Park Life – A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park by Rick Thompson

Rick Thompson book signing in Warwick Visitor Information Centre

The title of this delightful book about St Nicholas Park in Warwick, Park Life – A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park immediately put the song Parklife by Blur into my head, so I was delighted to see Rick Thompson had quoted this line on the title page.

“It gives me a sense of enormous well-being”

Blur Songwriters: Alexander James / David Rowntree / Damon Albarn / Graham Coxon

A new resonance accompanies the song with the coronavirus lockdown bringing more people into their local park for an hour exercise.  The world of the urban park shows itself as a microcosm of life, not only for nature and wildlife, but also the need for humans to connect with the realisation we are not in control, but life continues in a pattern.

Park Life – A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park by Rick Thompson

The book is set out as a walk through the calendar, the seasons as well as the physical park itself, reminding us of the natural way of things, with each month heralded with a delightful pen and ink drawing of a bird skilfully executed by the author.  Rick also divides each month into smaller sections each with a heading, which allows easy access to some anecdotes, allows a slow contemplative read, or a quick trot thorough at pace; altogether an entertaining read.

Rick’s affable and agreeable style provides a friendly conversational approach and you feel as if you are walking the route he describes so well.  St Nicholas Park in Warwick is a very particular place, described in detail and a beautiful hand drawn map allows the position and layout of the park to be visualised.  I am lucky enough to live very close and know the park well, but although seeming to be very parochial this companion to an urban park is universal.  Find a town or city in the British Isles, or further afield, and there is sure to be some green space at hand, of course the size and scope varies, but there will be nature in abundance, probably cultivated and manicured, but also wild and natural in places.  It will most likely have mature trees, shrubs and hedges, lawns and football pitches, and maybe, as in this park, some water.  Often a river or stream runs through, or an ornamental pond or fountain will be home to at least a duck or two, so the sightings and events described in Park Life will be replicated across our urban green space, if one takes time to stand, look and listen.  This book urges you to look that little bit further than the odd duck or sparrow and a wealth of surprises are available to discover if you invest the time.  The count of eighty different birds over a year in one park is remarkable.

August p103

These past few months of the coronavirus lockdown has reintroduced many of us to the delights of the wildlife around us.  The lack of noise pollution particularly, coupled with beautiful weather this spring, alerted us to the clamorous birdsong and Rick’s introduction of the sounds to concentrate on to identify the cetti’s warbler, or our familiar blackbird or robin is enlightening.  Blur’s assertion “It gives me a sense of enormous well-being” is also salient in the current crisis as Rick reminds us that his own personal experience of finding calm and solace in nature, with a place to ruminate and consider life, is echoed in recent research into the benefits of green space for our mental health.  The challenge to our usual, self-absorbing and ordinary life that the virus has brought is to find a new normal in strange times.  The natural world continues with its usual comings and goings, if a little off skew occasionally, but it is those moments we should treasure and take heed, be they beautiful or alarming.

The concern for the effects of climate change is an area Rick has on his agenda and the snippets of easy to understand information on the consequences playing out on our doorstep is alarming.  Changes in the pattern of migratory birds such as the chiffchaff with some now electing to stay in the UK as our winters remain warmer, and the black kite moving further into Europe and the UK.  At first these changes appear a bonus, but with the decline in numbers of other previously common birds such as the starling, the consequences on our local wildlife could be profound.

Rick’s tales of predators on the river reminds me of a walk along the nearby canal, a short flight for a bird from St Nicholas Park, where I was admiring a heron standing proud on the towpath.  Wondering if I should scare it away, approach with care or just stride boldly past I saw swimming towards me on the water a trail of swans and cygnets just as Rick describes parents to front and back with cygnets bobbling in a line between.  The heron took off and wheeled behind me, disappearing into the trees, solving my problem.  At least the swans were not interested in me this time as I have been warned off by them before.  As we passed on our way I was marvelling at the amazing moment when I heard a tremendous splashing, hissing and flapping behind me.  I turned just in time to see the heron dive into the middle of the line of cygnets and fly away with one wriggling in its huge beak.  It was indeed an amazing encounter.  I was intrigued by Rick’s sighting of a great white egret and wish I had known the details of identification he states, but I know now to look for the length of leg and the colour of feet.  I live between the park and the canal and lost a ghost koi from my pond one summer when a heron snaffled it from under the broken netting, it then became caught in the overgrown bamboo, before flying off with my fish for its breakfast.

Great to hear of the unexpected birds in the park and I have yet to see a parakeet in Warwick.  As a child I would visit my Auntie Betty who lived in Twickenham, near Kew Gardens as the crow flies, where the bright green screechy parakeets had set up home and colonised the area providing great amusement to myself.  Betty lived in Africa for many years and found it amusing too that she could wake up to the same sounds in both homes.  The spread of these birds over the world has been remarkable to the extent they are now replacing pigeons as prime nuisance in some cities.  I was interested to discover that a British natural predator for the parakeet is the peregrine falcon, also one of the breeds observed at length by Rick.  Maybe Warwick will be even more interesting if these two species establish themselves in the town.

Peregrine Falcon sketch by Rick Thompson

This year I have been delighted by the dynamic, excited visits of long-tailed tits to my bird feeder.  They arrive in flock chattering and twitching their tails like a group of marauding teenagers, flitting and getting in each others way until suddenly they are off all at once.  Rick as a fondness for collective nouns and in the absence of one for these birds in his book I thought I’d do my own research.  Some say there isn’t one, and others adopt something from another bird group, such as a murmuration, substituting tits for starlings, but I particularly liked the one suggested as a bosom of tits.

One issue I have with Rick is his rhyme on magpies!  I’ve never heard of “three for a letter”!  It’s always been “three for a girl” in my versions and definitely in the 1970s television programme.  I even searched YouTube for the introduction sequence to be sure!  There are differences of course as there usually are with oral folklore and songs, but does “letter” really scan?  I’m not keen on magpies after watching one systematically kill five or six baby blackbirds, stealing them from the nest one by one with the parent birds shrilling their alarm until all hatchlings were dead.  The magpie ate only one leaving the others strewn on the ground, which was very distressing for the blackbirds and me.

Magpie detail by Rick Thompson

Personally I enjoyed the literary references throughout.  My mind works in the same way and I am often reminded of lines of poetry, or the absorbing question of collective nouns.  Living in Warwickshire, Shakespeare country, often sparks a connection which the Park Life author is quick to quote.  Rick is generous, not only with his knowledge of ornithology, and the natural world, but also of climate change, politics and literature, not to mention sharing his binoculars with strangers to see kingfishers diving, (pre-Covid).  His personal delight in understanding the natural world is infectious.  I defy anyone who has read this book not to see or hear the urban park with a different perspective, whether you consider yourself an expert or novice naturalist or birdwatcher.

An interview with Rick Thompson talking about his book “Park Life – A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park” can be found on Luke’s English Podcast and the book is widely available at £10.

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