Category: Birds

Village Voices Nature Note: Master-builders

Who are the world’s greatest architects?  You might nominate the builders of such iconic ancient structures as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon, or perhaps modern celebrity-architects like Le Corbusier, Norman Foster and Frank Gehry conjuring up their breath-taking confections of steel and glass.  All extraordinary feats of engineering and imagination on a massive scale.

I’d nominate a bird, though. Quite a common one, and very small –weighing just ten grams (about the weight of two sheets of A4) and only 14cm long (of which more than half is its tail).  There’s the clue: a long-tailed tit.  You can often see loose parties of them in winter flitting through the hedges and trees to work the vegetation for tiny insects and spiders, all the while keeping contact with their family flock through soft, conversational zupp calls and little trills.   They are becoming common garden birds too, clustering round the bird-feeder like a fluffy feathered jacket.  Their nests are usually very well concealed, deep in blackthorn or hawthorn hedges to protect them from predators, but if you ever come across one it is a thing of great beauty.  They construct them from the finest materials – mosses, lichens and feathers (some 1,500 of them in a single nest), all bound together and secured by filigree strands of spiders’ silk.  Just imagine sewing with thread from a spider’s web – and using only your mouth.  The nest is designed in the form of a perfect oval-shaped dome, with a small entrance hole near the top.  It has to satisfy the most stringent building regulations: well insulated enough to maintain a constant temperature for the eggs and young; porous enough to keep the air fresh; capacious and strong enough to hold the female brooding a clutch up to twelve eggs for a fortnight; and then flexible enough to later accommodate the bare, struggling nestlings as they take about another fortnight to grow and fledge.  All this done from instinct and at high speed, with no construction manuals, consultants, specialist assistance or tools.  

A long-tailed tit’s nest.

No wonder some of the old country names for the long-tailed tit reflect this remarkable architecture: bum-barrel, bush oven, hedge jug, pudding bag and jack-in-a-bottle.  What is even more amazing is that the nest is only occupied for a single season and when the autumn and winter storms come it will be shredded and destroyed.   It’s a work of exquisite natural art designed to fulfil its function just once and then to be replaced and newly constructed again the next year.  Its only permanence comes from this annual re-creation from the template in the bird’s brain. Surely the winner!

Jeremy Mynott
2 April 2024

Village Voices Nature Note: Common Knowledge

It was once all so simple.  For centuries people had a pretty good idea of what weather to expect each month and this knowledge was distilled into innumerable country sayings and poetic images.  We had mad March hares, April showers, May flies, flaming June and in September we moved gently into the ’season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.  Climate change has undermined some of those familiar associations, however, with unseasonal floods, storms and rising temperatures.  It has disrupted the related life-cycles of wildlife, too.  Daffodils still ‘come before the swallow dares’, as Shakespeare put it, but they are now as likely to start flowering in February as in March; while the swallows will later struggle to find enough flying insects to catch.

It isn’t all change, though.  There is another huge factor, as well as the average temperatures, controlling these seasonal cycles.  That’s light.  Sunrise and sunset times will remain the same on 1 March 2024 as they were on 1 March in Shakespeare’s day (give or take a minute or two, for tiny variations in the earth’s orbit) and many natural phenomena like bird song are governed by those triggers. The dawn chorus of birds is one of nature’s great wonders.  From February onwards you can hear it slowly building, both in volume and variety, as one by one the different species join the swelling orchestra of mingled voices.  

Song Thrush. Photo: Jon Heath

The first species to form the choir in February usually include the robin, wren, great tit and dunnock, supported by great spotted woodpeckers in the percussion section.  But my favourite of these pioneering heralds of spring is the song thrush, ‘the throstle with his note so true’ (Shakespeare again).  There is a clarity, boldness and confidence in its evangelistic mode of address – usually delivered from some prominent pulpit on a house top or tree – which immediately lifts the spirits and reassures you that, yes, the magic of another spring will soon return.

Part of its musical effect comes from the bird’s repetitions on a theme, as Robert Browning noted in his famous poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’:

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture.        

And just as the song thrush leads the dawn chorus, so it is often the last bird singing in the corresponding dusk chorus, which is the more muted but equally moving evening performance.  In his ‘Darkling Thrush’ Thomas Hardy recalls one that even in midwinter ‘flung his soul upon the growing gloom … in Joy unlimited’, as if it nursed ‘some blessed hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware’.

That was the hope of another spring, surely.

Jeremy Mynott
29 January 2024

Village Voices Nature Note: Books Can Change Lives

The great eighteenth-century man of letters, Samuel Johnson (‘Dr Johnson’) always made the same New Year’s resolutions:

  • Apply myself to study
  • Rise early
  • Go to church
  • Drink less
  • Oppose laziness
  • Put my books in order

I generally attempt the last one at least, but I then get absorbed in reading my old favourites as soon as I pick them up to re-arrange them. My first real book was a bird guide, Edmund Sandars Bird Book for the Pocket, which I think my parents acquired as a ‘damaged copy’ from the local library.  It certainly became damaged quite quickly, as I engaged with it in every way that a five-year old can – smeared, scratched, torn, licked, crumpled, scribbled on and lugged around as my constant companion, indoors and out (especially out). It was my bedtime reading of choice and I made my mother recite it to me endlessly, intoning the potted descriptions of plumage, behaviour and distribution until we both had them off pretty much word perfect.  There was not much narrative flow in this, however, so my mother often fell asleep before I did …  

Edmund Sandars Bird Book for the Pocket, photo by Jeremy Mynott

I still remember snatches of the text: 

Green woodpecker. Manners: has a strong pungent smell, energetic, watchful for enemies when boring, dodges behind trunk.  Long, barbed, protrusible, sticky tongue.  Never climbs downwards.  Sometimes takes two or three backward hops. 

I probably misunderstood this nice use of ‘manners’ (habits), and of course I had no idea what the thrilling word ‘protrusible’ meant.  Nor have I ever seen a green woodpecker hop backwards.  No matter, how could one fail to be enchanted by a world that had such creatures in it. This was a true guide – not a mere book of instruction but my way into the natural world of wonders all around me that I was learning to discover and describe for myself.

I still have my Sandars, just about held together by decades of glue, sticky tape and devotion. Books can do this to you.  Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, would at the age of ten retreat behind a curtain in the drawing-room to read her favourite bird book, Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds. She became absorbed in his wonderful woodcuts and illustrations, which fired her child’s imagination: ‘Every picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting … With Bewick on my knee I was then happy: happy at least in my way.  I feared nothing but interruption.’  A lovely last line.

Buy a child a bird book.

Jeremy Mynott
5 January 2024

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  

Photo: Laurie Forsyth
Photo: wikicommons

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’.  

A jay
A jay. Photo: wikicommons.

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

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.

House Martins on the Shingle Street Martello Tower, photo: Jeremy Mynott.

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

Pied flycatcher

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.


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.

Village Voices Nature Note: Seismic Pleasures

The film-producer Sam Goldwyn (a Polish Jew, born Szmuel Gelbfisz) was famous for his inventive use of the English language in pronouncements like ‘a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘I’ll give you a definite maybe’.  One quote that stuck in my mind today was Goldwyn’s formula for a good story, ‘Let’s start with an earthquake and build up to a climax’.  My day did indeed start with an event high up on the Richter scale of excitement for a naturalist, a shark at Shingle St.  No, not Jaws – no need to clear the beaches – but a moth of the same name, so-called from its sleek grey profile.  It’s a rare species though it once gained a certain notoriety from its appearance on a pub sign in Harlow when the New Town was founded in 1948 to accommodate London overspill.  The enlightened council of the time decided to name all the new pubs after moths and butterflies, so along with The Shark you got the whimsy of a Willow Beauty by the cricket ground and, for the more committed customers in town, The Drinker Moth (geddit?).

The Shark in Harlow
Oystercatchers. Photo: Cheryl Gray.

Anyway, my day ended with another thrill, involving a much commoner species of wildlife. Oystercatchers are one of the most easily recognisable wading birds on our coast, sporting that boldly pied plumage and striking orange-red bills.  I’ve been tracking the progress of a pair of them who bravely attempted breeding on one of the pools just to the south of Shingle Street.  They nested on an exposed little islet where they were very vulnerable to threats from dogs, foxes and predatory corvids and gulls.  I often sat on the sea-wall opposite watching over them like some proxy-grandparent, admiring the tremendous vigilance and courage of the two adults who would drive off crows by flying up like fighter-jets to intercept them and see them off with piping cries as shrill as smoke alarms.  After about three weeks they did to my relief eventually hatch four eggs.  The young birds were immediately very mobile, but I knew it would be another thirty days before they acquired the flight feathers that would lift them to safety when necessary.  The four youngsters were soon reduced to three and I feared the worst when I couldn’t see any of them today.  But then I found them again – a quarter of a mile further on  – and I realised they’d earned their wings and made their first solo flights.  Even if the earth didn’t move for me in quite the way Goldwyn hoped, I punched the air and enjoyed a strong shot of adrenaline.

Jeremy Mynott
3 July 2023

Swifts on the move

03 Jul 2023
I was walking the sea-wall when the wind freshened from the west, the sky darkened and I was caught in a light shower. Within a few seconds small parties of swifts suddenly appeared, tracking low along the sea-wall – and heading south.