Monday, 2 March 2009

Stop. Look. Listen.

Those words are SO important when it comes to studying the natural world around you. How often do we find ourselves running from one chore to the next, wishing that we had time to relax, sit down or fulfil those magic words "do nothing" - which sadly are rarely guilt-free moments . . .

I am as guilty as the next person, in my ticking off the jobs from the mental list, but at the weekend I stood with a cup of tea and just watched the birds at the nut nets, and I mean REALLY watched. Normally I am just counting off species. We have Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, House and Hedge Sparrows, a Greenfinch, a Nuthatch, a pair of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers and even a starling last week which regularly use the nut nets. On the ground beneath, pecking at bits there are Chaffinches, Robins and the Sparrow overflow. I was delighted to see a pair of Bullfinches in my Damson tree last week, but fortunately for the tree, there weren't any buds to tempt them. They were once the bane of the Head Gardener's life, as he tried to save his blossom from them.

Really STUDYING nature is another thing. Watch the pecking order on the nut nets. See where the queue of birds waits until there is an opening. Notice that they will use a nearby water source to drink from - my birds like the nature pond, which has overgrown edges and they can utilize a twig or stem bending into the water to perch on (a good reason NOT to be too tidy in the garden.) Note which other areas of the garden they use a lot, which trees they hunt for insects on. Where do they roost at night? Listen to their song and learn to recognize which bird is paired with which song. At this time of the year in particular, see them choosing mates, checking out potential nest sites. Notice the squabbles , the territorial fights (Robins are particularly fierce!) whilst Blackbirds tend to just edge their way out of the territory of another bird. I watched 3 cock birds one day who had all alighted in one tree. The bird whose territory it was pursued the other two, who kept moving further and further along their respective branches until they had to fly away or fall off the end!

In the terrible cold spell we had in January, I was out at dusk (or dimpsey as I call it - a lovely Devon word which my father used). I noticed several wrens congregating first in an apple tree, and then gripping the side of the house wall, and on the guttering, and then one by one they would disappear behind the barge board. If one was out of turn, it was promptly thrown out again, and another bird took its rightful place. About 8 or 9 wrens coopied up together to stay alive through that bitter night. The same thing happened at the other end of the house, much to my amazement and delight. Troglodytes indeed!

A pair of Blue Tits on one of the nut nets. Distinguishable from Great Tits because they are smaller with blue heads and a little strip of blue on their chests. Great Tits have black heads, and a manly black stripe on their chest. In the past their family were known as "titmice".

Two photos of "Woody" who comes regularly to the net, sometimes bringing his partner. They always fly off over the yard, to the woodland beyond. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is a shy bird and you will not see that on nut nets. "Woody" has a buff coloured chest and the most splendid scarlet rump.

The Nuthatch, upside down as always. He is a bully boy and the other birds clear off the minute he hoves into view! Please forgive the poor quality of the pictures, which were taken through the kitchen window . . .

We have plenty of frogspawn in the nature pond again. We dug it specially to have a shallow shelf for wildlife to use. At the beginning of the week, we had two patches of frogspawn. Now we have about a dozen and what was laid laid night, despite my topping the water level up a bit, was slightly out of the water and the hard frost last night froze the pond a little, so it may not survive. We shall see. The earlier frogspawn has sunk to the bottom of the little ledge, and is dusty looking from the silt which has been stirred up by frogs hurtling for cover when they hear footsteps (feel them rather) or hear a door bang shut. If you go out after darkness, you can hear them croaking - it sounds like the African savannah! Creep up with a torch and you will see them until, disgruntled, they make for cover again. Ours are really WILD and don't care to be seen if they can help it. I spotted a Common Newt the other day, and they will be mating around now and laying their eggs also. We often have them in the house when they are first leaving the pond, and they march resolutely under the gap beneath the front door and die of dessication in the inner reaches of the house - carpets and walking boots not being good habitats for them!

Go out into your garden. Shut your eyes, and listen, really LISTEN. Even in a town garden you will be amazed at how many birds you can hear, and perhaps realize how much you screen out without realizing it . . .


  1. I am from the US, so different birds and wildlife - but everything you say rings true. I think sometimes by naming or listing things we fail to really "see" them - we just notice the attributes that allow us to make an identification, and then move on. I very much enjoy your blog, and particularly liked this post - your observations, and comments on noticing, really get to the heart of the matter.

  2. We are blessed who learned early in life to notice and delight in the changes of the seasons and presence of birds, animals, plants that each season brings. I have wondered if we have this gift because an elder has been a quiet influence from childhood or if some people are just more aware of their surroundings? I have known many who after a long car trip state that "yes, we passed fields of flowers"--then there are the others who ask the driver [husband!] to pull over so that the plants can be viewed up close, maybe a sample picked and compared to the glossy plates in the ever ready book of wildflowers. We return from road trips with drying plant sprigs falling from the pages of the atlas and gritty rocks rolling about under foot.

  3. Sharon - I was an only child, which is probably why I paid a lot of attention to the natural world. Even now, I just love to have a drive out somewhere, so I can see what is growing, and how the countryside looks - though it's easier done when I'm not the driver! I am a "stop and look" person - even more so now I have my camera. My middle daughter phoned to see if I had got home last year after leaving her up at Uni, but when I wasn't, said I was probably stopped with the camera on the way! (And I was!)

    Kate - thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you like my blog(s). I have always liked writing, so think I bring a writer's cute observation to people and places.

  4. I always make a point of listening to the birds - I just wish I recognized them from their songs and calls. I know a lot of birds by sight but very, very few just from hearing them. Magpie, Jay, Heron and Song Thrush would about cover it I think. I have some tapes of birdsong - must dig them out and try and improve.