Dealing with Dictators

Meeting people your mother would not like you to meet, and dealing with dictators are, whatever Jose Manuel Barroso may think, not one and the same thing. However you see the job specification for an international leader, it should not include giving respectability to tyranny. Had Gordon Brown given way to pressure to attend the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon, he would have been doing just that. Better Kate Hoey’s comments in her letter to the Daily Telegraph this morning: that Gordon Brown should be congratulated for his principled stand.

Nature’s Fireworks

To reach the hide at Dawlish Warren, you have to come off the sandy spine that runs from the car park towards the tip of the Warren, skirt the golf course and then walk back along the beach. There is a sign, some 25 yards or so along the edge, asking birdwatchers to take care not to walk when golfers are about to tee off; and not to stop on the shore to watch birds, as this may interfere with people taking their shot. As we walked down the path towards the shore, it was clear that few were paying attention to the warning. It was not hard to see why. It was at the top of the tide, and a great flock of Grey Plover, with Dunlin mixed in among them, were settled on the spit of sand in front of the hide, jostling for space with an equal number of Oystercatchers, with the odd Turnstone and Sanderling.

The Plovers were unsettled, lifting off and turning and wheeling in the sky in front of us, before landing again. This was happening regularly and as the bright sunlight caught their white undersides and wings, the whole flock glittered against the grey sky behind. It was if silver foil was caught in the wind, but the swirling cloud of shorebirds moved as one: now light, now dark, now silver. The Oystercatchers just tucked their beaks in, and faced the wind.

We spent over an hour in the hide, watching the the birds as the tide fell, and wishing that we had had the gumption to bring our thermos of coffee. Our neighbours in the hide, a son and his elderly parents, had arrived not only with the usual birding paraphernalia, but with lunch. I am not sure what hide etiquette about lunch is, but we had to wait for coffeee until we got back to the Land Rover, just as the rain expected all morning arrived.

Walking with Ravens

Bwlch Main, the Thin Path, is the first part of the final section of the Rhyd-Ddu Path up Snowdon. Rightly named, it is a narrow exposed ridge, the path barely a couple of feet wide. On the North West side the land drops away to Cwm Clogwyn, and on the other side there is an equally precipitous, if less rocky, drop into Cwm Tregalan. We had chosen the Rhyd-Ddu Path as it is one of the easiest routes to the top, and certainly not as difficult as the route over Crib Goch (where one of the children just short of her 16th birthday and on Adventure Training, burst into tears, unable to go on until she realised that to go back was simply impossible as no one would go with her). We had, however, looked long and hard at the map, at the tight contour lines and both of us had started the walk with some apprehension, compounded by our failure three days earlier to get beyond Craig Cau on Cadair Idris. We had excused this on the basis that the wind on the tops had been vicious, snatching at our legs and making walking difficult. One of my headmasters would have had a different explanation: funk.

Age is very much in the mind but what I was able to do thirty years ago, with hardly a hair turned, is now no longer easy. As we looked at the path along the southern ridge, we nearly turned back. That we did not was in large part a matter of pride: we had been shadowing a group of walkers from Ross on Wye all morning: they were all in their 60s or early 70s, and most, like us, had not climbed Snowdon before. If they could do it, and they were determined they would, then so too would we. We were also determined not to let each other down.

It was more a slow shuffle along the ridge than anything else, but as we started, a pair of Ravens slipped effortlessly past, soaring in the wind above us, and our spirits lifted. Once across, the rest of the climb was easy. We reached the summit in bright sun, with a blue sky and our Ravens wheeling and tumbling along the top, folding their wings as each called to the other: a deep, resonant “gronk”. The descent along the Snowdon Ranger Path was long, the zig-zags rough and steep, but however weary we were when we finally arrived back at the Rhyd-Ddu car park, we were still with those Ravens.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns, whether traditional, a pride of lions, or comic, a dose of doctors, have always fascinated me; and not just because they offer all sorts of problems when writing letters, particularly whether to use a singular verb or plural verb (Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s, allows the use of either). There are, apparently, some 200 collective nouns in common use in English and put “collective nouns” into Google and you will get 1,070,000 results.

The world of birds has a wonderful range of collective nouns, although many are rarely used, or indeed known. Is there anything more descriptive than a charm of goldfinches, an exaltation of larks or a murder of crows? When thinking about this piece, I found Terry Ross’ website, Group Names for Birds: A Partial List. He does not think much of a murder of crows (as the noun is not in the Oxford English Dictionary as a group name), but this has not stopped Heinemann publishing a book under this title in its Animal Group series.
What started me thinking about collective nouns was the Starling roost at Whiddon Down. For a week or so in late February, the stand of conifers between the village and the A30 saw one of the largest Starling roosts I have ever seen. As the light went, flocks of starlings (not the right collective noun, but more of this later) flew in towards the roost, meeting and merging, swirling shapes and syncopated patterns filling the sky; and then, in an extraordinary five seconds or so, dropping into the trees, as if sucked down. We stood in the dusk one Saturday tea time and watched the performance for 20 or so minutes, captivated by one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles it is possible to see in Britain. How many of these somewhat nondescript birds there were was difficult to guess: certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands. The sky was filled with them, and in the silence we could hear the rush of their wings. At one moment part of the flock detached itself and settled in the hedges behind us. It was then we understood why the collective noun for Starlings is a murmuration (in the OED, murmering, a low, continuous sound).

The children do not share our fascination with birds, and I suppose we are, to use yet another collective noun, an embarrassment of parents.

January Goldeneyes

Reading my past posts, a recurring feature is the weather, and in particular, in this part of the West Country, rain (or at times this past year the lack of it). Before starting to write this afternoon, I decided to avoid any mention of weather (or rain) but it so governs our lives that it is not possible to ignore weather; or not for very long. It may no longer dictate the course of daily life, as it did for my great grandfather, but it still plays a large part in that everyday life. Today was no different: where to walk and what to wear? Having heard the forecast, and more importantly looked west from our bedroom window over the Moor, we chose to drive up to the Hennock reservoirs.

Evidence of the recent storms was everywhere: some trees down and branches snapped off. There was wind this morning but walking up through the woods the air was still at ground level, even though 50 feet up the treetops were moving. With the wind these past couple of weeks, we have had rain, and the reservoirs are full, water tumbling down the spillways. In early October the reservoirs were as low as we had ever seen them; they are now filled to overflowing.

Bird life is sparse both on and along the edges of the reservoirs. It is not one of our favoured bird watching places although this morning we watched Coal and Marsh Tits in the trees, and on Kennick Reservoir, four pairs of Tufted Duck and, very unusually, two Goldeneye drakes. Roger Smaldon’s The Birds of Dartmoor describes Goldeneye as a very rare winter visitor to the Dartmoor reservoirs, most often at Burrator, and so to see them on one of the Hennock reservoirs was special. Both drakes were displaying, throwing back their heads but it was too far to hear to hear the growling call they make. Why they were doing this with no duck present is anyone’s guess: perhaps just practice for Spring.

Ending this post, I am afraid that much of it has been about weather, but then according to Samuel Johnson, when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather, and so perhaps all I am doing is reinforcing a national stereotype.