Monday, 28 September 2015

Hobson's Choice? Town Planning & Biodiversity

One rainy winter I was living in a Somerset village just outside Bristol, without car or cycle. My preferred route to the shops was straight across the fields, slipping through cowpats and hoof-prints full of water. I climbed through a barbed wire fence, dropped down into a stream and scaled the bank. Emerging into woodland, the rustic territory gave way to signs of habitation; an enticing boardwalk led the way from here. Accompanied by brave ripples of robin song and artist's palette of fungi and fallen leaves, I returned the same way laden with shopping but lighter of mood (and carbon footprint to boot).

Desire lines map the places where town planning and free spirits meet. They are the paths made by man or beast that developers didn't foresee. Shortcuts across grass or municipal flowerbeds are sometimes eventually paved, but planners are perhaps getting better at imagining the routes humans - and hedgehogs - might want to tread. Conservation charity the RSPB is working in partnership with Barratt Developments to give nature a home at new building sites by implementing ideas such as hedgehog highways (access built into housing plans such as holes in fences, and hedgerow corridors). The charity has a Head of Sustainable Development responsible for Urban Recovery (looking at urban bird species of concern), and will soon recruit a Swift Ambassador.

RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) offers a Designing For Biodiversity guide. When I visited Phase 1 of local premium development Ninewells Cambridge, a quick sketch of bat and swift boxes had only recently been added (admittedly a bit of an afterthought). Their luxury literature states: 'Ninewells is as much about the natural world as it is about the connection with the city... did you know that Ninewells takes its name from a local nature reserve? Nine Wells, a historically important source of the Hobson Conduit, once provided Cambridge with its drinking water'.

The human inhabitants of Ninewells are lucky. Paths and cycleways will lead to Addenbrooke's hospital and bus station and open countryside via 'green fingers' landscaped with flowerbeds, trees, hedgerows and allotments. Quite utopian really. The idea of the cul-de-sac is old hat, and thank goodness for that. There's one near me that swallows people up and never lets them out. The far perimeter of their housing estate was planted with trees to disguise the point at which the development met the greenbelt. A high fence still reaches all the way round. Desire lines to the public footpath across the fields next door never had a chance.

Greenbelt, Sawston, Cambridgeshire. Photo Jo Sinclair

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Cambridge Greenbelt, Bitterns & Hippos

'Little egret, green sandpiper, coot, house martin... hippo.' Wondering if any passage ospreys had been spotted, I was checking out the birdwatchers' list in a bird hide. The joke contribution from what I imagined was a bored kid reminded me of the time I climbed a ladder to a hide in Newnham, Cambridge and facetiously pencilled 'bittern'. This was in the days when such a claim was almost as outlandish as hippopotamus. Decades later, thanks to conservation efforts nationwide it's perfectly feasible.

Right Move describes Newham as urban and rural living side by side. Nature is employed as the USP for a £2.5 million new-build for sale near Bolton's Lake:
Just a stone's throw from Cambridge City centre. Newnham is unique in Cambridge in the way that the urban and the rural sit side by side. Interesting local shops are just one street away from meadows, wildlife and woods. Newnham was named Overall Winner in the Sunday Time's Best Places to Live in Britain 2015.
The purchaser can apply to become a member of the Bolton's Pit Company Ltd. This gives rights to the owners to use the lake for boating, swimming and fishing.

The 'meadows, wildlife and woods' are described by a local conservationist in an Ecological Survey. I signed the petition to Save The West Fields. I hesitated, as I live in a home that was built on arable land in 1972, and it seems a little hypocritical to campaign against new housing when I know how desperate the need is for new social housing. But Cambridge is a hotspot for investors who will never live in the houses they buy (in 2015 30% of new-builds are reported to be owned by buyers from overseas), and many are standing empty.

Cambridge University's wealth has provided a greenbelt so rich that green is turning to gold - but the gold may soon be concreted over. The Save The West Fields campaign aims to preserve the network of gardens, playing fields, footpaths, hedgerows, lakes, ponds, ditches and woods. As a child playing with friends and family in those places I navigated the green spaces, secretly trespassing and exploring swimming pools, lakes and nature reserves, much of it owned by the University. As an adult I believe it is essential that green corridors (or blood-red arteries) are retained for wildlife biodiversity and to connect urban residents to green networks. Kingfishers, water voles, even bitterns know every niche that connects Cambridge city centre to the edge of the greenbelt and beyond.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Flight Behaviour: RSPB Fowlmere Nature Reserve

News headlines on my Twitter timeline shout hysterical warnings of rain, as if to douse Sunday's air disaster fireball. It's not something we get much of round here so I keep going into the porch to admire it. Mmm, proper rain, I say to myself every time we have a heavy shower.

Alarmist updates say the death-plane pilot is local and flies in the region regularly. The very same aircraft was due to display at two upcoming air shows in Cambridgeshire. I live beneath the flight path of the Imperial War Museum Duxford's air shows, one of the most popular attractions in the UK. I admit I've always been fairly thrilled as the Red Arrows buzz the roads and rooftops, soar and draw red, white and blue hearts in the sky. But the shows are noisy and filthy, and you have to give the traffic jams a wide berth. I prefer to watch birds.

'Beware the Spanish plume' we were warned: heatwave, tornado, thunderstorms. On the evening of Saturday, which was luridly hot, I cycled to my nearest RSPB nature reserve. I wanted to cherish the dwindling summer and stay out watching wildlife in a quiet place until dark.

Entering Fowlmere nature reserve always seems to have a Narnia effect; another world instantly opens up. Still on my bike wearing hi-vis gear, I spot a muntjac deer on the wooded track along the eastern edge. I freeze. These are common animals we're quite used to seeing, but I'm in reverential mode. The muntjac freezes too. It peers, stretching its nostrils closer in my direction, a little to the left, a little to the right. I shift a fraction; it twitches. It dips and cocks its head, nodding its indecision to step forward. Then braves a 1-step 2-step 'What's the time Mr Wolf'' approach. Still not quite deciding what it sees, the animal barks five times, plaintively, as if calling its mum. Now it relaxes, turning its burnished brown bottom on me to graze awhile, then shows its white scut like an insult and plunges out of sight.

Kingfisher Hide: Two women. I sigh. I want to be alone. 'There's a kingfisher over there if you're interested' says one of them generously, before leaving me to it. Soon it flies straight towards me as if to land right in front of me on a strategically placed perch before choosing an awkward angle in a hawthorn bush.

Photo by Jo Sinclair
After ten minutes of trying to photograph an orange and electric-blue blur swaying gently in the breeze, a family of four from Royston arrives. The boys are excited. They've been before. Their mum says she visits about four times a week. She tells me someone saw otters here at about 8 one evening. 'Go to the Reedbed Hide' she suggests. 'The marsh harriers will be getting ready for bed - in the tree on the right. You can see the sun catch their plumage at this time of night.'

At the hide the marsh harriers are flying above the mere. The water is crowded with forty nervous ducks and a hundred geese. They're moulting, 'in eclipse'. The mere has a circular scum of down. Two harriers screech and squabble; one is holding something - maybe prey - in its feet. Co-joined briefly in an eight foot wingspan of raptor they twist, flap, plummet and roll. A man laughs in astonishment and admiration. 'Couldn't ask for a better view!'.

Even when there's not all this action a bird hide is a rewarding place to be. You can simply sit and stare and breathe deeply, happy as a fisherman to be whiling away the time listening to the wind in the reeds.

One of the harriers goes down. For a drink? To roost? I can't see, but the waterfowl seem unperturbed. Three turtle doves fly in. Thirsty birds after such a hot day. They're so nervy one tries to take a sip mid-air. I can see a snipe, cautious at the edge of the reeds, and a lapwing announces its arrival with its kazoo peewit call.

A turtle dove is purring when I leave. The barn owl box looks empty. Flocks of crows rise, flap and settle in dead trees. I go through the woods, along the clean chalky trout stream. I divert into a meadow where I see fallow deer. They step out of the trees and their hides seem to describe the crepuscular light: there's a white hart, spotted does, two chocolate brown forms, several fawns.

There are rabbits, a hare and two muntjac on the stubble field when I leave the reserve. I see a bat by the light of my bicycle lamps. I hope it might follow the insects I disturb. I pass a combine harvester working a field in a blaze of lights bright as a factory. Into the dark again and I hear a large animal double back from the road. Further on I detect a black, vague shape ahead and luckily brake in time. A fallow deer, about a day dead, lies on the path. Its leg is right-angled and its staring head rests upon a dark stain. I reach a pub at last orders and dine beneath a floodlit ash tree, and note that there are surprisingly few moths.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Blob, The 6th Mass Extinction and Smiley Bees

What's that in the woods? Sawdust, foam or dog sick? Ah, I've seen this before. It's the prosaically named dog's vomit fungus, a slime mould recorded quite brilliantly in the American blog Margaret's Garden. I remember watching the B Movie she's talking about. The monster in The Blob, the writer tells us, 'was based on the plasmodium phase of a slime mould'. I love what an internet search can throw up.

There's a lot of friendly noise in the ether comparing notes on natural history ID, sharing unusual finds and celebrating every-day occurrences such as bees and butterflies. With people posting every sighting of a moth, froglet or hedgehog, my Twitter timeline seems more Garden of Eden than Noah's Ark. Online noticeboard Streetlife is starting to shout about it too. Among appeals for decorators, lost dogs and long threads of discriminatory 'comments' aimed at Travellers pitched for a few days on a local verge, there's a buzz about buzzards and ecstasy about the red kites that are fast swooping into the collective conscience. But the very fact that common bees and butterflies are noteworthy is pitiful. I don't mean I think it's pathetic. I mean it's cause for concern.

Common blue butterfly (photo Jo Sinclair)
The charity Butterfly Conservation supplied goddamn beautiful pictures of butterflies non-stop during the Big Butterfly Count (see previous post). Then they put out news of a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change warning of butterfly extinctions. I peered at my single nasturtium pot today. It looks like the Raft of the Medusa by Gericault (pitching around somewhere near Kos?) 'Cabbage white' caterpillars have shredded nearly every leaf. They gorged, grew fast as broiler chickens and are now hanging off the edge or dying. I feel a bit guilty that they appear to be marooned. Large whites and small whites are on that extinction list.

Nature has been a 'trend' for many years now. In 2008 Honda used an animation of butterflies, birds, bees and blooms to promote diesel engines (the Hate Something Change Something campaign). Childish illustrations of nature curled pretty tendrils around the mainstream. I later enjoyed an ad with a boy in scuba gear dunking his head below the surface of a pond and coming up reeling with the fabulousness of a world teeming with tadpoles, though I seem to recall the product was utterly unrelated. Then there were hard-to-swallow campaigns for the world's best-known burger corp depicting real farmyards with kids welly-deep in muck and straw. 

Katie Humble's pig at Humble By Nature, Wales. Photo Jo Sinclair

The 'isn't nature brilliant' meme continues. The infantilisation of nature spotting (Look what I found! Clever me) rubs it in horribly how we are all to used to the idea that a sighting of a bee (groggy with Neonicotinoid  and infested with varroa mites) is cause for thanks and celebration. But we should carry on sharing the passion. 

Natural England reports that visits to parks and countryside have reached an all time high. Today's exchange of flora and fauna snapshots reminds me of kids comparing marbles. Privet hawk moth: what a beauty, what a whopper! And no, I can't resist posting a photo of some happy honey bees on the last of my passion flowers.
Jo Sinclair

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes: Big Butterfly Count 2015

Common blue butterfly (Jo Sinclair)
David Attenborough encouraged me from the very start (doesn't he always?). The charity Butterfly Conservation tweeted all day everyday, but I read Michael McCarthay's article reminding me yet again about the staggering decline of species in my lifetime and found myself a little bit scared to go out and count local butterflies. What's the point, I wondered. Would there even be any? But the Big Butterfly Count is not a trophy hunt. It's not about showing off a triumphant list of rare species. The 25,000 contributors who have already submitted their results provide useful 'citizen science' data. Perhaps the best contribution I could make might in fact be to report that on a fine summer afternoon with a moderate breeze all I noted was one or two tatty cabbage whites?

Three books on butterflies this year reviewed in The Guardian by Patrick Barkham inspire the combination of gloom and wonder that anyone with an interest in natural history knows all to well.
I pulled myself together and waited for the right conditions between torrential rain, unseasonal high winds and grey cloud. My perfect day dawned fine, hot, sunny and gentle. I saw peacocks, red admirals, meadow browns, brimstones, common blues, large whites, a brown argus and a small copper among thistles, teasels and ragwort in the meadow I walk through every day.

You can do a count for the Big Butterfly Count until the 9th august and you've got until the end of the month to log the results.

Big Butterfly Count 2015: Butterfly Conservation's downloadable guide

Meadow browns on ragwort (lower black dots on the 3rd from left are a variable feature). image Jo Sinclair

Large white butterfly on teasel by Jo Sinclair

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Rewilding Takes Flight

Hans Hoffman wild boar piglet illustration

The conservation charity Rewilding Britain launched last week. In the emotive brouhaha I fleetingly imagined savage animals let loose to take revenge on us. With one swipe of fangs or claws they'd get us back. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth for the systemic extinctions we leave in our wake. Then I remembered this famous You Tube sensation. (PLAY)

Narrating the story of 'trophic cascade' George Monbiot tells us what happens when a keystone species is given the chance to fit comfortably into a new habitat, creating a rapid positive effect on the whole ecosystem. Springwatch told the same tale this year, this time with English beavers.

Rewilding Britain gives some UK examples on the website, and a blog entry by Martin Harper talks about conservation in action at the RSPB. Even in intensively farmed East Anglia there are success stories, such as Lakenheath RSPB's cranes. In 2007 these birds returned and bred successfully (the first time in England in four hundred years). The Great Crane Project website points out that these are wild birds, discerning individuals who chose a good spot where the RSPB are able to provide extra protection. They are not part of a reintroduction project.

Next week I'll be far away from my East Anglian flatlands. I'll be in South Wales and near the Forest of Dean. One of these days in their garden my relatives might find wild boar rootling, an adder basking or a goshawk flashing through with outstretched talons. And might there be a lynx or a wolf in my niece and nephew's lifetime? Time will tell.

Meanwhile following the first conclusive sighting of a pine marten in England in over 100 years Shropshire lad Paul Evans referred us to his interesting article about ‘the weasley outlaw in the shadows’. Amateur wildlife recorder Dave Pearce took two photographs in a wood in Shropshire last week and Evan’s interesting article points out that the animals thought to be extinct from England may have been present all along. But Cambridge? Really? We have so few trees. There’s a Cambridge near Stroud in Gloucestershire too isn’t there? That would make more sense. But Northampton is mentioned too. Keep your eyes peeled (and that includes roadkill)...

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Sounds Like Summer

Oystercatcher egg, Norfolk coast - Photo by Jo Sinclair
There's a place I go to. This place and I have history. I've just scheduled a social walk there and it occurs to me it might feel a little odd to lead a string of people into the place that is the nearest I have ever got to going to church. It's a place I go to disappear. I trespass the quiet places dog walkers and runners don't reach. I observe a secret natural world. I observe myself.

I visited this place a few days ago. It's an oasis of ancient woodland surrounded by intensive agriculture. There are dappled rides where hunting platforms are rigged. These constructions make me slightly uneasy (I watched Walt Disney's Bambi at an impressionable age). I could see fresh bootprints and Landrover tracks and hoped the hunter or gamekeeper had been and gone. Watery ruts and puddles were surrounded by deer, badger, fox and bird prints. I noticed something else. This time my senses seemed wired slightly differently. I was tuning into details I may have missed before. I found myself listening to the tiniest sounds. The slowly receding puddles were emitting kissing sounds. Rafts of flies upset the viscous calm as they buzzed and skated and pierced the surface of the water with proboscises. Grass flowers emitted tiny puffs of pollen - I wonder what those might sound like? I imagined a multitude of sound layers beyond the obvious bumblebees, barking muntjac, coughing pheasants, pleading parties of tit chicks and garden warbler, blackbird, woodpigeon and blackcap song.

A benefit of walking alone is hearing the birds, and the wind in the trees. Last night I went on a cross-country bike ride and missed all these nuances as I laboured noisily up hills, skidding on grass and flint. All I heard when I stopped for a rest was bird song and my own breath.

Soundscapes, sound ecology and sound art are inspiring me at the moment, so experiencing the environment has a new dimension to it. There's a Cambridgeshire musician who's in his element when recording sound in the natural world. Simon Scott appeared on Springwatch recently. Introduced by Chris Packham as 'sonic artist extraordinaire',  the Cambridge born Fenlander describes what being a sound ecologist is all about. Packham introduces him as a lifelong nature boy and indie rock star. Nature's orchestra is the inspiration to his composition Below Sea Level (see his website, with links to the show).

Sound artists are excited by accessing what our ears don't or can't usually hear. With equipment such as hydrophones that reach below water into previously undiscovered worlds they make scientific discoveries as well as art.

The Sounds Of Our Shores project is a collaboration between the National Trust and British Library. They are appealing to the public to record the sounds of the British seaside this summer using smartphones, tablets or sound recorders. As the heatwave advances I'm imagining squealing kids, white horses, the rush of pebbles and oystercatchers. Dream on.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Blitz

Biting stonecrop - photo by Jo Sinclair

Mullein moth caterpillar - photo by Jo Sinclair
Biting stonecrop flares bright yellow between tarmac and broken glass. Tatty blue butterfly wings blow across my path. A stripy caterpillar bites into soft and furry mullein leaves among the traffic cones. Bags of rubble disgorge a forest of teasels. The brownfield site by the level crossing has been sold. It reminds me of the vintage car enthusiasts' mecca in Sweden where hundreds of cars in a scrapyard have been reclaimed by nature. Legend has it that the forest site was originally a store for cars abandoned by American soldiers leaving Europe after the second world war. Award-winning nature photographer Pal Hermansen documented the wildlife haven that Bastnas in Varmland has become.

I lock my bike to the chainlink fence in my spot in South Cambs. I find cut leaved cranesbill, evening primrose, cinnabar moth. Dogrose, ragwort, robin and whitethroat... someone should BioBlitz this place!  Or send writers, artists, fashion designers. There's so much to look at. A snippet from BBC Springwatch I enjoyed tells a similar story. Ian Llewellyn is a wildlife cameraman and photographer who talks about looking closely at his local urban river landscape in Bristol. In the quieter moments between the usual Ikea and Tesco shoppers, fishermen, skateboarders, graffiti artists, dog walkers and sex workers he captures moments such as the reflection of a sunrise rippling above shopping trolleys, minnows and eels.

As I follow the floppy, fast-flying cinnabar moth I'm distracted by all the other reds and pinks along the way. I look at the ingenious architecture of the spiky teasels. The formation of their stems creates a reservoir that protects, hydrates and nourishes; drowned insects are absorbed by the plant, making it partially carnivorous. While I'm sitting there the birds come. I've not managed to photograph a male bullfinch before. But his punchy pink plumage eludes a true image.

Cinnabar moth - photo by Jo Sinclair

Bullfinch - photo by Jo Sinclair

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Orchid Army

Q: What do monkey, fly, lady, soldier and lizard have in common?
A: They are all species of British wild orchids!

There are dangling men, bonneted ladies, furry bumblebees and sticky fly lookalikes among the 56 species recorded in our country. Every bit as exotic as their hothouse cousins these flowers are exquisite to look at and not all as rare as might be assumed (though some, such as the lady's slipper orchid, exist thanks only to breeding programmes, top levels of secrecy and professional security guards).

Yesterday evening the Wildlife Trust and volunteers joined forces at Fulbourn Fen nature reserve for the annual orchid count. Six species are known here, but the focus was on the marsh orchid. I joined in as our army of fourteen walked side by side in a staggered line, aiming to cover the entire section of the site, regardless of thistle and thorn. 'You're out of line', the orchid drill sergeant shouted, but I think I got the hang of it eventually...

The small colony of 200 marsh orchids recorded in 2001 had increased last year to over 2000. Last night's total is still being totted up, but it was looking very healthy, with the marsh orchids appearing to outnumber the common spotted species found growing among them. Signs are that the Wildlife Trust's management plan for retaining the damp conditions of this ancient fen are working harmoniously. Volunteers and locals can help influence this; look out for work parties advertised through the Wildlife Trust website or on the village's community newsletter Fulbourn Forum. Every year a bit of brute force is required to battle the encroaching scrub that creeps into the fen and threatens to engulf everything.

Meanwhile this summer there's a call to action from the Natural History Museum and their new Orchid Observers project. Go on an orchid safari this month (June is peak time for most of our orchid species), take photographs and send in simple details such as site and date. There, done.

Marsh orchid photographed by Jo Sinclair

Common spotted orchid photographed by Jo Sinclair

Orchid count at Fulbourn Fen - photo Jo Sinclair

Orchid count at Fulbourn Fen - photo Jo Sinclair

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A Pop of Colour

A poppy field near me has become a talking point. 'Have you seen them?' people ask. Less than two weeks since the RHS Chelsea Flower Show medals were handed out, wild flowers are stealing the show. I was bowled over by an ox-eye daisy meadow in the grounds of St.Vigor's church, Fulbourn.  They cast delicate shadows on the gravestones and dominate as a blanket of white, but look closely and you'll see a profusion of other species too such as red clover, common vetch and black medick. You could visit next week when there's an opportunity to get involved in some nature events on Wednesday. The weekly swift survey takes place and the Wildlife Trust's annual orchid count happens at the nature reserve nearby. Check out this blog's events calendar for more details.

Used to walking in our monoculture landscape of blue-green wheat and sulphur yellow oil-seed rape, I felt a bit overwhelmed looking at the dense biodiversity of the Wildlife Trust's Fulbourn Fen, where I photographed marsh orchids. Using camera, books and internet I could only begin to identify the less flamboyant but unusual species I could see crammed into just a small transect. I've been having a think about how to acquire more of a botanist's eye for our British flora. There is currently a wildflower exhibition at Clare Hall, Cambridge displaying work by a group called Iceni Botanical Artists. Drawing and painting is a great way to look and learn and acquire expertise on a subject. Many organisations have guided walks, talks and courses. The Cambridge Natural History Society's annual Conversazione on June 12 and 13th showcases some of these organisations and points the way to the Cambridge area's astonishing specialist knowledge of the natural world.

Photo by 'RoganJosh'

Photo of marsh orchid by Jo Sinclair

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Viva la Gleaning Revolution!

As we move swiftly towards midsummer there's a feeling of wanting to stay outside for as long as possible and enjoy the long days. Impromptu picnics and barbecues are arranged at the slightest hint of a heatwave. Yet there can be a disconnect between our relationship to the cycle of the seasons and the food on our plates. Consumer and retailer whims (strawberries in winter / wonky carrots anyone?) are part of the food waste scandal I heard about at a Cambridge Sustainable Food talk where I met Marie-Laure Prevost of the Gleaning Network. The local coordinator for the international partnership organisation is seeking volunteers keen on getting outdoors into the countryside and rolling up their sleeves...

On Saturday 30th May and Saturday 6th June the Eastern England Gleaning Network will descend on a farm in King's Lynn, Norfolk where 250 tons of parsnips are going to waste. The mission is to save as many as possible of the sugary root veg by donating them to food-share charities. It's a sociable, active day out and a very hands-on way to contribute to a cause.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Is It A Bird? Is It a Plane?

They come bombing out of the thunderclouds like Japanese shuriken. They're on a mission so frenetic, so fast and so purposeful they simply don't touch down. They are ninja stars that eat and sleep and mate on the wing. They are swifts, and they're back.

I stand among them as they scud up and down the river. Blue sky and towering white cumulus nimbus are their backdrop, not their element today; they seem big, impressive 3D birds instead of the screaming distant silhouettes and specks of high summer. Couples shadow each other silently - speed dating I suspect, but too dizzying to keep track of.

The return of these summer visitors makes some people want to tell the world. Ted Hughes wrote a poem about them: 'they've made it again, which means the globe's still working'. Local group Fulbourn Swifts celebrates their return to the Cambridgeshire village where new housing was developed to integrate the existing colony rather than dislodge the migrants and wave them goodbye forever. The group encourages people to join them on a weekly swift survey every Wednesday on summer evenings (see Natural Occurances, this blog's events calendar).

The RSPB is running a swift survey this year so wherever you live news of these birds would be welcomed. It's the VE Day Anniversary Air Show this weekend at Duxford Imperial War Museum. Watch out! Local road signs are warning that the bank holiday roads will be jammed. Kids are going to get bored waiting for those spectacular flying displays. Maybe they should look to the skies and count the swifts while they wait for the shuttle bus at the Park & Ride...

Photo by Dave Curtis

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Of Light and Colour

Detail from 'Field' by Julia Ball

'Can you see the greens, the differences between the greens?' Julia Ball's paintings are a testament to an ability common to artists and naturalists to look closely - for a long time - and see what the rest of us may overlook. Of Light and Colour: Four Paintings is an exhibition of recent work by this Cambridge artist, on show at the Over Gallery until 30 May. Exquisite sketchbook colour studies are on display and smaller works are also for sale.

'I am interested in colour', Julia says 'The sources of my paintings come from landscapes, and the colour I find in the East Anglian landscape: plants, for example.' The changing light of water, seasons and time of day - so very elusive to capture - is somehow distilled in her paintings. The process of describing light via the medium of paint is paintstaking and elusive - as Timothy Spall's grunts and intense glare of concentration in the biopic Mr.Turner would testify!

The Over Gallery opened in December 2012 and shows contemporary art. Like Julia Ball, many of the artists selected by owner Helen Taylor are local and inspired by the natural world. Helen has a passion for the outdoors and nature, and can recommend that a visit to her gallery be combined with a trip to the nearby nature reserves, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes and RSPB Ouse Fen.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

And Then It Flies Away

Cuckoo: photo by kind permission of Tom Lee (Flickr)

Some people would pay anything to hear the sound many fear we are losing from the British countryside. That's what the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) thinks anyway: the bird research organisation is encouraging people to send a donation by text if they hear a cuckoo this spring!

There's such anxiety in thinking something so familiar and iconic might disappear that hearing one of these summer migrants is cause for celebration. The woods were silent the other day as my Granny quoted the rhyme I grew up with: 'The cuckoo comes in April, sings its song in May, tips its tune in the middle of June and then it flies away.' Anxiety has a tendency to enter one's dreams. I thought I was dreaming, but woke to the soft, far away sound of a cuckoo at dawn. I've spread the word among my dog walker neighbours to listen out for the two I've heard in the area over the last three days. I'm hoping we might hear them when I lead twelve bird people on a local walk tomorrow...

Tom Lee, a photographer I discovered on Flickr, had a stroke of luck after his persistence paid off. He writes 'Another view of the cuckoo from yesterday. I've been hearing them (and seeing them fleetingly) for a few weeks now and as it was sunny and warm yesterday I thought I'd try my luck. So, on with the dull  "country colours" clothing and armed with my long lens I ventured to the normal spot where I see them. This one, however was not where I'd seen them last year but I could hear him calling so walked in the general direction. He was obligingly still on the wires so I took some shots, walked on 5 paces, took some more, walked on 5 paces etc, keeping close to the fence line all the time. He let me get quite close and as I stayed still he flew back and forth between the wire and tree in which I pictured him yesterday. He was still there when I moved off. It's what I believe is called a result...'. 

Thank you Tom for kind permission to publish the cuckoo photo at the top of this post.

Photo from British Trust for Ornithology's cuckoo tracking project

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Walk On Water: Paddleboarding Lessons!

Go! Get out. Dare yourself to try something new. North Cambridge's country park plays host to one of the fastest growing water sports in the UK as paddleboarding returns to Milton Country Park between May and September 2015.

Easy to get the hang of without falling in, paddleboarding involves standing on a large surfboard and using a paddle to glide through the water. Starting at just £10 there are taster sessions, lessons and courses this summer. You can even hire a board and do your own thing once you've mastered your turns (tip: look straight ahead, towards your goes a bit wrong when you look down!) The park, a series of lakes (originally old gravel pits) is 95 acres in total, with 2 miles of cycle and wheelchair-friendly paths. Dog owners have a designated area for off-lead walks and there's a great visitor centre with cafe and a balcony overlooking the lake. It's a social hub, and a great place for other activities such as birdwatching.

The paddleboarding sessions are being run by South Cambridgeshire District Council in partnership with Cambridge Sport Lakes Trust. Fully qualified instructors are on hand at all times to guide you. Helen Stepney, South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Sports Inc­lusion Coordinator and qualified paddleboard instructor, says: 'Paddleboarding is great fun and we’ve taught families, friends and people of all ages to confidently give it a go over the last few years at our Parklife Family Fun Day as well as through taster sessions and courses. Some of this year’s dates are already getting busy, so book your place today.'

Taster sessions are 45 minutes long and cost £10 per person:
Fridays from 1 May to 25 September: 4pm to 4.45pm and 4.45pm to 5.30pm
Every other Saturday from 2 May to 19 September: 10am to 10.45am, 10.45am to 11.30am, 11.30am to 12.15pm and 12.15pm to 1pm
Five-week beginners ­­courses costing £60 are also available, running on Thursday nights from 5pm to 6pm or 6pm to 7pm. Courses will run from 30 April, 11 June and 3 September and are open to adults and children over 1.3m tall.
A three hour course is also available for over 18s who already have some paddleboarding experience and want to be able to hire boards and paddle independently. Costing £40, the course will run on Saturdays 9 and 23 May, 6 and 20 June, 4 and 18 July, 12 and 26 September.

'What's going on?!' Herons and other wildlife abound at Milton Country Park

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Shine Bright Like A Diamond

Diamonds, sapphires, kingfishers or otters: what do you treasure the most? Volunteers in a recent clean-up operation in Cambridge fished a suitcase full of stolen jewellery out of the river - along with the usual bicycles, shopping trolleys and traffic cones. The haul was returned to its owners who'd been burgled a fortnight before. If the thought of keeping our local waterways sparkling while getting closer to nature inspires you, here's a way you can get involved...

Cam Valley Forum is a voluntary group which aims to keep our local water healthy and full of life. They do this through hands-on conservation work, through partnerships with third parties such as the Wildlife Trust, and through education. Cam Valley Forum has a workshop on Saturday 9 May for anyone interested in helping to protect and improve their local stream. Local experts will be on hand at the free event to talk about what's being done, what more could be done, and how you could help change the environment for the better. The workshop takes place in the morning at Barrington Village Hall and includes an excursion to the River Shep to look at and discuss improvements carried out by the Friends of the River Shep.

Otter (photograph by 'hehaden' on flickr)