The other day I was chatting to someone about some of the birds I’ve seen since we moved to Barry, and it got me thinking about the exciting sightings I’ve had, and how they are mainly common birds, yet I still feel like they’re the rarest thing simply because I’ve not lived near them before. I think it’s a pleasure everyone should experience as it’s both free, and great! It actually happened yesterday funnily enough. Taking the dogs to the park, we saw a couple of Greenfinches, and because I haven’t seen one in so long, it lifted me.
A couple of years ago, we went to Chester Zoo for my birthday. I’m not going to start a debate on zoos good or bad, but, if they contribute to breeding programmers and treat their animals well, then I’m for them. The Conservation Status EW means Extinct in the Wild. Basically, the majority of these species are found in zoos. Without zoos they’d be extinct. It still makes me feel a bit funny when I think of Partula Snails and the Socorro Dove. Now, Chester Zoo have a lot of interesting animals and birds (I particularly recommend the walk-through bat cave), yet the thing that excited me the most was seeing 3 Bullfinches in a hedge. Zoos are actually really good places to see wildlife. In Bedford, London and Barry you see Pied Wagtails all the time, but it wasn’t until I went to Barcelona Zoo that I saw a White Wagtail (not an exhibit). I’ve seen plenty of Treecreepers in woods and parks, but in Artis Zoo in Amsterdam I saw a Short-toed Treecreeper. London zoo has a colony of Aesculapian Snakes that I was lucky enough to see once, and is also home to the healthiest looking Chaffinches I’ve seen. But I digress. Sometimes, it’s location that matters- I’ve seen plenty of Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers, Redshank and Curlews on reserves, but you’re supposed to see them. That’s why you go. I’ve seen many Shelduck in parks in London- St James’s, Regent’s and Finsbury. But seeing all of them in one big group on Barry Island was genuinely exciting. And 6 months down the line, after seeing them probably on average once a week, it still thrills. Even more thrilling than that was the day we were walking around the island coast and Rach asked what those little browny birds were, and I looked expecting to see the Rock Pipits we see regularly (insert more excitement here), but no. They were Turnstones. That kept me going for a week, despite me being more than aware that they are common all over the world! This sort of excitement is explained by the simple fact that until now, I’ve lived inland with no transport, so only had access to reserves with easy public transport access- places like Rainham Marshes (RSPB), or The London Wetland Centre (WWT). I have, however, no excuse for some others. Birds like Skylarks and Yellowhammers for example. Pretty little birds, yes, but not exactly hard to find. So why do they instill these reactions? Like most people, all birds of prey do it. I turn into a child at the merest sight of one. We have a pair of Buzzards at Porthkerry, and I can’t not watch them. Even Sparrowhawks and Kestrels ellicit a childlish “cool.” I’ve had two close encounters with Sparowhawks, both times I was washing-up. The first was when we were living above a pub on Holloway Road, London. Out of the window was an explosion of feathers- and we watched the Sparrowhawk eat the pigeon. The second was in Bedford. We bred Zebra Finches at the time, and I heard a thump, looked out and saw nothing. As I was looking it happened again, but this time I saw the Sparrowhawk bounce off the aviary roof, sit on a fence, and stare angrily back at me! I’ve seen many Sparrowhawks since. Sadly, compared to when I was young, I hardly see any Kestrels any more.
Some people reading this won’t have a clue what some of these creatures are, but luckily, there are some even more ordinary animals that have affected me. Thrushes, both Song and Mistle have always felt special to me. They were the first wildlife ‘fact’ I remember- and that was my Nan telling me that the reason she threw snails on the garage roof whilst gardening was so the thrushes could eat them. I was about 6 or 7, and have loved them ever since (having said that, even now I’ve still been known to confuse the two on occasion!) Another well-known bird that I love watching, and can be traced to my childhood is the House Sparrow. They used to nest above my bedroom window, and when I was a kid, there were a lot more than there are today. Shame that can be said about most of the birds in this article.
It isn’t just birds though. On a trip to Willen Lake with my Wife, Brother and Sister-In-Law, we saw a Fox sitting in the grass, cleaning and yawning. It was so nice to see a) a Fox not in the street, and b) doing something other than scavenging or running off, that it was easy to forget we were in Milton Keynes! Then there’s Hedgehogs. Lovely little things, not uncommon, yet for some reason, if you see one, you have to tell someone about it, whether that’s at home or down the pub! Now for my number one mammal experience. This isn’t the time me and Rach ended up with our backs against a tree amid a Red Deer rut- that was a thrill and a half, but also a bit scary. No, my favourite mammal sighting is the Common Mole. It was at an airshow at RAF Fairford, I think it was in 1987. I felt something on my boot, looked down and there it was, struggling to get over the top and down the other side. Whereupon it quickly-ish scuttled off a few feet and then, I’m not sure. I assume it went underground at this point, but don’t actually remember. Hopefully Jae, my Brother will post a comment letting us know as he was there to witness it!
Reptiles and amphibians also have a similar effect. In this country, there are only 6 native species of each, with another 3-6 invasive/introduced species depending on who you ask. All of them bring out the child in me! For some reason, seeing them feels so special that you’d think they were endangered! When we take the dogs to Porthkerry, I always ask Rach if we can go look for Adders and Slow Worms under the mats. In that park, I can honestly say that in one day, I saw a third of all the UK’s native reptiles and amphibians a few hundred yards apart. OK, you’ve probably realised that that’s only 4 species, but they count, and are Common Frog, Smooth Newt, Slow Worm, Adder.
Recently, I’ve also started to become more interested in invertebrates and plants. Something anyone who knew me 5 years ago will probably find hard to believe. Ladybirds, bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, damselflies, woodlice, snails and slugs- there’s something about them that, depending on which, brings on a feeling of either awe or sorrow. There’s nothing worse than stepping on a snail, the guilt can follow me for days. The plants thing is because I’ve got to identify them for a volunteer surveying I do for SusTrans. Because up until now I’ve never been interested in plants, they are all new to me, and so I’m fascinated by even the most ordinary, yet exotic-sounding thing like Herb-Robert, or Lesser Celandine.
Why do I get this genuine excitement for seemingly ordinary wildlife? In all honesty, apart form the few I can explain, I really, genuinely don’t know. And I think I’d like to keep it that way.