Category Archives: Nature

Urban bird watching

I gather that urban bird watching is becoming a thing, which is excellent news on many fronts. Bird watching is a lovely, de-stressing sort of activity, good for calming people. Awareness of wildlife tends to mean we take better care of it, and urban birds require urban trees. People bird watching are going to be people who support green spaces in urban environments.

If you have a garden, then adapting the garden to suit birds is the easiest way to see them. A bird feeder, a bird bath, a shrub or two to provide some shelter and they could come to you. However, in areas where gardens are tiny and sterile, birds are rarer. It may require working with your neighbours, or looking further from home.

Parks are an obvious place to seek birds, but big expanses of cut grass are not much of a habitat for anything. You’ll find birds where there are trees and hedges – often that means the edges of parks. It can also mean the edges of roads. Canals tend to be good. Derelict sites with plant matter on them can be much better places for wildlife than parks. Urban trees are always worth keeping an eye on.

In an urban environment, bird watching is a much more visual activity. When I’m watching in semi-urban and rural spaces I’ll often find birds by hearing them first, but in city spaces there’s usually too much background noise. While pigeons turn up at ground level, most urban birds will be higher than your line of sight, which means changing how you move through urban spaces.

Of course to be a bird watcher, you have to not be tuning out your environment and not mostly staring at your phone. You have to be present and paying attention. Not paying attention is, for many people, the key to making town and city life bearable. However, it’s when we start paying attention to the environments that we create that we might start doing something about them. Perhaps the new movement of urban bird watching is the first step towards changing cities.


My inner child’s stripy friends

There’s nothing like a caterpillar to bring out my inner child. Perhaps it is because they go into the world so undefended, munching their way through everything. I was always hungry as a child, and having watched my son being perpetually on a quest for food, I think there might be reasons for children to identify with caterpillars.

At the moment, the stripy caterpillars are eating their way through the ragwort on the towpath. Black and yellow, they arrive tiny from their eggs and simply get on with eating and growing until they become quite large stripy caterpillars. Later, they will be cinnabar moths. What happens in between is both exciting and unsettling.

When a caterpillar pupates, the dormant butterfly or moth cells eat the caterpillar cells.

I find this really interesting, because the transformation into a butterfly is so often used as a metaphor for things human. Is our fear of death nothing more than the caterpillar’s silly fear of turning into a butterfly? Is the big scary thing we have to face just an opportunity to grow our wings, assume our adult form and fly free?

Knowing what happens, I can only hope my stripy friends have no idea what they’re doing. I hope they have no means of consciously experiencing the takeover of a new form. I wonder how this kind of thing ever evolved – not because I see it as a sign of ‘intelligent design’ but because I’d love to know the mechanics. You have to wonder about the kind of people who want to attribute deliberate planning of this sort of thing to their divine beings.


The validation of creatures

Often what I do when stressed or distressed is walk. The rhythm of it helps resettle my body, and the activity can help get the stress toxins out of my system. Green spaces are known to be good for mental health, and beyond that, there’s the powerful business of encountering.

I walked last night, with my husband and son, because I needed to try and clear my head and straighten my thoughts. We saw rabbits, deer, herons, a kingfisher, numerous small birds, fish, moths, bats… We got close to several of the herons, who opted to stay put and tolerate us moving through their territory. The deer watched us back. The bats flew close to our faces.

Wild things make their judgements in very different ways to humans. They judge our speed and direction, how loud or quiet we are, what kind of attention we pay to them. If they tolerate us it is because we are interesting and unthreatening. As far as I can tell, they do not care one jot about our body shapes, faces, bank balances, or social status.

To be in a space with creatures, to be in your creature body and in sympathy with wild things is a powerful kind of magic. It is one of the most affirming and healing things I know of. I have a lot of issues around how I deal with people, and whether I’m good enough. Last night reminded me that I am good enough for herons. Little grebes have no problem with me. Deer find me curious.

Domesticated creatures can be incredibly affirming too. The dog who rushes towards you, delighted by the mere fact of your presence, the cat who decides you are worth bothering with. The horse who comes over for a scratch. If a creature has the space to choose, and they choose to engage, it feels like a blessing, to me.

We humans make up a lot of stories and complications over who and what we are to each other and what it means, and what might be important. It’s exhausting, disorientating, and when you’re on the wrong end of it, painful. Sometimes it’s good to just go and hang out with a heron for a while.


Tree of the Year

At the moment, the Woodland Trust is doing a thing inviting people to name their tree of the year. More of that over here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/tree-of-the-year/

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Perhaps quite naturally, people tend to pick large, ancient, dramatic trees. I do have a couple of pretty large oaks in viable walking distance, but they’re in amongst other trees so impossible to photograph. There’s another oak on the canal that I like not least because it so often has a heron stood in it. Most of my favourite trees aren’t that dramatic.

I love the wild plum on the cycle path, with its cheery flowers in early spring and tart summer fruit. There’s a copper beech I really like on one of my routes, and a number of urban trees in town whose shade I welcome on hot days and who provide homes for creatures. Around my home there are ash trees – young and pushy, and none of them standout but it’s because of them that there are so many wild birds outside my windows.

I think the short of it is that there are many trees I like and none at the moment that have become special to me in a way that makes me want to say ‘this one tree here should be tree of the year’. But it may be that you do have a particular tree in mind and can jump in and tell everyone about it.


Hypnotised by swifts

Swifts are summer visitors to the UK. Last night I was out watching them over the river and in the fields beside it. I am unsure as to how many there were, but I think there were dozens. They move so quickly that counting much beyond three proved impossible.

It struck me that there are many balances involved in what swifts do. The balance between calories in from catching bugs and the energy needed to keep hunting the bugs. The physical balances in the air as they turn, swoop and dive, making what to me seem like very fast decisions about where to be. Several flew right past my head. For birds there are always balances around having enough weight to survive and not so much weight as to get in the way of the flying.

They flew close to each other, constantly in motion, their patterns of proximity changing all the time. It was hypnotic to watch.


Flowers for the solstice

One of my ongoing issues with the Pagan concept of the wheel of the year is that it can focus a person’s sense of the seasonal down to eight key days. Outside, the cycle of the seasons is a process from day to day, and if you aren’t engaging with it day by day, you’ll miss things. That in turn can help perpetuate the simpler eight key points narrative because we don’t tend to see the things we aren’t looking for.

The demoiselle flies (smaller than dragonflies, but different from damselflies because they have dramatic black wings) tend to show up a few days before my birthday. A week ago there was a big hatching. A couple of days ago I saw my first dragonflies of the season. Most of the garlic has died back, most fledglings are now out of the nest, but there are still clutches of new ducklings hatching. That’s true where I live, for this year, but next year may be different.

This year I have particularly noticed the arrival of cranesbill flowers and meadowsweet. As there’s a lot of foliage growing, they were able to do all their leafy growth without my spotting them, but now the flowers are out, the plants are a distinctive presence. The purples of the cranesbill flowers, the misty clouds of fragrant meadowsweet. I didn’t have them in my head as a solstice flower, I don’t remember exactly when they appeared last year. I tend to think of meadowsweet as something that blooms later on, and perhaps it is. Many of the usual rhythms are being thrown out by climate change.

You have to catch a cranesbill just right to see why it has the name – the flowers themselves are nothing like cranes. It’s the forming flower bud, which, before opening, looks just like a head and beak. There an edge plant, so look for them in hedgerows, along shaded footpaths and at woodland edges.

More about cranesbill here – https://shop.reallywildflowers.co.uk/products-page/wildflower-plug-plants/meadow-cranesbill/

And a lovely piece on meadowsweet here with herbal and mythical properties https://whisperingearth.co.uk/2012/07/06/meadowsweet-queen-of-the-meadow-queen-of-the-ditch/


Fox Tales

I’ve been seeing a lot of foxes lately. It might be tempting to read something spiritual into this, but I don’t think that’s the size of it. My energy levels have improved so I’m up later, and walking back from things later which increases the chances of an encounter. I’ve also built up, over the last few years, an awareness of where foxes tend to be, which helps.

Stroud bus station is not an overtly promising wildlife site. It’s not even a proper bus station – just some bays along the sides of a rather busy bit of road. Nonetheless, it’s a good place to see foxes, and I’ve spotted them around there repeatedly. On one occasion I called out ‘look, a fox!’ to alert the rest of my party, and the fox stopped at this and looked at us. We also had an otter encounter in the bus station on one occasion.

Recently, on one of those late night wanders home, we ran into a fox, and then realised said fox had cubs, and the cubs were trying to cross the road. There was a lot of traffic, and several heart stopping near misses. Now, when it comes to wildlife my default is to leave it to do its thing. I won’t rescue anything from anything else. However, that rule doesn’t apply to cars or any other human way of accidentally or deliberately killing creatures. We were a party of four, dressed darkly, with no kit, and we could not leave the fox cubs to play with the traffic.

It would be fair to say that foxes are not the easiest creatures to herd, because they are clever and inherently uncooperative. It would also be fair to say that a fox idea of road safety is a whole other thing. Mamma fox had picked the least visible spot on the road from which to jump out – through a fence and down a drop of several feet into the oncoming g traffic. I appreciate that the element of surprise often works for foxes, but not on this occasion. So, we put ourselves in the way, and we kept the fox family off the road until the traffic calmed down, then we left them to it. We were gifted with some close encounters, and a cranky mamma fox trying to outwit us to move her cubs.

It was in many ways a humbling experience. I have no magical fox talking gifts that allow me to explain to a wild creature why it might want to work with me for a few minutes. I had no way of telling mamma fox that I was not the threat to her cubs. I had no way of telling the curious cubs that I was not to be taken as a model for human interactions – we got close a few times as we kept them out of the traffic. I had no way of magically protecting them. It comes to something when you’re stood on the side of a road at ten o’clock at night looking a grumpy fox mother in the eye and saying ‘please, just stay there a minute, we aren’t trying to hurt you, we’re trying to keep you alive’ and then she makes a longer loop to run round you and try again. I worried about how tired she was getting. I worried we were making the wrong call, and not helping at all just playing out our arrogance. Just because you think you’re a Druid doesn’t mean you can step in and save the day.

One of our party bravely went back the next day to see if there were any corpses. I thought about it, and worried, and could not bring myself to go and look. But, there were no squashed fox cubs. As close to a validation as I will get.


Searching for owls

Being elusive night creatures, owls are not the easiest beings to see in the wild. However, May through to mid-June is the best time in the year to see them. Here’s how to do it.

Owls are nesting at the moment, which means they’re based in one location. I have no idea how owl territories work, but the rest of the time they clearly move about. We get them in a nearby tree intermittently, and unpredictably. Through the rest of the year I will hear tawny, barn and little owls at night – and they won’t be calling from reliable locations. If I see one it will be pure luck. But while they’re nesting, they keep showing up in the same place. If you can hear them, it is well worth keeping going back to that spot to try and see them.

Owls emerge around sunset, often at that point where the light is, for a few minutes, strange and magical. I gather from Elen Sentier that this is called owl light. This is the best time to see them. On emerging for the night, an owl will often call a few times, pairs may do a call and return process.

Tawny owlets emerge from the nest before they can fly. I suspect other owls do too, or will emerge long before they can hunt for themselves. The owlet will hop about between branches, testing wings, learning to glide, to flap… they are ungainly and this makes them easier to spot. They alert their parents to their presence by continually calling, which again makes them easier to find. As they rotate their heads and call in multiple directions, be aware that sound coming from just the one place won’t always sound like that from the ground.

With a growing owlet to feed, owl parents emerge earlier in the evening, because they need more time to hunt, so later in May and early in June the hunting time extends, and the odds of seeing an owl increases.

If you don’t hear owls, the best places to look have trees in, but also good rodent hunting nearby. My two best owl-spotting locations have been the canal, and a cycle path. In both cases there was a slim band of trees, or the odd tree at points on the canal, and then plenty of hedgerow and grass for hunting in. Barn owls do indeed tend to nest in buildings, so old buildings in rural locations are worth keeping an eye on.

Owls aren’t readily disturbed by humans – especially if you’re on a footpath, but don’t get closer to them. My experience last year was that both parents and chick were untroubled by an audience, indeed the young owl was as curious about us as we were about owls. With us on the path and the owls in the trees it was possible to be quite close without bothering them at all. If there’s a footpath, stay quietly on it, because footpaths definitely help wildlife feel more easy about human presences. It’s when we’re unpredictable that they are likely to panic.

If you’ve no owl experience, it may take a while to build enough knowledge that you can see them. However, if you listen for owls through the year, if you can get out in the dark at all, you may find you have owls in area, and then you can build on that to increase your chances of seeing them. You don’t need wilderness, you just need trees and places that mice can live. City parks, edges of towns, canals, cycle paths and other such green corridors can and do support owls. Even the grassy side of a road may be a hunting ground.


The power of street trees

Nothing humanises a human space like a tree. There’s an irony! When we make spaces that have nothing green in them, all we can make is cold, barren, and inhuman. We aren’t meant to live in pristine spaces devoid of other life. One of the best ways to bring life and colour to human landscapes, is by adding plants, because the plants allow so many other life forms to move in too. Being a big vertical space, trees are especially good at this.

Many years ago, visiting a friend I noticed that they were living in a place with almost no birds. It felt like a cold, drab place to me as a consequence. The reason there were no birds was obvious – small gardens boundaried by fences and not a tree in sight. The birds had nowhere to be, nowhere to feed, or shelter. I recall in contrast an otherwise rather empty public space, where there was a tree, and at night that tree filled with sparrows, and the space filled with the chattering songs of sparrows.

There is plenty of evidence out there that green spaces help with mental health. We know tree time is good for us. We know trees can help cut down noise pollution and that trees are good for air quality. We know that trees add beauty. Why isn’t every urban space planned so that it includes trees? It should be a no-brainer.

There’s a Woodland Trust Campaign to protect street trees – which are too often undervalued and as we’ve seen in Sheffield, can be cut down for really questionable reasons as things stand. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2017/04/street-trees/


Tree insights

If you’re a Druid studying the ogham, but you don’t live alongside all of the trees, it’s difficult making a connection with them. In theory, the solution is to swap in a tree local to you that has the same qualities – but without knowing the original tree, this is not an easy call to make.

The Woodland Trust, a UK charity, have done a thing I think Druids are going to find useful and inspiring. They’ve made a collection of small videos each capturing a year in the life of a tree. These are beautiful pieces, well worth watching for their innate loveliness. They also give a real sense of a tree in a landscape and its life through the seasons.

Here’s my absolute favourite, the beech,

And if you go to the The Woodland Trust channel on youtube, you can work your way through many others. Here are the ogham trees available in the set: Birch, Rowan, AlderAsh, Hawthorn, OakHazel, Crab AppleBlackthorn, Elder. There are other tree videos available aside from these, so do have a dig about!