Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.
Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.
There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.
Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.
Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)
In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.
Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks. Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.
Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.
By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked.
Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!
Last week, after three long, weary months, the government lifted its “Stay at Home” Covid instruction. We quickly decided to escape to the country for a few hours. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year and we expected to find the car parks at Carsington Water overflowing with ecstatic visitors making the most of their first day of freedom in 2021. As it happened numbers were modest, ensuring our visit was a good deal more tranquil than we’d feared.
Carsington Water is the ninth biggest reservoir in England. It was formally opened in 1992 after what can only be described as an eventful construction: in 1983 four workers tragically died, asphyxiated while working in a 16 foot (5 metre) surface drain, and a year later part of the dam wall collapsed. Nearly 30 years on, however, the reservoir has been seamlessly integrated into the Derbyshire landscape and is a popular centre for a range of recreational activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and canoeing. With a good proportion of Carsington Water designated as a nature reserve, it is also a favourite spot to watch birds.
In our experience rarities are rare at Carsington! However this isn’t a problem for us: we are not twitchers and have never been motivated by the desire to “tick off” rarities. All birds, whether uncommon or not, are wonderful and worthy of attention. Even Canada geese!
Inevitably, Canada geese were liberally scattered throughout the reserve last week, some floating serenely on the water, others grazing greedily on the meadows adjoining the reservoir, and a few honking noisily as they flew overhead in search of pastures new. You can be sure of getting your fill of Canada geese on any visit to Carsington. Not to mention mallards, coot and black-headed gulls!
Although Carsington Water is an obvious spot for watching water birds, on this occasion some of the best action was on and around one of the feeding stations. Great tits and robins were the most frequent visitors, and a nuthatch the most unexpected.
The woodland in which the feeding station is situated was dotted with primulas, evidence that spring has well and truly sprung. And mindful, no doubt, that Easter was fast approaching a rabbit put in a brief appearance, while at one point a vole scurried across our path, way too fast to be photographed. Again, nothing exceptional here, but all such welcome sights after thirteen weeks of lockdown.
We’re fortunate that Carsington Water is just a few miles from our home town, and now Covid restrictions are being relaxed we’ll be escaping to this part of the country regularly to sample once again the joys of birding on our local patch. After all, a man just cannot see too many Canada geese!
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POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday 6 April, 2pm. Having written this post over the weekend, this morning we made a return trip to Carsington Water and were thrilled to spot no fewer than 16 swallows, newly returned from Africa, wheeling and whizzing over the water. It’s official then, spring really is here!
Exactly three years ago today, on 31 March 2018, I trudged out of the office for the last time, bade farewell to the world of work and joined the ranks of the retired. Technically I was made redundant, my post deleted as part of yet another local government cost-cutting exercise. But since the manager who designed the restructuring exercise was me I could have no complaints, particularly as my employers compensated me handsomely for my noble sacrifice.
And anyway, I was exhausted. The restructuring had been dragging on for months, and many valued colleagues – several of whom I had personally appointed and nurtured – were certain to lose their jobs. I was doing what had to be done in the context of a rapidly shrinking budget, but I’d had enough. Surely, I thought, there must be more to life than this. Just give me my pension, and let me get on with it.
But adapting to retirement took longer than expected. Work brought a welcome structure to my existence, a secure framework of expectations, routines and relationships around which to arrange the rest of my life, and without it I was all over the place for a while. In addition it had given me purpose and status – I had an important job to do, and many people relied on me – but overnight all this was swept away. My social interactions also diminished when the daily water cooler banter and tea point chats abruptly ended. Suddenly I found myself a stranger in a strange land.
On the positive side, retirement brought an end to the frantic rushing around that had characterised my earlier life. I could do domestic chores when it suited me and take as long as I liked over them, rather than desperately cramming everything in on weekends. More importantly, it freed up time to travel as and when we wanted, rather than at times dictated by the business needs of my employer. Our rewards have included six weeks touring New Zealand, and a magical return trip to Yellowstone National Park. Nearer to home, until Covid intervened we finally found time to visit many of those places in the UK that had been on our “to do list” for years.
There are lots of things I don’t miss at all about work: the morning commute, for example, as well as the stifling risk aversion and mindless bureaucracy that are endemic within local government culture. But the thing I miss least of all is regular contact with politicians. During the last decade of my career I had the dubious pleasure of spending a lot of time with politicians. As this was in local government their capacity to wreak mayhem and misery was geographically constrained, but it didn’t stop many of them having a damn good try.
To be fair, some of the politicians I had dealings with were capable, decent, well-meaning human beings, regardless of party affiliation. They simply wanted to make life better for their local community. However the majority were, in my humble opinion, cut from an altogether different cloth: ignorant, incompetent, self-important, totally lacking in self-awareness and less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache. Time spent in the company of politicians is rarely time well spent, as I learned to my cost during my last few years at work.
And so I am pleased to report that despite all the wonderful things Mrs P and I have done since 31 March 2018, the very best thing about being retired is that it is now 1,096 days since I last spoke with, or was in the company of, any politician. Long may it continue.
Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.
Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”
TheState of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.
The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.
The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.
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Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.
Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.
It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!
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In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .” Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that “Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”
Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
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The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.
While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.
It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.
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And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Flies so high and feels no pain
Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.
At my age birthdays are a mixed blessing. On the one hand they’re a cause for celebration (Yes, I’ve made it through another 12 months!). But they’re also a time for reflection on how your body has fared over the last year, which bits of it have started hurting, begun to misfire or even stopped working altogether. Spare a thought, then, for the Old Man of Calke, who’s still hanging on after 1,200 years.
The Old Man is one of many magnificent trees to be found in parkland at the Calke Abbey estate in the south of Derbyshire. Calke Park extends to around 600 acres (240 hectares), and is managed for the nation by the National Trust. Around one third is designated as a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.
After the Covid restrictions earlier in the year, our visit to Calke Park in October 2020 provided a welcome opportunity to get close to nature again, strolling past picturesque ponds and along shaded woodland paths. There’s lots to see during a walk around the park, but without doubt the ancient and veteran trees are the stars of the show.
Calke is home to over 650 veteran trees, of which 350 are regarded as ancient trees. What’s the difference? I hear you asking. The Woodland Trust explains that “an ancient tree is one that has passed beyond maturity and is old, or aged, in comparison with other trees of the same species…A veteran tree is a survivor that has developed some of the features found on an ancient tree, not necessarily as a consequence of time, but of its life or environment. Ancient veterans are ancient trees, not all veterans are old enough to be ancient.” Clear as mud? Baffled? Absolutely!
The technical definitions may be more confusing than enlightening, but at an estimated age of around 1,200 years the Old Man of Calke must surely qualify as an ancient veteran. To put it into context, the Old Man was a sapling when the Vikings were rampaging across the country, and already had some 250 years under his belt when King Harold took one in the eye during the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
The Old Man is an English Oak, and although not very tall, it boasts a girth of over 10 metres. The trunk is gnarled, split and holed in places, giving the tree a somewhat battered and time-worn appearance. Despite this it is a massively imposing presence in the Calke parkland and seems to wear its great age lightly.
Thanks to the National Trust’s careful management, the Old Man of Calke will hopefully survive long enough to give several more generations of visitors to the Park the thrill of getting up close and personal with a tree that was in its prime when William the Conqueror first set foot on these shores.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that ownership of our garden is claimed by two visiting cats. Although Malteser and Milky Bar are pals – we think they live together in a house further up our estate – they are very different characters. Throughout the pandemic Milky Bar has been content to abide by the government’s tough Covid restrictions. He obeys the rules on social distancing, keeping at least two metres away from us at all times and never coming indoors for a bit of illicit socialising. Milky Bar is a model citizen, and deserves a knighthood.
The same cannot be said for Malteser. If the local constabulary knew what Malteser’s been up to in recent months they’d have fined him £200. Multiple times in fact, probably every day. Such is his disrespect for the law he would most likely have ended up in chokey. Malteser is an unmitigated rogue.
OK, I admit it, Mrs P and I have encouraged Malteser’s wayward ways. When travel opportunities were drastically curtailed by the pandemic and we found ourselves pretty much confined to our house and garden for months on end, we decided it was a good time to develop the relationship with our ‘borrowed’ cats.
Recognising that the best way (the only way?) to a cat’s heart is through his stomach we invested heavily in packets of Vitacat Filled Pockets, which the packaging explains are crunchy pillows with a soft centre. They’re available in beef, chicken and salmon flavours, and guaranteed to tickle the fancy of the fussiest felines.
To start with we stood in the doorway leading out to the garden and tossed pillows onto the patio in front of our feline friends. After a cautious investigation both cats wolfed them down greedily. Milky Bar pronounced himself happy with this arrangement, but Malteser soon calculated that there might be more to be gained by getting up close and personal First, he approached us on the doorstep to have his ears rubbed and back scratched. Within a few days he was brave enough to follow us indoors, stopping off first in the utility room to stare, transfixed, at the washing machine. Pretty soon he found his way into the kitchen, taking pillows from our fingers while purring loudly.
It’s a ritual now. The centrepiece of any visit from Malteser is feeding him by hand. Mostly we sit on a kitchen chair and hold a pillow in front of him. He stands on his back legs, putting two paws on our knees to give himself extra balance while he reaches up for the tasty treat. A couple of quick crunches later the pillow has been swallowed and a few crumbs have been dropped unceremoniously onto the tiled floor. And then he looks imploringly into our eyes, eagerly awaiting a repeat performance. All the time he’s purring as loud as a chainsaw, making sure we know that his continued affection depends on a steady supply of pillows.
Having plucked up sufficient courage to cross the threshold Malteser soon decided he might as well explore the rest of the house. He particularly likes the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms, study and library. His idea of heaven is to roll on his back on the stairs, showing his belly while inviting us to fondle his ears. Honour having been duly satisfied, he climbs another three or four stairs before rolling on his back again and demanding we pay him further homage.
Upstairs there’s a whole new world for him to explore. In Mrs P’s study he likes a game of attack the piece of scrap paper, balls of which he obviously perceives as mice that need to be swiftly despatched to rodent heaven. He’s also fascinated by the door, which he tries to hook open with his paw. Then he’s off to have a sniff around the bathroom, and would happily drink from the toilet if we’d let him.
Malteser also enjoys visiting the library, particularly now we’ve set up a bed for him on the old sofa. If he’s in the mood he’ll snooze there for an hour or so, while Mrs P and I get on with the rest of our lives. It’s good to know that he feels so comfortable in our house, trusting us totally.
But he remains his own cat, beholden to no one, and when the time is right he makes it clear that he wants to leave us. And leave us he does, trotting off into the garden and over the fence with scarcely a backwards glance. We’re under no illusions: Malteser is an advocate of free love, and although we are doggedly faithful to him we’re certain he has relationships with other households up and down our street. But we can forgive his dubious moral character, recognising that his frequent visits have made the Covid lockdowns more bearable.
And anyway, we know Malteser will be back before too long. A cat and his tasty pillows can’t be separated for long, particularly if a couple of mugs are available to feed him those pillows by hand.
Pillow Talk : An ode to Malteser during lockdown (with apologies to UB40, a wonderful 70s/80s reggae band from Birmingham, England)
Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
Cat in mi kitchen what am I gonna do?
I'm gonna feed that cat that's what I'm gonna do
I'm gonna feed that cat
Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?
Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.
Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!
Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!
Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.
It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day
Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.
The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.
The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.
So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.
Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future
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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.
And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.
While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.
I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.
Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!
Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.
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Postscript:Mrs P had to wait another four weeks for her first jab. Other than a bit of a sore arm she suffered absolutely no side effects at all. Huh!
Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.
However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.
Having a whale of a time
4 July 2017
Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!
The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose. But yesterday we hit the jackpot.
St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world. Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello. We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.
Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.
I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant. But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit. Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back. They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them. Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.
In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay
27 July 2017
Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales. For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish (capelin) that congregate here to breed.
The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.
A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish. Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.
Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum. After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish. The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu … except fish. Unsurprisingly perhaps in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.
Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay
31 July 2017
Our last day on The Island. We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.
This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early. This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position. We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat. The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.
Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”. There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.
We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.
There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath. A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.
But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year. And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.
It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives. In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined. This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.
Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017
One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition. Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland. Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.
We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player! The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants. The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip. The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:
My soul has been torn from me and I am bleedingMy heart it has been rent and I am cryingAll the beauty around me fades and I am screamingI am the last of the great whales and I am dyingLast night I heard the cry of my last companionThe roar of the harpoon gun and then I was aloneI thought of the days gone by when we were thousandsBut I know that I soon must die the last leviathanThis morning the sun did rise Crimson in the skyThe ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sighI rose for to take a breath it was my last oneFrom a gun came the roar of death and now I am doneOh now that we are all gone there's no more huntingThe big fellow is no more it's no use lamentingWhat race will be next in line? All for the slaughterThe elephant or the cod or your sons and daughtersMy soul has been torn from me and I am bleedingMy heart it has been rent and I am cryingAll the beauty around me fades and I am screamingI am the last of the great whales and I am dying
Poignant, n’est pas? I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages. Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.
Winter always drags, but this year’s been worse than ever. Lockdown 3.0 was imposed just after Christmas, meaning that – other than a weekly trip to the supermarket and an occasional stroll around our suburban estate – we’re confined to Platypus Towers. No chance of a swift visit to a bird reserve on a fine day, and thanks to the regular visits of local cat Milky Bar, only birds with suicidal tendencies visit our garden. It’s a pretty miserable existence, and the lousy weather makes things worse.
But after several days of wintry conditions we wake up on 22 January to a dazzling morning, the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky. We sit ourselves down in the garden room – which faces south – intent on making the most of this meteorological anomaly, when to our amazement a butterfly appears. It settles on the window ledge, just a metre away from us on the other side of the double glazing, and soaks up the rays for about 20 minutes before moving on again.
The Peacock is a spectacular and unmistakeable butterfly, and takes its name from the vivid pattern of eyespots that decorate all four wings. It’s one of just a handful of British butterflies that overwinter as dormant adults, hunkering down somewhere sheltered during the darkest months in readiness for an early start to the breeding season when spring arrives. However, as we discover today, even in the depths of winter a relatively warm day may rouse Peacocks and encourage them to take to the wing.
I’ve been interested in butterflies since I was a little kid, but have never spotted any this early in the year. And never have I been more grateful to see one of these magical insects: the last 12 months have been tough, and it’s good to be reminded that the beauty of nature will still be there for us to enjoy when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted.
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In 2020 I saw my first butterfly around 6 March, and described it as a “symbol of hope in the darkest of days.” You can read my reflections about the symbolism of butterflies by clicking here.