Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Birds’

London’s mini heatwave has closed its doors, great grey clouds entomb the downs. In my mind the meadows have all flowered and gone, so quickly has the psuedo-summer taken root. Sunday’s 27 degrees felt more like July than May. Gladly, at Farthing Downs all of May’s icons can be found: meadow buttercups, silverweed, yellowhammers singing in flowering hawthorns, cowslips moving to seed. A strange song emanates from the young trees grown too woody for livestock to graze. At first I think it might be swallows passing through, zipping and chattering, then perhaps baby birds. Swifts swoop overhead but no other hirundines are here.

The chattering song continues and I move closer. In ash, bramble and oak twigs the white throat of that very bird flashes. It jumps up onto a branch and I photograph it, a white bud or bug of some kind in its bill. The whitethroat has travelled from Africa to be here on the North Downs, a journey we cannot quite comprehend. Except we Europeans too came from Africa, but it took some 60-100,000 years to do it rather than a few months.

This whitethroat is not alone. Behind me is a bigger clump of trees and scrub, a thicket of ash trees riddled with canker. I’m listening to a song that I expect to hear in passing every April here, like a little chain tinkling, or some early mechanical clock. It’s a lesser whitethroat, another arrival from Africa. But I can’t see it, listening closely for a sign of whether it’s under cover or out in the open. I give up. A kestrel appears from over the whitethroats’ bushes, gliding, hovering and slipping off.

North Downs diary

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Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.

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Farthing Downs & Happy Valley, March 2016

A motorbike oozes across the road that runs through Farthing Downs, its deep, unsettling groan scatters woodpigeons and magpies from the branches of trees. When it’s over another sound breaks through: a male yellowhammer. Its song is never quite the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ it’s accepted as, but the mnemonic is so memorable that those of us who might not have known it ever existed can remark upon it, can seek it out. The bird is a silhouette, a blackhammer in a hawthorn bush against the bold march sun.

Winter’s decorations still remain, it is a time of flux. The cropped green grasslands and anthills look like a sheet, the racket of chalky wildflowers hidden below. If you didn’t know this was chalk grassland now you wouldn’t expect much else to come. Redwings dot the tree lines, their calls which were in October nocturnal now add to a soundscape that includes the spring skylark, high up above my head, marking out a territory that signals an intent to force new life. I see two of these birds. The skylark is one I hear or see only every few months. Its song has no hint of monotony. But one that I have missed this winter and can hear day after day in spring is the blackbird. From trees that separate Farthing Downs and New Hill it lights the valley with its gentle verses. The shadows grow long, reaching into the blackbird’s dreamy hedgeland.

In Happy Valley the hazel trees’ tails mass like wigs. Looking closely, the buds are cocked ready to leaf, some with the purple tongues of flowers poking out. The yellow grains of pollen that have come from the dangling tails can be seen. I flick the tails to help. The twigs of hawthorns are coloured yellow and blue by Xanthoria parietina. Trying to get a close up photo of the fruiting cups, the apothecia, I find the ‘roosting’ buttons of ladybirds. Who would ever see them here? Dogs, voles, mice, flowers, lichens. Surely only the most inquisitive birds would ever find them.

In the shelter of scrub the primroses bloom in old dogwood leaves. I love this time, the birds singing from the woods and trees, the first flowers breaking the rule of death and decay. No doubt, spring and summer have plenty of that to offer, but at least now the pendulum has swung the other way.

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South Moravia is a region of the Czech Republic that borders with Slovakia and Austria. I have visited on two occasions, in July 2013 and then the following April. The region gets its name from the Morava, one of Europe’s lesser known rivers, a tributary of the Danube. Over time it has been straightened for industry, though some of its natural meanders do still exist, I find its influence on the surrounding landscape to be fascinating both historically and ecologically. The impact of communism on the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe are clear. Small fields were opened up and collected, taken under state control. The rivers were canalised and wetlands drained for agriculture. The similarities to post-war capitalism are strong: it was the case of two warring ideologies attempting to increase and establish their populations with similar technologies and agricultural industries. The advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine meant that, despite hundreds of millions of deaths in the Second and First World Wars, the population of the earth tripled in the 20th century. The irrevocable ‘taming’ of continental and Eastern Europe’s natural landscapes, and loss of traditional management techniques which in fact sustained many of the richest habitats, was thought to be largely complete by the 1980s. That generalised view, however, does not give the full picture. Nature is adaptable and human perspectives change, as South Moravia’s landscapes show.

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The Google Earth view of the Morava’s natural meanders at Bzenec. A now vegetated oxbow lake can be seen in the ‘o’ shape next to the ‘S’ shape in the mid left-centre. The impact of post-war industry was felt across Europe’s waterways, though the damming of the Danube was to be undertaken most severely only by the 1990s. Many rivers lost their natural meanders, straightened to aid the passage of goods and people. The Morava is an excellent example of this change. The only remaining natural meanders of the Morava can be found on the edges of Bzenecka Doubrava, a pine plantation established on the river’s sandy edgelands. The sandy conditions were created by the Morava, the river having deposited sand throughout the landscape over thousands of years. When I visited in July 2013 the trees at the edges of the river were collapsing into the water as the sand slowly eroded the banks. This way new meanders could be formed if given the chance, the silting up of the edges thinning the watercourse and increasing the erosion on the opposite side through the increase in the pace of the water’s flow. It’s unlikely that the river will be given free reign, however, as the neighbouring plantation is of economic importance. Perhaps the river’s power will be too great in this case.

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The river’s work has also given people the chance to exploit these vast deposits of sand. Very close to the river was a working mine. But nature has not lost out completely here, the sand was being mined by sand martins (Riparia riparia) which in turn were being hunted by hobbies (Falco subbuteo) and their nests excavated from above by foxes (Vulpes vulpes). The mined areas as seen in the image above were being replanted with broadleaved tree species.

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I photographed the sand mine from Váté písky, a protected area known as ‘the Moravian Sahara’. Green lizards (Lacerta viridis), with their beautiful blue mouths and green-yellow bodies snuck out from pieces of deadwood to eat ants and have their picture taken.

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My friend Karel Šimeček knows this landscape inside out. You would be forgiven for thinking the wildlife knew him just as well. He found a pine hawkmoth in the grasslands of Váté písky. Karel has campaigned for many years to protect this post-industrial landscape – the likes of which would be built on without much thought in the UK nowadays – and he has successfully achieved designations to protect habitats in Bzenecka Doubrava for nightjar (Caprimulgus Europaeus). This nocturnal, African migrant is threatened by the proposal for a new motorway through the area.

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Váté písky is a protected landscape, and Karel, along with fellow Moravian conservation-supremo Zuzka Veverkova said that entomologists from all over the country would visit to study the invertebrates

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In July the flowerheads of hare’s-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) were being fed upon by the eastern bath white butterfly (Pontia edusa)

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The surrounding pine trees were crisscrossed by red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), jays (Garrulous glandarius) and golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus). The cacophony of the sand mine’s alarm, rupturing the almost pastoral peace of the Morava’s sandlands, drew a black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)  across the horizon. It was the first I had ever seen, a giant bird in comparison to British woodpeckers

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Returning the following spring, Karel took us to a former military site which had ‘returned to nature’. Here woodlark (Lullula arborea), whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and golden oriole were found, along with many more insects

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Karel sought out a flowering hawthorn tree that was teeming with insects: bright blue beetles, butterflies, bees, wasps and hornets all feasting on the mayflower’s goodness. Returning home to English hawthorns I could not help but see the sheer paucity of insects, compared with the Czech abundance of life in the same tree

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Small copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas) were to be found on flowers across the old military site

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The map butterfly (Araschnia levana) is another common species found in this part of South Moravia and even as far east as Japan. It’s not one that can be found in the UK

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In general I would be trying to catch up with the last thing Karel had seen when he would call out to show me something new. He had burrowed into a small area of sand to uncover an ant-lion, the larvae of a species closely related to the lacewings (Neuroptera). The ant-lion hides in the sand and waits for the vibrations of an ant’s footsteps above, creating a vacuum in the sand’s centre and picking the insect off. Micro-stories hidden within sands shifted by the mighty Morava

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In May Karel drove us along the edges of the straightened river and pointed out some of its remaining floodplain habitats. Tributaries had been canalised, lined by beds of Phragmites reeds. Other parts of the floodplain had been turned over to monoculture crops but good areas of willow wood pasture remained, much like some of the more attractive English rural parklands. These willow trees were the favoured nesting sites for great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor)

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One thing I love about the Czech Republic is the rough edges of its municipalities. This ‘untidiness’ has been lost from much of England through compulsive use of herbicides on city and suburban streets and mowing. Beyond the fact that more spaces were allowed to rough up, the naturally greater diversity of plant species meant that beautiful insects were seen in all places. Alongside the Morava this common clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus vulgatissimus) perched in the full glare of the morning sun

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We walked down to the river’s edge on a national Czech holiday (men at one of the local petrol stations were sat outside drinking beer at 8am, fair play) and kayakers were making their way along the river

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As the Morava is a tributary of the Danube, it also has tributaries of its own. One of the larger towns outside Brno in South Moravia is Kyjov, home to the Kyjovka. Above is an image of the Kyjovka valley, the landscape redrawn by the flow of water and ice over thousands of years.

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The Kyjovka at Mutěnice

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The Kyjovka is a special river for me because it has a very interesting story to tell. Its waters have been harnessed to make an area of fishponds in the village of Mutěnice, a few miles south of Kyjov. Karel introduced me to the fishponds, a wonderful place for birds but also for another animal, the beaver (Castor fiber). Beavers managed to return to South Moravia via the Morava from the Danube and then from the Morava to the Kyjovka. The story goes that the beavers began to cause problems for the owners of the fishponds by digging channels between the ponds and mixing up the fish stocks. The beaver is iconic for many conservationists because it alters the landscape in ways that benefit many species, even us. But for fishpond owners who wanted to keep fish separate, they were a problem. The owners captured the beavers and interred them in a local zoo. But the beavers escaped the night they were captured and returned to the fishponds. They are now well established

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In May Karel pointed out channels of water flowing through the mudflats of the fishponds. There were other more direct channels created by beavers

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The main worry for British landowners (who now have to accept that beavers are back) is the impact that the animals have through their natural tree-felling behaviour. Beavers have very sharp front teeth which are kept in good condition by the front bottom teeth which act to sharpen them as would a whetstone sharpen metal. Beavers create dams in rivers which slow the passage of water and prevent flooding in settlements further downstream. The dams also provide spawning grounds for fish and micro-habitats for invertebrates. They gnaw through the bark of poplar and willow, waiting for the moment when the tree will fall to escape. The light brought in – much like when we coppice woodland trees – nourishes the wild plants and herbs on the riverbank increasing the diversity of species and diversifying the habitat structure. The trees grow back from their bases and can live longer than many standards trees. Trees like willow collapse often anyway and the beaver is just speeding up the cycle of a natural process

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The willows that did remain upright (and there were many) were being used by the penduline tit (Remiz pendulinus). This charming bird builds its nest from the beardy seeds of poplar, as well as old grasses. The timing of poplars producing seed and the nesting of this bird exemplify the beautifully serene symbiosis between birds and native trees, and the utter dependence on certain trees that many birds have. I had always wanted to see this bird and once again I had Karel to thank

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Karel was not the only ornithologist at Mutěnice. A group of men had spent the night at the fishponds preparing for a public event on the morning that we came in April 2014. They were ringing birds using a mist net to try and raise awareness about wildlife in South Moravia. One of the birds caught was a common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), it was soon let go, the bird zipping off towards the water

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Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) was one of the more common species to be caught in the nets, which cause no harm to the birds. In the woodland at the edges of the fishponds, nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) sang and I managed to glimpse the shadow of one dropping down through the leaves. But the nightingale’s song was not the most dominant. The surface of the fishponds were pocked by the eyes of marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus), their calls were like nothing I had ever heard. They dominated the soundscape to the point that even the cuckoo struggled to break their dominance

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On the edge of the fishponds is an area of woodland where black stork (Ciconia nigra) could be seen perched, overlooking the ponds. They are massive birds and, like their cousins the white stork (Ciconia ciconia), migrate to Europe in spring from Africa.

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Karel knew an oak tree in the woods that was the favoured nesting place for a black stork. We wandered in through the light, grassy woodland in a fog of St. Mark’s fly (Bibio marci) and attendant mosquitoes. The stork did arrive but Karel did not want us to stay. A few months later Karel emailed to say that the black stork had raised young but it was eaten by a pine marten (Martes martes)

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The woodland floor was rich in wildflowers, with Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) growing in mini-thickets

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I looked out to the edge of the wood, the fishponds and its storks behind us. At the end of the track was the bright yellow of flowering oilseed rape and grey pylons. I thought of how suddenly this diverse habitat, with all its insects, flowers, trees and birds ended in pesticide-laden monoculture, of how quickly the land lost its vitality, its character. With my feet in the Morava’s sands, I thought of how much the river had done to change this landscape and how much people were changing it again. Nevertheless, in the woods, fishponds, the valleys and estuaries the story of the Morava and its wildlife is there to be told

 

 

 

 

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Beardie blog pic-1

Bearded tit at Hortobágy-Halasató

In April 2015 my good friend Eddie Chapman and I visited the Hortobágy in the Great Hungarian Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site designated as ‘an exceptional surviving example of a cultural landscape constituted by a pastoral society’. Hortobágy is a small town in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, three hours east of Budapest by train and a little bit to the west of Debrecen. The area is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and we were visiting on our way to Romania by train. The main focus of our visit, being without a car and dependent on public transport, was the fishpond complex known as Hortobágy-Halastó (Halastó meaning ‘fishponds’ in Hungarian). Halastó was ‘dripping’ with birdlife. This vast area of water was cut through with a single gauge railway (which we never used) and a mile-long, single file footpath. We saw a long-eared owl sleeping in a bird box, six eagles in the sky at once, marsh harrier at every turn and many other wonderful species. In the town, storks cavorted in front gardens and battled for prominence on streetlamp platforms placed there to support the storks. I had wanted to visit the region for several years after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 account in Between the Woods and the Water, as the teenage Fermor travelled from Rotterdam to Instanbul on foot. To see this area of land over ground hid none of Europe’s failings: people living in rubbish, vast areas of land devastated by extractive industries, huge infrastructure projects half built and deserted, rivers channelled, concreted and their banks denuded, and more rubbish, so much rubbish. But we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes and villages and guided us around the lands they call their own. The wildlife we encountered, for an early spring visit, was incredible. I recommend the excellent Crossbill Guide for anyone visiting.

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The Great Hungarian Plain or ‘Puszta’ is known for its flatness. The phrase Puszta was created after the Magyar (Hungarian) population was decimated in the 1200s by Mongol invasion and then the black death. It refers to the emptiness of the landscape after those devastating events. The Magyars settled in the Great Plain at the end of the 800s and they are seen as the founders of the land we now know as Hungary.

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230-140 million years ago the Plain was covered by the Tethys Sea, which is described as ‘the mother’ of the Mediterranean. Later, the Pannonian Sea was created with the formation of the Alps and Carpathian mountains surrounding it. The eventual draining of water from the landscape led to a unique mixture of soils, namely loess and clay, the former created when glaciers grind down underlying bedrock. As a student I read Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and other stories and fell for these endless landscapes and the people (in Chekhov’s case Russian) who had to live from them. Chekhov didn’t miss their wildlife though, his short story The Steppe reveals its hidden life, death and beguiling beauty. As in Chekhov, first impressions of the Great Plain give the sense of a deserted landscape. In reality it was alive with wildlife: white stork, buzzard, roe deer, corn bunting, butterflies, wildflowers, boxing hare, red fox. These were only the things we could see. We missed the steppe tarantula and ground squirrels.

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In the town of Hortobágy white storks were a common sight. They arrive in spring from their wintering grounds in Africa, building their famously large nests on platforms erected to support them. We saw tens of white stork in the town itself, some seen at dusk walking around in front gardens, sometimes in very small spaces. From a distance they looked like people, blurred either by heatlines or crepuscular light. We noticed that house sparrows were building nests of their own underneath the mass of twigs put together by the stork. There was tension between the storks with a number attempting to intrude upon the scene pictured above. The birds are silent but for a bill ‘clacking’ gesture, evidently territorial.

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Yellow wagtail is a spring migrant to Europe which is in severe decline in Britain. There were a good number of them on the Plain. Being bright yellow with a grey head, it’s easy to mistake the more urban and common grey wagtail for this bird.

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The only way for us to get around was to travel by train, the only time that we were really able to mix with local people. For the untrained, Hungarian is a pretty inaccessible language, with no relation to Latin or Western languages, it descends (or ascends) from Finnish. We tried our best but could only really master egészségedre (‘to your health’ or ‘cheers’) after a week in Hungary. The railways were typically post-war Communist, pumping out black fumes and chuntering along. But they were always on time and provided a lifeline for people who had no other means of transport. No one gets around on horseback like they did when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 20th century, when ‘carts drawn by horses and oxen easily outnumbered the motor cars’ (p.44).

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Both Eddie and I were struck by the struggles of people in the places we visited. It was at times impossible to see the trip as a holiday, particularly because of what we saw from the windows of our train as it passed from Debrecen over the border into Romania. I like old buildings crumbling around and lament their loss from London (I know there is a housing crisis) and took a few photographs of some that were around the Halastó station.

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Having travelled in the Czech Republic and Poland, I’m not a big fan of what communism has done to the landscape. The former Soviet Union has also contributed greatly to global warming with its industrialisation of much of rural Europe. Its architectural merits are also lost on me. I’m not a fan of what modern capitalism is doing either, via agricultural intensification, oil and fracking. But agricultural intensification is something that communism welcomed with open arms, rounding up the smaller farms and destroying millions of hectares of natural grasslands, woods and rivers in the process. Today agricultural intensification is the biggest threat to the steppe grasslands of Europe and Asia, making them some of the most threatened habitats on earth.

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This was the door to the station building, now housing sparrows. I should say that dilapidated housing and other buildings do not mean people in the area are suffering or unhappy. Here people seemed perfectly content with life on the surface. No one was homeless and the National Park appeared to be offering good support to the local community through ecotourism.

Hortobagy blog pics-13 More charming for the outsider were the individual thatched cottages dotted across the landscape. The evidence of how inhospitable this landscape is for trees can be seen by the two here sheltering next to the cottage. Whether this was used to shelter livestock or dry hay is unclear to me.

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We arrived at the Halastó fishponds on foot. The reeds from 2014 were being cut and piled into these pyramids, neatly put in rows. The thatch from the cottage in the previous image will likely have come from the vast reedbeds of Halastó. The reedbeds supported an amazing array of birds, this even before the spring migrants had arrived.

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Marsh harriers could be seen at every corner of the landscape, flying low over the reedbeds in search of food. Upon leaving, we were shaking our heads at the sheer number of these birds of prey. We missed them when we’d left.

Hortobagy blog pics-19 Another bird of interest for us was the pygmy cormorant, relative of the great cormorant which I know from the River Thames in London, and most waterbodies, really. Seeing these birds perched on branches low in the reeds was like looking back into the prehistoric swamps of Europe.

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A line of dying trees at the edge of the fishponds were fitted with open bird boxes. The boxes were a form of social housing for kestrels, what I later found to be lesser kestrel (thanks to Nigel Spring for pointing this out to me), a separate species to the common kestrel we have in Britain. There were several more kestrels out of sight but my lens couldn’t quite capture the scene.

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Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.

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Ever since reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the film The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), I had wanted to see cranes. They are returning to England as a breeding bird for the first time in 400 years, once being a common species of marsh and fenland before their habitat was drained for agriculture. These birds were often eaten by royalty in England. The Latin name Grus grus points directly to the noise they make. These birds flew over our heads as we watched the kestrels and sleeping owl.

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For wildlife to be protected successfully in the long term there has to be some benefit for humans as well. Fishponds have been present in Eastern Europe since medieval times and were created for royalty. Today they have a much more wide ranging commercial value and there is conflict to be found between those who like to pull fish from the water and those who like to watch birds pull fish from the water. Here we happened upon workmen extracting fish from one pond into the back of a lorry.

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Climbing up one of the lookout posts, Eddie happened across six eagles flying on thermals over the fishponds. I managed to get this photo of what we think are mainly white tailed eagles with a possible lesser spotted eagle, though that may have been out of the picture. Later we saw a white tailed eagle sitting in the mudflats of a drained fishpond, taking to the air with deep wafts of wingbeats.

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The sunsets of the Puszta are famous. We encountered this scene on our first day walking back from the fishponds. At this point we were turning back and forth between the setting sun and a pristine red fox trotting along the edge of the path. Corn buntings flocked and roe deer attempted to escape our view with nothing but the blur of the horizon to disappear into.

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Kestrel

Kestrel, St. Peter’s Church, London, June 2015

There is a church spire in south London where, most years, a pair of kestrels rear chicks. This year four chicks fledged and provided onlookers with great entertainment. These birds depend on a mixture of habitats, breeding in a Victorian manmade structure, learning to hunt from the roof of a neighbouring cricket pavilion and sustaining themselves on small mammals captured from the rough edges of woods, allotments and playing fields. The urban environment can support amazing wildlife.

This photo is for Sarah Robinson who has given so much time and attention to these animals.

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