Sometimes nature is so breathtakingly brilliant that all you can do is gawp in wonder and grin like a fool.
That’s what I did on Saturday afternoon, anyway, thanks to a very special and unexpected discovery.
I was at Skipwith Common, a lowland heath near York, having dropped off my nine-year-old son at a party nearby. The common is one of my favourite places to escape, explore and appreciate nature, whatever the time of year, but on this particular April afternoon, the sun was out after another cold, wet week, and under the bright blue sky and warm sunshine, spring’s trademarks were all around.
The promise of some quality time with nature began with the chortling call of a green woodpecker as soon as I opened the car door, followed soon after by the first of many chiffchaffs.
I’d hoped I might hear a cuckoo, or perhaps see a tree pipit, but perhaps it was a bit too early in the spring. It was, though, just the right time for my first brimstone of the year. Along with orange tips, they’re my favourite butterflies, and the glorious yellow of the one that came tumbling past me was a perfect match for the patch of daffodils I’d just passed, and the yellow-specked gorse bushes lining the ditches and paths.
Cyclists and dog walkers were out in force, enjoying this welcome burst of sunny weather, but I was craving a bit of peace, so decided to explore one of the smaller paths. It turned out to be a shortcut to a familiar part of the common, the Bomb Bay Loop, part of the former airfield, and a place I’ve explored several times with my family to seek out some snakes, but without success.
Yay, a jay
As I set off round the loop, I heard my first drumming great spotted woodpecker of the year, then something in the distance caught my eye. I nearly dismissed it as a woodpigeon but wait, was that a white rump I could make out? It was indeed, belonging to a very handsome jay, which hung about long enough for me to enjoy its striking pinky plumage with dazzling blue on its wings.
But my wildlife highlight of the year so far was just around the corner.
“I’ve still never seen a snake in the wild,” I was thinking to myself. “When I get home, I’ll put a date on the calendar for a family trip to Allerthorpe Common (a local adder hotspot).”
No sooner had that thought ended, than I found myself looking into the reptilian eye of a coiled snake, sunning itself on the edge of a gap in a small brick wall.
“No way!” I exclaimed out loud, as I stood transfixed, my eyes close to popping out. I was close enough to crouch down quietly and take a photo on my mobile. What a stunning creature – and it had company. A second snake, less confident about openly sunbathing, skulked behind it, further back in the crevice, and then slipped away.
The bolder snake seemed to sense my presence, so turned away from me, its dark tail end draping briefly over the wall before disappearing into the dark, as if it were a long, black tongue being sucked back into an unseen mouth.
Still amazed and grinning away to myself, and realising that time was swiftly passing, I hastily returned to my car, thinking about my discovery all the way. They hadn’t seemed like large snakes – maybe they were juveniles? And I expected they’d be adders, but I wasn’t completely sure.
Lightning strikes twice
As soon as I picked up my son from the party, I couldn’t resist showing him the photo, and naturally he wanted to go and look for the snakes too – he’s been brought up on Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 and Deadly Pole to Pole, as well as Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature, after all. His friends gathered round to look at the picture, and before long a small party of snake-hunters was heading back to Skipwith – three boys, me and one of the boys’ mums.
I warned them all repeatedly that the snakes had probably gone, and they might be very disappointed, but incredibly my two new friends were still there. We all had a great view, and went home thoroughly satisfied with our efforts.
I looked at photos of both adders and grass snakes when I got home, and identified my Skipwith beasties as grass snakes, with confirmation from more knowledgeable people on Twitter.
Seeing a snake in the wild was on my wildlife bucket list, and, when I had no expectation of finding one, up popped two, proving once again that nature can be profoundly exciting, moving, wonderful, joyful, and full of surprises.
Forrest Gump’s momma told him that life was like a box of chocolates, apparently because you don’t know what you’re gonna get. I don’t know if Momma Gump ever went birdwatching, but if she did, she’d have found that the same philosophy applies.
You can go to a famous nature reserve that, according to legend, is practically dripping with rare birds, yet come away having seen little more than a couple of ducks. Equally, you can be driving down a suburban street on an unpromising winter’s day when you suddenly spot three trees full of exotic-looking waxwings opposite a row of shops, which is what happened to me a couple of years ago.
Momma Gump’s words of wisdom have come to mind a couple of times this summer as I’ve been out looking for birds.
Back in May or June, some birding friends reported they’d had a cracking view of two turtle doves (but no partridge in a pear tree, nor, alas, five gold rings) at the side of a country lane not far from where we live. The turtle dove is a beautiful bird, synonymous with summer in the British countryside but sadly in steep decline. I’d never seen one, and the news of their appearance so close to home seemed too good to be true.
Hastily gathering up our two young children one weekend, my wife and I drove out to this rural hotspot and set off down the lane. Whether it was bad timing or the foghorn-like voice of my four-year-old son that was to blame, we arrived just in time to see the back of the doves as they flew away into the distance. We spent a good hour stalking them, but apart from briefly hearing their distinctive purring call from their top-secret hideout, we never got any closer. However, there was a surprise around the corner.
I was staring into the bushes over the other side of the road, trying to identify a small bird that turned out to be a cheeky willow warbler. My daughter, who’d come out armed with her own mini pair of binoculars, started to nag me to come and look at a bird she’d seen. Expecting it to be a blackbird or some other familiar feathered friend I’d seen countless times, I told her to wait.
Eventually plodding back over the road, I asked her to point to where she’d seen the bird. I looked through my own binoculars and found myself face to face with a garden warbler. Now, as the RSPB’s bird guide will tell you, the garden warbler is not a very exciting bird – ‘a very plain warbler with no distinguishing features’ – but to me this was very exciting indeed, because I’d never seen one before and it was something of a ‘bogey species’, which had evaded me all my birdwatching life. Cue Momma Gump.
Today, I took an afternoon off to do some more birding, and decided to visit Skipwith Common, an expanse of lowland heath ten miles from York. I’d only ever been there on grey, wet or chilly days, so today was the first time I’d experienced it in its full summer glory. The heath was painted with purple heather, with the hot sun beaming down on it, and the muddy paths I’d trudged along on previous visits were sandy and inviting.
Skipwith Common (see my photo, below) is one of those places that’s lovely to explore, but hides its many birds very well. They’re mostly pretty tricky to spot, and even harder to watch for more than a second. That didn’t put me off, though, because just being in such a beautiful place on such a glorious August afternoon made me smile contentedly to myself.
My Gump-esque surprise didn’t come until I was well on my way back to my car. I hadn’t seen any birds at all for a few minutes, but all of a sudden the trees were twitching with small birds, flitting among the leaves.
I worked out there were a few different species involved in this woodland gathering, and managed to get glimpses of a young great tit, its parents, and a willow warbler, but there was another, perhaps slightly bigger, bird that had flown up onto a perch, obligingly giving me a decent view. It was slim, streaky and was flying down from its perch to catch flies, then returning to the same spot.
It was a spotted flycatcher, kindly demonstrating textbook behaviour to help me identify it. It was the first time I’d seen this bird for years and it was a welcome sight, reminding me of tree-climbing days of old in my granny’s garden in Worcester, where I recall seeing another unexpected spotted flycatcher on the wall.
So, birdwatching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get – or where you’re gonna get it.