Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires. 
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I. 
At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom. 
So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.


Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw
If there is one little bit of nature I am seeing everyday at the moment during a bit of office based work then it's the robin in my garden.

There are few birds in Britain that have created such a strong connection with the inhabitants of our islands as the Robin has. As Christmas approaches one feels this more keenly than ever. I’ve seen the birds popping up every where from greetings cards, to adverts and even in the script of the short film I’m writing for the One Show. Also, there was a fascinating interview today on Radio 4 about the birds revealing some of the myth and mystery surrounding them. It attempted to explain why they have worked their way into our affections. Have a listen if you have the time.
I’ve photographed robins on a few occasions including in my own garden, but undoubtedly the most memorable occasion was for the BBC. They wanted an image of a bird showing how aggressive these family favourites can actually be when defending their turf from rivals. The idea for the shot was to capture how aggressively a wild bird would react to a stuffed one, would it be enough to get the bird going?

So, a stuffed robin was set up in a wild birds territory. The bird immediately flew down to face his rival and, within seconds, it practically pecked the poor inanimate object to pieces. It was quite a site watching what is probably Britain’s favourite bird behaving like a crazed serial killer. I was mightly impressed by his plucky performance and got some magnificent shots. I wish I could find those photos but they elude me at present. Instead the cute looking shot from the garden must suffice.
So, when you see that lovely little red breasted fellow feeding on your bird table or beaming out of your latest Christmas card – just remember all those warm cute and cuddly feelings are entirely a human concept. You’re staring at a bird who will fight to the death to help further his lineage. Its nature, red in bill and chest.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Local Patch

From the excitement of the Eagle Owl during the last few days its back to my local patch at home, Stapleton on the outskirts of Bristol.

I think the picture here is a fairly good representation of the area, a mixture of houses, gardens and a wooded river valley. And do note the person walking down the alley. People are never far away here. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of places like this in Britain and I would imagine they'll all be bursting with wildlife. Obviously the river Frome helps bump up the biodiversity figures of this particular spot, bringing in the likes of otters, pike and kingfishers to the list, which is wonderful.

It's believed by some that ancient Britain would have been covered in dense wildwood, but other theories, which I subscribe too, suggest a more mosaic landscape, such as that found in ancient parts of the New Forest, where woods mix seemlessly with open grassy glades brimming with flowering plants and shrubs. This landscape was perfect for biodiversity and I think it's easy to draw parallels to my local patch. We've got the woods here and as for the glades well, the gardens make a great substitute, even if they are a little more manicured. Its really not hard to draw comparisons with our distant past with a bit of imagination. The only real difference is the volume of people and the control and disruption they bring. Its by no means insignificant with regards to animals like otters, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, but its not all negative either. 

For starters, I am sure bird feeders will he having an effect and the bumble bees love the lavender in the window boxes. Garden ponds create breeding grounds for frogs and newts and I know most summers the roof of the 1970's house opposite plays home to over 150 pipistrelle bats. Humans are not all bad where nature is concerned.

This habitat of ancient woodland, river filled valley, back gardens and suburban housing is the back drop to my nature notes and I will attempt to describe them all in greater detail as the year progresses.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

I got an Oscar

Oh. My. Word. What a wonderful evening I've just had. If Wilderness City is a blog that's not only about wildlife, but is also a place to consider how the boundaries between nature and mankind are completely entwined and interlocked - then filming Bristol's Eagle Owl has hit the spot. 

The bird put on a tremendous display. Firstly he sat nicely in his tree opposite Bristol University's Biological Science building, asleep to begin with and then throwing a few fierce glances here and there at passing gulls. Then, as night fell, he began to get going. 

First off, he coughed up a pellet. A pellet will contain all those bits of an animal a birds eaten but can't digest - like the fur and bones. It was a nice moment to catch on film. Then, once he had had a stretch, he flew to a nearby chimney pot, where he proceeded to perform a full mating display! This consisted of cocking his tail, arching his back, sticking his wings and neck out and then calling incredibly loudly for several minutes. As he called he bared a white throat patch, advertising to any nearby females that he has a prime bit of real estate and the ability to defend it. It was an amazing thing to watch in Britain, let alone in a city.

So, what do we have here? A wild bird blown over from the continent that's set up shop in a city? A captive bird that has been released? A young bird from Britain's tiny breeding population that has fledged and decided to set up home in the middle of Bristol? Well, we are unlikely to ever know the answer. But, what we do know, after tonight, is this bird, wherever he is from, is behaving like a wild bird, very at ease in his new environment. Wilderness coming to the city. Wilderness created in the city. Who knows.

Chris Sperring, one of the UK's premier owl experts, joined us on the shoot and is not in the least bit surprised at the owls success. With all the food outlets, rubbish bins and therefor rats, its hardly surprising the bird is eating well and flourishing. He believes the owl may well stay for some time. It has, apparently, already been in the city for three months. Whilst its incredibly unlikely for the bird to find a mate Chris felt you should never say never, after all, no one ever expected a male owl to turn up in Bristol so why not a female? 

The students at the University seem to have become very proud of their new friend and named him Oscar. They say people have started coming from all over Bristol to look at him and he is galvanising a real common interest in wildlife in the city. Whilst some conservationists worry about this species invading and upsetting our native fauna, having witnessed Oscar in action, I can't help but believe this particuar magnificent bird is an embasador for natural history in the city. He's helping create a connection to nature for people who find it hard to find the time to experience it elsewhere. Tonight was a real highlight of my wildlife year and I sense I wont be the only one to feel the same. Oscar may struggle in his mission to find a mate, but, unwittingly, he is a huge success in the quest to bring wilderness and city closer together. 

N.B. The film will be broadcast on the evening of Jan 14th on BBC 1's Inside Out. As soon as I can I will put a copy of the film on the blog.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A short note..... I would just like to say thank you to Vicki Van Slyke for becoming my very first follower. I had no idea if anyone would be interested in what I had to say and I am amazed that the first person to do so is all the way from America. Brilliant!

An Owl about Town

Whilst I've been sitting at home getting prepared to go and hunt down my local tawny owls, a very different owl all together has turned up in the heart of Bristol. An Eagle Owl. 

This in itself, is very exciting, I believe I am right in saying these birds are the biggest owls in the world, but what's more, I've been asked to film it tomorrow night for the local BBC Inside Out team, with naturalist Mike Dilger. Excellent news. A wild Eagle Owl on the lose in a British City - this will be a filming first.

Whilst there is now a tiny breeding population of this species in Britain, it is still an incredibly rare sight and the owl is certainly not considered a native species. It's believed the population has arisen from multiple releases of unwanted captive individuals, used in falconry, not from wild birds arriving from over seas. Once again we human influencing the world around us.

There is no reason why the owls shouldn't do well here as they're found breeding from Spain to Russia and with a 6ft wingspan, if size matters, they'll certainly be out-competing our smaller British owl species for territory and food. This is a worry for some conservationists who fear they will cause problems for much of our native flora and fauna. Certainly conservation organisations like the RSPB and BTO have no intention or encouraging the owls already here, because of the disruption they may cause. However, many birders are welcoming a new addition to their UK list.

I'll be using the very latest infra red filming kit from the BBC Natural History Unit so expect to get some great images of this particular individual. Hopefully once the film is cut by the director I'll be able to put a copy onto the blog. I just hope it's there tomorrow night. Tomorrow's blog - if there is one - will be a late addition.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Gutter

It was minus two and half degrees celsius this morning and once again the skies were blue. What a stunner. 

I rushed out with my camera and before I had stepped off the pavement I saw exactly what I wanted to photograph. The gutter.

A small pile of leaves has been lying there for sometime and this morning they were covered in a beautiful frost. It's perhaps not the most imaginative of images - we've all seen it before. But I can't think many people have taken this particular shot in the gutter outside their house.

People often call me grumpy, which I find a real disappointment, because I find beauty everywhere and to be that lucky - how can I possibly feel grumpy? Actually, I am grumpy right now because I've got to jump in a car and spend two and a half hours on the motorway. I would rather be in the gutter.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Superstar Starlings

When I very first started in wildlife telly, on work experience at the BBC Natural History Unit,  I was sent out as a field assistant to help a new young cameraman called Charlie Hamilton-James. Charlie had been given the task of filming starlings going to roost at Shapwick Nature Reserve. I had no idea that starlings roosted in large numbers and certainly no idea that they performed an amazing arial display in the process. Charlie and I set up and waited for the show to begin, totally alone on the reserve. Not a sole to be seen or heard. And that's how it stayed for the duration of what I found to be one of the most awesome events in British natural history.
How things have changed in 10 years. Firstly, Charlie is no longer a rookie cameraman. He's a multi-award winning global name in natural history broadcasting. Secondly, if you go to Shapwick, as I do every winter, and as I did today, you certainly wont be totally alone on the reserve. Watching the starlings here seems to have become a spectator sport. Dozens of cars blocked the road at the reserve entrance and what seemed like hundred of people were wandering the paths looking for the first signs of the birds arriving. Starlings, it seems, have become superstars of the wildlife world.

Undoubtedly, TV has a had a huge part to play in this. Bill Oddie is the main the culprit for bringing the wider public attention to the birds annual winter show, along with Carling Black Label, who used the footage shot for his series to advertise their beer. Now it seems everyone knows what these birds get up to before bedtime - and they know where to look. Shapwick and the nearby reserves of Westhay and Ham Wall all play host to one of Britain's best starling roosts and at the weekend you can guarantee a huge audience. 

When this wider interest first started, and I found my private annual pilgrimage had become so very public, I was really quite upset. I enjoyed watching them in the solitude of wilderness. But I make wildlife telly. I do so to educate and inform. Getting people to watch starlings is exactly the sort of result I should be enjoying. And now, I really do. 

Today it was great to see toddlers to OAP's all out to witness one of nature's great events. The excitement was palpable in the air - all because of birds. These people had been sucked in by the wonder of nature and will now go out into the cold of a December evening to experience it. I hope these people will all want to protect something they've become so enthralled by. It's brilliant and I genuinely hope it helps.

Except it wasn't quite brilliant for me. My family and I had entered at the wrong end of the reserve. The birds had decided to roost towards the eastern reed beds and although visible due to their vast numbers, well into the millions, we didn't stand a chance of reaching them to experience the display close up. However, one large flock of several thousand did fly right overhead and come to roost a few hundreds yards infront of us allowing me to grab one image of the sky filled with feathered bodies flying against the setting sun. Within seconds the birds had flown down into the read beds to roost for the night. It wasn't what I had hoped for but it doesn't matter. As long as these reserves remain protected by the support of all those people there today, the birds will be back and so will I.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Owls On the Up, Ducks on the Down

I woke in the night to hear the tawny owls calling most eagerly. During the last few months they'll have been setting up territories for the winter and next spring. It appears they're now either still setting up, or very busy defending, the territories, as the hooting went on for some time. 

I take all this racket as a very good sign because every year we hear this fierce owl hooting competition and that can only mean there are plenty of owls out there. Tawnies are the most common owl to be found in the urban environment and they certainly flourish down in Snuff Mills' woods! I need to find  a red filter to go over my torch and then I shall get out and use my recording to call them in and have a good close look at them.

I went for a walk along the river again today, with my mother who is visiting, and a fresh otter spraint was on the tree. The kingfisher was also present and on watching him I decided he seemed unsettled, constantly moving his position. At the time I took this to mean he was struggling to see fish in the somewhat murky waters (its been raining and the river is running fairly quick and therefor its turning up sediment making it hard for the birds to hunt). But, I bumped into a friend, Ian Llewellyn, who is studying the birds in great detail for a book, and he has been told there have been two kingfishers constantly battling along the river, so perhaps the birds unease was more to do with territorial dispute than hunger? I would like to witness these fights and the garden of one of the houses backing onto the river is apparently an ideal spot to watch it. I shall have to ask the owner for a ring side seat!

Further up the river, where the valley turns from Snuff Mills into Oldbury Court, there is a stretch of water where invasive bamboo has lined the banks. There are always a large number of ducks present here, mallards and mallard hybrids. I think they take shelter in the bamboo to great effect, so whilst it is unusual to see this plant, it clearly does the ducks no harm. And mallards are declining in this country, a little known fact. So if the bamboo helps them - then it may as well stay.

On this occasion the ducks were being chased by a dog swimming in the water. The dog's owner had thrown a ball in amongst the ducks for the dog to chase and unsurprisingly, once in the water, the dog decided chasing the ducks was more fun than getting the ball. The dog's owner clearly found this most amusing. It perefectly underlines my comments previously about human disturbance on the river and how it must effect the wildlife here, particularly the otters. If ducks are being chased, an otter would be hounded. I wish people could afford some respect to the wildlife who's home they are visiting. It is, in so many ways, why they enjoy going there. Perhaps I should have said something to the man, but I didn't. 

My last note for the day was on spotting a pair of Little Grebes. They live around an island in the river, a favourite haunt for much of the river wildlife as it provides some sheltered parts where humans can't disturb. I think they bred hear last year and  I hope they will again in the coming spring. 

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Otter Thoughts

Been a busy day today with little opportunity to get involved with nature, other than watch the garden birds at the feeder opposite the kitchen window. No lyrical musing then but a chance to look at yesterdays picture of the otter spraint I found. There are some fairly sizeable scales in it so the animal had obvioulsy made a good catch. The spraint was about an inch long to give you an idea of size. 

The Frome is a very healthy river, packed with fish of all varieties from pike to trout, so no reason why otters shouldn't be making a good living here. Apart from people and dogs that is.

 Snuff Mills is heavily frequented by the residents of Bristol, out for a stroll, and who can blame them? It's a beautiful spot amongst the grey urban sprawl and an easy place to relax. During the summer it becomes almost unbearably busy and thinking about it - maybe that's why the otters disappear from the area in that season, as I mentioned in the last post. Perhaps the human pressures were just too much? 

I know at Shapwwick Heath reserve in Somereset they banned people from walking dogs and instantly saw a massive increase in otter sightings. Perhaps the animals disappearance over the summer in Snuff Mills could be linked to an increase in people and subsequently the dogs they bring? 

As I've only been monitoring the otters for a year (and very loosely at that) its hard to say. I must keep watching. One thing is for certain though - you wont stop the dogs or the people in the summer - so it's down to the otters to work it out for themselves. That's the reality for nature with 21 st century living. And Good luck to them.

I downloaded a tawny owl call today from the internet. I've got it on my ipod and will take it and its base station out into the woods soon to see if I can call an owl in. I'll let you know how it works out.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Winter Walk 

I could tell the moment I woke up. It had been cold over night. My arms were covered in goose bumps as they poked out of the top of the duvet. 

A quick glance out of the bedroom window confirmed it. Jack Frost had been busy during the night and a thin layer of dusty white had spread out down the valley below me.  The droplets of dew, that had settled on car windows during the night, were now frozen solid, forming bizarre monotone damien hirst dot paintings all down the road. The street's car driving commuters would be slowed down for sure this morning with the task of scraping natures icy works of art of their windcreens . The sky was a deep dark blue and if ever there was a morning for a winter walk - it was this morning.

At the bottom of my road lies a small wooded river valley, a slither of green cutting through the city. It's called Snuff Mills and I walk their as often as I can. It's been a few weeks since my last visit and the valley has changed. Almost all of the leaves have fallen from the trees, probably as a result of the fierce frosts we've been having. The lovely colours of Autumn have gone but that's not all bad news. Fewer leaves on the trees over hanging the river means its much easier to spot the valley's most famous resident - the kingfisher. 

I hadn't even got onto the main path when shining out at me from a low hanging branch, shone the dazzling hues of a kingfisher's azure blue back, as it hunched over, looking intently at the river for its next meal. I had forgotten just what a difference it makes not having the leaves on the trees. The birds just stand out a mile against the dark river bank, unlike in the summer when they stay hidden from view. I didn't have a long lense with me to photograph him, and I think it is a him bacause a male bird seems to have taken up residence on this stretch for the winter, but there will be many more opportunities to show you this little beauty in detail. I watched him sitting statuesque for a minute or so before continuing up the path.

It was a lovely start to my walk but it was another river animal altogether that was on my mind - the otter. I had spent several weeks last winter tracking otters on the river but over the summer all signs of them had disappeared. I was on my way to one of the animals favourite sprainting spots to see if there were any signs the animal/s were back in town. A friend had spotted what looked like a fresh kill on the river bank a mile or so up river so it seemed possible. Sure enough, on the lower end of a tree trunk at the rivers edge, I found the familiar pungent smelling, scale filled feaces that make up an otters calling card. Impossible to say whether it was male or female - although it was quite large and its known males will often do several small spraints and females singular large ones. But if there's one thing with otters I seem to have worked out during my brief time following them, its that there are very few rules! Unless I see the animal in question, I'll be kept guessing. Male or female - its just wonderful news that otters are back again on the Bristol River Frome. Where they've been all summer - who knows.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Migration Magic

Today its raining. Sometimes I like being out in the rain - but I don't fancy it today. Therefore, no nature notes from my urban idyll - not a fascinating start. 

But, perhaps a chance to show you a rather lovely image of an event that took place whilst filming on the Farne Islands a few weeks back. I was there during migration time and one night literally thousands of birds started arriving on, or flying over, the island. 

It would have been their first sight of land after 300 miles of sea as they escaped the cold of northern europe. With night approaching the temperatures dropped and the birds started to go to roost. There were blackbirds everywhere, fieldfare everywhere and most delightfully of all - goldcrests, in their hundreds. These tiny birds, weighing no more than 5 grams, had flown all the way over the North Sea in storm force winds and were totally exhausted. Too tired, even, to be bothered by humans. As a result you could get incredibly close to them and here you can see at least 4 of them all huddled together in the leeward side of a wall trying to keep warm in the bitter cold November night. 

The warden on the island said he had never seen this huddling behaviour before in goldcrests. But other small birds like wrens roost together, so perhaps its not that surprising. This group were tucked in against the old lighthouse and I wonder how often that light house has saved the lives of birds giving them shelter as well as saved the lives of men at sea? 

And getting back to the premise of this blog, humans and nature living together, I guess that thought is a nice place to end.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Day One

OK, so here goes. Day One of Wilderness City. Day One of running a blog. 

Firstly, I want to explain the title. 

Put simply, I have a love of wanting to engage with wilderness and a belief that you can do it in the city as well as out in "the wild". I want to experience both environments and I know that when in "the wild" I will undoubtedly see the human touch everywhere and when in the city I shall see "the wild" everywhere. 

It seems sensible then that the blog should be called Wilderness City. It brings two human ideas together - for they need not be seperated and too often are. 

So, you might get postings from a desolate rock in the North Sea as I watch grey seals pupping for my work on Autumnwatch, or you might get some pictures like that of the kingfisher above, taken on the urban waterway at the end of my road, or maybe even some video of a rat, the mighty mammal conqueror of the human world, surely we must admire the rat?

As a 21st century naturalist I will write, I will video and I will photograph, using all the means available to me to to put together a true picture of nature in todays world

So, thats why the name and thats what the blog shall be about - wildlife, everywhere and anywhere. Wildlife as it should be understood in the 21st century.