Urban wildlife encounters (the enjoyable ones that is, not the ones where a gull steals your chips, or a fox steals your toe) can be like finding a fiver on a grubby pavement. It isn’t simply the sight of a charismatic and intriguing species, the oddity of seeing something breathtaking, cohabiting quite comfortably with us, adds an extra dimension to my love of nature. And few are quite so intriguing as the magnificent (European) Stag Beetle Lucanus cervus. This goliath insect, topping out at a hefty 12cm, is our largest beetle and endangered or extinct across most of England. Worthing, however, along with many coastal areas of West Sussex, is an unexpected haven for Stag Beetles, and over the summer I was lucky enough to have my first close encounter.
The beauty of the moment was that it required no skill or preparation on my part. I left my house one late June evening to walk the dog and there, on the edge of the road, a hop, skip and jump from my front door, was a fierce, but extremely confused adult male Stag Beetle. I’d seen them flying overhead, both in town and at the allotment, but nothing prepares you to be squared up to by those menacing horns from which he derives his name (and which he may attempt to fasten to your dog’s enterprising snout when she tries to investigate). While I’d never normally advocate moving a wild animal (much less an endangered species), I carried him gingerly to our woodpile, knowing that if I’d come along five minutes later, he might well have been flattened by a speeding 4x4. He hung around until dark then took off, with a hum that would make a hornet jealous, into the night-sky.
The decline of Stag Beetles stems, not from a deliberate attempt to eradicate these magnificent creatures, but from a lack of education about their life-cycle. They spend around six years as a grub, snug under the earth, yet are frequently dug up by everyone from landscapers and builders to enquiring pets. Grubs need rotting wood as their main source of food, which we’re less keen to leave lying around than we were in the past. After pupating and emerging as an adult, they have a mere few weeks in which to find a mate until their inability to feed catches up with them. No mature Stag Beetle has ever been found to survive longer than six months and many are crushed on Southern England’s busy highways within days of emerging.
Luckily, a growing enthusiasm for wildlife gardening (with woodpiles topping many of our wish-lists) has given the iconic species a fighting chance, as has an improving understanding of the damage caused by large amounts of insecticides in our soil. But even those without the space or means to build a woodpile may still, on a summer evening, catch sight of adult Stag Beetles in flight as they hover over woodlands, parks and gardens in search of a mate.
While I accept that luck can be the prevailing factor in any chance meeting with wildlife, it only adds to the thrill of seeing something incredible. All the urban-wildlife-spotter really needs are an appreciation for other living things and a sharp pair of eyes. When an insect’s proportions make it too substantial to comfortably sit in the palm of your hand, it’s quite hard to miss.
I was sat at home in early April after opening birthday gifts from my family and was due to get ready to spend the afternoon with my wife and daughter when news of a Northern Mockingbird in a garden in Pulborough filtered through. Surely it could not be the bird that had been around most of the winter in Devon? A bird that proved highly controversial with people apparently travelling through lockdown restrictions to see this rare American visitor....no need here! I jumped in the car and soon arrived on site and joined a few birders already on site with the bird in full view, having moved from the gardens to scrub next to the River Arun.
The news was out and it was great to enjoy this rarity in the spring sunshine, surrounded by fellow Sussex birders and friends, many who I had not seen for so long due to lockdown. Local birder Matt Phelps, who shares his birthday with me, was also there so we exchanged birthday wishes and agreed this was a birthday of dreams! As the crowds descended I left and headed to the nearby RSPB reserve, where I enjoyed prolonged views of a male Pied Flycatcher which even hovered above my head, its bill audibly snapping as it feasted on the lingering insects. To top the day off, a Barn Owl perched in the field opposite, giving rare views of this wonder in broad daylight... A birthday I am sure will be hard to beat but will always be remembered, what will 2022 bring?
I'm going to be cheeky and pick two 'moments of 2021', partly because I don't have a photo for one but mostly because I had two genuinely thrilling moments on the South Downs in 2021, which stand out equally.
Golden Orioles have always had a special place in my heart, being the star birds of a couple of my early bigger birding adventures: trips to Lakenheath to see the last known breeding pair in Britain, and my first family holiday abroad in France. They are becoming increasingly hard to come by on these shores so finding my own seemed like a pipe dream.
May and early June this year saw four reported in Sussex - a very good turnout! As usual, they were all gone before many people could get there. Then things went rather quiet, with spring migration dying down and orioles were one of the last things on my mind. On the morning of 19th June I was taking down a mistnet at Cissbury Ring, where we ring birds under license to study their populations, and I heard a familiar screeching call off to my right. It took a few moments for the penny to drop - it was a GOLDEN ORIOLE!!! I dropped the net on the ground - I'd pick the leaves out of it later - and called fellow ringer, Mya, over just in time to hear it screech a couple more times then catch a glimpse of it fly out from the bush and over the scarp. It wasn't a great view but it was enough, and hearing that call so close to home was the stuff of dreams. It's these unexpected moments which make wildlife so magical. You can hear a recording of the bird here.
And this was the case for my other amazing encounter. Adders are very difficult to get good views of and require targeted searching in the right places at the right times, and with a lot of patience. I'd already had an amazing session on the downs, seeing a very out-of-context flock of Ruff fly over the hills and getting good looks at Silver-spotted Skippers, when a slithering shape crossed my path just where I was about to step. Instinctively, I expected it to be a Grass Snake but the unmistakable diamond pattern running all along the back meant this was a beautiful Adder! As it moved from one shady spot to another, it gave me a sighting I'll never forget.