Stoic and heroic

Levington Creek

Dear Wood Warbler,

My turn to apologise. Sorry I haven’t written to you in so long. I could say that it’s because I’ve been inside watching Blue Planet and not going out to see any actual real life nature, but that wouldn’t quite be true. I actually love going out and seeing wildlife in the chilly depths of winter. Everything seems stoic and heroic just by being alive – the ducks on the shivering creek by my mum’s house, braving the sleet, the puffed up birds, huddling in the trees, the bright red roses on my Dad’s grave, blossoming in the middle of a snowstorm.

Anyway, since it’s the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about my best wildlife moments of 2017. There was the pair of marsh harriers playing in the wind over a lake at Minsmere, getting mobbed by crows and then tearing away from them. There was the tiny, sweet dormouse nestled in the grass a few yards away from the harriers (quite likely to become a snack for one of them, I had a bit of a conflict of sympathies there)…

Minsmere Dormouse

There were the evening nightjars, flitting about in the dusk, and the murmuration of a thousand starlings over a Suffolk beach, making their hypnotic, pulsing shapes in the sky.

It’s hard to choose the best thing I saw, although the luckiest was the definitely the Portuguese Man of War that washed up on the beach at Lyme Regis. Lucky because it didn’t kill me or put me in hospital, despite my repeated attempts to poison myself by prodding it to work out what it was.

The most exotic thing I saw was a Mystery Mammal that I spotted in Catalonia this September. It was a hot, sleepy day and I’d jumped into a river, and was enjoying having my sweaty feet nibbled by some brave and tiny fish, when I looked up and saw it – beautiful, brown, glossy and elegant, slipping noiselessly along the bank and then disappearing into the undergrowth.

Was it a polecat? Or maybe a mink? If it was a European Mink, it was endangered and incredibly rare – there are less than 500 of them in Spain. Google told me it was more likely to be an American mink (there are bucketloads of them in Spain – they’ve done pretty well since breaking out of mink farms in the 70s and 80s). Or it might have been a European Polecat (again, not very rare).

Obviously my fellow spotter and I decided that it was DEFINITELY a European Mink, even though there are so few of them, and most of them live along a specific river, hundreds of miles away. Rarity just does make something more exciting.

But lately I’ve noticed how the common, everyday sights just be just as great as rare, sexy, unusual species. There’s hardly anything that’s more delightful than the little long tailed tits that flit about the trees on the New River Walk. I see them loads – but they never get any less beautiful.

And my favourite place to watch wildlife isn’t exactly exotic – it’s Levington Creek, in Suffolk. Sometimes you can see the resident kingfisher hanging out by the outflow pipe (he was there on Boxing Day, and so bright in the sunshine, he looked like he belonged on a coral reef). But the point is, you never know what you’re going to see. It could be an egret and a couple of oystercatchers. It could be an empty stretch of grey brown mud, with nothing on it at all. Or it could be fifty lapwings, wheeling in the sky, or hundreds of little grey and yellow waders all huddled together, looking out to sea (I really should work out what they are).

What I love about it is how much it changes. Some days it can be incredibly bleak and empty, and I love the bleakness. You can go for a walk and be unable to stop yourself wondering how many dead bodies there are bound to be, preserved in the mud.

But on other days it’s bright. Some days it’s noisy with hundreds of squawking birds. Or you look up across the field and see fifty deer. On other days the fog comes in and you can’t see past your own cold & snotty nose. There’s something I love about the habit, always treading the same path, and slowly getting to know how much there is to find in one small, ordinary corner of the world.

So here are my wildlife new year’s resolutions: to keep getting to know Levington Creek, and to appreciate the everyday bits and bobs of nature, as well as the shiny rare sightings. To work to out what those yellow/grey waders actually are, and to remember to sometimes write some of it down and tell you about it.


London Pigeon


Nature is coming


Dear Wood Warbler,

I’ve been extremely slack in my nature watching lately. But whenever I’m too lazy to go out and find nature, nature just says: ‘Don’t worry! I’ll come to you!’ It keeps turning up in unexpected places. There was the barn owl hunting in my mum’s back garden on a sunny afternoon. The avocets wading through the marsh near her house. The terrapin who has just taken up residence on the New River Walk. The young foxes playing in my road at night. The delightful cockchafers, with their Michael Heseltine eyebrows, landing on my laptop…

Fats Bassoon

And the wood ear mushrooms, growing on trees, that demanded to be eaten. (See pic above. They were delicious).

And then there were the newts.

Spotty ones, smooth ones, nearly transparent ones, and lovely Great Crested ones who have turned my in-laws’ swimming pool into Newt City.

great crested newts

Is there anything more relaxing in the world than looking at newts? It’s something about the way they sleep, drifting through the water, arms and legs outstretched, totally unconcerned about the world.

On the evening after I’d seen the newts, I sat on the steps of the house, and looked up at the stars, enjoying the peace of the spring evening. A peace which was disturbed pretty thoroughly when a RAT scurried out from under my feet, and zoomed off across the grass. I say rat – it was really the size of a small horse.

A couple of nights later, I was in my bedroom at my mum’s house, reading a book, when I noticed a large bug circling around the light. The windows were shut, so I was just wondering how it had got in, and whether it was a hornet, when it flew towards me and I realised that it was, in fact, a bat. A magical, beautiful bat. By the time I’d got the window open, it had flitted off on a tour of the house. After opening all the windows and doors I could find, (damn you, window locks!) I watched it in the hall, turning circles in perfect silence, until it finally disappeared into the night.

So. What’s next? At this rate, I’m expecting a badger under my pillow any day now. I’ll update you.


London Pigeon

PS Once Great Crested Newts have been discovered, it is illegal to disturb their habitat in any way. So if you hear of any evil property development going on, all you have to do is sneak into the site and ADD GREAT CRESTED NEWTS. And a pond. I feel like this would make a great plot for a children’s book/actual hobby.

PPS This doesn’t count as nature spotting, but the other day I went to a drawing class and met this lovely creature. He is called Chester. He is a five week old tawny owl. He eats between ten and twelve mice a day.


The Aventure of the Missing Frogspawn


Dear Wood Warbler,

Spring is definitely here. Delightful spring things I have seen include:

-fat, dozy bumblebees

-cherry trees and magnolias everywhere, their confetti spraying all over the streets

-two lovely butterflies, a little white one, and a dusky reddish brown one, flitting about on the New River Walk. (Sadly I’m not R.L.E.Ford and couldn’t identify them more accurately than that).

A pair of delicate long tailed tits, hopping about, upside down on a cherry tree. (Not really that spring specific, just delightful).

Best of all, I’ve seen clouds and clouds of frogspawn, in the New River. There were so many clumps of it, if every egg was destined to turn into a frog, London would be facing an Old Testament Plague type situation.

At first, the frogspawn was guarded zealously by about fifty frogs. (I didn’t see this myself, but was told it by extremely reliable sources). Then all the frogs left (maybe they weren’t that bothered about their offspring after all). Then…

It disappeared.

All of it. Yards of it.


It’s possible that all the tadpoles have hatched. But if they have, where are they? The water is crystal clear. Unless they’re playing an extremely committed game of hide and seek, I’m a little concerned for them. Apparently tadpoles get eaten by all sorts of creatures.  Blackbirds, magpies, cats, even the innocent looking hedgehog quite likes the occasional mouthful. They’re the quick and easy snack food of the wildlife world. They’re tiny, canal-based Pringles.

Personally I have my suspicions about the extremely gloomy carp who I often see lurking in the vicinity. (See above). But could he have consumed that many frogspawn dinners?

I am baffled. But hopeful.

I’m going to keep watching out for them.


London Pigeon.





Anyway the wind blows


Dear Wood Warbler,

It’s Doris Day! I know that technically, this is bad (bridges shut, trains cancelled, trees crashing down on cars and people), but to be in it, walking to the park, the wind swooshing me all the way there, feels just wonderful.

The wind roars, leaves are scuttering along the pavement, alarms and sirens go off, bins fly across the street, but none of the wildlife looks particularly bothered. The deer in the park look only as nervous as usual, the blue tits and goldfinches flitter about as per, the coots are as deadpan and implacable as they always are, like members of a sinister security detail. The ruffian dogs have come into their own, racing along after the leaves. Only one dog, a tiny, froofy, Parisian looking creature looks bewildered – infact almost personally insulted – by the unusual weather.

How is Doris Day with you – and Fred?


London Pigeon

PS I loved reading about Larger Moths, and imagining the lovely, patient, careful life of the mysterious R.L.E.Ford. Recently my soothing book of choice has been My Family & Other Animals. There’s almost nothing better, when it’s dark and freezing outside, than being lulled by a description of a sunlit day wending through a reef on Gerald Durrell’s boat, the Bootle-Bumtrinket

As the boat’s turtle-shaped shadow edged across the seabed, the multi-coloured, ever moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded. In the patches of silver sand the clams were stuck upright in small clusters, their mouths gaping. Sometimes, perched between the shell’s horny lips, here would be a tiny, pale ivory sea crab… 

From troubles of the world I turn to ducks


Dear Wood Warbler,

The more frightening the news, the more I fancy a nice wildlife distraction. Uncertain Brexity future? Why, just look at that lovely oak tree, it’s been there for seven hundred years! Scared of Putin? Look, lovely ducks. Ducks don’t care about Putin.

At the moment, I’m not sure what kind of wildlife event would be a good enough distraction. Maybe an undiscovered species landing in my garden, or a baby moose turning up in my hall.

In general, I’d like to recommend that terrifying world events should be scheduled in the summer, when there’s so much more lovely & consoling wildlife around.

Anyhow, here are the things I’ve seen this week.

Two squirrels, doing what is scientifically known as a sex chase on the New River Walk. It went like this: chase, pause, chase, a bit of tail biting, chase, break – for both parties to eat nuts. This went on for a while. Finally, (maybe through boredom) the chasee gave up, and the chaser straddled her. Whatever was being done to her, it didn’t seem to have that much of an impact. She carried on eating a nut for the duration.

The second wildlife event was a proper great tit fight in my garden. By the way, if you want to find out more about great tit behaviour, I highly recommend that you don’t google the phrase ‘great tit fight’. I was busy reading depressing news working in my kitchen when I heard all this high pitched cheeping. The two great tits were fighting by the bird feeder – then one managed to pin the other one to the ground. They flew up in the air again, darting around each other, whirring through the garden, before one pinned the other to the garden wall. It was vicious. It was thrilling!

I really thought I liked nature as a tonic against nastiness and violence, but it turns out I’m actually just quite up for watching a massive fight.

This week I’ve also seen lots of tiny shoots and buds appearing on bare branches. They make me think that maybe we’re not in the end times, after all. My favourites are the sloe saplings I’ve got on my windowsill. More of their light green leaves keep bursting out every day. They make me think that the future will contain good things, like life and colour and gin.


London Pigeon

Pigeons, Picasso and Ping Pong


Dear Wood Warbler,

I was wrong about those squirrels. The other day I saw one on the New River Walk, meditating on a branch. He reminded me of the men I see in Islington library, bent over their crosswords, lost in some kind of trance. I went right up to the squirrel, close enough to see each tiny hair on his long toes, close enough to look right into his brown liquid eyes. When I tried to stroke his head, he pootled off, slowly.

Whatever has been making your squirrels so dozy, it seems to have spread here.

This week I’ve been continuing my extremely scientific search for the Pigeoniest Pigeon in London. Once you start looking for pigeons, you see them everywhere. Huddled masses on the edges of buildings, sitting in trees, optimistically pecking at plastic cups, occasionally taking the Circle Line.

Yep, they were everywhere, just not in the one place I was specifically looking for them: Trafalgar Square. I guess my brain had got stuck in 1987, when I last fed them there. Or maybe I thought that if I went there, I’d be magically transported into the pigeon scene from Mary Poppins.


Despite my attempt to be the pigeon lady, the actual birds there were outnumbered by depressed out of work actors pretending to be statues. Only then did I remember (ie. google) how Ken Livingstone declared war on the flying ‘vermin’ back in 2010. He managed to get rid of most of them, thanks to a feeding ban and a couple of Harris Hawks. In their defence, here are a few facts about these vermin:

  1. They have UV vision and fly using a magnetic compass – which may well be located in their right eye. Their right eye! They might look all scruffy, with their missing toes and their knackered, Peter O’Toole-ish charm. But these birds have got their shit together. They are basically doing a Columbo. They’re so high tec that the Chinese have a standing army of military homing pigeons in Chengdu. If all systems fail, they’re putting their faith in pigeons.
  2. Studies have shown the pigeons can tell the difference between paintings by Monet and Picasso. The study didn’t mention this, but I’m pretty sure that the pigeons would have preferred the Picassos. He was a big pigeon fan – he drew them, kept them, liked having them on his head, and called his daughter Paloma. (You can translate Paloma as pigeon or dove. Clearly ‘Pigeon Picasso’ has a much better ring to it).
  3. They have excellent hearing, which we know because they have really long cochleas (a thingummy inside their ears) and because the other day in Trafalgar Square, when a beatboxer started his act, the remaining pigeons all flew away.
  4. They’re not bad at ping pong.

Love from

London Pigeon

Sighting of the week: It’s a tie between a crowd of goldfinches on the New River Walk, and a pied wagtail looking a bit lost on the Holloway Road.

PS Blackbird shit vs. your car. Apparently the pigeon shit on Nelson’s column cost £120,000 to clean. So, you know, it could be worse.

A scurry of squirrels


Dear Wood Warbler,

Thank you for your letter! I have been looking at the squirrel in my garden, to work out if he is as slow and intoxicated as your squirrel. But no, it turns out mine is as manic as usual (although definitely getting fat).

Actually, I thought I was developing quite a soulful relationship with my squirrel earlier this week. He kept coming up to the glass door into the kitchen, while I was working at the kitchen table. I gazed at him, he gazed back. It was like he was trying to tell me something. Pretty soon I became convinced that I was in the beginning of a White Fang-like story. I would soon become a squirrel whisperer, taking him around in my pocket, on trips in my bicycle basket…

It was several hours before I went into the garden, and saw that I’d left a bird feeder full of nuts on the step by the door, just hidden from view. He was coming up the steps to stuff himself, not to develop a really beautiful telepathic relationship with me.

Today I noticed he is looking pretty wide, after his massive binge, but is still as brisk & twitchy as usual, doing his usual trapeze artist thing, just a slightly wobblier version than usual. The feeder is now out of reach. He keeps trying it from all different angles. I’m not sure if he’s an optimist or just quite stupid.

Anyway, his lack of drunkenness makes me wonder if your countryside squirrels have found something particularly intoxicating to feast on.

Love from

London Pigeon

PS Did you know the collective noun for squirrels is a scurry?

PPS I meant to write to you about pigeons, but I haven’t got round to that yet. I have, however discovered two amazing facts about pigeons. One that the low budget 1948 London Olympics involved the release of 2,500 pigeons, which I think is quite splendid. The other one… I’ll tell you next week. I’m going to go to Trafalgar Square, the epicentre of pigeon life, to try and find the most pigeony of them all.

PPPS I’ve heard rumours that you write poetry, sometimes even poems about nature. Do you have any evidence of this?