Ms Markontour and I have been enjoying a blissful bank holiday weekend at Knepp Wildland Safari in southern England. We’ve been wanting to visit since reading Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ a few years ago – an account of how she and her husband, Charlie Burrell, decided to see what happened if nature was permitted to manage itself on their 3,000 acre loss-making farm. The result is the most exhilarating nature site in Britain. A place that echoes all day and night to bird-song, has welcomed back multiple species that were on the brink of extinction in Britain from the Turtle Dove to the Nightingale, and where bramble and scrub have proven to be the catalyst for abundance, variety and beauty, rather than a nuisance to be cleared away. I could have happily stayed forever.
Cycling down a wooded cut through to Groesffordd yesterday we disturbed a sleek, grey raptor, who wheeled suddenly in front of us and then swept up the path at high speed, flying just inches above the ground. It was a breathtaking display and with such characteristics could only have been one bird – the usually elusive Merlin.
Cranes, large white wetland birds, standing 1.3 metres tall with flamboyant tail-feathers that bob about as they graze, were hunted to extinction in Britain four hundred years ago. But last weekend we went to visit a now thriving resident population at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre on the Severn Estuary near Bristol. It was a magical and uplifting experience, and it turned out that the Cranes shared the billing with an astonishing cast of other beautiful wildfowl.
I bought Raptor: A Journey Through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart because spending a pandemic year in Wales has afforded the privilege of seeing birds of prey on a daily basis, and I wanted to learn my hawks from my falcons. Raptor has certainly helped with that, but much more besides, with Lockhart’s lyrical descriptions of avian behaviour making my own experience of seeing raptors in the wild even more magical.
Robert Macfarlane is the nature writer of choice in markontour’s household, and so reading Landmarks, Macfarlane’s linguistic exploration of landscape, has been a deliberately drawn out affair – a book that we have read out loud over several months in order to savour every word.
I didn’t know a redstart from a robin a year ago, but thanks to lockdown I’ve been getting to know a pair of them that have taken residence half way up the bridleway at the back of our house. The size of robin but with longer wings and tail, and with a similarly arresting, but slightly more rusty, splash of red on their breast, the male redstart also sports a white crown, black throat and boisterous, insistent call. One might call them noisy neighbours, but I have loved having them nearby.
Hearing unforecasted rain hitting the tarmac the other evening, I ventured outside anyway, having been looking forward to a nightwalk. Beyond the sound-proofing of the door the noise was cacophanous and I almost retreated back inside. But, belatedly, I noted the absence of moisture in the air and, slowly, realised that what I had assumed to be the patter of raindrops was in fact the flutter of a thousand leaves being blown up the drive. Venturing further out, I spent a pleasant but futile few minutes trying to catch some, before settling for scooping up a handful from the floor. They were unlike any leaf I had ever seen and it has taken me a week of stolen minutes with the markontour “library” to derive their origin, such is my city-boy lack of basic wildlife knowledge. But it has been fun learning and, in the end, it turned out that buried deep in my brain was my Mum introducing me to the parent-tree as a boy.
Our neighbourhood cuckoo returned on 16 April and has been rewarding us with his song ever since, which reminded me of a blog post Ms Markontour wrote last year about Britain’s naughtiest bird which I never got around to publishing. One of the upsides of lockdown is having time to be in one place and appreciate the changing of the seasons, so it was lovely to read this again today and I hope you enjoy it too.
Yesterday at Ty Cerrig we celebrated the return of the House martins. Not the reforming of Hull’s finest indie band, but the arrival of the little blue-backed, white-fronted birds that live in our eaves from spring to late summer.
As we enter a third week of lock-down in Britain, markontour’s isolation playlist is growing nicely, now topped up by some wonderful on-line live sessions, Jarvis dj-ing from his living room, and the daily pleasure of Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin’s ‘Nature Livestreams’. The whole playlist is available here.