Articles

Turtles of the air

What links sea-turtles, swifts, and railway viaducts? Plus some handy ornithological photo tips.

I’m jinxed when it comes to sea turtles. Although I rarely venture out to sea, I’ve narrowly missed seeing them on two occasions. The first time was in November 2000, while Jen and I were floating above the Great Barrier Reef in a tourist-laden semi-submersible. The woman behind me couldn’t handle the gentle swell and began to vomit. While I was shuffling along my bench in an attempt to put a few more inches between us, everyone else in the boat, including Jen, suddenly cried out, “TURTLE!” By the time I looked round, it had gone.

A few years later, Jen and I decided to forego a romantic moonlit walk along the beach in Tobago on account of the number of other couples who had beaten us to it. Next morning, over breakfast, everyone else was raving about the enormous sea turtle that had hauled herself on to the beach the previous evening and started to lay eggs in the sand.

Jinxes though they are, I have a soft-spot for sea turtles. They’re one of evolution’s great oddities: a reptile gone back to the sea, but still forced to breath air and return to land to lay her eggs. What sort of crazy ‘intelligent design’ is that? Why not give her gills, and eggs that can survive in the sea? It’s a design that seems to work perfectly well for most fish.

Like all of us, the sea turtle is constrained by her evolutionary past. She might be beautifully adapted for a life in the oceans, but she hasn’t found a way to sever all links with her species’ landlubbing ancestors. When she drags herself on to the beach on her klutzy flippers, she’s as much out of her element as the proverbial vomiting woman in a semi-submersible.

The non-optimal designs of creatures such as the sea turtle provide some of the most compelling evidence we have that species evolved, and weren’t created from scratch by some omnipotent, omniscient creator. Evolution through Natural Selection can produce beautiful adaptations, but it can only work on what’s already there.

Closer to home, another favourite tetrapod with an unusual lifestyle is the avian equivalent of the sea turtle: the swift. This bird spends its entire life in the air. It hunts, eats, copulates, and even sleeps on the wing, but, like the turtle, is forced to return to dry land—usually in the form of a rock face, cave, or building—to lay its eggs. The swift is beautifully adapted for a hectic life hunting insects on the wing, screaming and soaring in our summer skies, making swallows look positively sedate. But, as with the sea turtle, the swift flounders when she returns to terra firma to lay her eggs. Her skylubber legs are situated far back in her body to improve streamlining, and have shrunk to almost nothing to reduce weight. She can still use her rather pathetic feet to lurch around the nest site, or to cling to ledges, but they’re so diminished it was once commonly believed swifts didn’t have any feet at all—hence the bird’s scientific name, Apus, from the Greek for without foot.

Swifts only visit Britain for a few months each year, making their annual return a much anticipated summer event. I always keep my ears open for them from early May, often first hearing them as they screech down the canyon of Market Street in Hebden Bridge, like TIE fighters down a Death Star trench. Then I know it’s time to start making plans to visit Hewenden Viaduct, whose arches are a popular nesting site for swifts.

Hewenden viaduct

Unlike turtles and swifts, Hewenden Viaduct was, indeed, intelligently designed—most likely by the Victorian railway engineer Richard Johnson. Just like turtles and swifts, however, the viaduct’s underlying design is based on that of its ancient predecessors. The 17 arches that carried the Great Northern Railway’s Keighley branch line across Manywells Beck to Halifax, Bradford and beyond hark back to Roman aqueducts, which were also designed to maintain level courses across undulating countryside. The viaduct’s railway line is long gone, a victim of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, but the hard-won flat route has been adapted for a new use as a picturesque cycle- and foot-path.

There’s no sign of swifts as I approach the viaduct. Perhaps, in my keenness, I’ve come too early. Perhaps I should have waited a week or two. I take a couple of photos from afar, then join the course of the former railway track and, passing through a modern gate, walk on to the viaduct.

Hewenden viaduct

I follow the curve of the viaduct to its far end, then turn and begin to head back. Still no sign of swifts. Then I hear a distant screech off towards the reservoir to my right. I hurry across to the parapet and gaze over. A trio of swifts weave their way towards me, splitting and re-grouping, then disappear from view as they shoot under the arch beneath my feet. I rush to the other side of the viaduct, but they’re already long gone. Either that, or they landed on the underside of the arch.

Two more swifts appear from nowhere, banking above the viaduct and heading off down towards the reservoir. Then, without warning, there are swifts everywhere. They criss-cross the sky a short distance above me. About 30 of them is my best guess, but it’s impossible to say for sure: they’re so damn fast it’s bewildering. I pull out my camera and start firing.

Swifts

Swifts

I’ve yet to take a satisfactory photo of a swift. They’re way too fast and small for the autofocus on my camera. Experience has shown the best technique is to bump up my camera’s ISO setting a bit to give me a bit more depth-of-field, set my aperture to around f/16, over-expose by a stop or so to compensate for the bright-sky background, focus manually, and take dozens and dozens of shots in the vain hope that one or two might actually end up in focus.

Swift

Swift

As always, I’m far from satisfied with the resulting photos, but they’re better than the ones I took last year—which, in turn, were better than the ones from the year before. Practice makes perfect, and all that. What better excuse could I have to come back soon?


A monument to lethargy

Sloth is a much-maligned sin, as our driveway demonstrates.

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding;
And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof
Proverbs 24:30–31

Our driveway is a monument to gardening lethargy. It’s a wonderful example of what can be achieved if you don’t put any effort into something. No effort, but plenty of thought.

Letting our driveway get out of hand was a conscious decision. When we first moved in, fifteen years ago, we went to great lengths to keep it free of weeds with hoe and trowel, and with liberal doses of agent orange. Then, one summer, we let things lapse. We soon realised we much preferred our driveway a little rough around the edges—and down the middle.

Our driveway

I’m sure the neighbours must talk behind our backs about the state of our driveway, all covered in grass, nettles, dandelions, buttercups, the dread herb Robert, sorrel, willowherb, plantains, and poppies. Lots of poppies. I love poppies. I even found a hawthorn growing in one of the cracks a few years back. Even I had to draw the line at that one, so I uprooted it and transplanted it in our magnificent proto-hedgerow.

Yes, in a few weeks’ time, we’ll probably hoik out a few of the larger weeds to stop things getting totally overrun, but we much prefer the green lane look to our former pristine—well, relatively pristine—botany-free brick monoculture.

Poppies

Sloth is a much-maligned sin. It has worked wonders for our driveway. Gardening’s loss is wildlife’s—and having a life’s—gain.


A British wildlife spectacle

Every spring, something happens in Britain that ranks alongside any wildlife spectacle you might see on telly.

Thanks to the BBC—and to Sir David Attenborough in particular—we British are more than familiar with the wonders of the natural world. Each year, from the comfort of our armchairs, we watch spellbound as polar bears pad across ice floes in the Arctic; lions take down wildebeest in the Serengeti; iguanas slip into the sea in the Galápagos; monkeys swing through trees in the Amazon; humpback whales breach the waves of the Pacific; and shoals of Crayola-coloured fish twist and turn in unison amongst the coral of the Great Barrier Reef.

Familiar though such footage now is, it still seems a world away from boring old Blighty. Although we live on what I would argue is the most beautiful island on the planet, our little lump of rock off the northern coast of Europe isn’t exactly famous for its wildlife spectaculars. Yes, we have plenty of wonderful wildlife, but it’s seldom showy. It’s hardly the sort of thing TV documentary makers would travel half-way around the world to film.

And yet, every spring, something happens in Britain that ranks alongside any wildlife spectacle you might see on telly. It’s an event we almost take for granted, yet, when you think about it, it’s utterly astonishing. For a few short weeks each May, our woods turn blue:

Bluebells, Hardcastle Crags
Bluebells, Hardcastle Crags.
More bluebells
More bluebells.

More photos »


Hats off to geology!

Geology doesn't receive the recognition it deserves. Our modern understanding of how the world formed and evolved is one of science’s great triumphs.

One of my favourite places to visit on my native Wirral is Burton Point on the edge of the Dee Marshes. You can’t actually get to the promontory, with its Iron Age fort: it’s owned by the RSPB, who presumably don’t want us disturbing the local wildlife. But you can get to within a hundred metres, if you approach via the cycle path along the edge of the marshes. The tree-topped sandstone outcrop is wonderfully photogenic in the right light, especially when the bluebells are in flower.

Bluebells at Burton Point

But the main reason I like to visit Burton Point is to climb to the top of the slope next to the old quarries, and take in the view across the marshes towards Wales. If the ground is dry, and I don’t need to rush off anywhere, I might even sit there for half an hour or so to see if anything interesting comes along. Nature-waiting, as I think of it.

Once it’s time to move, I like to walk back down the slope immediately alongside the quarry-face, examining the slanting, late-Triassic sandstone layers. The rock was laid down 200-million years ago, when what was to become England lay beneath desert sands at the centre of the super-continent of Pangea. Two-hundred-million years… In your face, young-Earth Creationists!

Sandstone quarry, Burton Point

How many thousands of years does this small rock face represent? How much farther back in time do I travel with each step down the slope? What strange creatures roamed these rust-red sands two-hundred-thousand millennia ago? How on earth did all these water-smoothed pebbles, peppered throughout the rock, end up in the desert?

I know very little about geology, but I understand its fascination. It's the history of our planet, written in stone for those clever enough to read it. The clues are there, if you can work out what to look at: fossils, volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers, deserts, coral reefs, rivers, silt, erratic boulders, moraine, fault lines, geomagnetic fields, and a host of other stuff most of us would never have even considered.

Geology doesn't receive the recognition it deserves. Our modern understanding of how the world formed and evolved is one of science’s—one of our—great triumphs. It’s one of the most fascinating detective mysteries ever solved.


The Art of Sloe Gardening

In which I attempt to grow blackthorn seedlings from sloes collected last autumn.

One of the things I miss from my native Wirral is its miles of stunning hedgerows. You don’t see many hedgerows in West Yorkshire. Far too twee. It’s all drystone walls and barbed-wire fences over here.

For the past few years, though, whenever I’ve discovered hawthorn saplings growing where they didn't belong in our garden, I’ve dug them up and replanted them alongside our rickety back fence. The idea is, as the saplings grow, they’ll begin to lend support to the fence. As a result, we now have a line of hawthorns of various sizes bounding our back lawn. The line is far too thin and sporadic to be described as a hedgerow, but that hasn’t prevented me from describing it in exactly that way.

Our hedgerow
Our ‘hedgerow’.

One thing in particular that pleases me about our magnificent hedgerow is how quickly other plant species have begun to establish themselves amongst the hawthorns. Nettles, brambles, herb Robert, lady’s smock, goose grass. Not the sort of plants most people would welcome into their gardens, but the sort of plants you would expect to see in a proper hedgerow.

One species conspicuous by its absence from our hedgerow is the blackthorn. The Wirral is particularly well-served for blackthorns, from which we gather fiercely bitter sloes each autumn to make into sloe gin. Blackthorns aren't particularly common in Hebden Bridge. So, last September, while making last year’s batch of gin from sloes gathered on the Wirral, I reserved a couple of dozen of the fruits, intending to try growing them into blackthorn saplings this spring. I read up on the subject and, having absorbed all manner of contradictory advice, decided to leave the sloes in the fridge over winter. In February, I planted them in pots and left them on our south-facing kitchen windowsill, near the Aga, hoping the warmth might con the sloes into thinking spring had arrived early.

Imagine my delight when, a few weeks later, minuscule green shoots began to emerge from the compost. I tended them diligently, taking great care to make sure the seedlings never dried out, turning their pots every couple of days so they didn’t get too bent to one side as they grew towards the light.

Imagine my disappointment, on the other hand, when, a couple of weeks ago, it finally dawned on me: my sloe saplings were beginning to look suspiciously like stinging nettles:

Nettles!
A nettle shoot masquerading as a blackthorn sapling.

I’ve kept on watering my nettles, in the forlorn hope that a blackthorn shootlet or two might eventually rise out of the compost, but I’m not holding my breath.

As it happens, I'm rather fond of stinging nettles. I'm not sure what to do with these impostors. Perhaps I'll plant them in my hedgerow.


When is a buzzard not a buzzard?

…when it's a marsh harrier.

Yesterday, I took my fancy new camera lens for a trial run at Burton Marshes and the RSPB reserve at Burton Mere on my native Wirral Peninsula. I was very pleased with the results.

Sitting in one of the hides on the reserve, I was acutely aware that the woman next to me seemed to think I was some sort of ornithological expert. It must have been the fancy lens that lent me the misleading aura. Fortunately, my expertise was never put to the test as there were plenty of genuine experts in the hide, who kept calling out what to look for and where.

Which is how we came to spend half an hour watching a female marsh harrier—albeit from a very long way away—flying back and forth on the hunt:

Marsh harrier
A female marsh harrier hunting over the Dee Marshes.

As I watched this magnificent creature through my binoculars, something dawned on me: I recognised this bird. I'd seen it—or another marsh harrier just like it—a few weeks earlier. I'd watched it hunting alongside a peregrine falcon, and had stupidly assumed it to be a buzzard! It was a good job the woman sitting next to me didn't know about my ornithological howler: it would have totally shattered her disillusions of my grandeur.

In my defence, my ‘buzzard’ had also been a long way off when I'd watched it, and I had noticed at the time that it had an unusual head-colour for a buzzard. I'd put this down to the fact that buzzards, as a species, tend to have variable markings. But that's no excuse. It never entered my head that the bird was anything other than a buzzard—even though I was watching it fly above a marsh: the eponymous habitat of the marsh harrier. The clue's in the name.

That's all part of the fun of bird-watching, though: learning from your mistakes. I'm pretty sure I won't commit such a howler again. Well, not with a marsh harrier, at least.


Migrant waders anthology

I have provided an article for a new anthology about wading birds.

I'm delighted to have provided an article for a new anthology about wading birds from Dunlin Press.

As you might expect, my article involves a walk on my beloved Moor, there's a bit of science, and Charles Darwin makes an appearance.

‘The Migrant Waders’ poster 3

Migrant Waders poster


Peregrine-harrier tag-team challenge

In which I witness a peregrine and marsh harrier hunting together—almost as a team.

Due to an ornithological howler, I originally mistook the marsh harrier described in this article for a buzzard. Having realised my gaff, I have amended the article accordingly.

On every occasion I've seen peregrines over the years, the encounters have been disappointingly brief. The streak began with my first ever peregrine sighting. I was on a high road in North Wales, negotiating a steep hairpin bend, when a dark blur hurtled past in a vertical stoop. I only saw it for a split-second as it plunged past my windscreen and disappeared from view below, but I knew immediately what I'd seen. Then there was the two-second, half-hearted attack on a little brown job at Frodsham Marshes five years back; and the slightly less fleeting, equally half-hearted attack on a little egret above the Dee Marshes last August. My longest, closest, and most thrilling, encounter with a peregrine occurred in thick fog on my beloved Moor a few years ago. I'd tell you all about it, but it's the subject of a chapter in my forthcoming book, so you'll just have to wait. [Join my mailing list, if you'd like to be alerted when my book becomes available.]

The incident on the Moor remained my longest peregrine encounter until last week. I was sitting in my car at the Dee Marshes on the Wirral, when I spotted a commotion of low-flying teal scattering downwards. They appeared to fly straight down into the marsh-grass at colossal speed, but the resulting splashes showed they had aimed for the safety of pools hidden from my view. A second or two later, I spotted the cause of the commotion as a peregrine swooped low and headed off towards another flight of ducks. More scattering, more splashing.

I spent the next 40 minutes watching the peregrine hunting ducks over the marshes. It was too far out to get any decent photos, but I did my best.

Peregrine
Peregrine over the Dee Marshes.

There was a strong, cold, northerly wind. The peregrine flew back and forth, low over the marsh, hoping, I assumed, to spook some foolish victim into taking flight. Every now and again, it would break off to make an unsuccessful attack on the latest passing squadron of ducks, then it would return to its low, methodical, back-and-forth hunt.

After about 10 minutes, the peregrine was joined by a buzzard female marsh harrier. The peregrine briefly feigned an attack on the much larger raptor, flipping upside down to show its talons, then returned to its hunting, the harrier still in tow. I assumed the harrier's plan was to muscle in on any kill. After a while, the peregrine took a rest on a fence post in the marsh. The harrier hung round for a bit, then headed off. Then, to my astonishment, the peregrine flew from its post and began to tail the marsh harrier. I wondered whether it was hoping to attack any ducks startled into flight by the latter.

Peregrine and marsh harrier
Marsh harrier startling some ducks, with peregrine in pursuit.

For the next half hour, I watched the peregrine and harrier hunting together—almost as a team. Sometimes, the peregrine would lead the way; sometimes the harrier. Whenever the peregrine returned to the fence, or to the ground at the foot of the fence, for a rest, the harrier would hang around, waiting.

Peregrine and marsh harrier
Peregrine and marsh harrier, chilling.

I didn't see any kill, but I saw plenty of full-blooded attacks on teal and mallard, until I eventually lost sight of the peregrine during a particularly spectacular dogfight. I assume the harrier lost sight of it too, for it turned and headed off across the marshes towards Wales.

I'm reluctant to refer to the peregrine and harrier hunting together as co-operation. It seems far more likely to me that they were both trying to take tactical advantage of each other's presence. I'm sure the apparent truce would immediately have fallen to pieces in the event of a kill.

I've never heard of different raptor species hunting together in this way. Perhaps it's a common occurrence. Perhaps not. In either event, I was thrilled to witness it.


Seabird jizz

When you see a bird often enough, its jizz begins to rub off on you—if you'll pardon the expression.

Jizz, proper birdwatchers call it. The sort of birdwatchers who refer to themselves as birders, I mean. The sort who can tell a dunlin from a knot at 200 paces. The sort who can tell a dunlin from a knot at any distance, come to think of it. Jizz is their word for the indefinable je ne sais quoi that enables them to identify a species by the cut of its jib: a dunlin's dunlinity; a knot's knottiness. It's a vibe thing. They can cast a glance at a linnet and know it's not a twite from the not-quite-twiteishness of its hop. They're super-humans, basically. Nerdy birders.

The derivation of the word jizz is unclear—in its birding context, I mean. Some claim it's a misspelt acronym, standing for ‘general impression of size and shape’. Others would have you believe it's a corruption of the German word gestalt. I'm calling guillemot-crap on both these hypotheses. To this creative etymologist, the word's derivation seems obvious. It's clearly a contraction of the phrase ‘it just is’, as in: “How the hell do you know that's a pochard?” “I don't know, it just is.” Just is… Jizz. So there you have it. Mystery solved.

Me, I'm no birder. I'm a mortal; an unabashed bird-watcher. But, even so, I find I've unconsciously begun to identify certain species by their general demeanour: the flitting and bobbing of the wheatear in the heather; the flopping flight of the swallow; the in-and-out feeder grab-raids of the coal tit. When you see a bird often enough, its jizz begins to rub off on you—if you'll pardon the expression.

Like in Anglesey last summer. As Jen and I stepped out of the caravan to head off for a walk along the coast, a small, otherwise nondescript bird flitted untidily out of the hedge at the side of the gate, spun round, and flew straight back into the hedge.

“Whitethroat,” I said.
“How do you know?” asked Jen.
“I don't know, it just is!”

I was right: it just was:

Whitethroat
Whitethroat.

Later that afternoon, having returned to the caravan from our walk, I decided to take a stroll down to the rocks. The wind had picked up. Experience shows that, when there's a strong onshore wind in Anglesey, there's a good chance of spotting some gannets out at sea. Gannets have a jizz all of their own: a combination of their wash-day whiteness, their distance from shore, and their high-soaring flight above the waves. You can tell they're gannets even before you train your binoculars on them, or see them dive spectacularly into the sea. Those dazzling white blobs are gannets all right. No doubt about it.

Sure enough, there they were: gannets. Just a handful of them, soaring high above the waves, way out at sea. I sat on my favourite rock, took out my flask of tea and my binoculars, and prepared myself for a pleasant session's gannet-watching.

The wind had grown even stronger. The sea was decidedly choppy. I watched the gannets for a good quarter-hour, but didn't see a single dive. Perhaps the sea was too rough to risk diving, or perhaps the fish they were after had swum deeper to avoid injury.

Then, as I followed a juvenile gannet sweeping down to check out an imaginary mackerel, I spotted something out of the edge of my binoculars. It was only for a split second, but I knew instantly what it was. It was a jizz thing. Even though I'd never seen one before, I knew I'd just caught a glimpse of a Manx shearwater.

All thoughts of gannets were immediately banished. Holy crap, a Manx shearwater! I began to sweep my binoculars back and forth above the waves, trying to relocate it. There it was—damn, gone again! And another—or was it the same one? Definitely two. Maybe three. No, more than three. Bloody hell, there were loads of them—and they were so bloody fast!

A bird's jizz, being, as I said, an ‘indefinable je me sais quoi’, is, by definition, impossible to describe. So how to go about describing the jizz of a Manx shearwater? Perhaps the following notes made in my notebook immediately after seeing these wonderful birds convey something of their essence:

Tue, 8 Sep 2015: …My first ever MANX SHEARWATERS. About a dozen of them. Stiff-winged, skimming just above waves—often disappearing behind them. Continually banking from side to side—white bellies then dark backs. Seemed to plough back & forth along same path—lined up one behind the other. Fantastic to watch… Reminded me of spitfires. Wonderful. Make flying in high winds seem effortless… Long, thin wings, rigid. They fly recklessly close to the waves, rising occasionally, losing speed, then down again, twisting constantly from side to side. I am smitten!

The shearwaters were much too far away to photograph, but I didn't let that stop me from trying:

Manx shearwater
Manx shearwater (it's there, trust me).

The blurry, heavily cropped image I later extracted from my long-distance shot will never win any prizes, but it was still one of my favourite photographs of the year:

Manx shearwater
Close-up, cropped from the same photo.

2015: a year in photos

My fifth annual video slideshow review of the year.

For the last few years, at this time of year, I've produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here's the 2015 video:

Consistent almost to a fault, as per the previous four years' slideshows, this year's slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Afghanman Style, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for my iPad's Garageband app!

See also: Previous years' video slideshows