BEING AN ARMCHAIR NATURALIST DURING THIS PERIOD OF COVID-19 “LOCK DOWN”

By John and Margaret Cooper

Thursday 2nd April 2020

There’s something particularly nice about being an Armchair Naturalist during this period of COVID-19 “lock down” and isolation. Things are so focused and intense and one can spend more time looking at the world outside and delighting in the joys of spring. 

Two jackdaws are perched in a convenient vantage point on a silver birch tree, the catkins of which blow in the breeze.

As John writes this, we spot another male blackbird, this time on the other side of the house, clearly looking for food; he must have a mate sitting on eggs somewhere in the hedge near the road. We’ve put out some dried mealworms for him; a valuable source of protein when parent birds are so busy preparing to lay eggs or feed youngsters. 

A jackdaw pokes its head out of its chimney-pot refuge which is where it and its mate are nesting.

As we sit and watch, we hear from the roof the “chack, chack” call of the jackdaws that so favour these old Norfolk cottages (Figure) and nest in the chimneys (Figure). Scientists formerly called this species Corvus monedula but now, apparently, have reclassified it as Coloeus monedula. How taxonomists love changing names!

There’s also a large rookery about 2km away from where we live and periodically rooks (Corvus frugilegus) fly over in substantial numbers. They are related to jackdaws. Both jackdaws and rooks are termed “corvids” (not Covids!) because they and certain other species, such as the carrioncrow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and jay (Garrulusglandarius), are in the crow family, Corvidae. Our rooks also call as they pass, but theirs is a sharper, shorter, “caw” – rather different from the (usual) more mellow tones of the jackdaws.

The Armchair Naturalist who is able to get out the house, even if only into a backyard or tiny garden, will be aware of the number of invertebrates (animals without backbones) that are coming to life as the temperature rises and their food becomes more abundant. Some invertebrates are far from popular with gardeners – slugs and snails, for example, but they have their own beauty and fascination and are worthy of the Armchair Naturalist’s attention. 

Turning over a sheet of corrugated iron to look for animals or signs of their presence.
The scene when the corrugated iron had been lifted – small mammal runs in the ground and snails under the sheet of iron.

We (the Coopers) are fortunate to be able to take short walks (part of our government-permitted exercise!) and we found a number of interesting snails when John turned over a piece of corrugated iron in the nearby hedgerow (Figures x 2). There were three types – two live garden snails (Cornu aspersum) and the shells of two other species (Figure). Broken snail shells found in open places are often a sign that a song thrush (Turdusphilomelos) has been at work – something that the Armchair Naturalist should record, as even the once-so-familiar song thrush has declined in recent years.

The three species of snail found under 
the sheet of iron.

Some keen Armchair Naturalist may ask “what else did you find under the corrugated iron?” There were shallow burrows suggestive of the runs of mice and voles and an attractive bronze ground beetle (Carabus nemoralis) that scuttled off quickly once disturbed.

A naturalist is aware of inanimate objects in the world around him/her, not just living animals and plants. As we write this, large cumulus clouds move across above us, occasionally giving way to patches of the bright blue sky. An interest in geology (stones, rocks and soils) can also be part of the Armchair Naturalist’s armoury against any feeling of “isolation depression”. Where we live in West Norfolk the predominant building material is “carrstone”, which is reddish-brown or ginger in colour and adorns many houses, including the cottage in which we are “isolated” and from where we are writing (Figure). Carrstone is most attractive in a bright light. We are reminded that it is Cretaceous in origin and therefore one can assume that each piece is at least 66 million years old. Think what these stones have “seen” or experienced over the millennia!

West Norfolk cottage with carrstone in its walls.

It would be good to hear from those reading this blog as to what sort of stones are found where you live – chalk perhaps, or granite, or clay? Do post a comment and let us know. More next week!

John and Margaret Cooper