Episode 3 Nature's Top 40


Episode 3

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Hello. I'm Chris Packham, and this is Nature's Top 40.

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From flowers to butterflies, from reptiles to mammals,

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we set out to find the number one wildlife show in the land.

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It's simple really, it's the UK's top 40 wildlife spectacles,

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ranked in order of total magic.

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Meet the head bangers - it's the battling billys of Wales.

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There, there. You'll see him, you'll see him!

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And as ranked by our panel of wildlife experts,

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the otter enters our charts.

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I've never known anything like it. My heart started to go...!

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We've taken suggestions from the public,

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and thrown in a few of our own.

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Every idea has been scored for beauty, scale, excitement

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and rarity in our search for the UK's number one wildlife show.

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Today, our charge up the charts continues.

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You'll recognise these rather boisterous animals as goats -

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one of nature's lawnmowers.

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They've got a voracious appetite for everything, including the paper bag.

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Now, they're also, obviously, farm animals,

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and sometimes they make great pets,

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but in the wild, when they put these horns to their proper use,

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they can provide one of the greatest fighting spectacles that you can see

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in the wilds of the UK, outside of this encounter!

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At number 32, rutting goats.

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It's not quite the badlands,

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but there's trouble brewing in these hills.

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Big trouble.

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I'm on the trail of rutting goats, and this is

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one of the best places to see them, the Nant Gwynant Valley in Snowdonia.

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How impressive is that?

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They're not everyone's cup of tea,

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but here's why I think these animals deserve their place in our Top 40.

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You can forget rutting deer, all that namby-pamby pushing and shoving.

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That's what I call having a proper head-to-head!

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At least now I know the goats are here.

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The best part of 30 up there, I think.

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There are billy goats,

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there are nannys and kids.

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The trouble is, the goats are up there and I'm down here,

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so there's quite a bit of walking to do yet.

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GOAT BLEATS

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Now, tracking goats isn't easy,

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so I've called in an old friend, Howell Roberts,

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a man who spends most of his spare time up in these mountains.

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Sometimes the goats will come down into the valleys,

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but today, they're making us work hard.

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Oh, that's a climb!

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But well worth it.

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Ravens? Yes. A pair of ravens.

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Yes, we're in their environment here now.

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These high crags and open mountains, ideal places for them to nest.

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And plenty of food for them up here.

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Fantastic. I like ravens.

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Howell, you know your goats. What are the chances of seeing them,

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and even better, seeing the rut today?

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There should be plenty of chances of seeing goats,

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especially now that we're almost reaching the skyline here.

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You will be able to look down and across the valleys.

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The chance of seeing the rut,

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well, that's a bit more of luck involved in that.

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But if you keep on looking, you never know what you'll see.

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The rut happens every September and October,

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when the billys that have been living separately in the hills

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look for groups of nannys who are now in season.

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This is just the one herd here, Howell, is it?

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Just the one herd on this part of the mountain,

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but if you went on the other side,

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you'd see more goats there, as well.

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So is it just the one billy leading this herd?

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Billys don't tend to lead herds.

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It's an adult nanny that leads the herd.

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The billy just hangs on afterwards, as part of the group.

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If you have a look, you'll see that there are two billys,

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but there are a large number of nannys,

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and a number of youngsters there, as well, last year's young.

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So you've got a good cross-section.

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And this is just one dominant billy we've got here,

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and he's the one with the huge, huge horns.

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Very distinctive horns, almost like handlebars on a bike.

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Very, very large horns.

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Have a look carefully at the horns,

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you can see the growth rings on them, in other words,

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as to how, each year, there's a little bit of growth on the horn,

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and you can age an animal from the horns.

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I think that billy is about seven or eight years old.

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What signifies the beginning of a rut, then?

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I think you've noticed it already today, it's the smell.

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You can smell the adult males, very strongly,

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very strong body odour that they've got,

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probably from the urine that they pass out.

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But it's very, very distinctive.

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I could actually smell the goats before we saw them, even,

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it's like strong, strong goat's cheese.

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Yes. That's usually the first indication.

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At other times of the year,

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you can come across them accidentally,

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and you're unaware that you're gonna come across a goat.

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But in this time of the year, you've got plenty of warning.

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When males clash, it's not about inflicting damage, but dominance.

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It's a constant round of battles as young billys,

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driven by the desire to mate, come into conflict

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with established males who will defend their nannys with gusto.

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Ouch!

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Why now, then, Howell?

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Well, it's this time of the year they start breeding.

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They are probably in their best condition now, after a good summer,

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and then they will be kidding in the early spring.

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In other words, in February or March.

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I must confess, I like goats, I like the fact that we've got goats here,

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but I know that some naturalists do get a little bit touchy,

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a little bit sniffy with the fact that they're not true wild animals.

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Well, they're the nearest you can get in Snowdonia

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or even in Britain, I think, to wild animals.

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Yes, they're domesticated animals, domesticated about 3,000 years ago,

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Neolithic times, that have gone wild,

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and all these animals are descendants of those,

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perhaps with some more recent introduced blood

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from farms or smallholdings

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where animals have escaped,

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or perhaps the practice of keeping goats

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is not so popular now as it was.

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Look at how close we are today,

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look at the way they're not really moving away from us,

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they've got quite used to us by now.

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If you went closer and made noise, perhaps they would move.

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But it really is quite a thrill to see them here.

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Today, however, our billys were playing it cool

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on a rather hot autumn day.

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I tell you what I have got is some footage here

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that a member of the public took,

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pretty high up the mountain, actually.

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-Two billys here, here we are...

-Yeah.

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-And that's what we hoped to see today, wasn't it?

-Did you hear that?

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-Yeah.

-That bang, it really is full-on, 100mph stuff,

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-they go up on their hind legs and they crash...

-And again!

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No. No head-banging that time,

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but at least he reared up on his hind legs,

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and he's obviously got the message.

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Bang! That was a bit painful, wasn't it?

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You can hear that clash of horns, even from, I would imagine,

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on a still day like this, from half a mile away.

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You certainly would,

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you'd know that there was some activity going on up there,

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and quite aggressive activity, as well.

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There you go, I told you it was good.

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Fantastic scenery and dynamic animals,

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what an explosive combination!

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Now for a creature that's a surefire sign of summer -

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well, if you've got more than one of them, of course, that is.

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I've got to say they're one of our greatest migrants,

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in the springtime, they tend to arrive in dribs and drabs,

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but when they're ganging together in the autumn, to leave,

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they can be really spectacular.

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At number 31, it's swarms of swallows.

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One swallow doesn't make a summer, but does a swallow make a spectacle?

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I'm going to show you why swallows and their close relatives

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deserve to be in the Top 40. And what's more,

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we're going to see two wildlife spectacles for the price of one.

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There are dozens of types of swallow,

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but the ones that we have are barn swallows.

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They're part of the hirundine family of birds -

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along with house martins and sand martins.

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Swifts are a separate family, similar in flight, but bigger and darker.

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Our swallows have that distinctive long forked tail.

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The real spectacle is when they gather in huge numbers.

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And the swallows will do that at the end of summer,

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when they get ready to migrate back to Africa.

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And I'm hoping that I'll go to a site

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where they literally roost in their thousands.

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But there is another member of this family

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that provides a spectacle which is a little bit less time-critical.

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These are sand martins.

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We see huge seabird colonies,

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but it's unusual to have a large breeding colony inland,

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and that's what makes these birds special.

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This is wonderful, I'm surrounded by sand martins.

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They're all living in this cliff here.

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It's like the avian equivalent of a high rise block of flats.

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In North America, these birds are known as bank swallows,

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and along this cliff, there are 300 nests, each with parents and young.

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I'm going to get closer to them with the RSPB's Mark Thomas.

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They're great birds, they're absolutely magnificent things.

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One of the key things is

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they're one of the first birds back in the spring.

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You've spent the whole winter dreaming of migrant birds,

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and it gets to late March,

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and you hear this chirping, look up in the sky,

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there's seven grams of feathers, and it's flown 3,000 miles!

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They've got razor sharp, very, very thin claws,

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and they begin to excavate when they arrive in late March.

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It takes them two to three weeks,

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but after a while, they get the burrow,

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it goes back about this far, and there's a chamber,

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and in the chamber is a cluster of feathers and that's the nest,

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and it's home for the next three to four months!

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Sometimes, birds die in the nest.

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And when early naturalists found them,

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they thought that hirundines hibernated.

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But with modern tracking and ringing, we now know they migrate to Africa.

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The females have spent the whole time in the burrows

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incubating eggs and chicks,

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so what they've got is they've got a very bare patch of skin here

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to keep the chicks and eggs warm.

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So if we blow gently on the stomach of the bird,

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it will either be very fleshy, or it will be covered in feathers.

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If it's feathers, it's the male,

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cos he doesn't spend very much time in the nest.

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And if it's fleshy, it's a female.

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-That's a female.

-That's a definite female!

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-Would you like to let this one go?

-Yeah, I'd love to.

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Just place your hand out flat. I'll just pop it on there...

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Oh, brilliant! I hope she makes it to Africa and back!

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Yeah, fingers crossed!

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In August, the flow of swallows and martins back to Africa begins,

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from Scotland down to the English Channel.

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The first sign is when they gather on telegraph lines.

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It's now mid September, and I've come to the south coast of England,

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to Icklesham in East Sussex.

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And the reason I'm here are these.

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This reed bed is the final stopover point

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for tens of thousands of swallows and sand martins

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before they leave the country for the winter.

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The reeds are a safe roost for the night,

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and the sky is full of food

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for a final meal before crossing the Channel.

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In the late afternoon, the swallows start to gather over the reed beds.

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But even if you watch them every day,

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it's impossible to predict how many will arrive.

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The reserve is run by Phil Jones.

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I love watching it.

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I mean, I can sit and watch it every night.

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It's just a mass, the sky can be absolutely full of them.

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They tend to take the evasive actions

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as the birds of prey come through. Hobbies and sparrowhawks

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and even merlin will come and pick off

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the odd young, inexperienced bird.

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It sounds like they're just a little snack for all sorts of predators.

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Unfortunately, they are. Hobbies, we think, follow the flock,

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and a hobby is actually a bird of prey that is a migrant in itself.

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So they're going to Africa, as well.

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It's very spectacular to see,

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cos they'll come in huge groups of 100, 200 at a time.

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It's just incredible to watch.

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And how do you feel when you see the last lot of swallows

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departing our shores?

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Very depressed!

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It's a sign of winter, it's a sign that autumn is really here and gone.

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You know winter has arrived once your last swallows have gone.

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-Still, it's a fantastic spectacle to usher in the winter.

-Brilliant.

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Absolutely brilliant, and we enjoy it ever year.

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Superb, absolutely superb.

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Now, just think of this.

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You're up in your grandfather's loft, you find an old lamp.

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You've got to rub it, haven't you?

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And a genie comes out, and it grants you one of your fantasies.

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One of mine clearly would be to just be a swallow

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for just a couple of minutes.

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I mean, imagine it. Wings of burnished blue,

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careening across the water surface like some sort of avian jet fighter.

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It would undeniably be fantastic!

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Now, we're a quarter of the way through our Top 40.

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Let's see what's scored points so far.

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At number 40, what a songster! Noisy natterjack toads.

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In at 39, supercharged ants' nests.

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Lighting up our countdown at 38, it's glow worms.

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And how cute are these?!

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Number 37, urban foxes.

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At 36, our marvellous moths.

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And when they're this beautiful, that really is a wildlife spectacle.

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35, swimming with seals.

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And here's a favourite of mine, at number 34, the high tide roost.

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That's a lovely sight, these birds up in the sky there.

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And 33, the stunning colours of Scotland's machair.

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High impact combat at 32, with rutting goats.

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And 31, you sexy thing, it's swarms of swallows!

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Time for a joke, always fancied myself as a comedian, here we go!

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My local Indian restaurant has started serving chicken tarka.

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it's like chicken tikka, only it's just a little 'otter!

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Boom boom!

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Terrible joke, but fantastic animal absolutely fantastic,

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and if ever you're lucky enough to catch just a glimpse of one,

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I promise you'll be in seventh heaven.

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I can still remember the first moment

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I came face to face with a wild otter.

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A magic moment, that will stay with me forever.

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And today I plan to relive that excitement

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through someone who's never seen one before.

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And it's not in some wilderness either,

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but right under the nose

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of Newcastle's busy international airport.

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I've come today to meet an otter virgin,

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local lad and actor Tim Healy,

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a man who has not yet seen an otter.

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Never seen one in my life, no. Only on the TV.

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But I'm really looking forward to it.

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If we do see one, it would be fantastic.

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-If, if?! This is the place!

-Yeah?

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I didn't think it would be round here,

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I thought you were going to take me right over

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to the wilds of Northumberland.

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Right next to the airport seemed a bit strange.

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Any minute now, a jet will be whanging overhead.

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What I want to do now is to introduce you

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-to a dark side of Tales From The Riverbank.

-Really?

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Tim, this, you can squeeze in here,

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-is an otter sprainting point.

-Really?

-Yeah.

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Now, spraints, there's no polite way to say it, are otter poo.

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-Otter poo!

-Cop a sniff of that.

-Yeah.

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I can't believe... "What did you do today?" "I was sniffing otter poo."

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What that tells me is obviously that there are otters here,

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but also, this is fresh,

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this has been put down in the last couple of days or so.

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So, I mean, there are otters in this area,

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-and they're here now, basically.

-Brilliant.

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All WE have to do is find them.

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So time to call in the help of Kevin O'Hara

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from the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.

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He knows every inch of the Big Waters reserve.

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While we waited, there was plenty of other stuff knocking around,

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giving us great views.

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Water rail, snipe and kingfisher.

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But not a sniff of an otter.

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And things were getting desperate.

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Would Tim remain an otter virgin?

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There you go.

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You got it?

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-Yep.

-Yeah, there it is, it's come out again to the right.

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Just going into the water there.

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..its tail as it flicks over.

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-Yeah.

-There it is.

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-You've got two together.

-It's two together, isn't it?

-Brilliant.

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Otters are well suited for aquatic hunting.

0:18:240:18:27

They can close their nostrils and ears whilst under water,

0:18:270:18:31

using their long whiskers to find fish, frogs, water voles.

0:18:310:18:34

They'll even take small wading birds.

0:18:340:18:37

And whilst they're mainly active at dusk and at night,

0:18:370:18:41

here at Newcastle, daylight views are pretty much guaranteed.

0:18:410:18:44

-It's shiny like a seal, you wouldn't think it was fur, would you?

-No.

0:18:470:18:51

It looks like skin, doesn't it?

0:18:510:18:53

It does, like a wet suit, innit? With the sun shining on it, as well.

0:18:530:18:57

Yeah.

0:18:570:18:59

Even at this distance,

0:18:590:19:00

you can appreciate how superbly adapted they are

0:19:000:19:03

for the aquatic environment,

0:19:030:19:05

-quicksilver in the water.

-Yeah.

0:19:050:19:08

When they catch these fish,

0:19:080:19:10

you just catch a glimpse when they come to the surface,

0:19:100:19:13

then they're down, they're swallowing whole,

0:19:130:19:15

a couple of crunch to kill them. Then they flip over on their back.

0:19:150:19:19

And the other thing that they do which endears them to us

0:19:190:19:23

is that they use their hands to hold their food,

0:19:230:19:26

-particularly if they bring it out on their back.

-Yeah.

0:19:260:19:30

This one's come a bit closer, that's what we always want.

0:19:300:19:33

-Yeah, you want one down here.

-We do. Never satisfied!

0:19:330:19:36

You want them singing and dancing, jumping through flaming hoops!

0:19:360:19:40

You want them playing together.

0:19:400:19:42

Well, little then did we know what was to follow!

0:19:420:19:45

The otters we had been watching came closer and closer

0:19:450:19:48

and entered the reed beds right in front of us.

0:19:480:19:51

-Oh!

-Brilliant, brilliant!

0:19:510:19:54

They give away here with the moorhens.

0:19:570:20:00

One of these birds climbed right to the top of one of the bulrushes,

0:20:000:20:04

and was peering down into the reeds.

0:20:040:20:06

Then, there was a little moorhen stampede,

0:20:060:20:09

and about four or five of the birds

0:20:090:20:12

have moved from one side of the reeds to the other.

0:20:120:20:15

We can hear the otter splashing around,

0:20:150:20:18

so they are literally a few metres in front of us.

0:20:180:20:22

What we are hoping is that they are going to cross this canal

0:20:220:20:26

that has been cut through the reeds in front of us.

0:20:260:20:28

There, there, there... See, see...

0:20:300:20:33

Can you see the otter?

0:20:360:20:38

Can you believe it? I've never known anything like that.

0:20:460:20:50

When it came out there, my heart started going.

0:20:500:20:53

-There it is.

-I know.

0:20:530:20:54

Then it came out and put its head up,

0:20:540:20:56

-and looked right at us, didn't it?

-Yes.

0:20:560:20:58

A little head came up ever so slightly.

0:20:580:21:00

"Yeah, I know where you are."

0:21:000:21:02

I dunno, it takes some beating, doesn't it, really?

0:21:020:21:05

-What do you think then, Tim?

-Fantastic, man.

0:21:070:21:10

-Points out of ten?

-Ten.

-Ten.

-Ten.

0:21:100:21:13

Ten.

0:21:130:21:14

Top banana.

0:21:140:21:16

Though otter populations remain fragmented,

0:21:180:21:21

it's now heartening to see these animals doing well,

0:21:210:21:24

and just like Tim, you never know.

0:21:240:21:26

Your first otter experience could happen much sooner than you think.

0:21:260:21:30

Now, you've been sending in your ideas via local radio and on the Web

0:21:330:21:38

and Radio Norfolk came up with a particularly interesting set.

0:21:380:21:41

There were common crane, definitely on my list, otters, and, of course,

0:21:410:21:45

the pink-footed geese here.

0:21:450:21:47

There was one thing they were absolutely dead set

0:21:470:21:50

had to be the best local spectacle.

0:21:500:21:52

At number 29, it's the rook roost.

0:21:520:21:56

OK. Rooks.

0:21:580:22:01

You're thinking unremarkable, if not to say boring, black, farmland birds.

0:22:010:22:07

A bit like crows.

0:22:070:22:08

I reckon I can make you change your mind,

0:22:080:22:12

and possibly even blow your socks off.

0:22:120:22:16

The spectacle is about a gathering storm, a tidal wave of birds.

0:22:180:22:22

At dusk, rooks and jackdaws head for a wood outside Norwich,

0:22:240:22:29

a communal roost, an urban jungle in the country with 40,000 inhabitants.

0:22:290:22:36

Before they roost up, the birds gather nearby,

0:22:360:22:40

and when numbers are sufficient, they leave as one giant life force.

0:22:400:22:45

Oh, check out here, come round.

0:22:450:22:47

Look at this against the setting sun.

0:22:470:22:49

A swirling mass, it's like someone has shaken a snow dome,

0:22:520:22:56

only all the flakes are black rather than white.

0:22:560:22:59

They are all whizzing up and flying over a trees,

0:22:590:23:02

some of them are landing.

0:23:020:23:04

I can see, for as far as my eye,

0:23:040:23:07

right from this tree all the way round,

0:23:070:23:10

all the way round to the wood is rooks and jackdaws.

0:23:100:23:14

Listen to the sound.

0:23:140:23:15

ROOKS AND JACKDAWS CAW

0:23:150:23:17

You can see, as well, there are bigger dots, the rooks,

0:23:230:23:27

and little dots, which are the jackdaws.

0:23:270:23:30

The really high pitched call is the jackdaws,

0:23:300:23:34

and the lower one, the "caw, caw, caw" is the rook.

0:23:340:23:38

They are everywhere!

0:23:380:23:40

ROOKS AND JACKDAWS CAW

0:23:400:23:43

What a sight, unbelievable.

0:23:500:23:52

A whole wall, cathedral of sound, birds everywhere. Just unbelievable.

0:23:520:23:57

You know what, I've loved it so much, I'm gonna go to bed now,

0:23:570:24:01

and I'm coming back before dawn to see them leave tomorrow morning.

0:24:010:24:04

I want some more.

0:24:040:24:06

Early morning, and the birds are stirring, ready to leave the roost,

0:24:150:24:20

but not before they've put on another breathtaking aerial display.

0:24:200:24:24

What an incredible sight. 30, 40,000 rooks and jackdaws up in the air.

0:24:370:24:42

It looks like a bonfire, and someone's bashed it,

0:24:420:24:46

and they're all tiny little pieces of ash.

0:24:460:24:49

HE CHUCKLES

0:24:490:24:52

Of course, this is only really a winter phenomenon between November and February.

0:24:520:24:56

After that, they will split into their separate colonies or rookeries to start breeding.

0:24:560:25:02

They are a very early breeder.

0:25:020:25:04

But for now, what an amazing sight.

0:25:040:25:07

Look at them, just spiralling,

0:25:070:25:09

dropping down off the trees, taking off again.

0:25:090:25:12

This site has been used for hundreds of years.

0:25:120:25:16

They are very, very faithful to this particular woodland.

0:25:160:25:19

Coming back every November, doing this, every night.

0:25:190:25:23

Come on, if you are looking for a spectacle,

0:25:230:25:27

this has to be one of the best I have ever seen. It's so impressive.

0:25:270:25:31

No one really knows why the birds gather in such numbers.

0:25:340:25:38

It could be for security,

0:25:380:25:40

or even a way of exchanging information

0:25:400:25:43

about potential feeding areas.

0:25:430:25:45

Ploughed fields are a favourite haunt.

0:25:450:25:48

To some, rooks remain a farmland pest.

0:25:480:25:51

They have been persecuted for centuries.

0:25:510:25:54

As far back as Henry VIII,

0:25:540:25:55

there were serious attempts at extermination,

0:25:550:25:58

but numbers now are on the up,

0:25:580:26:00

with well over a million pairs nationally.

0:26:000:26:03

This spectacle gets under your skin,

0:26:040:26:06

so I'm back again for the evening display

0:26:060:26:09

in the company of author, naturalist and rook fan, Mark Cocker.

0:26:090:26:13

It's the calm before the storm, isn't it?

0:26:130:26:15

It is. That's one of the wonderful things about it. It is like a drama.

0:26:150:26:20

You are actually able just to wait,

0:26:200:26:23

and let it build up, and it does build up.

0:26:230:26:25

It's that fantastic sense of anticipation that you have.

0:26:250:26:30

Every night, you have success.

0:26:300:26:32

And as the light falls, the birds arrive.

0:26:320:26:36

You can see them coming now, look.

0:26:360:26:38

They're up, yes, they're up.

0:26:380:26:40

Oh, wonderful.

0:26:400:26:41

Fantastic. I often think of them,

0:26:410:26:43

because you can't see them very clearly,

0:26:430:26:46

that they remind me of a shoal of fish or something.

0:26:460:26:49

They don't even really look like birds,

0:26:490:26:51

apart from this fantastic sound that you can hear.

0:26:510:26:53

ROOKS CAW

0:26:530:26:56

-The decibels have gone through the roof.

-Yes. Fantastic.

0:26:560:27:01

This is only a tiny part. If you look across there,

0:27:010:27:04

-you've still got them pouring off the fields.

-Yes.

-It's fantastic.

0:27:040:27:07

It's like a river of birds.

0:27:070:27:09

Yes. 40,000 birds, that's lot of a stress on this tree.

0:27:090:27:15

Yes, well you're talking, eventually,

0:27:150:27:18

about 25 tonnes of birds in the air at one time.

0:27:180:27:22

-It's amazing, looking at it like that.

-Yeah.

0:27:220:27:24

Do you think they have special places where they go each night,

0:27:240:27:28

each individual bird or pair?

0:27:280:27:30

Yes. What's extraordinary,

0:27:300:27:32

to us it looks like a maelstrom of 30,000 birds,

0:27:320:27:36

yet every couple ends up sitting next to one another

0:27:360:27:41

at the end of the night.

0:27:410:27:43

They snuggle down.

0:27:430:27:45

That shows that, amongst all this seeming chaos,

0:27:450:27:48

there is a kind of order taking place,

0:27:480:27:51

which is pretty special in itself.

0:27:510:27:54

I think of it as a kind of alchemy.

0:27:540:27:57

I think of it as making gold from base metal.

0:27:570:28:00

Here's this bird, this incredibly ordinary,

0:28:000:28:04

and in many ways, despised bird,

0:28:040:28:06

and yet out of it, they create this fantastic spectacle,

0:28:060:28:09

which happens here every night. I think it's wonderful.

0:28:090:28:13

I think that's 24 carat gold. I have to agree with you, sir.

0:28:130:28:17

Fabulous, but I've got to tell you, there's better to come.

0:28:230:28:27

Do join us again next time for some more of Nature's Top 40.

0:28:270:28:32

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:430:28:46

Email [email protected]

0:28:460:28:49

A countdown to the best wildlife spectacle in the UK. Welsh wildlife presenter Iolo Williams argues the case for rutting wild goats in Snowdonia, while entering the charts at number 31 the autumn migration of swallows gets underway in East Sussex.


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