“Phwoar!!”

I was fascinated by this unusual looking cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) diving in a small pond in Alexandra Park, Hastings, yesterday. I even saw it come up with a small fish and gulp down the silver slither in a flash – too fast for me to get a photo of that brief moment unfortunately.

With its striking white head and neck, I assumed it was a young bird, but after a bit of an internet search, it turns out this is a cormorant in breeding plumage.

Of further interest (I knew nothing about cormorants before, even though we see a lot of them here in Hastings), to find one in breeding plumage this early in the year, and in the south-east, and with this much white, it was almost certainly the somewhat smaller, ‘continental’ subspecies sinensis.

I learned that colonies in the south-east, particularly inland colonies nesting in trees (which we see regularly in this area), usually contain a mix of sinensis and carbo and no doubt mixed individuals with parents of both subspecies.

When seen head-on, this handsome bird’s face reminds me of an emu!

Isn’t it incredible how vibrant and colourful many animals become to attract a mate? I think, if I were another cormorant, I’d definitely take a look at this gorgeous beast and go “Phwoar!”  

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When Saturday Comes

I like my early morning dog-walks before work. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude. The connection with nature in our local woods. The opportunity to reflect and pray.

And yet even the contemplative and spiritual aspects of the morning walk tend to be functional.

They serve as tools – resources to enable me to face the challenges of a demanding job, rather than pleasures in and of themselves. I keep an eye on my watch, aware of my limited time before the start of the working day.

But when Saturday comes (to quote an Undertones classic)….

It’s a different matter. I do the same thing, but differently.

Prayer and meditation are more mindful, less focussed, more open.

The colours around me are brighter. The fresh air feels fresher. Everything’s slowed down.

Saturday walks are a bit later. Nature is a bit more awake. As am I.

The sense of connection with Nature and with God feels – maybe not stronger, but clearer.

I take my time. I take my camera. I notice more, and enjoy some relaxed and relaxing photography.

Good robin photos are ten a penny on t’internet. But no harm in adding a few more.

I took these – with delight – yesterday, on Saturday morning…

Happy weekends, everyone!

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!)

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?

A bird in hand

Wisdom teaches us to meditate on Nature and learn from her. Last Sunday, at HTH (Holy Trinity Hastings) church, the speaker gave us a classic example…

Jesus pointed to the birds and meadows, reminding his listeners to trust the Father who clothes and feeds the world around them, rather than worry about their day-to-day needs. He advised them to seek higher things like compassion, mercy and social justice (“God’s kingdom”), and let the rest take care of itself [1].

After the service, a strange thing happened. My young daughter called me over to look at a crumpled ball of feathers on the mat just inside the church’s main doorway (which is currently out of use while some building work is going on).

The crumpled ball turned out to be a very young bird, not yet fledged. Almost certainly a baby pigeon dislodged from a nest in the walls by the building work.

At first we were sure it was dead, but soon realised to our surprise that it was breathing. Wow! Now we had to do something. But what?

After a few phone calls for advice, we wrapped it in a builders’ cloth lying nearby and jumped in the car, my wife cradling the young bird in her hands to keep it warm.

We whisked it up to Mallydams, our local RSPCA centre, where they gladly received it but said it looked pretty ill and injured, and weren’t sure it would survive.

Well, we thought, at least we tried. And maybe it will survive (we’re still waiting to hear).

We also thought, what a weird thing to find this poor creature inside the church after a talk about looking to birds for inspiration.

What kind of divine message could there possibly be for us here?

I think that, while trusting God and not worrying about our mundane needs, God was also reminding us that very often there are others around us who do lack basics like food or clothing, and that we’re called to care for each other’s needs. The idea of a global family is central to Jesus’ teaching. Yes, God may provide, but God does so through us.

Just the day before that church service, about 50 migrants arrived in a tiny dinghy on the beach just down the road from us – people seeking asylum from desperate situations.

I can’t help but feel there is a prophetic link between these events at the weekend. Jesus said that we humans are far more valuable to our heavenly Father than the birds. Some might argue that all life is equally precious.

Either way, most would agree that the lives of both vulnerable people and animals call for our care and attention and love.

A local group, Hastings Supports Refugees, is welcoming supplies – food and clothing – to support these sisters and brothers of ours. As I write, my family and I are gathering together some donations.

If you’re local to Hastings, you might consider supporting them too. Look them up on Facebook.

If not, who are your (global) neighbours, brothers, sisters, that God / The Universe may be calling you to provide with food and clothing?



[1] Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

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.

Hastings beauties

“There’s lots of ugliness to see in the world and in people. But there’s goodness and beauty too – so much goodness and so much beauty. Saviors of many kinds abound, if we have eyes to see. But of course, unless we slow down enough to notice, we might as well be blind.” Brian McLaren in God Unbound: Theology in the Wild.

My morning dog walks before work are only 15 minutes in a little, urban woodland near to my home in Hastings. Despite its smallness and proximity to the town centre, Newgate Woods is amazingly rich in wildlife, to be enjoyed by those with a slow enough pace and eyes to see.

Goldcrest – the UK’s smallest bird
(photo taken 10/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

Buzzard – a recent addition to Hastings’ urban landscape – and its largest bird*: note its size compared with the magpie! (Photo taken a few weeks ago nearby)

Leaves in Newgate Woods this week

Not that I always encounter unusual or surprising things, but over this past frosty week, Nature has spoiled me rotten with an abundance of natural beauties:

Goldcrests (the UK’s, and therefore our town’s, smallest bird);

A buzzard (our town’s largest bird*);

A white squirrel;

A redwing;

A great-spotted woodpecker;

And a nuthatch;

As well as all the usual suspects, such as jays, blue tits, great tits, robins and blackbirds.

First redwing I’ve seen for a few years (Photo 9/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

Apologies, the photos aren’t the best, but they’re OK – and I enjoyed taking them!

I rarely encounter nuthatches, so it’s always a treat to see one.
(Photo taken 9/1/21 in Newgate Woods)

In these demanding times, emotionally and financially strained by global pandemic, it’s more vital than ever to stop and gaze at the faithful, divinely-given wonder of Nature all round us – to let it sink into our souls and raise our hopes.

Photo not from this week – taken Nov 2019 – but in the same area.

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

*EDIT: Apart from cormorants, herons and swans!

Into the peace of wild things

Today I took time out from the hustle and bustle and escaped – in the words of Wendell Berry – “into the peace of wild things”.

Lapwing

I walked, with dog and camera, in one of my favourite nature hotspots: Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and the adjoining Winchelsea Beach. A thriving area for wildlife – with its unique shingly habitat and expansive pools of water, on the South-east coast of England.

Greylag geese

Unfortunately I didn’t have the luxury of being able to take a whole day out, just a couple of hours, but I do understand what naturalist John Muir meant when he wrote….

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

For many of us, the busy world of work, internet and town can be like a daunting foreign country in which we are merely travellers, pilgrims, aliens, while nature is a home where we can retreat into the familiar comfort of eternal arms.

Love is in the air!

Muir, who had a profound sense of the divine shining through every natural thing, also wrote this…

Oystercatchers

The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

Stonechat

Connecting ourselves and others with nature – even in small doses – nurtures appreciation of, and care for, the wider planet, the cosmos even, and (here’s the brilliant thing) helps us to see our fellow human beings as precious parts of that treasured universe.

Flock of lapwings

In fact one teacher, some 2000 years ago, frequently employed this method, encouraging his listeners to follow his example of meditating on nature (“Look at the birds…”, “Consider the lilies…”) in order to grasp deep in their hearts the value of themselves and those around them.

May we continue to follow in this way of wisdom.

Kestrel, keeping a beady eye on me!

(All photos taken by me today, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

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.


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)