Unnatural Selection: An interview with Katrina van Grouw

Katrina van Grouw, author of Unnatural Selection

After her incredibly successful book The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw has recently finished Unnatural Selection, a beautiful combination of art, science and history. In this book, she celebrates the rapid changes breeders can bring about in domesticated animals. This was a topic of great interest to Charles Darwin, and it is no coincidence that Unnatural Selection is published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

In this post we talk with Katrina about her background, the work that goes into making a book and plans for the future

On your website, you write that you always had an interest in natural history, but that your talent in drawing made your teachers push you to pursue an art career, rather than studying biology. Did you ever consider a career as a scientific illustrator, something for which there must have been more of a market back then than there is now? If not, when and how did you decide to start combining your passion for biology with your talent as an artist?

No, I didn’t. There are several reasons for this; some a result of indoctrination, and others, decisions of my own.

There were two revelatory moments which brought art and science together for me and set the path for what was to come. Once when I’d rejected art and was sliding down a greasy pole into oblivion. And another, when I was an art student seeking direction. The first was at a zoo, and the second at a museum, and both were as vivid as a flash of light from the sky.

Even with art and natural history combined in my work, however, it was always in a fine art sense and never as an illustrator. I still don’t really identify with the term. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. I’m too self-obsessed for that! I lack imagination when it comes to commissioned work and can’t seem to generate much passion for other people’s projects, though I have the greatest respect for people who can do these things. I’m basically just no good at it!

Unnatural Selection intenal image 1You worked as curator of the bird skin collection of the London Natural History Museum. How did you end up there after an art degree?

How I ended up there is quite a long story. I do have a degree in art (two actually) but I also spent many years gaining valuable skills in practical ornithology that were precisely what the NHM needed; a combination of skills that was lacking in all the other applicants for the post.

I’d taught myself to prepare study skins and was good at it. I knew my way around the inside of a bird and had written a Masters’ thesis on bird anatomy (albeit aimed at artists). I was a qualified ringer who’d held an A class ringing permit for many years, which meant that I could age and sex birds accurately and knew how to take precise measurements consistent with other field workers. I’d taken part in ornithological expeditions in Africa and South America, so I had some first-hand experience of non-European birds. I’d worked in other museums. And I was a birder.

It’s a sad fact that one’s education often defines how a person is categorised for the remainder of their life, but self-taught skills, and hands-on experience can be worth far, far more. People often assume that artists can only ‘do art’ and nothing more, and that only people with a science degree are able to ‘do science’. A great many people are able to do both (though fewer questions are raised when it’s a qualified scientist who turns his/her hand to art!)

Unnatural Selection intenal image 2Your previous book, The Unfeathered Bird, took some 25 years from conception to publication, mostly as you found it very difficult to find a publisher. How did you manage to convince Princeton University Press to publish this book after so many rejections?

The quick answer is, because Princeton University Press is a publisher of vision and wisdom! (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that).

The full story is that the majority of publishers I approached had entrenched preconceptions about what an anatomy book should be and were unable to envisage anything that wasn’t a highly academic technical manual aimed at a niche audience. The book I had in mind was geared toward a much broader spectrum of bird lovers, including and especially bird artists. Additionally, I wanted it to be beautifully produced and aesthetically pleasing. So it wasn’t so much a problem of not being able to find a publisher, but not being able to find a publisher willing to think outside of the box. To answer the question: I didn’t actually need to convince Princeton –a fortuitous meeting lead to a great collaboration.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 3Your response to critics of breeding has been to counter their objection by saying “look at what nature has done to the sword-billed hummingbird!” which I thought was a sharp response. However, an animal welfare advocate might counter this argument by pointing out that natural selection can only push sword-billed hummingbirds so far. If this adaptation – the extension of the bill to retrieve nectar from ever deeper flower corollas – becomes maladaptive it will be selected against. Breeders, however, can select for traits that are maladaptive, because these animals grow up in an artificial environment where they are relieved of the pressures of natural selection. The shortened snouts and breathing problems of short-nosed dog breeds such as boxers come to mind. Obviously, if these traits become too extreme, the animals will not survive until reproductive age, but we can push them into a zone of discomfort and suffering through artificial breeding. What would your response to this be?

I’m an animal welfare advocate too. It’s difficult not to be when you keep animals and care for them every day. I too will freely admit that there are exhibition breeds in which artificial selection appears to have gone too far, resulting in health problems or discomfort. I can also appreciate that these problems might have their roots deeply embedded in history and culture and might be difficult to rectify without tearing down systems that would have devastating consequences to the entire fancy.

(Incidentally, the suffering of poultry selectively bred for the commercial meat industry is on a scale many thousands of times greater than the relatively low numbers of extreme pedigree breeds.)

The process of selecting out these physical defects will be a slow one and I think it’s important to support the work of breeders in this task. We can support them by trying to understand more about their world and by ceasing to attack them in gutter-press fashion with pseudo-scientific terms we don’t fully understand.

My book Unnatural Selection isn’t intended to voice personal opinions about animal welfare however. As the title suggests, it’s a book about evolution, based on and elaborating on the analogy that Darwin made between natural and artificial selection. For that reason I’ve discussed selective breeding solely within this evolutionary and historical context. It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding welfare issues; they simply weren’t relevant to the points I was discussing.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 4You write that the work on Unnatural Selection took six years of full-time work, around the clock. How long do you typically take to complete an illustration? And how do you manage to support yourself during this period, do you have freelance illustrations assignments on the side?

If I’m in-practice I can usually complete a full-page illustration in two or three days. There are 425 illustrations in Unnatural Selection, not forgetting the 84,000 words of text (somehow people always forget the text…). Not to mention thousands of hours’ research and background reading. Working like this is all-consuming, and definitely very unhealthy.

The fact is that non-fiction books taking so long to produce will never, ever, pay for themselves. Luckily Husband works full time, so we don’t actually starve, though I’d prefer to be able to contribute more financially to the household.

I would love to supplement my books with a part time job, but it certainly wouldn’t be illustrating! I dislike illustrating for other authors. I actually get far more pleasure from writing and I’m equally good at it, though this side of me is unfortunately often eclipsed by the artwork.

People talk in airy-fairy terms about the freedom and personal reward of being an artist transcending material gain, but it’s not like that at all. It’s not the actual poverty that’s damaging, but the feeling of inadequacy you get from working so hard, with such integrity, for so long, yet making no money.

The things that make it worthwhile are making those books exist at the end of it all, and having people tell me how grateful they are.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 5With two books now published by Princeton University Press, you seem to have started a very successful collaboration. How has the reception of this book been so far? Have you received nominations for prizes?

Boy, I’d love to win a prize! It’s still early days yet, so I’m ever-hopeful. To be honest though, I suspect I’m not the sort of person who wins prizes. Prizes seem to be dished out to academics and people whose career has been rather more conventional than mine. Like my books, I rather defy taxonomy and, even though we communicate science exceedingly well, few institutions would be brave enough to award a science writing prize to a self-taught scientist.

That’s not to say that we’re unpopular; quite the opposite. I’m proud to say that The Unfeathered Bird was embraced by a huge range of people: birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask makers, puppeteers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people, academic biologists and vets! The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people’s bodies, and I get very genuine letters of thanks from all manner of people, from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls.

Unnatural Selection is a far better book than The Unfeathered Bird. It has better art and better science and, unlike The Unfeathered Bird in which the images take the lead, Unnatural Selection is very much led by good scientific and historical text, with the images serving solely to illuminate and enhance what’s being said. Everyone who’s seen it so far says it’s stunning, and the reviews have all been excellent. I hope the scientific community will take it seriously and not dismiss it as merely a quaint and witty book with good pictures. It’s so much more than that.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 6Will you continue to work on more books in the future? And are you already willing to reveal what you are working on next?

In answer to your first question: definitely—though if you’d asked me that toward the end of The Unfeathered Bird I would probably have said no. That book was supposed to have been a one-off, and I’d been looking forward to resuming work as an artist afterwards. However, when the time came I found that I’d moved on. Producing pictures for their own sake no longer ‘did it for me’. Books, on the other hand tick all the boxes: creatively, intellectually; at every level.

It’s important to understand that these are not ‘art books’—they’re not collections of artwork made into a book. The book itself is the work of art, not the individual illustrations. They’re science books nevertheless. For me the challenge is communicating science in the best possible way and finding just the right unique angle for each book. I’m especially proud of Unnatural Selection which I think is the finest and most original thing I’ve ever created.

Unfortunately, large illustrated books take many years to produce so I probably won’t have sufficient time left to bring more than two or maybe three more into existence. After all, I’m no spring chicken.

I’ve already signed a contract with Princeton and begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Unfeathered Bird. The new book will have 400 pages (that’s 96 more than the first edition) and will include a lot of new material on bird evolution from feathered dinosaurs (which of course will be unfeathered feathered dinosaurs, if you see what I mean). There’ll be lots of new and replacement illustrations and the text will be completely re-written. The science will be better, but the book will still accessible to anyone and devoid of jargon. However, this shouldn’t put people off buying the original version—the new edition will be virtually a different book.

I’m also intending to write an autobiography/memoir type book focusing on the relationship between art, science, and illustration, and will be looking for a publisher for that. This won’t be illustrated though, so it would be a comparatively quick one!

Unnatural Selection has been published in June 2018 and is currently on offer for £26.99 (RRP £34.99).

 

Vaquita: An interview with Brooke Bessesen

Brooke Bessesen, author of Vaquita

In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.

In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.

The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?

I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.

The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?

The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.

Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?

Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.

You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?

I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.

As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?

Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.

Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?

Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.

One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.

I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.

With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?

Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez is due for publication in September 2018 and is currently available at the pre-publication price of £19.99 (RRP £22.99).

 

Conservation Volunteering at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary

NHBS’ core purpose is to support conservation. To this end, all NHBS staff members can apply for up to three days of paid time during each calendar year to spend on practical conservation projects of their choice. This month, customer services advisor Alice Mosley spent some time working at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary. Read all about her experiences below:

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary not only rescues and rehabilitates seal pups, but is also home to a variety of other marine animals who live there all year round.

“Earlier this month I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek as part of NHBS’ conservation volunteering scheme. As well as seal rescue and rehabilitation, the sanctuary has a huge focus on education of marine pollution, sustainability and how everyone can contribute to cleaning up our oceans.

The sanctuary at Gweek opened in 1975; the founders, Ken and Mary Jones had already been rescuing injured and abandoned seal pups at St Agnes for 17 years and needed a bigger site. It is nestled on the bank of the Helford River, at the entrance to the Lizard Peninsula, a Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Now owned by the charity The Sea Life Trust, the sanctuary focuses on the rescue and rehabilitation of seals from all over the UK. On average, 60-70 pups are rescued each winter but the last year saw over 80 successful rescues. It costs around £2000 to rehabilitate each seal pup, so you know exactly where your donations are going!

A number of seals are resident at the sanctuary all year round and require ongoing care.

The sanctuary has a fantastic rehabilitation success rate of around 98%, but some animal’s ongoing health problems or individual circumstances mean that they can never be re-released. This means that there are a number of resident seals that require care all year round. The sanctuary has also become a home for other animals and birds which have needed moving or re-homing for various reasons; it is home to nine Humboldt Penguins (conservation status: Vulnerable), four sea lions and two Asian short clawed otters (also classified as Vulnerable).

As a member of the animal care team for two weeks, most of the work I undertook was daily husbandry tasks for the animals, such as cleaning, food prep, feeding and enrichment. I was also introduced to the husbandry training that most of the resident animals undergo, which allows staff to look in the animals’ mouths, ask them to lift a flipper or tail for physical health checks, or voluntarily enter their transport cages. All training the resident animals undergo is beneficial to their overall health, while also keeping their mind active. This was particularly interesting to me as I will soon be studying both captive and wild animal behavior at University.

Alice performs a routine health check on one of the sanctuary’s residents.

While it was the wrong season for rescue and rehabilitation (pup season is September to March), I learned a great deal about working in the field of animal care while at the sanctuary. I was impressed by the dedication of all the staff, and the obvious happiness and wellbeing of the resident animals. If you are in the area, or need any more reasons to visit the stunning rugged coastlines of Cornwall, I’d highly recommend a visit to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary”.

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is located in Gweek Village in Cornwall (TR12 6UG). It is open 7 days a week (except Christmas Day) from 10am – 5pm (last admissions 4pm).

International Bat Weekend 2018

International Bat Weekend (formerly European Bat Night) has been celebrated since 1997 in 30 countries around the world. This two-day event is a fantastic chance for conservation groups and NGOs to raise the profile of bats and to educate the public about these fascinating, yet often misunderstood, nocturnal creatures. Events include presentations, exhibitions and bat walks which, in 2018, will be held over the weekend of the 25th-26th August.

An evening walk with a bat detector provides a great glimpse into the mysterious world of bats.

In the UK, events are organised by the Bat Conservation Trust and you can search for things happening near to you on the events section of their website. International events can be viewed on the Eurobats website.

The Bat Conservation Trust has also put together a helpful handout with lots of ideas for organising your own bat-related event. Perhaps you could even raise some money for the Trust to help them to continue the valuable work that they carry out to help bats in the UK. If you decide to hold an event, don’t forget to let them know so they can feature it on their website!

You might also like to check out our handy guide to find out more about how you can help your local bats.

The Marine Biological Association’s 10th Annual Bioblitz

On the weekend of the 13th – 14th July, a small team of staff from NHBS attended the Marine Biological Association’s 10th Annual Bioblitz which took place at Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo on the Devon coast.

View of Newton Ferrers from Noss Mayo Harbour. Image by Oli Haines.

This stunning area, which features a tidal estuary with its many associated creeks, secluded beaches, cliffs and woodland, has long been celebrated as an area of beauty and natural diversity and is designated as an Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB). In recognition of the area’s diverse and high-quality habitats, the Yealm estuary is also a Special Area of Conservation, all of the intertidal mudflats and the woodland around the coastal path are classed as Priority Habitat and a proportion of the region has also been selected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

This year’s Bioblitz featured a huge range and variety of activities for children and adults of all ages; including whale and dolphin watching, reptile, butterfly, bug and fish surveys, stream dipping, nocturnal walks looking for bats, owls and glow worms, moth trapping and much more.

Keep reading for accounts from NHBS team members Kat, Soma and Bryony about the activities that they enjoyed over the weekend.

Editorial Assistant Kat Clayton took part in a crabbing competition on Friday evening:

“As the sun began to lower it was time for the crabbing competition. Conveniently situated on a pier by The Ship Inn at Noss Creek, this event sure was popular with the locals! The aim of the game was to catch the biggest crab and, along the way, survey the population of the Green Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas) around the pier. Children were wet-suited up and were not afraid of swimming off with their bait to find the best spot. After depositing their bait, they quickly swam back to the pier to reel in their catch. A twist on the mark-capture-release method was used, where the marking consisted of a dab of lipstick on the carapace of an unsuspecting crab. Bacon was flung as bait, children were dripping on the recording sheets and lipstick found itself on most peoples’ fingers and t-shirts. This organised chaos was much loved by all and I’m sure it will become a regular annual event. As this was a BioBlitz however, other species were recorded too, such as the sea slater (Ligia oceanica). Secretly, we were all hoping to see the crab parasitic barnacle Sacculina – which this year remained elusive”.

As well as the popular woodland walk, the list of activities included a dusk bird and bat walk. Image by Oli Haines.

Marketing Coordinator Soma Mitra-Chubb went along to the Bioblitz on Sunday with her children to take part in the Ancient Woodland walk:

“On Sunday, we joined in an Ancient Woodland walk. Ancient woodlands are those which have existed since the early 1600s and are the UK’s richest land-based habitat for wildlife. Our aim was to spot as many different types of trees and plants as possible, so off we went armed with our recording sheets.

Our walk took us through the beautiful Newton Woods running alongside the river Yealm. Fiona, our guide, set the younger children (and some adults) the task of collecting as many different leaves as possible which were gathered in a pile. We spotted leaves from cedar, ash, pine, oak, and a host of smaller plants including a nettle which was collected by one brave child. (There were, alas, no dock leaves to be found, triggering a discussion on why, in nature, you often find both poison and antidote growing next to each other). Some unusual finds included wild strawberries, and a herb named Robert.

It was a delightful walk, helped by the brilliant weather and congenial company. Unfortunately, as the walk overran, we were forced to turn back at the halfway point. We will be returning to Newton Woods to complete the walk at a later date!”

Bryony stands ready to help at the NHBS stall. Image by Oli Haines.

Wildlife Equipment Specialist Bryony attended the Bioblitz, both to take part in the activities and to provide a friendly face behind the NHBS stand, which offered a great range of wildlife survey equipment and identification guides for sale at the event:

“The MBA’s BioBlitz was a fantastic event to be a part of! It aimed to encourage more people to get involved in nature conservation and raise awareness of the abundance of wildlife on their doorstep.

Children, ecologists, naturalists and enthusiasts all got involved, no matter the age or the background. Activities were constantly on the go, wellies marched onwards to location after location on the search for more species; buckets, field guides and nets in hand. Marine, land-based, air-borne and tidal were all explored and examined.

Having the NHBS stall at such an active event was brilliant as we were able to provide inspiration to children, ecologists and families. We sold all manner of items enabling everyone to get closer to nature and to experience it first-hand. Our Educational Rock Pooling Kits and Pond Dipping Kits were a great success, along with bug magnification pots and pooters. Ecologists loved the new books that we had, aiding identification of all manners of sponges, seaweeds and lichens.

We were also able to answer questions, show children how to use the equipment and partake in the activities ourselves.”

The Bioblitz Research Hub. Image by Oli Haines.

Photos and highlights from the BioBlitz will be showcased in a celebration of the diversity of life along the Yealm at an event in the WI Hall in Newton Ferrers on Saturday 13th October. Everyone is welcome to drop in between 11am-4pm, with tea and cake being served.

The Bioblitz was organised by the Marine Biological Association and was supported by the Royal Society of Biology, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Yealm Waterside Homes.

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds arrives at NHBS

After 18 years in preparation, the highly anticipated two-volume Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds is now in stock and available from NHBS. Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics behind the arrival of such an exciting title.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds

Due to the incredible popularity of this book, four members of our staff dedicated three entire days to unpacking eight pallets of books, carefully repacking them and dispatching them to our eagerly awaiting customers.

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, just arrived at the NHBS warehouse.

Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at how this all happened.

We still have plenty of copies of the Handbook in stock, so order now and take advantage of our special price.

 

An NHBS field trip – searching for Nightjars

This week a small group of us took a trip to Dartmoor to try and catch a glimpse of Nightjars. As well as getting a chance to see one of the UK’s most elusive birds this was also a great opportunity to field test some of the equipment we sell.

Heading out to Dartmoor in the evening. Image by Oliver Haines.

Nightjars are cryptic, nocturnal birds that arrive in the UK in May to breed before migrating south in September. For the best chance to see these amazing creatures you need to head to heathland, moorland or open woodland on a warm, still evening. If you are early enough in the season you may also get a chance to see the males displaying, showcasing a repertoire of wing claps and churring.

This great selection of equipment meant that we could look out for bats and moths as well as Nightjars. Image by Oliver Haines.

So what did we pack for an evening of Nightjar watching? Our kit bag is below:

Wildlife Equipment Manager Steve sets up the SM4 Acoustic Recorder. Image by Oliver Haines.

Looking for moths using a simple torch and white sheet. Image by Oliver Haines.

At the site we visited we were lucky enough to see 2-3 males displaying and, despite the low light conditions, the binoculars were extremely useful for picking out individuals on branches. We were also able to capture some great audio recordings with the SM4 Acoustic recorder which we deployed for a few hours. A sample audio clip from the SM4 can be found below. The Tascam allowed us to record as we watched the nightjars displaying, giving us the chance to record all parts of the display. During the walk back we started up a couple of the bat detectors and were greeted by a few different species including noctules and pipistrelles.


Images by Oliver Haines and from Nightjars of the World.

What would we take next time?

A parabolic microphone (Telinga PRO-X or Hi-Sound Mono Parabolic Microphone) would have been extremely useful for getting some high-quality recordings. Although the Tascam worked well by itself, a highly directional parabolic microphone would have allowed us to get higher quality recordings and reduce background noise.

The binoculars performed fairly well given the low light conditions but on the next trip I would be really interested in testing a night vision scope such as the Pulsar Digiforce 860RT as a way to try and spot perched nightjars later into the evening.

Nightjar chicks in their nest on the ground. Image by Oliver Haines.

We had a great evening observing these fascinating birds and I highly recommend it. Nightjar populations have been recovering recently but they are still an amber listed species. They are highly sensitive to habitat change and, since they nest on the ground, are particularly vulnerable to disturbance from people and dogs. So if you decide to go and observe the Nightjars displaying this summer please be mindful, stick to paths and keep dogs on leads. More information on Nightjar conservation and identification can be found on the RSPB website.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Interview with Lars Svensson and Hadoram Shirihai

Handbook of Western Palearctic BirdsThe much anticipated Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines has been eighteen years in the making and after extensive research, exhaustive travel and years of dedication, it will finally be available at the end of July 2018. We were lucky enough to catch up with the authors Lars Svensson and Hadoram Shirihai to ask them some questions just weeks before the book is due to be published.

In this exclusive interview, Lars and Hadoram share their ambitions, endeavours and aspirations for this landmark publication.

Eighteen years in the making, The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines is one of the few truly remarkable publishing projects in ornithology. How does this work compare to the Birds of the Western Palearctic series published between 1977 and 1994 by Oxford University Press?

Lars: Let us say that in my case only 15 of these 18 years were spent on the new handbook. I was involved in doing the second edition of the Collins Bird Guide and some other minor projects as well within the time span. But even so, 15 years is a long time for one single book project! Still, if you would ask around among authors behind more ambitious handbooks and group monographs I am sure most would agree that it takes longer than many anticipate to create reference books of this kind. For me, the first edition of the ringers’ guide took at least seven years to create and the Bird Guide about twelve (and then I did not have to paint a single plate; Killian and Dan did that work so excellently!).

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds (HWPB) focuses on identification, vocalisations, ageing and sexing, moult, geographical variation and taxonomy, with brief summaries of summer and winter ranges, whereas BWP covers also social pattern and behaviour, breeding biology, population size and food, all in a very detailed and scholarly fashion with local variations and references. You could say that HWPB is tailor-made for the ordinary birdwatcher and twitcher who wants an up-to-date summary of what is known about identification, ageing, sexing and taxonomy of each species. This does not say that it could not be useful also for museum workers and other professionals!

There are a few other important differences. We, Hadoram Shirihai and I, decided it was time for a handbook entirely illustrated with photographs. Camera standards had developed significantly in the 90s, and through the internet more and more brilliant bird photographs were shared. The potential was clearly there to portray all species within a large region with all plumages and geographical variation covered in photographs. Secondly, we thought it was a good opportunity to give brief summaries of the various subspecies that were deemed distinct enough to be upheld. Many subspecies in the contemporary handbooks and checklists we thought were extremely subtle or even impossible to separate from neighbouring subspecies, and we set off to independently check the validity of all subspecies in museum collections. Applying the so-called ‘75% rule’ (meaning that at least 3/4 of all individuals should be possible to distinguish based on morphology) we ended up discarding c. 15% of all subspecies as synonyms compared to other handbooks and major checklists.

Hadoram: At least as I see it, BWP was made some 20-30 years ago when it was still possible to squeeze information into one project – on distribution, population estimates, atlas, ecology, seasonal biology, behaviour, voice, and so on, as well as identification and variation (but with generally only very basic illustrations, paintings) – and to be satisfied with it!

With so much new information on identification, vocalisations, ageing and sexing, moult, geographical variation and taxonomy (and in parallel the development of revolutionary digital photography), an updated modern handbook of these issues was needed.

In order to illustrate these issues properly and fully, it required a lot of space, for 5-49 images per species (depending on extent of variation). Just for the Passerines it required two volumes, that includes c 5000 images, made by some 800 photographers! Surely it then becomes the most complete photographic handbook for any region.

 What was the biggest challenge in accomplishing this benchmark work?

Lars: To assemble the many photographs (there are well over 4000 photographs together in the two passerine volumes) and to achieve full coverage of male and female, young and adult, sometimes also in both spring and autumn, plus examples of distinct subspecies, was of course a major challenge. Hadoram was in charge of this and did a great job, and we got good support from our publisher setting up a home page for the project where photographers could see what we still needed photographs of. Thanks to the prolonged production, many gaps (if not all!) were filled during our course.

But the biggest challenge was undoubtedly to manage our goal to independently examine all commonly described subspecies. This led us to visit about 15 different museums with for me sometimes biannual sessions both in Tring and New York (the two largest bird skin collections in the world) with visits also to Paris, Stockholm, Leiden, Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Almaty and Bonn, to name some other places. Hadoram made targeted visits also to the museums in Vienna and Tel Aviv to seek answers to specific questions. Apart from the considerable expenses for these travels that we took on, the main difficulty was to find enough specimens of some rarer subspecies. Our aim was to examine at least 12 specimens of each sex of each named subspecies. We managed this for the vast majority, and sometimes examined series of each sex in three figure numbers, but for a very few we could not reach the minimum level. However, we did our best and we state sample sizes for all taxa in the handbook.

Hadoram: Lars described in his answers very well, the combined efforts with the museum collections work and building the photographic collections and selections for the project.

I may add that the biggest challenge and achievement of this handbook is that it provides to field users masses of new and updated information on variation that is now – 1. available, and – 2. more visible due to improved optics and digital photography. But at the same time, in a balanced approach and focus about what also observers can see and use. In other words, HWPB provides the observer with much new information that he can see and analyse while examining a bird in the field, or when processing their images back home.

You have worked in the field for many years, what would you highlight as the most profound change to the practice of identifying and recording birds? What will be the biggest challenge for ornithologists in years to come?

Lars: Digital photography and the existence of internet and websites for documentation and discussion of bird images are the main changes compared to when I started as a birdwatcher. This has speeded up the exchange of news and knowledge in a remarkable way. True, field-guides and birding journals keep offering better and better advice on tricky identification problems, and optical aids have developed to a much higher standard than say 50 years ago. But the new cameras with stabilised lenses and autofocus have meant a lot and have enabled so-called ‘ordinary’ birders to take excellent photographs. This has broadened the cadre of photographers and multiplied the production of top class images of previously rarely photographed species. Which of course made HWPB possible. The handbook is a wonderful testimony to the high standard of bird photography today, also beyond the ranks of so-called professional photographers.

The biggest challenge in years to come will be to identify the new species, which are nowadays nearly always the result of taxonomic decisions and splits of an existing species containing rather distinct geographical variation. Thus previous subspecies are elevated to full species, and by the very nature of it they are often look-alikes.

Linked to this is the problem of different species concepts when various authorities or published checklists are consulted. Although one universally adopted taxonomic list could seem desirable for facilitated communication and for consistent conservation efforts between countries, differences of opinion have always had the positive effect of generating more research and interest. So taxonomic agreement is recommendable up to a point.

What’s next for you? 

Lars: I have planned for many years now to revise my ringers’ guide and produce a fifth edition of it. It is now taxonomically obsolete, but works quite well as to ageing and sexing if you asked me. Amazingly, this book has been alone on the market for over 40 years, and only got its first challenger the other year. After all, the first edition was published in 1970. Now a lot of the offered advice could be improved or refined, and I have started to spend time at the Ottenby Bird Observatory to sharpen up my eyes and knowledge again.

And of course there are the non-passerines for HWPB to do as well. I will not be a true retired man for many years to come yet! I am guaranteed an interesting and varied old age!

I also confess to holding a lifelong interest in bird vocalisation, and I do spend time with my Telinga parabolic microphone and recorder trying to obtain missing sounds, or to improve what I already have. A very relaxing way of birding for me, although I cannot help noticing how disturbance from anthropogenic noise is making good recordings harder and harder to achieve.

Then birds are not everything in my life (but much!). I am a keen Bordeaux wine admirer, and I still play some golf. In other words I am not idle. There is not a day in my life that is not full of activities.

Hadoram: Before I get too old…I am now focusing on completing two main projects for the same publisher:

The HWPB Non-Passerines: it will also come in two volumes, but this time around we are inviting a group of expert authors, with the idea to publish one volume every 3 or 4 years.

The Tubenoses Monograph: already more than 20 years in the making. By now I have seen at sea (and often also on land with live birds) all the taxa, including all species and subspecies of albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and storm petrels of the world (and examined most of the largest collections too). So I am now writing it with my co-author Vincent Bretagnolle and Tim Worfolk (artist) who has already illustrated many of the plates.

Written by two of the world’s most respected ornithologists, this landmark handbook has been highly anticipated for many years and, as of publication, will be the most complete and comprehensive photographic guide to the passerines of the Western Palearctic.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines (2 Volume Set)

Hardback | #152433
ISBN-13: 9780713645712
Available for pre-order
Due July 2018 
Pre-pub offer £130.00 £150.00

Conservation Volunteering at Ambios Farm and Wildlife Fayre

At NHBS, all members of staff have the opportunity to partake in conservation volunteering days as part of the company’s philanthropic initiative to carry out nature conservation locally. As part of this initiative, I recently chose to volunteer at an event for a cause that is close to my heart nearby in Totnes.

On Friday 8th June, I volunteered at a Farm and Wildlife Fayre run by Ambios, an organisation that provides education and volunteering opportunities in nature conservation in the UK and abroad. Set in the beautiful Sharpham Estate, with the river Dart and rolling hills surrounding the farm, it was the perfect setting to engage others in nature conservation. This place is special to me, as this is where my initial nature conservation training began before I joined NHBS in 2017. Below is a video of the Wildlife Fayre filmed by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films.

At the Wildlife Fayre I worked alongside conservation volunteers, knowledgeable experts in the field and the charity, United Response, who provide a range of support services for individuals with physical and learning difficulties. The aim of the event was to get a wider audience of people involved in nature conservation by allowing them to take part in accessible activities that help individuals to get up-close and personal with local wildlife. More than 200 children and young adults from special needs schools and colleges attended, in addition to young families from the local area.

Engaging and educational activities drew in crowds, including bug hunts, bird box making, forest school sessions, green woodworking and plant identification. The air was filled with excitement as children and adults alike rushed around with their newly carved spatulas and bird boxes. Footsteps hurried as groups rushed between activities with freshly picked produce from the farm in their hands.

Photo by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films
Photo by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films

The farm office was transformed into a wildlife information hub, which hosted an array of interesting finds. Through microscopes you were transported into another world where you could view bumblebees and Garden Chafer Beetles at close range.

Tanks held Palmate Newts hiding amongst curtains of pond weed and field guides lay next to plaster-cast footprints of creatures who had visited the farm. In one corner, a table was covered with flora found locally for anyone wishing to test their plant identification skills. In another, an array of uncommonly seen finds were lined up including the skulls of animals and tightly woven dormouse nests.

Something that really drew me in were the screens in the wildlife information hub which displayed stories of the wild residents of Sharpham, including nest box inhabitants and various small mammals. You could watch a timeline of Blue Tits building their nest and sitting on eggs. Later you saw the chicks being fed, strengthening their wings and finally fledging!

My responsibilities whilst volunteering at the event revolved around providing support and an extra pair of hands. I helped groups to move between activities and demonstrated how to use tools and equipment such as nets and pooters. At NHBS I work as a Wildlife Equipment Specialist, so it was great to be able to show others first-hand how to use the equipment that we have access to every day. It was lovely to see how excited the children got about using the equipment to get closer to nature.

Photo by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films

The Farm and Wildlife Fayre was a fantastic success! The event proved to be a brilliant way of captivating young minds and introducing them to the natural world. By partaking in accessible activities, each person felt confident enough to try something new and learnt a great deal along the way.

Photo by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films

Ambios Director and Farm Manager said,

“Our farm and wildlife fayre was a huge success – we are delighted! We had nearly 200 people over the day, from all walks of life experiencing what we do at lower sharpham farm, and getting up close and personal with wildlife as well as getting to know our farm animals. Our farming practice aims to prioritise wildlife, and we are delighted to share our work and our story with a wide audience. Our next event will be a barn dance in the late summer, so watch this space!”

Photo by Ross Gill of Fresh Ground Films

It was great to be involved and I love to think that if this event has inspired just one person to appreciate and protect nature a little further, then it was all worth it!

Stay tuned for more volunteer event posts from my colleagues at NHBS as they embark on their own conservation volunteering days.

To find out more about NHBS’s approach to philanthropic work, please follow this link. For more information about the work that Ambios does, please follow this link.

Start to Identify Grasses: An Interview With Faith Anstey

Faith Anstey is the author of the Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families and Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers.  In her latest book, Start to Identify Grasses, Faith turns her attention to grasses.

Faith Anstey
Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Start to Identify Grasses

 

 

Faith has coined the word ‘kleidophobia’ to mean ‘a fear of keys’, and it surely applies to many enthusiasts who would like to become more proficient at identifying plants, but are put off by the complexity of the customary botanical system of keys. So she has developed new ways of approaching ID that keep those daunting keys to a minimum.

To mark her new book and to encourage more people to discover the botanical wonders around them, we asked Faith a few questions about her writing and her life-long passion for botany.

What makes your books different from the usual field guides?

My books are not field guides at all. A field guide gives you a list of plant names, with pictures and descriptions, sometimes with a brief introduction. My books are all introduction: to field botany in general, to plant families and to grasses (maybe sedges and rushes next year . . .). A beginner armed only with a field guide has either to work their way from scratch through complicated keys, or to play snap: plant in one hand, book in the other; turn the pages until you find a picture that matches – ‘snap!’ By contrast, my books lead you into plant identification by logical routes, showing you where to look and what to look for. Their aim is to show you how to do ID for yourself.

What field guides would you recommend to use with your own guides?

Collins Wild Flower Guide

My personal favourite for beginners and improvers is the Collins Wildflower Guide (2016). This covers the whole range of wild plants including grasses, sedges and so on. It has keys that are well-organised and relatively easy to follow, and the ‘pics and scrips’ are accurate and helpful. Of course, Stace (3rd edition) is the botanists’ bible but it is rather daunting for beginners. I am also a great fan of Marjorie Blamey’s paintings in, for example, Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. For more detailed help with grasses & co, Francis Rose’s Colour Identification Guide has excellent keys and illustrations, suitable for most levels of experience.

What would be your best advice to anybody wishing to take their first steps towards identifying plants?

If you possibly can, go on a workshop for a day, a weekend or even a whole week. Having a real live person giving enthusiastic teaching, someone to answer all your questions and fresh plants to study is the best thing you can do. Look for a local botany or natural history group you can join, and go on their field meetings. When you get even a little more serious about your study, join Plantlife and/or the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. Identiplant is a very good online course but it is not really suitable for absolute beginners. Be a bit careful with apps and websites: some are incredibly complex, some seem to be aimed at five-year-olds, others are just inaccurate and misleading. The best ID websites I am aware of are run by the BSBI, the Natural History Museum and The Open University.

What are the easiest mistakes a beginner can make when trying to identify plants?

The most common mistake is to look only at the ‘flower’ – the showy bit with colourful petals – to try and identify it. To really pin it down, you need to study the whole plant: how the flowers are arranged, characteristics of the leaves and stem, how and where the plant is growing, and even what time of year it is. So long as there is plenty, please don’t be afraid to pick some to take home and study. The general rule on public land is: if there are 20 of the plant in question you can pick one, if 40, two and so on. Try to take the complete plant from ground level up – but don’t uproot it: that’s how the Victorians brought so many species to their knees. Photographs can be a big help, but remember to take several: whole plant, close-up of the flower, details of a leaf and so on.

What is the main threat to the diversity of wild flowers and grasses and what can be done to mitigate any decline?

The main threat is not people picking a few to study, or even simply to enjoy at home. Climate change is, of course, a threat in one sense, but I believe we shouldn’t necessarily dread the rise of ‘aliens’ from warmer climates which are now able to establish themselves here. Every plant in Britain was once an alien, after the last Ice Age ended, and I would rather learn to live with change than blindly try to turn the clock back. There may be a few exceptions like Japanese Knotweed, but their evils are often exaggerated and some natives like bracken can be equally invasive. The real problem we face is habitat loss: to house-building and industry, land drainage, vast monocultural fields without headlands, destruction of ancient forests and so on. And this is an area where watchfulness and action really can make a difference.

Have you ever had any bad or unusual experiences while out identifying plants?

Well, I nearly drowned once. I was botanising on my own in Glen Lyon, beside the rushing ‘white water’ of the River Lyon. There were plenty of large rocks above the water level that I thought I could use as stepping stones across the river. But I lost my footing on a slippery rock and was instantly immersed in the icy torrent. Luckily I was obeying the three-holds rule and my two hands were still clinging firmly to rocks. I quickly realised that, with heavy boots on, if I didn’t get up on a rock fairly soon I was likely to be swept to my doom. No good screaming either: the roar of the water would make that a fruitless exercise. Twice I heaved on my arms and failed to get clear of the water, but on the third try I managed to haul myself out and eventually get back to the bank. The first thing I examined was the sodden notebook in my waterlogged pocket, but my botanical notes were still legible, so it was a happy ending!

Faith’s new book Start to Identify Grasses is available now from NHBS

Start to Identify Grasses
Paperback | May 2018
£3.50

 

 

 

Also by Faith Anstey…

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
Paperback | January 2016
£5.99

 

 

Flowers in the Field: How to Find, Identify and Enjoy Wild Flowers
Paperback | May 2010
£12.99

 

 

Great offers on further reading for improvers and experts alike…

Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | 2016 | £18.99 £24.99
Hardback | 2016 | £29.99 £39.99

 

 

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | May 2013
£13.99 £18.99

 

 

 

New Flora of the British Isles
Paperback | 2010
£59.99

 

 

 

Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North-Western Europe
Paperback | 1989
£39.99 £49.99

 

 

Faith Anstey in Ardnamurchan, Scotland

Enjoy your time in the field discovering and identifying the wild plants around you…

 

 

Please note that all prices stated in this blog post are correct at the time of publishing but are subject to change at any time.