19 May 2020

A pair of tawny owls calling to each other during the night, the kee-wik! of the female responded to by the hu-hu-hooo! of the male. Shakespeare got it wrong in Love’s Labour’s Lost when he said, ‘Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note…’. The calls come from two owls, not one.

Took a detour across the moors on the way home from the weekly shop to give the car a decent run. The battery-warning came on briefly the other day: I’ve not being doing enough lengthy journeys during the lockdown to keep it charged! Nearly ran over a brace of red-legged partridges scuttling across the road. The cotton grass was out in all its magnificence.

Cotton grass

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14 May 2020

The barn owl screeched from somewhere very nearby last night. Our Scots pine or cherry tree was my best guess. Wonderful to hear it so close. Jen thought it sounded like a dog yelping.

As I put the finishing touches to a chapter in the dining room this afternoon, a loud banging on the window. A greenfinch attacking its own reflection. Only a testosterone-pumped male would be that stupid. Male chaffinches carry on this malarkey all spring, but I’d thought greenfinches had a bit more common sense.

At dusk, I stood on the back lawn for half an hour in the hope of spotting the barn owl again. I did indeed, three fields away, twisting back and forth either side of the farm track. Seeing it from such a distance seemed even more special somehow: I was intruding less. The owl must have known I was watching it yesterday, but this evening it was just getting on with being an owl, oblivious to my distant presence.

Throughout the half-hour, a male blackbird sang from Ruth’s oak tree. It was the same one I’ve been hearing all week that likes to sing the opening bar from The Ride of the Valkyries.

Nazi blackbird

13 May 2020

As Jen re-opened the living-room curtains immediately after sunset, now we would no longer be blinded by the setting sun, she spotted the barn owl hunting in the field out front. I grabbed my camera and ran sock-footed across the lawn, fumbling with dim-light aperture-, shutter-, and ISO-settings as I went. Might today be the day I finally got some photos?

The owl was heading back up the field towards me. No time to confirm my settings, I fired away. It passed close by me, then doubled back and headed down the field once more, hunting back and forth along the edge of the bridleway. It then headed along the wall to the north, banking left into the next field.

Barn owl

I watched it swoop and hover in the distance, then drop. It was down on the ground for a good ten seconds before launching back into the air and making a bee-line for the hayloft above the mistal at the Farm. As it passed close by, I could clearly see the dead rodent in its right talon. A couple more hurried shots, and the magnificent apparition was gone.

Barn owl (with victim)

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12 May 2020

A second swift this morning, streaking silently on stiff wings. I guess that makes it official: They’re back!

Amy Liptrot tells me she thinks she saw an osprey from Heights Road this morning. I drove along there twice before 10am. As an Orcadian, she should know an osprey when she sees one, so I'd better keep my eyes peeled.

A spectacular evening light as the sun sank towards Heptonstall. I tore upstairs for my camera. As usual with these contre-jour shots, it took an awful lot of post-processing to arrive at the image my mind thought my eyes saw.


11 May 2020

As I’m ironing in the living room, two soft bangs in quick succession against the barn window. The unmistakeable sound of birds flying into glass. I rush over to see if there are any fatalities. Not yet…

Two male chaffinches are beating the shit out of each other. Really violent stuff: no pecks barred. Claws and feathers fly. One gains the upper hand—the _upper beak_—pinning his opponent to the ground, and stabbing mercilessly with his beak. The loser somehow breaks free and flies off through the shrubs, the victor still in hot pursuit.

Darwinian sexual selection in action on my very own patio.

Later, as I stand at the open patio door, admiring the view, taking a break from writing, a blur shoots past, loops around the still-flowering cherry tree, and soars up over the house, passing within three metres of me. My first swift of the summer! I punch the air. It’s like something out of a Ted Hughes poem.

10 May 2020

They say fortune favours the prepared mind. When I say ‘they’, I apparently mean Louis Pasteur (thanks, Google)—although he would presumably have said it in French. In a similar vein, I like to joke that, when you’re a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’, everything has a Darwin connection. So, when you’re a self-confessed Darwin groupie writing a book inspired by your hero, your mind should in theory be well and truly prepared for fortuitous inspirational happenstances.

It doesn’t quite work that way, of course. Writing books is hard. Especially non-fiction books, where you can’t just make the stuff up. But, in the last week, two signals blipped across my radar that turned out to be exactly the sort of inspiration my prepared mind was looking for.

I’d decided I needed to write a short chapter about instinct. Darwin dedicated an entire chapter to the same subject in On the Origin of Species. I realised I needed to write about a particular instinct, but had hit something of a brick wall trying to decide which one. Darwin wrote mainly about bees’ instincts to make honeycombs, but I had learnt my lesson and wanted to pick a less dangerous example. Then the following retweeted observation zipped by in my Twitter stream:

This was exactly the inspiration I was looking for: of course my chapter should be about the nesting instinct of birds! It was so obvious! Thank you Prof. Cobb! I don’t think we’d ever crossed paths before, but I’m certainly following you now!

Of course, what Pasteur really meant was we make our own luck. I’m into Darwin, so I also tend to follow a lot of ‘nature’ and ‘science’ people on social media. So it’s hardly surprising that, once in a while, I’ll encounter an inspirational tweet blending science and nature like this. This tweet wasn’t written for me, but it was certainly made for me.

The second piece of good fortune my prepared mind encountered this week came in the early hours of this morning. I’d been in a deep sleep, but was suddenly wide awake. I found myself mulling over the chapter I’d been struggling with about the genetics of bees’ eyes. I must have spent a good 15 minutes, heading off on tangential dead-ends, then looping back and heading off on another fruitless quest, before I had a sudden, startling realisation… I am not working on a chapter about the genetics of bees’ eyes—it was all a stupid dream!

Somehow, in my dream, I seem to have conflated my recent reading of Darwin on bees with a vague notion I’d had a long time ago to write about colour vision. And, as I mulled this over some more, I came up with a potential new angle for approaching the old, vague idea. An angle which has nothing whatsoever to do with bees.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this new angle really has legs, or will ever make it into my book, but my stupid dream has at least given my prepared mind something more to conjure with.

6 May 2020

Another early evening walk around the lanes. I took a nice photo of a meadow pipit perched on a shrubby twig. When I posted the photo on Facebook, an old friend who knows far more about birds than I could ever dream expressed envy at our having tree pipits in the area. This, of course, set me off on an hour’s research into how to distinguish tree pipits from meadow pipits. It’s all down to the stripes on the flanks and the length of the back claws, apparently.

The extreme difficulty in telling certain closely related species apart rather drums home the point Darwin repeatedly made that determining whether two organisms are from different but closely related species, or mere varieties of the same species, lends considerable support to his belief that varieties can sometimes eventually become species. Species are effectively varieties writ large.

Anyway, on more careful reflection, my friend and I eventually agreed my meadow pipit was indeed a plain old meadow pipit. Which is fine by me.

Meadow pipit
Definitely a meadow pipit

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