Village Voices Nature Notes

Nature Notes is a series of articles written by Jeremy Mynott and published monthly in Village Voices, the local magazine for Shingle Street and nearby villages.

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: Save It And They Will Come

There’s a 1989 film called ‘Field of Dreams’ in which an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) converts one of his corn fields into a baseball stadium to relive memories of his childhood sporting heroes.  ‘Build it and they will come’, he hopes, and so they do.  There is a conservation equivalent to this in the ambitions of bodies like the RSPB, which acquire tracts of former farmland in the hope that our threatened wildlife will return to populate it.  ‘Save it and they will come’ is their corresponding motto.  In 1948, the RSPB bought Havergate Island (the only island in Suffolk) to protect the first nesting avocets to have returned to Britain since the mid-nineteenth century.  That too was a huge act of faith, but the avocets flourished and the site went on to attract a huge range of other wildlife including, most recently and excitingly, a colony of nesting spoonbills.  It was a similar story at RSPB Lakenheath, where since 1995 they have transformed the former carrot fields into a major wetland reserve which now has breeding bitterns, marsh harriers and cranes.  

An avocet
An avocet. Photo: Margaret Holland

These are both spectacular success stories, but we can all do our bit on a much smaller scale.  The residents of Shingle Street have just embarked on a modest community venture of this kind.  We have acquired an adjacent field, which was poor-quality grazing land, and are planning to turn part of it into a wetland.  Shingle Marshes, as we are calling it, is already home to skylarks, snipe and brown hares, but we plan to restore some ancient lagoons and channels to create new habitats for visiting waders and wildfowl – curlew, godwit, lapwing, teal and wigeon, maybe even a breeding avocet of our own one day.   We will also encourage a spread of fringing reeds for nesting warblers, reed buntings and (in my dreams) bittern, as well as water voles, harvest mice, dragonflies and rare aquatic invertebrates like the starlet sea-anemone.  The overall aim would be to protect what is already there and to restore the biodiversity of local species we have sadly lost over the years.

There is, however, also a second important conservation motto.  We must not only ‘Save it so they will come’, but then ‘Leave well alone’ if they do.   The whole field is readily visible from the road and sea-walls, but we shall need to protect it from any closer access by people and their dogs lest we end up destroying what we have just created.  In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

O let them be left, wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet

Jeremy Mynott
February 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: Fruits of the Season

In the Just William stories the hero was once asked to empty his pockets to see if there was incriminating evidence of some misdemeanour in them.  He turned them out but all they contained were conkers and a bit of string.  Good for him.  I’ve been happily filling my pockets with conkers on recent walks, too. I love the bright mahogany colour and polished surfaces and the gentle ‘ping’ they make if one drops onto a hard surface; but above all I love their tactile qualities –   the heft of them in the hand and the soft, slippery feel when you jiggle a few of them round together.  Deeply therapeutic, and a reminder that touch is the first of the senses we acquire in exploring our world, and also the last to go as the others fade. It’s also the only one of the five senses that isn’t based on just one sense-organ but gives us an all-round bodily awareness.  I must confess to being a bit of a tree-hugger for the same reasons.  Don’t think I’m promiscuous, mind you – I have my standards. I’m especially attracted to trees with heavily corrugated barks like oak, sweet chestnut and black poplar.  If you run your hands over one of those you can almost feel the life running through it and share something of its ancient strength and endurance. 

Photo: Jeremy Mynott

Oaks, of course, also give us acorns, another sensory delight, with that satisfying spherical shape, topped off with a rough warty cap.  I also collect acorns in my pockets at this time of year and add them to the conkers to dress a bowl with autumn’s finest fruits.  There is a tiny perfection about them, which was celebrated in a wonderful image by Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century visionary (and author of the first book in English by a woman).  She held an acorn in the palm of her hand and declared it a symbol of the whole, living world.  

Conkers used to be a common children’s game (hence William’s piece of string, I expect), before well-meaning authorities decided that it posed an insurance risk.  We paraded our best conkers in competition, trying to convert a oncer into a twicer, or even a champion tenner.  This led to all manner of underhand tactics like baking or pickling them to improve their concussive powers, but it did at least give children direct some contact with nature.  We learned some years ago that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was dropping words like Acorn, Bluebell and Conker in favour of the new children’s ABC of Attachment, Blog and Chatroom. A terrible warning: lose the experience and you lose the language too.

Jeremy Mynott

Village Voices Nature Note: the Human Factor

I was walking along the sea-wall the other day when I caught sight of a red kite cruising over the fields.  Wow, what a gorgeous bird, glinting red and gold in the late afternoon sun.  An aerial genius too, constantly adjusting its speed and direction with the subtlest of tail and wing movements.  I noticed a young person approaching me from the other direction, so I pointed up and shouted excitedly, ‘Look, red kite!’  No response.  Then I saw why.  He was bent over his mobile phone, his eyes about six inches from the tiny screen, and he was wearing a large pair of headphones that were tuned into some throbbing beat music, audible from yards away.  Blind and deaf to the world, effectively.  The incident reminded me of some troubling research I had read about.  An Oxford Professor had conducted a survey of his first-year biology students to discover what knowledge they had of the natural world and where they had learned it from (books, TV, parents, friends, school, social media or wherever?).  To his amazement, 42% of them could not even correctly name five British birds.  Can you believe that? At Oxford and studying biology …

What does this say about our changing relationship to nature?  The new technology makes it possible to insulate yourself entirely from the living world around you.  Yes, you can communicate ever more easily from within your private bubble to like-minded friends who may be miles away.  Communicate after a fashion, that is – the exchanges one overhears (‘I’m on a train’) don’t seem to be very rich in content.  

You can even write about nature now without ever experiencing it.  I tested this out by asking the new AI wonder, ChatGPT, to draft me a ‘Nature Note’ for September.  You can see the result in the facing column (or below on mobile screens).  It’s quite impressive as a technical exercise – it works by scanning thousands of documents and then regurgitating a secondhand summary based on word frequencies.  But that’s also why the prose is so bland and clichéd, with nothing personal or particular to bring it to life.  ChatGPT doesn’t understand anything or feel anything.  And there’s one give-away mistake in that it mentions the migration of Monarch butterflies – an American species!  Anyway, I don’t feel redundant just yet.

I walked on along the seawall.  A curlew called as it flew over, red admirals fluttered among the late-flowering brambles.  Then to my delight I found traces on the bank of an otter – in the form of a fresh spraint, which had a sweet fishy smell to it.  There isn’t an app for that experience.

Jeremy Mynott
8 September 2023

ChatGPT ‘Nature Note’

September’s Splendour: Embracing Nature’s Transition

As the summer sun gradually softens its rays, September arrives, signalling the beginning of a captivating transformation in the natural world. With its gentle breezes, vibrant colors, and a sense of tranquility, this month offers an enchanting invitation to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. Let us explore the wonders that September has in store for us.

One of the most captivating sights during September is the gradual change in foliage. The lush green canopies give way to a stunning array of reds, oranges, and yellows, painting the landscape with a mesmerizing palette. Walking through the woods or strolling along tree-lined paths becomes an exquisite experience, as the falling leaves create a symphony of rustling sounds beneath our feet.

September is a month of abundance, as it marks the peak of the harvest season. Fields and gardens are brimming with ripe fruits and vegetables, offering a perfect opportunity to indulge in the flavors of nature’s bounty. Farmers’ markets and roadside stands proudly display their harvest, providing a chance to connect with local growers and support sustainable practices.

September also heralds the start of a remarkable journey for many species of birds and butterflies. As they prepare for their long-distance migrations, flocks of birds gather in awe-inspiring formations, painting the sky with their graceful flight. Monarch butterflies, with their delicate wings, embark on an epic journey to warmer climates, creating a spectacle of nature’s resilience and adaptability.

With the arrival of September, forests beckon us to explore their hidden wonders. The air is crisp and invigorating, making it the perfect time for hiking, camping, or simply taking leisurely walks amidst towering trees. The forest floor becomes adorned with mushrooms and wildflowers, adding a touch of whimsy to the landscape. Nature enthusiasts can also witness the rutting season of deer and the playful antics of squirrels as they gather acorns in preparation for winter.

September brings with it the autumnal equinox, marking the transition from summer to fall. This celestial event reminds us of the delicate balance in the universe and the importance of embracing change. It is a time to reflect on our own lives, shedding old habits and embracing new beginnings. Many cultures celebrate this equinox with festivals and rituals, highlighting the significance of this transition.

September is a month of profound beauty and transformation, where nature effortlessly captivates our senses. From the vibrant foliage to the abundance of the harvest season, every aspect of this month invites us to appreciate the wonders of the natural world. As we bid farewell to summer, let us embrace the arrival of September with open hearts and open minds, ready to immerse ourselves in the splendour that nature so graciously offers.

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

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