Nature Writing (top picks)

I recently read H is for Hawk and found myself falling deeper in love with nature writing. If you’re not familiar with this genre, it essentially describes a body of work that focuses on the natural environment, usually involving wildlife and landscapes, often written in the first person and containing overly lyrical prose.

It is an odd phenomenon that nature writing has seen a renaissance at a time when humans are more disconnected from the natural world than we have ever been. Perhaps it is because naturalists writing about the environment are hobbyists and enthusiasts rather than experts – and, as every good Brexiter knows, we have all had enough of experts. They can make nature more experiential and not weighed down by facts and statistics; more of a transcendence and a philosophical, Romantic narrative.

Here are some books about the natural world that every nature lover should read

  • H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald: a grieving daughter takes on the notoriously difficult task of training a goshawk, with frequent references to a book on the same subject by a fellow trainer lacking all the necessary skills.
  • The Peregrine – J. A. Baker: a man follows a pair of peregrine falcons, noting their behaviour and tallying their kills.
  • The Robin – a Biography – Stephen Moss: the nation’s favourite bird, seen from a new perspective.
  • Raptor – a journey through birds – James McDonald Lockhart: a journey around the country following all the different birds of prey in Britain, from sparrowhawks in Warwickshire to hen harriers in Orkney.
  • The Secret Life of the Owl – John Lewis-Stempel: exploring the myths and legends surrounding owls, and focusing on all the different owls in the UK.
  • Foxes Unearthed – Lucy Jones: dispelling the myths about the mysterious fox; an affectionate and engaging read.
  • Wildwood – Roger Deakin: a succession of anecdotes about the author’s love and knowledge of forests, trees, and flora.
  • ReWild – the art of returning to nature – Nick Baker: the mindfulness manual to nature – how to keep still and quiet and reconnect to wilderness.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Or if you have any recommendations, feel free to share. 

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Strumpshaw, January

A cold and dull day at Strumpshaw in January but still we saw plenty of marsh harriers, beginning to pair up and flirt and show off, and a kingfisher (too quick for a photo), and plenty of ducks. Half of the reserve was flooded so we couldn’t get around a lot of it.

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Marsh harrier

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Marsh harrier

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Ducks

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Mallards

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Coot

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Blue tit

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Blue tit

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Great tit

Titchwell Marsh, Norfolk, December

The last birding trip of the year was to RSPB Titchwell Marsh on the North Norfolk coast. Home to all sorts of shorebirds and harriers and winter visitors, it’s a known hot spot, though I was still surprised to find it so busy on a windy day (the Norfolk landscape is flat and there was no protection from the wind for miles.)

We watched a marsh harrier hunting in the sunset, spotted little ringed plovers, and followed a curlew as it danced in the mud, pulling up large worms.

Ringed plover or little ringed plover?

 

A marsh harrier hunts in the setting sun.

Curlew or whimbrel? I never can tell!

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A squirrel on the feeder.

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A quarrel

Winter Birds

It goes without saying that winter can be a tough time for wildlife, but when the leaves have fallen from the trees it becomes much easier to spot birds and follow the tracks and signs of other animals. We also do of course get to see different birds, those migrants who have come south for the warmer weather, so it’s an interesting time of year. If you’re just getting into birding, please don’t pack away your bins til spring, as there’s plenty to see if you can handle the cold weather.

Now I adore cosy nights in as much as any hygge-loving soul, but I also get fed up in winter with all the time I have to spend inside so I make a real effort to get out on dry days. Here’s the winter birds I’m looking out for in my local area this season.

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Hawfinch – a rare sight and normally a notoriously shy bird, in recent years we’re seeing flocks. There has been a large influx from eastern Europe and twitchers are understandably galvanized. They feed on the ground so you’re more likely to spot them in winter.

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Redwing – a countryside winter roamer, the redwing has a striking red flank and can team up in flocks with fieldfares.

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Fieldfares – A more colourful thrush, the fieldfare is a winter visitor and can arrive in flocks. Look out for them amongst the hawthorn bushes.

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Waxwings – surely the most glamorous winter bird, with its glossy, waxy coat and little tuft of feathers on the head. If you’re going to follow any of the links in this post, please follow this one to see a lovely video of a flock of gorgeous waxwings feeding on rowan berries.

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Brambling – annoyingly for a bird that looks remarkably like a chaffinch, it actually flocks with chaffinches, so can be difficult to spot!

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Snow Bunting – robins aside, is there a more festive bird? Snow buntings are buntings with white feathers on their underside and migrate from the Artic and Scandinavia in winter. Can be found in flocks along the coast.

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Robin – reliable robin, always present, but only really gets attention at Christmas, with good reason. The UK’s favourite bird.

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Goldcrest – an elusive garden bird, they join mixed flocks in the colder months and their tiny beak favours pine forests.

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Blackcap – quite dull looking and often overlooked, yet quite pleasing and fluffy. I saw one this morning as I drove through a very treed area.

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Shorelark – they like coastlines and sometimes wander into fields and are really quite rare in the UK.

Whats winter birds have you seen so far this season and what are you looking forward to searching for? 

 

FYI these are not my photos, just from the internet.

 

Starlings at Strumpshaw Fen (November 2017)

Starlings at Strumpshaw Fen (November 2017)

I had heard that large flocks of starlings have been seen most afternoons at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk and they had been murmarating in fairly large numbers to the delight of enthusiastic crowds – so we had to make the trek and have a look for ourselves.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘starling murmuration’ – it is basically when large numbers of starlings gather together to roost and fly around in a strange pulsating rhythm. No one is completely sure why they do it but it’s probably because it offers them several advantages, such as safety in numbers, warmth and companionship (starlings are noisy and communicative birds.)

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It’s hard to know how many birds classify as a murmaration (at Strumpshaw recently they’ve seen several thousands to 21,000) but it’s possible to get millions.

I managed to get a short video:

Starling flock & murmaration

Sorry for the poor quality – I don’t think me and my new camera are quite sympatico yet!

A few shots of the setting sun first of all:

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The reedbed outside reception hide. Note the cormorant spreading its wings.

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The first starlings begin to arrive.

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The flock thickens

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A marsh harrier in the distance spots the spectacle and hopes to catch a bite. A sparrowhawk also got in on the action later.

Red Squirrels and Nuthatches

A short post today containing some photos I took at Pensthorpe Natural Park in Norfolk this Sunday. We go there quite a bit as we have an annual membership so we’re getting to see the park in all seasons this year which is quite interesting. This is by no means everything that Pensthorpe has to offer – there are also eurasian cranes, flamingos, corncrakes, turtle doves, waterfowl, bearded tits, birds of prey, otters, so an awful lot of wildlife.

The woodland hide never fails to let me down – there were at least three nuthatches. There are around 5 or 6 feeders and you can get really close but what’s so impressive is how much activity there is – you don’t know where to look. I feel like a nuthatch is an autumn bird because it always seems to be photographed with an acorn in its bill.

 

Here are a few of the red squirrels. Pensthorpe has a captive breeding programme so you can see the red squirrels and their kittens up close before they’re released onto Anglesey as part of a reintroduction project.

Autumn Signs to Watch For

What’s not to love about autumn? The falling of the leaves; the darkening of the nights; the retreat of certain species and the emergence of others.

This post is about the first signs of autumn and what to watch out for.

Fungi

Probably one of the first signs of the changing seasons, fungi start to pop up in woodlands in late summer, especially after rain. But it’s not just woodlands – lawns, small patches of grass in cities, too, and even on piles of dead logs. Not knowing a damn thing about identifying fungi, I steer clear of harvesting any of it. If you are interested, however, you can learn about which species of fungi are poisonous and how to ID them in this helpful guide.


The deer rut

Now is the time of year that stags develop their antlers to fight other males and compete to attract a harem of females. The fights are an impressive display of power and fascinating to watch.

Turning Leaves

Leaves changing colour is a spectacular autumn sight. I remember holidays in the Lake District and the incredible display of yellow, green and brown leaves on huge trees around the lakes. It’s interesting to see which trees start to change first and how quickly, especially when half the tree still has green leaves. In fact, a project by the Woodland Trust called Nature’s Calendar wants us to track what trees we see changing colour and when to build a better understanding of how weather and climate affects wildlife.

Fruits, nuts and seeds

Trees use this season to disperse their seeds and reproduce. Blackberries come into fruit in late summer and early autumn and are a known marker of the changing season. Acorns, of course, are cached by squirrels and other mammals to store in their winter larders – but did you know that jays also do this?

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Birds

Many bird species gather in flocks to spend the cold autumn evenings roosting together or preparing or recovering from migration. Geese flock in large numbers by the coast, rooks go to roost in large flocks in the evenings, and starlings start their murmations. The wildlife-friendly gardener will have thistles and late-flowering plants such as sedum to provide insects with sustenance for the long winter ahead, ensuring a supply for birds in the spring. Look out for the arrival of fieldfare and redwing.

Spiders

It can come as a shock in autumn to discover just how many spiders there are in the world – not just in the world, but in my house! The less said about spiders the better.

 

 

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