Late September

This week the local farmer has ploughed the fields, bringing worms to the surface. Among the flocks of herring gulls and corvids that have come in to feast are two buzzards picking about near the fence by the path, also taking advantage of the easy food source. They look gangly and ragged, so perhaps they are juveniles still growing their adult feathers, maybe even siblings from the same clutch, or else they may be adults in the midst of their yearly moult. They are skittish though, and launch into the sky as I approach, using the wind to hover steadily over the field waiting to land again once I’ve passed.

Further along I catch sight of a large blue and black dragonfly, warming itself on a sunny patch of soil. What is noticeable as I walk is the absence of songbirds, now that many of the summer warblers have fled to spend the winter somewhere milder. Even the resident birds seem hard to find, except for the occasions that I catch sight of a sizeable cloud composed entirely of twittering goldfinches that seems to be a regular feature of autumn here, alongside starlings which line the rooftops – the construction work surrounding the fields has intensified and perhaps the more solitary birds have decided it’s hard to get any peace in the nearby thickets and moved to other roost sites.

On the quiet branches hangs a good crop of hawthorn berries, sloes and rosehips, waiting bright and plump to nourish the winter migrants that will soon move in to replace the summer crowd. Blackberries grow too on bramble borders, but appear decidedly small and shrivelled; perhaps people have already picked the best ones for themselves, but hopefully the wildlife will be able to poke their beaks and claws in to reach those hidden deep between the thorns that human fingers can’t steal.

Opposition

It’s evening, not long after dark, when I glance out of the kitchen window and take in the clear skies above, where I can see some stars faintly twinkling. But one object in the sky makes me pause and take a longer look; it is brighter than the rest, standing out despite the reflections of the lights in the room against the windows. It doesn’t twinkle but appears to be a solid yellow orb. I find my binoculars so I can see in more detail, and realise it must be a planet. A quick internet search tells me that the position and time of year generally would mean I am looking at Jupiter, and I’m interested to read that its moons can sometimes be seen as well. Knowing what might help with this, I leave the room again, returning with a dusty telescope that I bought for watching seabirds but which hasn’t seen the light of day for a while. It takes a few moments to find the right position but then I locate it again and there they are: four faint specks creating a straight line that bisects the planet. I would never have expected to be able to see that amount of detail through a cheap spotting scope. Afterwards I read that Jupiter is in extraordinarily close opposition to the Earth this year. This is probably an event that many people will have planned to see, yet it was only happenstance that I stumbled upon it, but it’s clear that its closeness to the Earth was the reason it caught my eye. As there are no more clear nights forecast for several days, including the point at which it is at its closest, this chance occasion might just have given me the best view I’m going to get.

Osprey display

Waking up fresher this morning, I felt spurred on to return to the river to attempt another osprey sighting. The conditions were similar to yesterday, beginning cool and clear, but warming up by mid-morning to a comfortable 16 degrees by the time I headed out. Along the path, I passed a man coming the other way holding binoculars, who told me the bird I was after had already been and gone, but positively it meant that it was still present in the area and hadn’t resumed its migration, so I pressed on, coming to stop at the pool by the side of the river where other birders were staked out with scopes and cameras. At first all seemed quiet, a day like any other, but a moment later we glimpsed something large fly quickly into a tree overlooking the water, the branches dipping as it landed. It was impossible to see through the leaves, but I kept focused on the spot where it had disappeared. What soon emerged through the branches to give itself a better view of the pond was, indeed, the osprey.

Osprey

It remained perched for a while, peering about and bobbing its head from side to side, sussing out its environment through piercing yellow eyes. It then spread its immense wings and launched into the air, flew once across the retreating tidal river and back around towards the pond, where it landed higher up in the same tree. A few minutes later, it dived towards the water’s surface, but heaved itself back up empty-taloned and went to perch on a dead tree stump.

Osprey perched on a dead tree with grass and trees in the background

As it rested, I had a closer look at the rest of its surroundings, and noticed a kingfisher zip from one end of the pond to the other side, but it was too speedy to capture on camera, appearing as a flash of orange and blue. Then a shrill call above made me look up, to see three buzzards rising from the woodlands in the background – one stayed to circle several times over the river, but my eyes were quickly back on the osprey. It had decided to resume its perch on its favourite, taller tree, from which it threw itself back down towards the water. A flock of greenshanks took to the air, startled as the hawk made a beeline for them, but it skimmed over them, heading towards the far end of the pond. Its talons widened as it approached the water and it seemed to scoop something from within. Then, preferring to eat its breakfast somewhere away from its enraptured human audience, it took a sharp turn towards a bend in the river and disappeared out of sight.

Greenshanks startled by osprey (top left)

Rivers and reservoirs

The past few days I’ve swapped visiting the sea to making a habit of checking out inland expanses of water more than usual, in search of one species in particular, though it can be quite elusive. It’s osprey migration season and there have been quite a few local sightings.

First, I try a reservoir. It’s a tranquil weekday, and although it’s a popular angling site, making it promising territory for ospreys, hardly anyone is about – I’m glad of this, as the access roads are horribly tiny, giving me no idea where I would go if I met another driver or a horse around any of the bends. There is a hide at the site, giving a sheltered view down to the far end, where gulls bob on the water. In the sky, a lone black-backed gull can be easy to mistake for an osprey with their long wings and similar colouring, but, squinting through binoculars, I’m pretty sure they are all just gulls, though the unkempt trees waving around in front of the hide don’t make it easy to keep focused on one target. Closer to me, great crested grebes duck in and out of the water; a juvenile nags its parent with repeated squeaky calls. A group of tufted ducks paddles in a handsome line across the water towards the hide.

Four ducks with black heads and backs, yellow eyes and grey flanks, swim in a line in some water
Tufted ducks

Back out in the sunshine, bronze-coloured darter dragonflies buzz around the reeds that spring up at the shores of the lake. I wander onto the top of the dam at the end of the reservoir, peering out across its whole expanse, until I decide nothing else is going to show up and it’s time to leave.

My next opportunity comes early this morning. I’m in Truro city, where I need to run a few personal errands, so I combine my visit with a trip to the river. The air today is unexpectedly cold, with a heavy dew that is nearly a frost on the grass, the low sun having little effect on the temperature as yet – it’s the first time this side of summer I can see my breath and feel as though I should be wearing gloves. Mist rises where the surface of the river meets the chilly air, as groups of mallards cross the clear sky above in messy V shapes. In the estuary, a lone black-tailed godwit picks around near the closest bank; at the far side, a group of noisy black-headed gulls mingles with more reserved redshanks; and in the channel between the two banks, a cormorant dives in and out of the murky water, foraging for fish. I drive slightly further to another tributary of the river, and there are plenty of egrets, greenshank and curlews to see, though all seem rather subdued and sluggish in the morning’s coolness. Still no ospreys. It seems luck hasn’t been on my side as yet, though other birders have recorded a few sightings at the sites I’ve visited, so it’ll definitely be worth a few more tries if I get the time, but by October, they will almost certainly be well on their way to their southern wintering grounds.

Left: a medium sized red-orange dragonfly sits on a boardwalk; right: a medium-large grey-brown wading bird with long straight pink and grey bill stands in shallow water
Common darter; black-tailed godwit

Nature moves in

This afternoon I looked out in the garden to see my dogs suspiciously eyeing and poking something on the ground. Thinking it might be a wasp or something else that could hurt them, I hurried out to see, and found the object of their interest was a huge elephant hawk moth caterpillar. I took the dogs away from it, but it was unharmed and crawled away into some overgrown bracken. Later, searching in the same area revealed three more,. An adult moth must have laid a clutch of eggs that had recently hatched. The caterpillars seemed to be enjoying the leaf piles under the bushes, and with them were other smaller species of caterpillar. Meanwhile in the flowerbeds, between our planted fuchsias, acer shrub and azaleas, weeds have sprung up over the summer, including willowherb – a food source of the elephant hawk moth. These features of the garden – the unkempt weeds and leaf piles – are what had both encouraged these visitors, and helped them to thrive. It highlights how important it is to leave spaces for nature, and that means not landscaping things too closely, letting things grow where there are gaps to create shade, food and habitats. As the insects in the young garden diversify, then too will the birds. The greater the variety of creatures, the more they can help to spread pollen and seeds and play their roles in balancing the environment of the garden, creating something of an ecosystem that helps contribute to the health of our planet. That might sound a grand statement, but given the extent of back gardens in the UK and the world, there is real opportunity to do good by creating more spaces for nature, even in the smallest ways.

A large grey-brown caterpillar with mottled black markings resembling snakeskin with some larger black and cream spots and stripes, curled on a dry brown leaf
Elephant hawk moth caterpillar

River birds

Wide shot of a river with grassy and muddy banks and a sandbank in the middle, on which three people on ponies are stood surrounded by gulls. The hill on the far side of the river is covered in houses. The sky is overcast with dense grey cloud.
The Gannel river

All day today, sheets of squally rain have washed away the last of summer, but in a rare break in the showers, I don a waterproof and venture out to the Gannel river estuary – this time of year is perfect for birding, with migrants passing through in large numbers, including wading birds and, if I’m lucky, ospreys. It’s getting towards low tide so the water that drenches the footbridges daily has receded and the paths are passable, though always muddy. As I head from the road towards the river, three people on ponies have the same idea, wading them through the shallow, meandering water. Aside from them, the area is quiet, the bustling summer crowds having now dispersed. My first wildlife sighting is of a dazzling white little egret, picking around in the weeds on the shore. Further along, a small bird darts out in front of me and lands on a mound of mud not far from the path – the grey wagtail’s name is misleading, as much of its plumage is actually a vibrant and attractive shade of yellow. It is keeping still and staring at my warily, though it’s not exactly the most adept at camouflage and would be better off undercover in the presence of something that did want to snack on it; I move on quickly so it can return to what it probably wants to do: seeking out insects.

As the ponies continue their path downstream, a couple of curlews and oystercatchers scatter out of the way of their hooves. Then I spot a larger flock of smaller waders on a distant sandbank, but an off-lead dog barrels right through them, sending them up into a cloud of pointed wings that relocates them further back, closer to the opposite shore. I want to take a closer look at them, and head across a footbridge to where some sailing boats are moored. Peering between them, I get a better sight of the flock, which is made up of ringed plovers and what are most likely dunlins, but it’s not hard to mix up waders. The birds dabble about in the water and silt, looking for morsels to eat. By the time I’ve finished watching them I’m nearly back where I started, and the rain has begun to fall more heavily, so it seems a good time to retreat and leave them to it.

Left: Small bird with grey head and wings, and yellow breast, and a long tail, standing in mud with wetland plants behind; Middle: Small wading bird with grey plumage, white belly and black and white rings around its neck and a black 'eyemask', with a short bill and stocky legs, standing next to some water; Right: Slender brown wader with white underparts with a long black bill and long legs, standing in water
Grey wagtail; ringed plover; dunlin

2nd September 2022

It’s early morning on the near empty beach; the pastel coloured sky and gentle, flat waves cultivate a soothing feel. From the coast path, I catch sight of large groups of turnstones, oystercatchers and gulls on the rocks that jut out into the water, while rock pipits flit around on cliff edges, peeping warily when people and dogs stray a little too close to them, without being scared enough to take off entirely. A little green-brown bird draws my eye for a moment as it lands on a plant nearby; it could be a chiffchaff, or it might be a migrating willow warbler, stopping here on its way back to its southern home – without hearing it sing, it’s hard to identify which it is, and it moves on quickly. Around the other side of the cliffs near the car park, overlooking the bay where a fishing boat bobs gently in the calm water, a large flock of starlings is milling about, pecking at the ground which has now been softened by the recent showers. From back inside the car, I watch as something startles them and they take off en masse, filling the air all around and even through the enclosed glass I can hear their frantic wingbeats as they flutter over and touch down one by one until they cover the the small section of cliff in front of me. From a fence post, a haughty-looking raven seems to watch them idly.

New visitors

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed some wild visitors to my street that I haven’t seen here before. Walking along a side road just around the corner from home one afternoon, I passed a spindly young pear tree pinned against a garden wall, the nearly-ripe fruits hanging from its branches catching my eye. But as I looked at the tree, I realised a furry face was staring back at me. A squirrel had managed to hide itself within the sparse branches, with only the tufts of bushy green leaves keeping it concealed from view. It was frozen in place, waiting for the potential threat to pass, but a moment later lost its nerve and leapt from the tree, hopping up and over the wall behind. Although grey squirrels are not an uncommon sight, around here there are few tall trees to provide cover, the local gardens mostly containing only small shrubs and flowerbeds, so it was a mystery where the visitor had come from and how it was going to get back there unnoticed by predators. It was just as well the squirrel was not present this morning, when glancing up at a rooftop I caught sight of a figure sitting there, resembling the types of statues that would normally adorn an old gothic house, and then considered it might be one of those plastic pigeon scarers shaped like a hawk, painted grey with narrow barring down its chest and yellow feet. This one was being dive-bombed by small birds bellowing alarm calls; then it took off, swooping across the road and over garden fences, confirming it was the real thing rather than an imitation – a sparrowhawk, another new sighting for my street.

Our final new visitor now drops by the garden every evening, when the white buddleia gives off the strong scent of nectar – though this attracts many insects, this one can at first appear deceptive. It hovers an inch from the bouquets at the end of each branch, orange wings beating rapidly to keep it afloat, as it pokes its long proboscis into the cups of the flowers to drink the sugary nectar inside. I think few people unfamiliar with it would identify it as a moth, and perhaps be confused as to why a hummingbird had found itself on this side of the world. But when taking an evening stroll around the local neighbourhood, suddenly these hummingbird hawk moths have become a common sight; on a good day, three or four can be spotted in a mere half hour walk down both the residential streets past front gardens full of colour, and the farm lanes, where the last wildflowers of summer still blooming entice them in to feed.

Left: A grey squirrel clings to a stake which holds up a small tree, partly hidden behind green leaves; Right: A medium sized grey, black and white moth with orange wings hovers horizontally in the air next to a buddleia plant with small white flowers and green leaves
Grey squirrel; hummingbird hawk moth

Replenished

As the soft rain soaks slowly into the landscape, the grasses and shrubs that lie in vacant patches between construction sites and farmland unfurl themselves, reaching out to taste the water. The streets are empty but not eerie, just peaceful, and as I walk in total solitude, the wind blasting fine droplets of water into my face dampens the distant sounds of traffic and machinery to a whisper. I find myself close to smiling, muscles relaxing, revelling in this hint of autumn and the relief from the beating sun that draws out crowds of chattering people, barking dogs, the bright colours of their beach towels and windbreaks, the roaring of car engines. All of that can be pleasant for a time, but like the dry heat of the past weeks, it’s gone on too long and left a thirst for change.

Against the heavy grey clouds above the fields, a kestrel – devoid of detail in the gloom but recognisable from its pointed wings and long tail – glides in a straight line and is carried away swiftly on the breeze. The next day when the rain has cleared, she’s perched on a telegraph pole, eyeing clumps of long grasses for signs of voles. A blackbird and her two speckly fledglings dash nervously from the bushes into a tall tree where they can keep an eye on the falcon, while two unremarkable brown birds which could be juvenile stonechats keep a lookout standing on the ends of stalks of dried up wildflowers. In a cavity dug into the centre of a field that’s meant to collect excess water and houses the only grass that has remained lush and green compared to the parched yellow of all the other nearby fields, a large flock of young goldfinches drink and bathe gratefully in the recently formed puddles.

A flock of small brown birds with yellow wings gathered in a clearing surrounded by long green grass
Goldfinches bathing

15th August 2022

This morning I felt a sense of elation upon seeing the ground damp with fresh rain and breathing in cool air – not that this simple shower was enough to end the drought that has peeled back the reservoirs, revealing new landscapes. However, distant thunder later rumbled on throughout the afternoon, a sign of a change on the horizon, and hopefully a lasting one.

In the garden, the ground is springy underfoot where parched soil has has filled with air from the deep cracks that have opened up; the lawn above is patchy but still has some lushness to it as we left it to grow long instead of mowing. The past few scorching days, panting sparrows have descended on the bowls of water we put out for them. I worry about the other wildlife, ones with less access to the gardens of caring people – some must have perished without a steady water supply. Walks after dark with the dogs when the air has cooled a little have been an opportunity to observe bats flitting over gardens and skimming between the gaps in houses down narrow streets chasing insects, quietly performing the same role as the chattering swallows and martins do by day. Back at home, large dark moths skirt around lavender and buddleias, enticed by their rich evening scent.

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