Friday, 29 July 2016

Swiftly Moving Along

The lazy days of high summer are upon us, when in the world of wild creatures something of a lull occurs. No more frantic breeding activity, food is relatively plentiful and everything can take a bit of a breather. But it doesn’t last. Before long there will be sure signs that summer has given way to early autumn. The first and most obvious change will be the departure of our swifts that seem to leave us so suddenly that it takes us by complete surprise. There have been some reasonable sized gatherings of this enigmatic bird locally; I counted about 30 over my garden wheeling together at dusk a few days ago. These flocks include a fair proportion of juvenile birds but sadly represent only a fraction of the large spiralling flocks that could once be observed here.

Devil Birds they called them; Screechers, Shriek Owl, Screamers. But to us inhabitants of the 21st century they are just swifts, common swifts at that. I can’t help thinking the old colloquial names sum the bird up much better, although quite why they had an association with the devil is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is something to do with the way they power through the air in large screaming groups towards dusk, or maybe it has something to do with the mysterious nature of their wanderings. Whatever, they are far from an avian manifestation of all things evil, they are the enigmatic, aerial masters of our sometimes tempestuous , turbulent skies; their arrival a sure sign that the short British summer has arrived, albeit sometimes in name only.

The Latin name of these scythe winged migrants is Apus apus. Apus means footless and it was long believed the birds were indeed missing those essential appendages. The reason for this stems simply from the fact that swifts, as I’m sure you know, never perch or land on the ground. The only time the birds indulge in anything approaching a meeting with terra firma is when they breed, and even then they will only build a simple nest under the eaves of houses or cavities in old buildings. It is thought young birds that are not ready to breed for up to four years from birth may spend all that time on the wing. Imagine how well adapted to flight you would have to be to spend 24 hours of every day zipping around in the sky, even sleeping whilst gliding around at high altitude.

As the summer wains they can be seen sweeping through the air, hurtling at breakneck speed on scimitar wings. Their world is alien to us, their purpose a mystery. We can only watch in awe their effortless twisting and turning through the jumble of rooftops; can only stand and stare at the screaming chases through structures alien to them. They arrive in early May and will soon be gone. As in spring one day the skies are clear, the next enlivened by their energy:  so in late summer one evening their screeching shapes will be charging across our skies; the following morning they have vanished. When they leave we are impoverished by their absence. It can take a little while to realise what is missing from a walk around our streets until you realise these transient spirits of summer have departed, moved south to join the swelling seasonal exodus from our shores.  

Of course swifts will not be the only absentees as the season moves along. Next, but less obvious, will be the surreptitious, slower paced southerly movements of other migrant birds; waders, warblers, swallows. To illustrate this point, a few days ago I thought I would try and photograph the local blackbirds that have been taking advantage of the berry laden shrubs in our garden. Sure enough before long a juvenile blackbird appeared to take its fill, followed shortly after by one of the parent birds that began stuffing even more ripe berries into the insatiable youngster. I was happily snapping away when a movement of a smaller bird caught my eye, there surreptitiously hopping through the tangle was a blackcap, perhaps a bird of the year. These warblers are unlikely to have bred locally, so this little gem was in all likelihood beginning its long migratory journey and chose my garden as a handy refuelling stop.

Yes, summer is still holding sway, but the signs are there that it is only temporary . Enjoy it while you can. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

All Things Are Relative

Fed up with the current state of events? Tired of hearing about the in-fighting of our politicians? Frustrated with the gibberish peddled by our media? Consider this.

It is said that travel broadens the mind. It’s true. There's nothing like wandering around the wonderful old town of Jerusalem whilst tripping over M16 bedecked soldiers at every street corner to bring home to you how tenuous day to day life can be for some; nothing like seeing a small child walking alone along a 5 miles stretch of empty road dwarfed by Andean mountains to make you appreciate the comfort our own cocooned children enjoy on their 4x4 enshrouded school runs; nothing like watching tens of thousands of honey buzzards drifting south over the Caucuses of Batumi, in waves stretching back as far as the eye can see, to make you realise in jaw dropping fashion how marvelous bird migration is.

Andean Highway

Honey Buzzards at Batumi, Georgia. We logged 88,000 that day.

Over the past couple of years we have found ourselves using British Airways quite a lot. Whilst sitting there with several tons of jet aircraft strapped to my backside I like to distract myself by reading the articles John Simpson writes for their magazine High Life. He is an excellent correspondent and never fails to inspire. On a recent flight I had the pleasure of reading his account of the experiences a fellow journalist had whilst working in Beijing during the 1970's when China was a rather different place than it is now (?). The article can be found here and essentially relates the story of how an initial frosty relationship between a western journalist and a state fearing maid eventually thawed revealing a heart rendering tale of persecution, repression, sad intimacy and indomitable human spirit.

Ruminating on this led me to recall an incident we, that is myself, Denise my wife, James my son and Erin his wife to be, experienced whilst travelling through Rwanda a couple of years back. We had just spent the most fantastic few days trekking mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in Volcanos National Park. During this time we had been accompanied by our smiling guide Ishmael who was now driving us back to Kigali. It was a long, slow trip at the end of which we were to visit the genocide museum. Ishmael was young, no older than my lad, and I asked him, in an innocent and speculative way, whether he had any memories of the atrocious events of that era. Although at first reluctant to give details, he hesitantly began to open up. What followed was one of those episodes you never forget; a tale so terrifyingly brutal that we could only listen in mute horror.

Ishmael was only a young boy when in April 1994 the genocide began; on the traumatic day in question he was with his mother and younger brother working at the top of a hill when they saw the soldiers come. His brother was with his grandmother further down the slope but fearing the worst his mother wouldn't let him go to warn them, electing instead to hope their elevated position would save them. It wasn't long before the machine guns rattled their death cries through the forest below; before long the soldiers arrived at the hill top to finish their slaughter. Ishmael’s mother had taught him that should he ever find himself so threatened he was to play dead and hope the killers would overlook him and move on. As the bullets rained into the women and children around them, both Ishmael, his brother and his mother fell to the ground with dead bodies, really dead bodies, falling on top and all around them. His younger brother had been shot in both hands, had passed out with his blood leaking across all three. Not satisfied with their work the uniformed thugs went about pumping a bullet into each body to ensure all would never again breathe air. As sure death approached, not daring to draw breath even shallowly, the soldiers suddenly stopped the slaughter to greet the commanding officer that had arrived to inspect the carnage. Ishmael had to listen as the soldiers presented the new arrival with a 'present': a row of babies that they had saved just for him. As this worthy individual went about the important task of emptying his revolver into the new borne, the rest of the troop began piling the bodies ready for burning. The pyre flamed close to and red hot embers sparked over Ishmael’s bare legs, but although the pain was excruciating he still did not move. A soldier, intent on stoking the flames, stood on his mother’s head with heavy boots, but still she did not flinch. They both awaited the inevitable, but by some miracle were not hoisted into the flames; they were instead left to lie, covered in blood and filth with legs and arms smoldering. The killing party moved on to reap harvest from another village. Long minutes passed before Ishmael dared open an eye one sliver.

Imagine if you can for a moment the torment, the numbness, horror and fear that would envelop you when you rise shaking and unbelieving from such an episode. Friends, family, neighbours strewn dead and mutilated all around. Blood, smoldering remains, shattered bodies that an hour ago were living, breathing human beings now scattered and charred with no regard. Hell on earth and nobody outside Rwanda knew or cared a damn. How do you rally the will to get to your feet, to support one another to move down the hill to try to find your son and brother? They never found him, at least not an identifiable carcass. They found shreds of recognisable clothing, but the essential being was no more. Survive. Survive and move on.

The next few days comprised nothing but a painful, dangerous slow moving journey towards salvation. They picked up other traumatised strays on the way, but had to leave behind one young girl whose injuries made her cry loudly. They couldn’t afford to be heard and sacrificed this one waif for the good of those that stood some chance of reaching the UN post undetected.

As quiet tears trickled down his face, Ishmael finished his story leaving us all gazing out of the windows at the passing lines of women and children walking to school and market, lost in our own thoughts. When we reached the museum, Denise and I couldn’t stomach completing the circuit and sought sanctuary in the fresh African air watching modern day Rwanda buzzing past and healing bitter wounds. We remembered seeing the images on TV; that was enough. To our surprise though, my son and his wife to be forced themselves to walk through every exhibit, graphic and grotesquely compelling, so that they fully appreciated the scale of an atrocity committed over a three month period whilst they too were in their infancy. They wanted to fully comprehend the depths of evil that lurk inside man when given a justified ‘cause’ to kill.

We had seen mountain gorillas the day before, serene, harmless and in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Today we had seen what their close relatives supposedly more intelligent, civilized and wiser do to one another. Our minds were certainly broadened that day.

So, in these days of Brexit with turmoil on our pathetic financial markets when a read of the papers predicts nothing but gloom, doom and the end of civilization as we know it, pause for a minute and take a look around. There it’s not quite so bad really is it? I think we will survive and retain our houses, our cars, our smart phones and more importantly our lives and freedoms. Just over 20 years ago nearly a million Rwandans lost everything and some 2 million more became refugees. Having someone who lived through it tell his tale to you somehow makes you look at the world quite differently. And he was still smiling. What price that kind of education?

L to R - Me, Ishmael, James, Erin. Kigali, Rwanda 2014.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Swallows Make the Summer

The visual evidence of how the season is speeding by can now be seen very clearly at NWT Ranworth Broad. Here, a walk along the boardwalk will take you through lushly vegetated wetland where head high reed sways in the breeze, their ranks speckled with pastel pink valerian, purple spikes of marsh thistles, white umbels of milk parsley and yellow spires of loosestrife. In the wet swamp carr, woodbine, perfumed sweet, entwines with woody bittersweet and the Royal fern thrusts its spore laden fingers skyward. Rich summer profusion.

But it is perhaps the activity of the birds that indicates how we have moved from the frantic urgency of spring; the chasing, screeching, posturing and skirmishing, to the more focused task of fledging this year’s offspring.  And the most obvious species to be encountered as you look out over the broad from our floating visitor centre are the grebes, terns and the swallows.

One pair of grebes are busy looking after a pair of humbug-striped chicks quite close to the observation windows where they can be observed catching fish to satisfy the incessant hunger of their prodigy. Great-crested grebes are good parents that in the early stages of the chicks’ development will keep them very close, warding off any potential predator. Unlike the mallards that let their ducklings scatter and swim wildly hither and thither: easy prey for herons, gulls and marauding marsh harriers. The parent grebes are now finding quite large fish to offer to the eager young ones who will raise their heads skywards to gulp the fish down head first. A couple of weeks ago one over optimistic parent gave a very large fish to one of the small chicks that gamely tried but ultimately failed to force it down its gullet. Being able to watch these dagger billed aquatics in such intimate detail is a true privilege.

The swallows enliven the immediate vicinity of the Visitor Centre during the summer months with their breath-taking aerial ballet. They nest under the eaves where they are totally protected from the rigours of the northerly wind and sheeting rain. Three pairs have taken up residence this year and can be watched hawking insects over the broad which they cram into the mouths of their well grown brood. They will breed again once the current nestfuls have fledged and may well try for a third time during August. 

And then there are the terns; feisty, screeching, aerodynamic perfection.  After a late start these graceful wanderers are now nesting on the specially constructed rafts, the adults making regular trips to Malthouse Broad to catch small fish for their newly hatched young. It is worth spending a while watching these sharp eyed birds swooping through the air, plunging into the water to remove a fish with clinical precision. For me they embody the spirit of this place.

When these summer visitors leave, taking their life force with them, the mood of the place changes. There is a waning of the soul; a feeling of subtle loss. But for now there is nothing for us to do but enjoy these summer days whilst we have them, for all too soon the cool dawns of autumn will come knocking and the wealth of life currently on show will subside for another year.