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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-spotter. 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:
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:
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:
Storm Clodagh is clobbaghing the side of our house as I type these words. Water is seeping through our newly plastered living room walls. The wind is howling down the chimney like a cliché possessed. As adventurous as ever, Jen and I have already agreed we're going nowhere today.
Whenever it rains heavily around here, our driveway becomes a stream. A spring emerges between the brick cobbles outside the garage. An elderly neighbour tells us there's an old well buried somewhere beneath our back lawn, but I suspect our temporary spring is caused by a broken drainage pipe. Water fairly gushes out of the ground, undermining the surrounding brickwork, sending water and sediment flowing down the drive.
As the stream leaves the drive, it turns right, downhill, towards Hebden Bridge. If the grid outside the gate is blocked by leaves, as it often is at this time of year, the water can end up flowing all the way down the hill into Hebden Bridge town centre—sometimes spectacularly so. But, as we returned home from a walk earlier in the week, Jen had the presence of mind to clear away some of the leaves from the grid. Miraculously, it hasn't backed-up yet, so our stream currently disappears back underground as soon as it leaves the drive.
I have no idea where the local road-drains jettison their loads, but they must surely end up in the River Calder way down in the valley below. From there, the water will head east, through Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge, where the Calder becomes the Calder and Hebble Navigation. This eventually feeds into the River Aire near Castleford, which joins the River Ouse at Airmyn, which goes on to join the Trent near Faxfleet, thereby forming the Humber Estuary, whose collected waters flow out under the Humber Bridge into the North Sea.
Which I guess makes the spring in our driveway a previously unknown source of the mighty Humber.
Our driveway stream isn't marked on any maps. Indeed, it didn't exist when we moved here. Jen and I first discovered it after a major downpour a few years back. Which means, I suppose, we get to name it. I'm sorely tempted to call it the River Carter, but that might sound immodest. So why not name it after our house? Nell Carr Beck has a certain ring to it, I reckon.
I'm currently about one-fifth of my way through David Wootton's monumental new book, The Invention of Science: a new history of the Scientific Revolution. I'm enjoying it very much indeed. Wootton sees the invention of modern science as something that unfolded between 1572 (marked by Tycho Brahe's observation of a nova in the constellation of Cassiopeia) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton published his book Opticks). So, basically, we're talking about the seventeenth century, which sounds about right to this non-expert.
In a couple of places in the early chapters, Wootton mentions that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gunpowder, printing, and the nautical compass were generally seen as the three modern inventions that best demonstrated how latterday ingenuity had surpassed that of the ancients. This assertion suddenly revived an ancient memory from deep in my own past. It involved my first attempt at writing about the history of science, and an early lesson in how to make your writing more interesting.
Back in 1982, like many of the other boys at my school, I was encouraged to apply for the Oxbridge entrance examinations. My classmates and I were all studying Maths, Further Maths, and Physics for our ‘A’ levels. Someone on the school staff must have realised that a bunch of science nerds like us might be a bit rusty when it came to stringing entire sentences together in the form of exam essays. So one of the school's English teachers was deployed to give us occasional writing assignments, to try to blow out some of the dust and cobwebs from the abandoned literary sections of our brains.
One of our essay assignments—taken from a past Oxbridge entrance exam paper, if memory serves—was worded something along the lines of the following (I doubtless misquote, after 33 years):
Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon described printing, gunpowder, and the magnet (i.e. the nautical compass) as the three inventions that had most altered the modern world. If Bacon were writing today, how might his choice of inventions be different?
Quite an good question to set a science student with a developing outside-school interest in the history of science. So I rattled off my essay, more than partially inspired, I wouldn't be at all surprised to recall, by my avid reading of Joseph Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and James Burke's Connections. I then no doubt got on with the far more pressing matter of my latest calculus homework.
When my essay was returned a few days later, the English teacher had entered an embarrassing number of ✗s in the margin, and had scrawled C- and SEE ME across the bottom. This was unheard of for me. Although I was studying science for my ‘A’ levels, before I chose to specialise, I had, without any false modesty, been a pretty good all-rounder. I could knock out a simple essay, no problem. Not wishing to boast, but Richard Carter didn't get C-minuses—and he certainly didn't get SEE MEs.
So, I went, as instructed, to see the teacher. He was very nice about it, explaining that he knew I was intelligent, and that I could write, so what on earth had gone wrong? I had, he said, totally misinterpreted the question.
I must have looked baffled. So the teacher explained that I was supposed to have written about important inventions that had taken place since Francis Bacon's time, but, instead, I had written, in some cases, about stuff that had been invented way before Bacon had even been born!
The penny then dropped. I explained that I had thought the question meant, if Francis Bacon had been writing today with our modern knowledge of human history, how might his choices of world-altering inventions have been different? So, whereas I had agreed with Bacon when it came to printing, and half-endorsed his choice of the magnet (for non-navigational reasons, citing the electric generator, which involves magnets, as a world-altering invention), my essay's main contention was that perhaps mankind's most important invention was our first invention: our first primitive tool, whatever it might have been. It was the invention of invention itself that made us into what we are, and the modern world into what it is. I think I must have had the flung bone turning into a spaceship in 2001: a Space Odyssey more than a little in mind when I wrote my essay.
It was now the English teacher's turn to look baffled. He grabbed my essay back from me, re-read the question at the top of the page, and exclaimed something of the lines of: “Bloody hell! You're right! The question can be interpreted in two totally different ways!” To his eternal credit, he then began to re-read my essay, nodding at times, adding occasional ticks, and even muttering, “Good! Good!” more than once. Having finished, he cleverly amended the C- to an A-, congratulated me for having identified an interesting slant to the question, and told me never to darken the door of his study again.
In all honesty, I think I did misinterpret the question. Even though the question was open to multiple interpretations, the more usual interpretation—the intended interpretation; the one that all the other students in my class had understood—hadn't even occurred to me. But the experience did at least teach me that coming up with an unusual slant to a particular topic can make your writing stand out from the crowd.
If only I could remember that lesson once in a while.
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