…and there was more

Yesterday’s blog ended before 9am on Tuesday morning with pine marten off the bucket list. But there was more…

I spent more time enjoying the pine forest but then headed off.  I stopped at Nethy Bridge and looked for dippers from the attractive stone bridge, but with no luck.  Then it was off over the Lecht road towards Aberdeen.

I stopped at Tomintoul for a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, with white frothy coffee, at the Old Fire Station. The walls and ceiling were decorated with firemen’s uniforms and a variety of nozzles from hosepipes.  At that time of day the clientele were mothers with babies and pregnant women.  I patted my own stomach and didn’t feel too out of place before moving on up the road.

Many years before, I had driven this way in my first car – a red Austin 1300. The rain was hammering down and on the passenger seat my portable radio/cassette player was playing Beethoven’s 9th.  As the Ode to Joy cut through the air the rain stopped and a glorious rainbow appeared.

Today, the sun was already shining and Springsteen was singing Badlands as I disturbed a common gull feeding on a road-killed mountain hare.

I was though, heading to the coast just south of Stonehaven to see, I hoped, some seabirds.  Whereas pine martens are an unpredictable treat I was pretty sure that there would be the odd kittiwake and razorbill at the RSPB reserve at Fowlsheugh.

The nature reserve isn’t sign-posted off the main road, so follow signs to Crawton and you’ll find the small car park from where you can walk along the cliff top and look at the nesting seabirds.

There were, indeed, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, herring gulls and shags to see here.  A few young guillemots had already left their nesting ledges and were bobbing on the sea below with their parents.

The signs at the reserve are very clear that you might see a puffin but on the other hand you might not – I did!

A Belgian couple stood near me and chattered away in French that they probably thought that I didn’t understand but I enjoyed overhearing their delight at the seabird colony.  I pointed out to them that there were two types of auk on the cliffs and they soon mastered the difference between the guillemots and razorbills.  I couldn’t re-find a puffin while they were with me but the man pointed out a pod of whales to me, for which I was very grateful!  They were close in shore, about 8 of them, but my whale ID is poor so I don’t know which species they were.

I wondered whether they were minke (because the dorsal fin looked right for them) but I also wondered whether they were pilot whales because I got a blunt-headed impression.  They can’t have been both, but they might have been neither!  Which is more likely – can anyone tell me please?  Or which other species is even more likely?  I’m sorry the description is practically non-existent!

As I walked away from the cliffs the day was warm, almost hot.  A lady passing the other way showed me the condor on her sock because she noticed the condor on my baseball cap and we exchanged condor moments.  But I was in Scotland rather than Arizona.  I could tell because the day had started with a pine marten and I had just seen a puffin and some whales, and not a condor in sight. But it was only midday – who knows what unbiddable nature might provide next?

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Timing

Do you have a bucket list– a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket? I’ve just taken one off my list as I saw a much-wanted species in Abernethy Forest earlier this week.

Timing is everything with wildlife isn’t it? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time clearly isn’t the recipe for success, but being in the right place at the wrong time is arguably even worse because it leads to more frustration.

On Tuesday morning I was in the right place at the right time. If I hadn’t chosen this week to come up to Scotland then things might have been different. And if I hadn’t woken just before 5am then things would have been different. If I hadn’t had a shower before I went to bed then perhaps I would have had one before leaving Inverness and things would have been different.

Farming Today was still on as I entered Abernethy Forest and turned off the car radio.  I drove past the Loch Garten osprey site and stopped and looked and listened at various places in the pine forest.  I had visited the famous ospreys the day before and spent some time in the forest with an ex-colleague from RSPB.

We’d talked about the awful recent weather and how it might have ruined the breeding season for capercaillie and black grouse,we had been bitten by midges as we sat and waited under the ancient Scots pines, we had seen red squirrels and tree pipits and lots of willow warblers.

Today I was on my own, slowly driving the quiet roads early in the morning and stopping, looking and listening.  How was my timing?

I came across a red deer hind with a calf on the road. The deer had come from the right and on the left of the road was a fence hard against the roadside with a slope falling away to a stream.  I stopped to give the mother and calf time to consider their options.  The hind looked as though she wanted to jump the fence and continue their journey to the left of my route.

She kept looking at the fence and seemed to tense her muscles to leap over but always stopped.  She moved away from me down the road and kept looking at the fence again.  I got the impression that although she could jump over easily she maybe wasn’t confident of her calf’s jumping ability nor of the young animal’s sure-footedness on the sloping landing side.  She seemed to be getting more nervous about her options as I sat quietly and waited to see what she would do.

After maybe 45 seconds the hind seemed to reach some sort of resolution in her head and headed back to the right where she jumped over another fence, perhaps one which she had passed over in the other direction a few moments before I appeared on the road near her.  The calf hadn’t yet jumped the fence and I decided to move on and leave them to it as my presence was probably an unwanted distraction which was making the hind unnecessarily nervous.

I drove on wondering whether the calf jumped the fence to join its mother or whether the mother came back over again and the two carried on in their original direction when a pine marten ran across the road in front of me.

It lollopped across the road from left to right looking like a small otter with a bushy tail. Across the road and into the trees it went and I saw it make its way through the blaeberry and heather on the forest floor until it disappeared.  And it did disappear suddenly and mysteriously.  One moment it was there about 20 yards away and the next I couldn’t see it and didn’t relocate it.

But it was my first pine marten – and it was mine all mine! A shower, a longer or shorter stop to watch the roe deer earlier, a longer listen to the singing goldcrest or a more decisive red deer hind and I wouldn’t have been right there, right then, to see my first pine marten. Timing is everything.

I parked in the small car park near Loch Garten and took the path to Loch Mallachie.  The forest was quite quiet – occasional chaffinches or wrens would sing.  I thought of my pine marten and felt lucky.

I passed a large ant’s nest and stopped to look at it – no great need for perfect timing with that.  This enormous nest was a couple of feet high and made of thousands of pine needles.  Perhaps it had been standing here for decades and would remain so for decades more.

A little down the path the almost complete silence was broken by the sound of leathery wings, the occasional ‘chup chup’ and the sound of pine cones falling from the tree tops and bouncing off the lower branches as they fell to the soft carpet of pine needles on the forest floor. Crossbills feeding above my head!

I reached Loch Mallachie and all was calm.  The view was curtailed by the early morning mist but the loch surface was barely moving and the trees on the far bank were almost perfectly reflected in the still water.  Just the merest ripples differentiated the view from its reflection.

I recalled sitting at this spot on a June day 33 years earlier.  I had had an interview in Aberdeen and had then, as my university term had ended, hitched over to Speyside and spent a couple of days walking the woods and a couple of nights sleeping rough in them.  That time I had come to this spot on a warm sunny afternoon and dozed in the afternoon sun only to be woken by the sight of an osprey lifting from the lake in front of me with a fish in its talons.  Its crash into the water had woken me up!

This time I found I had reception on my iPhone and clicked ‘publish ‘for the first comment of the day on this blog – from Jim Dixon commenting on Tom Oliver’s thoughts on great ‘new Elizabethan’ naturalists.  That’s progress for you?

As I walked back to my car a crested tit was making its purring till, or is it a trilling purr, and I sought it out in the canopy above?  I saw the black triangular bib before it turned to show its crested head, and Abernethy Forest had yielded up another of its characteristic species.

I sipped some water as I regained my car and noticed that there was more than half an hour of the Today programme to go with its news of domestic politics and euro crises.  There’s a time for that and timing is everything.  Today my timing seemed to be perfect although who knows what this tale would have told if I had been a minute, or five minutes, or half an hour earlier or later?  Would the cast of characters have been different?  Would capercaillie have figured in the tale, or otter or maybe goldeneye or goshawk?

Timing is everything.  You can walk into The Louvre and be sure you will see the Mona Lisa, but if you walk into Abernethy Forest you can’t be sure that you will see a pine marten.  I’ve been here many times before, and seen many wildlife sights, but now I have seen my first pine marten.

Nature is ‘unbiddable’ – we don’t command it, we sample it. Timing is everything – make sure you make some time for nature in your life.

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Great new Elizabethan naturalists – thoughts from Mark Avery

This was a fun poll – well, I enjoyed it anyway.

I’m not surprised that Sir David Attenborough won – he is an impressive man who has motivated and inspired so many to care for the natural world.  He cannot but be a worthy winner.

But he didn’t get my vote – that went to Peter Scott.  For me, Peter Scott combined the best attributes of a ‘thinker’, a ‘doer’, a communicator and an inspirational leader.  It was he who set up the excellent WWT and was a founder member of WWF too.  Outside of nature conservation Peter Scott was an Olympian, a champion glider pilot and received a DSC for bravery.  He communicated his knowledge of , and love, for nature through his paintings, books and TV and radio broadcasts.  That’s why he got my vote.

But how could anyone begrudge Sir David his emphatic victory in this little poll?  He is a hero to so many of us too.  I remember, in my RSPB days, my PA putting an unexpected phone call through to me with a rather breathless ‘It’s David Attenborough for you!’.  I didn’t have any time to wonder what this was all about before the familiar voice was explaining that he wanted some advice about wind turbines because Glyndbourne were planning to have one. I was star-struck and I probably sounded it!

Thank you to all of you for your votes in this poll and for the stimulating comments –  including the people you thought we had missed off the list. I wonder whether we ought to have included HRH The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper, Dick Potts, David Bellamy and others – maybe next time?

Another poll will be along in a while.

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New Elizabethan naturalists – thoughts from Tom Oliver.

Our poll still has a day to run as I write, so I shouldn’t draw conclusions based on the exact number of votes cast for each of our twelve New Elizabethan Naturalists. What I can say is that I am very glad we did the poll for two main reasons.

First, it has been an occasion to contemplate, discuss and honour the works of some exceptional people, whom most of us, no doubt, immensely admire. Only four of them are still alive. As a nation we can be profoundly grateful that ecology, nature conservation, and love of the natural world have been so well served by these people alongside many others. At the same time, the comments of contributors have added the names of many more inspiring people who could have been on our list and by no means all of whom we considered.  We’ve both learned a lot and I hope the process has stimulated many people’s curiosity and spirit of enquiry.

The original reason I got in touch with Mark was to see if we could nominate Max Nicholson for the BBC’s official sixty Elizabethans. That wasn’t possible, and by hosting our poll on his website, Mark has done a very public spirited thing himself for which he should be thanked. It’s been a really good use of web space.

The other reason I’m glad we did the poll is that it has, as far as I am concerned revealed so many valuable insights beyond ecology and nature conservation: into history, public service, human nature, and how we might do things better.

 

  • History: For instance, the influence of the Second World War on our twelve is arresting: one fought in the dangerous North Atlantic on destroyers (Scott), one fought, was badly wounded, captured and imprisoned in a camp where Russian prisoners were deliberately starved to death (Moore); one organised the convoy system which prevented us all starving in the UK (Nicholson); one worked on the agricultural war effort (Fisher), one worked on radar (Lack) and one at Bletchley Park (Rothschild). For others, the war brought abrupt and unwelcome disruption as children, which they took in their stride and which influenced their careers.
  • Public service:  I am struck by the extraordinary power of the instinct for public service shown by our twelve in their very different ways. So much public good from so few, with such enduring effects. From Nicholson’s part in founding the BTO in 1932, through the huge achievements of the 1940s (the Nature Conservancy, National Nature Reserves, SSSIs, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty); the pioneering of modern zoos as regenerators of endangered species with high collection standards; the creation of incomparable natural history broadcasting (Soper as well as Attenborough); the huge strides in ecology and the protection of ecosystems from terrible contamination (the Monks Wood team); the establishment of effective public policy to protect and enhance our natural environment; to the development of publicly accessible nature reserves and huge public support for conservation. All this for all of us.
  •  Human nature: It’s clear that these people brought out the best in those around them, to hugely beneficial effect. Many of their colleagues testify to just this. Also, money was no object: for some, there was a lot, for others, precious little; it’s not possible to tell from their work. Character was decisive.
  • How we might do things better: there is a generosity of spirit and collaboration amongst these twelve which we sorely need to rediscover.  The semi-natural world is a vulnerable place, and we can ill-afford the territoriality which can hamper conservation today. I am certain that our candidates would all of them, urge us, now, to find common causes rather than reasons to fall out and argue, even in today’s very different circumstances.

 

Two more things:

First, there is a spectacularly various mixture of things these people have done beyond their main roles: Peter Scott being British Gliding Champion in 1963; James Fisher landing on and claiming Rockall for the UK in 1955; Rothschild’s campaign to legalise homosexuality; Southwood’s Chairing of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; Moore’s internationally renowned work on dragonflies; Durrell’s magnificent writing; the extraordinary Roots and Shoots movement begun by Goodall; Ratcliffe saving the Flow Country: the list goes on.

If I am allowed to single out one thing, almost impossible to do, it might be David Lack’s reconciliation of Anglican Christianity with evolutionary theory: something which is important to me.

 

If I could single out two people I miss being on our list, they might be:

1) GR Potts, former Director of what is now the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, whose pioneering work on insects, birds and arable crops remains central to much agri-environment policy; and

2)  Oliver Rackham, OBE, Hon. Prof. of Historical Ecology at Cambridge,whose work on understanding the relationship between landscape and ecology changed my own career.

And I should declare an interest: I am a nephew of one of the candidates, from whom, in particular, I have learned a vast amount.

Last of all:

In a time when mass communications can inhibit accuracy, and an overloaded western society has a frighteningly short memory, I hope our New Elizabethan Naturalists poll will, in a very modest way, help anyone who has seen it take our predecessors and their work more seriously and inspire us to work with the highest standards we can muster, for the common good.

 

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Great new Elizabethan naturalists – the result

With over 800 votes cast, the final rankings were as follows:

  1. David Attenborough 270 votes
  2. Peter Scott 211 votes
  3. Gerald Durrell 111 votes
  4. Derek Ratcliffe 89 votes
  5. Norman Moore 55 votes
  6. Max Nicholson 33 votes
  7. Jane Goodall 33 votes
  8. David Lack 28 votes
  9. Miriam Rothschild 25 votes
  10. James Fisher 6 votes
  11. Tony Soper  6 votes
  12. Richard Southwood  5 votes

So, the BBC probably picked the right person for their list.

Interestingly, there was a late surge of votes for Peter Scott in the last week of the poll as staff in one of the organisations with which he was associated organised a swell of support.

Even more interesting, there was a rush of support for Miriam Rothschild on Saturday night where over a hundred consecutive votes arrived for her taking her total from the mid-20s to 150, and this was repeated on Sunday night.  These votes have been excluded from the total above as they were the product of finger-clicking by one person who had found a way through the defences to prevent multiple voting.  It is, in a way, flattering that anyone thought it worthwhile to do this.

Tomorrow and Wednesday will feature comments from Tom Oliver and myself on the results of this poll.  Thank you again to all of you who voted once in this poll!

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