Clouds poured slowly over barren oak branches as screaming filled the autumn air. It scattered from left to right through the twiggy maze. Of course, there could only be one culprit. The only birds known to Britain’s wild landscape with that level of carelessness for the volume of their voice.
Often heard before they’re seen, I spotted the lime green stroke of the ring-necked parakeet as it hopped branches, responding to its neighbour four trees away. These birds flood the skies of tropical climates in India, across dense plains in Africa, and urban jungles in Britain. They are not native to the British environment, but have settled into London very comfortably. With speculations of their origin ranging from fugitive pets to Jimi Hendrix’s release of two birds on Carnaby Street in the 60’s, no one truly knows how they got here.
They have mastered the art of projecting their voice with little effort through their body, the only clue that they are the source of it being a short, effortless crack of the beak. I looked over to the neighbour, a confident bird perched beside a third who was lost in song. Since many of Britain’s birds of prey have developed an exotic taste for these parakeets, I admired their confidence and carelessness in drawing attention to themselves. The neighbouring crows did not, chasing them off as the parakeets neared closer, screaming in their faces. The crows, not holding a strong reputation of keeping quiet themselves, crowed back at the parakeets in frustrated competition of who can be the loudest.
Exotic isn’t usually the first word that pops to mind when we think of Britain’s nature. When we think exotic, we think foreign, inaccessible, exciting. We think extreme climates, dense habitats and bright colours. Exotic refers to the unusual and out of the ordinary. It’s the lions that once crowded caves in Yorkshire, the wolves that roamed Scottish plains, the rhinos that flocked in Trafalgar Square. It’s the creatures that fill our zoos today, the colours and patterns that stock our pet shops and the statues that tower over us in museums. We fascinate ourselves with what we have lost and what we can’t reach, leaving what we have left as forgotten. Whether they arrived through man’s intervention, off their own accord, or have been here longer than our ancestors, they become normal. The colours fade and the excitement wears thin.
I grew up in the city, never truly understanding the exotics of what existed right on my doorstep. While nature holds a great presence over our everyday, it was presented to me as alien and amazing, enclosed into places to visit. The knowledge of the exotic history of our land was filed away with dinosaurs and the creation of the earth – all evidently true but forgotten history to our everyday lives. Today, stories of rumoured panthers patrolling Hertfordshire regularly pop up on our news feeds and campaigns to re-introduce wolves and lynx make their way into our headlines. They stir conversation and speculation over the truth, excitement and fear. Whichever side of the fence you are on, what is it about these stories, places and animals that are more ‘exotic’ to us, catching our attention more, than the existing wildlife that we share our spaces with? I had decided that, to find anything close to an answer, I would spend a day outside in one of London’s many parks. I began my search for the exotic.
I walked through a minefield of perfectly scattered goal posts, hosting black headed gulls neatly perched along the poles. The gulls had shed their ‘black’ (or more accurately, brown) head for the winter, replacing it with white feathers and ears smeared with a chocolate patch. They sat, daydreaming in my direction. Some were treading along the grass, looking for something to eat. They were far from the sea. Of all the ‘sea gulls’, the black headed gulls are the most commonly seen away from the coast. While they reside in Britain throughout the year, their populations increase as the temperatures decrease each winter. Migrants travel over the seas from Europe, attracted to Britain’s short and frosted days.
As they searched the ground, a single starling landed beside them. The sun reflected green and purple off its feathers. The upcoming winter had speckled white flakes across its coat. It stabbed its beak into the soil, cracking it open to collect the insects that would fill its stomach. Its success attracted another flash of speckled iridescence, and another, until they outnumbered the roaming gulls. The gulls had stopped searching and lingered close, overlooking the starlings. They covered the ground as a team, clearing one patch and hopping in perfect synchronicity to the next. One starling found a worm, the jackpot of these grassy food pits. Within seconds, every bird in sight was charging for the prize. The starling took off, staying low, faced with the challenge of keeping its worm and eating in peace. The worm dangled loosely from its beak as it threw its head back and swallowed the prize whole. Stomach full, it calmly lowered back to the ground, returning to the community of gulls and starlings. They continued to forage, collectively but alone.
Britain welcomes numbers of migrating wildlife each year. By definition they are foreign, though what is it about our perceptions that exclude them from the exotic? Is it the lack of visual aesthetic or threat level? As I watched a kestrel, its curved beak and rounded talons ring fear and panic into the surrounding songbirds, I considered the place that Britain’s predators hold in the landscape. While it’s true that Britain’s eco-systems lack apex predators allowing prey populations of animals such as deer to explode and overgraze the land, the elusive birds of prey, including this kestrel, help to control the populations of the smaller creatures that the landscapes host. I watched the kestrel hover, its body static, black-tipped tail fanned and wings beating against the wind. Black tears stained under its buttoned eyes, it scanned the undergrowth for the slightest movement that would give away the life of its next rodent meal. It had little luck on this side of the park. It rested on a branch momentarily, recharging its energy, and within moments it was a black speck fading away on the other side of the park.
Today, one of Britain’s largest land dwelling predatory mammals is the red fox, one of few survivors left from the long list of historical predators that inhabited the landscape. Optimistic campaigners working to ‘re-wild’ our environment are keen to reintroduce its relative, the wolf, in hopes to restore parts of the land to what it used to be. While the Yellowstone National Park in the United States is a famously successful example of the positive changes wolves can bring to an ecosystem, the reception of these plans are flooded with worry and skepticism from Britain’s population. However, rumours that have been circling for years that our land may already host an exotic predator have increased in recent times. Flurries of witness accounts claim elusive ‘big cat’ sightings that resemble lynx or, more commonly, panthers are reported regularly across Britain. Other than the captured cats found to be escapees from exotic collections, evidence for the existence of the cats are scarce and hold little credibility, despite each witness’ certainty of what they had seen.
I circled around the edge of a lake, watching the brown rats dart along the forest floor of fallen leaves with noisy rustles as I disturbed their hurried lifestyles. Outside the comforts of my home they were comical to watch. The forest met the edge of the lake as I noticed one particularly curious, large brown rump sticking out through the crusted leaf litter. It was digging with strong intent, but going nowhere. I watched in anticipation, wondering what its next move would be. Its body shuffled and out from the leaves popped a small, rounded face. It was missing the rat’s pointed nose and large ears. My mind screamed water vole as the scrunched face stared back at me with small, beaded eyes before darting away into the woodland maze. One of Britain’s fastest declining mammals, the water vole is challenged by habitat loss and falling prey to the non-native American mink. They are often found near reed-beds and rivers, not woodland habitats. Water vole sightings in the park were few, the last recorded sighting being three years ago along a river, under a mile away. As unlikely as it may have been, I was certain that what I had seen was a water vole, however the mystery of its true identity remains blurred in the flash that it had disappeared in. I continued to stare at the, now lifeless, patch of fallen leaves and reflected on the similar encounters that others may have had of undiscovered and unfamiliar species, be it big cat or small mammal.
The sky reflected crimson above me, warming the approach of the cold evening ahead. As the sun lowered itself into the cityscape, I walked past patches of trees and across the yellow green grassy fields, bringing an end to the day of my search for the exotic. I considered the encounters that a single day held, from the Afro-Asian parakeets that call London home to the iridescence of hungry starlings, the fierce glare of the kestrel to the mystery of the water vole. The darkness eased in and I neared the edge of the park, when a green woodpecker gracefully dipped across the field, over my head and into the trees. While Britain may not be typically exotic to its residents or its visitors, it hosts an array of mystery, excitement and colour that blend into our busy lives, full of quirks waiting to be re-discovered.
In Winter 2018, Exotic Britain was printed and exhibited as a hand bound photo-book, along with framed prints of selected photographs.