Village Voices Nature Note: the Vikings have Landed
The call is unmistakeable. A harsh, grating chak-a-chack chack as a stocky, long-tailed thrush, or more likely a small flock of them, rises up from a field or from the hedges where they have been feasting on the autumn bounty of hips and haws. Fieldfares. We often associate birds with particular seasons and times of year – the first cuckoo of spring, the skylark pouring out his heart in high summer, and the swallows gathering on the wires in early autumn. For me, the fieldfare’s chattering call – like a piece of rusty agricultural equipment – is the sure sign that winter is really upon us. Their arrival in East Anglia often coincides with the first influxes of cold air from Scandinavia, and it’s hard not to think of them as Viking invaders, come to plunder our rich native berry stocks. They usually arrive in company with other ‘winter thrushes’ like redwings and continental blackbirds and song thrushes, but the fieldfares are the largest and most dominant of these. They are a slightly paradoxical combination of shyness and boldness. They are easily alarmed by any human approach and before you can get close they tend to rise up in a loud clacking flock, flashing their silvery-white underwings. They’ll then perch warily high up in a tree, where they all face in exactly the same direction rather than distributing themselves in a random pattern, as most other birds do, before suddenly taking flight again with a further volley of alarm calls. Maybe this nervy anxiety is some sort of biological folk-memory from Victorian times when roasted fieldfare was a highly regarded amuse bouche for gourmet dinners and the birds were hunted and shot in large numbers.
By contrast with this apparent timidity, fieldfares are fierce in seeing off much larger birds like crows and birds of prey, which they buzz and dive-bomb in formation. On the ground, they also bully smaller birds competing for the same food supplies. In really hard weather they’ll come into orchards and even into our gardens to gorge on the fallen apples and you can watch them driving off blackbirds in a flurry of aggressive short-range assaults. When you see fieldfares close-up like this they are very handsome birds, with a grey head and rump, a reddish-brown back and a prominent arrow-head pattern of markings running down the chest. Chaucer called them ‘the frosty fieldfares’, which neatly connects both their time of arrival and their physical appearance. That description also catches something of their robust defiance of wintry weather. It’s their time of year and they know how to handle it.
Jeremy Mynott 3 December 2023
Village Voices Nature Note: Sow and you shall Reap
It’s a quiet time of year in the woods. You can sometimes ramble through the rides for quite a while before coming across a single bird. But sooner or later you’re likely to hear a harsh cry, rather like the tearing of an old piece of linen. Watch closely and you may spot a plumpish, pinky-brown bird about the size of a jackdaw swoop on floppy wings from one side of the track to the other, flashing a conspicuous white rump. If you get a closer view, you’ll see the bold black moustache and a splash of azure-blue on the wings. It’s a jay, a common but shy member of the crow family.
They have reason to be shy. Game-keepers have often regarded them as a threat, though jays are in fact vegetarian for much of the year. And those bright blue wing feathers were once greatly prized by the millinery trade as accessories for ladies’ hats, and they are still coveted by salmon fishermen, who fashion them into enticing ‘flies’.
Jays are highly intelligent birds. That distinctive rasping call is only one of the sounds they can make. They are great chatterers and mimics, imitating not only other birds, but also cats and dogs – and even telephones. Their scientific name is Garrulus glandarius and while the first part of that refers (accurately) to their voices, the second part refers to their favourite food – acorns (Latin glandes). They secrete hoards of them in autumn every year to keep themselves going when food gets scarce in winter. They pluck the acorns directly from the trees and cache them for future use in little holes in the ground or under dead leaves. Then later they exhibit their amazing powers of memory in retrieving these gourmet snacks from their hiding-places. It has been estimated that a jay might hide and relocate some 5,000 acorns this way. If you have ever wondered where you last left your spectacles or your car-keys you will appreciate the feat of brain-power this implies! Of course, they do miss a few and we then get an unexpected harvest next spring – new oak trees, planted in ideal conditions to foster their growth.
Which reminds me of a nice story I heard about the ancient Suffolk woodland called Staverton Thicks, near Butley Priory. The ground there was farmed by monks up to the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Henry the Eighth’s reign. The monks were then given notice to quit, but at their request they were granted the right to take just one more crop from the land. So they planted acorns …
Jeremy Mynott November 2023
24 Aug 2023
A monsteer moth in the garden – a Convolvulus Hawkmoth, so called because its caterpillars feed on common bindweed (Convolvulus). This moth is a rare immigrant – crossing the channel from Europe – and it's my first record in my garden. It looks surprisingly fresh, considering that journey!
Village Voices Nature Note: The End of a Season
Daniel Defoe is best known nowadays for his desert island novel Robinson Crusoe, but he also wrote an important work on social history, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724). On his travels through Suffolk he records that he witnessed ‘infinite numbers’ of swallows gathering for autumn migration on the coast. We still see swallows and house martins (did Defoe know the difference?) gathering on the telephone wires here in September, often chattering communally as if to psych themselves up before take-off on their huge journeys south. It’s always a moving spectacle but it’s also an elegiac reminder that summer is drawing to a close for us too. Defoe’s birds weren’t on telephone wires back then of course, but were, appropriately, ‘congregating’ on Southwold church. They sometimes also use other buildings, as illustrated in this photo showing a host of house martins clinging to the Shingle Street Martello tower. The big difference, though, is that sadly we no longer see them in this abundance. Forget about Defoe’s ‘infinite numbers’ in 1724 – since this photo was taken in September 2004 the number of breeding house martins in Britain has declined by nearly 40%. Swallow numbers are down too, as are swifts, which have declined by a whopping 60% in the same period. Swifts are often confused with swallows but belong to a different family altogether – one called Apodes, literally ‘without feet’, because they only have stubby toes that couldn’t grasp a telephone wire anyway. All these delightful aerial acrobats are suffering from the same problem: a corresponding sharp decline in the winged insects on which they feed.
We’ve all noticed that ourselves. Think of the ‘splatter test’ – the number of insects smeared on your windscreen and headlights today, compared to the ‘moth snowstorm’ we used to drive through at night a generation ago. And how we miss what Tennyson happily described as the ‘murmuring of innumerable bees’. But there’s also a new factor now – climate change – and that may cause other dramatic changes. As the world’s climate heats up, the swallows’ journeys back to Southern Africa over barriers like the fast-expanding Sahara Desert become ever more arduous. Suppose the costs of long-distance migration no longer prove worth the physical risks and effort they have to endure. Perhaps the swallows might never come at all one year. Or suppose they were to come and stay over, taking advantage of our milder winters now. If we had swallows at Christmas, what would that do to our emotional responses – to swallows, spring and autumn? Are we at risk of losing the seasons as well as the insects and the birds?
Jeremy Mynott 6th August 2023
18 Aug 2023
A pied flycatcher by the allotment patch this afternoon, feeding actively and calling repeatedly. There has been a small fall of them on the east coast in the last few days.
16 Aug 2023
Perfect night for moth-trapping – warm, still and with some cloud to occlude the moon and stars. We had a rich haul in the morning – well over 60 species, including one new to me, with the egregious name Purple-backed Cabbage-worm Moth, but very beautiful despite that.
07 Aug 2023
Huge influx of red admirals in the last two days. There were about 80 of them on one buddleia in the garden. One interesting twist to this: the week before the storms here they had all been on the purple buddleia, this new influx were all on the white one, though both are still in flower. Different tastes for the new influx?
25 Jul 2023
A hobby dashed over the seawall, scattering a big flock of starlings. Such an agile raptor, able to pick off swallows and swifts in flight, but had to settle for a stray starling today.
20 Jul 2023
A lovely pine hawkmoth, posing here on the only pine tree in my garden. The wings look a little blurred because it is vibrating them rapidly preparing to fly, but I caught it just in time.
17 Jul 2023
My favourite local butterfly has just emerged, right on cue in mid-July. There were at least half a dozen graylings flying round our garden in the sun this afternoon. They always rest with their wings tightly closed, so you only get to see the underside pattern on the wings but the patterning is very subtle. They also have the attractive habit of settling on garden chairs and tables, or even on your arm, so you can at least get a good look at thm.