools that teem with wildfowl. The ecstatic whistled whoops of the Wigeons predominate, the soft purrs of the Teals provide a backing track. Lapwings and Curlews busily patrol the fields, further out a family of White-fronted Geese graze alongside their commoner Greylag cousins. Nigel finds two Peregrines having their mid-morning break on a picturesque wooden gate. The list grows and grows.
At Dungeness, we find a gleaming white male Smew among the Pochards on the ARC pit, and in the willow scrub there’s a split-second, heart-stopping glimpse of a Firecrest. A Cetti’s Warbler sings from some hiding place or other, rich, vibrantly fruity notes that sound out of place here in this chilly shingle wilderness. Our six sets of walking boots scrunch along the pathway back to the car.
Post-lunch, the light evaporating fast, we’re gathered at the end of a row of fishing boats, watching a great swirl of gulls. Among them flies a single Glaucous Gull, a great barrel-shaped bird, its wings tipped white rather than black like the others. Kittiwakes are commuting to and fro along the shoreline. Further out, there’s a melee of seabirds – Guillemots and Razorbills rubbing shoulders with grebes on the water, Gannets circling above. Once in a while a Gannet folds itself shut like an umbrella and freefalls headfirst into the water. I imagine the undersea chase, the Gannet gulping down its fish prey and fighting its way back to the surface. We head back to the Dungeness RSPB reserve.
In near darkness, we’re all getting cold and ready to head for somewhere indoors. But Nigel stands on a hill of shingle til the last, watching and hoping for the Bittern that would bring our day list to 86. He doesn’t see it. Instead, a Water Rail squeals from the reedbeds, and far away a Sparrowhawk is hunting over the fields, hoping for one last meal before nightfall. It’s the last to join our list – 87 species in one January day.
Marianne Taylor is the author of: