I first discovered Harry through a piece he wrote titled, ‘The State of Nature in Teenage Society: Nature isn’t Cool’. His writing talent, non-conformance and love for the natural world was refreshing. I asked him to write a piece on Hull, as the first in a series of guest blogs exploring urban wildlife around the world. Where better to start than the future ‘City of Culture’?
When Will first asked me to write this blog, the prospect didn’t fill me with joy. I had never really been looking for wildlife in the city centre, it has always been just as easy for me to visit sites in the countryside, which most people would view as being better. That all changed, though, during the course of this trip, in two of the top sites for urban wildlife in Hull.
However, I think it is fair to say that Hull is not seen as the most glamorous of places, but in this blog post I hope to extirpate this stereotype, at least from a naturalist’s point of view. Now, where has my copy of The Urban Birder got to?
First up on the list of places to visit was the Pearson Park Wildlife garden. This is a mini wildlife oasis managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, secluded in the heart of urban Hull. It is aimed at involving young children with nature, something that previous readers of my blog will know I feel strongly about, with eye-catching fact boards and creative statues dotted around.
I headed straight for the pond, having fond memories of pond-dipping, and was not disappointed as lurking within were the dragons of this realm, Smooth Newts. These were my first of the year and courtship behaviour was observed, often involving three newts at a time. They are definitely best seen up close, though, with their beautiful and striking mottled bellies, washed delicately with the colours of fire. Very small tadpoles were also writhing around the pond and congregating in the shallower areas. A sure sign of spring. Along with them, my first Pond Skaters of the year flicked effortlessly across the unruffled surface of the water.
I then decided to take a look around the rest of the reserve. There were a multitude of garden birds; Wrens were flitting from bush to bush and firing their rapid song into the clear spring air, Long-tailed Tits roamed the canopy in their parties, exploring every nook and cranny in the delicate new branches for miniscule insect prey and this rather friendly Robin came down from his perch to investigate me.
It may have been better to visit later in the year, the information boards promising me Common Blues told me that, but all around me, spring was coaxing the world into coming out to play after a long winter; fresh green leaves were appearing on the Hawthorn bushes, Great Tits were broadcasting their repetitive song and the first bumblebees of the year were taking their initial tentative flights into the air. Spring was springing and I was loving every second of it. At the boundary of the reserve a juxtaposition became apparent, through the hedge I could see businesspeople striding briskly down the path, I could hear the squeak of car breaks and the occasional horn blast. But, if I turned around all of this melted away and the serenity of the gently swaying bushes and trees and the calming calls and movements of the birds would absorb me and the outside world didn’t seem to exist.
Back to the main park it was to try to photograph some of the (mostly feral) birdlife at the pond. The easily-spooked pigeons had flown up all around and their atmospheric flapping filled every part of the soundscape, taking me to 1800s Wisconsin and the immense, and sadly now extinct, Passenger Pigeon flocks. They soared in circles with wings raised into a poised, elegant V and departed to wreak havoc in the bread crumbs of the city centre. Many wildfowl and gulls frequented the pond including this immature:
What would a visit to Hull be without seeing its claim to fame, the Humber river? I wasn’t expecting much, but was secretly hoping for some scarcer birds out on the estuary, but what followed made me think differently about urban birding.
I came to the river by The Deep with the Humber Bridge in the distance, landmarks galore… and was immediately greeted by a Redshank bobbing amiably among the rocks by the shore of the great river, a good start and maybe a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Scanning the river brings up nothing but a few distant gulls. But, a short walk along the river later and a large wader is seen pottering around among some seaweed. A quick glance through my binoculars confirms it as a Curlew. It allows me to edge closer and closer until I am about 3 or 4 metres away, I fire off some shots but then go back to scanning the river as I am in a more likely place for birds that have come in from the sea. When I finally lower my binoculars the Curlew has come even closer, now this is definitely the best view of a Curlew I’ve had! It allowed me to get ridiculously close, waders here are certainly tamer than in their usual seaside or estuarine habitats. This is one of the great joys of urban birding! Seeing a Curlew is even more special now, because of their well-publicised and drastic decline.
Further downstream, I come to a quay sunken into the street where some Moorhens and Mallards are bobbing about. There is also a Mallard’s nest tucked away in the corner of the quay amongst some grasses, the female who is incubating the eggs and guarding the nest is defiantly hissing at some males who have approached too close. Unfortunately, you can see that some of the eggs have fallen into the water, a tragedy for the female and one of the dangers of having your nest so close to the edge of the water.
I come to a channel flowing into the much larger Humber and it makes an attractive photo opportunity, this view would not look out of place on an unspoilt and wildlife-rich Scottish estuary. But it is here, just a stone’s throw from the centre of industrial Hull. The wildlife associated with this environment is also present here, albeit in much smaller numbers. At this point in time I am incredulous that I let myself think that urban birding was not going to be a worthwhile pursuit! Many gull and wader prints were also scattered around on the mud; it seems I missed quite the party!
I keep walking and seaweed-covered rocks start appearing at the bank of the Humber, out of the corner of my eye I see a whir of wings and expect to turn and see small waders; Dunlin, Turnstone or something of that description. But no, Starlings have some down from the rooftops on my left to reap the rewards of the estuary. I have never seen this behaviour before and you can see the characteristic feeding method of inserting the bill into the weed and then prising it apart, looking for invertebrates hidden within. Starlings; the unofficial waders of today!
Just behind the Starlings it becomes present that true waders are in attendance, a group of Redshank are puffed up on the tideline and another group of them then shimmer back the way I have come, uttering their peevish but calming calls, the white panels in their wings shining out amongst the gathering gloom. An allusion to North Norfolk, past holidays there were always Redshank-filled and this moment brought me back there.
All in all, this was a brilliant day that changed my opinion of urban birding and nature watching. I won’t be surprised if I take many more trips to find nature in the city again!
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