Monthly Archives: September 2010

Daydreaming with the fishes

Sometimes in the course of my rangering duties, pretty often in fact, I have cause to feel very lucky indeed. Last monday was just one such moment.

I joined a team of enthusiastic foodies and fishermen on a Catch & Cook event, organised by Dart’s Farm. What a superb day, which showcased our local coast and countryside to its fullest.

The day started early with a hearty breakfast, before we trooped down to Exmouth Docks to get on board the Rose Ann for our day on the waves. The weather was superb, a blissfully sunny September morning with the promise of more sun to come. It was a day which put many of the August school holiday weeks to shame. In fact, by the end of our seven hours at sea I had caught plenty of sun as well as fish!

We met Mike and John on board, and set off for the hour’s motoring to the area we were to fish that day. It just so happened that the reef was due south of Seaton, which meant for the first hour we sailed blissfully past the entire East Devon coastline. And didn’t it look magnificent? I don’t get to see it from this angle very often, and by only looking upon the Jurassic Coast from land or a beach, you miss the point considerably.

We were about five or six miles off-shore, bouncing along at about 18 knots, and this provided a constantly changing backdrop of cliff colour, shape and activity. The cliffs rippled past like a sinuous wave, with each valley cutting its own cleft to the sea. Leaving the Exe we passed the Otter and Sid valleys, Branscombe vale shot back towards the West, before the Axe cut its way into view. In this time we had travelled past 120 million years of geology and spent the day fishing within site of all three eras. Perhaps this fact was a little lost of my fellow fishermen, and I didn’t want to get on my soapbox, they were here to enjoy themselves!

Once over the wreck we were issued with our reels and Ugly Sticks – strange name for a fishing rod, I never did ask why they were so called – and John made his way around the boat getting people ready to drop a line. I was politely last, waiting patiently for the weight to be loaded onto the simple rig and get my hook baited.

Its important to point out now my life history of fishing, it wont take long. When I was 12 my grandmother bought me so much tackle, rod, reel, video: the lot. A complete course fishing  outfit. I was wide-eyed with excitement when I opened it Christmas morning, before spending  many fruitless hours at Cheddar reservoir fishing for pike, perch, rudd, anything! A year later I had given up with not so much as a nibble. And that is pretty much how it has always been with me and fishing. I bought a beach caster and mackerel feathers a few years ago and had one evening on Budleigh beach when I landed three shimmering beauties, but otherwise I had similar luck to my childhood days. I am not much of a fisherman.

Today was set to be different though! I dropped my line over the side and, on its way down, the bait was snaffled by a modest sized pollack. I was totally chuffed to have broken the day’s duck and from there I landed two black bream (one was the size of a dustbin lid)and a large(ish) bass. Despite feeling a bit queezy through most of the day, the hours sped past and I couldn’t believe it was already time to head back to land and receive our masterclass in fish preparation from Dave Kurley at the Fish Shed.

The first fish of the day!

I know Dave from filming the award-winning Think Deep last summer, and he is a mine of information and a natural raconteur when it comes to fish. Everyone got stuck in, filleting, gutting and scaling the fish, while Dave gave the technical low-down on why some fish are left guts in and some have to be gutted as soon as landed. He even showed us how to fillet a flatfish, although i am not sure how many of us will be brave enough to attempt that with a £30 turbot any time soon!

The whole day was a celebration of what we have here. Right here on our doorstep. The distinctly French scene of fresh fish being prepared in front of an enthusiastic audience in the open air, was only betrayed by the accents and pots of tea on the tables. The vivid red cliffs were our wallpaper for a day on the bright, brilliant blue sea. The evening meal recipe… well, ok that was French but grilled fish with a simple burre blanc is surely the best way to appreciate four different and toe-curlingly fresh fish, isn’t it?

It reminded me, strangely, of my time living in London. It wasn’t until the last week before I moved to Exeter that I let my guard down and allowed myself to do the ‘touristy’ things. Here we were indulging in a day of fishing, which (for the complete ham-fisted novice) could not be bettered anywhere on earth!

Sure, apart from the fish there was a disappointing lack of dolphins, and a single guillemot, nine gannets and a skua was nice but not what I would have been looking for on a pelagic birdwatching cruise. But the event shed a beautiful autumn light on this part of the world and confirmed to me why so many people love to come here for their holidays. We are so lucky to call this home.

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Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Food, Marine


An apple a day…

Its late summer. Previous years have suggested that this is a pretty safe bet for fine balmy weather in fact, compared to June or July, early September seems a sensible date for an important outside engagement.

And so it came to pass that a good friend’s wedding last week, saw us basking in splendid Indian Summer sun. Jackets were being casually flung over shoulders almost as soon as we stepped out of the church, sunglasses were on and everyone was looking suitably comfortable.

The reception venue was the wonderful garden of the Bride’s family home, with the family-run pub next door, a pool house and accompanying swimming facility, and magnificent marquee, it looks simply stunning as we arrived. Now, I like a good wedding. I know some people find them tricky, a little awkward even, but with a bit of bubbly in the system and a pretty much constant stream of canapés fuelling conversation through until the breakfast, I see no grounds for complaint.

My friend had chosen a wonderfully seasonal theme for her big day – green apples. Everything was woven around an apple theme, the church readings, the colour scheme, bridesmaid’s dresses, the lot. Realising that this is fast sounding like a fashionista report from ‘Hello’ magazine, i will move on to the wildlife nub of the column.

The apple theme trickled stickily through all elements of the celebration, as I mentioned. Even down to the reception refreshments. Upon arrival there was the mandatory bubbly, but also a vivid green concoction which looked like a wonderful witch’s brew, but on closer inspection turned out to be a very boozy green apple martini. Ooh, yummy.

Ever the intrepid gastronaut of a party, willing to try anything food or booze-related at least once, I dived straight in. The problem with apple martinis in September turned out to be two-fold. Not only are martini glasses too small, allowing the thirsty wedding go-er to consume refills at a ratio of about three-to-one when compared with fluted bubbly drinkers, but the sugary, acidic apple concoction had the gravitational pull of a modest sized supernova for the local wasp population.

Ever the party queen, our resourceful and super-efficient bride had equipped all tables in the garden with (colour coded) citronella candles. These are very good at keeping away mosquitoes, but only seemed to act as landing lights for the approaching squadrons of Vespulids. A flight of yellow and black hymenoptera cast a shadow across the wedding party, and sent chaps reaching for their jackets and girls retiring behind valiant swatting of grab-bags (as I believe they are known).

Some clever individuals left sacrificial glasses of apple fall-down juice a convenient distance from the conversation knots which always form at such gatherings, and many tens of wasps fell into a comatose stupor in the sweet-tasting alcohol. Other, less thoughtful people batted, swatted and panicked their way across the garden and one very brave chap on our table sat motionless as one crawled across his lips. His girlfriend very nearly passed out as she watched in horror!

By the time the wedding breakfast was served and we were called into the marquee to receive the bride and groom with heartfelt and martini-fuelled gusto, all the wasps had drunk their fill and disappeared to sleep it off. A total of no wedding guests had been stung and the trifling incident was soon to be forgotten as the wine, beer and wedding speeches continued to flow.

That was until some poor unfortunate guest on the same table as your correspondent made the fatal error of asking, rhetorically and to the world in general, “What is the point of wasps?”

I’m sure many of the guests were thinking along similar lines, but they either kept it to themselves or were fortunate enough to not be sat on the same table as a wildlife ranger and card-carrying wasp-lover. Warmed by the preprandials, I launched into staunch defence of these unloved and undervalued insects, all in good humour, but perhaps a little overly enthusiastic than was completely necessary.  My wasp-questioner perhaps acquiesced in haste when faced with such an impassioned response, but she assured me when questioned several times through the course of the evening, that her mind had been changed and that in future she would opt for a gentle waft or tactical retreat when faced with a late summer wasp onslaught, and would always enquire as to every guest’s work area before starting wedding small talk.

The insect charity Buglife is has launched its Stop Swatting campaign this year, in recognition that this much maligned insect is a vital part of our local ecosystem. For more information, or to sign their Stop Swatting Pledge, visit

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Posted by on September 29, 2010 in Insects


Keeping the heath healthy

Arguably the most important habitat we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep, and certainly one of the few of global significance, is the lowland heath. Sites such as Woodbury Common, Aylesbeare, or Fire Beacon Hill, are more than just lovely places for a leg-stretch, they are examples of one of the most threatened habitats in Europe. Because of this significance, there are lots of conservation groups locally which take its continued good management very seriously indeed.

I consider myself very lucky to work on a heathland Local Nature Reserve just outside Sidmouth, a site owned by Sidmouth Town Council and managed by the RSPB. All that leaves for me to do is to wander over it photographing adders and waxing lyrical about it to visiting school groups and in articles like this one. Fire Beacon Hill is a small, but perfectly formed treasure!

A small herd of Galloway cattle have been employed on site recently to tackle the habitat management of Fire Beacon Hill.  In the past staff and volunteers from the RSPB and the District Council Countryside Service have carried out scrub control and cut and burned old heather to maintain the quality of the rare lowland heath habitat. But now the slightly more hairy workers are doing a 24 hour job: eating invading weeds and trampling the bracken.

Toby Taylor is the RSPB’s local heathland expert and site manager of Aylesbeare Common reserve, he explained to me why cattle grazing was such a positive thing for this little site in particular. “It’s a cost–effective and traditional method to manage the heath,” he said, “we were encouraged by Natural England, the government watchdog that looks after these sensitive sites and have introduced five cows onto the site. What’s more, they drink less tea than the volunteers!”

Trina Jarrett of Sidmouth Town Council has been very pleased with the results of this initiative, “the cows are doing a great job! We are very grateful to the RSPB volunteers who have done so much hard work on the nature reserve in the past, but these guys work twenty-four/seven. You can already see the improvements they have made to the habitats.”

At the moment the cattle are being contained by electric fences. But this is not an ideal situation and requires a lot of management. So EDDC  and STC are considering putting permanent fencing round the outside of Fire Beacon Hill, so the cows can wander freely over the whole site.  “This would mean you would just need to go through one ordinary gate when you come onto the Hill and another when you leave, rather than dealing with the fiddly wire ‘gates’ in the electric fences” said Toby “We think as a long term solution to keeping the site healthy, this is the one people would prefer”.

But to be allowed to fence common land you need permission from the government’s Planning Inspectorate, and proposals like this need to be discussed with all the people who use the commons in an open and public consultation. So, a consultation exercise is about to start.

An open day will be held by Toby and his colleagues from the RSPB on Thursday 14th October on Fire Beacon Hill, between 10.00am and 4.00pm, when everyone can discuss the proposals with staff and, most importantly, have their opinions recorded. There will also be letters sent to neighbouring landowners and local organisation to canvass opinions. For people who are not able to make the consultation on the 14th, Toby can be contacted through the RSPB regional headquarters in Exeter on 01392 432691.

Heathland has just passed through its fiery best; late summer blooms with a vivid purple hue on the heath. However it is this next seasonal period when the hard work, often in horrible wet and cold conditions, takes place to ensure that next year’s heath is in as good a condition, if not better, than this.

One final plea: If you are one of the thousands of people who enjoy walking a dog on the pebblebed heaths, or any heathland site in East Devon, please pick up the poop! On such big and open expanses, it is easy to feel that there is no consequence from leaving it to rot away into the turf, but the impacts of this added ‘fertiliser’ to a habitat which thrives in impoverished soils, are stark.

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Posted by on September 21, 2010 in Heathland


A grey day

Increasingly people are emailing me photographs of wildlife they see while out and about in East Devon, sometimes for identification, sometimes for comment and often simply for my delight. It’s a lovely position to be in and I warmly encourage anyone to do the same.

A regular photographer and emailer sent me her photos of a grey seal seen in the upper Exe estuary near the confluence with the Clyst and it spawned the germ of an idea for this column.

Marine mammals, whether they are dolphins, whales or seals, always seem to raise excitement in people. I can see why. These animals, which share so many features with ourselves, they need to breath air and suckle their young on milk, however they manage to thrive in an environment so different to the one we are used to.

Totally pelagic species, that is to say animals which spend their entire time at sea, have come up with clever ways to sleep whilst swimming along.  Dolphins for example are able to switch half their brain off at a time and cruise along on auto-pilot with the other half. This ability means they don’t drown when they doze, a distinct advantage!

Seals on the other hand, inhabit that halfway world between the open oceans and land. While they are comfortable diving for fish to depths of 70 metres with dives of up to 300 metres recorded, they still return to land to pup and are often seen sleeping out of the water in a characteristic banana shape. Seals also have the ability to sleep underwater, stopping breathing for up to 20 minutes snooze-time, and wrapping themselves in kelp to ensure they don’t drift off physically as well as metaphorically.

It is often a surprise to people that we can see seals along the East Devon coast, and that the Exe Estuary is a particularly good place to see one or two at any time of year.

The species of seal we encounter in East Devon is more frequently the Grey Seal, rather than the Common or Harbour Seal. While common seals are far from common in this part of the world, they have the largest distribution of any true seal and populate most seaboards in the northern hemisphere.

Grey seal photo c. Beryl Ladd

Grey Seals are only found in three distinct populations. The main population is found along the Eastern shores of Canada and North America, there is an isolated population in the Baltic sea and finally there is our friend here from the Eastern Atlantic. Greys can be identified by their long Roman nose, and nostrils which are almost parallel vertical slits, unlike the common seal’s cute ‘v’ shaped button nose.

They eat fish, needing about 5kg of fish per day to keep an adult bull healthy. Weighing in at over 300 kilos, and measuring two and a half metres from flipper to nose, the adult bull grey seal is the largest mammal in the UK which breeds on land – a great pub quiz question! *

The types of fish eaten by Grey Seals varies enormously, depending on season and location and all medium size fish, the occasional seabird and shellfish are known to grace the menu of the animal. An animal of this size, chomping away on specimen fish brings them inevitably into conflict with people who want to catch fish, namely fishermen. However they are quite rightly afforded special protection in the UK by the 1970 Conservation of Seals Act, brought in to protect them from persecution.

Grey seals pup on secluded beaches between September and November, called rookeries. Females give birth to a single white pup which feeds on rich milk and quickly gains weight at about 1.5 kilos a day. There are many reasons why fast development is necessary, as the female carries out all parenting herself, with bulls having very little to do with the process. As the weaning process begins, the females will mate with one or more males in preparation for the following year. The females then leave the pups, and the rest of the development takes place fuelled by the blubber layer. Having piled on the pounds, the pups shed their white downy fur after about a month, replaced by adult hair and a thick layer of blubber which will keep them warm as they learn to fish for themselves.

This lovely photo of a female grey seal gives a good idea of what to look out for if you are not lucky enough to spy one hauled out and banana-ing. The eyes are placed high on the head, so that only a small percentage of the animal is exposed when looking around.

*Although my favourite is: What is the largest animal that can single-handedly digest cellulose? Answer: Woodlice. All larger animals utilise symbiotic bacteria in the stomach to breakdown the tough fibrous material.

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Posted by on September 17, 2010 in Marine


Finch Fears

Have you noticed a lack of greenfinches in the garden recently? A few years ago it would have been quite normal to overlook chaffinches and greenfinches as you were straining to get a really good glimpse of a goldfinch quietly lurking in the hedge. However over the last couple of years an infection has ripped through greenfinch numbers, reducing some local populations by as much as thirty percent!

This has led to a summer in 2010 where I have seen more charms of goldfinches trilling overhead than flocks of their bigger cousins.

The infection that has caused the decline is a tiny single-celled parasite called Trichomonas gallinae. This is hardly a recent phenomenon either, as there are fossilised jawbones from Tyrannosaurus Rex which exhibit scaring caused by Trichomonas infection. However, it has not been recorded in British finch populations until very recently and its effect has been devastating.

The parasite lives in the mouth and crop of the bird and can be passed from one individual to the next through infected saliva. The infection of the parasite causes the lining of the mouth and throat to swell and this can lead to the bird not being able to eat and, in extreme cases, not being able to breath either! Safe to assume this is a particularly distressing disease for the bird, and the symptoms are rather upsetting to witness too. Infected birds in the early stages appear withdrawn, fluffed up and generally out of sorts, when the infection really takes hold the head and beak can appear wet and traces of food will be stuck around the beak. Sometimes the beak can be forced open by the swelling, with the bird unable to close its mouth.

If you suspect birds in your garden might be carrying the parasite or exhibiting some of the symptoms you should act quickly to help minimise the spread. Firstly, it is thought that the parasite spreads most quickly in high population densities, so stop feeding birds in the garden immediately. Wash all feeders and bird baths in warm soapy water and dry thoroughly. After about a week you can resume feeding if you have not seen an infected bird, but start with small amounts and build up gradually over a period of several weeks in case there are infected birds nearby which might return and cross-infect other healthy birds. If this happens, return to the beginning of this process and start again, giving a little more time before resuming feeding.

If you do experience an outbreak in your garden, it would be a good idea to warn neighbours of the disease and adivse them to thoroughly clean feeding equipment if they regularly feed birds. Go easy though, as people can sometimes take badly to being told to do something out of the blue – so if it helps, take this article along and blame me! It’s a serious disease, which is why I am penning this article, but the remedy is simple, if a little convoluted. If there’s something we can all do to put a halt to the freefall which greenfinch populations are suffering, then I for one want to be told about it! Data collected to prove this collapse in numbers was gathered, not by scientists, but by birdwatching volunteers who kept records of bird numbers in their garden as part of a survey conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology.

This reinforces the need for all of us to take more than just a passing interest in our local wildlife. Just because an animal is familiar its human nature to be somewhat blasé about its place in our garden ecology, but this doesn’t mean that something isn’t lurking around the corner ready to decimate its numbers, like this latest worrying outbreak. Its also human nature to make sweeping generalizations (just like that one), a favourite will always be weather related; “it’s much wetter this summer” or “we haven’t had a proper winter since I was a boy”. But it’s only by keeping track of things that one can say categorically, there are less of such-and-such this year than so-many years ago. Statistics are vital, even if they are written in biro on the back of a cornflake box; If that cornflake box is from the 1970s and is a portrait of the long-term demise of a house sparrow population, it could be the most valuable dataset in ornithology!

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Posted by on September 16, 2010 in Birds


I’ll have a P please, Bob.

Sometimes nature can produce truly incredible instances. As this is a column which strives to bring you eyebrow-raising wildlife facts, I turned my attention across the Atlantic to allow me license to pen the dreadful title of this week’s article.

A man whose emphysema took a drastic turn for the worse with a collapsed lung, was mightily relived when Massachusetts doctors confirmed a pea plant had sprouted in his lung and caused the collapse. It is thought that a raw pea popped down the wrong tube and ended up in his lung rather than his stomach. In this warm, moist environment the pea decided to have a go at growing! Next thing you know, a blocked bronchus leads to a collapsed lung and the poor chap is fearing the worst. With the pea removed, Mr Sveden has confirmed that the incident will not dampen his appetite for the leguminous vegetable.

Right, back to local things…

Last week saw the beginning of the East Devon coastal festival. A rather grand title for what is in effect, me spending time on the beach reveling in our fabulous marine wildlife! As ever, the best creatures were not found by me, but by the families enjoying the beach exploring the pools.

A positive constellation of starfish wrecked in the lower rockpools, confirmed thoughts from earlier in 2010, that this is indeed a starfish year. Further spawning this summer is leading to weakened common starfish being swept ashore in a swooning lethargy. A sorry sight, but confirmation that populations below the waves are in fine fettle.

The third little cuttle I have ever seen in Devon was fished out of a large pool, once again at Chit rocks in Sidmouth. These cephalopod molluscs are more closely related to slugs and snails but have advanced intelligence and identifiable emotional behaviour. Perturbed at being caught in a shrimp net and placed in a flat white tray, the cuttlefish shot about under jet propulsion, its skin flashing colour from pale white to dark chocolate, however no ink was released so perhaps the little fellow had jettisoned this when it was netted.

It is always a tear to put these fascinating little creatures back in the water, but they are simply too clever to keep in a stressful plastic tray for any period of time. As soon as everyone nearby had got a look at the little cuttle, back into a quiet corner of the rockpools it went, hopefully none the worse for its encounter.

After four years of mooching about in East Devon’s rockpools during August, I thought I had pretty much seen all of the fish I was likely to see stranded by the receding tide. Three species of wrasse, two species of cod family fish, pipefish, both snake and lesser, the list goes on and on when I pause to consider it. However there is a fish I have been dying to see, a close relative of the ubiquitous shanny but something of a superstar after appearing on “Have I Got News For You?”

The fish in question is a tompot blenny, a common sight for scuba divers and a not uncommon fish off our coast, but a rarity in the intertidal fringe of the beach. A family who had been rockpooling at Sidmouth and came over to get their bucketful identified made my day when, low-and-behold, their bucket contained a tompot!

At first (and this is a trap I’ve fallen into with bird identification too) I overlooked it as a large and well fed shanny. Impressive, but all too frequently seen. Its not that I am a pessimist, quite the opposite, but I simply wasn’t expecting to see this species in a castleated red bucket. At first it was the large and continuous dorsal fin which made my internal ID key twitch. Being out of the water the frilly appendages on its head were flattened and hard to see, but as I realised what the fish was, I dipped it back into the water and there, on the top of its head, appeared two antler-like fringes.

I corrected my first assumed identification immediately and was a babbling mess of excitement as I explained to the appropriately named Marriner family what they had found. This for me is the best thing about rockpooling, when compared to other forms of wildlife exploration. When it comes to birds, you really do have to be a seasoned birder, well versed in all the common species, before you can hope to find those illusive rarities. Sure, the unexpected stroke of luck is always possible – like the legendary nutcracker in a little old lady’s garden – but more often than not, its the same people which turn up the goodies.

In the rockpools however, all bets are off. The playingfield is leveled and everyone has an equal chance of finding the little cuttle or tompot blenny to get the pulse racing. I thanked Jason and his children so much for crossing the beach to find me, and a second thanks here in print is fully justified, I doubt that fish will be bettered this summer… or will it?

For more information on the East Devon coastal festival visit or call 01395 517557.

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Posted by on September 14, 2010 in Marine


Silver Darlings

If I were a fisherman silver darlings would be something entirely different to the subject of this week’s article. Herring are the watery darlings, with their elegant slim shape and dazzling silver blue colouring, these are the darlings of the sea. My silver darlings are a little more feathery.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I am currently enjoying a brief spell living out of the District within the confines of a grand Country Estate nestling in the foothills of Dartmoor. Coming from a central Exeter location to this verdant, rolling garden is an absolute dream and it will be a wretched day when I have to tear myself away from the wildlife I have come to befriend.

Being a very keen cook, I prevail myself of the abundant herb boarder most evenings and creep up to the parsley and marjoram bushes as if I am trying to catch them by surprise. I’ve not lost my marbles to that degree, I am in fact attempting to catch a glimpse of the field voles which have gnawed their runs and burrows through the lawn in this corner of the garden. Magic!

House martins have patched up three of the mud-balled nests beneath the eaves of Ashwell, and there’s nothing more enjoyable than lying on the lawn watching the parent birds coming and going with beaks full of flies to successfully fledge another brood of young. Above them, on the TV aerial, swallows line up like notes on a stave, filling the air with their excited chattering. The tumbled barn in which they are nesting is a veritable high-rise for local birds. Wagtails are on to their second brood by now in the stone walls, while house sparrows line up along the eaves in terraces of nests.

Great tits, blue tits and even the green woodpeckers have brought youngsters to the garden, showing them when and where to feed on or around the cherry tree and its surrounding ant hills. This is the calm before the storm for the garden here, as we wait for the imminent arrival of so many gaudy male pheasants which add a splash of glamour to the place, but drive Truffle barmy from his dog basket in the kitchen window. Of all this garden colour and bird life, it is a rather unprepossessing grey bird which lifts my heart every time I see it; my little silver darlings.

Spotted flycatchers, a bird which has suffered dramatic declines over the past 40 years, are nesting in the garden wall. Snuggled in where a stone is missing, their nest hugs the corner nearest the house. Perhaps it’s their recent population plummet, or maybe it’s the proximity to our house which elates me the most, but I can’t help but be overjoyed with their presence in the garden. They spend the day sitting in the lower branches of the cherry, upright and alert – you can tell a spotted flycatcher by its silhouette alone. Every couple of minutes the little grey bird will dash out a few meters, spin neatly on its own axis and flash back to the branch. Too quick to see with the eye, each time the bird does this acrobatic manoeuver the garden is one fly, wasp, bee or gnat lighter.

Sure, moving back into Exeter I will be surrounded by some of the richest wildlife any city in the UK has to offer, but I will be sad to know that these little silver darlings won’t be there to keep me company next summer.

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Posted by on September 9, 2010 in Birds