Guest blogger Conor Mark Jameson finds something unexpected outside his window…
I’m glad that others can vouch for what follows, otherwise I wouldn’t expect you to believe it. I’d even have doubts myself. I found a golden oriole. Now, that would be unexpected enough, but consider this: it was here in my Bedfordshire village, it was drizzling steadily (Jubilee Sunday – ask the Queen), it was very early, and I was in my bed.
The bird was calling from the willow opposite the house. Was I half-asleep, in the optimistic inter-phase between dreams and reality (at such moments Father Ted’s helpful diagram springs to mind), and merely thinking wishfully? Was this just a particularly melodic blackbird having me on?
No. Golden oriole for sure. I know this bird. It has haunted me since a boy, discovering them around French campsites. I even wrote about this in my recently published book Silent Spring Revisited. Golden oriole is one of those birds, the glam one that jumps out of the ID guides at you, the avian El Dorado with the name worthy of a James Bond film title.
When you find the golden oriole you discover that it seems to be whistling its own name, in the musical voice of a Clanger, and that this siren sound carries far on a breeze, and into your soul, from a source that is near impossible to pick out of the shimmering canopy leaves of the oaks and poplars that it frequents.
My Jubilee oriole soon had bird lovers descending from near and far. It stayed all morning, in the spinney down the road, calling, posing, hiding. There are even photographs. There have been other records in the shire, but none reported soon enough for anyone else to see. So the oriole made the day of many others, excited, chattering, grinning birders brightening that dreary June morning. ‘It’s a bird you dream of finding in your own patch,’ one of them whispered to me. I felt a swell of pride, for the old patch.
I also once wrote about falling asleep in a deckchair in Italy as a golden oriole fluted somewhere above and beyond me, lulling me to sleep, to dream. Last Sunday felt like waking from that dream to find the bird still here. A fitting visitor for a Golden Jubilee, and failing that a Diamond. Would that more of our spinneys were so jewel encrusted.
Conor Mark Jameson
Conor is the author of Silent Spring Revisited.
Prize-winning writer and guest blogger, Conor Mark Jameson, author of Silent Spring Revisited, tells us what buzzards mean to him.
I was dismayed this week to hear of the Government’ plan to destroy buzzard nests as part of a trial to see if shooting interests can rear more pheasants to shoot. I find this entirely bizarre.
The piece below is from my forthcoming book Looking for the Goshawk, which is a search for the reason why wild birds and proximity to true wildness are integral to our well-being.
The buzzard has a special place in my affections, like a first love. I came face to face with one, on a fence post, at my own eye level, somewhere in the wilds of north-west Scotland on a family holiday. I’ve been a fan ever since. And just as I have since followed its fortunes as a recovering species, so it has seemed to follow me, shadowing my movements from west to east, to south. At each of the stop-off points in my life, the buzzard, widely persecuted in the modern age, has been reclaiming former haunts not far behind, on a roughly north-west to south-east trajectory: from the refuges of the remoter uplands (the Celtic fringes, you could say) to the lowlands, of both Scotland and England.
I witnessed as a schoolboy buzzards returning to rural north Ayrshire. I welcomed them back to the foothills of the Ochils while a student in Stirling. And I began to notice the first of them wheeling again over the western fringes of Edinburgh when I moved to find work there in the early nineties. I then moved south, first to Cambridge and then to near Sandy, Beds. And yes, I’m delighted to report that the buzzard has caught up with me again.
The realisation of just how much this is so came on a recent summer evening, as I laboured in the back garden over a cabin build. The distant, faintly nasal cries of a bird, almost gull-like, slowly penetrated my conscious mind. I realised that this was probably a young raptor of some kind, either in distress, or simply hungry. And so, I jumped the fence at the bottom of the garden and headed across the pasture, and down the hedgerow bordering the corn, in the direction of the sound. I got about 200 yards, half way to the oaks rising from the hedge line at the far end of the field. An adult buzzard launched forth from the crown of one and glided my way, mewing loudly, and anxiously. The hunger cries from the depths of the other oak promptly stopped.
And I did too. I had found out what I needed to know, for now, that there was almost certainly a nest there, and I needn’t prolong the anxiety of the birds by going any closer. I could do that in a few weeks, if and when the young fledged. The next four days played out to the same ‘feeeed meeee’ soundtrack, while a parent bird scanned the dry fields below for small movements.
Buzzards are conspicuous birds in flight, so it intrigues me they can nest so close, so unnoticed, at least until the young near fledging, and get really demanding. I have heard about the buzzard’s secretiveness before. I recall about ten years ago, when reports of buzzards locally were rare, but increasing, a local farmer telling me he thought a pair had already bred in a local wood. I thought it unlikely they could have done so without me, or people at the RSPB, where I work, knowing about it, even people who lived right beside this wood, and don’t miss much. But it couldn’t be totally ruled out.
At that time, the sighting of a buzzard hereabouts was a noteworthy event; an occasion. Reports would always cause a stir. There is something involuntary about our response to the sight of a buzzard spread on the sky. It is as though its very wings have your lungs on a string, and pull them upwards as it rises, on fanned feathers. A soaring buzzard often has an entourage of irate crows, flailing in its wake. This serves mainly to emphasise how expert a flier a buzzard is, how much more refined its lines, dignified its progress. Cool. Chilled out. Effortless. Serene. A ballet within a brawl, protected from the blows of its assailants by some invisible field created by total balance and mastery of the air.
It was just three years ago I was first able to confirm the successful breeding of buzzards very close to home. Then, with the permission of the estate and the several tenant farmers in my road, I visited a spinney and found a nest high in the crown of an oak, with young birds calling and adults nearby, clearly none too keen on the idea of me poking about below. I have since seen juveniles nearby, and even found a recently fledged bird dead between the wood and the roadside, probably a road casualty.
All good: but there is something extra heart-warming about seeing these birds from the garden, and even the sofa, or the bed, as they cruise overhead. And to hear them as well now, at the nest, gives me a particular sense of well-being, of inhabiting rural surroundings that are piecing some of their long missing parts back together. I like that the vexatious mutter of a magpie in the fruit trees tells me there’s a buzzard overhead. I like that the mournful pewww of the birds themselves makes me look up and see sometimes as many as seven of them ‘kettling’ high against the clouds, or the blue.
My nearest farmer neighbour had noticed the recent hunger calls of our young buzzards. We were chatting about the lack of summer rain. He’d had to move his cattle to another pasture. The wheat, and the beans, were fading in places for want of a decent shower. The persistent pleas of these growing birds made a fitting soundtrack to a parched landscape. He was content to have the buzzards back, though he remarked, as people often will, that it might mean fewer skylarks for us. I told him I thought we could have both. I later dropped him off a leaflet with simple advice on how to make crops extra appealing for nesting larks.
Though you don’t often see them doing anything terribly energetic, buzzards will pounce on anything small enough to hold onto easily, and to eat. They are not renowned for their dash or drama as predators. They are as likely to be seen hunting for worms and beetles as anything else, and will tend to tackle only the small and weak where rabbits are concerned, often preferring their meals ready dead. Elegant scroungers, you could say.
I often cast my mind back to that first-love moment with the buzzard, on that family holiday. All my siblings and cousins remember it too, and my parents needed no reminding, though we’ve debated whether it was Mull or Arisaig, ’72 or ’73. I was the youngest of the troupe, gazing down at the injured rabbit on the roadside. The buzzard that we inadvertently flushed from this catch is watching us back, from the fencepost, doe-eyed, soft feathered. Beautiful, yet quietly lethal.
It’s a bird I still associate with holidays, so I think that’s part of the special feeling I can now enjoy from the front room or the back garden. This used to be strictly a special bird of special places, seen only on special trips. It fair lifts the spirits to have that kind of specialness brought a whole lot closer to home. Again.
Conor Mark Jameson
If you’d like to know more about buzzards, try RSPB British Birds of Prey by Marianne Taylor.
And so at last, the great day has arrived – the publication of the epic Little Book of Nits, by Richard Jones and Justine Crow. Its already been reviewed by the Evening Standard, with further appearances in the national press to come. The book looks great – a trove of facts and fun, with a retro-funky design.
Last night, Jasmine and I went along to the book’s launch, held at a fine independent bookshop in Crystal Palace, south London. We were expecting an evening rich in parasite iconography, verse and lore; we weren’t disappointed.
Further fun included a microscope-based ‘sex this louse’ challenge, which I failed. Clearly I need to read the book more carefully! Though sadly the days of my needing to fear the head louse are long since past … not much for them to hang onto with their little claws up there these days …
Available right now!
This week’s blog is by the newest member of Team Helm, Jasmine, with a ghostly tale of things that go bump in the night …
… They certainly did go bump, or rather with a high-speed splat, for this unfortunate Tawny Owl. My father was surprised, to say the least, when he entered his spare room and saw this ghostly imprint. A glance down at the patio below reassured him that the owl had not come to a concussed end, but judging from the clarity of the print the force must have caused a great deal of pain. Perhaps the owl spotted a mouse darting across the moonlit floor and swooped only to be foiled by the unforeseen pane of glass. I read a few newspaper articles detailing similar incidents and it seems in most cases there is no bird left on the floor below, but according to some experts many will fly off and suffer internal bleeding or bodily injuries that ultimately lead to death.
Owls are infamous for their powerful sight, but like many other birds they fall foul of the reflective nature of glass. It is thought that birds see the sky and plants reflected in the glass and think the way is clear. This incident is indicative of a larger and growing problem – as industry and humans develop more obstacles rise-up to obscure the flight path of birds. Mobile phones may seem small and convenient to us, but these palm-sized devices spawn numerous towers or projections in the sky. Other structures that are typical danger zones are power lines, planes, wind turbines and the more obvious bridges and buildings.
In the US, biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that over 700 million birds may be killed through colliding with man-made structures each year. The Service has started a special day ‘International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD)’ (not to be confused with Internet movie database), which celebrates and aims to promote safe bird migration. It is celebrated annually on the second Saturday in May.
Nonetheless, the image is a striking one; the print is made from the bird’s power down feathers. Many birds have these feathers, which have barbs that on impact turn into a flour-like dust. These collision incidents are known as ‘dusting’ or ‘ghosting’ and there is a Flickr group featuring more of these images look here. Interestingly, it shows the range of birds that collide.
So on an individual level, what can we do? There are bird silhouettes that can be stuck onto panes of glass, but one isn’t enough. A number of them have to be stuck across the glass to show there’s an obstacle – and you might actually want to be able to see out of your window. Another suggested method is to adorn the outer frame with ribbons or wind chimes as a distraction for the bird, or you. Moving plants away from windows, so as not to give the impression of foliage for foraging can help, but can lead to early plant mortality. And if you have a bird feeder near a window, apparently hanging it within 1m of glass panes will slow a bird’s approach to windows. Perhaps the simplest method is to ensure you have closed the curtain or blinds between dusk and dawn.
Jasmine is editor of Marianne Taylor’s forthcoming book Owls – due out soon!
This week’s blog is by Bloomsbury staffer Adrian Downie – there’s something shuffling in the undergrowth …
Last weekend we noticed several young Hedgehogs in my parent’s garden. The prickly little mammals were out foraging for food around midday, which seemed a bit unusual. So we consulted the East Sussex Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service. They told us that Hedgehogs being out in the daytime at this time of year was quite a bad sign, and they’d now be unlikely to get to a size where they could successfully hibernate through the cold winter months.
The Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service offered to come and pick them up if we could capture them. I can exclusively report that young hedgehogs – which didn’t seem too bothered by the concerned humans nearby – don’t move very fast, and instead rely on rolling into an inpenetrable ball of prickles. Frankly, they were easy to catch.
We gathered three and placed them in a basket, weighing one of them on kitchen scales in the process – 116 grams. We also discovered that their spines are sharp enough to go through a gardening glove …T
The wildlife rescue people arrived quickly (though disappointingly not by helicopter as I’d hoped). They popped the little hogs into a basket on top of a heated blanket and whisked them away to be fed up in safety over the winter.
The next morning we found a fourth Hedgehog in the garden, who had been left behind. A Watership Down moment was averted by the fact that we took it off to join the others at the Hedgehog Hotel. The hogs will be brought back and released into the garden in the Spring to continue their sterling work eating slugs, snails and other invertebrate enemies of the gardener.
All photos are © Adrian Downie. You can see more of Adrian’s photos here.
Learn more about hedgehogs and other back-garden animals in RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife.
* If you are concerned about a young Hedgehog in your garden, follow Adrian’s lead and contact your local wildlife rescue service.
Our Soho Square bird list is nothing to boast about. Just 25 species in 11 years! But then we are in central London, without a blade of grass for miles, if you discount the obsessively manicured gardens of Soho Square itself. Even this little patch of green is barely visible underneath the masses of random, sun-seeking bodies that fill the square on sunny days, and it’s shaded by tall sterile plane trees that support a lot less microfauna than a good, solid native oak. Nevertheless, we’ve had our moments: the occasional Mallard strolling across the lawns looking for a puddle of water, a fly-over Grey Wagtail, Redwings migrating overhead in winter, and even a Willow Warbler once in August. A Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon caused quite a stir amongst the non-birding staff of our office, and has been seen a couple of times subsequently. A few years ago, a flock of 120 Waxwings descended on Fitzroy Square, just a few minutes to the north of us. This was sensational for Central London, and when we were walking back to the office a flock flew south along Charlotte Street towards Soho Square – but we weren’t there to get it on the list!
This year, after years without an addition to the list, we’ve had two. A pair of Goldfinches has taken up residence in the square. They were first found by Jim, but are now to be heard singing or twittering on most days. Then, a snatch of song on 6th May alerted me to the presence of a Black Redstart in Frith Street. It did not show itself, and a frustrating few days went by before it was heard again. The next time it was a few streets away, but again it was not seen. Finally, I nailed it back in Frith Street, and I was lucky enough to actually see a pair. Since then, it’s been fairly regular in the Frith and Greek Street area, being recorded as far afield as Chinatown and Great Marlborough Street.
We’d been hoping for this city speciality for some time. Jim thought he’d got one a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be someone’s Canary singing away from the balcony of a top floor flat! Black Redstart is a rare breeding bird in Britain. It only started breeding in Britain on bombsites in London in 1940, and its population remains fairly stable at only around 100 pairs in the entire country, mostly in towns or on power stations. So, it’s a pretty scarce bird, and to have a pair around your usually rather birdless office is quite a treat.
*this is a lie.
This week, editor extraordinaire Julie brings us a stirring tale of lice and labour ..
Well it wasn’t when I was a child.
My first experience with nits was exactly a year ago. At eight and a half months pregnant my toddler daughter came home on her last day at nursery with ‘the letter‘.
We’ve timed that well, I thought, after a quick scan of her scalp. She’ll spend the summer home with me and her soon-to-arrive sibling completely nit-free.
Two weeks later I had another squint at her head as I washed her hair. What the hey?! Forcing myself to take a closer look I discovered an impressive infestation.
That night while my daughter played happily in the bath I slathered conditioner on her hair. Nit-comb and tissue paper in hand I was ready to start the eradication process.
One comprehensive round of clearing later I knew I was supposed to wait five days before checking for newly hatched lice. But, with nothing but time on my hands, it became an irresistible daily urge to take a peek every bath-time. Did that speck just move? Is that one? Is it a different colour to the ones I removed before?
I thought I’d just ask my mum to check me. Seconds later she was presenting me with exhibits on a white tissue to examine and confirm. No! NO! Surely not me too? Days from my due date I had to concede that, yes, my cuddly little bed-invading toddler had passed on her infestation.
Action stations. I would not have a baby while there were things on my head having babies of their own!
My mum was a godsend and as the first days after my due date passed I was just relieved. I’ll be able to get rid of the little bleeders before the babe arrives, I thought.
By day ten after my due date I was too hot, tired and emotional to do anything except eat ice lollies, keep my feet elevated and hope that something was going to happen today.
Due date +12: my daughter’s head was looking more louse-free by the day. And I was now so adept at the conditioner/comb combo that, despite my long locks, I could do a pretty good job on my own, then ask my mum to check through my workmanship.
So there I was, sitting on my bed watching Timothy Olyphant being Justified combing through my softly slathered tresses when I thought, “hmm, was that a twinge?” I quickly finished combing, jumped back in the shower to rinse off and realised if it’s making me groan out loud it’s not a twinge, it’s a contraction. And after two weeks wait they came fast.
At 4.30pm I was on the bed with Timothy, by 6.20pm I was on a hospital bed meeting baby.
She was born with a beautiful dark head of hair which, like lice, is subtly changing colour with age, but thankfully within which the little blighters have yet to be found. But now she’s at nursery too I know it’s only a matter of time until I reach for those combs again.
This blog was inspired by the brilliant NIT HEADS blog, by Richard Jones and Justine Crow. Richard and Justine are currently writing The Little Book of Nits – indispensable advice for any parent. Coming soon …