Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

A Rose by any other name!

And after much huffing and puffing I’m posting this via my phone and at the cost of heaven knows how much of my data allowance – but hey …..

The Potwell Inn does not have many overnight guests.  This may be due to the fact that our inflatable spare bed has the unfortunate habit of deflating very slowly during the night – which, combined with the lingering effects of a lock-in, sometimes leaves us sleep deprived and hungover at the same time. Our most recent guests escaped that fate by virtue of an improvised puncture patch and an early(ish) night which contributed to an early breakfast and a civilised conversation. Later, during a guided tour of the allotment, an intriguing insight into the parallel universes that we occupied.

Here’s an instance of something close. In the 1970’s I was very involved in pottery and during those years I acquired the habit, whenever I looked at a pot, of turning it over to look at the base.  It’s surprising what you can learn from the bottom of a pot – what it’s made from, who made it, whether it was hand made, machine made or cast, when it was made. I’ll even touch the base of a pot with my tongue to see how hard it was fired.

Yesterday I saw some similarly interesting behaviour in our friend who is a great enthusiast for butterflies and moths.  And so when we were taking a walk around the next-door community garden she almost ignored the impressive efforts of the volunteers but spent some time examining the leaves of an unruly patch of nettles. “Where you see a weed, I see a foodplant”, she said. I realised instantly that there are probably hordes of things that we know but don’t know and, of course, I knew that butterflies have their preferred food plants – but I hadn’t made the connection in the part of my brain where it really matters. The large and small white butterflies will lay their eggs on our cabbages, but they would also love to lay them on nasturtiums if they could be found. This is one of the foundational ideas of companion planting. Butterflies, and therefore their caterpillars, are fussy eaters.  Just like our children, they would eat their greens if you stood over them or bribed them, but they would always go for a burger if there was one available.  She also put me right on my ‘from-memory’ list of butterflies on the allotment so far this year and so I learned that my ‘small blue’ was almost certainly a holly blue. This was enough to send me back to my butterfly books where I was able to read much more. The Collins Wild Guide by Newland and Still, lists habitats and food plants separately in an index which makes it incredibly useful both for searching out species and growing the right food plants, and it’s small enough to carry in your pocket.

I’ve written before about plugging in my field botanist frame of mind (if there’s time) when we’re out for a walk, and there are plenty of other ways of framing the natural world.  You’d have to be a genius to be fluent in all of them, but simply being aware that you tend to see better if you’ve some idea of the time, the seasons, the environment, the habitat and all the other factors that determine presence or absence within the natural history of where you happen to be, can bring into focus things you’d never normally notice.  As the previous president of the Bath Natural History Society once said to me – “The idea is to walk in nature rather than just through it”.

My friend is presently hatching six elephant hawkmoth pupae which sounds greedy, but then she knows where to look. They’ll be released back into the wild as soon as they hatch. We’ve planted loads of nasturtiums a long way from our brassicas, to lure the butterflies away and make them happy at the same time. Does companion planting work, then?  Think of the plates of leftovers after a children’s party – I bet there are loads of carrot sticks left behind because most children will always eat favourites first. I don’t know of a way to educate butterflies to stop laying eggs on cabbages, but I can give them a snack they much prefer.

 

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