Late August and the garden was at its best. A wide range of bushes provided succour for bees and butterflies alike, small birds such as great tits and robins were regular visitors to their starling proof feeders and a large group of sparrows had taken to sitting in the hedge which grew against the back alley wall and leaned over onto our garden shed. Just before we went on holiday I asked my husband Bob to trim the hedge back a little, as I was having trouble opening the shed door to get my bike out. ‘Keep the height though’, I told him as I left him to get on with it.
Like a logger in the Amazon rainforest he took to his work and was not defeated until he had cut a great swath of hedge completely from the wall. This scar of bare brick with wilting leaves clinging on all sides greeted me when I went back to check on progress. I had clearly been away too long. ‘It was all connected together’, was his only excuse, as if he expected it to be otherwise. The parts that were still hanging onto the upper part of the wall were surely going to fall and die, as their lower branches had been sawn clean through. As I look out of the window now, a month later, I can still see these brown, twisted branches perched precariously on the top of the wall, as if they had been struck by lightening. Needless to say the sparrows haven’t returned, but I must admit it is easier to get my bike out.
Leaving the carnage behind us we headed off to the States, to check out their urban wildlife. We started our journey in New Hampshire and the first critter we met was the rather nippy chipmunk who wasn’t up to posing for photographs. They scampered under the beach huts down at Winnipesaukee lake and fed on left over BBQ. At the nearby wildlife centre we had a talk about Coyotes and it turns out they are North America’s urban foxes. Taking advantage of the demise of the wolf, the coyote has spread far and wide across the northern states. They are not fussy eaters and have adapted well to urban environments, consuming fast food, dustbin scraps and possible the odd chipmunk or two.
We didn’t see a whole lot of birds while we were at the lake but the best was yet to come. When we arrived at our beach hut on Cape Cod we had a few surprises in store. The first surprise was that it wasn’t on the beach, but on the edge of the main highway through Cape Cod. As we sat outside, relaxing in our hammock, we could listen to the rhythmic sounds of traffic instead of the soft lull of the sea. However, the other surprise was a real bonus. The owners of this property were avid bird feeders. At every window of their house they had placed a number of feeders providing all sorts of seeds and nectar. As I sat that first evening I saw a woodpecker, large numbers of chaffinches, all kinds of tits and the spectacular hummingbird. I had arrived in bird heaven.
The hummingbird is pure science fiction. It hovers directly in front of you like a shimmering mirage. Then as you try to focus your eyes, it instantly moves into warp speed and vanishes. They were able to dive between the other birds like jet fighter pilots, stopping only to refuel at the specially designed pit stop.
In the mornings I was up early, still in UK time, and would take a cup of tea out onto the porch to watch the dawn break. As the sun inched up into the sky it gave the signal for flocks of roosting birds to make their journey to work. They would gather in the tall trees at the bottom of the garden. At the chosen moment a mass of birds would take off, filling the sky with synchronised movement like a psychedelic kaleidoscope. It was mesmerising. One morning as I watched them take to the skies I noticed another group of birds from the corner of my eye, who had decided to head for the opposite beach. I felt a moments anxiety as these flight paths converged but they crossed shared air space with the military precision of a marching band.
Cape Cod also provided us with the aquatic acrobatics of native whales. These majestic creatures came right up beside the boat as soon as we cut the engines. You first see the blow hole of the humpback whale, followed by the graceful curve of its back and finally the flip of its fluke. We all gasped as this splashed down into the water beside us, but as our guide pointed out, ‘You know what it means when you see the whale’s tail?’ ‘It means it’s gone’. And he was right of course. They only flip their tails when they make their deep descent and then the chase was on to track the pod for the next resurface. There were a few boats about that day and they all gave the tip off as soon as they saw the water spout. As the first boat turned we all slipped back into gear and sped along to the new location, just in time to see the rhythmic rise and fall of the humpbacks at sea.
We saw quite a few other native species while we were in the States, though these would not be classed as ‘urban’. These included bison, bobcat, moose, brown bears and raccoons. We saw all of these creatures in nature reserves and sooner or later these protected reserves will be our only source of wildlife, plus of course all the wildlife which has come to live with us in the city.
Now it was time to return home to our own urban wildlife; two cats, garden birds, wiggly things in the accidental pond and the garden shed mice. On our return all was quiet. The feeders had been picked bare and I had lost my regular customers to pastures new. Not even a single pigeon was on the roof. Before I even unpacked my case I cleaned everything up and washed out the frothy green bird bowl which had become the host to a large number of mosquito lava. I tipped these into the accidental pond, to join the others and filled it with fresh, clear water.
The pigeons were the first to return. Just a few to start with, but word soon got round. Then the starlings came back; all now in their adult vests of speckled black and white. No more baby starlings here. Their new found maturity didn’t stop them squabbling at the fat ball feeder though. Finally, after nearly a week I saw my first small bird, a great tit that was closely followed by another one, possibly the female. They didn’t stay long however, disturbed by the juvenile behaviour of the starlings. The robin was the first to stay and feed. Heralding its arrival with the steady peep peep, ‘here I come’. I have yet to see any sparrows. No doubt they are still upset by the massacre of the hedge and I can share their pain. They can’t be far away though and as these sunny days of abundance turn into cold winter scarcity, they will be back to feast once again on the finest fat ball in Surrey, hedge or no hedge.