Birds, Beasts & Botany

From childhood I was drawn to the natural world. My first two books, read at the age of 7 or 8 were The Oregon Trail by Frances Parkman, then  A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell. My impoverished childhood found riches beyond money and, ever since, adventure and natural history drives my world – without cash it’s still there, with cash I can go further. My local Sussex walk takes me through two miles of orchard, arable fields, coast and marsh, so always gives a surprise.

Stag Beetle

Stag-Beetle-Female
Last year I found four stag beetles. One male was dead and a second pretty knackered, wandering in the orchard like a vanquished knight. The third, a female, put in an appearance in my friend Harv’s house. It was the fourth, a feisty girl on a path in the local Big Field that stole my heart. She looked very healthy, but was in danger of accidental or purposeful squashing, so I popped her in a bag and took her home. In my garden I held her for a while and admired her great strength pushing my fingers, yet she sat happily on my open hand. I thought she may fly, but she stayed. I offered her my log pile. She hesitated, adjusted to fly, then, with great purpose, strode from my fingers into the wood. Now I hope she was a mated lady and at some point in six years or so, her children will emerge.

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly

Hornet-Mimic-Hoverfly-On-Hand
On a hot summer’s day I was walking in the local orchard when, there before my eyes, a hoverfly hovered, giving action to its name. There were several of these large beasts, each returning to a nearby privet hedge after its burst of high energy, but static flight. I offered my hand to one insect and it decided to use it. For five glorious minutes this Volucella zonaria, a hornet mimic hoverfly, flew from and back to my fingers and shuffled around occasionally as if to look at me in mild, but grateful surprise. Try this yourself with hoverflies – it does work if you are patient.

The Purposeful Wasp

As the summer fades and the world’s tilt encourages autumn to jog towards winter, wasps become listless and unpredictable. The German wasp Vespula germanica and common wasp V. vulgaris are two species found in Britain and both tend to be loathed and feared by most. Each, however, is its own wasp and regards us with little interest because they do waspy things to survive regardless of the view of creatures in general, and humans not in particular. I took the pictures of this queen V. germanica at the Arundel WWT last May. She was collecting wood shavings to make a nest and was oblivious to me watching closely. You see, she was a Purposeful Wasp.

wasp-vespula-germanica-collecting-wood

Although my main interest drifts towards birds, I have become very fond of insects over the years. As with most youngsters I was taught that anything with more than four legs, especially something that buzzes, and absolutely a creature bedecked in a yellow and black livery, must be avoided or obliterated. Avoiding took the general form of running around yelling “Jasper!” and waving ones arms; whereas obliteration was achieved by a rolled up newspaper. Such was the fear inherent in my West Country village that ‘wasp traps’ were put out in the form of unwashed jam jars full of water. These quickly became a struggling mass of drowning creatures. These too were Purposeful Wasps.

vespula-germanica
I like wasps. I even paused on a long run in the summer to watch a fine hornet hunting near West Ashling. So, what is a Purposeful Wasp? In spring the queens crawl out from hibernation and find a nice place to start a family. She chews off strips of dead wood (untreated fences are favourites) and builds a small nest in which her first eggs are laid. These become her workers and she retires to lay more eggs. The year rolls on. Each wasp has a duty – gathering wood or food or defending the nest. In late summer males and virgin queens are produced, the old queen dies and the colony dies over the autumn months. All through this time wasps are Purposeful. They fly direct to a source of food or wood and directly back to the nest. The map in their little brains sticks and they return time and again until the resource is exhausted. Then they quickly learn and stop their pattern, searching out other resources.

Through the first phases I have found that wasps have no innate need to attack the peaceful observer. I’ve even had them fly through circled fingers and thumbs without deviation. I don’t advocate messing around near nests, but at food and wood sources I have never been stung. A wasp with a purpose can be read quite easily, and observed quite safely. By autumn, though, the wasps are effectively marooned automatons with no leader. Then they are the Jaspers of my childhood and will sting.

Imbolc to Spring

Toad-Off-Road-In-Spring

Now introductions are done I can start the blog proper. Over the months I shall describe my training and mention anything of note that drifts my way. I shall also explain my beginnings, my fall into being a blimp, and my simple system of regaining health and fitness. For this you only need three things: honesty; hard work; and a desire to live.

2016 has meant an adjustment in jobs and a lot of travel. Most weeks I am in a different city, or town and the impact on my training seemed fatal. Last year I ran 1300 miles. This year I aim to run further – I have to condition my body to endurance running. The trouble was I tend to be programmed to run my familiar routes, so lacked discipline to run away from my base. Honesty – I was self conscious of running from large hotels. Desire to live – feck it, let them laugh (no one does). Hard work – I now run whilst away. The best trick is to do a little research and take in the sights. I carry a map and forget the watch. In Plymouth I ran around Mount Wise and looked across Drake Island, then along the Tamar to the Torpoint Ferry. In Cardiff a long run around Cardiff Bay. Swansea 6 miles in the drizzle to Mumbles and back. Eccles – 7 miles through the new Media City, around Old Trafford and back. The next week a 5 taking in Bangor Pier – wonderful standing in the centre of the Menai Straights! Last week, on an extended stay in Liverpool, I did two runs. The first a loop along Penny Lane to Strawberry Field which gave me acute nostalgia, so I ordered The Magical Mystery Tour album and dreamed of T-bar sandals and hot summers. The next day a run along the waterfront – 8 miles dodging turnstones and dirty fidos. Thus my midweek mileage is up and my geographic knowledge growing.

Imbolc is an old festival between the winter solstice and Spring Equinox. The evenings draw out and running in the dark can be rewarding. Running through the quiet village of Chidham a few evenings ago, my headlamp beam picked up the marching form of a determined male toad. I stopped and picked him up. Roads and toads do not mix well. He struggled, the strength of him a surprise, but such is the desire to find a large female somewhere close. Into the grass he went. He briefly gazed at me, shuffled round and set off due north through the grass. A dozen paces later, another, and the same ritual. Next day, in the light, there were no signs of flat toads, so I felt good. Spring moves quicker than the Reaper Man, so my pace will increase and he’ll slip further behind once more.

Beasts on the Bourtzi

I have made several trips to the Greek Northern Sporades, each of which have given me plenty to write about. As time goes on I will add some of these to this blog, but the most recent journey saved a treasure for the last day.My Passepartout and I had just completed a birthday holiday to Alonnisos and after a fast and furious transfer by water taxi were waiting in Skiathos Town for our flight. As is our habit we ate a light breakfast at the El Greco Taverna. After this we had a few hours to kill and I led us to the Alexandros Papadiamantis monument on a little promontory called Bourtzi.

Bourtzi is a tiny peninsula that divides the Skiathos port into two distinct parts. It used to be a fort, which was built by the Gizi brothers who ruled over Skiathos back in 1207. Bourtzi was bordered by impregnable walls and there were two towers located to the left and right of the main gate. It still divides the old and new ports, but the only signs of a fort are some hefty ramparts and some corroded canons. The centre is dominated by an open-air theatre and arts centre. We walked under the trees in a clockwise direction, eventually scrambling down onto a rough path over the rocks along the water’s edge, circumnavigated the end of the peninsula, then turned back towards the old port.

On a rock shelf at the base of some steps leading us up to our path, we tarried, watched the sea and took some final pictures. It was here I noticed some German wasps Vespula germanica flying around a dead fish in their purposeful way. At first I thought the poor creature was a garfish with its long mouth snapped off, but now I’ve looked at the photographs it turns out to be a silver eel. The wasps were their purposeful selves and ignored us completely, posing without ire for the attached photograph. They were settling on the eel and delicately carving small slices, before flying away to their nests, to be replaced by a compatriot. Rather than ghoulish, it was a gentle and choreographed dismemberment, set off by the colours of the cast. The wasps were at their best in yellow and black, looking bright as wax in the Greek sunshine. The eel was quite fresh, so its skin still radiated colour, but its still bright eye, blue and clear, gave vibrancy to the scene, notwithstanding the fact it was dead.

silver-eel-and-wasp

We left the wasps to their clearing up and walked up the steps under the trees to sit and watch Skiathos Town. Across the water people were clearing up the remains of their early selling spree in the fish market watched by the local cats, and customers gently sliced their fish lunches in the tavernas. Fishing boats were setting out again past the wasps below. Isn’t life lovely?

Pine Martens and Digestives

I have not missed a visit to the Scottish mountains in the last ten years. Choosing where to go each time could have been fraught with difficulty, but becoming an accidental Munro Bagger gives a gentle discipline to such dilemmas. I stay close to the Munros I have yet to bagand there are lots still waiting close to one of my bases near the Kyle of Lochalsh – Craig Highland Farm. This steading clings to wooded slopes overlooking Loch Carron and is sheltered by prevailing westerlies by the Plockton headland. I discovered Craig many years back and it has now become my favourite base in the Western Highlands. Surrounding the ownerscottage is a working farm, interspersed with a scattering of wooden lodges and stone cottages. The property is tight to the shore of the tidal loch, reached by crossing the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inversess railway line, and takes in the little wooded Eilean na Creige Duibhe. From the vantage point of the lodges one has tremendous views across to the far side of Loch Carron and even sight of the road winding up Bealach na Bà towards Applecross.

Suffice to say, there are many birds and beasts to see around the farm and across the loch, so the lack of WiFi or television becomes an irrelevance. Outside the windows, locally purchased bird food entices all the common species including siskins and great spotted woodpeckers. At dusk the bats come out whilst the birds still feed, but it is as darkness falls that the farm comes into its own. These woods are home to pine martens.

The pine marten is that large and mysterious member of the Mustelid (weasel) family one sees on Springwatch and in nature books, decked out in thick red-brown fur with a creamy shirt front. Its preferred habitat is thick woodland or rocky hillsides, with dens frequently made in hollow logs or rock crevices, but also in rabbit burrows or the roofs of old buildings. They are nocturnal omnivores, eating anything from squirrels and beetles, to fruit and digestive biscuits. Anyone who loves natural history would have the pine marten as a must seespecies, but they are so elusive they have to be sought out. Craig is right in the middle of their expanding Scottish stronghold, so sightings are frequent to the point of being guaranteed, if one is patient.

 With my Passepartout I have seen them trot across the road as Ive driven slowly to and from the farm, but to entice them the ideal bait is peanut butter or jam spread liberally on digestive biscuits. With such strategically placed comestibles outside your window at dusk, it is time to sit back and wait. Typically little voles and woodmice may come out for a nibble, whiskers trembling, eyes bright, their bodies tensed to dash for cover. Bats dip into view and the sinister, dark upon dark silhouette of a tawny owl may drift over. Pine martens never hint at appearing, they just arrive in a hefty, brazened, spectacular materialisation.

It is not until one gets a windowpanes thickness from a pine marten that you realise how heart-stoppingly powerful and beautiful they are. Dense, rich fur in ranging from deep chocolate to foxy red, the creamy bib with little spots unique in each individual. A teddy-bear head, but more Steiff and feline, than round and cuddly. The legs are thick and muscular with large, strong, clawed paws, ideal for climbing. Indeed they are reminiscent of an oriental short-hair cat, not unlike my Passepartouts house cat at home. Such is the likeness that I once, with a spoonerismic slip, called this black, needy creature Cyrilinstead of her correct apellation, Cilla, and now pine martens have become Pine Cyrils as an accidental but accurate application of that simile.

Pine-Marten-Paul-Comerford

Once discovered the pine marten will grab a fully loaded digestive and run off to consume out of sight, or, if the watcher is very lucky, eat it there and then in the torchlight. Weve been lucky enough to see single adults and, occasionally a female with a couple of half-grown kits. They live around Craig and are part of the farms ecosystem. Even though they will kill and devour any chicken, duck or guineafowl left out after curfew, they are welcomed, sometimes with a curse, but never with cruelty.

Thus we will return armed with digestives and peanut butter knowing the pine martens will show up. You may note that Ive stopped using jam – it may be bad for their ferocious, shiny teeth…

Spiny Creatures

As a child my only encounters with hedgehogs was as dinner-plate sized roundels on the road. In those distant days of two TV channels and no internet, one had to learn about nature through diligent research via libraries, observation and anecdotes, the latter seldom consistent to reality. I was also not allowed to go out after dark by a stern mother, the logic of which was lost on an ever active child. Subsequently, I have seen many living hedgehogs, more-so in Sussex than my home county of Somerset, but such encounters have never lost their excitement for me. They can still be elusive, and in 29 years of shift work at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Puriton, I saw hedgehogs on but three occasions. I recently found an old photograph of me holding a hedgehog which I rescued from in front of my car somewhere near Brean Down on the Somerset coast.

paul with rescued hedgehog somerset

The common hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, is found all over Northern and Western Europe and is one of the most recognisable mammals out there. My fondness for them is deep, even though they are not the brightest of creatures and seem not to have evolved a reverse gear. I’m guessing that any need to reverse hits the ‘danger’ circuit in their little brains so they have developed a far less strenuous strategy – they curl up. Anyone who had picked up a hedgehog in its defensive pose will attest to the fact that they are very spiky. A good defence against predatory paws and noses, but pretty useless against pneumatic tyres. I think it is their single minded forward motion, clockwork-toy gait and half-hidden trundling legs that get me. And they have adorable faces etched with innocence and resignation when examined close to – if they choose to uncurl. I am now fortunate enough to have them as regular visitors to my garden, all dubbed Hubert by my granddaughter.

As natural selection is influenced by ecological niches and limited to what various gene sets will produce, the successful model of the hedgehog has appeared in other species. My own encounter with such parallel evolution was in the 90s on the island of Réunion. I had been climbing over volcanic peaks with the beautifully oddly named Dutch Alpine Association, finally scaling the live volcano of Piton de la Fournaise (‘peak of the furnace’) before descending to the coast at Saint Joseph. To reach that town we had to make our way down into the deep gorge of  La Roche Plate through thick forest and alongside a roaring stream. I swam under a waterfall here, in the buff, so achieved another of life’s dreams. The lower trail was rocky and long, but we reached our final camp just before darkness fell. The trek had been wonderful, full of supreme views and exhausting, but rewarding scrambling over dusty trails and igneous ridges. It was in this dark, bosky grove I was rewarded with two lifetime firsts. Above a coven of witches chattered and scolded, eerie enough to raise the hairs on ones neck. These were Barau’s petrels flying into their nests under the cover of darkness high on the cliffs some 300m above. (I later saw them in daylight beyond the reef at St Pierre waiting for evening to come.) Next came a beast that I can only describe as mildly mentally ill. The common or short-tailed tenrec, Tenrec ecaudatus, is a spiny creature that had been introduced from Madagascar. It looks superficially like a hedgehog, but is sharper faced, paler and a completely different family and genus, though it eats pretty much the same mixed diet. I found several wandering near the camp, but they had the tendency to stop, curl up and nod off with the least provocation. They had no fear of me at all, or anything else as far as I could see, and are the most laid back creature I’ve ever met to date.

paul comerford with a tenrec
The common or short-tailed tenrec, Tenrec ecaudatus

For the second time this year we were on Alónnisos, this time for our birthdays, and on the way back from Patitiri to our hotel on the night of my 61st, just by the Paradise Hotel, we came across a very healthy hedgehog wandering around at the top of some steps. This is the southern white-bellied hedgehog – a different species to ours, though very similar. They are lighter, less prone to being startled and equally lovely. I reassured my Passepartout that the little fellow would be fine and we left him amongst some pots.

The next morning we left the hotel for town and as we reached the steps my companion asked, “I wonder if the hedgehog is alright, he may have been stuck on the steps.”

I scoffed and said, “Of course he is, he’ll know the place like the back of his paw…”

Just then I saw the hedgehog wandering around a small hotel foyer halfway down the steps.

“Er, there he is,” I said. “I think he’s stuck…”

The little creature was whiffling his nose at the door as if he were a resident trying to get in having lost his keys. It wandered along the step by us and it gave me the impression of not being able to climb up. It would have to work its way down in daylight, before trying to find somewhere to sleep. After a debate I picked the little fellow up in my hat. He never curled up, but watched the world go by over the brim, looking for all the world like a sultan with a spiky headdress on. We put him down in some rough grass, whereupon it made a beeline for a digger bucket, shuffled into the leaf and grass litter beneath and fell asleep… we read that southern white-bellied hedgehogs tend to make surface shelters of grass, so his actions were pretty normal. Later in the evening we rechecked, but he had gone hunting leaving behind a round hedgehog-shaped depression.

white bellied hedgehog

That is the thing with life, only humanity makes me frown. I can never remember a sad moment linked to little creatures, especially spiny ones…

paul with southern white bellied-hedgehog

Of Hermes and a Golden King

As I dally with the thoughts of Alónnisos and Greece, I often skim over information on the old gods. Whilst pensively considering the stage of my training this week, I came across Hermes and he immediately became one of my favourites. He was the messenger of the gods (renamed Mercury by the Romans), a divine trickster who rather liked protecting people for the meddling proclivities of his realm and was also viewed as the protector and patron of roads and travellers.

In my own metaphor, the Reaper Man pursues me. To quote Chris Lashelle, “The Devil keeps chasing me, And I keep pushing through this pain, He tempts me to lie down and die, Putting an end to my struggling mind…” How apt that has seemed to me through these dark winter days. I need a guardian of my road to Alónnisos. Yet, as with most Greek mythology, Hermes could also be the conductor of souls to the afterlife! So, perhaps I will forego his assistance for the now.

Yet myth is most often begotten in wondrous reality, and such was my uplifting by of the King of Birds some eight miles into a 12 mile run last weekend. I had trotted happily along undulating roads over the South Downs on a cold, clear afternoon, but as a skimming of cloud turned the world a winter monochrome my spirit dropped. I plodded along the flatland lane, hemmed in by deep drainage ditches, looking across stripped, wet arable fields. Then, to my left, down in charcoal sketched blackthorn branches and dead reeds a tiny supernova of colour flashed. Golden – so yellow in the gloom, that my heart missed a beat. A goldcrest was seeking out enough mites and midges to keep its tiny life afire through the night. It looked well, even if need had pushed it to hunt in a stunted thorn over chilly water. The final miles were easy – if this green and gold kinglet could survive out here, I could run home.

goldcrest-dorian-mason-photography

This kinglet, the name of a small group of Old World Warblers, Regulidae in Latin, is our joint smallest bird along with the firecrest. There are several stories in folklore about the wren becoming King of the Birds as it hitched a ride on the eagle’s back, and once the eagle tired, flew a little higher to claim its crown by flying highest of all. However, back in the day, many of these little leaf warblers were known as ‘willow wrens’, so I have always thought the goldcrest to be the king, after all it has the golden crown. To support my case, its Latin name Regulus regulus is a diminutive of rex, a king.

goldcrest-dorian-mason-photographer

The lesson for me is that metaphors, myths and metaphysics look fine in print – abstract, with little substance in the real world. Reality is my constant companion as I run towards my 34,000th mile. Every now and then, my train of thought gives way to a flash of gold in the undergrowth as the little kinglet shows his crown and my life is fuller for it.

With that in my minds eye, Sol sank in the west as I completed my run, painting the clouds golden. Two sleeping kings were out there as I got into my warm home. Both will warm my days as long as I keep on running. What more could a chap ask for?

 Thanks to photographer Dorian Mason for the use of his work, more of which may be found here

 

 

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