The experiment was all about crisps. Feist and her colleagues presented crisps in either blue or green packets to groups of herring gulls, and then sat down about 5 metres away. The observer then either just sat and watched, or pulled a packet of crisps out of their bag and started to eat them.
When the experimenter was eating crisps, the gulls approached the packets 49 percent of the time, compared to 19% when the observer was just sitting around. But when the observer was eating crisps(and this is the clincher for me), the birds pecked the packet which was the same colour as the one that the observer was eating from 95 percent of the time.
So, this appears to indicate that a) the food choices of this group of herring gulls can be influenced by what humans are eating and b) that it isn’t in this case just about the type of food, but that they even take the colour of the packaging into account, to make sure that they are eating ‘our’ food. I find this astonishing, and you can read the whole article here.
This increasing attunement to the way humans behave is probably coupled with the way that herring gulls have changed their habits, from being largely coastal to coming inland and feeding from landfill sites. They nest on flat roofs everywhere, and are often seen to be a menace, in spite of the fact that they are declining and are on the IUCNs Red List of endangered birds in the UK. We are fast becoming their main source of food, so no wonder they are paying more attention to the finest nuances of our behaviour. The effect of all that junk food on the gulls themselves would be interesting to monitor.
Incidentally, a 2019 study showed that gulls are much less likely to steal your chips if they think you are watching them – only 26 percent of a sample of gulls touched the food if they were being stared at, and they took 20 percent longer to approach than if the experimenter was busy doing something else. So if you don’t want to be ambushed and chipless, it pays to be diligent, as it does in most situations. I wonder if the rise of the smartphone could be correlated with the increased success of herring gulls stealing food? Now that would be an interesting study.
And here is one of my favourite short films, of a herring gull ‘puddling’ for worms and then announcing their presence with a most gratifying ‘long call’. Just look at that intelligent expression! These are extraordinary birds, well worth our attention.
Dear Readers, I spotted my first frogs in the pond several weeks ago, but since then we’ve had a cold snap, and everything has gone very quiet. Today, however, was mild, and it’s fair to say that amphibian season has well and truly kicked off. Have a look at the little film below.
Every year this feels like a little miracle to me. Frogs arrived within a week of our putting in the pond, goodness only knows where they’d been until then because I don’t know of any other neighbourhood ponds. Frogs are such mysterious animals – what do they get up to once they leave the pond? Where do they hang out? A few adults seem to linger on every year, but the concentrations that I see in the spring are soon gone, replaced by tadpoles and then tiny frogs. I know that lots hibernate at the bottom of the pond, but how about for the rest of the year? Anyhow, I know that they eat lots of slugs (at least in theory) so I’m very pleased to welcome them every year. There’s something about those hopeful faces that I find very endearing.
And if you look closely at the photo below (just to the right of the frog), you’ll see the first blob of frogspawn.
In other news, there are still plenty of squirrels. Look at this one, pretending to be a lion at a waterhole in the Serengeti…
If s/he was holding a baby in her arms I could almost hear ‘The Circle of Life’ playing in the background…
And finally, further to my wish list of birds yesterday, I just want to point out how much I appreciate my regular visitors. The starlings really are at the peak of plumage perfection at the moment, and it’s easy to forget how handsome they are. Look at the extraordinary range of colours on the back of this male bird. And to continue the Serengeti theme, does anyone else think that the knot in the trunk to the left looks like an elephant’s eye?
And how do I know that this bird is a male? Because the base of his beak is pale blue (in the females it’s pink-ish). Very handy that they are colour-coded, eh.
Male to the left (blue tinge to base of bill)
There didn’t seem to be any females about – maybe they’re already nesting and incubating? How exciting this time of year is. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Dear Readers, putting peanuts on the bird table was clearly not the best idea for the Big Garden Birdwatch this year: I have numerous very cute photos of grey squirrels (and one of a feral pigeon, a most unusual visitor) but none of the other birds could get a look in, though a very bold robin did have a go. Still, fortunately other feeders are available and so it wasn’t a complete washout. Clearly I’ll have to limit the seed and peanuts to the hanging feeders, which are a bit more of a challenge for the mammals.
So, we had a blackbird…
2 blue tits…
3 chaffinches (and at this point I feel like saying ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’, but I shall resist)…
1 collared dove (and no woodpigeons during the hour, probably too many squirrels…)
A dunnock, photographed through the back of a garden chair because s/he was very flighty and uncooperative…
Two very busy great tits, who I suspect are nesting nearby…
2 house sparrows, 2 magpies…
The magpies were in an altercation with the squirrels at one point – the birds seemed to be set on dismantling the remains of a drey in the whitebeam, probably for nesting material (it’s too early for baby squirrels), and the largest of the squirrels managed to drive them off.
Oh, and a robin…
and no less than fifteen starlings. At one point I thought that they might divebomb the squirrel, but those little dudes have very sharp teeth, so they thought better of it. There were so many of them that I thought I’d taken a photo, but this is the only one. Still, you get the general idea.
So, apart from the woodpigeon other no-shows were the goldfinches (where have they gone?), the ring-necked parakeets who’d popped in earlier, the blackcaps who are usually around, and the coal tit. But an hour isn’t very long in bird-time, and so I’m not unhappy – at least there’s something for the team at RSPB to punch into their computers. I shall be interested to see what effect, if any, the summer drought and the recent cold snaps have had on numbers. First winter survival is a key factor for the success of many garden birds.
Did you do the Big Garden Birdwatch? How did it turn out for you?
Dance on a patch of muddy ground to ‘bring up the worms’
Slide down a pitched roof, then flutter up to the top and slide down again, like a child in a playground.
Swoop over the shoulder of a two year-old and take the ball of ice cream out of the cone without a sound.
Feed their fluffy youngsters on the flat roof of Dorset County Hospital, where they nested as if it was a shingle beach.
Fight off all comers on a landfill site as they dive for the tastiest morsels
Sit on top of a pole at a popular beach in Jersey, waiting for the café owner with the water pistol to disappear before descending onto some abandoned chips
The sound of their wailing is really the sound of the seaside to me, although they are just as often found inland now – when I wake up in Dorchester, the first thing I hear are the gulls on the roofs behind, and they were a familiar reveille in Islington too.
Young herring gull (Larus argentatus)
From the amount of opprobrium that these birds get, you would think that they were a rapidly increasing pest, but in fact they are on the Red List for British Birds, as both their breeding and non-breeding populations are decreasing and have done so since the early 1970s when the first census was taken. Since then, numbers across the whole of the UK and Ireland have fallen by a half to two thirds.
The reasons for this are complex and varied. Herring gulls have, as noted above, often scavenged at landfill sites, but increasingly the organic material is used for biofuels, or buried immediately, reducing the availability of food. On the other hand, these sites are seen as harbourers of Clostridium botulinum, botulism to you and me – this can be fatal to anyone who ingests enough of it, including gulls. I remember that when I lived on the River Tay in Dundee, some tins of preserved meat were washed overboard from a ship, and they became contaminated with the botulinum bacteria – herring gulls were literally falling dead from the sky. Reductions in by-catch from fishing boats has also had an effect, and our old friend the mink can be a significant predator of chicks in some areas. No wonder the gulls are moving into urban areas, where there are plenty of messy people throwing their Kentucky Fried Chicken remains on the ground (although it’s fair to say that it’s a rare rubbish bin that is gull-proof, these being adaptable and intelligent birds). In spite of their Red List status, 16,000 gulls were culled as a ‘nuisance’ between 2013 and 2018. We clearly need to find a better way to live alongside these birds.
Herring gulls are not endangered in Europe as a whole, where they have a population of over 1 million and an extremely large range. Still, something is going on here in the UK which is not favourable to these big, beefy gulls, and what affects them is likely to affect other coastal birds who are less adaptable. And so, it’s something to be lamented. It would be yet another loss if their calls were not heard above our rooftops. They are the quintessential ‘seagull’, the backdrop to any number of radio programmes about the seaside, including Desert Island discs.
Am I the only one who finds that the hairs stand up on the back of their necks when they hear the herring gull’s ‘long call’ (recording by Irish Wildlife Sounds, made in Barleycove, County Cork, Ireland).
And this is the begging call of a juvenile – it is surprisingly high-pitched, and I’ve found myself turning round to identify the caller on more than one occasion, only to realise that it’s coming from a big bruiser of a young gull (recording also from Irish Wildlife Sounds)
And finally, here’s a story by Liz Humphreys, Principle Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). She is monitoring kittiwakes, but her task involved tiptoeing her way through a gull colony that included herring gulls. Here’s what she says in ‘Into the Red’ by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms.
“I’d give myself a second to brace myself for the welcoming committee and then step into the fury.
I would see the gull chicks fleeing in panic, diving into the vegetation and takin gcover behind rocks. Carefully picking my way through, I then noticed the speckled fluffy behinds of small gull chicks poling out from the plentiful rabbit – and sometimes puffin – burrows. I would pause, even in the mayhem, to marvel at this comical sight of leopard-skinned balls tucked away in the undergrowth. Clearly they were working on the principle that if they couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see them. Meanwhile the adults were alarming from the skies, getting increasingly agitated at my presence. ”
Herring gulls clearly just want to live their lives, which are so intertwined with ours. I remember staying at a chalet in Lochinver in Scotland. Clearly, one of the local gulls had been fed by previous visitors, because s/he would stand on the hand rail overlooking the kitchen and glare in, occasionally shuffling from foot to foot. We tried to ignore that pale-eyed stare, but in the morning, just at first light (which comes very early in Northern Scotland in June) there was a sharp rat-tat-tatting at the glass door. We woke with a start, and there was the gull, ready for breakfast. Eventually we came to an agreement – we would leave out something when we went to bed, and the gull would feed and then go off to pursue more appropriate avian pursuits. These birds should not be underestimated, and we will need to learn to live with them.
Herring gull chick in nest with egg, photo by John Haslam.
Dear Readers, the Pochard is one of those ducks that it’s easy to take for granted. With its dapper plumage of mahogany and smoke with ruby eyes it’s a handsome bird, but not one to elicit a sudden intake of breath. And yet this is a bird that has been wintering in large numbers in the UK since records began, and we also have a decent resident breeding population, especially in Northern Ireland, where the populations on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg number about 7000 pairs. Once committed, each pair of pochards sticks close together, the bespectacled female appearing to take things very seriously while the male gets on with the important business of looking as distinguished as possible. In the breeding season, however, all that decorum gets dropped completely. Listen to this group of displaying male pochards in the recording below. I’m sure that they’re saying ‘Yahoo!’ (recording by Jarek Matusiak and made in Poland). If you don’t love pochards before hearing this, I’m sure you will afterwards.
This is the rather less musical call of a female pochard taking off from a lake (recording made by Peter Boesman in Belgium)
And this is a female ‘growling’, though whether she’s telling the male in the background to come on or go away is anyone’s guess (recording by Simon Elliott in Northumberland). All the recordings are from Xeno Canto which is a whole world of wonders for anyone interested in animal sounds.
The word ‘pochard’ probably comes from the Norman French word for ‘poach’ (which is presumably what people often did) or ‘poke’ (which is probably a reference to the bird diving down and poking its bill into the mud to get the small invertebrates that form its food.
Female Pochard by Savithri Singh
Pochard (Photo by Dr Raju Kasambe)
Pochards were an important source of food in medieval times. It wasn’t an easy duck to catch however – they are wily, wary and fast on the wing once they get airborne. Good for them, I say – they have often here from the bitter winters of Eastern Europe and Russia, and they deserve to rest. This is all the more important as the bird is globally threatened, with its global population down from 2 to 2.5 million birds in 2016 to just over a million birds in 2021, a terrifying drop. As usual, there are many factors – pochards are quite specific about the habitats that suit them, and the number one reason for the decline appears to be the loss of suitable breeding sites in Eastern Europe, and the general problem of water pollution from agricultural run-off right across their range.
Like many ducks, pochards are eaten by mink, foxes, raccoon dogs and wild boar, who also trample and eat the eggs. It’s also reported that pochards might be suffering from the decline in black-headed gull nesting sites – ducks that nest alongside the gulls have bigger broods, probably because the two species can share warnings about approaching predators (and if a black-headed gull is worried you’ll definitely hear about it). It just goes to show how interwoven different species are, and how if one starts to have problems there are knock-on effects for everybody else.
In many places along their migration route, pochards are also hunted, often illegally, and this seems to affect breeding females and juveniles disproportionately. The increased use of water bodies for recreation (i.e. idiots on jet skis and in speedboats) doesn’t help. And finally, climate change is increasing the salinity of many of the places where pochard used to feed en route to their wintering or breeding grounds, making them unsuitable. All in all, these familiar and well-loved ducks are facing a whole barrage of challenges.
All this, I know, sounds extremely depressing. And it’s important not to get Pollyanna-ish about the way that things are going. But still, we have to believe that each of us matters, and that each of us can do something, and so we can. One organisation that I like very much that supports all manner of waterbirds is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, founded by Sir Peter Scott. It has some wonderful reserves all over the UK, including the original Wetlands Centre at Barnes in London which is still an amazing place to visit. And with Christmas coming up, maybe there’s something that would work as a present for someone.
Another organisation that is very close to my heart is, of course, the London Wildlife Trust, which manages Woodberry Wetlands, Walthamstow Wetlands and Camley Street Natural Park among many other sites (and I’ve seen pochard at both Woodberry and Walthamstow Wetlands). You can help them (or your local Wildlife Trust) out in a variety of ways, but for those of us who already feed the birds, it’s worth noting that the Wildlife Trusts benefit from any bird food that you buy from Vine House Farm, who grow a lot of the seeds etc on site, making it much more sustainable.
It’s going to be a hard winter, I know, and many of us will just about be getting by without any spare cash for charities, so over the course of this series I’ll be thinking about ways that we can help our beleaguered birds without having to spend any money. In the meantime, though, let’s see if we can’t get out for a walk to appreciate them as the days shorten and the nights draw in. Winter can be an exciting time to see birds, and in other news apparently there is a real shortage of berries in Scandinavia and a glut here, so keep your eyes peeled for waxwings, especially if you live in eastern Scotland or on the east coast. Fingers crossed!
Dear Readers, this lovely pigeon has been hanging around outside our local chemists in East Finchley for a month or so now, and has become something of a favourite with the shopkeepers and passersby. S/he has been named ‘Stephanie’ by one of the ladies who work in the hairdresser, and I suspect that quite a few people are offering food, which the bird accepts very graciously. S/he sits around with the other, more boring pigeons and watches the world go by with a placid demeanour.
I suspect that Stephanie is a Strasser pigeon, a ‘fancy’ variety which originated in Austria. It comes in several colourways, always with a white neck and body. I note that in some accounts, the bird is called a Moravian Strasser.
A Blue Strasser pigeon
A red Strasser pigeon
A yellow Strasser pigeon
Originally bred to produce squabs for meat, Strasser pigeons are rather less ‘fancy’ and eccentric than some of the other pigeon breeds, with their ruffs and feathery feet and other accoutrements. But what is Stephanie doing here? Surely she should be being cosseted on a velvet cushion somewhere. Strangely enough, she seems completely sanguine about her fate, and has developed an equanimity that I aim to emulate, what with us never knowing who is going to be Prime Minister from one day’s end to the next. I strongly suspect that if Stephanie stays long enough she’ll soon find herself behind the despatch box, opining on the size of the pie that we’re meant to be growing (though that could well be last week’s metaphor).Nonetheless, I never knew a pigeon that didn’t like a pie, so she wouldn’t be a bad choice.
In the meantime, if you know someone in North London (or further afield) who is missing a beloved Strasser pigeon, do drop me a line, though as East Finchley has definitely taken her to their hearts, they might have a job wresting her away.
Dear Readers, our 3.7 mile long walk today started at Stoke Newington Station. Typically we had decided to get there with a combination of bus (102), tube (Piccadilly Line to Wood Green) and bus (67 to Stoke Newington), which was a bit long-winded but gave us a chance to sit on the top deck and admire the splendid houses along the route. When we eventually arrived, our first stop was Cazenove Road, with its magnificent avenue of London plane trees, planted shortly after 1900. These giants make such a difference to the temperature – this was to be quite a hot, exposed walk, and in retrospect I should have bathed in this cool, shady spot for a bit longer. Alas, not all the plane trees have made it to 2022, and I did wonder how much they shaded the front gardens of the houses. A small price to pay for all this lush greenery I’d imagine.
This one didn’t make it, clearly….
This borderland between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is home to many different communities – members of the Orthodox Jewish community were walking home after prayers, there are lots of Turkish and Caribbean cafes and shops, and we passed a mosque which had been cleverly created from three of the terraced houses. It reminds me of how many people have made their homes in the capital, and how much they have enriched all of our lives.
We pass Jubilee Primary school, and I fell in love with the pavement art outside. The children’s drawings have been turned into plaques, along with their descriptions of what living in Hackney was like. This one says “When I’m in Hackney I hear birds tweeting like happy families”.
This one says (rather less optimistically’ “When I’m in Hackney I smell fumes flowing like fire in the air”.
And it looks as if the words of this youngster have been cut off, because all that remains is “When I’m in Hackney”, but I think I can identify a space theme going on, and it is 100% adorable as far as I’m concerned.
Further down Filey Avenue there is the most splendid lilac-blue hibiscus.
And then we turn left into Springfield Park, but before we do I am much taken by these flats. The towers (which I assume house a fire escape or other staircase) are most striking. I haven’t been able to find out anything about the estate, but with a pleasant view over Springfield Park I imagine that it’s a nice place to live.
By now we’ve been walking for oh, about twenty minutes and so our thoughts are turning to lunch. And what better place than Springfield Park? The park was originally the grounds of Springfield House (built in the 19th century) but it was taken over by London City Council in 1909. And if it’s a nice day, and you fancy sitting peacefully, watching the crows imitate that bit in ‘The Birds’ where they congregate before tearing chunks out of Tippi Hedren you could do much worse. I had the most splendid avocado, hummus and halloumi on ciabatta bread and considered myself very lucky.
View from the Springfield Park Cafe
Crows menacing the invertebrates in the grass.
Some very handsome Egyptian geese
Springfield Park also apparently has a community orchard, but I missed it – what a shame. It would have been interesting to compare it to Barnwood in East Finchley.
We walk down through the park, and discover that the geology of the area is actually rather special – it has been designated as one of Greater London’s Regionally Important Geological Sites (which makes me curious as to where the others are – I feel yet another blogpost coming on!) Apparently the park contains not only ‘Hackney Gravel’ deposited by the River Lea a quarter of a million years ago, but on top of this it has fine ‘brick earth’, a wind-blown loess known as rock flour. The two components together make the site perfect for making bricks, and these two components are laid on top of the more typical London clay that forms the basis of the geology of most of London. Roman sarcophagi and a Saxon boat were found during excavations in the park, and it’s thought that the lake is probably the result of gravel extraction over the years.
The view from the hill in Springfield Park
And then it’s downhill to the Lea/Lee Valley Navigation. This waterway used to mark the boundary between Essex and Middlesex, and now delineates the line between the London Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Hackney. The spelling of the name of the area has more or less settled down now, with ‘Lea’ referring to the river Lea and its natural manifestations, and ‘Lee’ referring to anything man-made. The river Lea itself runs for about 50 miles, from Luton to Bow Creek, and the Capital Ring follows it east for about three miles.
First up is the Springfield Marina. There are river boats moored along the whole length of the walk, some of them in fine fettle and some of them on what looks like the verge of disintegration. It’s also a walk that lacks shade, and I was very glad that I’d brought my Factor 50 suncream.
To start with, the path is broad, and we walk along the edge of Walthamstow Marshes, just slightly south of the Walthamstow Wetlands reserve that I visit on a regular basis. The ditch by the side of the path is full of bulrushes, purple loosestrife and other water plants, and I get a brief view of a reed bunting before it disappears back into cover.
Common Reed Bunting (Photo One)
I love that the skies are so big here. Also, the path is relatively wide, which means that the cyclists who zoom past have plenty of room. In the later part of the walk, the path is much narrower and encounters can be a bit more fraught.
There is a delightful pub on the other side of the river, but as my Capital Ring book points out, the little ferry that used to take you across ceased in the 1950s. Alas, for we have been walking now for forty minutes and surely we’re due another sit down?
The Anchor and Hope – so near, and yet so far.
There is, however, a railway viaduct which goes to Clapton and takes people off to Stansted Airport. Apparently an aviator, A.V.Roe, used to create his early airplane prototypes in the arches of the viaduct, and the marshes used to cushion his inevitable crash landings.
Looking along the river, we catch a glimpse of a family of swans and a lone oarsman. The swan on the right looks a wee bit defensive to me. In situations like this, my money is always on the swan, but we didn’t hear any splashing or screaming so presumably all was well.
Looking into the distance I noticed some cows. They were most uncooperative as far as getting a nice photo goes, but they have been reintroduced to the marshes to help with the habitat. We underestimate the role that grazing animals play in biodiversity, I think.
And at this point, the River Lea and the Lee Navigation separate for a while, and our way ahead is blocked by some building work on the new Ice Skating Centre, which will enable people to do their double axels and pirouettes all year round. We are leaving the wide open spaces next to Walthamstow Marshes, and are heading into something altogether more urban. But for that, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow….
Dear Readers, it will come as no surprise to regular followers that I love London – I was born and bred in this city, and yet even after 62 years my heart still races when I walk its streets. It’s the sudden and unexpected views that always get me, such as spotting the new Tate Modern extension appearing alongside the old power station tower as I turn a corner. Today I was even helped by one of the top-hatted concierges outside the Bankside Hilton, who pointed me in the direction of this unexpected view of the Shard. The Shard seems to have replaced the Post Office Tower as the building that pops up everywhere, though it looks rather like some evil triangular god peering over his realm and deciding what to blast with a thunderbolt next.
I am going to Tate Modern to see their ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ exhibition, which closes at the end of the week. Time was I tried to see everything at both Tate galleries, but now that I’m working it’s a bit trickier. I will write more about the exhibition tomorrow, as I think it deserves a post of its own, but to be honest it was a treat just to catch a tube ‘south of the river’, wander around with the camera and then catch the 17 bus back to Archway.
I have gotten a bit ahead of myself, though, because I arrived at Southwark station on the Jubilee line, which is up there with my favourite stations. It always reminds me of a cruise ship, for some reason (though I have never been on a cruise ship so who knows?)
It’s certainly got that brutal concrete thing going on, but I love it nonetheless. The blue glass wall shown below was apparently influenced by the work of 19th century Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and I can certainly see where the idea might have come from. When you take the escalator up from the platforms you are suddenly surrounded by this amazing blue dome, as if you have ascended into some kind of transport heaven.
Schinkel’s stage set for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1815) (Public Domain)
Anyhow, back to Tate Modern. I was a bit alarmed to see that there’s some renovation going on at the top of the power station tower.
Apart from the fact that the structure looks a bit on the flimsy side, my additional worry was for the peregrine falcons who have nested here for many years. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds used to have telescopes outside so that you could watch the birds, and they were famous for hunting at night because of the floodlights on the building. Many a local pigeon met a spectacular end at the talons of the birds, but sadly this renovation, which has taken more time than expected and more money than budgeted, has rendered the birds homeless. There are at least twenty pairs of peregrines in London, and apparently the Tate Modern birds had a quick look at St Pauls as an alternative home, but decided it didn’t quite meet their demanding criteria. I hope they found somewhere else to raise their young.
After the exhibition I took a leisurely walk back over the Millenium Bridge, which always provides plenty of photo opportunities…
A whole range of skyscrapers….
View towards the Globe Theatre with pigeons who are delighted that the peregrines have moved on….
The Shard glowering under a storm cloud….
A contented gull….
Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge
And then I catch a number 17 bus almost immediately, which is a minor miracle as I usually have to wait for at least twenty minutes. Clearly, the Bus Fairy must be keeping an eye on me.
On arrival in Archway, I saw this.
It’s an old-fashioned phone box, and someone has planted it with a jasmine which is doing very nicely, thank you! It did cheer me up. Someone is obviously taking the time to water it and look after it.
And finally, here’s a random cat, sitting in a sunny spot on the High Road and refusing to respond to my entreaties. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been hearing the wheezy calls of young starlings as they chase their parents around the garden begging for food. There doesn’t seem to have been the enormous influx that there has been in past years, when I’ve been worried that the neighbours will complain about the racket, but numbers seem to be growing steadily day by day. As these wide-eyed innocents gaze around, wondering why all the other birds have flown away and failing to notice a creeping a cat, I feel a particular kinship with them as I, too, am starting to venture out after two years of lockdowns and being careful.
Today, for example, I am off to the theatre to see ‘Straight Line Crazy’ at the Bridge Theatre. It’s about Robert Moses, the man who tried to redesign New York, and the lead role is played by Ralph Fiennes, so it should be good. You can have a look at the link below.
But I find myself a bit anxious. After so long avoiding crowds, I’m going to be in the middle of one, for two hours and fifty minutes. I don’t think it’s so much about Covid (after all, I’m triple-vaxxed and have actually had the disease) as it is about social contact. I feel as if my world has shrunk over the past few years, and to ratchet it open is actually a little painful, like going back to the gym after a long break. My trip to Canada helped, but somehow getting back to ‘normal’ at home feels more difficult.
Still, I am a great believer in not letting our worlds become smaller if we don’t have to. It feels like finding a balance at the moment. I am still wearing a mask on public transport, and will do so in the theatre, as much to protect others as to protect myself. I do think that the current wave of covid has whistled through the UK, but I also think that there are new variants waiting in the wings. I do intend to get back into the world, but I also want to be prudent. I would love to hear what’s happening where you live, and how you’re negotiating any return to the new normal. In the UK I have the distinct feeling that the pandemic has been declared over and we are all just trying to work out what the best thing to do is, which will vary widely according to circumstances.
On a more personal level, we have a weeks’ worth of Away Days coming up shortly. This will involve actually meeting people in person, and I fear that my social skills will have atrophied while I’ve been happily interacting on Zoom. There are people in my wider team that I’ve never met in the flesh, and the thought of discussing work-related stuff with them for the best part of three days is frankly a bit overwhelming. And being an introvert, the thought of ‘fun’ activities fills me with horror. It’s not that I don’t like being with people, it’s just that with lots of folk all having Fun I often feel like the odd one out – I’m much better getting to know a small number of people well. I crave meaningful connection, and I find that hard to achieve in a big group. But I am trying to have an open mind, and to not let my anxiety get in the way. I intend to take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. I imagine there will be things that are enjoyable and stimulating, and things that are rather less so, but at the very least I will learn about my colleagues and about myself, and that’s no bad thing. Is anybody else negotiating a return to face-to-face activities? How are you doing? Is it fun, or do you want to crawl back to bed and pull the covers over your head? Or, like the young starlings, are you emerging happily back into the light?
Dear Readers, as you might imagine I have been pretty swamped with work since getting back from Canada, but it was such a beautiful day today that I actually managed to pop out to see what was happening in the garden. First up, I noticed that some of the candelabra primulas that we planted last year have actually survived, and are coming into flower – these are orange and yellow, but we have some purple ones for later in the year. The patch at the top end of the pond is often a bit bleak at this time of year, before everything else gets going, so it was lovely to see them. We have put in supports for the hemp agrimony this year, so hopefully they won’t be overwhelmed before they’ve finished for the year.And then, I was having a cup of tea when I thought I heard the sound of baby birds. The blue tits have been all over the hawthorn this year gathering caterpillars, and then one of them shot past me and headed for the nest box that we put up on the balustrade of our loft.
And here’s a shot of his or her tail disappearing into the nest. I am so excited! We will keep the curtains on the room drawn so that we don’t disturb them. I feel like a proud surrogate parent.
I am hoping that at some point the climbing hydrangea will reach the balustrade, it would provide some extra cover and hiding places. I reckon about another two years at the rate it’s growing. Believe it or not, we cut it back level with the ground floor window (above the green door) in January 2020.
And then, finally, after looking for them for the past year, I saw a red kite in the sky over East Finchley.
At one time, these birds were so valued as scavengers that to kill one was a capital crime. But over time, with habitat destruction, cleaner streets, less carrion about and the rise of egg-collecting as a hobby, the bird became extremely rare, retreating from its range across the whole of the UK to a few sites in Wales, where it was never able to raise enough chicks to expand.
By the 1930s there were only 30 birds in the whole of the UK, all derived from one female bird. It was decided to bring in birds from Sweden and Germany to improve genetic diversity, and the birds were released in various sites around the UK. This was so successful that there are now an estimated 10,000 birds, and their range is increasing every year. They are the most elegant of birds, with their forked tails and narrow wings, and it was a real joy to see one so close to home. The main risks now to the birds are poisoning from rodenticides used to kill rats (this also kills many other birds of prey and mammals, including domestic dogs and cats). They also have a habit of colliding with power cables. Still, this is a real success story, and we could all do with one of them!