Let nature sing

Is there anything more lovely than the half heard notes of the dawn chorus, curling its delicate tendrils into a half-woken ear? The sweet urgency of the competing gurgle of notes is like no music that we can ever write.

To sit quietly in the woods and let the bird sing wrap around you is particularly delicious in this, the urgent frenzy of the nesting season. For some birds this might be your only clue that they are there. Birdsong makes up such an important part of ornithological work that for some, the loss of their hearing is the loss of their profession. Here in the U.K. ornithologists, like cuckoos, are a vanishingly rare breed.

As generations change, the baseline of what we think of as normal also changes. In ecology this is called baseline shift – each generation has grown up accustomed to a paler version of nature’s technicolour than the one before. The risk becomes that we don’t even know what we are missing. But the first step in dealing with a problem is to acknowledge it. That’s why I am currently in love with the RSPB’s single – let nature sing. 2:32 seconds of the finest bird song I will ever hear. The chorus line might never normally be found together – the mix of diurnal, crepuscular and nocturnal as well as habitats and geographies is too broad for real life. But that doesn’t stop the bittern, curlew, swift, tawny owl, blue tit, song thrush and so many many more from orchestrating a masterpiece.

Buy it. Listen to it. It is good for the soul. Then do what you can to help make sure we can hear it without headphones too.



The Canadian one

If you are anything like me, when you think of Canada you probably imagine wide open vistas, tree soaked hillsides and twinkling blue lakes. Even more so when we are talking about wildlife (you’re reading this blog, so It’s safe to assume we are). You probably don’t immediately think of the urban metropolis, bustling hive of industry and achingly modern life of its big cities. But despite the urban location there is still plenty of wild life to see.

On a recent visit (yes I did see the weather forecast before I left and yes, I went anyway) I was plunged back into the vibrancy of city life by the raucous, urgent effervescence of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. Beaver tails, brightly lit diners, Dodge RAMs, maple syrup and armadas of snow ploughs assaulted my senses. Compared to my little corner of South Devon there is an awful lot happening all at once involving many many more people than I have seen in one place for a long while. I think this is entirely forgivable – the population density of Devon is in the order of 170/km sq, while Canada is more like 3/km sq. Of course, what I forgot to factor in is that in a city like Toronto this rises to more like 4,000/km sq.

So, what is a place like Toronto doing on a wildlife blog then? When I set up this blog it was with the intention of celebrating the wildlife that we share our everyday with. And that’s precisely what I found – when you look you can find wildlife in even the most steel and concrete dominated environments. In Canada this means bright red northern cardinals in municipal parkland opposite state buildings, a hodge-podge of ducks on frozen canals surrounded by decaying industrial parks, and ice coated trees right on top of a very hefty concrete wall holding back the mighty Niagara river itself.

Seeing how species are adapted to their habitat is part of the beauty of nature watching:

  • The ducks on the canal clustered around a leaking lock gate, the slight turbulence preventing the ice from closing in and providing the fowl with a small portal to the cold cold river below.
  • In a city park one tree in particular was absolutely buzzing with birds. A mixed flock of sparrows, tits and northern cardinals jostled for space. Getting closer it soon became clear there was a person in the tree, feeding the birds. While this was a bit of a social anomaly for us humans the birds were embracing the feeding opportunity with gusto. We get mixed flocks descending on bird feeders all the time – it helps birds keep a better watch out for predators and members can benefit from shared spatial intelligence about the location of food resources.
  • The water from the great Niagara Falls rises in a vapour cloud, settling on the limbs of nearby vegetation creating an icy exoskeleton. Not all plants could cope with this level of entombment – heck, many plants get sniffy about a light frost. This was serious cold – both my fingers and my shutter on my trusty camera needed some serious attention to restore functionality. To anything that survives that – chapeau.

February is a tough month for wildlife in Canada (it’s a tough month to go wildlife watching in Canada too). Breathtaking in more that one sense, even from this fleeting visit I was excited by how much wildness was apparent. I have a feeling this won’t be my only visit.


Emerging from hibernation

Like some of our wildlife I have been hibernating, not fully, just in a blog sense. It’s a completely inappropriate use of the word really. Hibernation is not laziness or inertia, it is an evolutionary tactic to survive the lean winter months by reducing the metabolic rate, slowing the heart rate and lowering the temperature.

In the U.K. there are three mammal species that hibernate: hedgehogs, bats and dormice. Other species such as butterflies and bees hibernate as well.

Humans do not hibernate. But on a fairly dark damp Saturday in late winter please forgive your author a little amble down the hibernation path. I’m definitely reducing my activity but stopping short of slowing metabolism just yet. So, while in the mindset of a hibernating animal I thought I’d explore it a little more from the comfort of the sofa. An idle google revealed that captive species such as bears, which hibernate in the wild, frequently do not hibernate in captivity – the superabundance of food in a zoo means they don’t need to. I’m not sure I understand how they know it’s ok not to hibernate as it is generally thought that seasonal temperatures, day length etc are the prompt for hibernation. Do they know they are in zoo? Sorry – what a terrible anthropomorphism. Nevertheless it seems something of a vexing question – how do they know not to burrow down under their bear duvets?

Our little hibernators have probably had a sneaky peek at the wider world in the last week – temperatures have been somewhat unseasonal here with a new February record of 21C – around 3C above average.

Emerging from hibernation sounds like waking up with a hangover if I’m honest. The animals are hungry, sleep deprived, in need of the loo and unlikely to be back to ‘normal’ for a little while – bears can take up to a month to slip out of the lethargic post-hibernation phase. Bees waking from dormancy fly away to defecate without dirtying the hive. Female bats will be preparing to move to their maternity roots in readiness for this year’s young.

Timing is everything. If you emerge too early then your breakfast won’t be ready yet and you have to wait hungrily or snack on something less ‘breakfast-y’. Leave it too late and, like holiday resorts from hell, you have to queue for the pool, the buffet has been decimated and there’s nowhere for you to put your towel. Except in a slightly more life or death kind of a way.

All in all it’s a bit of a make or break time of year for our wildlife. There’s lots of good advice about what you can do to help but the basics are:

  • Never put out milk or fish-based food for hedgehogs – only leave fresh water and meat-based cat or dog food
  • If you find an injured/unwell bat call the Bat Helpline – 0345 1300 228
  • If you find an injured/unwell hedgehog call the British Hedgehog Preservation Society – 01584 890 801
  • Not sure what to do if you find a baby bird? Often the answer is nothing!

(Tips courtesy of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust).

Hopefully our wildlife has made it through winter and migrants will start returning soon. It might be a bit early to say so, but it does feel like spring is coming. I might even be tempted out of doors soon.


Painting a picture of the painted dog

I have to admit, I’d probably have put the painted dog higher up my ‘must-see’ list for my last summer holiday to South Africa if I had known a bit more about them. The big 5 (lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and buffalo) steal the lime light from the other safari wildlife but in the case of the African wild dog, the lions had better watch out, I think this ‘sub 5’ star steals the show.

This is one of many reasons I am so pleased that it has been chosen as one of the species for the latest BBC Natural History series ‘Dynasties’ and am looking forward to it’s airing in a few weeks time.

So, given that I knew so little about them just a few months ago, what has changed? In short, all it took was an introduction. Driving through one of their few strongholds, Kruger NP, the burst of tan and black suddenly visible against the dirt track was as unexpected as it was welcome. African wild dog! Painted wolf! Hunting dog! A multitude of names to describe this tortoiseshell-esque canid, for it is indeed a dog and not a wolf. With a population size of around 400 in Kruger this was a lucky sighting. The meeting was all too brief but it left a lasting impression and a thirst to find out more – the thirty odd words in my ‘travel sized’ field guide couldn’t tell me enough.

Painted dog, photo credit: Em

Painted dog photo credit: Em

Helpfully, the November issue of BBC Wildlife magazine has a great feature on these fantastic beasts, though it paints a far from rosy picture – these are feisty, tenacious and relentless hunters that make you glad you weren’t born an impala…

But mostly, I’m pleased to see this animal in the spotlight because its very hard to have empathy for an animal which you know nothing about. In the not too distant past this dog was reviled with a bounty on its pretty painted head. They represent a largely irrelevant threat to farming livelihoods with the ineffective bounty being little more than slander against the dog, but like many human vs predator debates, it is a politically charged topic (see badgers and raptors in the U.K.) The name, African Hunting Dog derives from this historic misconception and is one reason why the rename is a timely change.

With fewer than 1,500 breeding individuals estimated to be left in the wild, the painted dog is classified as endangered, and its population is still decreasing. The reasons for the decline are crushingly common – habitat fragmentation, persecution and disease. This unholy trinity dogs many a species but that doesn’t mean we are any closer to an effective answer. Conservation programmes, education and retraining, support for wildlife tourism, agricultural advice and grants to support sustainable agricultural methods are part of the solution, but effective change needs political will and the buy in from those who live alongside these animals – something that takes time and persistence. Time that, sadly, the painted wolf is running out of.

But there is room for hope. Last year’s Natural History Unit blockbuster – Blue Planet 2 shone an uncompromising light on the massive plastic elephant in the room and has resulted in some genuinely unexpected movement in corporate and political arenas as well as awakening a real passion in the hearts and homes of many. I hope that the ‘Blue Planet 2 effect’ can weave it’s magic once more.



If the year is a show then this year’s autumn has been a number worthy of London’s west end. The synchronicity of the leaf fall, the colours and, as with any good performance, lighting has been critical. When the low angled sunshine pierced the foliage is was as if the trees were lit from within.

In jettisoning their leaves, trees are preparing and protecting themselves from the coming winter. The yellows and browns are actually just the lack of green as the trees break down their life giving chlorophyll and store the nutrients in the trunk and deep underground, like a bear laying down fat for hibernation.

But for me the highlight of the seasonal palette is the fiery red, and that’s not merely the absence of another colour – that has to be made. The red colour comes from a pigment called anthocyanin which has been variously suggested as providing a tree with antioxidant protection, as being a means of attracting birds to feed on autumn berries or as an indicator of stress and poor soil conditions. Clearly there is more going on than purely a visual display for the benefit of leaf-peepers (yes – that’s a thing).

Regardless of the science behind it I have been enjoying the autumn in Devon this year. These photos were taken just before a storm blew in which has now shaken most of the leaves from these riverside trees. Autumn’s act is coming to an end, soon it will be time to look ahead to winter’s finale.


A Year in Yarner

For the last year I have visited the woods near where I live to survey the waterways for signs of otters. I volunteer for this because it helps in the conservation of our valuable green spaces and informs land management decisions.

The blog post in the link below was written for East Dartmoor NNR about these surveys in Yarner Woods. I don’t need an excuse to get out into our awesome woods but it’s nice to use this blog to reflect on the seasonal changes that I saw while out spotting otters…or not as was often the case!

Yarner is part of a network of 224 nature reserves in England. Nature Reserves safeguard some of Britain’s most important wildlife for present and future generations to cherish and enjoy. East Dartmoor is managed by Natural England in partnership with the Trendlebere Down Commoners Association, the Woodland Trust and Dartmoor National Park Authority.

To read my blog post visit East Dartmoor NNR’s blog: https://eastdartmoorwoods.org/2018/11/05/a-year-in-yarner/


The 07:50 to Exeter St David’s

As cormorants sit on sinking ships the mist rises lightly off the sea. The bright autumn sunshine, angled low over the sea catches the lip of each tiny wave and sends reflections bouncing around the inside of the carriage.

Birds wheel up, the only clouds in the sky, silhouettes against the sun. Winter waders are starting to make their return.

The air pressure changes as we enter a tunnel, ears and eyes sending urgent messages about the change, about the depth of the darkness. It is as if we have plunged beneath the silky surface of the water and are waiting, holding an in breath, to re-emerge. And then, as instantaneously as the flip of a switch, the sunlight floods back in amplified by the reflection off the sea it is overwhelmingly bright and we seek solace behind our eyelids.

But don’t close them too long, you wouldn’t want to miss this morning on the 07:50 to Exeter.

—— —— ——

I have had some appalling train journeys in my life, but the Newton Abbot to Exeter section of the GWR route is not one of them. If you want a fast, regular service between two major destination hubs, free WiFi and a modern, stylish carriage this probably isn’t for you. But unlike so many things in life – it’s what’s outside that counts.


A Love Letter to the Conker

As I approach the impressive shape of a horse chestnut I am not looking at the canopy, with its leaves already on the turn, instead my eyes are drawn to the debris below – green and cream and brown. Sitting through the prickly green cases is a real autumnal treat – prising apart the armour to reveal the thin white membrane, like the pith of an orange, and below – the prize.

Holding the fresh new conker in my hand like a talisman, I press so tight that I pretend to feel the pulse of the nut in my hand. I know it to be my own heartbeat, but rational thinking doesn’t really have a place when you are gripped by the love of a natural object like this.

Brushing the bits of earth and dirt off the surface reveals the delicate, intricate patterns, like the growth rings of a tree. How like nature to replicate the pattern that is yet to form on the very nut that will produce it.

It’s not a native tree (it was introduced from Turkey in the 16th Century) but it has a place in the national identity – from games to folk lore this tree has firmly established itself in the British psyche. Like many well loved trees it isn’t doing all that well at the moment. It is under siege from a moth, a fungi, a scale insect and a bacteria at the moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would miss this tree if it were to disappear.


Wildlife v Tourism

In a recent blog post I started to talk about the idea of what the impact of tourism is on wildlife. This is a topic that I have been turning over in my mind and, as is often the way with niggling thoughts, has been cropping up all over the place in the last week so I think it is worth re-visiting.

The question really is about the benefits of tourism and how they measure against the costs to the wildlife. This is not intended as an exhaustive list but by way of example, some advantages could be greater awareness, funding, political support, volunteering resource and inspiration – most people working in the conservation and ecology fields have had an experience, possibly through travel, that prompted their interest. Costs include disturbance, habitat loss, disease, pests, and possible contributions to the trade in animals and animal parts.

This is not a new dilemma but the general consensus on this has changed quite considerably as conservation and tourism have both evolved. For example, Dian Fossey was opposed to wildlife tourism for the majority of her career in protecting mountain gorillas. Indeed her accounts of ‘tourists’ in the 70s and 80s do not paint a picture of responsible representatives of wildlife tourism. To her, writing in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, tourism presented a very real threat to the scientific study (and hence conservation) of this endangered species. More than that, the actions of inconsiderate ‘tourists’ and film crews had a detrimental impact on the health, survival and normal functioning of gorilla family groups. She also witnessed the horrific effects of the demand for zoo animals in the 1970s – to capture a single juvenile mountain gorilla for a zoo usually required the slaughter of the entire family group who would defend their youngster to the death. In this environment, her views against tourism are well understood.

Happily, this does not describe wildlife tourism in the majority of situations today. Awareness among government agencies and tour operators has increased the sensitivity of wildlife facilities and tourist attractions to the needs and preferences of their subjects. After all – no one wants to pay to see dead animals. Discrete categories of tourists too have changed too – just look at the market for eco-tours, wildlife holidays and other packages charging a premium for a more ‘authentic’ wildlife experience.

Take, for example, the Nature Photographer’s Code – the fundamental principle of which is:

‘the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph’

This is a good basis for other tourist groups to adopt, not just those wildlife photographing pros who will endure considerable discomfort and even physical pain to avoid detection or disturbance of the bashful little ball of being that their lens is trained on. (PS If you were ever in doubt of this you should seek out the photographer’s notes alongside major photo exhibitions – the BBC wildlife photographer of the year being one of my personal favourites.)

I would, however, be hesitant to say that the majority of tourists understand the impact they have on wildlife, and even fewer who actively mitigate it. The vast hordes of tourists disgorged from their gaudy tour buses into reserves and wildlife parks, chattering, littering and generally being oblivious to their surroundings are not a resounding accolade of the responsible face of tourism. Taking photos I can well understand (and do myself) but filming the whole unedited moment from a shaky GoPro on a selfie stick, swung blithely around with little regard for life or property, while simultaneously snapping away with a phone or camera as well is plainly absurd.  Frankly, I am rather alarmed by this behaviour so heaven knows what our wild relatives make of it all. But, actually, I don’t believe this to be the worst sin of modern tourism. Instead, I propose the instagrammable selfie with something ‘cute’ – the kind of pose that is only possible because of the contortions of the photographer and the close proximity to the animal. We are now just one inane ‘aaww cute, I want one’ comment away from stimulating a demand in the trade of wild animals for the pet trade.

Am I over reacting here? Maybe.  Like the eloquent authors of ‘Last chance to see’ perhaps it is purely the impact on me that I am assessing – the false expectation that I was going somewhere wild, to see a ‘wild’ thing and experience something akin to its ‘wild’ life. In this excellent book, the authors describe their hunt for the komodo dragon, their sense of expectation and how this was shattered by the apparent orchestration of the event and the large group of fellow ‘tourists’. Maybe, like them, this is entirely my problem in feeling that by having to share this moment with a large group of people who seem only superficially interested in the subject, and who lose interest as soon as it is committed to pixels, somehow devalues it for me. This has a whiff of wildlife snobbery and sounds suspiciously like the complaints of art critics sniffing that the public ‘don’t understand art’.

But then, I think it would be fairly accurate to say that the majority of tourists visiting a reserve are not that knowledgeable about the wildlife it contains, not really, not at a level where they could make a judgement call as to their impact on the needs of the subject.

And that’s why it is so important that these experiences exist and why they need to be informative as well as entertaining – to provide that context and education. Or at very least to start it off.  I think this makes it increasingly relevant that visitors are made aware of the needs of wildlife, and to defer to their preferences – even if this means you can’t guarantee a sighting, much less a perfect selfie.



Sage coloured crab (spider).

Being on safari in South Africa is definitely a wildlife highlight of the year, but it is a very different kind of wildlife watching to my normal style. I like taking time to notice the changes in the habitat around me and to watch nature going about its business, whether this is charismatic mammals or enigmatic insects. Today’s blog post is squarely in the second camp. While assessing the impact of the summer sun on the garden I came across this beautiful little critter, which I believe to be a crab spider. I say believe because there are 37 families of 670 species of spider in the UK and I am definitely not an expert.


Crab spider – Photo credit: Em

I think this is a crab spider because the front two pairs of legs are longer than the third and forth (which makes it look like a crab…). What also makes this a trickier ID is that the spider can change colour to adapt to the flower head it has made home. As an ambush predator this is an important skill to have. My crab spider is the colour of dying sage, because it is on a dying sage bush. It is quite a small one – so maybe a good ‘gateway spider’ for those who prefer their wildlife to have considerably less legs.


P.S. I would highly recommend the field guide by Bee, Oxford and Smith (ISBN: 978-0-691-16529-5) for any British spider ID questions.