JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.
You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.
As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.
During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to get through the long night to come.
But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.
The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.
But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.
The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.
As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.
Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.
The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.
Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.
If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing lasts right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.
Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.
Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.
There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.
The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…
Sunday May 2 is International Dawn Chorus Day 2021. Many thanks to local photographer Graham Parkinson for permission to use his photographs with this article.
He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.
He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.
Back in February 2020 his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.
He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.
In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.
“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”
February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.
“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.
Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.
“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.
A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.
To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.
Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.
His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.
Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April.
Follow the links below to the first dozen of Mark’s blogs:
The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.
It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.
Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.
Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”
By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.
With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?
“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”
His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”
Now we just need to wait until February each year for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: but his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.
IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?
It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.
And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.
We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.
Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.
For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.
Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).
We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.
It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:
“I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.”
Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor – the scent of the earth after it has rained – to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.
But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.
Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?
Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.
During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.
And the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.
When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.
Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.
Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.
You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?
You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature.
Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.
But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.
That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.
For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.
WHAT makes Chris Packham such an extraordinary broadcaster is the completely natural style of his delivery, whatever the circumstances.
It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable, cheerful, entertaining and informative irrespective of any challenges live broadcasting might throw at him.
On Springwatch he found a perfect verbal sparring partner in Michaela Strachan, his old buddy from The Really Wild Show days in the 1990s, and the pair’s banter has underpinned the popularity of the series for almost a decade.
But in recent weeks there’s been a new face on the block – and although Chris’s step-daughter Megan McCubbin is an established presenter, photographer and conservationist in her own right, the pair’s decision to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis has exposed her to a much wider audience.
With 30,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Twitter and as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show, the club has proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues, although the total professionalism of the show itself means there have been few compromises in terms of the quality of the programming, despite Chris describing it to The Guardian as “Dad’s army makes TV”.
Like Chris, Megan has that rare skill of appearing totally at ease in front of a camera, neither nervous nor overtly self-aware and able to comfortably join in with the casual banter that is a hallmark of the best of this style of wildlife broadcasting.
The pair are also immensely knowledgable and they’ve done their homework…so 40-plus days into lockdown there’s nothing amateurish or hesitant about this surprisingly engaging escape from real-world worries.
The programme may be produced with mobile phones and Skype with earpods, mixed in a bedroom in Norwich, but it doesn’t look that way, and all the modern tech toys like nest box and trail cameras help to make modern wildlife reporting a whole lot more interesting than it ever used to be.
But this show is not about hi-tech wizardry or big budgets, simply an engaging, easy-going celebration of the natural world that extends beyond the ornithological roots of the title.
And the gang’s all here, of course: Michaela, Iolo Williams and the other Springwatch favourites, along with a stream of wildlife celebrities only too happy to share their short films, live cams and cheesy banter with the New Forest hosts.
The coronavirus lockdown may have shaped the straightforward format of the show, but it’s worked well, the enthusiasm of the daily exchanges providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing hundreds and thousands of us to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes (a separate #punkrockmidnight Twitter feed has featured Chris playing through his collection of classic punk singles).
Amid all the enthusiastic debates about barn owls and sea eagles, there has been room for bats, butterflies and hedgehogs too, for a chance to catch up with some of the leading young naturalists who have featured on Springwatch, like Bella Lack, Holly Gillibrand and Dara McAnulty, who will be reading his young naturalist’s diary on Radio 4 from May 25.
We have been invited to nose around other people’s gardens, with guests ranging from the wonderfully eccentic Martin Hughes-Games singing the praises of bats, chickens, earwigs and hornets, to Hugh Warwick waxing lyrical about hedgehogs and the author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham taking his delightful eight-year-old daughter Esme on a butterfly hunt.
But the guest list is already too long to credit them all, and growing by the week as long as the lockdown continues.
Packham himself is back on the BBC at the moment showing his true Attenborough credentials with the screening of Primates, which finishes on May 17.
But it’s closer to home that he and Megan have been proving to be the real wildlife stars of the coronavirus crisis – and helping to make people’s lives a lot happier into the bargain.
Half a million viewers for a weekday morning programme about birds? There must be a TV executive or two somewhere in the country kicking themselves for not thinking of this sooner…
Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.
The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.
Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.
The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.
Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.
The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.
To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at email@example.com.
Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.
Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.
MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.
Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.
Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.
The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?
Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.
Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.
Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.
Next up, butterflies.
Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent – this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.
Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.
Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.
Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.
No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.
Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.
Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…
I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.
There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.
I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.
We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?
The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.
Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.
So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?
Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.
But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.
But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.
Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.
To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.
She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.
“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.
“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”
Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.
Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.
Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.
But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.
“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”
Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.
Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.
Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”
Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.
“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.
“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.
“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”
What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.
The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.
But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.
“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.
“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”
The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.
Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.
Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons. Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.
In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.
There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.
The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).
The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.
They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.
Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.
Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.
How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.
It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/ Under their swallowtail coats…”
THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.
This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.
The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.
Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.
There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.
At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank. Lucky photographers may even catch a glimpse of a hungry kingfisher.
Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.
The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.
The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.
Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.
This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Clubon the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.
The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.
Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.
Even here you can never be too sure what wildlife you might stumble across, like this playful fox captured by Glynn Walsh.
It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.
THERE could hardly have been a worse time to visit Beale Park. It’s only a few days after unseasonal March snowstorms have been swept across the UK by the “Beast from the East” – there’s ice in the lake water, the wind is bitter and the few animals who are out and about look as if they would much prefer to be somewhere a whole lot warmer.
Despite that it’s still possible to see just what a lovely location this riverside spot would be on a summer’s day. The landscaped gardens between Pangbourne and Lower Basildon in Berkshire have the Thames as a backdrop – and on virtually any other day of the year that in itself would be a major attraction.
Back in 1956 when Gilbert Beale set about transforming 350 acres of private Thames-side farmland into a charitable trust, it was little more than a track and a couple of ponds.
Today the distinctive cry of a peacock is a reminder of just how much the eccentric Gilbert loved the birds – by the time of his death in 1967 at the age of 99 there were over 300 on site. Legend has it that his favourite, a peahen called Laura, followed him everywhere and even rode around the estate in his Rolls-Royce.
Flash forward half a century and nowadays the park boasts three main attractions: the collections of small exotic animals, farm animals and birds; the landscaped gardens and woodlands; and the children’s play areas.
For our chilly March visit it would be easy to be hypercritical. Many of the more appealing creatures are hunkering down out of the chill wind, some of the park is still being renovated ahead of the main season and sections of it feel more like a building site than landscaped gardens.
Icy ripples spread out over the closed paddling pool and everything looks distinctly grey – we are too early for even the bravest flora to be flowering and there’s virtually no colour in the gardens yet.
But that’s more to do with the timing of our visit than any lack of effort on the part of the management and it’s clear that over the years a lot of effort has gone into sympathetically landscaping the surroundings and expanding the range of attractions.
It’s still a family affair – thanks to the involvement of Gilbert’s great-nephew, Richard Howard, and his family, along with a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been associated with the park from its earliest beginnings.
The main appeal is definitely for parents with younger children – even aside from the animals, the big play area is an obvious attraction and the sand pits and paddling pool must be great fun in summer.
It’s worth checking out the park’s website ahead of your visit if you want to find out a little more about their conservation and education work. It’s possible that display boards were in the process of being refreshed for the main season, but we found relatively little information explaining what was actually happening on the conservation front. In fact the website doesn’t tell you too much detail either, although there’s a rundown on all the animals you can meet on a visit, with a note about their natural habitat and behaviour.
The “park guide” leaflet contains virtually no information about the attractions, but you do get a handy map at the gate – as well as a free trip on the mile-long narrow-gauge railway which dawdles through the grounds, pulling four open carriages and up to 64 passengers.
Since the trust was formed the bird collection has advanced from a few peacocks to a collection of rare and endangered birds, but again there’s too little information about conservation programmes and what you are actually able to see.
We were captivated by the African grey-crowned cranes, for example, but couldn’t find any information about them on the cage or the website. Luckily a couple of staff were able to help identify them – and the 8,000 followers of the park’s Facebook page may get more regular updates and videos than are available on the website.
The zoological collection has expanded too in recent years to encompass prairie dogs, coatis and unbearably cute slender-tailed meerkats. The larger paddocks are home to large flightless rheas, alpacas and wallabies, as well as fallow deer, pigs and sheep.
There are bugs, spiders and owls too, although again on the day of our visit everyone seemed to be lying low – and outside it was just too cold to fully enjoy the deer park or spend too long shivering at the lakeside.
On this, the greyest of wintry days, the younger customers braving the weather still seemed to be having plenty of fun – and a surprisingly wholesome sausage and mash lunch for two in the cafe was the perfect antidote to combat the temperatures outside.
But Beale Park will be a whole lot more appealing when spring has properly sprung, and we pledged to return once the sun starts shining again and everyone comes out to play.
Full details of attractions, admission prices and other details can be found on the park’s website.