Prints in the sand

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Sand martin nest holes

The corrugated roof of the recently abandoned Winniaton Farm has become inhabited for the evening. The metal canopy, which has been heating up all day in the spring sunshine, is now covered by a congregation of companionable birds; herring gulls, starlings, woodpigeons and sparrows are amongst the faces huddled together, enjoying the warmth on their feet. Soon, they will be joined by migrating swallows that use the tiny gaps underneath the farm roof to nest in. Along the hedgerows which surround the estate, stonechats temporarily break their song to mutter alarm calls to one another about my presence as I head towards the rocky beach.

Like much of Cornwall, this area has a long history with smuggling. The caves here are said to be linked by a series of tunnels where contraband would be dropped off, leading to different safe locations in the area. Shipwrecks are also thought to have been frequent due to rocks offshore. A Spanish ship carrying several tonnes of coins is thought to have been lost a few miles out to sea and some claim that the money washes up over the years, making the beaches name, ‘Dollar Cove’, seem very apt.

This coastline is laden with riches, but it isn’t historic gold coins that I am referring to. Instead, I am on the beach looking for burrows containing treasures of a different kind. On the north-west facing sandy cliff, a flock of birds are flitting around several holes and my heart leaps at the sight of them. These sand martins have recently undertaken the 7,500 mile journey to summer here on the Cornish shore. They arrived in late March, taking up residence in the cliffs, as they prepare to welcome their young in June. I love to watch them in the summer, taking turns to leave the nest to gather food as the chicks get bigger, sometimes lots of tiny brown faces all poking out of one nest, appearing as though they don’t quite fit. Then, usually around September, they are gone as quickly as they arrived and the cliff is quiet again, only the empty holes serving as a reminder of what has taken place here over the warmer months.

This site attracts around 50 birds; although at other locations there can be hundreds in one colony. It is a joy to see them; circling and swooping around the cliff tops, sometimes clinging to the side of the rock face before disappearing down a burrow, leaving a trail of sand behind them as they excavate it for their nest chamber. In the summer, you can see their outlines as the skip over the waves, the pink sun setting behind them. Every year it feels like more of an honour to see them, especially as there has been a decline in sand martin populations over the last few decades due to droughts in their winter home of Africa. Extended hot periods mean that the damp habitats where they usually reside have been struggling and insect populations have decreased, meaning the birds are finding it increasingly hard to find food. Here in Cornwall however, food is plentiful; the washed-up seaweed rotting in the midday sun attracting a plethora of insects to feed upon.

I watch for a while as the birds fly up and down the coast before a black shape appears overhead, sending the birds into a sudden panic. They flock towards the sea as the female kestrel swoops closer to the cliff. This kestrel is a familiar face to the area, often perching on the flags at the golf course, waiting for small mammals to break cover at dusk. Her youngster, a male who she had two years ago, has the domain directly next to hers, choosing a life on the cliff edge where he looks for small birds and mice in the long, tussocky grass.

The female kestrel sits motionless, her frame a shadowy figure perched atop the cliff overlooking the nest holes. A brave sand martin circles back towards her, screeching as it does so, getting closer and closer before it finally it is near enough to have an effect and the kestrel takes off backwards towards the graveyard.

The last sand martin, its duty done, then disappears around the coast with the other. As I wait for the birds to return, the sun begins to drop behind the horizon and the cold sets in, finally forcing me to leave without another opportunity to see the birds.

As I walk, I pass the farm again. The roof is now mostly vacated.

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The female kestrel who hunts over Gunwalloe
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A trip to Withan

The Germans have a word which doesn’t quite translate into English: Waldeinsamkeit.
It roughly describes the feeling of being alone in the woods; forest solitude; of being engulfed by nature.

Frenchman’s Creek provides the perfect real life example of this definition; a stunning part of the Helford River made famous by the Daphne Du Maurier novel. The story may focus on smuggling but it’s hard to conjure up that dark world when wandering along the river bank today. Instead the area is quiet, except for the hum of the birds as they flit between the tree tops and the gentle sound of water lapping at the muddy banks.

Despite the sun shining, the air serves as a reminder of last week’s storms; suffused with petrichor and I taste salt every time the breeze blows across the estuary. The floor is already a thick carpet of ramsons, permeating the peaty breeze with their garlicky smell. Some plants already have their delicate white flowers peeking out through the large buds and on the sloped banks the thin green bluebell leaves are already well established.  A silver birch shows tiny buds peeping through the crisp brown leaves that still cling to branches. Hazel catkins are plump and creamy button fungi peek out from thick clumps of bright green moss. Wild primroses cluster together in spaces where light sneaks through the tree canopies, delicate snowdrop flowers and the occasional bright yellow face of a daffodil bringing light to the dark green floor.

The still-bare limbs of the trees reveal the otherwise hidden woodland birds. Above my head, a group of long tailed tits chattered their familiar “prrrt-prrrt” to each other as they hopped from branch to branch. Most will be paired up already and will have been building their nests for several weeks, collecting features and cobwebs to weave a large next g in thick bramble. They are curious birds because they aren’t technically tits at all and are one of the few avian species who engage in coordinated parting; supporting other parents in the rearing of their chicks when their own don’t make it.

As I walk, flashes of pink and blue catch my eye as bullfinches and blue tits hunt for insects. Oak woodland is the ideal place for tits to nest and they have found the perfect spot right by the Helford. The woods surrounding the river are mostly made up of sessile oaks and those here have been labelled some of the best ancient oak woodland in the UK. In fact, sessile oak trees are sometimes nicknamed the Cornish oaks due to the sheer amount of them found in the county; with pedunculate oaks dominating in the rest of England. Oak trees are the most common tree species throughout Britain and played a huge part of daily life historically. The wood is strong, perfect for use in building andwas particularly favoured in the fabrication of boats; the irony of the small punts moored in the centre of the estuary, surrounded by the ancient fathers of those felled to make their bones not escaping me. Oak wood not used in construction would have produced slow burning firewood, the charcoal heralded as the best for swordsmithing. Oak galls were traditionally used to create ink due to the amount of iron sulphate they contain and the bark was the favourite choice to tan leather. Oak produces strong, hard-wearing leather that is worth the long process required to make it. The bark would be stripped from the trees during spring and summer then kept for several years to dry out. It was then ground into pieces around 2 – 3 inches long which are then soaked, the colour draining into cold water, a bit like making a cup of tea. Pelts are then soaked for around a year before they can be worked into clothing. Today this process is no longer used, except by J & FJ Baker in Devon; the only tannery to do so. It is sustainable, natural and beautiful.

The track I walk is overgrown, meaning fewer visitors opt to visit. I slip through the brake, hop over a fallen tree trunk and out onto the expanse of Withan Quay. The space, which first appears on records in the 1880s, is the perfect spot to take in the tranquility of the river. Evidence of the local otter population is scattered about my feet; the shells of muddy cockles cracked open and left open and empty in the midday sun.

On the bank, I spot some winter cress, also known locally as ‘cassabully’ from the Cornish kas beler, meaning ‘nasty cress’. I don’t know how this nickname came about; especially as the flavour  is similar to the cress we are familiar with, except with a slight lemony tang to it. Its scientific name, Barbarea vulgaris, named after St Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Her plant was said to be able to heal the wounds of those she cared for, so the unpleasant attitude of the name surprises me. It is bright and pretty, resembling a rape plant. I rub a leaf and inhale, detecting mustard.

I decide to take a moment and sit on the edge of the estuary, bathed in the warm spring sunshine. I lean back against a stump, listening to the wader’s calls echo along the river and watch two swans glide silently into the distance.

Every battle is won before it is fought.

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At 334 metres high, Kit Hill is the highest point in the Tamar Valley. It sits just on the Cornish side of the Cornwall-Devon border and was previously ‘gifted’ back to the Cornish in 1985 by Prince Charles when William was born.

The hill’s name comes from the Old English word ‘kit’ meaning birds of prey and is due to the fact that various species roam the area including buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks. As I climbed Kit Hill on a grey afternoon passing the signs that warned dog walkers of adders, the rain fell fitfully, the clouds slightly obstructing the views over the surrounding landscape. Kit Hill is different to the surrounding area due to the fact the land is so rough. The surface peaks and troughs, water cuts through the soil, old mining ruins are heaped around in broken moss-covered clusters and much of the space has been devoured by gorse, heathers and bilbury. The ferns, which will be green and lush come summer, were brown and sodden with rain, the ends curled and crisp. The gorse bushes were in flower, however they are sparse compared to the bright yellow blooms on the West coast, which delicately waft coconut as you pass. Underneath the structure of Kit Hill, Neolithic long barrows have been found, reiterating the importance of the area.

Despite the wind, the air was mild. An occasional stonechat tapped from the bushes as I walked, but other than that it seemed I was alone. At regular intervals I looked into the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of a buzzard, on par with where I am stood hundreds of meters up, catching the thermals as they search for mammals below. But as I reached the summit, the sky was sparse. I walked around the stack erected at the peak of the hill during the height of the mining boom. Beneath it, a Bronze Age burial ground is hidden, the spot once considered almost holy, now reduced to bricks and aerials. On a clear day, the views stretch for miles and in the distance I could see the dark outlines of Brown Willy and Rough Tor, the peaks slightly clouded by fog.

To the East, I had views over Hingston Down, which sits around three and a half kilometres away. This area was made famous due to its historical significance and the fact that Kit Hill was gifted by the future King of England (and Britain) to the Cornish people makes the site all the more interesting. In 838, the Cornish, led by King Dungarth (also known as King Doniert), joined up with an army of Vikings to battle King Ecbert of Wessex. Very little is known of what really happened and is greatly debated by historians, but it is said after a lot of  bloodshed, the West Saxons took the victory, ending nearly a century of warfare between the two sides. Hingston Down was the final battle to take place in Cornwall but also marked the last King of Cornwall. King Dungarth drowned later in the Fowey River and whilst there is very little information surrounding this, it was recorded in Ireland at the time as a Saxon punishment for combining forces with the Norsemen.

After some time enjoying the claggy views, I made my way back down the hill, stopping momentarily to take in the view from the upper car park. As I looked around me, a flock of birds in a field to the left caught my eye. I watched as the small group rose into the air and then landed again just meters away in the middle of the field. Seconds later, a large red bird followed, flying low before disappearing behind a bush. Another large bird of prey, lighter in colour, was hot on its heels. I stalked down the hill to get closer to the action, ducking low behind the bushes but peeking over the top to try and get a decent view. The field was awash with molehills. They were everywhere, little black mounds of freshly dug soil. These, mixed with the rain, must have bought earthworms and other grubs to the surface, the birds relishing at the opportunity. The red kite was over to the far right, its feet sunken into a small heap of earth. A buzzard was running across the grass, stooped over, legs outstretched, stopping every now and again to push its beak into the loam. In the middle of the field was a mixed flock of birds; fieldfares, redwings and a small dark species I could not identify from the distance. As the buzzard ran, the flock launched into the air and resettled down a few metres in a different direction, staying together to protect themselves, remaining at a constant distance even though the large birds had no interest in them. In a naked tree at the back of a field I spotted a second buzzard, its white ruffled neck giving it away against its camouflaged background, watching over the other birds below, surveying the scene as though a ruler watching its subjects.

As I watched, I realised how appropriate this scene was. The Scandinavian visitors working alongside the local birds for the same end; the chance of survival. A new battle of Hingston Down was taking place; but this time, both the Nordic and the Cornish would be the victors of the spoils, and the potential English threat left without a sound and made her way back to her car.

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The Visitors

The Vikings have invaded again. They have come from Scandinavia, crossing 1200 miles in a potentially deadly journey, alighting at our shores ready to plunder once more.
But these aren’t the fearsome warriors who have come looking to lay claim to land or steal Christian gold, they are in fact fieldfares and the treasure they seek are sweet, rich berries.

The large thrushes overwinter here in the UK, arriving from October. They could be mistaken for mistle thrushes, but are slightly smaller and are identifiable due to their pale blue-grey heads, white bellies and yellow rings around their dark glass eyes.

Around 700,000 fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) come across the North Sea to winter in Britain from Norway and Sweden, however only two pairs are thought to breed here. The winters in Scandinavian countries are too harsh for the birds to cope with, so they choose the milder weather here in the British Isles, where they know they will still be able to find food.

In Sweden, the birds are known as ‘björktrast’, but the British common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘feldware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. Handy advice really, because to find them, looking in fields is a good place to start. They enjoy open spaces, where they can spy insects or hedgerows around pastures where they pick off berries. Hawthorn is a particular favourite; the berries an important food source during the scarce winter.

Hawthorn has a long history as a plant which can help to protect your heart. Rich in antioxidants and minerals, it was thought to have been a staple in the diet of those in the Neolithic times. It has been recorded as the herb to strengthen your heart, as well as gastrointestinal issues, eating them raw or brewing them into a tea.* In fact hawthorn is one of the oldest known medicinal plants and was prescribed by the Ancient Greeks and Native Americans for those with heart problems. Here in the UK, the Celts also held the tree in high regard, linking the plant to luck and romance, believing that couples would fall in love beneath the trees’ canopy. Some people would place sprigs on their doors to bring love and luck into their households. At the festival of Beltane during the spring, hawthorn flowers would be used in decoration, to thank the gods for the offerings provided by the earth.

But spring and the delicate pink-white blossoms are far away and as the temperature drops in the UK, the berries of the hawthorn are already starting to dwindle. Thankfully, the ground is still soft enough to pluck fat, juicy earthworms from. When the weather does plummet and the ground becomes hard, fieldfares will flock into gardens, competing with the local sparrows, blackbirds and blue tits for the scraps laid out by human hands.

I have been taken to making own fat balls for my garden visitors; seeds mixed with left over oils or fats and dried mealworms into reusable pots. I place them out on the table and leave the garden. When I return, the small pots are empty, only beak-shaped scrapings made at the bottom hint that there was once anything inside. And whilst many of the birds are not visible, the tell-tale shaking of the trees and bushes around me let me know that the residents are here and waiting for their next feed.

I wonder if I will be lucky enough to have a fieldfare grace my garden this winter. For now, the resident robin’s presence is enough.

*If you eat hawthorn berries, please be aware that the seeds are full of cyanide, like apple seeds, so spit them out and don’t swallow them!

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Fieldfare on hawthorn (picture by Maky Orel) 

Halcyon Daze

It started with an old box of books.

My parents dropped it off to me during one of their visits; a relic from the idyllic youth I had spent under their roof. As I opened it, the smell of aged-paper hit my nostrils as it curled up from the battered spines, memories flooding back as I recalled the places I had purchased each book, the times I had poured over their words. For that evenings’ entertainment, I settled on an antiquated copy of ‘Greek Myths and Legends’, somebody else’s name and the date ’1989’ etched in pencil inside the front cover. I dived head first into the Olympian world.

That night I dreamt of war and shipwrecks, of love and devastating loss, of folly and deception, and of a bird that nested by the water’s stormy edge while the gods calmed the seas during her brooding. This was the Halcyon bird, now better known as the kingfisher.

The next morning, I woke before the sun, my mind swirling with blue and gold. I had only seen kingfishers in glimpsing moments; flashes of navy moving so quickly that I barely had time to register them before they were gone, and I was left with nothing but a knot of disappointment in my stomach. But I had awoken wanting more, so spurred on by the enchantment of the Greek myth, I gathered my things and headed straight to a nearby estuary with only one thing on my mind; wanting to have my own fabled moment with the species.

The Helford estuary is an ancient woodland, made up of sessile oak trees which surround a beautiful river. This river has an exciting history; water that was once sailed by great ships, Romans sending traded Cornish tin away to Europe or Tudor smugglers arriving in the dead of night with their French rum and lace, trying to evade the excise men. These days the river is more familiar with the pleasure boaters telling stories of Daphne Du Maurier or oyster men hauling their seaweed-laden dredges up, hoping that the native shellfish haven’t lost their ongoing war against the invading Pacific’s. But it also attracts an array of bird enthusiasts due to the biodiversity the area provides and that day, I was one of them.

Reaching the water’s edge, I scooted myself down a muddy ledge and found a quiet spot to nestle into. The tide was low and I could see grey mullet just inches below the surface, creating ripples as they attempted to catch the insects skipping over the top. The water flowed gently out, the mesmeric sound broken by the occasional call of a curlew or redshank further down the river. This area would soon be awash with waders, picking through the thick mud to find ragworms.

The day was calm, the sun hazed through cloud-crowded sky gently touching the world below, a soft breath of wind rustled through the autumn-curled leaves. A fat robin landed near me and dipped its head inquisitively. I shrugged back by way of apology; I had no mealworms with me.

After a couple of hours of waiting, and several debates about ‘just 5 more minutes’, out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of blue through the hues of orange and brown, and involuntarily sucked in my breath as the sound of my heart thudded in my ears. I waited for split second, before adjusting my position. There, through a tangle of branches, on a piece of stark grey wood sat a kingfisher, its iridescent back toward me. It watched the water’s surface, looking at the stickleback or minnows below. After some time, the bird launched itself from its perch, bright orange legs tucked up into its copper breast, wings flapping at a sharp angle, beak pointing towards the water like a sword held high by a warrior charging into battle. The bird broke the surface, then came back up again before diving once more. The second time it appeared it had been victorious; a slither of silver tucked between its beak. It returned to its perch, the vibrance of its feathers stark against the dull deadwood. It began quickly flicking its dappled head, bashing the fish against the branch in a series of sudden movements before swallowing it whole.

As I watched, I understood why the bird inspired such folklore, such tales of wonder. He was the ruler of the river; adorned in his cloak of blue and gold, quietly surveying his kingdom below, his powerful spear as iconic as Poseidon’s own mighty trident.

The encounter, though salient to me, only lasted a few minutes before he spread his wings and took flight down the estuary, disappearing into the distance as the sun sparkled off the water.

Piece included in the Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 book

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The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn

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In 1217, the unrest which had led to the creation of the Magna Carta had not yet died down. The Charter of Liberties had failed to stem the civil war. King John’s reign of terror was over and the new king, Henry III, was aged just nine years old. The rebels were sick of the Crown living well whilst they suffered at the hands of poverty; the rich ignoring the laws that had been agreed to, but were not being enforced in the favour of the poor. The Charter of the Forest, which had originally been part of the Magna Carta, was drawn up and signed in the November as a complementary chapter to the main document. It gave the common people access to the Royal Forests. These areas were not just woodlands but included heathlands, grasslands and wetlands; they had their own laws and were used as hunting grounds. The Charter reduced the sizes of Royal Forests, meaning the spare land could be turned into farmland, supporting the ever-growing population of England.

Somewhere, hidden inside this charter, a special tree is mentioned; the Darley Oak. And this wasn’t the first time this tree had been referred to in life-changing literature; it was named in the Domesday Book in 1030 too. When I first heard about this pedunculate oak, which stands on the outskirts of Bodmin, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and very early one morning I found myself making my own pilgrimage just to see it.

The tree is suspected to be around 1000 years old at least. For it to be mentioned in both the Charter of the Forest and The Domesday book, it must at that time have already been something to behold, as a mere sapling would not have been worth recording. In fact, oak trees don’t begin to even develop acorns until they are around 40 years old. So why would such a tree be so important to the people? Our relationship with the oak tree has ancient roots. Celtic Druids would meet beneath oaks, hallowed due to their growth rate and size, the acorns linked to new life. In fact, it is suggested that the word ‘druid’s etymological origin derives from ‘dru-wid’ meaning ‘knower of oak trees’. Their longevity was viewed as wisdom and strength. Mistletoe, which grows parasitically on oaks, was seen as lucky and would be removed and blessed, then hung for luck. And it wasn’t just our ancient culture that held the oak in high regard. The Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter are both linked to the species, which may have something to do with the fact that oaks the tallest tree species, but also because of this, oaks are often the ones who befall lightening, and both Jupiter and Zeus have tales embroiled in stormy weather.

It is easy to see why, even in god-fearing times, the Darley Oak would have been worth men defending. It stands in the centre of the small village of Darleyford on the outskirts of Bodmin Moor and is a sight to behold. It is tall; towering over the tiny hamlet below. Its trunk is thick and gnarled, and its presence reaches as high as its twisted branches. The acorns, which had long gone by the time I visited, were once kept as amulets for luck, especially by pregnant women for whom childbirth could potentially be a death sentence. The ground is raised around the base, the huge roots pushing their way under the soils surface, commanding the earth around it to fall to its will. The roots must expand for metres, giving the feeling that the whole dwelling has been raised on the life of this tree.

I felt a bit strange standing in the middle of the valley, not another soul in sight, camera in my clutches as I stared up at the tree, like a besotted teenager first spotting some pop-star heartthrob. But when I think about what this single plant has withstood, it amazes me. It has seen thousands of Cornish men march Northwards to fight the invading English. It has seen bombs fall around it, dropped by German planes. It has withstood the industrial revolution, habitat destruction, invasive species, disease, deforestation and construction. It has been cared for, climbed upon, hugged and overheard whispers beneath it, from religious chants to devious plans.
And all the while, it stands silently and watches on.

English oak trees (Quercus robur) create a rich habitat that is important to many British species. In fact, they support more life forms than any other native tree species. Hundreds of species of insect will live in and around them, meaning they are a great place for birds to hunt for food, as well as shelter under. The acorns provide food for mammals such as deer, hedgehogs and badgers. Purple hairstreak caterpillars rely on the leaf buds and in the autumn when the green leaves begin to decay and fall to the floor, they provide a rich mulch to support inverts and fungi.

But despite being seemingly numerous, oaks are under threat. The numbers of invasive species coming into the UK seems to be increasing and the destruction they are cause to our native flora and fauna can be devastating. The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) is native to countries in Southern Europe, but is controlled by predation from species which are not found in Britain. The caterpillars of the oak processionary feeds on oak leaves and whilst this may not pose a serious problem, trees which are regularly targeted by moths begin to suffer. It can weaken the tree, leaving it vulnerable to other potentially deadly issues. More serious however is Acute Oak Decline (AOD) and Chronic Oak Decline (COD). Both of these conditions, first noticed during the 1920’s, can cause canopy thinning, branch dieback, black weeping patches on stems and lesions underlying the bleed spots and eventually death, causing a decline in tree numbers.

Invasive species are on the increase due to climate change and also the exchange of foreign plants, so taking steps to reduce your carbon footprint and trying to stick to native species when planting can help to protect oak trees from further issues.

I spent some time with the Darley Oak, trying to commit it to memory. I longed to touch it, to run my fingers over its writhen trunk, but as it stands on someone’s private land, I couldn’t. The rain began to fall and in the hush of the valley, it softly drummed on the roof of my car. A robin swooped in and sat on one of the branches, watching me momentarily for signs of edible offerings, before breaking into a beautiful song which broke the morning’s silence. It was a moment I will treasure.

I think of what the druids would have made of such a deity, or how a medieval local may have even fought to the death for the land on which such a tree would have stood. It occurs to me, that we have the old saying wrong. Instead, it should be ‘Can’t see the trees for the woods’ because often when we see trees, we don’t really see them. We just see the wider landscape or a collection; we don’t often see the individuals; notice their shape, their texture, the world they have created.

Next time you’re out and about, take a closer look. Look at the individuals, the way they grow, the species they house. And remember that each tree is providing the bricks of life to us and we should take a leaf out of the druid’s book, remembering that we would not survive without such beasts and to always give them the respect they are due.

Murmurs in the village

I took my dog, Laika, to Degibna last week. At this time of year, there are fewer and fewer people who venture over to the area, leaving it quiet and a great opportunity to spot nature.

The clouds were thick and low, making it seem darker than it was. As we drove along the dirt track, a small flock of starlings flew alongside the car, about a metre above the window. For a moment, it felt as though Laika and I were amongst them, leaving me with the feeling that I was airborne, weightless.

I parked the car up and guided Laika into the field. Cows are grazed here during the warmer months, but as autumn sets in they are moved and the place is deserted, the grass left to grow in long clumps with hidden thistles nestled between the blades. There are three fields, connected by thick gorse-covered hedgerows and all sloping downwards, giving a beautiful view over Loe Pool. As I meandered slowly towards the bottom, I noticed some birds circling low over the grass, chattering to each other. I pulled back, watching Laika out of the corner of my eye as she headed in the opposite direction towards the gate. Her presence must have alerted them as suddenly, as if one giant beast, the birds leapt up from the undergrowth and into the air. Within split seconds, the same group of starlings I had seen earlier had assembled and begun to fly as one, creating strange and beautiful shapes; twisting and looping around one another. They reminded me of a dragon, an almighty beast traversing the sky. The being suddenly rose, swooped over the hedge and flew low over the valley.

I broke into a run as Laika excitedly galloped alongside me. The long, wet grass licked at my ankles and soaked through my boots, their waterproof sealant long faded. I came to a stop at the brow of the hill, breathing heavily, eyes searching wildly over Loe Pool. All traces of the birds were gone.

A heavy fog had settled over the water. The trees lining the water’s edge which were a garland of gold just a few days before, appeared dull, muted by misty grey filter that covered them. The gatehouse peeked through the vegetation. It had a light turned on upstairs which shone like a beacon in the distance, conjuring up the imagery of a cosy fire, woollen checked blankets and hot chocolate. I pulled my coat around me and just as I was about to call Laika back up from where she was sniffing, on the trail of a fox that had slunk through the night before, I heard the sound of a huge gust of wind – yet the trees did not ruffle. In the distance, a cloud of birds had begun to form over the water, gathering great height as though they were standing slowly up over the pool. The shape arced before swooping back down once more, skimming the surface.

I quickly made my way down the hill towards the water and hopped over a gate as Laika squeezed underneath it. Together, we walked slowly towards some bushes and hid. In front of us, just through the reeds we could see the shape as it skipped over the water, forming and reforming, dipping to just touch the water’s surface in the dusky light. More birds joined the furore as the congregation grew larger and larger, till it appeared like an apparition from a supernatural film.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of waves crashing against the shore. But as the water appeared calm, I snuck a little closer. Thousands of starlings hurtled towards me at an incredible speed. They were nestling down into the reeds that bordered the pool and the sound was deafening. As the birds settled, creating a black layer amongst the yellowed stalks, they chattered and chirruped to each other, sharing the information they had picked up for the day as they jostled to find their own space amongst the reeds. Above the din of their warbling, the sound of thousands of wings beating in unison resonated around the trees, making me feel as though I was stood at the top of a cliff on a windy day.

I stood in amazement, my mouth dangling at the spectacle. I had never seen so many starlings all in one place and had no idea that this was the place they flocked to at night. I motioned to Laika who was busily investigating the path, seemingly unaffected by the incredible performance that was happening in front of us, and quietly coaxed her out. I was terrified that the birds would see us and be frightened, unsure of what affect would take place should this amount of birds all take off at once.

I crept along the path as Laika bounded ahead of me. We made our way back over (and under) the gate and into the first field. Above us, they sky had had begun to darken. The night quickly settled in, oozing through the clouds. We hurried back up the hill, weaving through the fields to reach solitude. I felt as though the dark was chasing me, its hand reaching out, just behind me, aching to touch my shoulder. We pushed through the final gate and scrambled into the car. As I closed the doors, the rain began to fall.

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Excuse the terrible picture, it was taken on my phone and the clarity is lost as soon as it is bigger.

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Book Review: Why Willows Weep – various authors

In the style of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Why Willows Weep is a beautiful collection of short stories based on the anthropomorphisation of trees and their inhabitants. The volume consists of 19 tales; each penned by a different author, including some of Britain’s most celebrated writers such as Richard Mabey, Joanne Harris, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers and a contribution from Tracy Chevalier, who also edited the collection. Amusing, charming and poignant; each story tackles a different species and creates a backstory of how their unique attributes came to be, including ‘Why Birches Have Silver Bark’ and ‘Why the Yew Tree Lives So Long.  I personally found ‘Why Elms Die Young’ by Terence Blacker very emotive as it touches on the epidemic of Dutch elm disease, a reminder of just one of the tragedies our trees are currently facing. This heart-warming, easy to read collection can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike, with each story decorated with elegant illustrations by Leann Shapton.

Your purchase will also have a direct positive impact on British trees too, as each edition sold will enable the planting of one tree by the Woodland Trust.

Available from Indie Books, £10.95.

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Phantom.

“Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it.”

I first noticed the building one day as I was late meeting a friend; I had taken a wrong turn, arrogantly believing I knew the journey off by heart I turned off the sat nav and subsequently went the wrong way. I trailed the coastpath for some time, veering down small country roads flanked by fields. As I drove over the brow of a hill, I followed the road set by the old Cornish stone walls. Up ahead, a small dilapidated building came into view. Its grey outline stark against the crisp autumn sky. I drove on, my eyes veering between the stone carcass and the road ahead.

Days later, the building had succeeded in infiltrating itself into my conscious and soon I felt myself drawn back to the desolate space. I waited until an hour or so before sunset before taking the same journey, this time the mistake was deliberate.

I was ghost hunting.

I pulled into the layby I had subconsciously made a mental note of and stepped out of the car into the bitter eastern wind, blowing in from the coast. The bleak edifice sat at the top of a valley, surrounded by fields, separated by hedgerows of bramble and gorse. I watched as the South Devon cattle who occupied the field made their way towards the upper corner of the pasture and imagined burying my fingers into their thick, auburn fur and how warm it would be; I cursed myself for not bringing gloves. I scaled the wobbly gate, half clinging to the post to make sure I didn’t topple over as my feet landed in dust and twists of wool; white wisps dirtied by the muddy ground, stretched around small patches of nettles.

The building was a contradiction in itself; ethereal but stoic. Most of the walls had collapsed, leaving only the skeleton standing. I wandered around the dilapidation, taking stock of the thick stone structure and black slate roof, or at least, what was left of it. It had collapsed on one side, revealing the wooden eaves, the broken planks projecting up to the heavens. The small food store had been blocked off; a concrete wall erected where the entry would once have been, meaning there was no option of getting inside except by a small window near the top of one wall – which made it all the more promising. I wandered around a second time, looking for access, running my hands along the rugged surface. At the oldest part of the wall, the stone had slightly crumbled leaving a small hole at eye height. I pressed my face up against the cold granite and peered through the gap. Inside it was dark but a thin shaft of light highlighted a small portion of the back wall. In the dusky evening light, I could only just make out the darkened stone with white splatters dashed across it; the sign of life.

I decided I needed to hide and spotted a small space in the hedgerow, slightly pushing my way in, trying to blend in with the landscape. The sound of a stonechat chirruped somewhere near my head as I wrapped my coat tighter around me and pulled my collar up against the wind.

Watching barn owls is an honour. They are listed as a ‘Conservation Concern’ as daytime surveys have noted a 63% decline in sighting, but to really understand how the barn owl behaves, you need to see it at night, when the bird is in its prime. But as diurnal creatures, the truth is we don’t really know how the barn owl population is doing.

As I waited, it grew darker, an inky blot bled its way across the canvas sky making the outline of the druid-sickle moon glow.

Just as the world began to settle into sleep, a pale apparition appeared at the tiny window, almost glowing in the fading light. It sat for a time in the little frame, softly shaking itself at one point, a waterfall of ruffling feathers that fell from the head to the tail.

Finally, the bird launched, a few flaps of its powerful wings before it glided elegantly. The last of the evening light shone through its outstretched wings, highlighting the gilded cloak which covered its ivory robes. Its legs dangled ungainly momentarily as the bird got into its stride, before being tucked up and into position, poised. It soared masterfully, a silent assassin.

I watched it as it traversed over the road and into the neighbouring fields, a spectre set to strike fear into the hearts of those it hunted, shooting only joy into mine. As the bird began to disappear from view, the night finally taking hold, it called out a fleeting farewell.

The rasping cry rung out into the black.

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The Lore of Nature: Two for Joy

magpies

One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never told….

The year is 1646. In your small Cornish farming village, strange things have been happening and there is unrest brewing. Whispering in corners and dark looks cast over lowered shoulders. Men gather round pints of ale and plot. Women congregate around baskets of washing with furrowed brows, hands cracked and raw from the starch and water.

You overhear their stories; how John Nancekivell’s cattle have been taken by a mysterious disease, Peran Menhenick’s crops have failed despite the recent good weather and young Tegen Gwinnel has been suddenly taken ill. On the outskirts of the village, you know the elderly widow Anne Trethick has been raising suspicion. Your mother tells you to steer clear of her, your father curses her name under his breath. Up country, Matthew Hopkins is continuing his legal slaughter as he steam rolls across England.

One day, whilst fetching water, you pass Anne’s cottage. A bird with white feathers, piercing black eyes and shiny black beak sits at her window. And as you pass, you hear it talk in a human voice.

What would you think?

Without a doubt, the magpie is the British bird most embroiled in superstition.  All over the country, you will find people spitting, saluting and spinning around when they spot the bird, fearful of the negative luck the species is suspected to bring. But does the demonization of these beautiful corvids have any founding?

One of the most common myths suggests that magpies are attracted to shiny objects and will steal jewellery and trinkets. This fable actually derived from a 19th century play, La Pie Voluese or ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which was later turned into an opera by Rossini, titled La Gazza Ladra .The story is about a servant who receives the death sentence for stealing from his master, when the actual thief is revealed to be her pet magpie. The opera is famous and the superstition that magpies have a fondness for shiny objects remained, despite being debunked by research in 2014 that revealed that they are actually frightened of reflective items. The myth is so ingrained that a psychological disorder is called ‘pica’ after the birds Latin name. The disorder refers to people who compulsively eat things such as dirt, mud, nails, chalk or other items which have no nutritional value and relates back to the mis-belief that magpies take such unnecessary items for themselves, either to collect or even to eat.

But magpie distrust goes back a lot further than 200 years. Their vocalisations were found to be a source of frustration during Shakespeare’s era and there have been stories circling that refer to biblical times; magpies were accused of being the only creature not to join the other animals on Noah’s Ark. They have also fallen foul of the accusation of being the only bird that didn’t mourn the death of Jesus. Some say that the magpie represents the devil and in Scotland, magpies are thought to hold a drop of the devil’s blood underneath their tongues; if you cut the tongue out, they would be capable of human speech. In Yorkshire, the species used to be associated with witchcraft. In fact, it was once believed that magpies sometimes embodied spirits who would help witches and would speak to them, as outlined in the opening paragraph. This may have come from the incredible vocalisation range that magpies have and the fact they have the ability to mimic other sounds, including the human voice. In the past, superstition and strong religious values meant that people were extremely suspicious. Not a lot was needed for accusations to fly and the idea of a bird speaking in human tongue would have been considered a bad omen and associated with the devil.

Today, the common nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’ is still uttered regularly and many people have rituals to avoid the bad luck this bird will reign upon them. ‘One for Sorrow’ has many different versions and is thought to date back at least to the 16th century with the poem first documented by John Brand in 1780 with the following version:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth

with each alternate version predicting a different outcome; even numbers bring positives and odd numbers negative

This suggestion that the birds are bad omens and bringers of disaster is found in several different aspects of life. To see a lone magpie at the window of your house is thought to suggest there is to be a death soon. It was also suggested that a lone magpie foraging during the spring signifies bad weather which may threaten crops. Many of these myths revolve around one bad omen in particular; a lone magpie. This may be down to the fact that magpies are social birds; they often work together in groups and communities and will flock together in large groups. They tend to be monogamous birds too and will mate with the same partner repeatedly, working as a team in breeding season to build nests and rear their young. One really fascinating behaviour that has been observed is that magpies grieve and are thought to hold ‘funerals’. A quick browse of Youtube reveals several videos of magpies gathering to mourn a dead member of their community. One bird will stand by the lifeless body and call out, as other birds flock to the scene to pay their own respects, with some observers recording that the birds have even left small gifts such as bundles of grass besides the corpses. As well as evidence of the complex social societies of the corvid, it is also demonstrates the birds’ intelligence. All corvids have displayed signs of a high IQ and are believed to be amongst the most intelligent species. They are extremely curious and have shown to be one of the only animals’ species in the world that can recognise themselves in the mirror. They also have good memories and will hoard their food; digging a small hole filling it with excess food and covering it up, returning to it later when food is scarce.

There is a suggestion that some of the bad feeling from magpies may actually derive from bird breeders relating to the magpies’ predation behaviour; a smear campaign of sorts. Magpies feed on smaller birds and will get into their nests and eat their chicks and eggs. This is not the sort of thing that is usually found endearing and, in the past, when breeders would be trying to rear birds for commercial use, magpies may have been a nuisance; getting into the nests and destroying the ‘stock’. In fact, the anti-magpie feeling became so bad in the 90’s that gamekeepers began to use Larsen traps, a specially designed trap to catch ‘pest’ bird species (i.e corvids), to kill the birds legal due to a loophole in the law. The traps were being used to catch magpies during the breeding season, the adults in the cage left without food or water so they would starve to death, their hungry chicks left to the same fate in the nests. The horrific practice was labelled a ‘massacre’. At the time, supporters of the birds fought back, stating that bird numbers had been proven not to be affected by magpies, whose diet is also made up of carrion, insects, plants and berries. Some studies have shown that 70% of the birds’ diet is actually made up of insects, meaning their predation percentage would be relatively low.

I chose the title ‘Two for Joy’ instead of ‘One for Sorrow’ for positive connotations, and in some cultures, magpies are seen as good omens. Native American folklore suggests that magpies are bold and fearless, as well as friendly and helpful. In Korea, magpies are seen as the bearers of good news who bring good luck and happiness. Chinese folklore suggests magpies mean good fortune, and should you hear one sing, it is telling you of your good luck to come.

These beautiful and intelligent birds should not be dismissed because they are plentiful, or because we don’t fully understand their behaviours, or because they have been carrying around a lifetime of bad press. Invite them to your garden, because they are good at pest control, observe their behaviour and celebrate their quirks. And keep saluting and nodding and tipping your hat, but do it because these mysterious birds deserve our respect and admiration, not our fear and disdain.

 

Image source: Pinterest