The sky was gun-metal grey but the sun had broken through a chink in the clouds turning Rainham Marshes' reedbeds and water meadows the colour of golden straw. If this vision was not enough to make you stop and stare then the swirling, shimmering flock of hundreds of lapwings certainly would. One minute you saw them, the next they merged with the sky as they turned their white wings away from the sun. They were the exact opposite of those mesmerizing dark clouds of starlings favoured by nature programmes. The lapwings created a cluster of sparkling daytime stars hanging over the full-to-the-brim water channels sitting next to the Eurostar train line that forms the boundary of this section of the reserve. It was a memorable moment that no photo could ever recreate. The sort of experience that you only get when you're not looking for it.
The idea behind our Aren't birds brilliant schemes is to raise awareness of the potential for experiencing spectacles like this. They are remarkably common but often go unseen simply because we are not looking for them. Come and visit us at Hampstead Heath this coming weekend to increase your chance of seeing something extraordinary set against the ordinary landscape we all think we know so well; familiarity and all that.
If you are brave enough to venture outdoors this weekend to come and see us at Hampstead Heath, ask us about DUCK! It's the Christmas performance at London's children's theatre, The Unicorn. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's Ugly Duckling it's a modern day take on the story, set on Hampstead Heath. There's a discount on tickets if you pick-up one the fliers for the performance from our display this weekend.
Closer to home I've been admiring the squirrels that gambol and chase around the trees and along the walls, fences and shrubs in the gardens behind my house. They are incredibly agile and determined creatures. Having said that, there was one that didn't want to follow his friend in leaping from a neighbour's tree on to my shed roof. It's quite a span, about two metres over a low brick wall. The scaredy-squirrel made it to the thinnest end of a branch, stopped, backtracked and went off with its tail decidedly lower than it had previously been.
I mention the squirrels because I'm now at a loss. I had put out a fat cake studded with mealworms. It was in a cage, which hung from a feeder pole. It had attracted a robin, blue tits, coal tits and great tits but then the squirrels found it too. At first, they were content just scratching at the fat-cake where it hung. Then they got greedy and tried to carry the whole cage away. After I'd retrieved it, I wired it onto the pole to prevent its removal, but they still managed to get at it and drag it down the pole to the ground where they could more easily scrape at the food inside. I'm losing this battle and need a new line of attack. I've tried peppers, chillies, ultrasonics and windmill-scarers but it comes down to physical barriers. A bigger outer cage seems the only way forward but if anyone has any other good ideas, do let me know.
The plants in my garden are pretty dormant and I've created and dug over some beds ready to plant some veg and salad in the New Year. The soil's also been prepared for a new border hedge but I've still got the Herculean task of lifting dozens of concrete slabs to create a lawned area. I'm taking my lead and advice from our Homes for Wildlife gardening project. My garden is a test-bed that will follow through the HfW scheme so that I can transform this scrappy bit of London's east end into a buzzing, lively haven for wildlife, which means I must find a way of living with my resident squirrels.
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