Thursday, 24 March 2016

Day of the Long Tails

Who amongst us doesn't regard long-tailed tits as charming little birds? They would, I imagine, be considered a common enough inhabitant of our woodlands and wayside, but just how numerous they really are was brought home to me on a visit to Strumpshaw Fen earlier this week. A stroll around the reserve on a dull day was brightened considerably by watching the nest building antics of several pairs of these perky little birds as they buzzed through the still bare trees looking for lichens and spiders webs with which to construct their well-hidden domed nurseries. My first encounter was of one rummaging around in the humus close to the woodland trail. Wondering what this innocent faced mite was doing, I approached closer to discover this bird plucking breast feathers from a dead woodpigeon. A little gruesome, but it was simply exploiting an easy source of nest liner; this soft down will insulate the structure from the rigours of spring’s wind, rain and chill. Further along I encountered a second pair uttering gentle 'tac' notes as they added moss, lichen and a binding of spider web to their nest situated in a low bramble. Bramble is a favoured nest site offering good concealment, dense rainproof cover and a thorny deterrent to would be predators. I watched this pair for 30 minutes as they made regular visits to add to the intricately woven ball. On each occasion the bird would jump into the half built nest, add their new material, wriggling their tiny bodies to optimise the shape of the cup and then do a bit of gardening around the edge. Both sexes performed in precisely the same manner and clearly had equal shares in the construction process. Totally oblivious to my presence visits were made every 2-3 minutes, a rate that would allow the nest to be fully constructed within a very few days. Quite a feat for such tiny sprites and the finished article is a real work of art and incredibly durable.

Fifty metres further along whilst chatting to a friend I met by good fortune, we realised another pair of these endearing creatures were nest building in another bramble bush close by. More buzzing, more 'tacking' and more feathers. As I moved around the reserve I encountered no less than seven pairs of these pink hued residents diligently engaged in nest building, and I guess I only really skimmed the surface as I didn't walk the river path and in any case only saw those directly adjacent to the woodland trails. I was mildly surprised at these numbers and equally impressed by the synchronous way the species seemed spurred into breeding action.
But it is not just the woodland birds that are engaged in the early stages of breeding, for out on the open water mini soap operas are being performed all over. The grey lag geese are noticeably paired with territorial ganders thrusting their necks out at any perceived intruder. Other members of their species are dealt with mercilessly, chased across the broad with much loud honking and ceremony. Smaller, totally innocent mallards, gadwall and shoveler are not immune from the testosterone fueled posturing and will be seen off with a threatening lunge.
Coots are similarly engaged in their cantankerous territorial skirmishes. Any potential infringement of what are to us invisible boundaries, results in the violated bird arching its wings high over its body and swimming purposefully towards the transgressor. Often the threatened bird will swim back to its own patch of reed fringed water, but if it does not then there are sure to be sparks. The ensuing fights can be brutal and violent; both birds contorting themselves as they launch at one another with their cruelly clawed feet. Last week I saw a fight between three pairs; all six birds flailing at each other wildly, causing the waters to boil. But all will settle as boundaries are firmly established and the birds will soon settle to building their woven platform of broken reed fragments anchored to others still standing.

It is hard to turn mid-March into mid-May as much as we would will it, but there are sure signs that the season is advancing. Unseen by us townies the countryside is astir; birds are paired and nesting has begun; queen bees have stirred from hibernation and are seeking fresh nesting sites to raise this year’s brood; frogs and toads are well into their spawning and if you listen closely you can almost hear the earth creaking as the myriad shoots of legion plants reach towards light.

It is all too tempting to hurry the season along, but as I gazed at a withered posy of snowdrops I realised it was only a couple of weeks ago they were shining as bright beacons in a desolate winters glade. Now they are over, all too quick, so we should perhaps simply let the world unfold naturally and appreciate what we can see whilst it is on offer. Savour the day and take delight in the small things. Certainly watching tiny long tailed tits attending to their domestic duties was a delight and I feel privileged to be able to witness such things.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Yellow Gate

About 20 years ago I penned a short story for no other reason than I happened to be in the mood to do so one evening. It was simply meant as an account of the circular nature of life and successive generations; of childhood, fatherhood and the way that in an ever changing world some things (happily) remain constant.

By complete coincidence a letter appeared in the EDP a few days later asking for any memories/anecdotes/photographs relating to the tenure of Lightning interceptor aircraft at RAF Coltishall here in Norfolk. The chap requesting all of this was writing a book about this cold war beast and so I sent him my story. He happened to like it and used as an end piece which he thought perfect for documenting the transition from old to new. To date this is the only missive I've ever had published in a mainstream book......and I didn't receive a penny.

No matter. I'd pretty much forgotten about the piece, but found it lurking in a folder together with a few other well intentioned but ill fated attempts to write a cohesive tale. For what it's worth I reproduce it below, and note the irony that the base has now closed and the Jaguar itself retired from service. The ghosts of the aircraft, airmen and women live on though. If you stand by the old runway you can sometimes see them. Hope you like it.


Ironically it is mostly very quiet and peaceful at this place. At the moment there is little sound apart from the seemingly ever present but unobtrusive song of a Skylark somewhere up in the wide blue heaven above us. It is pleasing background noise, a perfect companion to the dozy warmth of a summers day upon which my son has accompanied me to a small unfrequented country lane some 6 or 7 miles north of where we live. Progress along this particular lane is terminated abruptly after a few hundred yards by a bright yellow gate beyond which is the vast expanse of the air base. There is little sign of life on the base but through the shimmering heat haze, on the far side of the expanse, we can discern the distorted and disembodied image of the brisk, relentless swirling radar: the planes are flying. The planes are why we are here, me with my arms resting on top of the gate, my young son clambering up so he can sit beside me astride the top bar, legs swinging idly. We are here to see the jets, to experience the thrill of witnessing several tons of high tech avionics hurtle through the air not 50 yards from where we stand and somehow make contact with the tarmac runway and remain in one piece. It is a thrill we share now and again when the mood takes us and we can spare the time to lounge in intimate contact with this yellow crash gate in anticipation of that exhilarating few moments when an aircraft comes in to land. 

A few minutes later as I scan the distant horizon for the umpteenth time I see a small speck which can only be our quarry. I trace with my practiced eye the line of its approach from the edge of the runway through the tall sentinel landing lights, across the flat open country and eventually to its slowly enlarging image. “Hey James ! Here comes another one.”

 “Where dad?”

 “Over there look, you can see its light”. 

What began as an infinitesimal speck in the far distance is now appreciably larger and a faint smoke trail can be seen in its wake. The bright lights shining powerfully from its nose wheel flaps provide a disproportionately large reference point to track its progress. There is no noise as yet but as the seconds pass the image enlarges and more detail can be made out; it is soon possible to discern the distinct shape of a modern jet aircraft. Perhaps 30 seconds pass, a passage of time that seems far, far longer as the anticipation mounts.

“What is it dad?”

“A Jag I think”

Its approach seems much quicker now but it is still strangely silent until it almost pounces upon us and zooms past with a tremendous cacophony of sound. Within moments it hits the ground at over 100 miles an hour smoke flying from its tyres on impact. My lad has his hands over his ears but I can see he enjoys the moment. We note the checkered blue and yellow markings of 54 squadron, watch the air brakes flare and listen to the thrust bring reversed with a terrific roar. Sometimes a pilot will show off and allow the plane to cruise along the runway for quite some distance with its nose raised before allowing the front wheel to make contact with the ground - I suppose it’s a question of if you’ve got it flaunt it.

The Jaguar levels out and recedes into the distance along the runway and is soon lost to view. Silence imposes itself over the scene, its return made more poignant by stark contrast with the ear-piercing interruption of a few moments ago. But the loud sounds are the things that I suppose really impress, that and the evocative smell of spent aviation fuel. I love it and I doubt the excitement will ever pale.

There is now a lull in the action, and whilst my young lad contents himself with munching a sandwich I begin to think back to when I first discovered this place in the late summer of 1968. I can still remember the day vividly, the day when we first encountered a real jet, the magnificent, magical and majestic Lightning....

My friend and I, my very best friend the inseparable and unquestioning kind you can only really make as children, had gone fruit picking with my parents. We were unimpressed with this obviously overrated pastime and decided to seek our fortune elsewhere. We chose Coltishall as the honoured destination of the day for no other reason than we had never been there before and were curious as to what it was like. The road sign declared it to be 5 miles away, a distance that meant nothing to our young frames; we were used to walking and took the distance literally in our stride.


We eventually arrived at the village which was, and still is, a place of great charm, a well worked mixture of warm red bricked Georgian cottages complete with abundant displays of multi coloured roses and hollyhocks nestled between somewhat larger and more imposing properties of various designs overlooking the tranquil river. More importantly to our youthful frames was the existence of a local store. We pooled our meager resources to purchase a drink and some sugar laden provisions and it was whilst consuming these goodies that we first heard the thunderous roar of a Lightning. We realised that we were close to the famous RAF base where the war time hero Douglas Bader had flown Spitfires and it at once became an irresistible lure. We resolved therewith to follow the red-bordered road signs and get a closer view, if we could, of the powerful monsters that now inhabited the station. 


We walked further along the then almost deserted country lanes, all the time the sound of the jets got louder and louder and our expectations proportionately mounted. As we arrived at the western end of the runway where the landing lights straddle the road we stopped and watched for the first time one of these magnificent silver machines come in to land. So loud, so fast, so exciting. This was real fun! We just had to get a closer look.


Our years of birds nesting and rambling had rendered us immune to barbed wire fences and their implications. Such symbols of authority, prohibition and possession held no sway with us and we wasted no time in climbing the one such bordering the roadside. It was high summer and I can even now capture the sights and sounds that assaulted us as we swam through a sea of corn. Here we were temporarily side tracked as we paused to admire a beautifully constructed nest of a field mouse we found woven intricately amongst the stems. It was a real adventure, complete abandon; we had no care in the world. 


We emerged from the field to be greeted with a sturdier barrier erected by the MoD to stop more sinister intruders than us. Undaunted we walked around the airfield perimeter until we came to a small lane which seemed to lead towards the heart of the base itself. There were no doubt signs warning us not to trespass on MoD property but I cannot recall seeing them, and if they were there we certainly took little account of the legend printed upon them. We had come so far that nothing was going to stop us now. Presently we came to an area close to where the large jets cruised by on their way to take off. We climbed a nearby oak and for the next 30 minutes or so had a great time wedged side by side, safe and secure, in the boughs of the sturdy tree waving to the pilots as they taxied by. One or two waved back which gave us great encouragement and I suppose hastened our inevitable downfall.  


There comes a point in every adventure where your luck runs out but on this particular occasion ours didn’t just run out - we gave it a pretty hefty kick out the door!  But we were young and full of exuberance and because of this determined that we would get closer still to these wonderful aircraft. We set out on a stroll across the airbase!  Needless to say we didn’t get far and looking back we were extremely fortunate to only find ourselves explaining our presence on the hallowed ground to a somewhat bemused RAF sergeant whose powerful shouts had brought us shamefaced into his realm. It could have been much, much worse - I have nightmares wondering where we would have ended up if we had not been spotted! Anyway having decided the likelihood of us being communist spies was small the RAF man took pity on us, dumped us in the back us his truck and deposited us at the main entrance (exit in our case) of the air base.  This was a mixed blessing, on the one hand we had escaped the firing squad but on the other we had an extra couple of miles to walk home. On balance we decided we had probably gotten off lightly and resigned to our fate tramped home. 


Far from deterring us, this episode only served to spur us on; from that moment we were firmly hooked. Over the next couple of years we made regular excursions to the base discovering various vantage points from which to watch the planes.  Most of these spots ended in a yellow crashgate to which we gave numbers - I think we found three in all, but there may have been more. We recruited a third member to our merry band and made all subsequent trips by employing the advantage afforded by two wheels rather than just two legs - the more expedient method of bicycle. My trusty green racing bike is the epitome of that era for me. It was my first real bike, a metallic green racer, and I knew that it cost my parents a lot of money, more than they could actually afford. It was a truly treasured possession. I’ve still got that bike, it stands forlorn and neglected in the garage, its tyres flat and its paint work a little tarnished. But it is still a good looking machine and I will never let it go.


Although our excursions were restricted to school holidays, small things like the seasons bothered us not in the least. We visited the base come rain or shine and I particularly remember one freezing cold crisp mid-winters day when every time a Lightning plummeted to the runway and passed  low overhead we held out our numb hands to gratefully receive a blast of warm air. To think that we were so close that the hot air from the exhaust could temporarily alleviate the numbness brought on by the cold.


For a time we lived Lightnings; we watched them, made models of them - whole squadrons adorned our bedroom ceilings - drew pictures of them, took photographs of them and probably bored our friends stupid with our talk of them. But it was good, it was harmless and it gave us a focal point upon which to channel our ever increasing need for mental stimulation and practice our creative talents. 


But then it all changed - we “grew up”. There was suddenly a very urgent need to disassociate ourselves with any pastime that could be linked with childhood.  More serious obligations began to impose themselves upon us and in our 16th year of existence we left school and largely went our separate ways. The cycle rides to RAF Coltishall like so many other simple fun filled things ceased and were never resumed. 


I think it was shortly after leaving school in 1973 that the Lightnings were replaced by the Jaguars, an event that I recorded as no more than a marginal note against the main text of my life. I was basically too busy making the sometimes painful transition from the boy to the man. Life evolves. I found work, began earning money, became independent, left home, married and ‘settled down’. 


After a while the interest in aviation rekindled and I began visiting airshows whenever time allowed. It was whilst enjoying the hospitality of the USAF at Mildenhall  in 1988 that I, and many others, last saw a  Lightning fly. The beasts had been kept in service all that while and to my everlasting shame I had hardly given a moments thought to them for the preceding 15 years. Looking back it seems almost terrifying to think of the way in which one takes things for granted. I didn’t realise at the time that this was the last I would ever see of the old war-horse which had given me so much pleasure and had been such a feature of my life all those years ago. Its subsequent fate - I’ve seen the photos of rusting, vandalised, dismembered hulks - almost makes me sick.  


My son was born later that year, he is unlikely ever to see a Lightning fly, he will never feel his stomach throb with the sheer power thrown out from its engines and he will never witness its ability to ascend straight from take off vertically towards the heavens until it is lost from view. A red hot silver bullet fired from a cold war gun. For me one era ended that year and another began.           


I am brought out of my trance by the approach of another Jaguar and although in its way it is a worthy aircraft I can’t help thinking it is a poor replacement for the silver beast. As frightening as it is unexpected an unwelcome longing has bubbled slowly to the surface. I feel as though the breath has been knocked out of me. The memories of those now extinct halcyon days of the 1960s are at this point so vivid I could almost touch them. I can recall wild laughter as we cycled along, the wind streaming through my hair, fever pitch excitement as we got closer to the yellow gate, legs pounding the pedals in a desperate attempt to be the first to reach the goal; always a race to see who could reach it first.

My son catching something of my sombre mood, says “Come on dad lets go home”. I help him down from the gate and take his hand in mine. As we walk away I take a look back over my shoulder at the yellow gate, and there for a brief instant I see the image of three young lads sitting astride their bikes propped against the gate laughing and joking together. They turn to look at me and they smile and raise their hands in greeting. I almost raise my hand in response but then see only the yellow gate, it is still there unchanged in 30 years, smiling at me in the sunshine.


Sunday, 6 March 2016


Picture the scene if you will: me lying in the bath cocooned in the enveloping warmth of a copious volume of soothing H²O, soap suds tickling my nose and the pleasant aroma of some pine scented gunk filling the air. Actually that may be too strong an image for those of you with a sensitive disposition, so you can substitute one of me lying on the sofa if you like. Or perhaps better still don't think of me at all and just read on.

Anyway, as I was on the verge of drifting off I realised I had been subconsciously listening to a robin whose fluting spring song drifted in through the open window. As I tuned in to this charmingly understated serenade, I thought that surely I could hear another bird answering our garden resident from a neighbouring territory. Yes, there it was again. Straining my ears further I'm pretty sure a third was joining the party, underscoring his right to a patch further along our suburban oasis. No doubt there were others out of immediate earshot singing to delineate unseen lines between territories. And further afield again others would be proclaiming their presence; all around for miles in every direction hundreds, nay thousands, of robins would be singing on this early spring afternoon proclaiming rights of ownership to their very own patch of heaven on earth. Radial lines of connectivity formed in my imagination spreading out far and wide, linking all the nations singing robins to the little bird humbly singing a few metres from where I wallowed.

Then a chaffinch chimed in with its short crescendo of cascading notes. And I mused. That chaffinch will now utter its song pretty much non-stop throughout the spring; its collection of sweet notes will be delivered once every few seconds for hours without break until June. Over the coming months therefore, that little bird will sit on favoured perches in our garden uttering his humble tumble hundreds of thousands of times. And every chaffinch in adjacent territories will be doing the same. Note perfect, clear and resonant. Amazing.

I could just make out a song thrush in the distance stridently puncturing the air with confident notes. It was making sure we all got his message by shouting a repertoire of fluty phrases twice or thrice as is the hallmark of the species. I fell to remembering how once in the soft, still twilight of a May evening whilst I was sitting by my pond letting the stresses of the day lift and tease away like early evening mists, a songthrush came down from its lofty singing post to pour forth its beautiful song just a few feet from where I sat. The sound was so pure and so loud that I thought for a few seconds a nightingale had miraculously made its way onto the garden list, but no, it was just a humble song thrush. I sat mesmerised by this wonderful chorister until with the gathering gloom he gave way to the night. That few minutes still ranks as one of the best wildlife experiences of my life simply because it was only me, a younger less weary me, and the bird. No other sound, no other people, just the perfect tune of a songthrush and the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

The more I listened now the more I heard: a dunnock piping forlornly, no doubt from under the privet hedge; a wood pigeon wooing his mate, one of the pair I observed nibbling one another's ear coverts earlier in the day; a collared dove with its short braying flight note that I pictured flying into the ornamental fir where I know a nest is being built; a great tit chattering from somewhere close to the house perhaps inspecting one of the nest boxes amidst the ivy. And lording over all the laughter like cries of lesser black back gulls, chasing each other over the rooftops as they pair up for another season.

There has been great loss and sadness in my life recently, but with the mellow gold of a late afternoon sun slanting through the blinds, the twittering of the birds and the gentle ambience of spring seeping into my soul things, for a time, seem better.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016


Urban foxes! Love or hate? For or against? A subject that seems to wind people up easier than Donald Trump's hairstyle.
For the past 7 years or so I've contributed a regular monthly wildlife article to my parish magazine. During this period I've only twice received formal feedback, on both occasions relating to my mention of urban foxes. In both instances I had the temerity to suggest having foxes in your garden should be regarded as something of a privilege and that people should consider themselves fortunate indeed to have these red coated canines sharing their lives. This upstart attitude to wildlife has not found favour with a certain lady, who on the first occasion wrote a letter to the magazine criticising my cavalier stance and on the second, a couple of weeks ago, telephoned my house to complain in person about my irresponsible remarks. Luckily (for all parties I feel) I was not home at the time and my wife suffered the tirade. She handled the situation with calm and courtesy until the caller referred to her as 'my woman' at which point she unleashed both barrels effectively terminating further discussion. I’ve been on the wrong end of that particular tempest a few times and it would have been fun to have witnessed someone else falling foul of an ill chosen word. It was worth a chuckle nevertheless.

People have opinions on wildlife and I respect that, but why some feel compelled to become so negatively animated over certain subjects perplexes me. 'They're vermin' seemed to be this lady's favoured phrase, but as the missus pointed out they are an indigenous wild animal simply exploiting the opportunities urban habitats offer them. ‘They kill things’ was another allegation but once again it was put to her that so do blue tits, robins and blackbirds which the old gal willfully accepted she liked and fed. Think about that for a second: a blackbird pulling a worm from your lawn, tugging with all its might to separate the poor creature from the soil and then chopping it up into bloody bite sized chunks before carrying it off to its young; the songthrush bashing the brains (and everything else) from a snail; spiders injecting prey with toxins that turn their insides to mush. Horrific? I should say so, but accepted as a part of nature. But the fox hating dwellers amongst us don't see it that way; they see instead a dirty, chicken devouring scapegoat that will steal their babies and spread disease. It is something of a puzzle to me that the very assets that have allowed the human race to plague the globe are despised when attributed to another animal. Foxes are considered sly; by this we mean wily, adaptable and able to thrive in seemingly inhospitable places. Human beings summed up in a sentence. As we have already learned, foxes are considered vermin by some; by which we mean successful, populous and able to kill efficiently. Such a negative term for attributes we cherish in ourselves. Conversely those egg taking, cable chewing, roof felt munching alien grey squirrels are deemed to be cuddly rascals whilst our poor fox is, alas, forever cast as a villain out to deprive us of the ability to share our world with bunnies. It seems to me unfair and illogical but some people are so entrenched in their opinions about such things - foxes, sparrowhawks, otters etc - that no amount of reasoning will sway them.

Whenever I see a fox around my parish, furtively scuttling across the road late at night or occasionally basking in the sunshine at the bottom of the garden, they always strike me as being a touch scrawny, stunted and scruffy. And I think compared to their country cousins they are indeed less well presented. And that's not really surprising when you consider the kind of lifestyle they are forced to lead; scavenging scraps from discarded KFC cartons, raiding bins for slim pickings, perhaps a bit of roadkill here and there. A banquet would be a nice plump wood pigeon but they, despite their clumsiness, are not always easy to catch. And then there are all those dogs and cats and people and cars to dodge. They also have to find somewhere safe to hide up and raise their young. Not easy when so many folk take against them. They really are leading life on the edge and deserve more of our respect. In fact if we put aside the current irresponsible, pathetic assault this environmentally bereft government is making on our badger population, foxes must be our most persecuted mammal; legally hunted, shot, snared and otherwise dispatched for centuries. Yet still these tough survivors are numerous and widespread; testament indeed to their ability to eke out a living against steep odds.

Their penchant for chickens is often cited as a reason for hate, but I have a slightly different take on this. Firstly why the bloody hell would anyone living in a city want or need to keep chickens for any other purpose than a jolly wheeze? And secondly if your coop is raided and you wake up to nothing but a pile of feathers where Hetty once clucked, then clearly you didn't build it well enough in the first place. In this way foxes drive people to better consider the welfare of their charges and provide them with dwellings more fit for purpose. Add in the simple fact that if you have chickens you will attract rats - there is no maybe about that, you will attract rats - tends to militate against anyone being allowed to keep chickens in an urban environment. But then maybe the foxes will provide a welcome service of eating the rats so a tidy balance will be achieved. Honestly folks it is much cheaper to satisfy all your poultry hankerings by a trip to your local butcher.

Personally, I love the way in which foxes have now become an established part of our local fauna and look forward to the day they decide to build a den under the shed. It would be thrilling to have a gang of young foxes gamboling across the lawn during the summer, and if this happens I'll feel bound to write about it in detail in the parish magazine. Man the barricades!