Bloomsbury Wildlife

Striking gold

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.

Buzzard love

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.

Soaring spirits

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.

Copyright Stig Frode Olsen

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.

Copyright Stig Frode Olsen

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

Conor is the author of SilentSpring Revisted,  relecting on  Rachel Carson’s legacy fifty years after the publication of the seminal Silent Spring.

If you’d like to know more about buzzards, try RSPB British Birds of Prey by Marianne Taylor.

Beguiled by lice

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.

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Gingerbread louse snack.

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If left unmolested, nits can breed like rabbits.

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One of the largest and most impressive head lice ever recorded.

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A suitable badge for The Louse Master.

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Richard and Justine give it large at the Q&A

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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 …

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Available right now!


The real nitty gritty

Time for some nit-busting and myth-busting too! Think you know your nits? Richard Jones, author and guest blogger, explodes the top ten myths about head lice …

Head lice are dirty.
Wrong. Head lice do just fine in clean hair thank you very much. Washing hair once a week, or once a year, makes no difference.

Men don’t get head lice because of testosterone.
Wrong. If men get head lice less often, it’s because they cuddle their children less. It’s a sad indictment of our aloof male stiff-upper-lip Britishness. We’d rather shake hands with our kids.

Afro-Caribbean children don’t get head lice.
Wrong. Head lice have tormented humans on every continent, in every era. As one Victorian textbook put it: “No human race is without lice, or immune to them”.

Girls get head lice more often than boys because of their long hair.
Wrong. Boys did not get more head lice back in the hippy 1960s or mullet-topped 1970s. Girls tend to get head lice more often because they do more head-to-head huddling and cuddling, but boys still get lice.

Blondes do not get head lice because they cannot grip the fine hair strands.
Wrong. Blonde, brunette, ginger, black, grey or blue rinse, we can all get head lice. Baldness is the only state likely to be free of lice.

You can easily get head lice from hats, scarves, combs and headphones.
Wrong. A head louse removed from the scalp is dead within hours. Head lice are small and soft and vulnerable. If one lets go of a hair it would get squashed, or it would get lost. Letting go of the hair is suicide for a louse.

Vinegar removes nits (louse eggs)
Wrong. It is now scientifically proved that acetic acid has absolutely no effect at nit-loosening; proprietory nit-loosening shampoos are equally useless. At least vinegar tastes good on chips.

Combing is old-fashioned.
Wrong. Combing is cheap, it’s easy, and it’s effective. Combing works. It is only old-fashioned in the way that eating, drinking, breathing and sleeping is old-fashioned. In fact, combing is the future.

All you need is a louse-killing shampoo.
Wrong. We’ve all been reading too much science fiction. No insecticidal shampoo is 100% effective. They do not kill all head lice. Inevitably, some survive to come back and haunt us. Insecticide-resistance in head lice is now becoming a serious issue.

Head lice hate strong smelling hair oils.
Wrong. Unlike, say, mosquitoes, which do detect their food by scent, head lice do not sniff out their next victim, they feel their way from head to head. Head lice do not fly, they do not jump, they do not skip. They crawl, but they are very good at it.

For more indispensable advice on head lice and curious nit-know-how consult The Little Book of Nits by Richard Jones and Justine Crow – available in bookshops from Thursday 24th May. They also have a brilliant blog called NIT HEADS.


No pane, no gain

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 …

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… 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.

A Tawny Owl, yesterday.

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!

The wonder of waders

This week a guest blog by author Don Taylor on a group of birds that provide perhaps the sternest of ID challenges …

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Waders have long fascinated me – there is such variety in this wonderfully complex group of species. I well remember flushing my first Jack Snipe, from a derelict gunsite on the Hampstead Heath extension in north London, back in 1952. Many years later I wrote the text to complement Stephen Message’s excellent illustrations in our field guide Waders of Europe, Asia and North America.

Some sensational snipes.

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While the challenges of separating very similar species, like the ‘peeps’, are always fascinating and can provide one with great satisfaction, when a correct identification is made, it is often some of the more exotic species that provide me with greater excitement, including some outside the range of this book. Some years ago I set myself the ambitious target of seeing all the waders of the world and photographing as many of them as possible. The book essentially deals with those species in the northern hemisphere and just one still eludes me, the Great Thick-knee.

As you read this I shall probably still need to see just five southern hemisphere species too, having added the last two African species during November. Somehow, I’ve managed to miss the Australian Pratincole, but the real challenge is to see the last four South American snipe species which have so far eluded me: Puna, Giant, Fuegian and Imperial. Having travelled widely in this pursuit, there are many tales to tell.

Australian Painted Snipes. The female (left) is the brighter and more colourful in this species.

The separation of the Australian Painted Snipe as a different species from the Greater Painted Snipe meant a trip to Australia. I again arranged to join Philip Maher, as my guide, and he came up trumps. He had located an area, north of Deniliquin, where he’d seen a pair. During the afternoon, we did flush one but never saw it at rest. Towards dusk we prepared to wander around the open marshy habitat again and once darkness fell, we started our exploration. It wasn’t long before his searchlight shone on one, but again, it flew and it was a while before we relocated it. In fact we discovered a male and a more attractively plumaged female, both of which I was able to photograph successfully, as we were apparently less of a threat to them in the dark. It was an immensely rewarding experience.

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To see remote species, like the Tuamotu Sandpiper, requires joining an organised birding trip in order to get to isolated islands where small populations survive. In September 2010 I joined the Birdquest group on their French Polynesian tour, which provided me with that opportunity. As I lowered myself off the zodiac onto the rocky shore of the island of Tenararo, then walked up the sandy beach, I was virtually greeted by a pair of these exquisite birds running across the sand towards me. They are so different from any other wader and a real delight to spend time with. Several pairs of them entertained me for much of my time on this exotic island, with their squeaky calls, short-tailed fluttering flight, confiding, even curious behaviour and habit of alighting practically anywhere – on the shore, among the palm vegetation, or on the branches of even the tallest palms.

The Tuamotu Sandpiper - one of the world's rarest waders.

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Don Taylor is the author of our Helm Field Guide Waders of the Europe, Asia and North America.

Help for hogs

This week’s blog is by Bloomsbury staffer Adrian Downie – there’s something shuffling in the undergrowth …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Autumnwatch Uncoiled

This week we have a guest post from TV presenter and Bloomsbury author Maya Plass – the inside story of her latest appearance on Autumnwatch

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I never thought a day would come where I could go rockpooling in the middle of an arboretum but, through the power of television and the expertise of the National Marine Aquarium, a ‘mockpool’ tank of intertidal organisms was fashioned for the Autumnwatch Unsprung programme. As is often the case with television, I found myself coming away from the filming thinking of all the things I could or should have said. So in this blog I’ve decided to expand a little on some of the themes I touched on.

First, I have to mention what a prolific ‘mockpool’ that was, which is not to say that the real thing doesn’t have a similar level of diversity and species. However, the chances of seeing species so clearly are lower because they are likely to dart into any crevice as soon as you approach a real rockpool. The vibrations of your feet on the rocks are enough to cause even the most ‘aggressive’ of crabs to hide! So it’s always a good idea to sit quietly and watch a rockpool for a while to see what might emerge from the safety of seaweed and rocks. It’s the combination of the chance element of discovery and the thrill of exploration that makes rockpooling such a delight.

Snakelocks Anemone. An intertidal beauty.

The Snakelocks Anemone in the ‘mockpool’ tank was a beautiful specimen, with its long fleshy green tentacles and purple tips. It certainly looked as though it hadn’t gone without a good meal in its comfortable surroundings. On the programme I mentioned the anemone’s rather intriguing adaptation of using its mouth both as its bottom and as the orifice from which it releases its egg and sperm. However, the story does not end there, they also bud to reproduce a perfect miniature form of themselves. These anemones are found around the majority of the British coast but are rarely (if ever) found on the east coast of England and Scotland or the easterly parts of Ireland. However, with warmer temperatures and changing currents in our seas the distribution of species is changing.

The vivid coloration of the Snakelocks is in part due to the presence of algae that love sunlight, which live in the tentacles. You will tend to find these anemones in the sunnier patches of rockpools. Unlike their cousins – the Beadlet Anemones Actinia equina – the Snakelocks rarely withdraw their tentacles to prevent themselves from desiccation on the low tide. The Beadlets will be found in shaded areas and can survive in areas where they will be left high and dry over the tidal period – in rocky, shaded crags for example. There is also a brown, paltry form of Snakelocks Anemone that is more common in areas protected from the harsh rays of the drying sunlight. But, as with the colourful algae-filled Snakelocks, the brown form will mostly be found in the pools even on the lowest of tides. This anemone was thought to lack the presence of the algae, but it is now thought to possibly even be a different species.

Cushion Stars will dry out if left out of the water for any period so replace in pools as quickly as possible.

There were also some small, but always popular, varieties of starfish within the ‘mockpool’. Hidden in the pool on the surface of the rocks and seaweed were a perfectly formed Cushion Star and Common Starfish. These always seem to capture the enthusiasm and delight of rockpoolers, young and old. They have some amazing adaptations, with tube feet on their underside that they control with hydraulic pressure. They use these tube feet to glide seemingly effortlessly around the surfaces of rocks and seaweed.

Seven-armed Starfish – the tube feet of the starfish, which they use for locomotion and predation, are clearly visible.

The Common Starfish – the larger, orange specimen – also use their hydraulic tube feet to predate on their food. They will give an unsuspecting mussel a seemingly affectionate hug, enveloping the mussel in their strong arms, attaching the many tube feet that run the length of their five arms to the mussel’s shell. Once the starfish has a good grip it gently prises the mussel shell apart. It then ejects its stomach from its mouth in a bizarre and, for some, disturbing way and digests the mussel within its own ‘protective’ shell.

In times gone by if fishermen found these starfish eating their commercially valuable mussels they would peel off the starfish and rip them in two. But in unforgiving tidal and marine environments the starfish have adapted to withstand the pressure of harsh waves and predation using the powers of regeneration – they will quite simply re-grow lost limbs and it’s not uncommon for their usual pentameral symmetry to be broken by a shorter, ‘stumpier’ arm.

I could tell you so much more about the incredible adaptations of the organisms that are found in the intertidal zone, but I’d better save some facts for my book, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, coming in early 2013. I am looking forward to being able to really expand on the amazing stories that these wonderful beasts have to tell. By the end of the writing months, I hope to have so many more new facts for you to read, but also to maintain my chances of ‘out-geeking’ the knowledge fountain that is Chris Packham!

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You can watch clips of Autumnwatch Unsprung’s ‘mockpool’ on the BBC iPlayer via these links  – the marine sections are at 6.20, 15.00 and 24.45 minutes (UK only).

Urban birding, Soho-style

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!

The Bloomsbury Sparrowhawk tucks into an unfortunate pigeon. Photo by Nick Humphrey.

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.

Black Redstart, taken earlier from the office window*. What a cracker.

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.

St Anne's Court, Soho. Scene of Jim's canary-based ID disgrace.

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*this is a lie.

The nitter-natter of tiny feet

This week, editor extraordinaire Julie brings us a stirring tale of lice and labour ..

When was my first time?

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.

Nits in action

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!

A head louse, yesterday.

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.

Olyphant: expressed 'sympathy' for Julie's plight.

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.

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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 …