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
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.
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?).
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.
29 Jun 2023
Cuckoo still calling, which is getting late. As the nursery rhyme has it, '...in June he changes his tune/ in July he prepares to fly'.
28 Jun 2023
The local oystercatchers still have three surviving young, which are highly mobile but not yet flying. Not long to go now before they can take to the air – and safety.
23 Jun 2023
A group of four spoonbills feeding actively near the viewing platform on the Hollesley Marsh reserve. They commute between here, Boyton and Havergate (where they are probably nesting). Spectacular birds!
21 Jun 2023
The lapwing and oystercatcher families in the pools by the sea-wall to East Lane now each have three surviving young, mobile but not yet flying, so still in danger from foxes, otters and dogs.