Our Innate Ability to Wonder

I was laughing with somebody the other day about the strange looks and worried remarks that, as a wildlife enthusiast, you some times get when a passerby catches you in a public place either posed with your face to the grass and bum in the air or halted in the middle of the road, binoculars fixed upon a nearby tree growing in somebody’s front garden. What got me thinking was his observation that the reason people seem to think this is odd is because it’s the sort of behaviour we would expect from a child – not an adult. A small child running through long grass with a net and a collecting pot generally warrants an ‘aaaah isn’t that cute!’ where as a fully grown woman doing exactly the same thing (just as enthusiastically, may I add) is generally regarded as ‘odd’ behaviour.

It is true that even my closest friends affectionately laugh and call me a ‘wildlife pervert’ (I think this all stemmed from a photo of red deer mating I captured a few years ago…). Personally this doesn’t put me off one bit, in fact I quite like this nickname! But it got me thinking why….. Why is this display of ‘child like wonder’ from adults regarded as something out of the ordinary, a little weird, perhaps even something to be wary of?

Curious people worry people. People who act ‘odd’ worry people. And I can understand this, especially living in London. As we grow up and seem to lose some of our child like wonder we also gain the ability to judge others (some times harshly) and of course the ability to harm others; and people do, that is a fact of life. But this means that are innate ability to wonder and to explore our surroundings in many cases is inhibited and we take the ‘safe option’ and prefer to look down, turn to the comfort of our mobile phones, avoid eye contact with others. We don’t want to be thought of as ‘weird’ or as a threat, and indeed we don’t want anyone else to become a threat to us.

I’m not saying it’s wrong of us to be wary of others, or that we shouldn’t care what others think, but it just seems a bit excessive some times (I admit I am guilty of this). For all the pressure, stress and responsibilities that come with the ‘adult world’ I feel we need to hold on to our innate ability to wonder, to be able to feel that curiosity we did as a child and to explore our surroundings without feeling the need to contain our enthusiasm, to disconnect ourselves in fear of appearing like a ‘weirdo’.

Sure I agree sometimes it is necessary disconnect, perhaps to curl up on the sofa, switch off and lose yourself in a book or a film; but what about loosing yourself in the real world? Even if wildlife is not your thing (blasphemy!) there is still so much to explore; man-made things can be just a fascinating, as can people themselves. An open mind is a mind that looks and asks ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘what if? – a child that has never seen a grasshopper hop before squeals with delight at such a sight, but as adults we have the capacity to not only enjoy this phenomenon but to take it one step further by asking ‘how does a grasshopper hop?’. And suddenly, just like that, a whole new world of wonder and fascination is revealed. Of course you don’t need to find the answers to everything (indeed there are many many things we cannot fully explain); the beauty is in the process of wondering and where that wonder might lead you. The beauty is that every one of us posses the ability to wonder, and every one of us does so in a different way. There is never just one way to ask a question and there is never just one answer to that question.

But first, you have to look!

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Source: In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality, John Gribbin

The same can be said for interacting with ‘strangers’ (even the word has negative connotations, as we are so often taught about ‘stranger danger’ as a child – rightly so). Living in London it is a rare occurrence when my friendly good morning greeting whilst out running is acknowledge, let alone responded to. Of course it is an absolute no no to even make eye contact with some one whilst travelling on the tube, let alone strike up a conversation (of course this isn’t always true, but it is generally the case). I can completely understand that some times you want to keep yourself to yourself (I certainly have those days) but again I feel this is taken to the extreme when someone would much rather rely on their mobile phone than ask a real human being for help, directions, or even an explanation of something that has caught their interest. Again, I am definitely guilty of this!

Look Up, Gary Turk

Recently I have been taking a detour on my walk home from work past an unassuming small area of acid grassland/heathland, an area that hundreds walk past everyday. Often I see them with their face down looking at their phone, completely unaware of the beauty that surrounds them. As I said I know wildlife isn’t every ones thing….. But I cannot be convinced that what they are looking at on their phone is more beautiful or more fascinating than what they could find by just looking up (and down…. And around!). Just a few minutes spent observing and you could find everything shown in the photos below, and more.

Even to just stop for a moment to lie in the grass and look at cloud formations, to look closely in the long grass and see what insects you can find, to listen to the gorse crackling in the heat or the song thrush singing its heart out. Or if you feel like skipping through the grass ‘tunefully’ singing your favourite Disney classic…. Then go for it! You never know where that moment of wonder, of curiosity; of pure, carefree, child-like behaviour may take you. And if some one gives you a quizzical look? Smile at them!

You never know where that smile may lead you….. 🙂

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Spring Ringing at Bedfont Lakes

It’s all go at Bedfont Lakes as we start this years CES (Constant Effort Sight Scheme). At the main site (the nature reserve on the north side) the reed warblers have returned and are still settling in whilst breeding is in already in full swing for some of the other species. We had our first fledglings of the year over the last two weeks, a species which also happen to be one of the cutest; long-tailed tits in their juvenile plumage, complete with their dark chocolate brown (super hero style) face masks. Fighting against injustice towards all thing small and fluffy 😉

Juvenile long-tailed tit with dark face mask

Juvenile long-tailed tit with dark face mask

IMG_1715Surprisingly we have yet to catch any robin or blue tit fledglings which are usually one of the earliest species to breed. I suspect the blue tits are out there somewhere considering the stage of the brood patches on some of the adult females we have caught. There are a few sedge warblers around (my personal favourite) as well as the resident Cetti’s from last year (let’s hope for another year of breeding success!), blackcaps, chiffchaffs and a couple of garden warblers ringed a few weeks ago. A nice surprise was this lovely male whitethroat, a species usually only caught at the South Side of the park.

Whitethroat

Whitethroat

IMG_4781Another rare catch was this treecreeper from 3 weeks ago, only the third we have caught since I started in January 2014. They are just exquisite up close! Such beautiful markings.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper

We’ve also managed a couple of visits to the South Side of the park this month and last which produced one exciting and one very very exciting (a first for this site) species. Both I’ll admit are prone to being described at ‘dull’ looking birds, however I tend to disagree especially in relation to the former; this very smart looking lesser whitethroat.

Lesser whitethroat

Lesser whitethroat

The latter species? Last, but certainly not least, after my trainer suddenly stopped in the middle of putting the nets up and swore he heard a nightingale singing (despite being the ripe old age of 75 he still puts my bird song ID skills to shame)…. Guess what our very first bird of the day was??? A species I’ve only ever heard in the lovely surroundings of Blean Woods and would never dream of seeing just a few miles away from my house! I’ll confess I really did know what it was at first, somehow I expected them to be bigger, amazing the perspective you get from having the opportunity to get up close to these birds. The rufous tale is a good indication, although it was a lot subtler than I was expecting. Yes a ‘little brown job’ but still a beautiful one and certainly a rare treat!

Nightingale!

Nightingale!

IMG_4749Other none bird related sightings include a lovely little micro moth Ptycholoma lecheana whose beautiful metallic markings caught my eye last week, at least 2 grass snakes seen sunning themselves on the board walk and a brief glimpse of a green hairstreak that I got rather excited about at South Side two weeks ago – just one individual as far as I could tell so I’m not sure if this was an anomaly or if their is a colony of them, either way the sighting was certainly an nice unexpected surprise (the best kind!). We’re back there next week so I will have a good search around.

Ptycholoma lecheana

Ptycholoma lecheana

So really it’s been a very exciting couple of months! I have only one more to go before I leave to spend the rest of my summer on Skokholm Island. As excited as I am I will miss this lovely little unassuming place and the way it never ceases to excite and amaze me; a haven for birds (and for me) in the middle of all this concrete and noise.

Pollen Encrustation on Migrant Warblers

I’ve noticed pollen encrustation around the bills of migrant warblers before – especially chiffchaffs, but this morning at Bedfont Lakes I ringed this male blackcap with the most ginormous bright yellow encrustation.

Blackcap with pollen encrustation

Blackcap with pollen encrustation

It made me wonder; where had he come from? What route had he taken to get here? What had he been feeding on to fuel him for his long journey? The majority of this species spend the winter in the Mediterranean before arriving in the UK in spring, so this sticky mass of pollen could have been collected either before it left or any where along it’s journey here. I read about a fascinating study published last year in which pollen encrustations were analysed from 4 different species of warblers, including blackcaps, upon their arrival to the UK. In doing this information about each birds recent foraging beahaviour can be collected and can give an idea as to what areas they may be using to refuel. This is fascinating stuff and the information can be used to identify stopover sites and inform conservation decisions at these sites. I like BirdGuides take on this study referring to these pollen encrustations as ‘time capsules’. There were 19 different types of pollen found – I wonder which ones this giant yellow lump contained?

The long journeys this little delicate looking feathered creatures manage to undergo never cease to amaze me, they are independent and tough beyond all expectations. They arrive here in spring, spend an exasperating amount of time and energy whilst they’re here and then come Autumn they disappear. It’s this enigmatic quality that all birds have that absolutely fascinates me. I just look at this little blackcap, seemingly tiny and delicate in my hand, and wonder ‘what life have you lived?’

Hoof Fungus

My friend Szymon spotted this amazing Hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) on Wimbledon common a month or so ago. They can range from 10 – 45cm wide and this particular specimen was at the larger end of the scale. What I found amazing was that it was as hard as the wood it grows on! It is found predominately throughout the Northern Hemisphere usually on Birch, occasionally more South where it favours Beech or Sycamore as it’s host tree. In the UK it is common in the Birch woodlands of Scotland; this was a nice find in Southern England! This particular specimen was on Beech, however we did find a much smaller one (5-10cm) nearby on Birch. IMG_4321 It is perennial and can live up to 30 years, creating distinctive annual growth rings.  IMG_4322 IMG_4323 IMG_4320 IMG_4329It is also known in the Bushcraft world as False Tinder Fungus – ‘False’ to differentiate it from Chaga know as ‘True Tinder Fungus’ –  both can be used as tinder in primitive fire making. In the case of this Hoof Fungus you would need to cut it open and use the trama layer to prepare the tinder. A pretty impressive and useful fungus!

Lichen Slang

We had a bit of a slow morning bird ringing the other week, so naturally I decided to have a nose around and ended up spending some time engrossed in twigs trying to remember what the name of that lichen with ‘jam tarts’ was – aka a crustose lichen with fruiting bodies that look suspiciously like mini jam tarts….. Or so I remember them being described to me once by my university lecturer! The lichen in question I believe is Lecanora chlarotera.

Lecanora chlarotera with 'jam tarts' - photo Eleanor Page

Lecanora chlarotera with ‘jam tarts’ – photo Eleanor Page

There was also one with long marginal ‘whiskers’ (cilia) – Physcia tenella seen here with Xanthoria parietina 

Physcia tenella

Physcia tenella

Physcia tenella with marginal cilia or 'whiskers' - photo Eleanor Page

Physcia tenella with marginal cilia or ‘whiskers’ – photo Eleanor Page

Not exactly technical I know, but when I’m looking down my hand lens at a small twig talking about jam tarts and whiskers, suddenly people seem to take an interest 😉 and for me (and my terrible memory) it definitely helps to get things to stick in my head!

Other lichen finds from the day:

Amandinea punctata

Amandinea punctata with black fruiting bodies 

Lichens of Kempton Nature Reserve

First off, I have some very exciting news; I have be offered a 3 month placement this summer July-September on Skokholm Island, located off the south-west coast of Pembrokeshire, where I will be working alongside the wardens maintaining the island, greeting visitors and surveying and ringing puffins, manx shearwaters and storm petrels among other wonderful things! I am very excited and grateful for this opportunity 😀

Apart from it’s seabirds, Skokholm is known for its amazing array of lichens. This got me thinking about the lichens I have previously noticed in one particular area of Kempton Nature Reserve. So I went back to have a proper look and ended up spending a lovely sunny afternoon on my knees half way up a gravelly lichen-covered bank with my face and hand lens to the ground…. An afternoon well spent I think! I am definitely no lichenologist, but  I had a good stab at identifying what I found. And had a lot of fun along the way! As always feel free to correct me.

Cladonia portentosa

Cladonia portentosa

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Cladonia pyxidata

Cladonia pyxidata

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Cladonia pyxidata with C. portentosa

C. pyxidata with C. portentosa

Peltigera hymenina

Peltigera hymenina

Peltigera hymenina, showing the pale rhizines

Peltigera hymenina, showing the pale underside and rhizines

IMG_4143Next task is to get stuck in to the bryophytes…. That might require more than one afternoon though 😉

Wild Edibles – Cooking With Jew’s Ear

The other week me and my friend Szymon had a go at some outdoor cooking with foraged Jew’s Ear – a common edible fungi that you can find all year round even in urban environments such as London. It grows  predominately on dead Elder.

Jew's Ear, Auricularia auricula-juda

Jew’s Ear, Auricularia auricula-juda

Jew's Ear, Auricularia auricula-juda

Jew’s Ear, Auricularia auricula-juda

Szymon has a youtube channel focusing on bushcraft; he has been teaching me basic survival skills such as primitive fire making – I plan to incorporate more of this in to my blog in the future as it’s something I am very interested in. I love to camp and hike (and generally be outdoors) so these sorts of skills are really useful to have, not to mention it’s great fun! So here is the video we made of us cooking an oriental style broth using tofu, garlic, ginger, noodles, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, chili and, of course, Jew’s Ear mushrooms. Enjoy 🙂