Congratulations to Emma Claxton Russell whose entry to this blog’s Lockdown Nature-writing challenge was voted as your favourite (by a clear margin).
There were over 40 entries submitted and I chose a shortlist of a dozen. There were 219 votes cast and Emma’s writing gained 41 of those votes.
Congratulations to her! I’ll be sending her a signed copy of one of my books (not much of a reward really).
Here is some information about Emma and her winning entry. And you can enjoy all the shortlisted ones still by clicking this link.
I work with people who have brain injuries, taking them to university, football matches, festivals and shopping. I’m also a qualified English Teacher, specialising in teaching young adults with dyslexia.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live in several very different countries including Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Italy, France and the USA. The time I’ve spent encountering varied cultures and wildlife has had strong influence on my writing and given me a deep respect for nature and place. I’m currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing through Bath Spa University. As part of my course I’d planned a trip to Puglia in the heel of Italy, to write several articles about local produce and tourism, but the Covid 19 pandemic has put that trip on hold indefinitely. Rather than dwell on this, I decided to take the opportunity to learn more about nature on my doorstep, using my daily exercise to photograph and research plants, birds and wildlife. I wrote about the £1 bird feeder to illustrate how easy it can be to interact with nature and learn something new during this time, even if you are confined to a room in the suburbs.
Wildlife from my Window
I bought it from the pound shop. I really didn’t think it would work, but for a quid, I was willing to try. I stuck the small, clear-plastic bird feeder on the window on New Year’s Day and waited. The seed clumped together, it had to be emptied, washed and refilled and still nothing happened. Weeks went by but I continued, keeping the box unsoiled and the contents fresh. On a cloudy February afternoon, my first visitor arrived, a small red-breasted robin. I was overjoyed. He became a regular caller, though I was never quick enough to capture a good photo. Living in a shared flat in a busy town, it was a tiny smidgen of nature.
Then on March 16th, Boris announced an end to all non-essential travel and the country has slowly withdrawn from complete liberty to lockdown. I’ve been stuck in a flat with two people I barely know. I hate to admit it, but the visiting birds have been better company than either of them.
The robin was a glimmer of colour in my day as I sat at my desk and typed. The blue tits arrived just after the robin, sporadic but frequent bursts of activity, usually in pairs. My room overlooks the garden, south-facing but with an overgrown mass of laurel and leylandii that blocks the afternoon sun. The little box was stuck squarely in the middle of the large bay window to optimise my view. I logged the daily visits whenever I caught a glimpse and flutter of feathers. On the first day of lockdown I counted ten feeds, three from the red team and seven from the greedy blues. I was amazed at how successful this experiment had been. Who’d have thought a pound shop purchase could be so entertaining.
Early one morning, light just filtering through the curtains, a skittering sound pulled me from sleep. The glass rattled, I sprang to my feet, swiftly pulled back the swags and came eye to eye with a squirrel. He froze in shock for a moment and then scampered down the frame and back under the bushes. Now, I know that most bird lovers would deter this sort of behaviour, defend their seed stations and grease the edges to deter his efforts. Not me. I’ve always thought squirrels quite fascinating, their cute exterior hiding their intelligence and curiosity. I didn’t want to scare him away, but I wasn’t keen on a bushy alarm clock at dawn every day. I began to throw peanuts from the seed mix out into the garden and slowly but surely, he gathered them.
I’ve spent a lot of time within the confines of my four walls, curtains wide and windows open. I’ve listened to bird song and learnt something new every day. I now know that there are great tits calling to each other and I love the chatter of magpies. This experience has given me something more uplifting than Netflix or knitting. I’ve ordered song-bird mix and monkey nuts, gathered empty plastic bottles and constructed a branch feeder in the garden. Almost every day I’ve had a visit from the squirrel, now named Bunkin as his constant demand for attention has meant I’ve spent time ‘bunking off’ my studies. He brings a friend, slightly smaller with a slight tinge of red in it’s coat and brush, I call this one Amber. I actually have no idea which is the male or female of the duo, but I assume they are a couple, committed enough to share food. It’s like watching a romantic drama unfold as they tentatively navigate the garden together. Before this virus, I would never have had the time to just sit and watch as they prance and flick their tails at one another.
Last Sunday afternoon I was sorting paperwork when I caught a flash of deep orange in the garden. I thought it was the neighbourhood ginger tom, since my new garden ornament must seem like a smorgasbord of opportunity to a cat. When I looked up, to my utter astonishment a fox stood under the trees, sniffing the air, panting slightly in the warmth. He was in great condition, a shiny coat, no ribs showing but of course his urban food sources have depleted. There are no restaurant bins to scavenge or discarded take away boxes to forage on the streets. He held my gaze for a few seconds and then darted into the undergrowth. I only hope he doesn’t get hungry enough to catch a squirrel.
The window feeder has remained a firm favourite with the robin and blue tits and the new garden seed station has brought brief glimpses of a chaffinch, long tailed tits, and a beautiful jay, whilst blackbirds hop around the base gathering the overspill. All of these birds have entertained me, given me something to think about other than ‘the virus’ and deepened my appreciation of avian life. However, the birds don’t interact with me, in that sense I have to say that the squirrels have been a real game changer. Videos of their antics have been sent far and wide to friends and family in California, Australia and Canada. I’ve also sent regular clips to my young niece and nephew who, although only ten miles away, are equally as remote to me now. This has connected us during our time of enforced hibernation. More importantly, Bunkin and Amber have given me a joyful encounter with nature at a time when I have felt deeply deprived of my springtime walks in the New Forest and hikes along the Jurassic coast. Those cheeky squirrels have been great for my mental health, they’ve become my way of connecting with wildlife on a daily basis, providing some solace and support during this isolated interlude.
That plastic bird feeder will always be the best pound I ever spent.