Summer in Durham City

Protect our fragile population of House Sparrows by scattering some bird feed or stale bread.

Ah, June, undoubtedly my favourite month of the year; a month where the sun rises on the darkness of exams past; a month of hedonistic freedom, of drinking all night and sleeping all day; a month of Midsummer balls, picnics and summer-holiday planning. But June is also a wonderful time of year for another (and less socially acceptable) reason: wildlife.

Now, I realise that naturalism is not exactly the most excitement-inducing of interests; I myself, being the 19 year-old female version of Bill Oddie that I am, have been mocked on numerous occasions for what my housemates affectionately call my “bird obsession”. Of course, like anyone with an embarrassing hobby, I completely blame my upbringing: my father, a maths teacher by trade, was a true naturalist at heart, and his influence, combined with a heavy dose of Ted Hughes and the Romantics from my English-teacher mother, meant that my childhood self forsook Barbie dolls and real friends for a life of fishing, bird-watching and spider-hunting. Whilst the spiders and I haven’t really seen eye-to-eye since one rudely ran up my sleeve when I was ten, I am proud to say that my love of nature has continued throughout my life. For me, being able to understand and interact with a world beyond the confines of human construction is a great gift; even if that world is simply the homely beauty of Durham’s very own family of wildlife.

Many species return to Britain in and around June after migrating to warmer climates over our harsh winter months. Swallows, our very own harbingers of summer, have recently arrived in Durham from South Africa; Elvet Bridge appears to be one of their favourite haunts this year. So, next time you are heading to Paddy’s for an emergency post-Klute pizza in the early hours, look out for a blue bird with a red cap and a long, forked tail-feather. They are certainly a sign that warmer weather can be expected, so seeing one is a very good excuse for buying your umpteenth post-exam bottle of Pimms! For anyone reading this who is especially interested in nature (…anyone…?), their flights along the river, in particular, are fascinating; look out for them snapping up huge dragonflies mid-flight and picking up water on their wings. Garden Warblers, famed for their beautiful song, also emigrate here for the summer months. These small, grey birds go from looking fairly drab to little cartoon characters as they end up artfully splattered in the bright purple and red juices of the berries they eat.

Summer in Durham can only mean one thing: Garden Warblers…

June also means longer daylight hours, so nocturnal species become easier to spot. Much to my mother’s disgust, my most prized possession when I was little was a mounted white Buff Ermine moth; its white, fluffy coat and black spots always made me think of Cruella De Vil. I was delighted when I discovered a live one recently when walking with some friends along the river (although it is safe to note that said friends were definitely not as impressed), and these moths are really quite sweet; if you manage to goad one into your hands you can feel how lovely and soft its coat is. Long-eared owls are extremely common in the woodland around Durham school; you can hear their call, that typically spooky “ooo-ooo-ooo” whistle, on any given night if you listen closely. Listen out also for conversations between male and female Tawny owls – the typical “twit-t-woo” owl sound is actually a male call (too-wit) and a female response (t-woo), which many people don’t realise (I once won a pub quiz with that little gem!).

On a more serious note, whilst it is lovely to walk along the river and be surrounded by such an abundance of (surprisingly tame!) wildlife, we must do our bit to protect it. Some of our native species are in a critical position at this time of the year. The population of House Sparrows, for instance, can drop by up to 80% over harsh winter conditions due to heavy snowfall making food sparse and difficult to uncover. Other small birds undergo the same decline, and Starling numbers have this year decreased by 90%. Numbers are made up in the summer months by the survivors who managed to breed, and can now thrive in better weather and plentiful sources of food. Our help in providing the latter can prove essential. So, before you throw out that last piece of stale bread, why not just scatter it on a window sill, wall, or in your garden (/concrete yard, if your house is anything as luxurious as mine)? Better still, pick up some bird feed next time you are in Tesco or Poundland – it is extremely cheap, and scattering it takes only a few minutes. Small acts like these can really help British birds thrive.

The rewards for us may be humble, but they keep our delicate ecosystem in equilibrium. A Kingfisher’s flash of turquoise and orange on a summer’s day spent by the river, the haunting melancholy of the Nightingale’s song, the bass chorus of the Weir’s frogs; the beauty of our wild surroundings is dependent on this balance. British wildlife in the summer can be truly awe-inspiring, so long as you know what to look for, and how to respect it.

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