And here I am, back. Back amid the fumes and the police sirens and the world’s aircraft turning left just beyond the kitchen window. Dear Ruby did indeed live up to expectations and hopes, transporting us in style, safety and comfort to and from a Caravan Club site we first visited last summer. It’s a few miles from Hastings in East Sussex and – as the crow flies – only a couple of miles from the sea. The weather was – as the Met Office had said – overcast a lot of the time, but if you’re in dire need of a break – as we were – the weather is not important. If it’s sunny and warm it’s a bonus; and if it’s not – well, this is the UK where we bask in the Gulf Stream and have learned – more or less – to take the uncertainties of the weather it brings in our stride. At least it was dry.
We had found our parking space – relatively secluded among tall trees – and were settling ourselves in when a tiny, flitting movement among the trees close by caught my eye. A small bird seemed virtually to drop from the lower branches into the grasses and sedges at its root and disappear amongst the foliage down there. I expected to see that foliage, grass etc. move around as the bird disturbed it as it foraged. But all was still. Then a few seconds later the bird popped up again and flew off in the direction of some motor-homes parked a few metres away and thence into a quite thickly wooded area beyond.
A couple of minutes later, the same thing happened. The bird – or one looking very much like it – dropped out of the lower branches of the tree down into the grasses at its foot. No disturbance of the grasses. Then reappeared half a minute later and flew off again through the motor-homes and into the trees.
This was intriguing. What was it that this small bird – a Great Tit for those who know about and are interested in such things – was collecting from among the grasses around the foot of the tree? How come it didn’t disturb any of the grass as it did so? Being the time of the year when birds are nesting and rearing their young, I had to assume it was finding some sort of food which it was taking back to its chicks. But what could it keep finding in one such very small area of ground? Whatever it was, there presumably had to be quite a lot of it for the bird to be able to keep taking from it and coming back for more. House Martins, for example, will take mud for their nest from the edges of puddles and small streams and will keep coming back to the same spot for more. But that’s different. There’s a lot of mud around a large puddle or small stream. But this Great Tit wasn’t taking nesting material away with it. In fact, as far as I could see, it wasn’t taking anything at all away with it. It seemed simply to be coming and going. The more I watched the more intrigued I became.
It was only when I rummaged around in my backpack, dug out the binoculars and studied it through them that it started to make sense. Looking with their help at this little avian pantomime, despite the fact that once the bird hit the grasses on the ground it was there, then gone in a flash, I could just about see that it had something in its beak. It was actually bringing whatever it was to this spot, not taking it away. Then on its next visit, a minute or so later, it did something different. It didn’t appear out of the branches of the tree – it flew in horizontally about a metre above the ground, and paused for perhaps two seconds in the thin branches of a very low bush. But that pause was just enough for me to see that it had in its beak, a small, green caterpillar. Then it dropped down from those branches and disappeared among the grasses as usual.
So somewhere, down among the grasses it had a nest. And young. But I’m a bit of an ornithologist – or perhaps bird-watcher would be slightly more accurate – and I know you don’t expect this type of small bird to have a nest on the ground. Some birds do – some are happy with little more than a scraped-out depression in the sand for example. And though I’m no Bill Oddie, I would class this as highly unusual for a Great Tit. So I exited Ruby and very carefully approached the spot.
For those unfamiliar with the layout of Caravan Club camp sites – and that has to be almost everybody – in the places (or pitches) where you park your camper/motorhome/caravan there is always a robust metal post about waist high which contains the connection points to the mains electricity supply. It’s into one of these points that you plug your vehicle’s power cable. As I came close to the place on the ground where I’d seen this bird disappearing and re-appearing, I could just make out beneath the post containing our connection point, a small and perfectly round hole – like the end of a small-bore plastic pipe. It was half-hidden by all the grasses and leaves, but there it was and that, clearly, was where this bird – and its mate – had their nest. In a plastic pipe, fifty percent of which was below ground level. With an outlook on leaves, mixed green vegetation and the clomping shoes of passing campers. Like what estate agents used to – and perhaps still do – call a ‘garden flat’.
What about predators? I thought. Squirrels, (there were hoards of them), rats (saw none of them), local cats (none of them either), and other creeping things that might attack the young. But I had to presume that as the two birds had got as far as raising live, hungry chicks in their plastic home they’d probably go the rest of the way in safety.
I hope so. I admired them. I felt quite protective towards them. From dawn to dusk they played out their selfless little pantomime – and are doubtless doing so now, even as I write this. Birds are extraordinary.