How dare you stare at my binoculars?

For the last, probably three, years we’ve been puzzled by an apparently invisible bird that’s almost always heard on the grass covered clifftop between the cottage we stay in and Nefyn to the East. Now I’m not about to reveal anything here except my own ignorance, so if I were a less combative person I’d beg your indulgence BUT …..

Being an autodidact, that’s to say having studied nothing formally except ceramics and theology; everything else that’s crammed in my head is stuff I’ve learned informally, over the farm gate as it were. The downside is that I seem always to be running to catch up with the people who really do know what they’re talking about. However the upside is that for me, every little discovery is an amazingly exciting blast. Not being an expert turns out to be a boon because I get to see things in all their strangeness; I can make connections that institutionalised knowledge might forbid – and – of course I can flatter the intelligence of the cognoscenti by mispronouncing latin names and asking a lot of silly questions.

So to get back to the invisible bird, I probably need to say that the tiny trickling spring of an idea that started this blog began one bitterly cold morning in January five years ago as we leaned over the sea wall at St Ives in Cornwall and looked at a seagull. We had retired four months previously but those four months had been marred by long delays in getting the flat to a habitable state, and a family event that threw us into turmoil. After the worst Christmas we had ever experienced, we fled to Cornwall to try to recuperate and found ourselves staring at a seagull.

I’d been keeping a very personal private journal for several years while I was seeing a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, in fact I’ve kept notes and journals on and off all my life, but that day I made two decisions that have had the most amazing repercussions. Firstly I resolved to find out what sort of gull we were looking at, and secondly I resolved – hubristically as it turns out – not to allow myself to pass anything that I couldn’t name – ever again. It was, by the way, a black headed gull we were looking at, and my first lesson as an aspiring birdwatcher was that black headed gulls don’t have black heads in January, just the smudge of a grey crescent at the edge of the place where the black will appear later in the year. It was a useful lesson in ambiguity and so I wrote about it in my journal. Then, of course – given my ludicrous resolution to name things – it all snowballed, the restless lists began to get longer, and my working knowledge of things, lagging a couple of years behind the moment of recognition, slowly got better and it all found its way into the journal.

Then the software I was journaling with was updated suddenly and I found that half of my equipment stopped communicating. I emailed the company responsible and they loftily suggested that my equipment was obsolete and I needed to spend a wad of cash just to stand still. I told them to piss off and moved to WordPress. Months and months later, after I’d got the hang of it, I took the blog online.

So – clifftop plus regularly heard bird sounds that sounded more landlubber than seaside had us scouring the clifftop with our binoculars looking for the unknown bird. Then two things happened. In amongst the generic seagulls I spotted something completely different but definitely seabound. For no apparent reason the idea that they could be terns popped into my head (thank you Adam Nicholson) and so I noted it and, as I said yesterday, scoured the books when we got back to the cottage to get a better picture in my head. The second thing was that having lifted my eyes from the clifftop to the sea I discovered that the unknown sound was moving in the same direction and at the same speed as the group of possibly could be terns.

Is that what you call a lightbulb moment? I can almost hear the Oh for God’s sake groans of the experienced birdwatchers but for me it was a blast, a triumph, a decisive blow in the war against ignorance, and as is always the case, once I’d made the connection all sorts of other new knowledge was waiting. When we walked along the beach yesterday there were herring gulls and black headed gulls in abundance, and in amongst them were common terns – completely different in the way they flew, in their elegance, in their sounds, in the way that they could hover and dive. They made the herring gulls look like overweight bouncers outside a nightclub.

Later we watched a kestrel hunting the exact terrain we’d hoped to find our mystery bird in. Kestrels are rarer these days and if you ever catch a look at one from above, the chestnut brown colour positively glows in the sun. These moments of recognition are almost transcendent. Overnight the trailcam finally got a decent video of a visiting fox – ignoring my carefully scattered peanuts completely and walking up the stream’s edge to find something decent to eat. Since we arrived we’ve been filling the birdfeeders with seeds, fat balls and peanuts to attract as many as possible while we find the best place to film them and after 36 hours, while the birds overcame their suspicions, they’re flocking to them in huge numbers. It’s been pouring with particularly wet Welsh rain today so the bedraggled birds have been grateful for easy pickings. Out of the blue, a pair of ring ouzles appeared out of the thicket of sloes and sallows that line the stream, fed briefly on the fat balls, and disappeared again as suddenly as they arrived. Sadly the trailcam was recording another feeder. Oh and I added chamomile and woody nightshade to the list of plants in flower.

It’s not for nothing that one of my favourite poems at school was Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”!

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!