The Joy of Local

This piece is about birds, but it’s also about being confined to my locality and the new mind-set I’m trying to embrace. I wrote a long introductory piece, but some might find it a bit heavy so I’ve made it an optional read here:

Above is a picture of a common bird in a common tree. it’s a Chiffchaff, perched in a Alder, one of the many Small Brown Jobs (SBJ) relegated to the second division by the Birding community. To me this bird is special, but why should it be any more special than that other SBJ, the House Sparrow? That’s an easy one to answer because the Chiffchaff is one of our first summer visitors. It’s the herald of spring. I photographed one of the early arrivals at Kidwelly in March:

So why bother catching it again? Partly it is the excitement of the whole concept of migration – the enormous distances these little birds can travel and the romance of distant lands and the journey. I also think they are beautiful in their own right, and they are on my “Patch”. I now have to introduce a nasty bit of birder jargon – “Patching.” This has nothing to do with sticking on patches but refers to the study of your local patch and its avian inhabitants. Suddenly this is the only kind of bird-watching now available to almost all of us. Springwatch rises to the occasion, but I find it hard spending hours looking at areas which in previous years I would have dismissed as lacking in quantity and quality of wildlife. “Quality”? What does that mean? Is a chiffchaff of higher quality as a species than say a Dunnock? It’s a good question. Why for example would we be prepared to spend good money to see a Red Squirrel or a Pine Marten but would not cross the road to see their close relations the Grey Squirrel and the Mink? The first two are native species and rare, the latter introduced and common. The Native has more charisma than the Introduced, the Wild has more than the Domestic and the Rare more than the Common.

Take Canada Geese. (Yes please and as far away as possible). Here they are in April:

They are a familiar sight anywhere there is water and have become a pest in some cities. In their native North America they are migratory and their haunting cries from high above as they set off or return must be as exciting to birders in their homeland as the cries of our migrant geese such as the White Fronted are to us. 

Yet I now find myself keen to study and photograph these common birds. There are four geese here. The males are apparently bigger than the females, but not otherwise distinct. They divide into two pairs, though I don’t know if the pairs are male and female or both the same sex. One pair is dominant – those on the right – and bullies the other pair. The two pairs were still chasing each other around on the 11th of May, but all 4 birds stayed on the lake for the whole time I watched which led me to believe that they were not nesting pairs.

With permission from the landowner I set up my pop-up hide by the lake, though not anticipating much in the way of excitement. My next visit on the 25th was therefore quite a shock. Only two adult geese were in evidence; they were clearly a pair and clearly looking after their 5 well-grown goslings. I still don’t understand how 4 geese without a nest between them became a pair with young. Normal nesting behaviour for geese would be for one bird to stand guard – usually the male – while the other incubates the eggs. When the goslings hatch the pair would stay with them to adulthood. How had these 5 got to be here? Why did I think my patch wasn’t interesting?

It got better too. Another common bird on lakes is the Little Grebe or Dabchick. I’ve taken many pictures of these cute relatives of the more charismatic Great Crested Grebe, but I’d never seen them with young before let alone juvenile hitch hikers. Then a strange sound which took me immediately to the wild places of the north – the rippling trill which is the Grebes’ song. I was enchanted:

Further up the valley is a bend in the river which can only be reached on foot by beating a way through the undergrowth of a large patch of land which had been left untended for years. With encouragement from the landowner I moved the hide up here to a little pebble beach where on previous trips I had watched nothing much more than the water flowing, but it was an idyllic spot and it was still the breeding season. To get the hide there I had to strap it to a rucksack already laden with camera gear and cycle the three miles from home. As soon as I had it assembled I stepped inside, unzipped the small “windows” and lowered the mesh screens which enable me to see but not be seen. I waited an hour, taking pictures of the birds I expected to see. As well as Mallards which can be seen pretty much anywhere there is water, there are three species which are quite common along the upper Towy – Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Pied Wagtail. These are occasionally joined by the more charismatic but still quite common Goosander and in the summer by Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and with luck a Spotted Flycatcher. I had for years been watching and studying Dippers nearer to home, and had also once, on different occasions seen an otter, a mink and a weasel. The wagtails and the dipper showed up, but there was a thrilling surprise – another bird quite common elsewhere but not here: a Common Sandpiper.

My next trip struck gold. The birds were now used to the hide and after a half-hour wait the Sandpiper popped up just in front of me. It was too close and I missed focus. Agony!

Then things got exciting:

A Goosander and something I had never seen before – Goosanderlings!
They seemed to be in a hurry to get away so I thought they must have been frightened by the movement of the camera lens. Not so. The hide was working as it should. Fifteen minutes later they were heading back towards me and spent another ten minutes exploring the area in front of the hide:

My day was made. The common had been made special.

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9 Responses to The Joy of Local

  1. Peter Twyman says:

    Hello Richard.

    I have read your lengthy preamble three times now as I couldn’t quite get what you were saying. But I think I may have got it now. You say ‘This Pandemic Spring has brought me face to face with one of my life’s biggest demons.’ You then say that the demon (put simply) is; ‘whatever our circumstances we look around us and think “how can I improve this?” Well, that may be your demon but it’s not mine. In fact you seem to accept that this is not a universal demon when you say, a little earlier ‘All these [the idyllic features of your life] can and do give me great pleasure, but it comes at the cost of many bad days of nervous tension.’ Is this nervous tensio a result of the lockdown or do you always have it?

    I’ve concluded that the answer is in the title of your piece, you’re ‘frustrated’. I can’t see why! Is it simply that you are used to roaming more widely? You’ve made it clear that there’s loads of good stuff close to home, so you don’t seem to be short of stuff, maybe you’re just frustrated because you feel a prohibition constraining you.

    To move away from your frustration – I was interested in the rest of your post by your mention of a ‘grey wagtail’. Fom my kitchen window I have an interesting roofscape to look at, home to many pigeons, which I find quite interesting. But the other day, for the first time that I remember, I saw a bird that wasn’t a pigeon. It was a similar size but a little sleeker, with a wagtail and a lot of white and yellow on its breast and stomach. I have never seen such a bird, I snapped a bad piccie with my phone which wasn’t good enough. But my investigations make me pretty sure it was a Grey Backed Wagtail passing through (It only stopped for a few seconds)with a mate. I was very pleased.

    Your talk of ‘bird watching’ and ‘birding’ reminded me of another species, a ‘twitcher’. I once gave a lift to an ingenuous young man when I was coming up from Cornwall. He was a ‘twitcher’. He had the fanaticism of a Liverpool away game fan. He would do anything to get to see a rare bird that he would hear of on the twitcher network. His quarry in Cornwall had been a ‘Lesser Yeller (Yellow) Legs’. He’d seen the Lesser Yeller Legs and was on his way home. I’ll never forget that Lesser Yeller Legs.


  2. twynog1 says:

    Thanks for this Peter. I’m glad you don’t share my demon! It is difficult to explain, and writing some sort of explanation is part of trying to live with the problem. My frustration is that I am by nature restless – a doer rather than a contemplator, but my reason tells me that we are in urgent need of those who are not constantly driven to “improve things” but can find contentment in everyday life. Hence the nervous tension.
    There is a good picture of a Grey Wagtail here: (the first bird after the video.) They are pretty much a bird of upland streams and rivers, and decidedly smaller than a domestic pigeon.

  3. Chris Robertson says:

    Good pieces, Dick, both of them. I think I might be an improver; I’m very reluctant to sit and think and even less keen to sit. All my adult life I have bought places and “improved” them. True, they were mainly derelicts so doing anything was an improvement. And I am a birder and have been around the world, not exactly chasing birds but certainly going out of my way to see them in their habitat. I get very impatient in hides; the idea of sitting and waiting and hoping is anathema to me.
    This the first year that we have been at home over the whole of the Spring season and I have been so much more aware of the little world that surrounds us. I have even, on occasion, found myself thinking!

  4. Vivian Miles says:

    Thanks for another set of excellent words and pictures Dick
    I thought your pre-amble was a good reflective piece, like Peter I could see the possible paradoxes throughout it and know from experience how difficult you find to explain (and sometimes ‘locate’) the tensions inside you.
    It did also get me to think about how poor I am about ‘just sitting’, however in the last couple of weeks I’ve been returning to some of the mindfulness techniques that Charlie took me through. I’ve been able to ‘just sit’ maybe for just half an hour, in the garden but with a gradually , growing sense of awareness and enjoying tiny things surrounding me in the garden. I’m going to try and keep at it as I always feel energised and refreshed after a ‘just sitting’ session.
    Charlie by the way is starting each day with an early morning run up the Taff trail, followed by meditating when he gets back to his flat….this is helping him to get through being stuck in Cardiff, on his own in a flat during Lockdown!

    • RICHARD S TURNER says:

      I’ve tried several meditative therapies and none works for me. Watching water flow by is good, but only because I am waiting for something to appear. I couldn’t just watch water to relax – it would make me worse. I admire and envy Charlie’s ability to take control of his life and thinking of you sitting in the garden watching insects brings a smile!

  5. Patsy Smiles says:

    Dick I’m by nature a busy person and a doer. That’s what my daily Grateful thoughts are all about. When someone else suggested to me ‘Being Grateful’ was a helpful mindset to have in life I was sceptical. However it has helped. Actively finding just one thing to be thankful for each day does force you to change your mindset. I also started a project to observe the birds in the garden for half an hour each day in an effort to slow myself down during lock down. If I’m honest I got a bit bored with the same old LBJs. However what it has shown me is that the bluetits in their absence have nested elsewhere this year.
    I’m so thankful I’ve been able to work my allotment on my patch of the world. However now it comes with my internal pressure that I won’t have achieved all I wanted there by the time I come off furlough. Better get down there!

  6. Pingback: A Fresh Perspective - Richard S Turner PhotographyRichard S Turner Photography

  7. Peter Twyman says:

    Hello again Dick. I’m not a doer. Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. But something I have done is investigate wagtails a bit more. You say that a grey wagtail is noticeably smaller than a pigeon. I’ve looked here and I’ve looked there and by far the closest to what I saw from my kitchen window is a picture of a grey wagtail in a Wikipedia article on same. Slender and elegant and said to be 18-19 cms long. (That must include the tail, so longer than a pigeon!) This leads me to think that your picture is actually a yellow wagtail. Much smaller and less elegant looking. What do you think?

    • RICHARD S TURNER says:

      A general rule which I find works for me in identifying birds is to find the commonest one which looks like the one I’ve seen. Yellow Wagtails are rare whereas Grey (which look very yellow) are common on our rivers. The smallest pigeon in my book is the Turtle Dove, now very rare, which goes from 25cm to 28 so larger than any of the wagtails. The colours all get complicated when you try to distinguish males, females and juveniles! There’s an RSPB book out now called “Britain’s Birds” by Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop and Tipling which has a photo-montage with for each bird with multiple pictures.

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