Noticing nature: asking questions

Yesterday, I listened to the clamour of wintering geese and watched Swallows preen hard-used flight feathers. Sometimes, it’s enough to delight in sound and sight, but often, questions come to mind, unbidden, persuading me to listen more carefully, look a bit longer.

Watching birds, I automatically ask, ‘What’s it doing?’ ‘Defending territory? Nest-building? Feeding itself? Feeding young?’ One question leads to another. ‘What’s that Bullfinch feeding on?’ This week, it was the buds of a Hawthorn tree. Sometimes, it’s Ash keys, or Ragwort seeds or a Dandelion clock.

Male Bullfinch feeding on Ragwort. (R&B Mearns)

‘What’s that Long-tailed Tit carrying?’ Recently I watched a pair of those tiny, pink and brown birds − apparently crafted from fluffy bedroom slippers − building a nest in the fork of a Silver Birch. The tits kept close as they flew to and fro, calling softly, taking it in turns to squeeze through their dome’s stretchy entrance hole. They had reached the last stages and were adding king size feathers to their bed, trimming the hole with a few, final, irresistible flecks of lichen. As one worked, the other waited patiently, then they flew off together again. If I hadn’t noticed that they had nest material, I’d have missed so much.

Long-tailed Tit (Peter Harris)

Animal behaviour is always intriguing. Peacock butterflies often spiral up in twos, but what are they doing? Is it a male courting a female? Or is it two males in a power struggle? If you don’t know, why not watch and see?

Peacock (R&B Mearns)

As we get older, it can become more difficult to chase after butterflies, or hear high-pitched calls. I’ve long had floaters which blur my vision at critical moments, and when my back’s jiggered, I can’t slip under fences like I used to. But I find that plants are unfailingly obliging. They also invite questions. ‘When will I see my first Bluebell this year?’  ‘Which species of tree will come into leaf first and which last?’ ‘Are the buds bursting late after such a hard winter?’

Why bother to ask all these questions?

It’s certainly good for me. Seeking answers by my own observations is endlessly fascinating. This last year, cut off from friends and family, I have not once been bored, not with a garden, woods and rivers around me. 

The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know. 

It’s not just me – we are, as a nation, ecologically ignorant. In the April 2021 issue of British Wildlife I have just read a paper called ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’.  Since (by the estimation of the author) 70% of all 1,500 native plant species in Britain are insect-pollinated, you might imagine that we would know all we need to about the subject, but Prof. Ollerton concludes by saying, ‘familiar species can often produce surprises.’  So, we need more people to look at the common insects, the common plants around them, and ask questions − then work out the answers.

Of course, it’s not just what we know that matters, but how we use that understanding. Querying behaviour gives me insights into some of the local ecological relationships: the importance of lichens to some nest-building birds. The value of ‘weeds’ for various finches. It shapes my gardening: I leave many plants to go to seed, especially Dandelions. I tolerate nettles, so that Peacocks can egg-lay.

If only more of us could distinguish between a bird’s song and its alarm call! 

I’ve often sat down for a picnic and had to move, because of anxious cheeping: parents unable to feed hungry chicks because I was too near their nest. I’ve also watched a man throw sticks to his dog whilst a Common Sandpiper has flown over his head, yelling, frantic, because it had small chicks crouching, whilst he, with his great big feet, ran up and down the beach, oblivious to a screaming wader which had flown all the way from Africa to Scotland, just to try and breed.  

What kind of bird call am I hearing?
Why is that tree growing here?
Where is that bee getting pollen?

Such basic, such important questions.

2 thoughts on “Noticing nature: asking questions”

  1. Hi Barbara. Thank you for your post. I found it on the Writing Scotland Facebook page that I follow and sometimes Post. I am, in fact, across the pond, but met someone at University of Dundee during a creative writing retreat with a USA connection. Your post reminded me of a day spent with my mom. I was driving over state lines to Ohio (first time in a year) to get my second vaccine (Pfizer) with my mom and it happened to be my birthday. We stopped at a state park called Jefferson Lake State Park. We found a trail along the lake and were delighted by the honking of Canadian geese. My mom and I listened and watched them with pleasure, my mom saying what the geese must be saying about us and my own responses back to her. It was so delightful that I was late for my shot. It’s possible my driving scared my mom just a little bit.

    I also thought about the great migration you described from Africa to Scotland. I learned much about this during my time in New Zealand when I visited Stewart Island where my endangered bird species live. I so enjoyed watching the plump godwit and the entertaining kea in mountainous areas but also off my little porch when I stayed in Stewart Island. Birdwatching is such a pleasure.

    Last, I love the three questions you wrote at the end, as if a reminder to be present when we’re outside, or just on the repetitive walk we do daily. There’s always a discovery no matter how familiar our path.

    1. Barbara here… thanks for your comment Amanda. I too have stayed on Stewart Island and enjoyed Kakas and Tuis coming to the porch. Maybe the same place! I have had some great days birding in the States.

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