Tag Archives: Lower Mainland

Denaturing: The Fast-Track to Economic Growth… and the Snow Geese Bucking the Trend.

When I first moved to the Lower Mainland of British Colombia I wondered what Canadians did for a living; as a child brought up in Britain, I was led to believe that what they mostly did was chop down trees. I remember Monty Python singing a song about it: ‘lumberjacks’ apparently were O.K. — but as the verses progressed a different story emerged — all nonsense for comic effect, but even in the real world things aren’t always what they seem and mostly not quite so funny.

There are very few trees like this on the Lower Mainland.

A couple of hundred years ago the coastal lowlands of British Columbia were covered in unspoiled temperate rainforest; but all of that was gone at least a couple of generations before I was born. I’m a Canadian now, but the tag is presumptuous: in my English imagination, men in red checked shirts still chop down trees somewhere close to home, although I’ve never seen them doing it… But of course, I should have twigged — there are no ‘grand old trees’ still standing in my neighbourhood, and in consequence lumberjacks in tartan shirts, looking to get things done, are few and far between… Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen a mounty ride by on a horse… When you start looking closely, life is full of little disappointments.

Once the trees were felled, people made a living farming the fertile land where the trees once stood, but even that wouldn’t last. These days, there isn’t very much money in farming, unless it comes as a subsidy for not bothering to grow anything. Profits are mostly tied to land values; and it’s no surprise that speculators are buying up blueberry fields, giving the impression they have suddenly become fruit growers, what they are really doing is submitting planning applications to re-zone agricultural land for residential use, and cash in on the current housing boom. There’s a lot of money involved, and a variety of ways to hit the jackpot.

A green belt area in West Sussex. U.K.. Green belts in Britain are not as secure as they once were, but when environmentally sensitive areas are threatened, local opposition often proves successful. Considering the number of people now living in Britain it is surprising how much green there is.

Having lived most of my life in England I am used to green belts that can’t so easily be re-zoned; which makes sense, because in future food will need to be grown closer to where it is consumed. Unfortunately, the chances of doing this where I live now are rapidly decreasing, as much of the arable land across the Lower Mainland has become urban sprawl, and I don’t think there are any plans to discontinue the policy.

The long term future of the area looks bleak, although there are many who don’t see it that way, as few are inclined to stifle an apparently successful economy, even when it’s built on the false premise that we can all live off the back of a housing boom. The Lower Mainland is expansive but continued development between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains is finite, and always at the expense of agriculture and the natural world.

Seattle is an interesting mix of old style and modern.

In the Pacific North West, Vancouver and Seattle are maritime cities that have evolved historically as ports exporting locally felled timber. But with the old growth forests long gone, both have taken on new roles that include thriving film industries and tourism. Vancouver is especially well placed as it is possible to be on a beach in the morning, then lunch in the city and get over to the North Shore mountains for an afternoon ski, or a walk on the wild side, depending on the season.

Vancouver is scruffier than it once was, it has a homeless problem, and like many places on the Lower Mainland has an abundance of rats, but the overall impression to visitors is of a vibrant city.
When I came to the area 10 years ago Surrey had 3 high rise buildings, but high density living has become a feature — a year ago these towers didn’t exist.

I live on the Canadian side of the border between the two impressive cities, and every day the natural world moves a little further away. My nearest city is Surrey which hasn’t a lot going for it — landlocked, and developing rapidly, it remains uninspiring.

The land that surrounds the city has been utilised principally for the purpose of building houses, fuelled by a never ending influx of people from elsewhere (myself included): there is a plan to have more people living in the area than live in Vancouver within 10 years. One might think the urban sprawl is driven by quick money rather than any sustainable plan for a long term future. Presently, little is produced other than housing, which has resulted in a service industry — but what will happen when the available land runs out? Not everybody will be able to make a living working in a shop or driving a taxi.

In only one respect does the city follow in the footsteps of Vancouver — increasingly, as more people flood in, local people are priced out of the housing market; or at least have to live in far less space. When more people are crammed in, there is inevitably less natural space, which is detrimental to health, but probably still good for council coffers. I remember a time when people lived in places they actually liked, but now the priority is to simply find affordable accommodation… and if you don’t like high density living, then that’s just too bad — your loss will always be somebody else’s gain.

There are of course many houses that are not crammed in, but such benefits are reflected in price. This development was completed in 2015 — a year earlier it had been woodland adjoining a nature reserve, providing an important natural buffer.

Early in 2020, experts predicted that house prices in Canada would drop as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but this turned out to be about as reliable as the predictions that our computers would crash when 1999 turned to 2000; and more recently there were those who told us that Donald Trump was unelectable; then came Brexit with warnings of dire consequences if Britain left the European Union — and we’re still waiting on that one. Not surprisingly, in April 2021, when it was predicted that Canadians house prices would fall dramatically, they did exactly the opposite and rose at the fastest rate on record. Unfortunately, we don’t remember those who gave us all the duff information, if we did we’d never listen to them again… Instead we just keep getting fooled… In the worlds of Homer Simpson… ‘Dooh!

Predicting the future is never easy, but there’s little need for pundits to get mouthy about what my local city does best — it orchestrates the urban sprawl that surrounds it; and with more vehicles come traffic jams and a decline in air quality, while infrastructure barely keeps pace with the rapidly increasing population: predictions are unnecessary because ‘progress’ (if you can call it that), is moving at break-neck speed.

A local corner plot developed for town housing during late summer 2016, which led to higher density living and fewer trees.

A few designated areas provide wildlife respite, but most are quite small and do little more than service the burgeoning dog population’s pooing requirements. There are only a few links between ‘natural’ spaces; but in my area this means little more than weaving between dog doos under a buzz of electric pylons — pointless really, because the nature route is low priority and incomplete. All of this is unfortunate, but for reasons that are puzzling, Canadians are reticent to complain as things around them get steadily worse.

Despite the dismal outlook, there is something to be grateful for: despite the extensive and rapid development across the Lower Mainland, local coastlines provide important habitats for large numbers of migrating birds, with many remaining quite natural along route. Move away from the city towards the mountains or the sea, and the human population often drops away, especially in low lying coastal areas where the possibility of rising sea levels dissuades many from attempting to live there.

Wherever the land touches the sea, the tidal zone offers one of the most difficult and expensive areas for humans to conquer, with the result that long strips of mostly undisturbed natural habit are still intact. We don’t always appreciate the large numbers of plants and small invertebrates that live in such places, but the waders, ducks and geese that come flying in to feed on them certainly do.

Goldeneye are winter residents; arriving during the fall they leave in the spring.

On the Lower Mainland as winter approaches, it is difficult not to notice the steadily increasing numbers of migrating ducks and geese flying in, but their arrival is not considered consequential: the local economy will always take precedence with the birds considered only for their amenity value. Unfortunately, as our economies become more globalised the natural world hardly features at all.

Getting the best of nature has become second nature to us. When a site is designated for a new airport in places where birds have been flying along migratory routes for thousand of years, the natural aviators become a sudden inconvenience and efforts are made to ground them. In dealing with the natural world, our hypocrisy can be breath-taking, especially when there’s a dollars to be made.

At some stage, we will be forced to re-evaluate our absurdly homocentric views towards every natural environment we come into contact with: presently we consider such places as just waiting for us to repurpose them. We start by asking what benefits conserving them will have for us, and if there is uncertainty, fall back on that old favourite: ‘You can’t get in the way of progress’. So locked are we into following the money, that on coming up against wilderness, habitually, our first impulse is to destroy it — the natural world gets a reprieve only when we can find no immediate economic reason to exploit it.

Fortunately, large numbers of birds continue to migrate through many of our coastal regions. In the Northern Hemisphere the birds usually travel along migratory routes that run from north to south in the fall, and in the opposite direction during the spring; the resultant spectacle is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I consider myself lucky to live close to a major migratory route — ‘The Pacific Flyway’ involving a great many species and an enormous number of birds: everything from hummingbirds to songbirds and waders, are making their journeys, but it is the swans, ducks and geese as they skein above us in orderly patterns that we are most likely to hear, see and notice.

American Wigeon are common winter residents on the Lower Mainland.

At the approach of winter many birds are looking to move away from the harsh weather conditions they are experiencing to the north. The solution is obvious: fly south to where things are easier and return to traditional breeding grounds as spring arrives. Many birds will come all the way from the Arctic but not all will move on to warmer climes; indeed, some will not go much further south than the Lower Mainland where temperate coastal conditions provide a manageable climate for overwintering. It is essential to protect the traditional feeding grounds annually visited by birds arriving in the fall — because if these are lost, the repercussions for the natural world, inevitably, will extend far beyond local areas.

Large numbers of waders moving along a local coastline in winter.

The coastal regions of the Pacific North West have extensive inlets and large numbers of islands providing almost endless opportunities for migrating birds to feed. However, not every species can exist exclusively in the tidal zone: many wildfowl also require grasslands for their survival, and if extensive reserves are not available then winter farmland lying fallow remains their only alternative.

In years when winter birds show up in numbers, food supplies can sometimes become limited by extensive grazing and this can prove destructive to agriculture; although on the upside, bird droppings usually increases soil fertility. When bird numbers stay within certain limits, the relationship between migrating birds and local farmers can be a good one, especially if farmers are compensated adequately for the losses caused by visiting grazers. In fairness to the birds, it should be remembered that their ancestors were utilising local habitats long before these were repurposed for agriculture; an argument that hasn’t worked well for native people in the past, and is unlikely to prove more successful in the conservation of native birds.

Trumpeter Swans feeding on open grassland in winter. When their heads are up and bobbing, the photographer is probably too close; and when the birds start honking, most likely they will take flight. Managing energy expenditure is a feature of life for many birds especially those that migrate — because unlike most of us, none of them will be going back to warmer conditions for a hot meal at the end of the day.

Because I lived much of my life outside British Columbia, the birds I didn’t get to see in the wild before coming to live in Western Canada hold a certain novelty value, with snow geese amongst my favourites.

Snow Geese are a spectacle as they arrive on the Lower Mainland in numbers — it is always a privilege to spend time with them.

Migrating in from Arctic regions, the snow goose journey is epic in nature: most of the birds that overwinter on the Lower Mainland migrate from summer breeding grounds as far away as Wrangel Island, Siberia. They fly across The Bering Sea and North Pacific before moving down the west coast of North America. Many bird species will continue further south on their extraordinary journeys, but the snow geese arriving during November will stay for a while, then move a little further south to graze on grasslands in Washington State before flying North again as spring approaches.

Photographing wild geese can be a bit hit and miss, but in years when adults have been particularly successful in rearing young, the large number of arrivals makes doing so easier.

Snow geese provide the best opportunities for photography when they are feeding; and are most easily approached along footpaths where people regularly walk fence lines. Providing nobody attempts to enter the field the birds remain calm unless they have been recently shot at. It is however natural for the birds to move away from you as they graze but if too many heads are raised and stay up, and the geese get agitated and noisy, as with the Trumpeter swans mentioned earlier, it is best to move away before the birds take flight.

Better in the sky than the china ‘ducks’ I remember seeing on a living room wall when I was a child. For a while they were naff; they moved on to being kitsch, but now they are ironic.

There is no excuse for disturbing wild birds even when there are so many it doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes wild geese will feed on local parks and golf courses; and just because we might walk in these places, there’s no reason to put them up for fun, or for a picture. Birds that are forced to keep moving on deplete their energy reserves rapidly, and this may prove consequential on colder nights. The fewer unnecessary flights they have to make the easier life becomes. Developing a sensitivity to wildlife should be encouraged, although such behaviour doesn’t come naturally to everybody. It’s never too late to learn though — and if it costs us nothing, why not behave appropriately? When I was young I’d have been in trouble for chasing the ducks, but many people think it cute when their child or dog chases a wild animal; and perhaps therein lies the problem to ‘wild goose chasing’… and quite a lot else.

In a world where positive stories about wildlife are increasingly difficult to find, snow geese are running against the trend, with their numbers increasing dramatically in recent years, in part because over the last half century, more arable land has become available across their winter feeding grounds — the general view is that there are now too many birds to support. In Arctic regions, summer temperatures are increasing and as so many young birds are being reared successfully, grasslands across Arctic feeding grounds are also becoming overgrazed and this is now a major concern. In consequence, there has been a relaxation of the number of birds that may be shot annually to allow habitats to recover.

The only shooting I’ll ever do is with a camera, but appreciate the potential for a snow goose problem. Nevertheless I remain an admirer of any bird that can fly at high altitude over great distances to achieve hard won success. A snow goose may live for 16 years and if you can imagine following the progress of a single bird over the course of a lifetime, you’d likely feel upset if your bird ‘got the bullet’. It is however necessary to maintain a realistic attitude as to how nature is balanced: predation and culls seem shocking, but they are often better options than birds eating themselves out of their available food source, with disease and loss of condition inevitably causing birds to suffer as they starve to death.

Watching a flock of white birds at sunset communicating vocally with one another is a wonderful experience.

The migratory cycle appears to be a successful and never ending process, but as migrating birds rely on so many habitats during their passage, they could easily disappear as quickly as the native forests of the Lower Mainland already have. For millennia birds have utilised large numbers of individual feeding grounds as they make these journeys, and if our actions destroysjust a few essential places, the viability of many bird species could be thrown into question. There are no mystical guiding forces; the longterm future of the natural world is entirely at our disposal — disposal being the operative word.

We can open small nature reserves as easily as we create zoos in an attempt to maintain species, but in the longterm it is the conservation of natural ecosystems that is most important; and in future we will need to develop more effective ways to live alongside nature. Extending our reach to every region of the globe to support ever expanding economies is unsustainable; ecosystems are finite and complex beyond our wildest imaginations and once gone cannot be recreated. There can be no doubt that presently, we are disrupting many natural environments beyond repair.

Birds are part of the many complex ecological systems that surround us, and are not simply flying around for our amusement — but if we can’t get past that notion, it is as well to consider that migratory routes are defined entirely by the ecosystems they pass through, their success or failure an indicator as to how sustainable and healthy is our world — and if we choose to disrupt them… we do so at our peril.

Into the Woods – Wildlife Photography as a Surrealist Nightmare.

In Search of the Varied Thrush.

The varied thrush is not a rare bird where I live on the Lower Mainland. B.C.. Usually it overwinters in lowland forest and scrubland, but with ever increasing urbanisation many of its natural habitats are disappearing. Worldwide, woodland birds are under pressure as our numbers continue to rise and many natural areas are given over to agriculture, industry and housing.

Once, when a student, I went for a jog in Central London. Setting out from my hall of residence in South Kensington at 5.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon I ran diagonally across Hyde Park to Marble Arch and back. It took a while, and on returning I lay on my bed for several hours wondering if I might be dying… I was 21 and my condition wasn’t down to over exertion, it was carbon monoxide poising, along with an unhealthy cocktail of other exhaust pollutants which then included lead. In those days, running in a town or city was a death wish… and probably, it still is.

If you Jog across Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture 'Physical Energy'. Whatever the rider is looking at, he's been doing it since 1907 and won't have seen great changes apart from the trees growing. It is then odd and a little worrying that the wilder the surroundings I have lived in the greater the changes to my surroundings I have seen during my lifetime.
Crossing Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture ‘Physical Energy’. Whatever the rider is looking at, he’s been doing it since 1907 and won’t have noticed a lot of change over the years, apart from trees growing. It is disconcerting that outside of city parks so many natural areas have disappeared in my lifetime.

I remember a time when only sporty people in training went for a jog. Ask my father when he last voluntarily ran and he’d look at you as if you were crazy. Working a sedentary office job for most of his life he didn’t even do walking for exercise, unless there was a ’99’ at the end of it –  that, if I remember correctly is a cone of soft ice-cream with a chocolate flake shoved into it.

My father is now 93, has always been active, but has never ‘run for fun’, and remains in reasonable health for his age. Without the hook of an exercise induced endorphin rush, he’s managed to hang onto his own hips and knees, which is more than can be said for a great many of old joggers.

And that’s what I’m seeing today – lots of joggers of all ages, shapes and sizes as I walk through the urban reserve in search of varied thrushes, for no better reason than they are beautiful. I’d prefer to do this in wilderness, but that’s a good hour away. I live in suburbia now, and visiting a local reserve is altogether more practical. Nevertheless, this will be my worst day photographing wildlife for a very long time – it appears a group of people have met up in the car park to organize a major surrealist experience for me… but I don’t know that yet.

I watch a woman jog by; she’s wearing the sort of clothes that others sport if they want to look smart when out shopping, except few will wheeze like she does even walking through a mall let alone running. Well, I say running…  if I left the camera I could walk three times faster, and possibly backwards. Like the frog that halves it’s distance with every jump across the path, logic suggests that given infinite time, this woman will never make it back to the car park.

I’m not complaining you understand, this is after all a public place – so what can you expect…More importantly, what might you hope for – fewer dogs perhaps. I think back to my childhood, to a time when dogs jumped over garden gates to exercise themselves, usually inappropriately, as without supervision they invariably get into mischief. It is of course much better now that they are on leashes and accompanied by responsible owners. But when did this mass dog walking thing start? I’ve never seen so many. It’s two in the afternoon and suddenly finals day at Crufts.

Usually I wouldn’t mind, but after a long search I’ve found a small group of varied thrushes coming down from the trees to feed; they are on the opposite side of the path working around the base of a stump and sometimes feeding on top of it. I’m trying to get a few shots, but with the constant procession of people and pets, my chances have been fleeting.

There is for a moment a lull and it looks as if I might get something, then suddenly a coyote dashes though in the back of frame. Perhaps it’s the big one I saw this morning crossing a wetland on the boardwalk, the one that eyed me with complete indifference. But this ‘Wile E.’ is the wrong colour, and I soon recognize it as a big brown dog crashing through the undergrowth with considerable force. There is a flurry of activity as two squirrels dash past, and the back ends of three thrushes rapidly diminish in size as they missile away. Seconds later, the dog flashes past me as well, and he’s having the time of his life. Then his owner comes into view around a curve in the path.

‘Is that your dog? I ask, sounding indignant, which I do really well.

‘Yea it is, and he just loves those squirrels!’

I’m guessing he means in the same way that I love a prawn curry. As quickly as the dog and his man arrived they disappear and after a few minutes things settle down again – just like one of those few happy scenes in ‘Bambi’, the animals return to the space in front of where I am sitting.

Birds working for insects in the trees above like this chestnut-backed chickadee, are less bothered by all the fuss below them.
Birds working for insects in the trees above, like this chestnut-backed chickadee, seem less bothered by all the commotion going on below.

Just as I’m thinking that all is not lost… I realise I am mistaken… Another dog, this time a grey one, comes dashing around the corner and it looks like a pointer – the sort of dog that has most of its brain connected to its nose with not a lot left over for everything else; he’s moving at speed and co-ordination appears to be a problem; there’s never a time when this creature doesn’t look as if he is going to crash into something. Miraculously, the dog stays on its feet as he passes me, and fortunately there are no small children around to take out. Then, as quickly as his arrival, the creature has gone and the madness over… But no… he’s back and passing me again, this time in the opposite direction, and at breakneck speed only just re-takes the corner.

Thank goodness, it’s finally over… But hang on, it’s not… Like a bad case of deja vu, this doggy nightmare has returned to do it all over again, but now with a  seven foot chunk of tree in his mouth. The strength of this animal’s neck is incredible – the branch is held at one end, with the rest barely touching the ground – and he’s still coming – which is troublesome.

The path is about five feet wide and if Muttley stays on course, both the tripod and camera will be toast. I can either grab the tripod or my camera bag… I opt for the tripod because most my money is on top of that. At the very last moment, as I prepare to jump into the undergrowth, the dog veers across to my left and into the woodland, sything everything in his path. It has been freezing cold for days, and up until now, the ferns have managed to withstand the onslaught of permanent frost, but they are no match for this new threat. Fern fronds and frost flakes flash and fall in the sharp light of a sun now dropping ever lower into the trees.

A winter visitor the varied thrush is the bird I have really come to photograph.
A winter visitor in lowland forest, the varied thrush is a real treat to see.

Not long after, as things quieten down again, a young woman rounds the bend.

‘Is that your dog?’… my words of indignation are now well practiced.

‘Yes, he’s mine’, she says with pride.

‘He should be on a lead. This is a conservation area.’

Is it? I didn’t know that.’

Shortly after, as she passes by, the young woman becomes embroiled in conversation with an older lady who is walking a dog in the opposite direction – the pointer is long gone, and the older lady offers friendly advice.

‘It is as well to have your dog on a leash’ here. she suggests, ‘The wardens were around yesterday and they take a dim view of dogs away from their owners.’

‘Missed it by a day’, I’m thinking. The irritation hasn’t subsided yet, and feel obliged to say,

‘I don’t mind your dog off of the lead so much as it being totally out of control’.

There’s no response to this, which at the very least, saves a lot of time.

Not all bad - a Christmas tree decorated in the forest is certainly in keeping with this odd afternoon
Not all bad – a decorated Christmas tree in the forest is in keeping with the oddness of the afternoon.

Earlier in the day I heard somebody ask a dog walker to put his dog on a lead because there were young children about. The request was accompanied by a please and the dog owner immediately complied. Not the sort of response I would get when living in Britain, where asking a dog owner to leash their dog was frequently greeted with a hostility more in keeping with an assault on their mother.

But this is Canada and most Canadians are relentlessly reasonable – in fact, they can wear you down with their reasonableness – but you can’t help but like them, although often, when out in the nature some will speak very loudly and you hear them coming a mile away, but I’m guessing that’s to scare the bears away, because it scares away just about everything else. When the voicesters eventually pass, invariably they apologise, presumably for being alive and too close to you, even though they have every right to be. I always feel bad about this, because nobody should be expected to have to deal with such nice people.

I really am running out of light now – as the sun drops things get increasingly cooler. I’ve been out all day, and can no longer touch the camera without shaking it. There’s still a little time though, so I take the obvious course and attach a flexible cable release.

The frost has been around for days - nothing thaws and the birds are suitably fluffed up - this song sparrow is't singing now - but if he makes it through to spring he will be.
The frost has been around for days – nothing thaws and the birds remain suitably fluffed up. This song sparrow isn’t singing now, but if he makes it through to the spring – he will do so then.

The thing is, the joggers, the dog walkers and me… we will all get to go home for our evening meal. But right now, the birds are on the brink of roosting and if they haven’t fuelled up adequately during the day, some will not see tomorrow’s sunrise. When you live in a centrally heated condo and have totally lost contact with the outside world, understanding the most obvious things about nature is a big ask. We simply lose awareness. It all looks so beautiful; the birds are all in fantastic condition, and that’s because, those that aren’t… are already dead.

I begin to feel as if this is my last chance with the thrushes. It seems odd that I should feel this so repeatedly. A nun goes by and she smiles as she says hello, and I’m thinking – now I’m in a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, but this is no man dressed up as a woman, she’s authentically normal and quietly reading something. I really want to know what it is, and strain my neck to see. I’m guessing it is a religious text, but hoping that it might be ‘Catcher in the Rye’. an altogether more appropriate read for this particular afternoon. Sadly, I will never know.

The Douglas Squirrel is a true native to the area and one of my favourites
The Douglas Squirrel is a true native of the area and a favourite of mine.

Then the reason I am here shows up. Or rather the husband of the reason I am here shows up; soon to be followed by the reason I am here. Just as I’m getting a good shot of the thrushes, a voice behind me says. It’s a tui isn’t it? because whatever I am doing appears totally inconsequential to the voice owner.

‘No!’ I say, but nothing follows, because I’m thinking that a tui is a bird that isn’t even on this continent. Much later I realise that he must be saying ‘Towee’, but not before my wife has worked this out and explained it to me.

Then his wife and I  say in unison: ‘It’s a thrush’.

Which is quite something, because as yet I still haven’t seen her.

A New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere more appropriately upside down, but in this case it's just coincidence. appropriate upside downto be a
The New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere bird more appropriate upside down, but in this case it really is coincidental. 

  

This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towee.
This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towhee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tall man of some age moves past me and what is most striking about him is that attached to his front is a harness and pulling at the harness is a dog. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world I am now living in I begin to wonder if this is the way that old people get around now. I’ve seen plenty of people dragged along by their dogs, but this is the most novel method of increasing mobility for the aged I’ve come across and wonder if it will catch on. I hope so, because presently the old gentleman is standing right in front of the camera.

Then his wife passes by and moves ahead of him, scattering peanuts and seed to either side of the track as she goes, which immediately reminds me of ‘The Sower’ – a picture by Jean Everett Millais. An artist who was born in the same place as I was – Southampton, England. Although at the time of writing I’m around 124 years younger than he is, which doesn’t seem unusual on a day when anything seems possible.

Sower and Seed by Millet reminds me of the woman casting peanuts and seeds as she walks along the path.
‘The Sower’ (a theme often repeated in art) by Jean Everett Millais, comes at once to mind. This wood engraving is sometimes confused with ‘The Sower’ by Jean Francois Millet which might be a more appropriate surname under the circumstances.

Once the couple have gone, the birds return and begin to feed more unpredictably in all of the places the woman has cast her nuts and seeds. I have been picking off shots through the afternoon as birds and squirrels come and go, essentially because they are finishing up the remains of her previous food drop, but now she has provided too many options for me to cover.

Feeding wild animals can be a problem. Knock up the grey squirrel population and they’ll be eating young birds in the nest come spring. It’s difficult to know what best to do. For much of the year feeding is unnecessary anyway, but without doubt, this activity gets more birds through the winter, especially in this very cold weather with all the human disturbance they have to endure, and with so little natural habitat left in the surrounding area. Present regulations no longer provide a completely sustainable environments for wildlife in suburban areas and how we conserve what remains is open to question. With well meaning people out feeding local ferrel cats, it is apparent that bird conservation is not top of the list for everybody. Some just have other priorities.

O.K. So I'm getting a few shots of the bird I came to photograph - this, with the more delicate plumage colours is a female varied thrush.
It hasn’t been easy, but to be fair I am getting a few shots of this lovely thrush –  a more delicate plumage colouration, indicates that this is a female.

There are now birds and squirrels all around me picking off the food that has been scattered – a last chance to feed before nightfall. With only a few minutes before the light goes altogether I set to my task with renewed enthusiasm – I just want to get a little more, but a group arrives and stands right in front of me as if they haven’t noticed my existence, even though I’m crouched almost at their feet. They have chosen to have a meeting, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but it’s a dog poo moment for me. Clearly this isn’t my afternoon.

‘Sorry,’  a girl has already said as she passed me on the path, at just about the same time as a lady from the approaching group of five recognised her. What are the chances of that eh? My lucky day!

‘Hey there! I know you. You’re Wendy… I nearly didn’t recognize you. You’ve really grown. Where are you now?’

I think I know the answer to this one, because it is written in big letters across her chest, but all I can see from my position is the end of a word and that spells GINA, which sets alarm bells ringing.

I’m at Regina’, says the girl.’

A university! Thank goodness for that, because people put the oddest things on t-shirts these days.

‘And what are you doing now.’

‘Running, I’m soccer training.’

I’ve lost interest in the birds by now and am thinking, ‘Wake up girl! … she doesn’t mean ‘RIGHT’ this minute’. ‘University education isn’t what it used to be’, thinks one of the older people – the old one that was me.

The conversation continues for two or three minutes, mostly at cross purposes and I’m still getting colder – which I didn’t think possible. I’ve lost the feeling in several of my fingers. Then everybody moves on and the birds return once again, but just as they do, a couple of lads come around the bend. One is swishing a stick at the fern fronds ahead of him (as if they haven’t had enough trouble today). The other boy is not so erratic in his movements, and seems calmed by something on a wooden support by the path – he’s completely transfixed by it, and kneels down to undertake the improbable task of unscrewing the object using only the palm of his left hand. What has happened is clear. I have been bombed by a group of special needs teenagers.

Am I allowed to say that this is really inconvenient? Even if really it isn’t. The circumstances just provide the impetus for me to say what my brain needs to hear. ‘I’m out of here’. It’s beyond cold now, the boys have done me a favour. It is almost dark as I pack up my gear. The lad with the stick has apparently dropped it and as I leave, is looking at something in the sky that doesn’t appear to be there. A bit like my whole afternoon to be honest.

As I wander off, the other boy is joined by a helper who is clearly trying to think of the best way to tell his care that trying to unscrew whatever it  is, is futile, but words fail him; instead he stands waiting for the boy to discover the inevitable for himself. There is something rather soothing about this – the carer smiles philosophically as I walk by – there is a lot to be said for waiting for things to take their natural course, but I for one, never seem to have the time. ‘Happy New Year’, I say as we pass.

Perhaps the nicest picture I managed of the varied thrush before I lost the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with this surrealist afternoon
This is perhaps the nicest picture of a varied thrush that I manage before losing the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with a surrealist afternoon.

I’ve spent the best part of a day and a half,  frozen to the bone,  looking for thrushes, followed by an afternoon photographing them, and my success has been fleeting, but I’ve enjoyed being out there – any time with nature makes you feel more alive, even when you’re cold.

On this interesting afternoon all the ingredients were available for a perfect shot – the light was for a time quite beautiful and the birds were present. But in the end, fate conspired against me, although that’s an egocentric viewpoint that probably has no basis in reality.

In retrospect, this, the last day of 2015 has been the most surreal and interesting afternoon of the year for me, but when 2016 arrives… please… not another one quite like this.

N.B. Species diversity is the best measure of the health of our Planet and inevitably, that has consequences for us all. Human populations continue to expand in almost all inhabitable lowland areas of the world and nature reserves have an essential role to play in supporting wildlife, but increasingly, as our numbers increase, reserves are under pressure and it may be necessary to reconsider how much land we put aside to make the word ‘conserve’, meaningful. Presently, we do little more than congratulate ourselves for having reserves at all – in many cases these are multi-purpose and are sold to the public as amenity areas. In truth there are few politicians who have grasped the reality that sometimes you can’t conserve wildlife successfully in areas where people have other priorities – it only works if everybody understands what is required and behaves accordingly – a situation that politicians either can’t comprehend or simply don’t chose to. It would of course be different if birds had the vote – and in my parallel alternative surrealist world… they would.

The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being.
The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being, but we need to look beyond that and ask whether we should do more than simply manage these areas for our own needs.

The truth is, we can do more or less whatever we like, providing we don’t reduce species diversity. In the end, whether a single species of bird continues to overwinter at a local reserve, wherever that might be, has far-reaching effects, because what happens radiates out in a three dimensional ball of environmental consequences. If wildlife is decreasing (and we know, broadly speaking, that it is) we must either provide more reserves, or limit our own longterm expansion. If we fail even common birds like the varied thrush, the results could be far reaching and make my surrealist nightmare of a day look like…  Well…  Just another walk in the park.