Crowds of starnels...

Just outside the window a starling has landed on one of the bird feeders. It flew in with all the bravado that comes with that species, and clamping its claws to the stand pushed its head into the opening and stabbed at a fat ball. The bird is a particularly splendid example of its type, the colours of the feathers seamlessly changing between browns, dark reds and that wonderful iridescent blue. If you look at it from one angle and then turn your head slightly the whole colour effect changes.

Starlings have become regular visitors to our feeders over the past couple of years. Not so long ago they were very rare in these parts but slowly their local population seems to be building, though I think it will be some time before we can boast one of those startling aerial displays. Our local murmuration gathers for much of the time in the trees in the churchyard, a place occupied until recently by the jackdaws. This year, though, it seems that the jackdaws have been usurped and the starlings gather there, chattering (another collective noun) to such an extent that passers-by cannot but stop and look up to see what they are all talking about.

Back on the feeders another couple of starlings jet in and the first one gets very cross about this. How dare they come and invade his dinner? A scuffle ensues, birds leaping off branches and arms of feeders, flapping at each other and swearing like the proverbial troopers. They reach a crescendo and then are gone. That game is over and off they fly to find another.

A moment of silence and then out of the tree pops the tenacious blue tit. It sits on the end of a branch, cocks its head and looks this way and that before flying onto one of the seed-feeders. It grabs a few seeds, drops them - all the birds seem to be quite fussy - and then flits back into the tree to tap the selected seed open on a branch. Seeing that the coast is clear, a second and then a third blue tit appears and they jump around from seeds to fat balls to tree and back to seeds. For such small birds they don’t seem to be too bothered by other visitors; even one incoming starling can be coped with though a small gang is just too much hassle and they will disappear until things settle down. But at the moment, no mobs and so they continue to feed. 

Other tits appear. A coal tit flies in, grabs a seed, flies out; its mate flies in then out, then the first comes back. They rarely stay more than a couple of seconds and I wonder if they burn up all the energy from the one seed by all that flying back and forth. A larger tit bounces on the end of a thin branch. The great tit is magisterial, its dark head and clear black streak down its chest giving it an air of superiority.

This selection of cousins is eventually infiltrated by chaffinches. A female goes straight for a seed-feeder. The male, imposing with his pink-red breast and steel grey helmet on his head, stands guard on the top of the small tree by the feeders. He keeps an eye on all that goes on around - and an eye on the female. Only when she appears to have had her fill will he come down and eat. He generally only eats from the feeders here but the female will wander around on the floor picking up titbits and rejected seeds.

She is not alone on the ground. The great waddling wobbling wood pigeons flatten a path through the burgeoning undergrowth. This year there seem to be two pairs in the garden, billing and cooing on the fence or the rose arch, landing with a resounding thud on the shed or perching incongruously on flimsy branches that bend to the near vertical. This is just practice for their nests. Not overly creative and either very lazy or stupid, a pigeon nest is a few sticks laid somewhere on which a few eggs are laid. We had one in the garden that was at such an angle that the eggs just rolled off at the merest hint of a wind. They have yet to nest this year so we shall see what predicament awaits their potential offspring.

At the other end of the scale, dashing around on the ground virtually unnoticed, are the dunnock. We have had a pair in the garden since we moved in and I suppose this continuity can be partly put down to the fact that they are the archetypal SBJ, a small brown job that scurries about in the undergrowth and only seems to fly to get to another part of the garden to disappear again under a bush. They dash under the feeders, pick up dropped seeds, dash under a few nearby plants, grab something else to eat and then work their way along one of the yet-to-be-alive flower borders using the tunnels formed by arched stems and brown leaves.

If the dunnock are dull (but only in markings) then the most splendid of the regular feeders have to be the goldfinches. Over the past year they have gradually moved from feeding solely on the tree feeders across the garden to also using the ones nearest the house and it is a great joy to see two or three or even four at once working their way through the seeds. Their bright yellow markings together with their black and white wing feathers and the red stripes on the head make them one of the most colourful and easily recognised visitors.

This time of year though, all of the birds start putting on their best coats. The male chaffinch’s chest gets a deeper pink, his helmet a steelier grey; the blackbird’s beak looks a brighter yellow against his glossy black feathers; and the robin’s breast gets redder. Well, except for one of our robins whose patch of red last year was quite small and the amount of white surrounding it made you look twice to check that it was Britain’s favourite bird. 


Another regular whose coat is buffed up in the spring is the greenfinch. The males seem to get greener and the yellow strip along their wing brighter. Like all finches, once on the feeder they are there for some time. They dig into the seed, get a mouthful, eat it then look round to see what is happening. They don’t appear to be keeping an eye out for trouble, more looking defiant in case someone else was coming along to use their feeder. Greenfinches have been particularly susceptible to trichomonosis, a disease that affects the throat and gullet and was thought to be the root of the major decline in numbers earlier this century. Thankfully they appear to be recovering and have been regulars here for the past couple of years.

All in all we are seeing 15 or so different species on a regular basis and it is interesting to see the numbers come and go as the year turns round. Last spring the local starlings brought their newly-fledged youngsters to feed off our fat balls and at peak times we had about 20 collecting there. Mainly insect eaters, starlings will eat, or this time of year devour, fruit, seeds and fat products. After fledging last year our feeders were being emptied of 15 or more fat balls a day. Initially the fluffy fledglings would sit on a nearby branch and just make a continual shriek until one of the parents dropped some food in its mouth. Unfortunately as soon as the parent left, the food was gone and the racket started again. Even those chicks that had both parents working a production line were not sated. Eventually they learned to feed for themselves, after several attempts at clinging on at difficult angles and stabbing the ball with their sabre-like beaks. 

Then it is off to pastures new, feeding on the larvae that are beginning to show themselves. We still know the starlings are around us as they collect on the roof tops, practising their calls, their whistles and, still, their trim-phone impersonations. I suppose mobile ringtones are so diverse they don’t get enough opportunity to mimic them. They will gather together again in the autumn and bring the trees in the churchyard alive with their clattering, and who knows we may yet have our display as ‘The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by’.

Nature Ramble

Readers of a certain age may recall - or not, if of that age - the primary school nature walk. Lining up in pairs and walking in crocodile formation to the local park to look at nature. Birds were watched for, insects were shied away from, flowers were sniffed and someone always tried to push Michael Brown into the bushes or the pond. I suspect that if such excursions take place today they are preceded by a risk analysis, form filling and the agreement of the parents seven days in advance.

However there is nothing stopping families indulging in a little ramble amongst nature at the weekend or during the holidays. The local park can still offer plenty to look at but in Northamptonshire you are never very far from the countryside so there is really no excuse not to get out in the fresh air and see what is around us.

Once we are out, then what? How many go out for a walk yet are still inside their house or office in their head? And who is still listening to their iPod and texting on their phone? Put it all away and start to pay attention to what is around us. 

The distance is not an issue as we are going to take our time. We are going to walk as slowly as we want and we are going to look at the large and the small. Let us stand still in an open spot and see how far we can see to the left and to the right without moving our eyes. What are we aware of in the periphery of our vision? As we turn around we can see how different the view is from another perspective. Look at the clouds; what are they doing? Moving quickly or slowly? Which direction? How many colours in the sky? It is not just blue. Look for the different blues. Look for where it changes to pink or cream or grey - or any other colour.

Most of us, in the normal way of walking, look ahead and look down at our feet. We want to get on, want to make sure that our footing is secure and that we don't step in anything. But, on our nature walk, we are walking slowly and the short steps will make it safe enough to look around. We can even stop! What ever we do, look to the left, look to the right, look up and look down. 

Honey bee

Honey bee

Let’s take a walk through this field. We have walked down an old lane that is now little more than a track and the entry to the field is at the bottom, by a bridge. The track continues across the bridge but we shall turn right, following the path that runs along the edge of the field and climbs gently to a small plantation of trees ahead. The crop is nearly ready for harvesting, the heads of barley bowing towards the earth, their lengthy awns reaching out like antennae. When the wind blows, the field rustles in a reassuring way, moving en masse in a little dance whilst its feet stay firmly planted in the ground.

We move along the path. Looking up the steep rise of the field to our right, the horizon is quite near and the matt gold of the crop has a gleaming line running along the edge where it joins the sky. The sky today is blue, copper sulphate merging to ink merging to cerulean. The joins are invisible, the transition continuous. When you look again it has all changed. The colours never stay.

On the left is a small brook, now virtually dry. There has not been proper rain for a number of weeks and this brook never runs to much in the summer. The drooping willow branches play in the breeze; flies dance round them on their way to the trunk which attracts them with sugary sap. The flies are the vanguard. Only a wasp or two has appeared but it is very likely that these will be joined by hundreds more very soon.

A Gatekeeper butterfly

A Gatekeeper butterfly

A few steps on and a verge of nettles stands between us and the brook. Butterflies dance in and out of the greenery. A Speckled Wood settles on an old Hogweed, the pale decaying leaf a good background for the rich deep browns and yellow spots of the wings; there is a dusting of blue on the hair on the abdomen. A tiny moth flits by and lands on a stem of grass, remains long enough for us to have a quick look and then off it flits again to hide its creamy wings in the darker parts of the nettle forest.

A brown and orange butterfly settles nearby and we lean in as near as we dare to see what it is. Just before it flies off we can see that it has a dark dot on either forewing and that these dark dots both contain smaller white dots. In years gone by these were known to many as Hedge Browns. Now they are known as Gatekeepers. Nearby there is Meadow Brown. Some of us need to check the white dots - one for the Meadow Brown, two for the Gatekeeper.

Fifty or so metres up the field, the stream disappears and a hedge sets off to the left at ninety degrees for a few metres before it turns right and runs to the top of the field. This creates a triangular corner which the farmer has left to grow wild flowers and grasses. In the hedgerow some birds hop about but it is difficult to see them. Mostly quiet now the breeding season is over, the tell-tale songs are not heard to help us. One flies up into a tree and when the sun catches it we can see clearly that it is a Yellowhammer. Known for its ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ call it is only his resplendent yellow coat that can identify him today - for it is only the male that shows off to this extent.



The tall grasses and the flowers move in the breeze even more than the crop that has its solid brothers to hold it up. Bees zip between the tall stalks. One lands on a thistle right in front of us. Ignoring its audience, he quickly works his way around the purple crown that sits atop the green spiky seed head. He has two yellow stripes and a white bottom and is probably a male buff-tailed bumblebee. The flowers here are all purple, at least the ones at this height, which are predominantly thistles of various varieties though there are some Greater Knapweed which are being visited by honey bees. As soon as they depart, other bees appear, some with bright orange rear-ends, some with white stripes. And then some come along that pretend to be bees but are in fact highly decorated hoverflies.



This wild flower planting continues as a thick verge up the field in front of the hedge, keeping human scavengers at bay from the rare, early-ripening blackberry. Towards the top of the field there are some tiny Common Blue damselflies trying to make up their minds where to stop. Just as you think they have settled, off they go again to try another place, then another. They look entirely unbelievable, more like a space ship than an insect that has been around for millions of years. Another butterfly flutters in. This time a Small Skipper. It may look like a moth but it is not. 

A few more steps and we have reached the top of the field. The path now leads round to the right and runs between the plantation and the crop. No more hedge or stream and not so much light. The trees are a good wind break though, and we turn to look down the field, across the valley towards the village and beyond. On the distant horizon, large white boxes, warehouses and factories, mark the start of the town.

Which way now? Our walk is not over but perhaps you should get out there to finish it? And leave Michael Brown alone!

Counting on Nature

This first appeared in the Nene Quirer magazine in June 2017 and has a particular Northamptonshire focus - but not exclusively.

In Richard Jefferies 1879 book Wildlife in A Southern County he recounts how, being unsure as to whether the unusual bird singing was or was not a fieldfare - it being the breeding season and usually these birds are long gone - he shot one to see if he was correct. To our modern sensibilities this rather harsh act in order to carry out an identification is not only out of date but also unnecessary.

Even though the telescope and binoculars have been around since the 17th century, Jefferies was of an era that to catch, kill and display was an important part of studying nature. Nowadays high-powered binoculars and monoculars and super-telephoto lenses allow us to watch what is going on and to record whilst leaving nature intact.

In fact, recording what we see around us is becoming more and more important and we are all being recruited into looking for birds, butterflies and bumble bees. This years RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January involved about 500,000 people. Birdwatch is possibly the longest running high-profile nature recording activity that involves the general public. Over 36,000 people also got involved in last years Big Butterfly Count and 15,000 took part in the Great British Bee Count.

Such public involvement is great and is a good opportunity to involve all the family in something that is interesting and important. However, it does not have to stop there. These three counts take place at specific times of the year but there is lots to see and to record all year round, and in Northamptonshire there are lots of opportunities to get involved.

The RSPB results for Northamptonshire show the House Sparrow, Starling and Blackbird occupying the top three top places. Probably no great surprise and whilst it is important to monitor these species there are others that need to be recorded to give a bigger picture of the county’s birds. As I write this, Twitter is showing sightings of Ospreys on Welford reservoir, a Glossy Ibis at Summer Leys and Nightingales have been heard near Titchmarsh. In most parts of the county you will now see Red Kite and Buzzard and in many places farmers are taking much more care in maintaining hedgerows and field margins offering more space for Linnet, finches, tits and Yellowhammer. In fact there are far more birds out of the garden to be seen than you may see in it. 

Other species being recorded in Northamptonshire include dragonflies, amphibians and wild flowers, as well as butterflies, bees and birds. The essential thing is that monitoring the state of our flora and fauna is not only important for now, but also for tomorrow. Counting the number of damselflies in a few places last year and then going back this year to count again will start to give a picture of the state of health not only of that insect population but also the habitat.  

So, go out and look, and then record what you have seen. And it is not that difficult. The first thing you will need is a camera but even a smartphone will do.You do not need to have pictures that could grace the centre pages of National Geographic, as long as the subject can be seen clearly enough for identification. Secondly make a note of where you saw it. This needs to be done as a 6-figure grid reference and again an app on the ubiquitous smart phone will easily provide you with the necessary coordinates.

A good starting point at home this time of year are butterflies and bees. Bees are more and more in the news as their importance as pollinators in the food chain is becoming better known. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s BeeWalk is a national scheme to see how the populations of the native bumble bees are faring and Friends of the Earth’s Great British Bee Count, which started on May 19, runs until the end of June. 

As climate change creates more of an impact on our seasonal temperatures, more butterflies are seen earlier and earlier. This year the Small Tortoiseshell and the Red Admiral were first recorded in January in the County. Another common early riser, the Peacock was seen in February. In the fields as well as in the garden there have been lots of Orange Tips around since early April and the occasional Holly Blue has fluttered over our flower beds during the first few weeks of May. The Big Butterfly Count is organised by Butterfly Conservation and runs from July 14 to August 6 and there is free app to help record your findings. But you do not need to restrict your sightings to that period. Any records of butterflies seen can be sent to the Northants Butterfly Recorder any time of the year.

As well as butterflies, there are local recorders for birds, amphibians, dragonflies, bats and wild flowers. A simple search in the Internet should show if there is a county recorder for your findings. However, if you prefer a one-stop-shop approach, then look at the Northamptonshire Biodiversity Records Centre (NBRC). On their website you can enter details and pictures of any of your sightings, irrespective of whether it be insect, animal, bird or plant. 

The NBRC is also running the WILDside Project which aims to encourage new recorders for the county. The project gives people the chance to learn about the flora and fauna of the County both through talks given by specialists and through training days held in nature reserves across Northamptonshire. To find out more about this search Facebook for WILDside Project.

Even Richard Jefferies knew the importance of a varied flora and fauna and bemoaned the loss of birds and animals from the land. I would like to think that he would be pleased with the recording methods of today - and hopefully regret his use of the shotgun.



Northamptonshire Biodiversity Record Centre:

Butterfly Conservation:


Northamptonshire Flora Group:

Northants Birds:



Big Garden Birdwatch (2017 results by county):

The Big Butterfly Count:

The Great British Bee Count:

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust BeeWalk:


Right of Spring

The first day of Spring came upon us earlier this week. The weather has been quite changeable of late with days of temperatures in double figures followed by days where it was lucky if it got as high as 5C. In the Lake District snow was making it difficult to get feed out to the sheep on the fells whilst in the Cotswolds, sheep were being put on fields of yellow trefoil and white clover to mob-graze.

Meanwhile here on the home front everything in the garden seems advanced by a week or two. The narcissi and primroses fill most views and the hellebores are still going strong - one set catching the morning sun as it rises over the fence, a view I can savour from my bed but probably not after next weekend when the clocks change!

Buzzard, one of a pair seen over the Cover

Buzzard, one of a pair seen over the Cover

Out on the fields, the red kites and the buzzards are in good form and almost everywhere. I have not seen any hares yet which has been a bit worrying until I checked my records from last year. I did not see any good boxing pairs - or in this case a threesome - until well into April, so plenty of time just yet.

I signed up to the National Plant Monitoring Scheme recently and having selected my square, a few miles away from where I live,  was looking forward to learning about wild flowers and plants. At the weekend we went to walk over the allocated 1km square - there are two footpaths that conveniently bisect the square - with the aim of plotting the five small sections to be monitored. The fields are mostly arable with a couple bits of pasture with cattle or sheep. As this is a big shooting estate, there are a couple of spinneys and some cover crop in this plot.

Before proceeding any further, I needed to contact the land owners for permission to carry out the surveys. Making an assumption that the land belonged to the biggest landowner in the area I contacted the estate office, explaining that I wanted to find out who the landowners were so that I could write to them formally, saying what I would be doing. I got a fairly prompt response that effectively refused any permission even though the detail of the work had not been given:

The land is partially owned by the ....... Estate and partially by another private land owner.  Unfortunately the Estate undertakes this type of monitoring itself and the land is within a environmental stewardship scheme.  It is also tenanted and forms an important part of the Estate’s shoot. Unfortunately this means we aren’t able to give permission for you to access the land in question. I am sorry we can’t be of more assistance.

Rather brusque I thought. And rather typical. What was wrong with finding out a bit more? Where do they send their monitored data? And what has the shoot got to do with it? I decided to lay that one down and move on (though I did consider returning to the site and strictly follow the footpaths through the burgeoning crops instead of walking round the edges of the fields).