The Parakeets of Hyde Park (and their mental health benefits!)

 

 

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Originally from Africa and southern Asia, ring-necked, or rose-necked parakeets ‘were kept as pets in the UK. They escaped into the wild, however, and have become naturalised in the south-east especially, aided by warmer winters’ (The Wildlife Trust) are birds I can’t resist. According to the RSPB website, they’re ‘large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. In flight it has pointed wings, a long tail and very steady, direct flight. Often found in flocks, numbering hundreds at a roost site, it can be very noisy.’

And they are all of those things.

I first came across them in Greenwich Park a few years ago. I heard bird sounds I didn’t recognise – not that I recognised very many then (and don’t always now, either!). Still, despite my inexperience, I knew instinctively that this was something different. The calls were tantalisingly close, and yet, crane my head as I might toward the sounds, hunting for any sight of the bird that made it, but seeing absolutely nothing except the green leaves of the trees, I couldn’t make anything out. I’ve since learned that their brilliant green plumage means they’re superbly camouflaged; seeing them when trees are in leaf is pretty difficult. So I went away that day wondering what I might have heard.

I found out a few weeks later In Richmond when Keith and I walked the River Thames from Richmond to Kew. At the riverside in town, we saw male mandarin ducks, looking like painted toy ducks, which was pretty cool, and then when we walked out of the town centre, we heard that sound again, even more raucous and squawking. And this time we saw them. Loads of bright green birds flocking in the trees on the opposite bank, outside several small apartment blocks. They were clearly visible but we got our binoculars out, of course, and began to watch. And immediately I was in love.

Firstly I couldn’t believe I was watching wild parakeets in London. At the time I didn’t know the extent of their colonisation of London and the South East of England. In this one place there were so many of them – as the RSPB says, a huge flock – we gave up counting. As we continued to walk, we observed more and more, many flying over our heads to the opposite bank, squawking loudly as they flew, something I’ve come to love to watch, like bright green feathery arrows, or fighter planes zooming overhead.

Since then I’ve seen them in all sorts of places. When my daughter and I went to Rome last year, there they were, flying around the top rows of the Colosseum. At that time, despite being in a city I’d always longed to go to, seeing all the things I’d always longed to see, so happy to be there, I was really struggling with my depression. Seeing the parakeets made me ecstatic.

And then Keith and I found their feeding spot in Hyde Park, one of the original Royal Parks in London. Hyde Park isn’t my favourite park. I find it a little uninteresting compared to, say, Regent’s Park, or St James’s Park or the bigger parks like Greenwich. But I do enjoy a walk around the Serpentine, a huge artificial pleasure lake, where people can hire boats and pedaloes, or swim in the lido. I don’t go for any of that. I go for the wildfowl that have colonised the lake. True, it’s not as varied as in some other parks, but I love to watch the mute swans (although I’m quite scared of them) the Canada and Greylag geese, and the zombie-looking Egyptian geese which are, in fact beautifully marked. I enjoy the squabbles of the coots, and especially the cheeping of their young. But best of all, there’s that spot in Hyde Park where parakeets come to be fed. Or rather, where visitors to the park come to feed them. I don’t know how or why this happened but it has, and when you visit the spot, just back of the Albert Memorial, it’s captivating.

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So this Saturday just gone, we were in the area. I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty anxious and needed a fix, if you will, of parakeets. There were a lot of people there when we arrived, all standing around watching. At first it seemed as though nothing much was going on, but then they came into view. Then I saw people with parakeets on their hands, on their heads, flying around them, as they swooped in for the food that was being offered. Immediately I felt the anxiety drain away, replaced by a feeling of absolute joy and amusement. Now, I understand that animals aren’t here for our entertainment. More and more, I’m furious with so-called human beings who kill other animals for so-called pleasure: big game hunting, fox hunting, murdering raptors on grouse moors, killing the grouse themselves just for fun. I loathe it with a passion. It makes me feel that there’s no hope for humanity, or the creatures we kill. But watching animals – birds especially for me, of course – brings joy and, yes, entertainment. It’s increasingly being shown that interacting with nature (and okay, the parakeet isn’t a native bird, but then the grey squirrel, and rabbit, aren’t native animals either and most of us love watching them, and they’re still part of the natural world!), has beneficial effects on our well-being. For those of us with mental health issues, such encounters have been demonstrated to have healing effects on or overloaded brains. And this how I feel when I see the parakeets of Hyde Park, when I watch them interact with us, cleverly using us to get free food, while yes, we use them too. I feel like all the dark or anxious thoughts are cleansed, replaced by something – well, maybe more light and pure,

Whether or not that’s entirely ethical as a reason to watch wildlife, I don’t know. How do we measure that? But what I do know is that watching wildlife brings joy for so many of us, and we need to appreciate that more. Understand that we’re all interconnected, that everyone benefits, including and especially the creatures we take for granted, and in taking them for granted, seeing them as nothing more than resources or things to be cleared for so-called ‘advancing civilisation’, we are all rushing toward destruction.

It occurred to me, observing the pleasure that parents and their children shared together watching these bright and beautiful noisy birds, that maybe the seeds of something good were being sown. That maybe there is some hope after all.

So, although you can’t read this, thanks, parakeets. Thanks for being part of our urban world, however that happened. Thanks for your bold interactions and allowing us to watch you, and helping us to focus – even for a little while – on something other than the increasingly conflicted world we live in.

 

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https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/ring-necked-parakeet/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/parakeet/ring-necked-parakeet

https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park

Holiday Interlude 2: Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

We decide to go to Wells-next-the-Sea today, Thursday. It’s a place I have special memories of from when I was a child of about nine years old, fifty-three years ago. Which is terrifying. How old I’m getting! I have a black and white picture of me posing by a fishing boat holding an oar. I’m obviously enjoying posing for the camera. I don’t know where that photo is now, but thinking about it brings back a feeling of warmth and nostalgia. Then a couple of years ago I visited with Keith and it was weird, surreal, the way the light and heat haze played off the sand and water, and the dark shapes of the seals on the opposite bank, and people apparently moving amongst them like ghosts, although they were further out, and the poor baby seal, decapitated and decaying as it floated along in the shallow shoreline waves, weirdly reminiscent of a story I wrote about that beach, which added to the strangeness and surreality.

So we decide to go again, although the sky looks heavy today, and some rain is forecast, but not much, and not in the afternoon. We’ll have lunch when we get there, and then walk down the causeway to the beach. I’m excited, looking forward to experiencing maybe that same sense of strangeness, all the while aware that you can’t go back. That you can’t recreate the past.

The bus is full of people, and again I note that the that the average age of the locals around here seems to be sixty five and above. I’m sixty-two but I feel no fellowship with these people whatever. I feel younger than that, and again, feel a sense of terror of my ageing, of my inexorable and rapid run into older age. I think that maybe working with younger people keeps me young, or maybe it’s because I’m a ‘creative’ with my mind constantly throwing up new ideas, constantly questioning my life, my environment, and the way I live within both. I balk at becoming like these people. Old in mind, it feels, as they sit passively, as well as in body. But I know nothing about any of them, and ‘m judging, projecting my own horrors of ageing, and I try to stop. Try to concentrate on the views to my right.

As we travel along the coast road I’m again mesmerised by the constant presence of the sea, the opalescent line of light that divides land from water. It’s a kind of light seen only on the coast, and I love it. It feels rejuvenating and life-giving. It starts raining pretty soon into the journey, and I don’t mind. Despite my earlier gloomy thoughts, I’m just happy to be out and about.

We get to Sheringham and the bus pretty much empties. Maybe the people from Cromer do their shopping here, who knows, although Sheringham is also pretty quiet, appears not yet really part of the modern world. So it seems to me anyway.

The bus continues its journey. We pass the Sheringham golf course, behind which the sea glistens. On and on, the rain coming down harder. Although I’m enjoying watching the rain wash the countryside, I hope it stops by the time we get to Wells. We drive through a place called Saltash, and I get a bit excited because we’re coming into an area of salt marshes, and there they are to my right, stretching out as far as I can see, right down to the distant shore. This is the home of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, apparently a wonderful place to observe birds. I watch somewhat wistfully as we drive past the visitor centre, where one man gets off, fully equipped with binoculars and long lens camera. A little wistfully, I wonder what he might see. Hope we see something interesting. Through Cley and past the road that leads down to Blakeney quay, where you can go on seal watching trips. That would be fun, I think. Through lots of other picturesque villages, past the Wells and Walsingham light railway that we visited with Lawrie and Auro on Tuesday.

Down the final road to Wells-next-the-Sea and off the bus. It’s stopped raining.  Hooray! We walk down Staithe Street, the main thoroughfare, looking briefly at the small independent shops and then, through a gap, I see the sea. We walk through the gap and the panorama opens up. Just what I’ve been waiting for. Again, I feel that sense of rejuvenation. Of restoration and rebirth. We look for somewhere to eat lunch. After asking for advice, we go on board the Albatross, a permanently moored wherry that serves Dutch pancakes. I’ve never had one before. Intriguing. But better than the idea of the food is the view. So we take a seat on the deck, order our food and watch birds at the same time.

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I spot a cormorant on the beach next to a metal framed sculpture of a horse. It has caught a fish, which it gulps down, and then it holds out its wings in that weird way that cormorants do, and dries itself off. There are many black-headed gulls squabbling all around. On the far shore what looks like a greater black-backed gull stands, looking stern and slightly intimidating. I hear the haunting piping of an oystercatcher. I can’t see it yet, but it sounds close. I use the binoculars and train them onto where I think the sound is coming from and there it is on the far sand bank, sitting in the grass. I’m overjoyed. I don’t have a favourite bird as such, that wouldn’t be fair, but oystercatchers are special to me with their black and white plumage, their red eyes and long red beak. I just love them.

Lunch comes and it’s delicious. A Dutch pancake with chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil. It looks like a pizza, but the pancake base is soft and soaks up the oil from the chorizo and tomatoes. Yummy.

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We finish lunch and as we walk towards Staithe Street (it’s started raining a little so we decide to go for shelter until it stops), I’m distracted  by the ubiquitous black-headed gulls squabbling by the quayside over chips. I watch them for a while, loving their antics and their boldness. I guess they’ve become accustomed to the easy meals that people feed them.  Then we go into the Wells visitor centre, where Keith buys me a pair of glass earrings the colour and opacity of opal, my favourite stone.

 

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When we get outside, it’s stopped raining again – indeed the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds – and so we decide to go down to the causeway, which is actually a sea wall built against the encroaching high tide flooding, about a mile long, leading to the beach. I feel a tingle of anticipation as we walk, remembering how it felt last time, how the beach opened out to that wide open strange space. But there are distractions on the walk this time that I didn’t really notice before, or which maybe weren’t there. On my right hand side, just beyond the scrubby grass, bushes and wildflowers that lay just back from the shoreline of the sea channel, the tide is out. Small fishing boats, some with masts, sails furled up, sit empty and apparently discarded. I wonder what they’re like when they’re in use, sailing on the open sea, catching mackerel and bass, evidently the most common food fish in these waters. I imagine fishermen from a past time hauling in the nets, and smile to myself. As always, my imagination is getting the better of me.

 

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But it’s not my imagination when I spot an oystercatcher digging in the intertidal mud. It pulls a sand-worm from its hiding space, washes it in sea water, then gulps it down. Again, again, again. I am transfixed by it, watch it while Keith readies himself to take a photo, and then another. As I continue to watch, I become aware of more black and white, red-billed bodies spaced along the shoreline. Quite a lot of oystercatchers, I realise with a thrill that lifts my heart. I can’t stop smiling. I take my own photos but my phone camera can’t catch any details. I decide to ask Keith to share his photos later, so I always have a visual to help me remember.

We pass the oystercatchers, and then I spy a brown mottled something digging amongst the stones with a long curved bill. I stop. Again. This walk is barely a third done and we’ve stopped half a dozen times already, completely distracted by the view and the birds. I take Keith’s  binoculars (I stupidly forgot to bring my own!) and spot the curlew. It’s on its own, absolutely engrossed in feeding. Another photo opportunity, of course. This isn’t a managed reserve but it’s giving us so many wildlife gifts. Above us the martins and swallows fly by like mini fighter planes. It’s entrancing. We leave the curlew behind, and I remark that we have to get a move on, that we can’t keep stopping and Keith agrees but of course we do stop. More oystercatchers, another couple of curlews. Then, wading in the sea channel, an egret, its feathers brilliant white against the blue water. Of course we stop. We’ve seen egrets so many times, but it’s always something special, watching them fishing.

 

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On we go, pausing again and again, but eventually we come almost to the end of the causeway. We see a lot of gulls in the near distance flying around a sandbank on the far side of the shoreline. It’s partially fenced around, and we see a notice telling us that there are nesting birds here, and the area must not be disturbed. I remember this from last time, and feel another jolt of excitement as we come to the realisation that the noisy, squabbling gulls we’re watching are in fact a breeding colony of kittiwakes. They’re pretty gulls, smaller than herring gulls, short-beaked, with a ‘kind’ face, soft grey plumage on their wings, and black wing tips, black legs. We spend ages watching them as they wheel around, hardly ever still. There are juveniles amongst them, distinguished from the adults by mottled spotted markings.

After a while we leave them, pass the cafe and visitor facilities, and climb the small dune that leads to the beach. At the top, I stop, a little confused by what I’m seeing. It’s completely different from when we were last here. So different, it’s like another beach entirely. In fact, apart from the sandy expanse on the other side of the sea channel, it hardly looks like a beach at all from this side, and at first I think the sand has been covered by grass. A man next to me, having overheard my remarks, tells me it’s low tide, and I realise that what I think is grass is in fact brilliant green seaweed. I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed, but then shake it off, and acknowledge that this is a different kind of beauty, lush and vibrant.

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There are gulls and oystercatchers in the channel, and on the far shore, where last year there was that eerie heat haze, our view is unobscured. There are no sandbanks, no seals, no people, but there is a distant pool with numerous birds clustered around it. Binoculars show more oystercatchers and curlews, and again I’m struck by the richness of wildlife in this area, which is also different from last year, where bird-watching wasn’t as productive as this has been. Something flits really fast in front of me. It looks different from the usual black headed gulls, and I think it might be a tern. I’m excited for a while but then what I think is the same something flies back, and it is indeed a black headed gull. I’m disappointed – seeing a tern would complete my want-to-see list. But oh well. I’ve accepted that today is not last year. That today is its own day, with its own offerings. We walk along the beach for a while, aware we can’t stay long because of the bus times, and then, there it is again, flying very differently from a gull, almost flitting, and it’s smaller, more slender, and sharper looking than a gull, and I notice it has, in the short time I see it, a small black flat ‘cap’ on its head. This is definitely a tern, and despite the fleeting time it was in my line of vision, I’m elated. As we leave the beach I keep on looking back, but it doesn’t reappear.

We walk back along the causeway, trying not to stop and be distracted, and mostly we’re successful. Walking back through the town, we chat about what we’ve seen, how privileged we feel, and how we wish with all our hearts that the tide of human encroachment and our destruction of nature could just be stopped. Now. Right now. It makes me feel angry again, and a little hopeless, but again, I tell myself that I can’t think like that because I want to appreciate it. And I have. And I do. But I long to live in a world where we live in peace alongside the beautiful creatures we share this world with. And I crave, even more strongly than before, to live by the sea on a beach as beautiful as the ones we’ve visited in the past few days.

We board the bus and travel back, and I watch the countryside go by, yearning already for the marshlands and sea strands, and hoping they’ll still be there when I next visit.

 

An Interlude: On the Joyousness of Birds

“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds
fluttered around her, writing “yes” in the sky.”
―Monique Duval
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
I am an amateur birdwatcher. For me, there are few things more enjoyable than to go into a free and open space with my binoculars, and just observe, and wonder. Birds help to heal me. I watch them, flying so effortlessly through the sky, and I wonder at their perfection. Their freedom. My current favourite place to watch birds is RSPB Rainham Marshes, in Purfleet, Essex (http://cut.do/37) . Although it’s bounded by a busy train line, and the A3016, this reserve, in the Thames Estuary, is a marvellous space where the sky seems endless, and where the wet grasslands, marshes and ditches are alive with wildlife. Visiting there is like going on holiday. There’s always something new to look at, and I’ve got into the habit of recording everything I see in a notebook. Here is what I noticed last time I visited, on June 1st. Looking at the list has made me smile on a dull day.
Seen: Avocets and chicks by the Aveley pools. Black headed gulls scrapping and screeching in unruly gangs. Buzzard and marsh harrier hunting overhead. Blue tits and great tits on a bird feeder, and flitting through trees in the woodland area. Canada geese and goslings. Coots with their fuzzy chicks. Ducks: mallard, pochard, shovelers, shelducks. Constantly diving tufted ducks with DA hairdos. Little egrets fishing: do they have any (r)egrets, I wonder? Charms of goldfinches. Herons stalking along hidden ditches, fishing for rudd. Displaying lapwings pee-witting, tumbling and wheeling overhead in the way that reminds me of black and white tea towels flying through the air. Little grebes ducking and diving for their food, their chicks, who swim with them. Moorhens and chicks. Chicks everywhere, in fact. A lone oystercatcher out on the far marsh of the Target pools. Sparrows and starlings, chattering flocks of gossip. Swans (I am afraid of swans) and cygnets, gracefully gliding on calm pools. Reed bunting (initially easy to mistake for a house sparrow) swaying on the top branch of a bush, singing its heart out. Harmonious. Melodious. Heartstopping. A single singing redshank, standing on a post on a single red shanked leg. Bees abuzz. Small blue butterflies dancing in sunlight. Mating white butterflies on the wing. Spotted woodland butterflies spotted in the woodland. Dragonflies looking like biplanes. Blue damselflies, shimmering electric neon, joined in mating hearts.
Heard but not seen: Chiff chaffs chiff-chaffing. The mellow call of the cuckoo, first I’ve ever heard. A song that excites me. A song of summer. In the reeds: Cetti’s warbler; reed warbler. The insane weirdly gibbering laughter of marsh frogs.
Felt: Peace and tranquillity.