More than a year of living aboard our boat and we’re predisposed to seek out the wild side of the city. I’m not talking about clubs and bars, but caterpillars and blackbirds. Julian’s and my curiosity about the world around us has rubbed off on Lily and Katie, and we all get very excited about the wildlife we encounter – everything from megafauna in the shape of orcas and dolphins to tiny ants marching away with our dropped crumbs. We’re just as excited about finding animal signs – the muddy footprints of an otter on the riverbank, the discarded shell of a growing crab, an abandoned bird’s nest.
Back in England for the summer, we find ourselves in Midlands suburbia where, despite the tarmac-ing and bricking over some gardens to create extra car parking space and to brighten up gardens with plants that are hostile or unwelcoming to British wildlife, there are signs aplenty of nature in the city.
People looking through their front windows must wonder at the sight of a woman and two little girls, pointing excitedly at a plant or a brick wall, or staring intently at a tree trunk. You see, we’re finding exciting, amazing wild life everywhere we go in the city and the little creatures we find are no less exciting than the dolphins and loggerhead turtles we’ve encountered farther afield.
Grandma’s small back garden is home to frogs, newts and ants. The ants, in turn, attract a vivid green woodpecker. A squirrel also visits the garden, scuttling along the wooden fence and jumping into the tree branches at the end of the garden. One day Lily spotted an unusual bird in Grandma’s garden and when she described it to Granddad he immediately identified it as an ouzel (and confirmed his guess by checking his bird book). From Grandma’s window we regularly see wood pigeons, magpies and blackbirds and Lily’s been using the binoculars to take a closer look.
Grand-dad’s garden hosts wood pigeons, collared doves and sparrows. A few days ago Lily and Katie excitedly called me out to see what they thought was a butterfly. It was a species none of us had ever seen before, vivid red with black edging. I suspected it was a moth rather than a butterfly and, later that day, while visiting Ryton Country Park, I spoke to a lepidopterist who confirmed it was a cinabar moth. This species is on the decline as people eradicate from their gardens the ragwort upon which the caterpillars feed. Grand-dad has plenty of ragwort in his garden!
Alone, with the girls or with my mother-in-law, I take long walks around suburban and urban Leamington Spa. If you pay attention, you see that life abounds. On three separate occasions we have found the egg shells of hatched wood pigeons. The girls are delighted with their finds, and treasure them like priceless diamonds (until they inevitably get smashed by being treasured a little too much!). There are robins and thrushes, bluebells and foxgloves, bumblebees and spiders carving out their own niches in this suburban landscape.
One day, as Lily and I walked into town, we began to notice a pattern to the activities of bumblebees. Certain gardens and patches of grass were abuzz with lively bees, while others were empty. The bees were attracted to clover covered lawns and to the flowers of certain plants. We don’t know much about the likes and loves of bumblebees, so it’s time to carry out some research and try to learn more.
We’ve been watching the behaviour of a pair of blackbirds on a piece of scrubland near a busy road in Coventry. We suspect they have a nest and each day we walk past we look around for fledglings. So far, we’ve only seen the busy parents.
We’ve been spending a lot of time in parks and gardens managed by local authorities, and these are wonderful places to get up close to ducks, geese, water hens and squirrels. But there is something even more special about encountering animals in gardens, hedgerows and on the sides of suburban streets. Even in places seemingly devoid of nature, life finds a way and carries on.