Wildlife from Your Window
PUBLISHED: 13:39 24 March 2020 | UPDATED: 14:37 25 March 2020
Wildlife expert and former director of Environment for Islington Council offers tips on how we can connect with nature from a balcony or lone walk
I had just sat down to write my column. It was to be on the spring sequence of catkins; from hazel to sallow to alder and birch. I would incorporate the ‘lamb’s tails’, the ‘pussy willows’ and the fat red grubs of the poplar.
I had even prepared a few well-honed phrases. But then I opened my e-mails and there was one from the Features Editor. ‘While people are stuck in their homes’, she suggested, was there any chance I could write something ‘about the wildlife we can enjoy from a balcony or small garden or a lone park walk –and the importance of trying to stay connected to nature in these times?’
It was a timely suggestion and one with which I could only comply.
There is, after all, a virtue in limitation. It is to be found in getting to know a particular area intimately. ‘To know fully even one field’, said the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh ‘is a lifetime’s experience’.
And the same can be said of a street, a garden or even a single view.
In my book ‘Ghost Trees’ I spent a year observing a single tree; its life and the lives it sheltered, its changes through the seasons, its aspects in every weather, its moods at different times of day. It was an experience I found not just educational but meditative and deeply fulfilling.
At the time I write this we are still able to take short walks out of doors and while we can still do this, one way to approach it might be to follow the same route daily and see just how much you can notice.
It might be the diversity of street trees, the thick growth of moss on a wall, the plants that flourish in a pavement crack or the favourite gathering place of your local house sparrows. And it adds another a level of engagement if you start to take notes. These might, for example, incorporate the common plants that are coming in to flower, the sequence this follows and how it changes from day to day.
I have just walked our dog round my own local block where there was a preponderance of white flowering cresses accompanied by the little pink blooms of henbit, the blue pixie caps of trailing bellflower, the dowdy heads of groundsel and the sprawling yellow blooms of Oxford ragwort.
It may be, of course, that you don’t know the names of any of these plants so here is another way to occupy the time that might now be hanging more heavily; start learning them, identifying, perhaps, just one new one each day. If you don’t have the books at home to help, you can always use Google.
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This is the real way to begin to negotiate the diversity of our flora; not to start with the rarities you see on some glorious holiday in the Highlands or the Dales, but to master first the most common and most familiar.
You could also, as an exercise, note the order in which our street and garden trees begin to open their leaves. With the swelling of their buds the willows turned a light lime green some time ago. They have been joined by the hawthorns which seem to get earlier each year. The whitebeam buds are bursting on my local streets, and the great fists of the horse chestnut are just now beginning to unfurl.
But the rest is still to come. Start watching for yourself and jotting down the first dates of opening.
To an extent, tree watching is something you can do without leaving your home at all. In a previous home in Upper Holloway I spent a lot of time looking at a rowan tree that grew on the pavement outside my front window.
It was, admittedly, a different time of year, but what fascinated me was the sequence in which the birds came, over a number of weeks, to feed on its berries; the wood pigeon, while they were still quite unripe, followed by starlings, blackbirds and mistle thrushes. On one magical occasion there was a whole flock of waxwing. The fact that the first time in my life I ever saw these exotic birds was outside my own front door, added a whole wonderful dimension to the experience.
Watching birds from your window is another great opportunity, and even more so if you are lucky enough to have sight of some bird feeders. It is not just a matter of seeing what comes but in seeing it more deeply. How does each bird approach the feeder?
What is their first choice of food? And at what time of day do they come? I have noticed at my own feeders that some times of day will be extremely busy with numerous birds of four or five species feeding at once, whilst other times will be inexplicably quiet.
But I have never, so far, explored it systematically. Do different birds come at different times of day and do different conditions affect their appearance?
One of the great advantages of close observation is that it leads to the formulation of questions such as these, and the attempt to answer them leads to further observation. Take those flowering street plants for example. Am I right in my casual observation that the greater portion of the common early forms seem to be white, with the yellow flowers following only later?
I might, in fact, be completely astray in this but it would be fun to find out. Even our poorly regarded pigeons, just now busy with their pompous, strutting, spring displays, can be the subject of such studies. I remember reading an account some years ago where an ornithologist categorised their various plumage types and then worked out what proportions each formed in his local population.
But sometimes it is none of this. Sometimes it is the simple sitting down and looking that counts. The being with nature, even through a window, and the letting nature be; the passing of a fly, a crow picking over the grass, the gentle waving of a single branch.
It remains the best form of meditation I know, a calming activity at a time when the need for calm has never been so important, and the opportunity to find it so hard.
From April 6 to 10 you can hear Bob Gilbert at 9.45am on Radio 4 in ‘The Passion in Plants’, telling the Easter story through the trees and plants it is associated with in British folklore.