Essential ingredients.

Do you remember having those nature tables at school? An adhoc collection of ephemera not a curated collection. The new lockdown has helped focus on those little things that catch your attention and demand more reflection. As yes, we still have all that time we wanted.

The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. So as most of our hedge and the trees in it pass into their thirtieth winter, now is a good time to take stock and review progress. It’s a mixed hedge, and apart from a Yew and a Holly deciduous. Even in winter, leafless, each species is distinct and recognisable. For those interested I see these 5 as essential ingredients -Hawthorn, Field Maple, Hazel, Elm -possibly Wych, and Hornbeam with its retained leaves.

Celebrating essential ingredients.

In a week that sees the greed destroy the 2020 Woodland Trust tree of the year and the indifference people have to the everyday it seemed a good time to start a adhoc nature table. It continues the theme of the last entry of not seeing the trees for the wood.

Elm; Hawthorn; Hazel; Field Maple; and Hornbeam.

The second best time to plant trees is now. I don’t need any more of these in my collection. However it is amazing to think that all these five twigs if stuck in the ground, with a little care, has potential to become a new tree. Go on treat yourself to a new project.

Even now, in January, all these, in close up show they are ready for the race to bring forth new life and new hope.

Elm -this may be Wych Elm, but part of me has suspicions of it being a hybrid.
Field Maple.
Hazel buds already breaking open.


Light and shadows.

Again this is not the blog I sat down to write. Perhaps the discipline of writing more regularly will prompt a better flow more of a focused approach and less ambiguity. Though by being ambiguous I may actually get to the point of what I want to do with this.

I wanted to write about trees. Under the banner of not seeing the trees for the wood it was going to be a piece on people like woods but an indiscriminate planting, or over use of one imported species is not acceptable. Its not a rant about the Woodland Trust who planted a site near me about 30 years ago. In good faith they probably chose Ash because there are Ash in the neighbouring woods. Did the stock arrive from abroad? They wont say, but you can guess it was, at least, not local.

They were not to know of the advance of Ash Die Back -none of us were then. But now the site is showing a slow death across its NE corner. This has always been an odd part of the site, numbered stakes still delineate what were presumably blocks for planting on this former arable field. They stand for what would normally be understorey but there are no shrubs in this mix. Roe deer may be holding back the seedlings; they are seen every visit now. Even across the stream there are only the planted trees, including Italian Alder (Alnus cordata). This still survives after last year’s thinning, of what appears to be a random range of species -the clump of eight firs survived the chop. Apparently, in this clear up they also took all the plastic tree guards from the site. Many remained. I complained. Many still remain. These have been added to. In the far west a new field stands proud with hundreds of plastic tubes. Life mirrors art mirrors life.

In places though seedlings are finding a foothold. Here and there the odd Oak and Hazel planted away from the parent tree, possibly by nature’s forester the Jay, as these seeds don’t blow in the breeze. Ash keys -witches fingers do blow. At the south end a thick tangle of seedlings up to the width of a thumb try to establish their right to dominate. Among them, will there be genetic material that fights of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (formerly Chalara)? Only time will tell. There is hope.

What won’t appear randomly on the site are Elm trees. They will have been selected out in the mix as a risk from our first among equals -Dutch Elm Disease. Each wood around here has a few trees. A few are more than 1.85m as when I try to roughly measure than my hands don’t clasp together- this circumference alone would make them about 115 years old and possibly coming into life during the Great War. Many younger than this also shed seeds -samara, in early summer. The seeds grow easily in damp soil with plenty of light. Not a readily available environment in our unpredictable summers. an environment that is easy to create with peat-free compost and a plastic bag. Even if the conditions prevailed the Woodland Trust have placed their site too far for natural colonisation.

So from a handful of seeds, 20 Wych Elm stand 10cm high from their first summer. Some have been shared with friends. Others celebrated a liberation day and hide among the dying Ash. Planted in pairs, hiding in plain sight it is impossible to see the trees for the wood -marked only by what3words. It rained heavily after they were planted. I was pleased. Now the long wait. Nothing will happen months, their tight buds awaiting spring sunshine. Only then is worth going to see if this is a project worth pursuing. It is unlikely I will see them large enough to flower. So it is unlikely I will ever know if White-letter Hairstreaks arrive one July and lay eggs. But these two species have really grabbed my attention and it is worth trying. Time travel in a year when both these words mean something different.

Winter Lockdown #Gardenbirdrace FAQs.

No birder expected a return of the lockdown #gardenbirdrace. But needs must. For those of you new to lockdown #gardenbirdrace or those with short memories.

Q.  Do I have to use the full 24 hour period?

A. No use as much or as little as you think you need to post a winning score.

Q. Are you adjusting the score for inland or coastal gardens?

A. No.  You live where you live.

Q. Is there going to be another sweepstake to guess the total number of species seen?

A.  Yes your guess for total species seen on the day across all gardens needs to be in on 27th November by 5pm.

Q. Can I raise money for charity by getting people to sponsor me?

A. That’s a great idea, definite yes.

Q. Do I need to wear a mask?

A. No, you are in your own garden, but we are finding that they are good for keeping your face warm in cold conditions.

Q. Do I have to nominate a named driver?

A. No.  This is a solo (or at best shared with anyone you are currently locked down with) venture.  If you mean can I sit in my car and record birds from there.  Only if the car is on your drive which is also attached to your garden.  I understand it can sometime feel a bit weird standing out front with bins.

Q. How far can I go from the garden/house combo. and still count the birds I see?

A. Zero distance -clue is in the title.

Q.  Can I stand on tiptoes to see into a neighbour’s garden?

A.  Yes, but remember they may find this a bit weird.

Q. Can I go up a ladder and sit on the roof?

A.  You can and in May @Boltonbirder did.  He secured the best photo of a Med Gull whilst birding from his roof.  However, even he is checking the weather conditions first.

Q. If I find a rare bird does it have to be accepted by BBRC before it can go on my #gardenbirdrace list?

A. No, primarily because if you find a BBRC rarity you are not going to give two figs about this competition.

Q. Should I record my sightings in a notebook or on my birdtrack app?

A. It is well know that bird racers by 4pm have forgotten if they recorded and counted Greenfinch at 5am.  A notebook always allows a person to claim three days later that they won because they missed that one species.  Birdtrack does the opposite it prevents you entering a species twice.  The choice is purely personal but it would be great to get these records on birdtrack.

Q. Do I have to photograph or draw all the birds I see?

A.  If you are doing a full 24 hrs you have a lot of time to kill, so yes that would be a good idea.

Q.  Is there going to be a fancy dress prize this time?

A. No prize but don’t let that stop you choosing to wear clothing of your choice.

Q. If I notice some of my family are suffering emotionally from the lockdown and this #gardenbirdrace is not for them what can I do?

A.  There are a number of helpful resources at and which may be helpful.

Q. Can I add species I would like to see in my garden to my #gardenbirdrace list?

A. What?  Baz, who’s writing these FAQs?  No. Definitely no.

Q. Can I do it on a different day and pretend it was done on the 28th?

A. No.  Busy? Doing what?

Q. The Northern Isles will get less daylight than southern England is there an adjustment for this?

A. No it gives mere mortals a chance to get into the top 10.

Q.  How will I know if I have won?

A. You have taken part and shared a great day.  You are already winning.

Q. What happened to those Wych Elm seedlings you grew from seed when you were looking for White-letter hairstreaks?

A.  Thanks for asking. I have 12 currently without homes and if you would like one DM me and I will send one in the post.

Q. When do I submit my results?

A. A full list of all species seen (complying with the rules) needs to be submitted before 1am on 29th November.

Have fun.  Stay safe. Be kind.

#Gardenbirdrace: best 24hrs you can have in your garden with your clothes on!

In 1983 Bill Oddie was on Out Skerries writing up his bird race. Monday morning, I am back at my new office -dining table, a few hours before the start of the new normal working week. However, if it wasn’t for Covid-19 for a brief while this dining room table and the garden attached to it would not have been centre of the Universe.

By the end of April a big day birding in May is always a great conversation. I had some great days out in Norfolk with @BarryMadden12 -128 including Lark Sparrow was a highlight in 1991 and the Pacific Swift in Norfolk in 1993 was one of the last great years. We tried it in the North East on a day it raining nearly continuous until 2pm -it wasn’t the same.

Anyway, we had been locked down for 6 weeks with the prospect of it running through May too. So why not do a birdrace from the garden. The first time I suggested it there were a few comments about it not being interesting enough; too late in the year; too early in the year; it’s not my job to organise bird races. Seems its true I don’t listen when people tell me things as I turned those comments into FAQs. And if I am honest, I did make a few up. But not the roof sitting one. That did come as a real question and a real answer from @Stewchat.

One I added for fun was if you see a Turtle Dove on the race you must tell Jonny Rankin. What a piece of luck as Jonny AKA @Dove_Step saw this and it sparked a whole new level. By way of introduction. On 15th June 2013, while I was tweeting about how amazing it was to watch Swifts along the cliffs at Hawthorne Dene, Jonny was finding a Pacific Swift at Trimley Marshes. From there I have continued to follow him on Twitter as he raised awareness and money for Turtle Doves including walking from Tarifa to the Bay of Biscay. Very few ‘real’ birders put much effort into conservation. So, it was a bit of luck that someone like @Dove_Step would be interested in #gardenbirdrace. It was going to happen.

However, at this stage it had no hash tag. Randomly, this was another piece of luck. I had followed @stuttonsparrows from a random tweet he posted years ago about how well his newly planted hedge was doing. And here he was suggesting #gardenbirdrace a phrase to trend on 16th May for a while at 20. Just wow. And with @barrymadden12 and his Wildwings2020 challenge postponed to 2021 we started.

It was all meant to be a bit of fun, but we had the right rules from the start which worked. The only new question seemed to be could people count toy birds. I am surprised people didn’t ask can I count every species that my local Starlings impersonate. That loop hole is now closed.

It was meant to be a bit of fun to take away some of the misery of lockdown. More and more people started to say yes just by word of mouth. At the time I was disappointed we had no RT from RSPB, BTO garden or Birdtrack, but now I am happy with that. They have missed out. We did get some RT from organisations, authors, illustrators and a few companies that deserve a special thanks at the end of this piece. I continued to produce a few tweets comparing my garden habitats to places I would love to be -May Day Farm, Titchwell, Strumpshaw, Sicily and Minsmere. @Dove_step responded by setting up Suffolk’s newest and as far as I know only inland bird observatory.

The worry was that as the Government changed the lockdown rules in England and on 13th birders were getting back to normal. Did this mean the race was going to crash and burn. Now though we were getting #gardenbirdrace TV from Suffolk from @dove_step. So even if it was just a few folks I was still going to enjoy a full days birding. What indulgence.

Via Twitter some people were still taking this seriously and from Orkney a tweet on Friday 15th from someone sounding a bit desperate that he had not registered, and could he still join. That was really heart-warming.

I did not have a tent so was happy to put on my lucky @yolobirder Henharrier Hat and my ‘Be more Tim’ Bristol Rovers scarf as well as a body hugging Cape May ‘Gone Pishing’ shirt through several other fleeces and step out at 3am into the darkness. It was also quiet apart from the traffic going past the Metro Centre. Perhaps people were right I should have done it last weekend. I would not have been so bloody cold and there may still have been migrant waders. Nothing until three Blackbirds set up their duel. What volume! It was truly uplifting. Robin and Crow before sun up then my only Grey Wagtail flew over -first for the garden this year. A Chiffchaff briefly sang and that was it for the day so two birds worth getting up for. It got colder.

Eventually, the sun came into the garden and I could sit to warm up a bit. Suddenly, our neighbour was shouting over the fence asking what I was doing. Apparently, his wife had seen a ‘militant’ in our garden and was worried. Luckily, my wife arrived, asked why I was wearing so many layers and made breakfast. 8:30. I had not at that stage made 20 species. But Twitter was fired up. The hashtag was trending, and would have trended more if I had my reading glasses and was actually writing it correctly. From up and down England and Scotland and Guernsey people were out watching birds in their garden with the competitive zeal reserved for ‘proper’ listing. Wow. I am still humbled by this.

Everyone it appeared was seeing their garden afresh. Many people were racking up higher than normal garden totals and many were adding new species to their garden list. A DM from @patchbirding told of a of a Red-footed Falcon he had just watched coming in off. He apologised that he was going to try to relocate it, but still returned to the race later. Just wow. Truly wow.

Having seen Tweets about peoples first garden Ospreys I too managed one. You know that weird call Crows make when they are alert to a bird of prey. I still hadn’t seen a Sparrowhawk by then so was amazed that I too now was watching an Osprey fly over the garden. The neighbours did not hear my ‘militant’ shouts apparently. Sparrowhawk did arrive and took a House Sparrow. Still no Coal Tit -the little shits; I was not alone in this regard. By 4:30 I was flagging and even though other people were still adding birds and at the party I went up to our bedroom. Not for a sleep but from there I could see up to a garden who I think puts out bits of dead things for a pair of Kites who turn up at 5pm. Today they were late but, I still added my 29th and final species by 5:30pm. 14 and a half hours. I was done.


We went out for our evening walk and suddenly I was getting GS Woodpecker and other things not on my garden list. And it included two pairs of Spotted Flycatcher. Twitter was still alive when we got back, and people’s lists started arriving by 11pm when I went to bed. By 7am I turned on my phone and located 76 lists. One was sent in for 1pm and not 1am -read the question. Anyway 146 species what a hall from so many gardens. Whilst the admin was hard it was a great and satisfying thing. Especially as @cerilevy said he had a great day. People were even asking about next year.

species list gbr 20

Winners were anyone who took part I feel. It was set out as fun and it looks like people enjoyed it. Life in the time of Covid-19 has become creative.

Most species @PAABaxter in Aberdeenshire 66
Most from indoors @barrabirder 65

Sweepstake 146 species closet was 144 by @leeharris71
Best dressed@Rachelmapson

Most time in field @colonelbirder inawful conditions on Fetlar.
Rarest bird @patchbirding with Red-footed Falcon. Cranes, 1 and then 2, were second.
Best picture @boltonbirder of a Med gull he took while standing on his roof. @Dove_step has provided prizes for this.

Til next year. Thanks everyone for making it special.

Special thanks for RT and comments to



@gazatkinsonoptics for providing his artwork in 2020 calendars he was using to raise money for CALM.





#Gardenbirdrace FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions


Please read these FAQs to ensure that you have understood the nature of the competition.
Q. Do I have to use the full 24 hour period?
A. No use as much or as little as you think you need to post a winning score.

Q. Are you adjusting the score for inland or coastal gardens.
A. No. You live where you live.

Q. Can I raise money for charity by getting people to sponsor me?
A. That’s a great idea, definite yes.

Q. Do I have to nominate a named driver?
A. No. This is a solo (or at best shared with anyone you are currently locked down with) venture. If you mean can I sit in my car and record birds from there. Only if the car is on your drive which is also attached to your garden. I understand it can sometime feel a bit weird standing out front with bins.

Q. How far can I go from the garden/house combo. and still count the birds I see?
A. Zero distance -clue is in the title.

Q. Can I stand on tiptoes to see into a neighbour’s garden?
A. Yes. Unless they are out sunbathing.

Q. Can I go up a ladder and sit on the roof?
A. You can, but it is not encouraged as the risk of needing a hospital bed and missing part of the birding day and giving your competitors an advantage is quite high.

Q. While in the garden can I also count hymenoptera, coleoptera, lepidoptera, odonata or arachnids.
A. As long as these species don’t get added to your bird list ‘by mistake’ the answer is yes, yes, yes, if you have to, and yes.

Q. If I find a rare bird does it have to be accepted by BBRC before it can go on my gardenbirdrace list?
A. No primarily because if you find a BBRC rarity you are not going to give two figs about this competition.

Q. If I find a rare breeding bird in my garden can I mark it on my list but not tell competitors what I have found?
A. Any suspected rare breeding bird should be reported to UKRBBP and its location not disclosed. They will contact the gardenbirdrace team to validate the requirement of one tick on your list with no species against it.

Q. Should I record my sightings in a notebook or on my birdtrack app?
A. It is well know that bird racers by 4pm have forgotten if they recorded and counted Greenfinch at 5am. A notebook always allows a person to claim three days later that they won because they missed that one species. Birdtrack does the opposite it prevents you entering a species twice. The choice is purely personal but it would be great to get these records on birdtrack.

Q. Do I have to photograph or draw all the birds I see?
A. If you are doing a full 24 hrs you have a lot of time to kill, so yes that would be a good idea.

Q. If I see or hear a Turtle Dove can I tell Jonny Rankin via @step_dove?
A Defo.

Q. Do I have to stop at 8pm to clap for carers?
A. No. Its Saturday not Thursday.

Q. If I notice some of my family are suffering emotionally from the lockdown and this gardenbirdrace is not for them what can I do?
A. There are a number of helpful resources at and may be helpful.

Q. Is there a prize?
A. Yes. I have been in touch with the Football Association. As it looks like there is a delay or postponement of the F.A. Cup they will loan the trophy to this competition. Scottish F.A. are yet to respond.

Q. Can I add species I would like to see in my garden to my #gardenbirdrace list?
A. What? Baz, who’s writing these FAQs? No definitely no.

Q. What happens if the lockdown ends before 16th May?
A. You have committed to the competition.

Q. Can I do it on a different day as I am busy on the 16th and i can pretend it was done on the 16th?
A. No. Busy? Doing what?

Wych’s of Whickham

No-one is going to say a Covid-19 lock-down is the way they wanted their distopian future to start.  Its presumptive prelude was more likely to have been a rogue state or enemy within a corrupt Government.  Yet here we are locked down physically except for essential items and exercise.  For those of us who had shun exercise for a few years this is a revelation.  I am enjoying my daily walks and they can be extremely productive.

In my quest to improve the return rate for White-letter Hairstreak in the County I need to find elm trees.  Luckily they are flowering at the moment and thus easy to find.  One of which is well advanced and actually setting seed.

Not wanting people to miss out on the hunt.  Here is a map of all the Wych Elm’s in Whickham I have found so far on my wanders.  Whilst I want to find WLH the importance is really that they are found and recorded so I am happy to share the trees near me.

They are colour coded.  Green most likely to hod WLH, based on tree size and being in full sun.  Amber for less likely -single trees.  And Red for least likely, single trees full shade.  If you only have time to check one site I would go for either of the two ringed areas.Elm Whickham ten+ sites 1

North East Wych Elm and White-Letter Hairstreak

White-letter Hairstreak is under recorded in the North East. Just for fun as part of a desktop exercise over the winter I have used Botanical Society of the British Isles data on its predominant caterpillar foodplant in the North East –Wych Elm.  And overlaid this with the data from Butterfly Conservation distribution on White-letter Hairstreak.  It gives a flavour of the widely distribution of Wych Elm and the capacity for more trees to hide Hairstreak colonies.  It would be great to fill the gaps in this special butterflies distribution.  Next month is a good time to find the elm trees closest to where you live.  The Woodland Trust provides useful guides to identification.  Then in the summer go back and try to find the butterflies.

There are more sites out there.  Certainly I am aware of reports from South Tyneside and Gateshead.  And ones I have found at Causey seem to not have made the list.

The key is quite simple.  The map is done in tetrads -2kmx2km squares.  Red shows BSBI recorded Wych Elm since 2010.  Purple squares 10+ records of Hairstreaks; blue squares 2-9; and gold squares 1.

Good luck.  Fill your boots.  Please share any finds.

Wych Elm + WL Hairstreak Public



feeding mid July 5-7 pm  Reported to Butterfly Conservation but did not make their list.

Anomalous Blue

piedmont anomalous blue

There have been too many funerals recently. The air is filling with people I have never met, as well as the people I cared about. I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror -tired and haggard with dust lining the creases. The electric fan is ineffective, I have balanced it on the edge of the bath, but it only moves warm air. My white collar is less crisp -a bit fuzzy at the neck and more frayed at the points. Perhaps this will be the last service I go to.

I do not undo my mourning tie these days, I just loosen it when I take it off. Then for the next one I slide the knot up to my throat and cough because I always pull it too tight. Sweat pools in the dimple of my throat. It’s a deepening lacuna as my weight has started to drop off. The white shirt is already sticking to my back as I pull the jacket on. Polished at the elbows, it is clean and does not smell. Is it acceptable not to wear socks at a funeral?

The weather is unbearable. A dry wind blows dust up from the street. Back in the 20’s we got used to high temperatures into November, but they would top out at 27C. How I wanted those days back. Today cracked 32C and it was only 08:47. I traded my AC Unit years back for a bigger freezer that now stands empty. Even if I could afford to fill it I can’t find anywhere to sell me FreezyPops products. You see FreezyPops freezers, only store FreezyPops products. Through Bluetooth activation the bag of frozen produce hooks into the freezer, other products are rejected, and melt. Since FreezyPops went bankrupt the freezer awaits Mother Hubbard. I sometimes look in. The door-release sound reminds me of cold air that flowed out; meals we once shared.

At first, all this did not affect me; us. We weren’t poor, my family had seen to that. We rode out the price hikes and the shortages by paying more and reducing waste. Even growing our own. We rode out the riots by fitting in. Not speaking out. Not holding anyone to account. Then the wind changed. Long weeks of air from the south in the winter. Surprisingly, water rationing was not the worst thing to happen; even when we found ourselves on the list with those people. Those people who had to go to a stand pipe and gather water by the bucket. Even this was not the worst thing.

The worst thing was the rumours that people were wasting water. You could see them as plants were still alive in their garden. They had their windows put out and were dragged into the streets. I even heard they raped one woman on Warwick Avenue. She would go out at night and pee on her roses with the hope that one last bloom would appear. That’s when skeletal trees began to appear. I did not think I cared that much, until they were gone. Temperatures rose.

After my wife died I continued to receive her water coupon alerts on my wrist band. It was some administrative mix up I guess. They kept sending them, so I continued to get them scanned. I collected her allocation in the morning. I collected mine in the afternoon. I stored all the water, so much I ran out of containers. I couldn’t possibly use it all now. Have you ever tried hiding water? Boy it’s hard. I could not pour it in the garden things would grow. I could not pour it down the sink, water flow in the sewers is probably monitored, but if I stopped collecting it, maybe they would stop the alerts and investigate. I sealed the plug in my bath and stored it there until I could decide what to do. The water has started to green round the edges. I can still see the plug at the bottom, but I don’t drink it.

My Dad had been into that environment stuff. Birds were his thing, we’d go to the oddest places looking for this and that. I don’t remember all their names, but I do remember the first time I saw a Kingfisher. It sat on a stick above water rippled by a gentle summer breeze. It whistled as it skimmed across the water and disappeared behind a bend in the river, softened by green lush reeds. Even then he would say there were less birds than when he was a kid.

I don’t remember him doing anything to stop it changing. We flew on holiday, while Saint Greta warned us not to. Embarrassing now but, we continued to fly even after she spoke truth to power.

After that the last piece of glacier was squeezed from Mont Blanc. It was then Dad started to crumble. Up to that point he had hope. With hindsight, it was a hope with optimism. Optimism that 8 billion people could live on the planet and they would all see they needed to change. But the greed of the few out did the needs of the many. He admitted, in choosing to fly, he was in ‘the few’. This is when his grip on reality loosened.

For years, almost in an abstract way he had been talking of mountain ‘island’ extinctions. A warming world made creatures that need a certain temperature -a certain environment, move up hill. At the top of the mountain there is no where to go, especially when you are on the tallest mountain in Europe. You cease to exist.

Did it matter to me that a tiny butterfly, flapping its wings for the last time, in a valley I will never visit, became extinct? I tried hard to answer yes, I really did. It would have made him feel better. To be honest I could not make that leap, even for him. It was only later, at his funeral, I appreciated we are hitched to everything else in the Universe. I had not understood it before. It was this that made me cry five or six tears.

9:02. I received my wrist band alert. ‘Issue Cl34nD3Ep. 0.879 gallons. Stand 7, district 16. Time 10:02-10:09. Container type, SpecLink 59.’

The funeral was at 11:15. It would not be the first time I had taken her allocation to a funeral. Others there would be doing the same; there was no embarrassment.

The heat made me tired. The dusty wind made me tired. The lack of hope made me tired. I did not feel anything anymore. Tomorrow. Today. Yesterday. I wanted to feel something. Anything. I looked at the water in the bath. It reminded me of the pond we had in our garden when I was a child. It would have been too humiliating to talk about this at school, but in the confines of our garden we relished fishing out the frogs. Here they were not cruel. Feeling their slippery wriggly bodies squirm in our fingers made us feel alive.

I stepped into the bath. The water felt cool on my foot and around my ankle. I loved the sensation. It soaked up the leg of my trouser. I stepped in with the other foot. The water soaked up the second trouser leg. It arrived at my bladder. I sat down, needing to wash my trousers. The water continued to soak up into my shirt, and my jacket. It felt good. No, it actually felt great. I tipped back so the water covered my face. I sat up and heard water as it went down the over flow pipe. Running water; the sound of running water. I felt more alive than I had in years. I went under the water again and held my breath as long as I could, spluttering to the surface. I sat up so quickly that some water ran onto the floor. I felt no guilt at this decadence.

A beam of sunlight was highlighted by the dust coming in the bathroom window. In return the sound of water flowed out. For a brief moment, it made the grass green and the trees shoot out new leaves. It made the rose bloom a deep blood red and clothe everything with its heavy scent. The apple tree burst with pink hyacinth-scented flowers and fruited; we had such bountiful branches.

I was happy. For the first time in years I was genuinely happy. The warmth you get from feeling satisfied at a good job done. I splashed my hands on the surface. I sucked up a mouthful and shot it like a fountain against the wall. Again, and again until my gaunt cheeks ached. A physical ache unlike the one in the pit of my stomach or husk of my heart. I laughed, the way as a child I watched soap bubbles burst.

Downstairs here was a knock at the front door. I fell silent. Louder this time I hide under the water until the air in my lungs scream to have its oxygen replaced. I broke the surface, water spilled out of the bath. No longer was it a happy gurgling spring stream, with life and vigour. It was a factory outflow pipe contaminating everything with its waste; fish would have died in this water. The knocking was replaced by banging -angry, insistent, hateful banging. Then, there was a pause. A pause that lasted a lifetime. One loud crack followed by the splintering of the door and door frame. They were in. I could tell just by the fact that the dust no longer flowed into the bathroom from outside. Instead the dust was being drawn out as the air was sucked up the staircase like a chimney.

Vile hate rushed in behind this movement of air. I braced myself by gripping both taps behind my head -one in each hand. With my left foot I kicked the fan, balanced carefully on the edge of the bath, past its tipping point. Its black trailing cable snaked across the bathroom floor. Its plug pulled unsuccessfully to free itself from the extension lead. In turn the extension cable recoiled and tried to release itself from the wall socket. The wall socket held firm on her side of the bed. Briefly it tensed and relaxed. My last act was to make 64 gallons of water undrinkable. Is that the crime?

Brindled Green -a story.

Brindled Green matthew_caseyThere was an awful grinding sound as Conner left the road. He bumped the earth bank and the car slid across a half-buried rock. He imagined sparks flying out like some cosmic chariot as he came to a halt. His daughter slept through, curling and uncurling her 23-week-old fingers. He had made no preparation for fatherhood, the same way he had made no preparation for many of his life events, but there was nothing he would not give up for her. Yet here he was, half on and half off the road in God-knows where. He had slipped back into his old ways. He had been playing the game.

When anxious a serpentine knot gripped his guts, just beneath his rib cage. He learnt this feeling as a child. His friends also had night-terrors something under the bed or hiding in the dark, or just the feeling of being abandoned by their parents. Different from his friends, he learnt to control these fears through an injection of panic.

He learnt this the first time he rolled down a hill in the park. Out of control, with the smell of grass and mud in his nostrils, he came close to smashing his skull on a fence. Later, he began climbing high into trees, especially Oak with their stout limbs. High on their thinnest branches rocked by the wind he achieved the same rush. From the ground it looked brave and with these exploits he developed the admiration of his friends. This though was a by-product. The aim was to induce panic deep inside his core. Panic cultivated fear. And it was fear that ripped through destroying the knot.

This experimentation continued into his teens. Walking with his friends in Town, he would close his eyes in the High Street. Standing stock-still he waited for the smell of a diesel engine. Then without warning, he stepped out into the road. He lost many friends during this experimentation – freaking them out. Gaining his driving licence extended his experimentation. During this period, he discovered ‘fine rain’.

Fine rain was not the thin mist that soaked through your denim on an hour’s walk with the dog. To Conner fine rain was the rain that allowed him to play an adult version of the game. His game. In the rain he turned the windscreen wipers to intermittent wipe. He adjusted the car’s speed allowing the rain to fully cover the screen, reducing visibility to an impossible smear. Then just as the panic alarm in his deep brain told him he was going to die; the wiper blade cleared the water. The road was stolen from the wobbly lines disappearing into grey. This he would do five, six, seven or more times. Depending on the type of road he sometimes travelled a long way loosing and regaining his sight. Sometimes he left his lane. Terror killed the anxious knot.

He played the game alone, or with passengers; the knot’s needs dictated the frequency. Passengers always noticed. Passengers always commented, sometimes stridently, but nobody ever got hurt. During one of these experiments though he did kill a fox. This he regretted, but there it was, dead by the roadside. A small amount of blood trickled from the animal’s nose, discolouring a puddle. Its coat, thick with winter, kept it warm while it slept. He paused the game.

The pause lasted longer than he expected. The knot did not even reappear at fatherhood. That first summer everything was marvellous; he viewed the death of the fox as a release. Nevertheless, in the shortening days the familiar feeling returned, his guts inside a net bag that would eventually pull tight. His daughter, Rebecca, was so beautiful and precious, but Conner felt the future pile down on both of their aspirations.

A wet Thursday, late October, sitting at traffic lights the thump of the windscreen wipers bounced around the inside his skull.
Conner turned them off. The sound of rain on metal, the sound of rain on the glass, chilled his bones. The first drops to hit the cleared windscreen spread, radiating amoeba-like tentacles. In the time it took for more to fall the first ones began to bleed into each other, racing down the screen. It was a strange erratic path as water joined amoeba joined water.

The tail-lights of the car in front sparkled like babbles at Christmas. Lines that had once been straight -tree trunks, lamp post and road markings, swayed. Big chunks were eaten out of them by unseen voracious mouths. It was more abstract when he closed one eye, first the left then the right. The image lurched and swayed.

The car behind blared on the horn. Twice. The car in front was twenty metres away when his wipers swiped left. He drove. Forgetting Rebecca in her car seat, he sought panic to eat his anxious, twisted knot. 37 miles later, as he bumped off the road, she filled Conner’s rear-view mirror, once more occupying his attention. His full attention. This time, fear had not prevented the net bag pulling tighter. He needed help.

There was no signal on his phone. The rain cocooned them in the car. He did not get out immediately. Conner waited, expecting to be told what to do. Rebecca slept. His instruction never arrived. He stepped out into the rain. Still no signal. He walked a short way up the hill, the way he had come. No signal. Ten more yards, still no signal. In other circumstances the golden Birch leaves would have made him elated, but they shone a radiant glow that could not fill his heart. Today, they did not stop the rain sticking his shirt to his chest.

He went back to the car. He opened the rear door and sat with Rebecca. She began to stir, he carried the smell and chill of the forest. She would be hungry soon. This was no longer fine rain. Across the road a deer moved between the trees. It disappeared before he turned his head to look fully at it. There had been no traffic in all this time. Conner had to act.

The boot contained every possible thing a child may need, but he had no coat; there was a golf umbrella -green and blue. He took Rebecca’s changing bag -her food, her nappies and spare clothes. He sensed the deer return. Conner turned, seeing nothing except the occasional leaf, made heavy by the rain, fall.

Unclipping his daughter from her seat, sliding her into a waterproof ‘all-in-one’, Rebecca screwed up her face but stayed asleep. Conner held her tight. She smelt of baby. He smiled.

Choosing forward over back, it was about four miles to the next village. Juggling Rebecca, the changing bag and the umbrella he tried to protect all against the rain. In indoor shoes he could not avoid the puddles and the rivulet of water running along the edge of the road. The water quickly soaked his socks, cold water iced his feet. His heels dragged with an exaggerated ‘slosh’. Stopping to re-position Rebecca to the other shoulder he looked around, not sure what to expect. Still no traffic. He was left with a feeling that it would be soon, whatever was coming. Was that another deer further on? A bird screeched an alarm as flew, a kaleidoscope of pink, blue, white and black. Then nothing. Conner shivered with the cold, he had to press on.

A few more minutes, water soaking up his trouser legs, he reached a track on the left. A sign pointing to the village read, ‘One and a half miles’. He looked along the road to the bend. The track was less than half as far as the road, but it would screen him from help that was certainly on its way. The rain dripping from the leaves was now the only sound. Late afternoon was shedding its veil to reveal the arrival of evening.

Conner assessed the options again. Less than half the distance. This was the instruction that moved him. He looked along the track, water polished the gravel either side of a grass central ridge. His shoes noticed the transition from firm to soft. Each step pressed down slightly, and the mud reached the uppers. With each step the smooth bottoms of the shoes slide slightly, but still noticeably, back towards the road. It was as though they did not want to leave what they knew, for an unknown future. The trees made the track a darker route. Small birds with long tails flew across his path. Was this a sign? Connor pressed on regardless reaching an Oak tree with its deeply fissured bark and decades of observation, its first branches appeared at about three metres. The leaves were a mix of browns and greens, acorns were hidden. Another shrieky bird lifted pink from fallen leaves. Rebecca started to make the sounds of hunger. Connor’s knot tightened further, it was slowing him down. By now he was almost doubled up in agony.

He reached the next Oak, its trunk hollowed out. It had lost some upper branches and the trunk was split at the bottom. He noticed the detail of a moth on the edge of the slit like lichen -greens and greys. He touched the moth with his outstretched finger. It flew in to the cavern where the guts of the tree should have been. He looked inside, and an idea constructed itself. He took a changing mat out of the bag. He placed the plastic side down onto the mud and leaves, the pink elephant and lemon-coloured pony face upwards. He lay Rebecca on her back and while he pressed the handle of the umbrella down into the mud she began to cry. He tried to block out the sound.

Connor peered inside the trunk again. Looking up he could see the sky, still grey, rain splashed onto his face. He knew what to do. He used the hollow trunk as a chimney. The pain had not subsided, but he was able to climb. He knew he was going to get release when he reached the open sky. He had not climbed to branches waving in the wind for many years, but inside the chimney there were plenty of hand and foot holds; it was easy. The opening to the sky was getting larger and looking down the entrance was shrinking. It was working, he was pain free. Soon the knot would be gone too.

The hole at the top was big enough to climb through. It was going to take some manoeuvring, but he could see a branch on which he could stand and look across to the village, its lights would be twinkling by now. The hole was just over shoulder width, so he would have to raise one arm at a time. Bracing his legs to push upwards, out first went the left hand followed by the left arm. Then in front of his face brushing his nose as it went the right hand followed by the right arm. Pushing with his calves, hamstrings and quads. got his head and torso through the hole. He reached out to sides of the hole. He pushed again, arms and legs working together, his ribcage was born to the world.

Deep breath. Fresh air. Knot untangling. Next push. Nothing moved. Connor could not go higher. He relaxed. Deep breath. Try again. No progress. He tried to slide back down, but his belt had snagged beneath the rim. He wriggled his feet to push again, they slipped from the nodules that had supported him so far. His legs dangled freely. The belt he wore to hold his belly in place, now held his belly in place. There was no longer a serpent holding his guts the tree had performed the magic contained in the game. His game. Below, far below, an unfed baby.

Dryobotodes eremita -Photo Matthew Casey

Ex-smokers, vegans and the weight of Piping Plovers.

Great he’s stopped banging on about Ringed Plovers. There is only so much you can take from someone who has just discovered something ‘new’. It’s a bit like ex-smokers continually telling people how important fresh air is. Or that joke, ‘How do you know there’s a vegan on the bus you’re on?’ ‘They tell you!’

But Ringed Plovers? Just give it a rest, they are not globally threatened. There’s enough to go around and I can get them on my year list easily.

Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Now that’s different. They are ‘near threatened’ with a global population about 8000. They are exotic, breeding on sparsely vegetated shorelines of the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States; the Great Lakes; and the U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as in the Caribbean.

Image-1 (1)

This is a bit of a leap, three Ringed Plover posts for the UKs 30,000 wintering population, fine. Then a pond jump, to a global treat, what’s the story?

Piping Plovers are considered cute little birds, scurrying along shorelines with their precocial (and adorable) young. This has helped muster large numbers of dedicated workers and volunteers to come to the aid of these vulnerable birds.


However, they are not universally loved. Management can involve seasonal closures of prime recreational beaches to vehicles, dogs, humans even on 4th July. Reactions to closures often reach the media resulting in negative backlash.

hey audubon

Oh, I see, if things are too good to be true, they usually are. He is trying to argue that Piping Plovers are like Ringed Plovers. Slow up there that’s some stretch. Just tell the story of the bird and be done.

It was early in September 2017. If there was any chance of seeing Piping Plover it was going to be on the broad sandy stretches south of Stone Harbour, north of Cape May, but even then it was a slim chance. Having earlier bumped into a couple down from Canada in their SUV to photograph birds, there was not going to be a sharing of gen. They had shown themselves, the day before, to be able to peel an orange in their pocket without anyone smelling it.

Walking south over the last ridge of dunes a vast expanse of sandy beach opened up, and even though the tide was rising there was a lot of sand. In the distance there were some American Oystercatchers, they were not, ‘just like ours but different’. In the swirl of pink legs and sand blowing from the dunes there was one Piping Plover, as unexpected as it was beautiful. Then it was gone. Smitten. The oystercatchers moved not because of us or the rising tide, but a runner was going along the shoreline.

A month earlier, a paper on Piping Plover had been submitted for publication. It described the impact of habitat loss on shorebirds and how this is made worse by human recreational use. This further reduces the amount of coastal habitat that is functionally available for feeding and roosting. This has consequences for the condition of individual birds and for a plover’s lifecycle.

Piping Plovers in disturbed sites were 7% lighter than those in less disturbed sites during this non-breeding season review. Additionally, annual survival was lower from birds using more disturbed areas. Site fidelity though, appeared to be the same whether birds wintered on disturbed or less disturbed beaches. Plovers do not readily relocate, they may use valuable resources and find somewhere less suitable -better the devil you know.
These associations among non-breeding circumstances, body condition, and demography highlight the importance of nonbreeding habitats to annual population dynamics of migratory species. Is this true for other Charadrius or is it just Piping Plovers? We may never know as birds generally become rare before they attract funding to do the research. So, we may never know if Ringed Plovers behave like this. But let’s just guess.

Piping Plovers are at the lower end of the biometrics for Ringed Plover and could be considered small Ringed Plovers as there is no indication that they are any more specialist in their habits or requirements. It’s their habitat that restricts them not a behaviour or food item. So, what conclusion can be drawn?

Most if not all Ringed Plovers on County Durham’s beaches in the non-breeding season will not try to breed here. The beaches are either not suitable -not sandy with pebbles, or they are highly disturbed during the breeding season. Most plovers will move back to their breeding grounds from March*. Based on this research it would be rare for a Ringed Plover to leave County Durham and reach its breeding ground in optimum breeding condition.

So here is the challenge to the nagging voice in this commentary who is bored with Ringed Plovers. Given we are going to have to wait for them to become rare before we do something it is unlikely, anytime soon that the plight of the Ringed Plover will get any attention. It is almost by accident that protection is given to Ringed Plovers -the few that nest inside the fence of a tern colony. Little Terns are after all already rare and worthy of consideration.

So yes, perhaps stop banging on about Ringed Plovers is the best thing to do. Most counties that border the North Sea had Ringed Plovers on their Bio-diversity Action Plan (BAP) and breeding success got worse. Not only that, we are sending birds back to northern Europe in poor condition so a decline in the species is guaranteed. And to the nagging voice there is no appetite to change this.

* It is suggested that most Ringed Plovers in the UK come from the North West -Greenland, Iceland and Canada. This does not hold true for County Durham (or for that matter Northumberland or Cleveland). The ringing recoveries for the County show a north-east/south-west direction of travel with birds returning to northern Europe and getting as far as France suggesting that mainly ssp hiaticula is involved.
However, the records of birds from Iceland suggest ssp psammodroma move through the region and records from Norway and Senegal suggest ssp tundrae also can be found in the North East and are worth looking for.

Gibson D, Chaplin M K, Hunt K L, Friedrich M J, Weithman C E, et. al. (2018) The Condor, 120(3) : 566-580

Gratto-Trevor C L and Abbott S. (2011) Conservation of Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) in North America: science, successes, and challenge. Can. J. Zool. 89: 401–418.