A fledgling emergency

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The little chubby chick perched at the side of the footpath
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The fledgling calls for his mum
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The little fledgling by the path

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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Dawn – a chorus or a cacophony?

 

 

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The blackbird often leads the chorus, like an avian Gareth Malone
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And early bird in full song

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th May 2018).

The insomniacs and early risers among you will have noticed that as the mornings are getting lighter, so the noise produced by our energetic bird population is getting louder.

I have a love-hate relationship with the dawn chorus, depending how much sleep I’ve had during the night. If I’m well rested, then it’s like uplifting music to gently come round to. After a wakeful night, however, it’s more like an unpracticed school orchestra warming up in my garden.

Like the call of the cuckoo I mentioned last week, the arrival of the dawn chorus is another sign that winter is behind us. The chorus is predominantly made up of male birds looking for love, and those with the loudest songs quickly attract partners. The bird produces his tune from an organ called the syrinx, and a lusty syrinx draws the females like bees to pollen. His spirited birdsong saps much of his energy, and so not only does he have to be fit, but he must be an excellent hunter to ensure he has enough food to keep his strength up. So if he can be heard above the other members of the chorus, discerning females will assume that he is likely to not only father healthy chicks, but also be a reliable source of sustenance for the growing family.

The dawn chorus season lasts from late April through to early June, and once a bird has secured his lady love, he is no longer required to sing so loudly. So as the season progresses, fewer birds take part. It’s likely that you will hear the odd bird singing a lonely tune at dawn late on in the season, but sadly he’s probably been saddled with an inadequately-performing syrinx and as such, is destined to remain single and loveless.

As my dad explains in his column from 20th May 1978, there’s an order in which the birds sing the daily chorus, and more often than not it’s the blackbird who starts them off. He is one of our finest songsters and, like the bird equivalent of Gareth Malone, he leads the feathered choir melodiously towards the new day. Soon his contemporaries, such as the song thrush, the wood pigeon, the robin, the turtle dove, the pheasant, the willow-warbler, and the wren all join in.

As the sun comes up, the chorus diminishes, usually lasting from half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise. This is because that once the day has fully dawned, then the insects, seeds and nuts that the birds feed upon become easier to spot. The sounds that you hear during the day are mostly bird calls which are a type of communication, such as alerts to danger, disputes between rivals, or messages to one another.

There’s quite a difference between birdsong and bird calls. Calls are short, simple sounds, whereas songs consist of a more complicated and longer sequence of notes. There is some debate about whether birds can sing just for the sake or enjoyment of it. But when I watch a blackbird in full throttle near the top of the poplars by my house, he certainly looks to be enjoying himself.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and the first Sunday in May is now International Dawn Chorus Day where we are invited to get up early and appreciate one of nature’s most entertaining performances. The day came about in the 1980s when broadcaster and environmentalist Chris Bailey hosted a birthday party at 4am specifically so that his guests would enjoy the dawn chorus, and it grew from there, with 80 countries now participating. Events are organised all over the UK by bodies such as the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust, so that we can all learn to appreciate the wonder of such a spectacle.

As I’m writing this a few days before Sunday 6th May, I’m yet to make up my mind whether to rise early or not, as in recent days, I have already heard the dawn chorus several times thanks to a doggie guest who seems to want to make sure I don’t miss it! So, as he will have gone home by Sunday, I might just take the opportunity to grab a much needed sleep in!

 

All a flutter in the garden

 

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Me, far left, with my siblings in our 1970s flower-filled garden
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My mum with my brother in the garden in front of a bed of nasturtiums
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The once common small tortoiseshell butterfly is now under threat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 4th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 2nd May 2018).

It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.

Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.

The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.

Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.

Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.

Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.

The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.

The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.

There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.

Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.

I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).

 

A year without the Countryman

 

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My sister Tricia and my dad, who both died recently 
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Me with sister Tricia in London in September 2017
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Me with my dad in summer 2016

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th April 2018 and the Gazette and Herald newspaper on 18th April 2018. 

April 21st marks the first anniversary of my dad Peter Walker’s death from prostate cancer. By a sad coincidence, it is also the same day as Bill Maynard’s funeral (he played Dad’s loveable Heartbeat character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, on screen), so my thoughts will be with his family as I reflect on my own loss.

It’s been a strange and difficult year, so I hope you will indulge me as I ponder on what has happened, and pay tribute to the services that we didn’t truly appreciate before we had to call upon them (It’s going to be a tough column to write, so I’ve opened an industrial-sized box of Maltesers to help me through!).

Dad left a gaping hole in our family’s lives that I’m sure all of you who have lost someone close will understand. My sense of loss has not yet lessened, and sometimes it knocks the wind out of my sails. Silly things get me, like making mashed potato, as my dad made the best mash on the planet (and I’ll fight anyone who says different). And one evening I was making pizza when I remembered the time Dad tried to describe one. “You know, them round flat things that Italians eat!” he’d said. We fell about laughing, as it was such a Yorkshire way to put it. It’s one of my daftest and fondest memories, and made me smile over my pizza dough, yet seconds later I was in floods of tears as his absence hit me like a blow to the stomach.

The progression of Dad’s illness had been very slow over ten years until it suddenly sped up in April 2017. He went from being physically very able to needing round-the-clock care within a couple of weeks. It was then that we discovered the Ryedale Community Response Team, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say they were like angels sent from above. Hearing their cheery ‘hello’ as they stepped through the door provided instant relief with every single visit. The team act as emergency help to people who suddenly realise they are no longer able to cope alone. They are a short-term bridge of support until more appropriate care is found.

But very soon, Dad’s needs became such that even four visits a day were not enough, and managing him and his medication the rest of the time was too much for us. Thankfully, a space became available at St Leonard’s Hospice in York and he was taken there on the morning of 21st April. He died later that night.

For us, these past months have been doubly difficult as we were bracing ourselves for our first Christmas without Dad when my sister, Tricia Walker, fell ill at the beginning of December. What she had been dismissing as a stomach bug turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. We could barely believe it was happening all over again.

Although Tricia lived in Bournemouth, she wanted to come home to Yorkshire, and was transferred to the specialist cancer unit in the Bexley Wing at St James’ Hospital in Leeds.

Everyone in Bexley looked after Tricia extremely well. It is one of the top cancer centres in the country, so we are blessed here in Yorkshire to have it on our doorstep. We knew she was in the best hands, but sometimes, there just isn’t an answer. It was on 4th January, only four weeks into her illness, that Tricia decided to go into a hospice. She was admitted to St Leonard’s three days later and died in the early hours of 8th January, aged just 53.

Although both my dad and sister were in St Leonard’s for less than a day, I cannot overstate the value of the place. For those last few precious hours, we could forget about everything else, let the hospice staff take over the essential stuff, and just focus on being with them in their final moments. We had a dedicated nurse of whom we could ask just about anything. She displayed empathy, gentle sensitivity and an uncanny instinct for producing a cup of tea exactly when you needed it.

I’m sure those of you who have had experience of other hospices in the area, like St Catherine’s (Scarborough), Martin House (Boston Spa), St Michael’s (Harrogate) and St Teresa’s (Darlington), will understand what I mean when I say that once your loved one crosses over their threshold, it’s like a huge pair of comforting arms is wrapped around you. The hospital and in-home carers were brilliant, but they only had the time and resources to look after the patient. The hospices can accommodate the whole posse of people surrounding the sick person, who, through the stress and worry about what is inevitable, can be somewhat high maintenance themselves.

One of the most significant benefits of losing a loved one in a hospice is that once they are gone, the care for those who’ve been bereaved doesn’t end. They guide you through the next, difficult practical steps and are also at pains to ensure you are supported, should you need it, for many months afterwards.

St Leonard’s offered me bereavement support after Dad died, but I declined, and then offered it again after losing Tricia, and this time I accepted. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but it is possibly one of the best things I’ve done. Being able to offload all the stuff in my head is like releasing the pressure in an overfilled tyre (And as a result, the local stocks of Maltesers have thankfully remained buoyant).

This level of care, which is so desperately important to those who need it, is all free of charge, so hospices have to rely on constant fundraising. St Leonard’s has to raise at least £5million every year to continue to offer these essential services.

The initial 12 months of grief are the most difficult, with a year of first hurdles to overcome. Things like birthdays, (theirs and your own), anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas become occasions to be endured, and it is a relief when the first one has passed as you hope that the next year it will be that little bit easier.

This year, we are marking Dad’s first anniversary quietly at home with the family.

 

A bird in the hand

 

 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald  21st March 2018.

I was very fortunate to be invited to the York Bird of Prey Centre in Huby for the launch of the Tourism Association of North Yorkshire (TANY) 2018 visitor guide. TANY is a small, independent organisation that relies on volunteers, and does sterling work in promoting our region, especially Ryedale, Hambleton and the North York Moors, to support local businesses in attracting valuable tourists to our beautiful part of the world.

I’d contributed an article about my dad, which is why I was asked along. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sit among the birds as they flew freely around us, tempted by morsels of meat placed in certain spots. We were invited to handle the birds ourselves, and I got up close and personal with a stunning barn owl, a southern crested caracara (a type of falcon), a sweet tawny owl and a majestic golden eagle. We were taught about the valuable education and conservation work the centre does, and learned that the birds get hours of free flying time outside of their aviaries every day (I must admit, I was wondering about that!).

It’s a rare privilege to be able to get so close, and really made me appreciate just how amazing these birds of prey are. My parents were both (and my mum still is) keen bird watchers, and had installed several nesting boxes and feeders in their garden, keeping binoculars by the window so they could observe the daily antics of their feathered friends. They were both very knowledgeable and could instantly identify most birds that visited.

I can’t remember them ever mentioning a white blackbird though. In fact, until this week when I read my dad’s column from 25th March 1978, I had no idea they even existed. But apparently so, as a reader had written to ask Dad if white blackbirds were rare. Dad remembered having seen one in the grounds of the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. I assumed this would have been some kind of albino, but not necessarily, as, with help from the RSPB, I’ve discovered that some birds are simply lacking in the pigment that colours the feathers.

Further research revealed that the colouring of birds is in fact quite complicated, and just because a bird appears to be iridescent blue or green in colour does not mean they have blue or green feathers. In fact, the colour is created by the light being reflected off the complex structure of the feathers, making them appear blue or green. These are known as ‘structural’ colours. The true colour of many iridescent feathers is actually brown. So, for example, if you see a kingfisher in low light, it will often appear dark in colour. Blacks, browns, chestnut-reds and yellows are created by melanin, a pigment which does colour the actual feather and also influences the intensity of the hue. Other colours are created by the process of the underlying pigment combining with a structural colour. For example some parrots have an underlying pigment of yellow that interacts with a blue structural colour, which then makes the parrot appear green.

Anyway, back to our unusual white blackbird. Occasionally, the normal process that produces a bird’s colour breaks down, which can result in no pigmentation, or patchy pigmentation. A brief search on the Internet throws up pictures of all sorts of wonderful patterns on the blackbird’s feathers, from pure white, to black with a white head, collar, breast or tail, white with black spots, black with white spots, or even black with white ‘go-faster’ stripes down the side.

Often the captions on these pictures mistakenly describes them as ‘albino’ or ‘part-albino’. As far as I am aware, it is impossible to be ‘part-albino’. All vertebrates can be affected by albinism, which is a genetic mutation leading to reduced or complete absence of the pigment melanin which is responsible for colouring skin, hair, eyes, fur and feathers. The difference between a white blackbird and an albino blackbird is that albinos have pink or red eyes rather than black, because the lack of pigmentation means the blood can be seen. They will also have pale skin, legs, feet and beaks.

I saw recently wildlife artist and fellow columnist Robert Fuller’s wonderful video of the white stoat in his garden. I’d love to find out if readers have spotted any other unexpectedly white creatures in their gardens, or out and about. Sadly, I have yet to clap my eyes on the elusive white blackbird.