It was a gloomy day in November and I was running a tedious errand that took me towards the Norfolk coast. Driving along, I wondered if I would see any pink-footed geese munching on the harvested sugar beet tops. ‘That would brighten my journey’, I thought to myself, ‘otherwise I really will have to eat the whole of that family sized chocolate bar calling my name from the passenger seat’.
I pulled over to scan the field next to me and, on seeing no geese, was about to give up and eat the chocolate when, whoosh, a hen harrier glided serenely past, just metres from my car. My spirits rose at that miraculous combination of effortless grace and masterful presence possessed only by birds of prey. Soft, pale and grey in colour, it was almost invisible against the misty backdrop of dusk. It dropped low, searching for mice or voles, and then vanished from sight into long grass.
As I drove on, the euphoria of my unexpected sighting began to fall away as I recalled the details of a report I’d read only the day before. It warned that this stunning creature could soon be extinct as a breeding bird in England.
Last year, only seven pairs of hen harriers nested successfully in England. Indeed, for our fair county, baby hen harriers are not even a distant memory – they haven’t hatched in Norfolk for 150 years. The bird that uplifted my grey journey was a winter visitor from Europe. He’ll be gone again by April.
I like to think I’m a positive kind of person, always seeing the best in a situation, but on that drive, the hen harrier glided through my mind like a sad messenger of human error. The facts are stark; it is quite simply because of persecution that these birds are struggling. Even with the full protection of the law, the killing of hen harriers remains devastatingly common.
In February this year, the RSPB delivered a 210,000-strong petition to the former Wildlife Minister, calling for the greater protection of birds of prey. Public support is there, the law is there; why is it that a tiny misguided minority can get away with destroying something that is so beautiful and such a part of our nation’s heritage?
We may occasionally turn to the chocolate, but here at the RSPB, we certainly don’t give up without a fight. Right now, we are asking the Coalition Government to confirm that the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit is secure and we’re challenging them to provide the leadership and enforcement necessary to turn this situation around.
Meanwhile, let’s brave the gloom to savour our winter visitors and our resident birds of prey, such as the magnificent marsh harrier or the soaring buzzard, and hope that 2011 brings a happier year for them.
Watching wildlife can be absolutely breathtaking. Regardless of your age or experience, spotting something you’ve never seen before or simply catching a glimpse of a cheeky robin in your garden, can leave you totally mesmerised. Most of my encounters with birds, mammals and insects have happened purely by chance, walking through the city, out on a bike ride or driving through the countryside. My latest wildlife adventure was slightly adhoc to say the least. I’d heard about the invasion of waxwings that occurs around this time of year, but have never actually seen one for myself. When I heard that there had been about 20 birds spotted in Norwich city centre, I seized my opportunity and took off.
Binoculars at the ready, warm jacket and camera in my grasp! As you can see from the picture, these birds are rather spectacular. They look a bit like a cross between an 80’s punk rocker and a tropical bird of paradise. Adorned with striking colours; a flash of yellow at the end of the tail, red, yellow and white blobs of colour on the wing and a dramatic black mask that flicks subtly upwards like immaculately applied eyeliner! All of this colour, in contrast to the rich fawny feathers on its front, make the waxwing an unmissable bird – or so I thought.
Liz Cutting Photography
So, back to my quest. I raced through the bustle of commuters and no sooner had I located what must have been the best spot for them, the sky turned a moody grey and the heavens opened. The rain descended upon me, my binoculars steamed up and other than a few gulls and wood pigeons, there were no birds in sight. An hour or so later and with very wet feet, I had to concede that my first attempt to find waxwings had failed, but such is the reality and unreliability of nature. However, I am adamant that this won’t be a failed mission. With the cold weather fast approaching, waxwings will be relishing in our abundant rowan trees to feast on their berries over the coming months and i’ll be keeping my eyes peeled.
The lesson learnt from my first (non) waxwing experience is that you simply can’t predict how nature will behave. Even when you’re patiently looking out for something, watching intently for that ‘guaranteed’ wildlife sighting, it might never materialise. So remember, when you’re next at your local supermarket, driving on your way to work, or taking the kids to the park, keep your eyes peeled for a chance encounter with wildlife, who knows what you’ll spot along the way, hopefully a waxwing or two.
Headlines, tweets and status updates. Forty-five characters to tell everyone what's on your mind. For someone that is a fan of a nice quote, like me, nothing can be more addictive. This particular quote, from my friend Tom's facebook page made me laugh, even though I think he may well have borrowed it from David Brent. It read, "What does a squirrel do in summer? It buries nuts. Why? So that in winter he's got something to eat and won't die. So, collecting nuts in the summer is worthwhile work. Every task you do think, would a squirrel do that? Think squirrels. Think nuts."
When we talk about climate change it can be easy to switch off. The magnitude of the problem can seem impossible measured against our everyday lives. Will me remembering to switch the television off at the wall of an evening make any difference at all? I'd argue that yes, it will. It won't stop huge areas of rainforest being clear felled and it won't make our ice caps refreeze, but it does show a committment. A committment by myself to do all I can to demonstrate that action on climate change needs to happen. Every light turned off and trip made on a bicycle rather than a car is another of those nuts that David Brent was talking about. A nut collected against climate change.
If you have collected all the nuts you can in your neighbourhood and you're looking for something else to do how about this. Go to www.stopclimatechaos.org. The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition is the UK's largest group of people dedicated to action on climate change and limiting its impact on the world's poorest communities. Our combined supporter base of more than 11 million people spans 100 organisations, from environment and development charities to unions, faith, community, health and women's groups. This weekend hundreds of SCC supporters will be out lobbying their local MP's to do what is necessary and take action against climate change.
If I were a squirrel, i'd be collecting this nut.
Image: Kevin Simmonds www.wildlifeimagary.co.uk
With the nights well and truly drawing in, the cold, crisp autumnal air is biting more and more at our cheeks and it’s the time of year to start thinking about those classic winter comforts. Home-made soup, a roaring fire, big snuggly jumpers and hot chocolate to name a few. How about filling your belly with a side dish of 3000 insects; spiders, flies, mosquitoes all making up a hearty snack to keep us full of energy over the winter? Ok, so perhaps not quite the cuisine you might go for, but for our hibernating bats this is the only thing on their menu as they go in search of energy to see them right through the winter.
Last weekend might have seen all the ghosts and gouls come out to play, but our bat populations have got a less spooky job on their minds. Finding a place to hibernate over the winter is a crucial and increasingly tough job. To our bats, luxurious living is in the form of cool, quiet places like holes in trees or disused buildings, a place where there is the least chance of them being disturbed by light.
Sadly, a lot of bats’ natural habitats are becoming more and more scarce. Ill-thought out development, changes of land use and other factors have made it a much harder job finding sanctury over the winter months. Churches continue to play a vital role in the survival of these endangered mammals. Some of our older churches, and there are plenty in Norfolk, have been providing valuable roosting sites for generations of bats that return faithfully to the same roost year after year.
Back in the summer, me and a friend went on a walk to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. It was after work and as quickly as the time flew by, the sun set and dusk fell upon us. Making our way round the reserve we were accompanied by more and more bats as they started their night time hunt for food. Mainly pipistrelles, some noctules too and the odd long-eared bat. Whooshing about above our heads, gliding above the water catching mouthful after mouthful of insects to keep their bellies full. The wings of bats are much thinner than those of birds, so they can move more quickly and more accurately than our feathered friends.
After the Halloween celebrations have passed, most of our bat populations will be heading into hibernation for the winter. But, they will be back out in full force around March time. If you live near The Broads or fancy visiting RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, the winter months are anything but dull. The bats may be resting safe and sound, but there is plenty more to see and do. So, get wrapped up, get a flask of tea and go explore!