Dear Wood Warbler,
My turn to apologise. Sorry I haven’t written to you in so long. I could say that it’s because I’ve been inside watching Blue Planet and not going out to see any actual real life nature, but that wouldn’t quite be true. I actually love going out and seeing wildlife in the chilly depths of winter. Everything seems stoic and heroic just by being alive – the ducks on the shivering creek by my mum’s house, braving the sleet, the puffed up birds, huddling in the trees, the bright red roses on my Dad’s grave, blossoming in the middle of a snowstorm.
Anyway, since it’s the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about my best wildlife moments of 2017. There was the pair of marsh harriers playing in the wind over a lake at Minsmere, getting mobbed by crows and then tearing away from them. There was the tiny, sweet dormouse nestled in the grass a few yards away from the harriers (quite likely to become a snack for one of them, I had a bit of a conflict of sympathies there)…
There were the evening nightjars, flitting about in the dusk, and the murmuration of a thousand starlings over a Suffolk beach, making their hypnotic, pulsing shapes in the sky.
It’s hard to choose the best thing I saw, although the luckiest was the definitely the Portuguese Man of War that washed up on the beach at Lyme Regis. Lucky because it didn’t kill me or put me in hospital, despite my repeated attempts to poison myself by prodding it to work out what it was.
The most exotic thing I saw was a Mystery Mammal that I spotted in Catalonia this September. It was a hot, sleepy day and I’d jumped into a river, and was enjoying having my sweaty feet nibbled by some brave and tiny fish, when I looked up and saw it – beautiful, brown, glossy and elegant, slipping noiselessly along the bank and then disappearing into the undergrowth.
Was it a polecat? Or maybe a mink? If it was a European Mink, it was endangered and incredibly rare – there are less than 500 of them in Spain. Google told me it was more likely to be an American mink (there are bucketloads of them in Spain – they’ve done pretty well since breaking out of mink farms in the 70s and 80s). Or it might have been a European Polecat (again, not very rare).
Obviously my fellow spotter and I decided that it was DEFINITELY a European Mink, even though there are so few of them, and most of them live along a specific river, hundreds of miles away. Rarity just does make something more exciting.
But lately I’ve noticed how the common, everyday sights just be just as great as rare, sexy, unusual species. There’s hardly anything that’s more delightful than the little long tailed tits that flit about the trees on the New River Walk. I see them loads – but they never get any less beautiful.
And my favourite place to watch wildlife isn’t exactly exotic – it’s Levington Creek, in Suffolk. Sometimes you can see the resident kingfisher hanging out by the outflow pipe (he was there on Boxing Day, and so bright in the sunshine, he looked like he belonged on a coral reef). But the point is, you never know what you’re going to see. It could be an egret and a couple of oystercatchers. It could be an empty stretch of grey brown mud, with nothing on it at all. Or it could be fifty lapwings, wheeling in the sky, or hundreds of little grey and yellow waders all huddled together, looking out to sea (I really should work out what they are).
What I love about it is how much it changes. Some days it can be incredibly bleak and empty, and I love the bleakness. You can go for a walk and be unable to stop yourself wondering how many dead bodies there are bound to be, preserved in the mud.
But on other days it’s bright. Some days it’s noisy with hundreds of squawking birds. Or you look up across the field and see fifty deer. On other days the fog comes in and you can’t see past your own cold & snotty nose. There’s something I love about the habit, always treading the same path, and slowly getting to know how much there is to find in one small, ordinary corner of the world.
So here are my wildlife new year’s resolutions: to keep getting to know Levington Creek, and to appreciate the everyday bits and bobs of nature, as well as the shiny rare sightings. To work to out what those yellow/grey waders actually are, and to remember to sometimes write some of it down and tell you about it.