The red grouse is a very British bird. I say that not because it encapsulates anything particularly British (although it is widely known as the logo of The Famous Grouse whisky), but because it is found nowhere else in the world apart from the British Isles. However, although it was once thought to be its own separate species, most experts now believe that the red grouse is actually a distinct race of the willow ptarmigan, which lives elsewhere in northern Europe, Asia and America.
Most of the lockdown restrictions here in the UK have now ended. The city of Exeter is once again bustling with activity, as people flock to the centre to do some shopping, meet up with friends, or visit the newly-reopened restaurants. But on this particular day, Alex and I were here for none of those reasons. For us, this cathedral city was merely the starting point for what would be our longest walk so far: nearly 12 miles along the River Exe to the village of Starcross.
Charismatic and somewhat clownish, with a bizarre multicoloured beak, upright stance, and a waddling gait, the puffin is everyone’s favourite seabird. These irresistibly charming, pint-sized auks are easily identifiable, even to non-birdwatchers. But despite their popularity – and even though there are more than a million puffins breeding around the British Isles – few people have actually seen one.
Directly above me, as I write this at my desk, there is a herring gull nest. I can’t see it, of course, because it’s on the roof created by the bay windows of my flat as they jut out slightly from the building. But I saw the parent birds flying back and forth to the site for several days, bringing nesting material, and from across the street, I can just about see an adult hunkered down on the nest.
Last year, I wrote an article about five birds with brilliant but bizarre beaks – from the wrybill, which has a bill that bends to the side, to the impressive shoebill, which has a massive, hook-tipped monster of a beak that is perfect for catching and holding onto large, slippery fish. But picking only five beaks to include in the list proved difficult, and there were several birds that I initially considered that were eventually cut from the final selection.