The Remains of the Bird

Walking along the bank of the river that runs through my village I am often lucky enough to come across some local wildlife. Usually it’s a bird, and that’s ok with me. The tidal river, the hedgerows along the bank and the broadleaf forest beyond are a brilliant mosaic of habitats that are home to a variety of species.

A few weeks ago, I came across a skeleton. Pale, elongated and alien it seemed out of place. But I realised that’s just my idealised version of nature, because of course it is entirely appropriate that the remains of this animal should exist, out here, where it lived. The cartilaginous sinews in the joints were still holding the calcified bones together, still restricting the range of movement to what would once have been the natural movement of the bird. Yes, this was a bird.

I’m not overly sure what bird, it clearly had a very long neck but stripped of body form, feathers and a beak I am suddenly struck by how unfamiliar it looks. I would bet good money that if it had been alive I would have know it in an instant. It’s rib cage looks quite small, but then maybe it is broken? On closer inspection it isn’t as complete as I first thought. The skull is damaged, missing the tip of the beak I think. Having asked some knowledgeable friends (DWT and RSPB) there wasn’t much consensus on an identity. I feel less bad at not being able to identify it by sight. Grey heron and cormorant seem most probable. If we base it on abundance then it is more likely to be a cormorant – they outnumber herons by about five to one on the river. I have ruled out swan – it looks a bit too slender, too fragile, too insubstantial. A swan, even denuded of it’s flesh and feathers would surely amount to more than this delicate architecture?

It doesn’t smell, at least, it doesn’t smell of anything more than the river bank. There is no swarm of putrid flies, no lingering air of death, it is peaceful. I sit a while and think about the life of the bird in front of me. Idle thoughts for an idle walk. It is good to stop and muse sometimes, to let your thoughts meander loosely. Whether or not you need the curio of a dead bird to prompt them really depends on you and the available resources I suppose, but nature provides a rich variety to prompt the imagination – you just need to give it a chance.



Yellow-bellied Lizards

While waging a war on the tri-cornered garlic (what an opportunistic and persistent species), I came across a tiny little common lizard. This comes quite soon after I found a slow worm in the garden so was something of a surprise – I had no idea our tiny garden could be quite so reptile-friendly!


Little lizard. Photo credit: Em

At no more than 8cm long from nose to tail tip this was quite a small reptile by anyone’s standards and it was a miracle I spotted him really. Turning him over he had a bright orange tummy with little dark spots, though he didn’t seem too pleased to be showing me. At this time of year it is still to early for young (who are normally born in July/August) so this is probably a maturing reptile from last year (maybe?). What is curious about this species of reptile is that they do not lay eggs (as we are taught to believe is true of all reptiles) but instead give birth to live young. For this reason they can also be called the viviparous lizard (helpful latin: vivi (live) parous (to give birth to)).


Yellow belly. Photo credit: Em

If you were to call someone yellow bellied it might be that you are a character in a budget western slandering the name of another by implying some degree of cowardice. But here, it is literally true. The belly of the male common lizard is undeniably yellow, and I’m not sure this is down to their character. However I am really struggling to find out exactly why they are this hue.

Usually in nature conspicuous coloration is either a warning signal to predators (or mimicry of such as signal), or used in sexual selection to indicate fitness and strength. The presence of this colour on the underside of only one gender suggests the latter – but my very excellent book by Trevor Beebee (which has never let me down before) is silent on this matter.


Hey little guy! Photo credit: Em

All in all, gardening has proved to be a very good way to find wildlife. The benefits are not mutual though as  I would have to say that finding wildlife results in greater designation of the borders as ‘wild patches’ for the lizards and slow-worms. Not that I am complaining 🙂


Here is the book I used for this article, apart from the yellow bellied bit, this doesn’t answer that. Amphibians and Reptiles by Trevor Beebee. ISBN: 978-1-907807-45-9


In the UK we only have a handful of native amphibians and reptiles. It is for this reason that they tend to get lumped together even though they are very different animals with very different life histories, preferences and habitat requirements. The UK Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (a leading conservation and campaign group in the UK) happily champions both groups, and the term for a specialist in this area is a ‘herpetologist’ (a great word, no?). Given that the British Herpetological Society was founded in 1947 it seems this grouping of cousins is set to stay. For clarity though, they are distinct orders and have evolved ecologically distinct features from each other.

Here in Devon we are on the edge of the suitable habitat range for newts (if you really want to read more about this you can start here) and are miles away from the UK’s isolated populations of natterjack toads, pool frogs, smooth snakes, and to some extent, sand lizards (though I think I once found one on Dartmoor…maybe). So as a quick rule of thumb if it doesn’t have common in front of it’s name I am fairly unlikely to see one here – think Common Frog, Common Toad and Common Lizard. There are also a few snakes that are fairly ubiquitous across the south of the UK – like the grass snake and adder. Then you have the weird cousin – the slow-worm. It’s not a worm. And while we are at it, it isn’t slow either. It might be cold blooded, dependent on the sun’s heat to power it’s body, thus making it slower at cooler temperatures but this dependency is common among other organisms that aren’t branded as ‘slow’ – why the misnomer? Not sure. It is also, incorrectly, called the blind worm. I think someone had it in for one of these guys.


Slow worm, Devon. Photo credit: Em

Finding one in my garden was a real treat. Towards the end of the day this heat loving lizard was starting to slow down again as the cooler air lowered it’s body temperature and it was much easier to observe than if it had been at full charge. At around 15cm long and a pale bronze colour this was almost certainly a juvenile. The adult males can get some very attractive blue spots on as they mature – something I really want to see! My field guide helpfully advises that smaller slow-worms could be mistaken for earth-worms. Politely, I suggest that this might imply you aren’t looking close enough at your worm. The slow variety has a clearly defined, blunt shaped head. The earth variety has no clearly defined head and a lumpy belt (clitelum). Their mode of movement is also completely different. As a lizard the slow-worm moves like a snake. The earth-worm moves with peristaltic-like waves of the circular and longitudinal muscles in its body. As if in protest of this inferred mistaken identity slow-worms do their best to eat all the earth-worms (as well as slugs) just to avoid any ambiguity.



The Robin and The Almond Cake

As I sit, in a moment of idleness enjoying the taste of almond cake, my meandering thoughts are interrupted by a sharp burst of birdsong, close by and surprisingly loud. He hops along one pace and, with one eye trained on me, sings again. Clearly he feels the urgency of the message was not clearly received the first time. I swallow down the last bite of cake and as I do, I realise that this avian street performer was after my charity, a donation for his act.


Singing for his supper. Photo credit: Em

I shake out the paper wrapper and realise that, unusually there is nothing but minute crumbs left. They tumble, invisibly, to the ground. He either cannot see them or disdains such an unworthy penny – surely his song is worth more. He belts out another ditty, perhaps I am just a tricky customer to please? Hopping sideways again he jives to his song – discordant crashing verses – something modern or perhaps abstract, this is no melody. He turns his head, perhaps distracted, and I see that his left eye is small, or perhaps the eye lids have swollen around it. Either way, it must surely be a hindrance to this young bird.


Robin Photo credit: Em

Despite his affliction I still have nothing to offer. I wish that I could, because in truth, his song brought me more enjoyment than the sweet, delicious almond cake. And with my easy access to many more almond cakes, really what value was this little morsel to me? A snack, a passing thought, completely surplus. To him this nutty bite, rich in sugar and fat could mean the difference between life and starvation. His red breast attests to his breeding status. Perhaps I deprive not just him, but his young family too. The guilt changes nothing and with the taste of almond still in my mouth I watch as he flits off to more promising ventures and leaves me to my wildflowers, to the gentle hum of insects and the warmth of the sun.


The Detectorist

Walking down the lane into the village the smell coming off the flowers after another hot day is intoxicating. Wildflowers have sprung up in every nook and cranny among the old old walls that line the road. Garden flowers seem fixed on making good their escape from the horticultural prisons and spill out like froth over hedges and walls, sidling out of gaps and gates.

The evening is not as still as yesterday. Yesterday would have been better. But today is good enough. The glut of flowers and new growth has spurred on the birds to lay eggs and their young now demand the insects that accompany this bonanza as their never ending all-you-can-eat buffet. The blackbirds flit in the low evening light. Their alarm calls carrying across the sleepy village.

The little box in my hand clicks on. The backlit screen reads a number, up and down as I scroll the little wheel on the side. Nothing.

In the middle of the village the clink of crockery and the low bubble of voices saunters lazily out of the pub – door flung wide to welcome in the cool evening air. People are still sat out on the tables, squinting at each other in the low light. Laughter erupts from the bowels of the old pub, gambolling out, like the alarm call of the blackbird – sudden, staccato.

Away from the easy laughter of people I click the box back into life. Up, down, up, down. Nothing.

We round the corner and start up the hill. Last year this was an excellent spot. I’d go so far as to say it was a certainty. But we are halfway up the hill already and nothing. Last year you could have bumped into one by now, doing laps above the road. I’m talking about bats – pipistrelles among others but really any will do. Swinging the detector across the road I hear a faint click. It could be keys, or a stone chip knocked by a incautious step, but I have a gut feeling that it’s not. Peering through the failing light I make out movement – darting yet steady – this is a good sign. But the bat isn’t playing ball tonight. Maybe it’s slightly too windy? Maybe it’s still too light? He doesn’t return, and my hunch is not completely proven.

Reluctantly returning home I concede defeat. You can’t always see a bat just because you want to. There are plenty more evenings to go in search of our only flying mammal. We turn into our road and greet the guard ducks. Three of them, two boy ducks and a girl duck. They’ve been here for just over two weeks now, and they’re nice to have around. Not sure what the cat makes of them but they seem to be getting along.

As I glance hopefully at the sky, metres from our front door, I see a familiar shape in silhouette against the sky. I flick on the detector hopefully and it bursts into life trtrtrtrtrtrrrrrr-ziiiiiiip – like a machine gun rattle the bat call is spoken by the detector in my hand – a crude approximation of his multi-layered and complex call. Pipistrelle, the larger of the two that occur commonly in the U.K. (predictably called the Common Pipistrelle). They might be numerous, they might be widely distributed, but this one is right here, a stones throw from my door, catching his dinner. Crouching against a hedge to keep out of the way I watched the little black body sail up and down the road, tacking back in himself with angular turns, so unlike the soft arc of bird flight. It’s really exciting to see them in flight. The detector helps me to see in the dark and, if I’m lucky enough to be pointing it in the right direction, it can help me ID who is talking to me via the little translator I hold in my hand. These unseen creatures are so easy to overlook in our wildlife, being small, nocturnal and rather tricky to spot probably doesn’t help them much – but it’s so worth the effort to go looking for them!

Sitting outside my warm and cosy house I am getting cold and tired, I can’t sit and watch him feed for long. But given this was the first bat walk of the year I feel this has gone pretty well.


First Flutter-by

Ambling along the hedgerow metropolis last weekend the ground underneath our feet was drying and warming – the little soil microbes that are the workhorse of nature generating that beautiful earthy smell that supercharges the sense of being outdoors. A little higher up, at around head height, the air was thick with little flies, forming dense clouds around the snowy cow parsley. If we were to lift up off the ground we would be among the first of the swallows, busy reclaiming the cornflower blue skies, their forked tails following them in their looping swooping tracks. The fields below must have looked pretty good from up there, just bursting into life – the leaves, flowers and stems bursting out and straining upwards into the competition free space above.

Lost in thoughts of what the swallow can see I almost missed what my own eyes could see – butterflies! First a male orange tip, flitting across the path and up and over the hedge  into the field beyond. The orange flashes on his wings are such a contrast to the green of the foliage that following him with your eyes is easy enough. Until he stops that is, because the underside of his hindwing is the most perfect camouflage pattern of mottled green and white.


Orange tip Photo credit: Em

Not far away the female ‘orange-tip’ is supping on the flowers too – unlike the male she actually doesn’t have any orange tips to her wings (clearly not named for the female of the species then). The black markings at the apex of the forewing are the same on both sexes.


Orange tip underside of wings. Photo credit: Em

As we turn to leave the butterflies to their dinner we disturb a speckled wood from the bare earth of the path. It starts up but doesn’t stray far and settles back down perhaps a meter or so down the path. I can creep close enough to see the little hairs on his body. He seems untroubled by my attention – lifting his wings slightly but without real commitment, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Nothing wrong with that 🙂

wood butterfly

Speckled Wood. Photo credit: Em


Bank Holiday

This bank holiday weekend has been something of a poster child for bank holidays – it feels like we have skipped spring and moved straight into summer. And not gently, savoring each new sign of growth and changing seasons but incautiously, inelegantly bellyflopping right into the middle of summer – splashing great dollops of colour and heat everywhere.

In the warmth of the evening sunshine we strolled, carefree, down an unmetalled road – the dust from the mud track picking up and sticking on our feet, to supplement the subtle brown colour originally applied by the sun. The flowers are a riot of colour. Just two weeks ago I was struggling to find anything other than primroses or wild garlic – nothing against either of them but the pastel yellow/white palette is not the full range of options available in spring blooms.

Now there are purples, pinks, lilacs, blues, fluorescent yellows and fresh bright greens. The bluebells are the colour of the cloudless sky, the pink of a red campion (Silene dioica) pops from the hedgerow, the purple-brown spear of a lords and ladies deep in the fold of the white spathe, common mouse ear, cow parsley, ribwort plantain and lady’s mantle…. the vibrancy of these natural flower borders makes me stay and notice the plants that were there long before their showy petals uncoiled into the hazy May sunshine.

And the names are as enjoyable as the plants! The long wait for spring colour is over and the forgotten margins of hedges, roads and fields are heaving with bright, fresh new growth.

As a nature writer this is a huge relief – don’t get me wrong, I love going out and hunting for new parts of nature I haven’t explored or finding new ways to write about the things I am familiar with, but it is so much easier to distract me with pretty flowers in the sunshine! You don’t need to look very far or very hard to find nature begging for your attention right now. Spring is a wonderful thing.