The Sacred Combe

I did not expect to start a blog about a review of a book I may never read.  Simon ‘How to be a Bad Birdwatcher‘ Barnes has written a new book –The Sacred Combe.  It is essentially a book about his patch -Luangwa Valley Zambia, and being able to walk around it.  Ceri ‘Extinct Boids‘ Levy in reviewing the book pulled out some extracts that made me think.

By being on foot we become part of the ecology of the place.

The realest, deepest and most important truth of this book is that a sacred combe is wherever you want to look for it.

The sacred combe is no idle fancy of mine. You come across it all the time, even if all you can find is a mourning for its loss. It really is something common to us all: that dream of a special place that extorts from us a kind of reverence.

The blurb that comes with the book suggests that everyone has a sacred combe, but Ceri thinks that an awful lot of people don’t have one, have never found it or never knew where to look. The pace of modern life often makes us forget to stop, breathe, look and listen.

Until I read this review it was this haste and disregard I was going to write about.  This is my third patch visit since my sabbatical.  On my second I came across three men -at least late twenties tearing through the patch on motorbikes.  On the waste heaps it may not matter, but them and others have ripped into the bluebell bulbs in the oak wood leaving a trail of destruction.

At the other end of the patch on the same day were a group of Paparazzi; miserable that the Short-eared Owls had not shown.  Not enjoying the ariel nearby display of three Kites, a pair and an interloper, the cameras had become dower and miserable.  The lenses dangled, aimless in the wind that was picking up.

These two examples confirmed to me Ceri’s fears about modern life.  I was going to use this post to rip into one or both groups.  A guy in a tractor stopped me from being so facile.

He asked what the ‘cameras’ were doing and we chatted.  He was really proud to talk of the 32,000 trees he had planted, the wildlife he had on his land and the fact he does not allow shooting over it.  More disappointingly we talked of poachers -rabbits, hare and deer and of a shot Buzzard.

I might see this patch as my ‘Combe’, but I was really pleased to know that at least 100 acres of it have a safe pair of hands.  These safe pair of hands may, at least for a while, prevent me mourning for its loss.



Dawn to Dusk

Be under no illusion, this is not a romantic landscape.  It is not one in which you step to be wrapped in a duvet and shown chocolate box rolling landscapes.  Scrape back about a hundred years and all this was industrial mines, railways and farm land.  However, it is a landscape which with time has recovered and you can step through the occasional portal and not see another person for several hours.

I have looked forward to this return for several months and it did not disappoint.  3 square kms of opportunities to explore wildlife of the North East of England.  There are no expectations of finding a mega rarity, but there are enough good birds for whom their living year provides excitement and interest.  Without going over the top, I have missed it.  It has helped me think through how I view our place in the natural world.

The sun rose slowly over an expectant horizon.  Within moments two Kestrels were alert to the prospect of feeding, now the rain had stopped.  With little wind both took a settled vantage point.  The male settled in a Hawthorn hedge and with every turn of its head sent 25 Redwing rushing back to the cover of a Holly like the children’s game ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’

The land squeezed water.  Everywhere it ran downhill and overhead Golden Plover gave a distant clarion call to action.  The time has come to consider all we are loosing by allowing once common birds to slip away.  Common birds like Curlew, how can that have happened?

New signs suddenly proclaimed ‘The Oldest Railway in the World’, which made me think I had been away a long time.  Two Kites moved through still air, above an increased evidence of Pheasants being reared to be shot -screens, cages and feed bins.  This is not a good sign.

Jays noticed me slip into the wood at Causey Arch.  I came out with Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Willow Tit on the list, while Great Tits pumped tyres.  My guilty pleasure on the patch is having a favorite tree -an Oak that sits on top of a hill.  It is a perfect tree shape, the kind a child would draw, made more special knowing that the eggs of Purple Hairstreak butterflies await the Spring sunshine.

Further on I entered the next wood.  The narrow path has been cut into by the tyres of a a trail bike, another sign of unwanted change; Bluebell bulbs have been disturbed and lie on the surface.  Further on the stream has flowed out of its bound scowering the path to its bed rock -more bulbs will have been lost.  The babble of the water hides any sound I may have been making and I frighten a Buzzard from feeding on a crow that has been shot.  The roost here, whilst on Public Footpath, had been an easy target before.  The ping of a text alert was not from my phone, but I saw no-one.


A hedge full of Reed Buntings (11 min) and Yellowhammers (7 min) was a true delight as they fed in the disappearing sunshine.  Linnets bounced in a big flock around subsidence that has appeared in an arable field.  By the time I reached the car I was up to 5 Buzzards and two more Kites.

Two Short-eared Owls, one much darker that the other may have been successful in their catches once each in an hour an a half.  Three photographers took different approaches to collecting these birds.  One had come unprepared and had walked across the top field in training shoes from where he had parked his car.  Water marks up to his shins we discussed the merits of standing on the path and allowing the birds to feed, without voices being raised.  In return he told me of a dead Otter in the lay-by where he had parked.  Whatever was there had gone when I went to look.

So 2015 and NZ26 happened I am back on patch and feel great about my choice.  45 species, only another 55 to go.



Then let the bird find you.


I love shorebirds as a group and always have right from the first Lapwing nests found in Spring fields as adults tumbled overhead.  These fields are now drained and wheat is sown in the winter; too high in March to permit scrapes in the ground to be shallowed out.  The post breeding winter flocks are noticeably smaller than they every have been.

All shorebirds are different.  Take the common-place Curlew.  I did not grow up with them nesting nearby and had to go to the coast to see them regularly.  It is a bird generally heard before its seen; its wary nature makes it take flight early.  Their common place brownness makes them difficult sometimes, for birders to see them, they fit neatly onto a list without having to give them a great deal of attention.  Non-birders, ironically may notice them more with their long fluty calls and accurately identify them from a down-turned scimitar beak.

Good optics have been designed for such brown birds; they have the ability to make the invisible, visible.  The intrigue of pipits, buntings and shorebirds is the difficulty we have in describing browns in meaningful ways.  Last year having restricted myself to the 10km square covering Newcastle/Gateshead I had many opportunities to watch Curlew on the mud of the Tyne and a few other places.  And in these places curlew-brown became a meaningful colour or should I say colours.  One bird in particular slurped up worms like spaghetti and made a huge impression over the hour I watched it.

Whilst I was enjoying the aesthetics other people were in the process of publishing papers on the dramatic decline of this breeding bird.  Their numbers have dropped 46% in the time it took my son to be born in 1994 to reach the age of 16.  This makes it really likely that generations who follow him may find it hard to see breeding Curlew.  By 3rd December 2015 the Curlew was added to the red list of the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern and the BTO were setting up a special research programme to understand its decline.

So it is not that common place.  Or perhaps it is its common place, its invisibility whilst in plain sight, that has made it easy to dismiss.  This is how I came across curlew.  A noun to describe precious things we are loosing.

The photo by @Leeharris71 as waters rose higher at Lamesley seem to some up the predicament the Curlew now finds it self in.


lee harris jan 16

Next week weather permitting, after these two introductions I will get onto the patch for some birding.  Dawn to Dusk





First Find Your Patch.



A sign?

A solitary finger of a footpath sign points out across a field of ripening wheat.  No person had walked here since the seeds were sown.  There was no track on the ground worn bare by passing feet.  I had seen this sign every work day for 10 months, but on this day, stuck in traffic I wondered, ‘Where does that path go?’

Maps can show you the network of paths and tracks, but it is only on foot that you get the sense of understanding the landscape.  So with nothing better to do on 22nd June 2007 I set off to see what was there.  You can only do this once on a given set of paths; around every corner, a new discovery.  And you can only make this kind of discovery through walking.  I set off and just followed the most interesting paths.  Doing this without a map gave me permission to get lost.   I took 50 photos of things I had never seen before.  Everything was new and shiny.  My notebook filled up with birds and other wildlife.  I learnt about things I could never know from the car.

A few days later I opened the note book to remind myself of what I had seen.

Gropper reeling.

Garden Warbler.  x2

W. Warbler.

But quite soon I must have passed it to someone else.  They interpreted what they saw.  This other person wrote about how the landscape made them feel.  Who the f*** was this other person filling my bird notebook: the one that only I write only birds in.  And it went on page after page.  Whoever this other person was, they were a right Sticky Beak.  There was no need to write personal thoughts, the ones that even I do not admit to me.   Perhaps I should have taken something to stop this writer getting dehydrated on the walk  So in that half day the landscape, this landscape grabbed me.  Perhaps this is what a patch is – somewhere that you can feel attached to.  Somewhere that sticks to you, as much as you stick to it.

If asked, I would have said my landscape was wild inter-tidal marshes with their out-of-reach shorebirds, having spent most of my early summers in Blakeney.  Maybe though my inner core-landscape is farmland with Skylarks overhead and Yellowhammers in the hedgerows and I found them here: ‘my’ patch.  It became my addition to the BTO Bird Atlas.  I raced to a mighty 94 species in the 2014 Patchwork Challenge, but in 2015, I returned only three times.  I’d  had this mad idea about finding birds in NZ26 Newcastle/Gateshead.  It was great fun, don’t get me wrong, but each of those three times I wanted to ditch my urban project.  Now in 2016 I can wander the paths again and see what has changed.

The montage is of photos I took back on that day in 2007.  The quotes are some of the things I am prepared to share.