Independent Days

Independent Days

Recent events have rather overwhelmed all of my attempts to write. In May came the awful EU referendum campaign whilst I was also busily working on a PhD upgrading report (hopefully before long I shall be officially allowed to continue!) Then two wonderful weeks travelling by train around the European continent, including a brief stop in at the European Parliament visitors centre. What a time to go! For a literary take on our travels see here. Then of course came the Brexit bombshell. I stirred in my sleep at 4 am on the 24th in a budget hotel in Vienna, blearily read the news on my tablet, simply said ‘oh crap’, rolled over and attempted unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.

Existential uncertainty about Britain’s place in the world is not the only reason I’ve been out of sorts and borderline depressed in the last week, but it can’t have helped. Every evening I sit here and attempt to write my way out of this hole, and get nowhere. So I’m going to turn my attention several thousand miles away to the other side of the Atlantic and say ‘Happy Birthday America!’ instead. Banish all thoughts of Trumpery and the ignorant, redneck, rifle-toting USA of news bulletins and popular legend: I know of no more diverse country, and that in itself is worth celebrating. Any opinion you want to listen to, you’ll find it. Any food you want to eat, you’ll find as fine an example as you could hope for. Any type of climate, landscape, natural wonder: check, check, check.

Having a second continent is beneficial to the making of a naturalist, I think, as much as I would normally like to discourage excess air-travel. I’m grateful to have parts of my life rooted in North America, specifically the USA: a country that for all its flaws is still worth celebrating, all the more so in a week when the flaws of my own native land are all too obvious and painful. It’s given me my wife, my second family, many good friends and countless excellent wild adventures. Regardless of who wins November’s election, I’ll be back: there are many more American adventures on our horizon.


Spring has been in the air for a remarkably long time, considering it’s not even March yet. Now spring is not just in the air but on bookshop shelves! I refer, of course, to the lovely anthology edited by Melissa Harrison and recently published by Elliot & Thompson in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trust’s website describes Spring thusly:

….some of the most beautiful and eclectic seasonal nature writing – from both celebrated and new authors.

I’m delighted to say that I’m one of those new authors, still getting used to the idea of having my actual name printed in an actual book. It’s a good feeling! Though I haven’t read many of the entries yet – I’m saving it up to use as piece-a-day sort of read throughout the spring months – I can vouch for the quality of those I have dipped into, and happily the book has been receiving very positive reviews. So, it is both my duty and joy to say: why not pick up a copy of Spring?

For those based relatively near to Berkshire, I’d also recommend a spring visit to Moor Copse, the BBOWT nature reserve that inspired by piece about wildflowers.

A Record A Day (January)

A record a day…keeps the New Year’s resolution guilt away?!

Though I deliberately set my sights low this year, I did make the somewhat ambitious pledge to submit at least one biological record for every day of the year.

So far, one month in, I’ve missed a single day: the 29th January is blank. Only two days ago, so I ought to be able to remember something – surely I saw a woodpigeon on campus! – but that would be cheating. It would also be against the spirit of biological recording. Good records are thought through carefully and contain all the minimum information: what, how many, when, where, by-whom. Records of a higher quality still will contain information about life stage, behaviour, activity, host, etc.

For January, birds make up the overwhelming part of my biological record-keeping. Noting what was in flower ensured I threw in a few plants at the beginning of the month, and a few random finds coupled with moth trapping mean invertebrates are starting to get a look in. Hopefully as the year progresses future monthly breakdowns like this will look a bit more balanced. So, here’s the graph. Days of January on the X axis, number of species recorded on the Y.

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So It Begins

It took me until January 10th to record any invertebrates this year. In bright sunlight what looked like dung flies (Scathophagidae) were basking on the noticeboard at Hosehill Lake LNR, whilst on a neighbouring fence rail numerous springtails were leaping about, among them the distinctive species Orchesella cincta

My first hastily pinned specimen of the year is, as I suspected when I caught it, the Yellow Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria. I haven’t had a go at nearly as many fly keys as I have beetle keys. I tend to find flies (besides hoverflies and other distinctively marked ones) all come down to tricky arrangements of bristles poking out of miscellaneous unfamiliar bits of anatomy. Still, there’s something wonderful about all those bristly hairs.

My first yellow dung fly of the year, but by no means the last. This is an enormously common – and variable – species. 

The Cricket On The Hearth

Right from the start, I have to say that The Cricket on the Hearth is not vintage Dickens. You get the sense that he was writing it with one half of his famously active mind whilst the other was reading letters, entertaining visitors or daydreaming about the theatre. An objective, somewhat cynical appraisal of Dickens’s five Christmas books would probably see them as increasingly commercial and derivative of his original festive hit, A Christmas Carol. That may not be fair – after all, I’ve only read two of his Christmas stories – but Cricket is clearly weaker than Carol in all respects and relies heavily on tropes developed in its more famous predecessor, down to the curmudgeonly, soon-to-be-reformed miser.

Frontispiece of the secondedition from 1846

Continue reading “The Cricket On The Hearth”

What’s in a name?

The infamous hatbirder, with a beetle on his hand. Wait, that  can’t be right!

I’ve been uncomfortable with my twitter tag hatbirder for a while. It’s limiting. I’m not solely a birder, not even primarily a birder. I don’t know what kind of image it projects. On the other hand people seem to like it, some good friends and colleagues use it as an affectionate (I hope!) nickname and I’d be sad to see hatbirder die altogether.


After attending the RES conference in Dublin last year I asked for more suitable suggestions and the only one I got, from entomology professor Simon Leather, had the word ento in it. I think it was ‘entohat’. That doesn’t quite feel right either: as much as I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a birder (nobody ever calls me an ornithologist!) I don’t want to be beetleholed as an entomologist either, though I’m happy and proud to be known as both.

Lately I’ve been tossing ideas around again and checking availability on twitter. Some clearly won’t work. Nature’s Hat becomes natureshat, which would be a bad choice for fairly obvious reasons, and hatinthewild looks like ‘hating the wild’. Nope, that’s not going to work!

But what about these four? One slightly daft and three that incorporate my name and the word nature, much as this blog’s title does.





The trouble is I’m still not that comfortable with overly overt self promotion and the word nature comes with a lot of baggage. But then so does any word. Does it matter? hatnature is also available. Or hatwild. Or how about naturewtf…….somehow I think the Hat Birder will be around for a while yet!




Cowslip flowering in Whiteknights Park

So, a record a day. How’s that going? Well, on several days already this year I have literally submitted a single record. Today’s was a nuthatch, which was trilling in the Wilderness on campus whilst I walked in to work. My 66th bird species for the year.

Besides birds all my other records are plants, mostly inspired by the example of the New Year flowering plant hunt. I’ve submitted 15 different species to iRecord and also to the plant hunt itself, since they were all in flower. I’ve seen a few plants I know but haven’t recorded, i.e. I didn’t pay them any attention. So they don’t count! That makes 81 species recorded in total for 2016, hopefully many to come.