Miracle movements

This summer’s nature sightings in the UK have been marked by a myriad of marvellous migrants, swept across our shores by successive heatwaves.

One of the most obvious has been the Hummingbird Hawkmoth. A friend who doesn’t follow butterfly & moth groups tells me that even her Facebook feed was awash with photos of these myth-like moths.

I imagine this has been a record year for them here. I’d never seen more than one at a time in the UK until this year, but this summer we regularly had 2 or 3 on the buddleia that invitingly overhangs our garden from next door.

Hummingbird hawkmoth in our garden

I’ve seen more photos of Clouded Yellows this summer than ever before. Their bright, warm colouring seems to reflect the sunshine of their homelands in Southern Europe and North Africa. My own attempts at photographing them have been, as usual, not that successful – they never seem to stop for long. This is my best effort this year…

Clouded Yellow, on the Seven Sisters

But my butterfly – and migrant – highlight of the summer (and a first for me) was the Long-tailed Blue I had the pleasure of discovering at Birling Gap on 29th August.

Long-tailed Blue on Russian Vine, Birling Gap

Again, if the sightings I’ve read about are anything to go by, I suspect this has been a record year for this tiny butterfly that somehow journeys all the way from the Mediterranean to Southern Britain. Females, after mating, make the epic flight back to the Med to lay their eggs there.

A more familiar sight to most people is that of swallows….

Swallows (mostly young ones, evidenced by the less ‘pronged’ tail than adult birds), in Combe Valley

I had the privilege of watching this large flock swooping over a waterway in Combe Valley near us in East Sussex, on 12th September, presumably feeding up on insects before their return flight South.

Likewise, terns are a staple part of the British seaside scene and yet always such a joy to watch, set apart from the more ubiquitous gulls by their angular wings plummeting in descent after small fish.

Young Sandwich terns successfully fishing at Bulverhythe
Pair of young Sandwich terns amongst the gulls and Oystercatchers (Hastings in the background)

Like the swallows, these juvenile Sandwich terns, photographed on 20th Sept, were no doubt filling up before returning southwards.

Migration is, to me, a mystery and a miracle. There are no doubt scientists for whom it is less of a mystery but, I hope and suspect, still a wonder. After all, our understanding of the miracle of migration is still in its infancy, and these birds and butterflies use ‘superpowers’ way outside of the five senses we’re familiar with.

Birds, it is thought, navigate by ‘seeing’ the earth’s magnetic field. A chemical in the eye called cryptochrome, that is sensitive to magnetism, could be key to this theory, according to a recent study.

Other recent research suggests that one of the creatures most famous for its mammoth journeys – the Painted Lady butterfly – might be using a solar compass in the club-ends of its antennae to steer its way.

Painted Ladies on lavender, Guestling churchyard

Like the Long-tailed Blue, Painted Ladies also return to the Continent (often at a height of 500 metres above ground) – a phenomenon only discovered during their bonanza summer of 2009.

There is so much yet to discover about the magic of migration.

How birds, butterflies and other animals, some tiny, succeed in covering such phenomenal distances.

How they find their way to suitable destinations.

And, in many cases, successfully navigate back to where they hatched (a process known as philopatry).

Chiffchaff, a popular summer visitor, although many also stay all year round

And we – when we’ve been moving and shaking and doing our thing in the world – do we also instinctively know how to return to our centre?

To our place of stillness, where our identity needs no proving or defending?

To Presence, where we can drink of the river of wisdom and resilience, before again facing a manic world?

“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

—–

(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)

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Loving Local

One of my favourite places in the world is Bulverhythe, a short stretch of coastline just down the road,

which, amongst our stony beaches, boasts expanses of smooth sand at low tide…

…cut off from the main road by a railway line,

giving a sense of seclusion for wild walks, runs and bike rides…

…where a wealth of wildlife can be found,

including this cool cormorant standing guard…

…and these terrific turnstones,

clambering about on the rocks.

I feel very lucky to live in Hastings.

It’s good to appreciate our local surroundings.

[All photos taken on this incredibly cold but beautiful winter’s day (28/11/21).]

(In the background in this photo, you can just see the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, which gave its name to the Sovereign Light Cafe in Bexhill, the inspiration for a song by local band Keane.)

What do you appreciate about where you live?

Turn! Turn! Turn!

To everything, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn

This peace-seeking, biblical song by the Byrds was released exactly a week before I was born. Which feels nicely, vaguely, auspicious.

Poking for prey

Another byrd, the turnstone (Arenaria interpres, a type of sandpiper) – is a joy to watch, as it turns over pebbles, turns over shells, turns over stones, along rocky and shingly shores, searching for prey – even lifting rocks as big as its own body.

Here in Hastings & St Leonards, turnstones are a common, slightly comical sight, continually blustering along our promenades and beaches throughout the year.

These photos were taken on Bulverhythe beach in West St Leonards at dusk in midwinter. Hence the slightly drab appearance here, in their winter plumage. In breeding season, turnstones are more colourful, their wings mottled with chestnut-orange shades.

Contemplating a tasty morsel

My wife and I have often wondered where they nest. But perhaps they don’t nest here. Apparently turnstones are migrants to the UK but are seen all year round as different populations arrive throughout the seasons.

For the turnstone, there is always a season to turn, turn, turn.

And for those who enjoy and contemplate the marvels of nature, “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

PS: Don’t forget to check out my Home page and ‘About’ page, for more Spirit of Nature stuff.

Owl Things Work Together

The other day, driving through Norman’s Bay along picturesque Pevensey Levels, stuck the whole way behind a car going at 25mph, I was getting increasingly frustrated.

Infuriated!

I mean, I know the road’s a bit curvy, but come on!

But then…as I rounded a bend, there flying almost towards me was the first barn owl I’ve seen for I don’t know how many years – and probably the best view I’ve ever had of one.

If I’d been driving at my usual speed, I would have reached that point in the road earlier and wouldn’t have seen the owl.

A reminder to me from the One that “God causes all things to work together for good” as the Bible puts it (and no doubt similarly in other traditions), and if we will only go with the flow of situations that are challenging or even painful, rather than resist, we will see the good things that are designed to flow out of them.

IMG_8300

A reminder of the benefits of slowing down, whether by choice or enforced.

Or as the Beatles put it, “Let it be.”

Gardens of Gold

Although they’re now a thriving garden bird (6th most common in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch survey), we’ve rarely seen goldfinches in our garden over the years.

So it was sheer delight, a couple of weeks ago, to see a flock of about twenty pass through. Here are a few of them on our neighbours’ tree against a sky that really was that colour (no filters)! A gorgeous sight, even if I was slightly disappointed they didn’t come to our feeders that day.

Thankfully, the very next day a number of them properly stopped by in our garden…

“Is it my turn yet?” (Goldfinch and coal tit)

After that, I did what any nature-lover would do: I went straight out and bought some nyjer seed, of course, in an attempt to keep them coming back.

Goldfinches, with coal tit in flight

The nyjer seed is now in situ in the garden and we’re having (still sporadic but) more frequent visits from these striking birds. There were two goldfinches at our feeders this morning. As I rushed to get my camera (too late, because they’re still not stopping long), my young daughter’s response was “Oh my gosh, they’re so pretty!”

Hopefully, as these flighty finches become more accustomed to our garden, there’ll be more and better photos to come.


Raptor Rapture (2)

A few months ago I wrote in Raptor Rapture about the sparrowhawk I’d had the pleasure of watching nesting in our local woods.

But this week was only the second time I’ve seen one in our back garden, so a rare treat.

Amazingly, also, it stayed there ages: long enough for me to…

  • get my camera,
  • change lens,
  • try taking photos from different angles (upstairs window and kitchen window)
  • and even…. to very slowly, very quietly, open the back door without scaring it away,
  • so I could take this photo without a window between us.

Thank you, Mr or Mrs Sparrowhawk, for dropping by and hanging around so long.

Look At The Birds

At the end of a blustery walk in Hastings Country Park this morning, in which I hadn’t taken a single photo, this kestrel hunting over an open field, just before I reached the road, caught my eye.

The westerly wind, with forecast gusts of up to 45mph, had no doubt put off many an excursion into the countryside, which seemed devoid of human existence this morning.

Not so the kestrel, who I enjoyed watching hovering – motionless – against the wind for ages, swooping down only occasionally in search of prey.

Finding stillness in the face of such opposing forces is not always so easy for us humans to achieve.

An ancient author, writing from experience in his prison cell, suggested a combination of prayer, meditation and thankfulness as a key to experiencing divine peace and presence [1].

Sometimes I get this right; sometimes not.

There are times when I forget to pray.

Sometimes I forget to see the bigger picture, as I fret about the little things.

Other times I remember – and a simple, centring prayer, or a moment of mindfulness, brings about a calm presence.

And often, a walk in the woods or fields, contemplating nature, restores my soul.

As another ancient Teacher said, “Look at the birds.”[2]

Sounds like good advice to me.

[1] Philippians 4:6-9

[2] Jesus (Matthew 6:26)


Raptor rapture

Last month, about 15th April, I had the great pleasure of watching a sparrowhawk flitting to and fro, carrying twigs to a nest high up in the trees in Summerfields Woods, our local nature haven where we walk our dog, Gorka, most days.

One thing that distinguishes this beautiful raptor from other birds of similar size in these woods, such as the magpies and woodpigeons, is the absolute silence with which it takes off.

The noise of the sparrowhawk is conspicuous by its absence. Obviously a prerequisite for a hunting bird that captures and feeds on blue tits and other small birds (of which there are plenty in these woods).

And because it spends most of its time high up in the trees, you’d probably only notice it if you were looking up, looking out for birds.

Over the following weeks I’ve spent some time trying to see her again and to take some pics. A couple of times I saw her, perched on high branches, maybe looking out for prey, and was chuffed to take these reasonable photos:

Another time, I tried to perch myself on some fallen tree trunks, waiting with my camera. I wanted to take a picture of the hawk flying to and from the nest, displaying her fan tail. But it was impossible to get comfortable on the misshapen wood. So I stood around for a few minutes, then walked on.

Within 48 hours, as I returned to the area, I was incredulous to find some woodland volunteers had constructed a bench out of the same fallen trees in exactly the right spot for watching the nest!


The new bench! The red circle indicates approximately where the nest is.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Maybe our delight in and appreciation of nature takes on the shape of prayer and worship as it reaches the eyes and ears of the One who designed, sustains and fills this wonderful world – whether or not we’ve intended those sentiments as prayer or worship.

Maybe, when we engage with nature, we cannot help but encounter the Spirit of nature, whatever we call him/her/it.

Read About Spirit of Nature here.