Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 8, 2017


Nearly a whole month has passed since my last post on this blog.  Shame on me for my neglectfulness!!

I will return to my keyboard with what comes as close to controversy as I am ever likely to get on these pages. Magpies!!!  I have been watching one in the garden collecting nest material for the coming spring.  As has been the case in previous years, they appear particularly fond of the delicate, pliable twigs of our silver birch, selecting them with all the careful consideration that one might expect from a member of the crow clan, sometimes even snapping them straight from source.


Magpie (Pica pica). Ross Gardner 2017

It got me thinking about this undeniably handsome and canny creature.  They are also, of course, that most scorned of our birds, variously described as “murderous”, “a menace” (as the Daily Mail once described them) and through the use of numerous other histrionically deployed adjectives.  As highly adaptable omnivores with taste for eggs and young birds among the many other things, it is the magpie that some say are single-beakedly exacting the decline in songbirds that has recently been observed in Britain.  This is an assumption that is often made without any real evidence and a reluctance to accept the very real and proven toll that habitat loss and modern agriculture has taken on our bird populations.

The maths don’t particularly add up either.  The UK magpie population is based on an estimated 600,000 breeding territories.  They might predate on such birds as the blackbird, song thrush (one of the much-declined species in question), or robin, with respective breeding populations of 5 million pairs, 1+ million territories and  6.7 million territories.  Assuming, for the sake of simple explanation, that a breeding territory implies a breeding pair, that’s already getting on for 13 million pairs (a ratio of 1:21) before raising young when populations will briefly as much as quadruple.  And then there are the likes of the greenfinch (1.7 million pairs), dunnock (2.5 million breeding territories) and others also potentially on the menu.  Even taking into account other bird predators, such as the sparrowhawk (of which, incidentally, there are only 70,000), there really is plenty to go round.

And as for describing them as ‘murderous’ or ‘a menace’, they are merely doing what magpies do in order to survive.  There is no malice of forethought.  That faculty is the reserve of another species who really ought not be throwing stones in glass houses.

There you go.  Campaign over.  Lets hear it for crow-kind.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 13, 2017

Blue tits and garden plants

It has been a winter in Southeast England that has not really got going.  A few dustings of snow of periods of cold. Looking back through my notes and the word ‘mild’ makes a regular appearance when describing the prevailing conditions on a given day.  Having said all of this said, the last week or so has been one of those decidedly cold spells.  All the more surprising then, was the sight of a blue tit taking a particular interest in our garden nest-box.

Nature though is rarely ever still in this temperate land of ours.  Something is always stirring in preparation for the next phase in its life-cycle.  The female blue tit won’t be sitting on eggs until April, the inkling will be murmuring within long before, as well it must.  Not that I’m trying to suggest at all that winter is on the wane just yet, rather to say that ours is a tendency to sometimes overlook the flow of life until the change seems immediate.

Elsewhere in the garden I have found the point made.  Clearing back some of last summer’s Geranium litter revealed the fresh, tender-looking shoots of the coming year already pushing through.  So to the Sedum with their tight clumps of curled leaves which had been emerging amid the stems holding up last year’s flower-heads.  What else is stirs with us ever realising it?


A blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus – taken through the kitchen window!) at the nest-box last spring. Ross Gardner 2016.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 29, 2017



A keyhole creeper picking the locks

Of muddy tenements and teasing

Frozen hearts into a timely thaw.

From ‘Snipe’, by Ross Gardner.


Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 15, 2017


One of those delightful quirks of the natural world – rare birds in the heart of town.  The birds in question are waxwings, the town Basildon (or Pitsea to be more precise), part of the urban spread of South Essex.

Waxwing are breeders of the far north.  Birds wintering in the UK would have bred among the coniferous woods of Arctic and sub-Arctic Russia and in Northern Scandinavia.  These are, generally speaking, not places to spend the winter and so on leaving their breeding grounds they decend southwards, largely into Southern and Central Europe.  Some however, will come further west and most winters will bring a couple of hundred birds to the east coast of Britain.  Some years though, are irruption years.  A good breeding season and insufficient winter food (berries) in their more normal haunts causes invasions which can result in many more hundreds, even thousands of birds crossing the North Sea on a quest for more food.  In the winter of 1965/66 a record 11,000 were estimated to have come here.

This winter seems like a good one for waxwing, to the extent that I was able to watch a flock of 20 or so in the middle of said town.  Urban wildlife in our gardens and parks is one thing, but being able to enjoy these birds outside a certain large outdoor equipment retailer’s store is quite another.  They were attracted by the bunches of scarlet berries clumped on some ornamental rowan, a tree often favoured to break the monotony of retail estates and the like.  And this wasn’t the first time.  A while back I was wowed by some 100 odd in the self same part of town.

The light was terrible on drizzly, damp day, but I did manage to capture the occasion for prospetity.


Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). Ross Gardner 2017.


Part of a waxwing flock in Pitsea, Essex. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 13, 2017


… away through the damp-glistened hornbeam,

The rusted ash and incongruous holly

The gloom is centring itself

Around a robin’s beak.

(from ‘Deep Winter’, by Ross Gardner)

Robin (Erithacus rubeculus). Copyright 2009 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 3, 2017

A winter retreat


World War Two pillbox entrance. Ross Gardner 2016

It will no doubt appear to some readers that the above image is something of an unlikely opener to post on a wildlife blog.  All will very shortly become clear.

There are a number of pillboxes dotted around the countryside of my home county of Essex, as indeed there is in other British counties.  Some 28,000 of these reinforced concrete and brick structures were constructed as part of so-called ‘stop-lines’.  These were defensive lines, often accentuating the obstacles provided by the natural lie of the land, put in place to meet the threat of a possible Nazi invasion.  A pillbox was essentially a small fortification, usually less than 3 metres or so wide (there were a number of different designs of varying sizes), from which armed soldiers could keep watch for the enemy.  The name ‘pillbox’, very likely refers to their supposed similarity in shape to the box used to carry medicinal pills.

But what of their place among the pages of this blog?  Well, besides the colonisation of the brickwork by a thriving population of wall-rue, the dark and dank interior held further surprises.  A torch shone into the gloom revealed shapes hanging from the ceiling.  They were peacock butterflies (Aglais io), 18 of them, hanging upside-down and dotted about the horizontal surfaces.  With these being butterflies that over-winter as adults, they had chosen this as their place hibernation.  With them also were herald moths (Scoliopteryx libatrix).  All but two of the 11 that I counted had either settled down in closely fitted pairs or as one of the bundle that had formed itself at the end of a piece of old cob-web that had twisting itself into kind of silken string.  Shared body-heat is evidently a more important consideration for hibernating herald than for the singly placed peacocks.

It seemed an odd place for such creatures to choose to spend the winter.  It was a cold day and felt all the more so for the thick walls repelling any of the heat of the January sun that shone outside.  I would imagine however, that conditions inside are constant, whether the sun is shining or a storm is howling.  A constant environment could be very important when trying to keep metabolism at low and steady rate for successfully seeing out the winter.


Hibernation Peacock and Herald moths. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner


A bundle of hibernating Herald moths. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 30, 2016

December Sunshine


High-tide on the Crouch Estaury, North Fambridge. Ross Gardner 2016.

One of those calm and bright winter days on the coastal marshlands of Essex.  Well I say coastal, but to look on a map and North Fambridge will be seen to not exactly appear situated by the sea as many might regard it.  Yet the relatively long estuary of the River Crouch beside which the village stands brings the undeniable influence of the coast-proper far inland.  With the rise of the tide waves lap at the seawalls on either side and brings fishing cormorant, occasional red-breasted merganser and even, as we discovered in this instance the odd common seal venturing up-river.  With its fall it reduces the river’s flow to narrow channel, exposing flat muddy banks for the probing beaks of wading birds, the beady eyes of gulls and the dabbling bills of winter wildfowl.

Here is to be found the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Blue House Farm reserve, hundreds of acres of traditionally managed grazing-marsh, with its dykes, ditches, fleets and rough grasslands.  It is somewhere that has featured on these pages before and to which I am often drawn in the winter months.  It is at such times that sheep-nibbled, cattle-chewed fields are busy with others.  Today there must have been 1000 brent geese amassed in one field, canadas and greylags scattered by the dozen and 80-odd barnacles huddled behind the partially frozen water of the reed-fringed fleet.  Hundreds of duck dabbled at the edges of unfrozen water, or passed overhead in groups; a half a dozen pintail, 20 teal, a few wigeon or a handful of gadwall.  Who knows where they were heading, but they went there with purpose.  The teal at least seemed to be mostly gathering in their hundreds over a stretch of partially flooded, tussocky grassland; some snoozing, some preening, some avidly sieving the shallows with delicate, invertebrate-sifting bills.  A passing hen harrier instilled a temporary uneasiness among the birds and few moments excitement among the human onlookers.

I love the atmosphere of such places at such times.  Places that on the one hand can seem so serenely calm, yet on the other simultaneously convey a sense of quiet urgency in the flocks whose migratory cycles depend on such winter sanctuaries.


Gadwall (Anas strepera) – duck (left) and drake. Ross Gardner 2014.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 18, 2016

Birds in the Mist

Yesterday was not the best of days for birdwatching from the Essex shore of the Thames Estuary.  A thick and persistent fog left little more than a few dozen metres of the mudflats visible, veiling the presumed thousands of birds feeding ahead of the oncoming tide.  In fact, having walked down to the seawall from home on my way to meet friends for lunch, my binoculars had remained in my bag.  But as I approached the traditional ‘Old Town’ of Leigh-on-Sea, with its cobbled street, selection of pubs and what remains of the fishing fleet that once thronged here, I became aware of the sounds of birds close to the wall and free of the swaddling drifts of fog.

On reaching the channel, dredged to allow the fishing vessels access through the shallows, a patch of what looked like cockle shells, debris perhaps from one of the boats, had attracted the attentions of a mixture of waders and gulls.  There was clearly food to be had.   A few common and herring gulls had been drawn to it, but surrounding them was the ceaseless scampering and squabbling of small waders – turnstone and sanderling avidly inspecting the unseen nooks and crannies for the equally anonymous pickings concealed within.


Turnstone, sanderling and common gull find rich-pickings at Old Leigh. Ross Gardner 2016.

The turnstone are very much a feature here.  Present from autumn right though until the spring, they are a familar accompaniment to any who might enjoy a pint outside one of the estuary-side pubs or one of the delicacies purchased from one of the seafood vendors nearby.  They can become most abiding and to me have something of ‘the starlings of the sea’ about them.  The sanderling are a little more unusual along this particular stretch, the very pale plumage easily discerned among the darker-garbed turnstone with which they mixed.

These small waders are just two of the long-distance winter migrants that flock to British shores for the winter, both finding their breeding grounds well within the Arctic Circle.  The turnstone that stop with us for the season come from as far afield as Canada and Greenland, no small distance at all.  The sanderling however, can make one of the longest of all migrations.  They too will hark from similarly lofty breeding latitudes, but while many will spend the winter with us and other parts of the European coast, some press on further south, reaching Northwest Africa and, amazingly, the geographical extremes of the South African cape, a journey of many thousands of kilometres.

It is so very easy to take the annual appearance of such creatures for granted with so little thought for their efforts in doing so.


Sanderling (Calidris alba). Ross Gardner 2014.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 14, 2016

Unseasonally seasonal

At work this morning I noticed a smallish grey moth, at rest on a window pane on the outside face of a classroom door.  It was a northern winter moth (Operophtera fagata), measuring not much more than a couple of centimetres across and which are active throughout November and into December.  It was early in the morning and amid the condensation covered sheet the moth had encircled itself with a round patch of clear glass, the life processes of its appatently frail being evidently sufficient to generate heat enough to influence its immediate surroudings.  The small interactions of small things.

I showed the moth to some of the children in my class and enjoyed a short discussion with them on the life-cycles of moths and butterflies and how we might not expect such creatures to be active through the late-autumn and winter months.  We have been enjoying some very mild weather for December, but this little moth nevertheless turned my mind towards those other species that keep the lepidopteran wheel turning throughout the year.

Moths may arguably be more evocatively named than butterflies.  Many impart their seasonal behaviours without a need for a formal introduction to the actual insect, namely the july highflyer (Hydriomena furctata) or the spring usher (Agriopis leucophaeria) to name a pair.  More appropriate here though, are those such as the winter-flying species, the December moth (Poecilocampa populi) or the winter moth (Operophtera brumata): while uncharactistically mild winter days will doubtlessly be welcomed by them, I have seen these last to be active on decidely cold, even frosty evenings.  Some may even be active during any month of the year, like the cryptically beautiful angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa).

Unseasonal as they may seem, there are still to be found the small lives for the small spaces, even in winter.


Camouflaged as a crumpled leaf, angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) can potentially be seen all-year round. Ross Gardner 2012.


The aptly named winter moth (Operoptera brumata) flies from October to January. Ross Gardner 2011.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 4, 2016

The Joys of Winter


Waders gathered on the Thames Estaury shoreline at Leigh on Sea. Ross Gardner 2013.

One of the undeniable joys of the British wildlife year is the building of the winter flocks along those sheltered stretches of our coastline.  Where the calmer waters allow the mud to settle and for the invertebrate multitudes to ready the seascapes for their own part in the seasonal flux.  If we are given to feel a melancholy for the well-passed summer and the throng that goes with it and which filled the wilder places, then the ascending bustle of birdlife along our shores is an antidote indeed.

I am fortunate in my proximity to the coast.  Some malign the gaping mouth of the Thames Estuary as a ‘poor man’s excuse‘ for the sea.  Yet as it widens sharply as it passes Southend to the south and the Isle of Grain to the north, the sense of the sea is difficult to ignore.  Replace my part of the Essex with the land that abuts the shores of say, The Wash in East Anglia and The Severn to the West, The Forth in the north and Chichester Harbour to the South, and most of us in the UK live within striking distance of the gathering hordes of waders and wildfowl and the spectacles that they can bring with them from the now ice-clenched realms of their Arctic breeding grounds.

Such movements more than double the  50,000 strong resident population of the redshank to a huge 130,000 and adds around 100,000 more birds to the 200,000+ resident oystercatcher.  For the likes of the knot and wigeon the increase represents a jump from none or a mere handful up to several hundred thousand.  Many millions of waders, ducks and geese combine to bring about a change to the countryside that is as wonderous as it is profound.  Indeed all over the world its a transformation that is replicated, even if the names of the protagonists may change.


UK redshank (Tringa totanus) numbers more than double in the winter. Ross Gardner 2016.

It was with such expectation that I recently walked the seawall between Leigh on Sea and Benfleet.  I was not to be disappointed, with the dunlin scattered along the ribbon of mud unclaimed by the rising tide, or the flocks of knot that sped across the water and billowed above the saltmarsh.  Neither the groups of little teal in their collective hundreds, dabbling the shoreline or foraging among the dykes and ditches of the grazing marshes landward, or hundred groups avocet, losing none of their grace among the grey mud.

Perhaps one of theses days I’ll get up to Scotland to see the barnacle goose flocks or the winter roosts of Berwick swan at Slimbridge.  And who knows, perhaps even one day I’ll find myself trying to pick out the canvasbacks and redheads among the gathered flocks of the Louisiana wetlands.

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