Sunday, 31 January 2016


I recently came across a blog/hashtag/initiative started by Twitter & Instagram inspirers @silverpebble & @_emmabradshaw encouraging the revival of the Nature Table  (see Emma Mitchell's blog here: and Emma Bradshaw's blog here:

The Nature Table, do you know what we mean, remember having one, perhaps in the corner of the schoolroom? 
My Mum has often mentioned one that her Primary school class had, and how 'Nature Study' was her favourite lesson there. Must be where I get it from!
In my own childhood, these museums of mystery and marvel, these displays of delight and memories, carefully curated by small fingers and the guiding hand of a sympathetic teacher, gradually disappeared almost completely as my generation became more and more disconnected from the natural world and the nature table's space was required for the latest computer. 

I was lucky, my parents always encouraged or at very least gently allowed me to continually develop a fascination with all things nature, whether I was picking up feathers, pointing out flowers in the hedgerow or even torturing woodlice and snails I found around the garden in the name of 'farming'. Books were my other big fascination at this age, and they in turn fed my passion for nature. Many of these books still inhabit my shelves. 

One book in particular that made a big impression was "The Complete Amateur Naturalist" by Michael Chinery (Bloomsbury Books). The spine is a little faded, and one or two pages such as the ones on preserving small mammals or making insect collections may be a little out of kilter with today's world, but I am still enthralled by a flick through its chapters. The book came into our house via a GG-Aunt, the wisest person I have known, and whom, despite sadly passing away when I was approaching 9years old, has always been a valued mentor. 

My favourite of all the chapters in this book was the one titled 'The Nature Table'. This suggested many items, and the various ways of displaying them, that might be included from fossils to tadpoles in a fish tank to feathers and flower presses. The 'Nature Detective' chapter also held great appeal, showing how and where to look for signs and clues of wildlife, and how to interpret them. 

Although I don't have a grand display, or even a nature table as such, there are to this day a few feathers propped in the corner of my windowsill, along with a jam-jar filled with seaglass and shell, and a lichen encrusted stump of windblown stick. This childhood habit of collecting things has remained with me, although it has now evolved so as the items are more often photographs (although I am frequently known to put my hand in a coat pocket and discover a conker or crumpled leaf). 

'Nature detective' has metamorphosed into 'Naturalist' but the essence is the same - a curiosity about living things, or the signs and evidence they leave behind, and for figuring out how they are all connected and work. 

I am inspired to reinstate a nature table at home; I can't wait for my next adventure, perhaps I will find more treasure to bring home and put in pride of place to remind me of the wonder of nature.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Midhurst Martlets Bird Race

It is said that the old Sussex dialect had over 30 different words for mud, and I think we encountered most of types today, some of us more intimately than others! 

The Bird Race day started as per the past three years, with a robin singing in the darkness, on the edge of Midhurst. In a manner rather reminiscent of an episode of The Last of The Summer Wine the Midhurst Martlets team (Hugh Horne, Peter Plant, Peter Davis & myself) piled into the car and headed off with a carefully laid plan, a box of cake and a few grumbles about the early hour. 

Early morning proof! First light at Church Norton.

Arriving at Church Norton we were greeted by a song thrush belting out its song into the cold dawn air. Out in the harbour, the tide was nearly high, compressing the birds onto shrinking islands or else making them paddle! Grebes, geese, duck and gulls were unperturbed by the deepening water, whilst the waders shuffled and fidgeted, swirling in shining flocks. The flute-like calls of curlew came echoing across the waters. Herring gull, brent goose, shelduck, wigeon, and merganser made it onto the list, along with a number of waders; black-tailed godwit, dunlin, knot, grey plover, and redshank. Wood pigeons crossed the lightening sky, and the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker (my first of the year) hinted at the coming spring. We left Church Norton with a running total of 27 species. A roe deer led us down the lane, white ‘target’ backend bobbing brightly in the gloom.

Selsey Bill was our next destination, however as we approached the beach an increasingly sinking feeling fell over the group upon the sight of a largely empty sea.  Turnstones pottered on the beach and black headed gulls played catch-me-if-you-can with the booming surf. An eider duck drifted just off-shore, providing excellent scope-views, and a cormorant was also on show. Two unidentified divers tantalised two members of the team, but were alas unseen by the required magic number of three to make it onto The List. 

It is good to see the sunrise at least once a year

Selsey rooftops yielded starlings, magpie, jackdaw, and eventually collared dove. Usually a Selsey staple, this final species took some searching for, whereas every other rooftop seemed to have a wood pigeon atop and we wondered if there was a correlation between the apparent rise in wood pigeons and the struggle to locate the more slender collared cousin?

We decided to cut our losses and returned along the road to Siddlesham and the RSPB centre. With the help of the feeders and Ferry Pool we were able to muster up a handful of small birds and ducks before deciding we had enough time under our belts to allow for a muddy walk along the harbour edge aiming for a view of avocet. Red legged partridge gamely added their presence to the list, whilst a characteristic fleeting glimpse of a water rail dashing across the path was a welcome unplanned-for sighting. Out across the harbour our desired avocets were accompanied by grey heron, and golden plover, resulting in a total update of 51.

Oh deer oh deer...

By the time we arrived back at the car, we found it was essential to delve into the tea and cake in order to fuel our next leg of the journey. None-the-less, we still found that our eagerness meant we reached Dell Quay whilst the tide was still too high for many birds to be in evidence and a pathetic score of one species in the form of mute swan was all we achieved.

Does it ever really get light at this time of year?

Slipping and squelching through the mud at Apuldrum Church/Fishbourne Creek was more profitable, and with the sun emerging from the murk it was turning into a good-looking day. A golden eye was out on the water and a wimbrel was feeding at the edge of the vegetation in the mud. Stonechat, rock pipit, and reed bunting all resulted from a search for the elusive jack snipe. Peter Plant bravely ventured a few metres from the firm path and we were rewarded with a great view of this tiny wader rocketing out of the vegetation only for it to disappear back in a few seconds later. We turned back to the triumphant Peter Plant just in time to watch his balletic dive into the mud, from whence he returned to our concerned laughter looking slightly as though in fancy-dress as the mythical creature from the black lagoon!

Hero returns!

We distracted Peter from his muddy misfortune with views of kingfisher and bursts of song from cettis warbler, both in the reed-lined channel near the sewage outlet.

Time to head inland, stopping on route to collect pochard, tufted duck and gadwall. At Coldwaltham Sewage Works we saw chiffchaff and the paler Siberian subspecies, before a goldcrest in the hedgerow. Unbelievably it was only now that we finally located canada goose, house sparrow and pied wagtail!

At last we descended on RSPB Pulborough Brooks and met up with additional team member Gary Trew (an honouree Midhurstian for the afternoon!). Jay and redwing on the entrance drive raised our hopes. Fieldfare feasting on holly berries, a single barnacle goose and two Bewick swans on the far North Brooks were very pleasing as was the famously now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Dartford warbler.

We ended the day in the gathering gloom at The Burgh, only adding grey partridge to the list. We did attempt the now traditional pause at Burton Mill Pond to listen for tawny owl, and headlight search of Benbow Pond for Egyptian goose but to no avail on both counts.

All the species mention, plus a few others in the mix, resulted in a final score of 88 species, equalling last year’s total for the Midhurst Martlets.

A few frustrating misses included meadow pipit seen only by Peter Plant, bullfinch seen twice by myself but no-one else (I promise, I really did see them!), and those two aforementioned Selsey divers. 

An enjoyable day, a satisfying result, and perhaps better luck next year!

UPDATE: Breaking news... after cross-referencing our lists and holding a re-count, I am pleased to announce a correction to the Midhurst Martlets' Bird Race total! 
The final count is 90 species.