Greenery: An interview with Tim Dee

Tim Dee is a naturalist, radio producer, and author of Fourfields, The Running Sky and Landfill. His latest book, Greenery, is a poetic hymn to spring time, a masterpiece of nature writing that is deeply informed and profoundly beautiful.

Between the winter and the summer solstice in Europe, spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight. That is also close to human walking pace. In the light of these happy coincidences, Greenery recounts how Tim Dee travels with the season and its migratory birds, out of Africa from their wintering quarters in South Africa, through their staging places in Chad and Ethiopia, across the colossal and incomprehensible Sahara, and on into Europe. Tim Dee has answered questions about this remarkable journey.

For those who don’t know, you have published three other major titles on green spaces and birds- Landfill, The Running Sky, and Four Fields. Following from these, how did the idea to travel with spring and its migratory birds come about? And how does Greenery differ from your previous books?

My last book was Landfill, a sort of junkyard travel-guide to the gulls that now thrive on our waste and in the middle of our towns and cities. Inevitably it was dirty and messy and botched: modern nature is like that. It has to find ways and means to live alongside us – we who are the most-botched species of all. I admire the gulls and I was fascinated by the gullers – watchers of gulls – who spend time in wretched places like landfill sites in order to connect with their quarry, but afterwards I needed some fresher air to live in and some wilder life to watch, and so the spring, which has always been my favoured season, appealed, and most especially some witnessing of the movement of passage migrant birds that make the European spring for birdwatchers. When I discovered that spring moves north through Europe at somewhere between the speed a swallows flies at and the speed we might walk at (about 4 km an hour), I knew that I had to try to follow the birds and the season for as long and as far as I could. So, I start with barn swallows in the European midwinter in midsummer South Africa and I end with the same species, who knows perhaps even the same individuals, in midsummer arctic Norway. Who wouldn’t want to have as much spring as possible?

By travelling north you poetically write about the birds that come and go; from observing redstarts in Lake Lagano, Ethiopia, to enjoying the dawn chorus in a reedbed in Somerset. What can be learned from birds in migration, and how is migration changing for them?

Studying and thinking about migration tugs at our notions of home. Migratory animals carry their homes with them. Yet, when I first saw barn swallows in South Africa I couldn’t see them as anything but away from their home. In fact, of course, they were perfectly at home: they were meant to be there and able to be fully alive there. Ever since migration has been observed, birdwatchers have ceaselessly wondered where the birds have come from, where they are going, how they know where to go and how they know how to live at the other end of the world. Migration has always intrigued – Homer makes poetry from it, Aristotle discusses it, the Bible and the Koran make parables for life from it. Nowadays we know more and more of its facts – know for example that a migrant redstart may literally return to the same tree in sub-Saharan Africa in its wintertime just as it flies to the same oak in a wooded coombe in Exmoor every spring of its life; but we also begin to understand (and face up to) how much our activities are tugging at the world’s time and making migration and a bird’s swapping of one tree for another harder and harder. This is what phenological mismatch is all about: the unseasonal time that our activities are creating.

You explore time and movement in this book. In a very fast-paced world, where few have the time to slow down and connect to the seasons, how has journeying with spring changed you? Was there anything specific you were looking for and anything you found?

To try to have more spring has been my mantra, to go looking for signs of new life even before a calendar year has ended, like a mistle thrush singing in November and thereby meaning therefore to have spring again, or rooks visiting their old nests each day from the autumn onwards with a literal view to their future; and to travel when possible both south from Britain to Mediterranean Europe where spring arrives earlier and then north towards the Arctic Europe where spring lasts longer. Hearing a pied flycatcher still singing in northern Norway when the same species are silent in their British breeding woods feels like a life-bonus, feels like more of life, which can only be good. We are only given one springtime in our own lives but the return of the season and the cyclical round or rondure of the natural year is a marvellous tonic and corrective to the linearity of our one-direction journey. Again, who would say no to that – to a bit of time travel and season stretch in order to stay with the season of becoming and of re-energy. Greenery is an anagram of re-energy: I was thrilled to discover that.

Pied flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca, single male singing on branch, Powys, Wales, April 2012

When most people think of spring they think of new life, new beginnings, however you eloquently write “spring means more to me with every year that passes and takes me deeper into my own autumn.” Could you elaborate more on this, what does springtime mean to you?

There’s that lyric to a song: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone…. And I think as we get older the morning of life, the world’s morning as D H Lawrence called spring, feels more and more poignant and uplifting. We are headed only one way but, hey presto, here are new shoots, and green beginnings once more, and then a chiffchaff, fetching an echo out of a wood, as Gilbert White noticed them doing in Eighteenth Century Selborne in Hampshire. My eyesight has got worse, my hearing is half-baffled, I move increasingly with a wobble, but the injection of new birds from the south, the heavenly racket of their song, and seeing them at home in their new places is a forever tonic, like an effervescing vitamin C tablet, or a pick-me-up, or a fillip – life is worth living among those that are living it most, and spring visiting birds are the most alive – active, mobile, purposeful, committed – things that I know.

As you explore life and death, love and grief through springtime, is there anything in particular you would like for people to take away from this book?

I think we all spend a lot of time ignoring time, shut away from the weather, heating our lives, conditioning our air, eating strawberries out of season, yet I know that we all, almost all of us at least, notice the spring, want it, anticipate it, lift our faces to the first splash of sun after grey skies, talk about snowdrops, look out for the first swifts, and so on… We are reminded of spring by spring itself coming around, it schools us in life and growth, in beginnings and becomings; and in my book I just want to underline that reminder and encourage us all to take in what can be taken in, and to keep in step with the passing of time and so live happily in time and on time too. Look at the birds that do that so well; I have done that and it has helped me live.

Tim Dee has been a birdwatcher for most of his life and written about them for twenty years.  As well as Greenery, he is the author of LandfillThe Running Sky and Four Fields and is the editor of Ground Works.

 

Greenery

Hardback | Oct 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781908213624   £15.99 £18.99

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Countryside: interview with author Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss is a naturalist, broadcaster, television producer and author. He is the original producer of the BAFTA award-winning series Springwatch and has worked with David Attenborough, Chris Packham, Alan Titchmarsh, and other leading naturalists. Passionate about communicating the wonders of nature, he also lectures in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University. Originally from London, he lives with his family on the Somerset Levels and is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust.

In The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife, Stephen writes about the secret places, that are often overlooked when it comes to protecting habitats and wildlife. Stephen has given his time to sign copies and answer our questions about these vital habitats in our hidden corners. 

 

What inspired you to write about the ‘hidden havens’ for Britain’s Wildlife?

I’ve always been fascinated by these forgotten and secret places, that are often overlooked when it comes to protecting habitats and wildlife. As I say in the book, I first got my passion for the natural world by visiting the gravel pits near my suburban home; today I live near the Avalon Marshes in Somerset, another post-industrial habitat, created from disused peat diggings. During my career at the BBC Natural History Unit, I often filmed at these edgeland locations, as they harbour such a range of interesting wildlife, and are often more accessible to people than classic nature reserves in the countryside. 

Of all the places you visited, which habitat surprised you the most regarding its biodiversity?

That’s a tricky one, as I think they all surprised me in some way or another. The Avalon Marshes is probably the most packed with wildlife – three species of egrets, marsh harriers, bitterns and the famous starling murmurations on winter evenings – but I also loved the Montiaghs (in rural Northern Ireland, where peat was dug by hand), Parc Slip in South Wales (a former open-cast coal mine) and best of all, Canvey Wick in Essex, Britain’s first brownfield nature reserve, and a paradise for invertebrates including rare dragonflies and damselflies.

Avalon Marshes

Your book features exceptional and inspirational people that have found ways to make the most unlikely places wildlife friendly. Is it possible to highlight just one project that has succeeded against the odds?

Again, the Avalon Marshes stands out: once the peat had been removed, we were left with an ugly, scarred and wildlife-free landscape, which it was suggested could be used as a landfill site for Bristol’s domestic waste. Thanks to a local campaign, they were instead turned into nature reserves; thirty years later this is one of the best places for wildlife in the whole of the UK. Others include Canvey Wick, which again could have fallen to the developers; the roadside verges of Blandford Forum in Dorset, which are now awash with wildflowers and butterflies each summer; and the RSPB’s Window on Wildlife at Belfast Docks, home to breeding Arctic Terns.

A Murmuration of Starlings

Is there one habitat that you think hasn’t reached its wildlife friendly potential?

That’s easy! The rest of the ‘official’ countryside – the 70% of the UK that is used for farming. Of course we need to produce food, but not at the expense of wildlife, which is what is happening on the vast majority of farms at the moment. Some visionary farmers are working with conservationists to buck the trend – for instance, the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Project in Wiltshire – but most are simply fulfilling the consumer and supermarkets’ demands for cheap food, whatever the cost to the environment. 

You have been writing for many years and unfortunately, wildlife has suffered a substantial decline over the last few decades. Has your recent experience writing The Accidental Countryside left you more optimistic or more pessimistic regarding the future of wildlife in the UK?

I’d love to live in a country where the sites I feature in The Accidental Countryside are not important because the wider countryside has been transformed into a haven for wildlife. But I’m not holding my breath, despite the things we hear from the government. Now, more than ever, we need to understand that a healthy, wildlife-filled environment is not some ‘bolt-on extra’ to our lives, but essential – to the health and well-being of nature, of ourselves, and of course for the planet as a whole. So I have to be optimistic: there is no other choice!

Are there any books or projects that you are currently working on that you can tell us about?

Yes, I am just about to deliver the third in my series of ‘Bird Biographies’ for Square Peg (Part of Penguin Random House). Following bestselling books on the Robin and the Wren, I am now writing about that classic sign of spring and summer, the Swallow. I am a late convert to Swallows – only since I moved from London to rural Somerset in middle age have I grown to appreciate this classic bird of the British countryside. Writing this book, I have also grown to appreciate that the swallow is, as the writer Collingwood Ingram once noted, “beyond doubt the best known, and certainly the best loved, species in the world.”

 

The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife                              Hardback,  published February 2020           £13.99 £16.99

 

 

Also by Stephen Moss: 

The Wren: A Biography                                                           Hardback,  published November 2018                                    £12.99 

 

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler                                                                                  Paperback,  published April 2019                                                  £7.99 £9.99

 

Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day                    Paperback,  published April 2018                                                             £9.99 £12.99

 

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village                                                                                 Paperback,  published September 2012                                                   £7.50 £9.99

 

  

Author Interview: Mike Potts, Untangling the Knot, Belugas & Bears: My Natural World on Film

Film-maker Mike Potts.

Mike Potts’ career as a wildlife cameraman took him to many of the world’s most spectacular locations and involved filming with Sir David Attenborough.

Mike has signed copies and answered questions about his new book, Untangling the Knot, Belugas & Bears: My Natural World on Film, giving readers the chance to travel with him and share his incredible experiences.

 

Mike on location with Sir David Attenborough.

What made you pursue a career as a wildlife cameraman?                         From an early age I developed an interest in natural history and photography, particularly of birds. I was fortunate in being able to turn a passionate hobby into a profession from early beginnings with the RSPB  Film Unit.

How did you manage a work-life balance when your work took you far away for significantly long periods?

My wife, although working herself, was able to run things at home in my absence.

 

Mike signing copies of his new book

Today, there is GPS and the internet: 30 years ago that technology wasn’t as advanced. What difficulties did that present and how were they overcome? (I’m trying not to say, did you ever get ‘lost’?)

In the early years of my career, before mobile phones, we would often be out of contact for many days, or weeks, when out in the field camping. On some trips, we did have the use of the early satellite phones, so at least there was some contact. Having a local biologist that was familiar with the terrain was essential, otherwise getting lost was a real possibility. It did happen in Australia when I was lost on my own in a tropical forest for several hours, quite scary!

Walruses at Round Island, Alaska

Was there one exceptional location you filmed in that stood out from all the rest?

Alaska particularly has many special memories. I spent over a year there working on three 50 minute programmes. If I had to choose one location, it would be the McNeil River in SE Alaska; here brown bears gather in summer to feed on salmon moving upriver to spawn. Sometimes, over 50 bears can be seen in the river, and standing shoulder to shoulder use various different techniques to capture the fish that are so essential to put on fat for their winter hibernation.

What does ‘Untangling the Knot’ in the title of your book refer to?

Some years ago I worked on a film called ‘Untangling the Knot’, which was about the bird, the Red Knot. It has a long migration from its wintering grounds in South America to breeding grounds in the high Arctic of Canada. So ‘Untangling the Knot’ was the story of the feeding habits, complex migration routes, and remote breeding areas of these great travellers.

 

If someone was inspired to pursue a career filming wildlife, what advice would you give them to get started?

When I started my filming career in 1978 everything was shot on film, which was expensive, as was the equipment to shoot it with. The only way to prove your ability was to shoot a sequence and try to get it seen by wildlife producers at the BBC Natural History Unit or the RSPB film Unit. There were not any wildlife film courses back then. Now there are many more people interested in becoming wildlife cameramen, so the competition is great. What advice would I give? One advantage now with the proliferation of video cameras at low cost is that it is possible to go out and shoot a sequence at no great expense. Choose a subject that you have good knowledge of and try to shoot it differently from what has been done before, then get it seen by someone within the business. If you have access to a scarce or unusual subject, even better, especially if it is on your doorstep (always check licence requirements). You can of course try and get a placement on a ‘wildlife film making’ course but that doesn’t mean a job at the end of it. Virtually all cameramen are freelance, so work is never guaranteed. Good luck.

Can you recall any one moment or experience in your career that encapsulates all that being a wildlife cameraman involved?

I think the most rewarding experience was filming Birds of Paradise in New Guinea. Sitting in my tiny mosquito-filled hide in the pitch-black, 150 feet off the ground, I wondered quite what I was doing there. Then as the dawn began to break and the chorus of tropical birds started I knew why. Shortly afterwards as the first Greater Birds of Paradise appeared the excitement was overpowering. Several males with their golden plumes were bouncing around just 60 feet in front of me, courting the growing number of females nearby. This made all the 3.00 am starts, the long walks through the forest and the exhausting tree climbing worthwhile.

What are your current plans and are there any future projects you can tell us about?

I am now retired from filming, and although I have been trying to get a film off the ground on the Albatross, it is difficult to get the substantial funding for these projects. For the last 2 years I have been writing the book and having exhibitions of my photographic work.

 

Untangling the Knot, Belugas & Bears: My Natural World on Film
Paperback,  published February 2020              £16.95 £20.95

Mike has spent more than 30 years as a wildlife cameraman. A highlight of that career was filming the Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds with David Attenborough.

 

Further reading…

Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman
Hardback,  published August 2019,

£13.99 £16.99

Gavin’s book, Journeys in the Wild, is available from NHBS and you can read more about his life as a cameraman in our blog post from last year.

Bone Building Books: an interview with author Lee Post

We recently became aware of a fantastic series of manuals that give readers instructions on how to clean, prepare, and articulate animal skeletons. We caught up with the author, Lee Post, a self-professed bone man, to ask him more about these guides and his work.

Hello Lee, thanks for the opportunity to ask you some questions. How does one become a bone builder? Was this always something you were interested in or did you fall into this more or less by accident?

Project Orca and the team of students and retired folks that help build it. © Lee Post

As a child, growing up, I was a classic nature nerd. My room looked more like a Victorian curio cabinet than some place someone might actually sleep. Anything related to the animal kingdom was something I was interested in collecting. The ultimate treasures were bones and skulls. But I had never thought about articulating anything myself. My passion for articulating skeletons grew out of a move to a small town in Alaska that had a very progressive little natural history museum. I had a part-time job in the winter and volunteered the rest of my time at this museum. I was given an opportunity to research and articulate a 17 foot Stejnegers Beaked Whale the staff had collected and cleaned. That was my first winter project. My research into how to articulate that skeleton came to a lot of dead ends and some questionable advice. I could find nothing in print on building whale skeletons. With a background in bicycle mechanics and carpentry, and a lot of suggestions from local craftsmen and women, I got that skeleton together, and from then on I never stopped working with bones. Collecting, cleaning, building, illustrating, curating. It was being in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances. In other words, a total accident.

What made you decide to write manuals on constructing and articulating skeletons?

For years I’d been cleaning and articulating a skeleton or two each year. This led to a 3-year Pratt Museum, Homer High School collaborative project, in which I worked at the school with all kinds of interested students. We articulated a 41 foot long sperm whale in the school, and the

Gray whale project. © Lee Post

following year students worked on about a dozen other skeleton projects, ranging from sea otters to a moose, to porpoises, to a porcupine. The exhibited work they did in their school was open to the public over the following couple of summers. Teachers and educators from lots of places that saw those exhibits wanted to know how they could do similar projects with their students. I had kept a notebook on almost every skeleton I worked on and from those made some crude, hand-lettered, illustrated manuals on how to prepare and build animal skeletons. My day job was working in a bookstore, and there were no books in print on working with bones. This was 20 years ago. Later, an intersection of those hand-printed, photocopied notes, and me, and a talented lady (now my wife) who knew how to do desktop publishing, resulted in the birth of the Bone Building Books about 15 years ago.

Who buys these guides? Do you find that they are used by museum curators, or mostly by individual naturalists? And what has the feedback been?

The manuals were originally written for teachers and students who wanted to do a museum quality skeleton on a limited budget, with materials they

Lee petting a sea lion done by a group of students and docents at a Marine Life center. © Lee Post

should be able to find even in a small town. Over the years, the manuals have been enlarged and corrected and improved each time I have worked on that type of skeleton. I’m always trying different materials and testing new techniques. Today they are used by everyone from teachers to museum workers, to home hobbyists to University projects with students. The other group of people who were getting these were bone collectors and zoo archaeologists who really just wanted to look at the pictures. They had no interest in the articles or in building a skeleton. And the manuals didn’t even have a centerfold. The feedback has been very enthusiastic. For many hobbyists and home naturalists who have wanted to get accurate information on how to prepare the bones and build the skeletons, these have been their bibles. When people get stuck, they often e-mail me. That’s often a clue I didn’t explain something well enough, and the next revision will try to remedy that.

What advice do you have for aspiring bone builders?

Don’t plan on doing this for a career. You would likely starve. But if this is your interest and passion, there is enough information out there these days that you should definitely pursue that interest. There are no skeleton police. There are no university degrees in this. Many of the best skeleton articulations of land mammals are being done by home hobbyists. You too could be doing that.

A deer that a high school student collected and assembled. © Lee Post

From the short video clip of Indie Alaska that I saw, it seems you teach courses to students. Do you also offer workshops for museum professionals?

A wolf that a 6th grade class in Alaska cleaned and articulated as part of a week-long class project. © Lee Post

Many of my favorite projects have been done with groups of interns and docents in museums and marine-life centers. On occasion, the paid staff have joined in, but usually, the staff has too much other work to be able to take the time off to do much hands-on work building a large skeleton. My favorite projects are when I have an enthusiastic group of volunteers and an organization with someone who wants to organize a large skeleton build project. Then, I get to teach and be the foreman and boss around the volunteers, who get the thrill of working with real bones and being part of a team that builds a world-class skeleton.

Are there any particularly challenging skeletons you worked on, or any particular animal skeletons you would still love to tackle?

I’m still sorting out sea turtle skeletons. They have very unusual bones. I’ll be trying to figure out a crocodile skeleton soon. I’m always interested in working on new marine mammal species. They are the animals I have the most experience with.

You have now written nine guides to specific animals and animal groups, plus a general reference book, the Bone Builder’s Notebook. Are there plans to write any more guides?

I’m doing a lot of illustration work on bird bones. I can imagine these might

A lynx skeleton. © Lee Post

one day get compiled into some type of identification guide to bird bones. I’m also getting more and more requests for information on articulating reptiles. I live in Alaska, and there is a serious lack of reptiles in my area. However, I’ll be working on some large reptiles in Mexico in the near future, and I never know when I’ll get so inspired that I might try to write something useful on how those bones fit together.

 

You can discover the complete selection of Bone Building Books on the NHBS website

           

 

Red Sixty Seven: A Collection of Words and Art Inspired by Britain’s Most Vulnerable Birds

Red Sixty Seven features our most vulnerable bird species, beautifully illustrated by some amazing wildlife artists. All of the publishers profits from the sale of this book will be donated to BTO and RSPB to further their work on red listed birds.

Contributors include Chris Packham, Ann Cleeves, David Lindo,  and Patrick Barkham.

This book should not exist.

In an ideal world this book, and the official Red List of the most vulnerable birds in the UK it is based on, would not be needed. But the world is far from ideal and our bird populations are declining at an alarming rate. In the past few years alone the once widespread Wryneck has ceased breeding in the UK altogether and has dropped off the list completely. Which species will be next?

Editor, Kit Jewitt has taken some time to answer a few questions about the Red Sixty Seven book project and the list itself.

Hen Harrier: Jane Smith

Of all the birds on the Red List which do you think is most vulnerable?

If I had to choose one, it would be the Hen Harrier. Not only do they have to deal with all of the natural challenges they face, they also have to contend with persecution from criminals within the grouse shooting industry, which evidence now suggests is the main cause of their decline in numbers. The fact that 72% of tagged Hen Harriers are confirmed or considered likely to have been illegally killed is a national disgrace. However, in terms of the recent rate of decline I would also suggest Turtle Dove is a species of highest concern.

Herring Gull: Crow Artist

Many people will be surprised to see herring gull on the list, could you expand on how this seemingly ubiquitous bird has made the list?

Herring Gull populations in coastal areas have dropped by over 50% in my lifetime. This is largely due to the lack of food at coastal sites, with overfishing of UK coastal waters and warming seas caused by climate change likely to be the main reasons for the reduced amount of food available to gulls and other seabirds. They are adaptable, intelligent birds though, so moving to inland areas, or areas where humans create waste for them to eat has been a way for some populations to survive.

Merlin: Natalie Toms

Have any birds managed to move away from the Red List to Amber over the last year or so, and which birds are the most recent additions?

Nineteen species were added to the red list for the first time when it was last updated in 2015, and one species, Merlin, moved back onto the list. Breeding seabirds, such as Puffin, Kittiwake and Shag are now included, and with the additions of species such as Woodcock, Nightingale and Pied Flycatcher there are now more woodland birds on the list than any other habitat. Two species, Bittern and Nightjar, have moved from the red to amber lists thanks to the creation and management of suitable habitat, stimulated by species action plans.

White Fronted Goose: Szabolcs Kokay

We know how we as individuals can help garden birds, but the list contains a high proportion of iconic water birds. How can we as individuals help preserve the many waders and ducks that are on the list?

Many projects being conducted by BTO, RSPB WWT and others help waders, seabirds and ducks, so fundraising for these is vitally important. My main motivation behind the Red Sixty Seven project was to do something to help these declining birds, by spreading the word and raising money for conservationists on the ground. By highlighting the red list far and wide, more people will care and will then hopefully start their own fundraising for BTO’s Operation Wader or Curlew appeal, or WWTs Black-tailed Godwits appeal, or whichever scheme chimes with them. I can’t run marathons or undertake extreme endurance like my friend Jonny Rankin, who has raised over £19,000 for Turtle Doves, so I had to think of a different way of fundraising!

Corncrake: Robert Vaughan

Farmland bird species also make up a large part of the list. Can you see any hope for securing the future of our most rapidly declining farmland species?

The change in farming and land management practices over the last 40 years, including the use of pesticides and changes in crops grown have ultimately reduced the amount of appropriate habitat, and food sources for our farmland birds. Post Brexit, there is an opportunity for the government to make changes to policy to help our farmland wildlife. I just hope they take full advantage of it.

Lesser Redpole: John Threlfall

We love the idea of using the power of beautiful words and paintings to deliver a conservation message. Do you think that engaging the reader emotionally can result in more concrete conservation actions being taken?

I hope so! As well as raising funds for crucial work to help red-listed species, I hope Red Sixty Seven brings the list and the plight of these birds to a wider audience, inspiring other people to take action themselves, whatever that might be. The artwork and stories within the book bring home the message in a very accessible way, and you are left under no illusion that we must do something. There is a poignant sting in the tale at the end of the book; an ‘In Memoriam’ section devoted to the birds we have lost as breeding species in recent years. This book is a call-to-arms.

All of the profits from the sale of this book will be donated to BTO and RSPB to further their work on red listed birds.

NHBS will donate and extra £1.00 per copy sold.

Red Sixty Seven: A Collection of Words and Art Inspired by Britain’s Most Vulnerable Birds
Hardback,  published February 2020              £19.99

Red Sixty Seven is 67 love letters to our most vulnerable species, each beautifully illustrated by some of the best wildlife artists around.

 

The Vegetative Key to the British Flora: an interview with author John Poland

With re-written keys, additional species, phenology and  many new identification characters, this second edition of The Vegetative Key to the British Flora will be an essential tool for anyone wishing to identify plants when no flowers or fruits are available.

Author John Poland has taken time to answer a few question about the making of this eagerly waited update.

 

John Poland at Hazelslack, Silverdale

Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in botany?

I grew up in urban Lancashire but luckily nature and ‘weeds’ are everywhere. The Lake District was a weekend camping haunt as a child so my curiosity of the natural world never disappeared.
I think the i-spy/Find 50 books that adorned bookshops at the time fostered this interest as I was always hunting for the rarities, sometimes even successfully! Later, local natural history societies and national societies such as the BSBI and Wild Flower Society were great at mentoring and developing more advanced ID skills.
My day job is in ecological consultancy which combines a passion for the natural world with protecting it for others to enjoy. Botany doesn’t always get the prominence it deserves but it plays such an important role in our environment.

Why did you consider producing a second edition of The Vegetative Key to the British Flora and how long has it been in preparation?

The second edition was started the day the first edition was in my hands in 2009! It was a good first attempt, but there is always much to learn and many diagnostic characters were overlooked. This volume aims to correct this by evolving a more definitive ID guide based on 10 years of extensive testing by many botanists. Writing The Field Key to Winter Twigs gave me a new perspective on key-designing concepts so some of these have been applied to the new Veg Key to make it easier for users.

Can you advise on the best ways to use this book?

Always read the keys and never try to pre-empt a question! In this edition, every key has been revised to make ID easier and more accurate.

What kit or equipment can you recommend to aid identification of plants in the vegetative state?

It’s mostly very basic (and inexpensive). A x20 hand lens is best in the field and an x15 LED magnifier is great when working indoors. A measuring loupe is a handy tool and easier to use than a microscrope for fine measurements.

Is there one easy mistake that can be made when identifying plants in their vegetative state?

Perhaps overlooking hair type or presence/absence of latex and stomata. These need careful interpretation but it gets much easier with practice, honest! The key works using obvious characters to start with before getting down to the nitty-gritty. I try to give both simple and technical characters to give the user confidence of getting a correct answer.

Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?

There is always plenty to do in botany. I’m already working on including the entire British Flora. Neophytes are hitching a ride all the time and hortal plants constantly jumping over the garden wall. Perhaps a book on evergreen trees and shrubs would be useful for winter botany but I’m only on the bare bones of that key at the moment…

 

The Vegetative Key to the British Flora: A New Approach to Plant Identification
Paperback,  published January 2020                £24.99 

The second edition of this go-to identification guide is much revised, with re-written keys, additional species, phenology, and many new identification characters.

 

The Field Key to Winter Twigs: A Guide to Native and Planted Deciduous Trees, Shrubs and Woody Climbers (Xylophytes) found in the British Isles
Paperback,  published November 2019             £19.99

A unique identification guide to winter twigs, allowing for rapid species identification.

 

Author Interview: Lukas Jenni & Raffael Winkler, Moult and Ageing of European Passerines

The legendary Moult and Ageing of European Passerines returns in a completely revised second edition. This is the must-have reference for bird ringers, ornithologists, and anyone fascinated by feathers.

Bloomsbury’s publisher, Jim Martin has asked the authors Lukas Jenni and Raffael Winkler to share their thoughts about this eagerly awaited second edition.

 

How did the two of you first come to be interested in ageing birds?

Back in the seventies, Raffael was collecting data on skull pneumatization of live birds at the ringing station Col de Bretolet in the Swiss Alps as part of his PhD thesis, and Lukas was a young birder and wannabe ringer. We met at the Basel Ornithological Society, and began to collaborate. At that time ‘skulling’ was a new ageing method; we found as we worked that several plumage ageing criteria were either unreliable or simply wrong. We then started to record more precisely the extent of the post-juvenile moult.

What drove you to keep up your work in counting the moulted and unmoulted feathers of thousands of birds?

We were both fascinated by the large variation in the extent of moult we found, both between species and between individual birds of a species. We wanted to discover the reasons for this variability. And we also wanted to tackle the ‘either/or’ criteria that prevailed for ageing birds at the time – for example, tail feathers might be recorded as either pointed or rounded, but if a young bird had moulted some tail feathers they would have some of each. Ringers were using fixed ‘recipes’ for ageing that did not account for the moult process and its variability.

When did you decide to collate your findings into a book?

Lukas became head of the Swiss Ringing Scheme in 1979, and we both held many ageing courses for ringers, and produced numerous fact-sheets for them. The basis of these was Lars Svensson’s famous Identification Guide to European Passerines; each new edition of this formidable work was eagerly awaited. However, we realised that explaining verbalised differences – for example, such as between buffish-grey and greyish-buff – was a little difficult. It was much easier to teach ringers with the help of wing preparations and skins from the Natural History Museum, Basel. Finally, we decided to take photographs of these elements, with a view to producing a guide to ageing. This eventually became the first edition of Moult and Ageing of European Passerines, which was published in 1994.

The new second edition is publishing in January 2020. This book is more than an ageing guide. What made you develop the sections on moult strategies?

During our work on moult, we realised how complex the moults of passerines are and how incomplete our understanding of moult still is. We felt that a full review is needed for two reasons. First to demonstrate how important moult is in the life of a bird and how moult interacts with other events of the annual cycle. Second to enhance the understanding of the plumage ageing criteria, and to enable ringers to discover new ones.

This will be expanded on in your follow-up book, The Biology of Moult in Birds, which will be coming out in the summer. For Moult and Ageing, how did you take the many excellent photographs of the wings of live birds?

We developed a simple system of a camera with a ring-flash mounted on a tripod, and put the wing of the bird on an oblique grey board, fixed at the wrist with double-sided adhesive tape (we should add that the birds were completely unharmed by the process). This sounds simple, but the tedious part was to put all the feathers and feather vanes in a perfect order, one that satisfied our sense of aesthetic perfection! We then realised that we needed help, and we employed several people over the years to operate as ‘feather beautician’ and photographer.

Physically, it’s quite a big book, and not easy to use in the field. What was the thinking behind that?

We pondered for a long time about this. We finally decided on such a large format so that the reader can see many photographs on one page for direct comparison. A smaller format would have entailed smaller photographs, or continuously turning pages, or both.

How do you think this book will be received?

We were really surprised at the reception for the first edition, how quickly it sold out, and the enormous price second-hand copies went on to fetch. We therefore decided to do a second edition long ago, but it has taken us many years of research, and so has materialised only now. We thoroughly revised the first part of the book about the moult strategies, we’ve included a schematic table of the moults of all European passerines and added pictorial schemes of the various moult strategies, and we have also added 16 new species to the species accounts. The book was printed in Switzerland, so we could supervise the printing. We are glad that the quality of the photographs is now ’pretty good’ (complying with English understatement) or ‘phenomenal’ (following American usage), and we hope that readers will feel the same.

Thank you Lukas and Raffael, and good luck with the new book.

Jim Martin: Bloomsbury Publishing

 

 

 

Moult and Ageing of European Passerines
Hardback,  published 9th January 2020,  £82.99 £94.99

A brand-new, completely revised second edition of Jenni and Winkler’s classic guide, updated and improved for the next generation of ringers and professional ornithologists.

 

Author Interview: Mark Carwardine, Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

 

Mark Carwardine, on location in Nunavut.

Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer and bestselling author. He’s written over 50 books about wildlife, travel and conservation including bestsellers like Last Chance to See and Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in Britain and Europe. In his latest book, an outstanding field guide, Mark  Carwardine details the identifying traits and distribution of all 90 species and subspecies of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises.

 

Mark Carwardine, signing his new book

Mark Carwardine has taken the time to sign a limited number of first edition copies of the Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and answer our questions about the book, his life studying whales and humanity’s role in their survival.

 

 

  1. In your recent books, you’ve given us an insight into the world of whale watching. What motivated you to study cetaceans?

I’d just finished studying zoology at university (I couldn’t have done anything else – all I’d ever wanted to do since I can remember was to work with animals) and I had my first whale encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day trip from Long Beach, California, when a grey whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye, I can see it leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible. Now I am a self-confessed whale addict and need to see a whale at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.

Also, I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be a cetologist. These enigmatic marine mammals are incredibly difficult to study – they often live in remote areas far out to sea and spend most of their lives out of sight underwater – yet we now have access to space-age technology that, at last, is revealing some of their best-kept secrets

 

  1. You must have many stories about whales, dolphins and porpoises. What is your most memorable encounter with cetaceans?

I think it would have to be with the friendly grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, on the west coast of Mexico. These 14-15-metre whales literally nudge the sides of our small whale-watching boats and lie there waiting to be tickled, scratched and splashed. Incidentally, if you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild whales, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boat-load of people who will. Even the local scientists approve.

Yet it’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous; when they were being hunted they fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water like big rubber ducks, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. Nowadays, they positively welcome tourists into their breeding lagoon. Somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, they are very gentle and welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty – and trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least. I’m very lucky – I have been to San Ignacio more than 70 times over the years – but it still blows me away. It’s got to be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on Earth.

 

  1. Whales and other cetaceans are beloved worldwide, what is it about these charismatic creatures that humans connect with so strongly?

No one ever says, ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. At the risk of sounding irrational and unscientific, a close encounter with a whale simply makes you feel good. Actually, it’s more than that. Just a brief flirtation with a whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. On the best whale watching trips, almost everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. Grown men and women dance around the deck, break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back and do all the things that normal, quiet, unflappable people are not supposed to do. I have seen it so many times.

It’s not really surprising: whales and dolphins are shrouded in mystery, yet the little we do know about them is both astonishing and awe-inspiring. They include the largest animal on Earth (the blue whale – the length of a Boeing 737) and some of the oldest animals on Earth (one bowhead whale was 211 years old when it was killed by aboriginal whalers – who knows how much longer it might have lived?) as well as the deepest diving mammal, the mammal with the longest known migration, the loudest singer, the largest carnivorous animal, and many other astonishing record-breakers.

Southern Right Whale, Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
  1. What advice would you give to the naturalist interested in cetaceans and wanting to learn more?

Read my new Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (I couldn’t say anything else, could I?)! It includes everything you could possibly want to know about all 90 species.

 

  1. What was the most challenging thing for you when creating this guide?

Well, it dominated my life for six years. I used to lie awake at night, worrying about whether to describe something as ‘blue-grey’ or ‘grey-blue’. I decided to go back to original sources for everything, which meant reading 11,000-12,000 scientific papers, poring over decades of my own field notes, and studying untold numbers of photographs and video clips. I also corresponded with species experts all over the world; they were all incredibly generous with their information and advice, often giving me new data before it has been published in the scientific press. I worked with three outstanding artists, too – Martin Camm (who did most of the illustrations), Toni Llobet and Rebecca Robinson – who, between them, produced more than 1,000 original and meticulous artworks. And as for the distribution maps… some of those took several days each. But, I have to say, it’s incredibly satisfying to see it all come together in this one book.

 

  1. What are your concerns or hopes for the future of cetaceans?

Sad to say, human impact has now reached every square kilometre of the Earth’s oceans. In particular, commercial whaling and other forms of hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and myriad other conflicts with fisheries, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance, underwater noise, ingestion of marine debris, ship strikes and climate change are some of the main threats being faced by whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world. We’ve already lost the Yangtze river dolphin, from China. The next to go is likely to be the vaquita, a tiny porpoise from the extreme northern end of the Gulf of California in western Mexico; there are probably just 10 survivors clinging on against all the odds. But the good news is that, with proper protection, we can make a difference. Whaling pushed the humpback whale to a population low of fewer than 10,000, but now there are at least 140,000 and counting.

 

  1. You say this will be your last book: now this guide is complete, are there any other projects in the pipeline?

Ah, yes, I did promise my family and friends that this would be my last book (by way of an excuse for never having any free time)! It feels like the culmination of a life’s work with whales and dolphins – and it will be my sixtieth book, which seems like a nice round number to finish on. But the trouble is that I love writing and have lots more ideas! In fact, I am working on a photographic book about the polar regions with the landscape photographer Joe Cornish (he is providing the landscape pictures, me the wildlife ones) – so I’ve already broken the promise. Apart from that, I’ve been setting up some new whale watching trips and am planning to do more radio programmes (I’ve missed doing radio), among many other things; and, of course, there is an awful lot to do on the conservation front that will keep me busy for a long time yet.

 

Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
Hardback,  Nov 2019,  £29.99 £34.99

This outstanding new handbook to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is a comprehensive and authoritative guide to these fascinating mammals.
With almost 1,000 detailed, annotated illustrations, this new handbook describes all 90 species and subspecies.

Signed copies available, while stocks last.

Browse our full range of cetacean books.

Author Interview: Peter Eeles, Life cycles of British & Irish Butterflies

NHBS recently attended Butterfly Conservation’s 2019 AGM in Shrewsbury. The event was highly enjoyable, with many excellent speakers, and we were excited to unveil the brand new NHBS Moth Trap at our stall; lookout for a blog post on this new product shortly.

During the day we also caught up with Peter Eeles, creator of the UK Butterflies website and author of the ground-breaking Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies to talk about his fascination with Lepidoptera and the process of writing this incredible book. Peter was also kind enough to sign a number of copies of his book which are now available to purchase here.

1) Could you tell us something about your background and how you first became interested in butterflies?

I grew up on the southern side of Cheltenham, on the edge of the Cotswolds, an area rich in butterflies and other wildlife. It was all rather idyllic and I remember with some fondness the time spent out in the countryside with my fellow explorers! My father and my ‘uncle Fred’ encouraged this interest, but it was watching a Garden Tiger moth emerge from its chrysalis, and seeing scores of Red Admiral feeding on rotting plums, that tipped me over the edge and into a butterfly-filled life.

 

2) How long did it take you to put Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies together?

Two years to write, 20 years to obtain the photos needed, and a lifetime of study! I should say that the book would not have seen the light of day were it not for the contributions of many others, especially members of UK Butterflies (a website that I set up in 2002), the team at Butterfly Conservation, and various experts in their chosen field, such as David Simcox, project manager of the Large Blue reintroduction programme.

Life cycles of British & Irish Butterflies

3) In your introduction to the book, you detail its aims in relation to Frohawk’s landmark text, Natural History of British Butterflies. You say that Frohawk is one of your heroes: was his work the driving force for you wanting to take on your own project?

I wouldn’t say it was the driving force, but it was certainly a huge inspiration in terms of understanding the ‘art of the possible’, and the amount of field observation and research that would be needed. The driving force was a desire to produce something different yet useful, especially a work that would contribute, in some small way, to the conservation of our butterfly fauna. Something ‘clicked’ when I read several research papers that relied on the identification of a particular larval instar (the period between moults), and I realised that anything that could help the army of butterfly recorders identify each instar and the immature stages more generally would be a great help, with the potential to open up a whole new dimension of butterfly recording.

 

4) What was the most challenging butterfly lifecycle to document?

That’s a harder question to answer than you might think! Chequered Skipper was challenging due to the amount of travel involved, although a work placement in Glasgow for two years, on and off, really helped! Mountain Ringlet was a challenge due to the remoteness of its sites, its short flight period and its tendency to disappear deep into grass tussocks in anything other than very bright conditions. The Large Blue, which spends most of its life in an ant nest, was always going to be a challenge, and my thanks go to David Simcox, Jeremy Thomas and Sarah Meredith for their help with this tricky subject.

Chequered Skipper life cycle – Life cycle of British & Irish Butterflies

5) There is evidence that butterflies are already being influenced by climate change – what worries you the most about this? Are there any species that you will be excited about seeing more frequently in the UK in the future?

My biggest concern is with less mobile species that are unable to move to suitable patches in our increasingly fragmented landscape, as their habitat becomes unsuitable, or is lost due to development or agriculture. Conversely, it would be nice to see semi-regular visitors, such as the Long-tailed Blue and continental Swallowtail, gain a foothold, just as the Red Admiral and Clouded Yellow can now be considered resident, with records of successful overwintering each year in southern England.

 

6) Have you any new book projects in mind for the future?

No plans as yet, but never say never!

Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies
Hardback,  Sept 2019,  £29.99 £34.99

With detailed descriptions and photos of the adult, egg, caterpillar and chrysalis of each species, this book reveals in detail the fascinating life cycles of the 59 butterfly species that are considered resident in – or regular migrants – to Britain and Ireland.

Signed copies available, while stocks last.

Browse all our books covering insects and other invertebrates.

Author Interview: Richard Mabey, Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing about Nature

Richard Mabey is often referred to as the father of modern nature writing. His latest book is a retrospective of occasional writings compiled by the author over the last couple of decades. In the author’s words; ‘a sketchy reflection of a life’s work does emerge‘  He has taken time to sign copies of his latest book and answer our questions about fifty years of nature writing.

 

1. Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in nature?

I was one of that generation of kids allowed to run wild out of doors. We had a hundred-acre abandoned landscape park at the end of the garden, and in it, I saw my first barn owls, smelt my first storm-splintered wood and ate my first hawthorn leaves. Later I was a boy-birder, and by my teenage years began attaching huge symbolic importance to them. The first chiffchaff had to sing in a particular ash clump, the first swifts had to appear on May Day, and I held my blazer collar for luck on the walk to school to will them back. I did my first nature scribblings then, essays and over-romantic poems, shamelessly aping Richard Jefferies and Dylan Thomas.
I went to Oxford to read biochemistry despite never having done a mite of formal biology- but recoiled in horror from the curriculum and changed to philosophy and politics in my first fortnight. I’ve never regretted the change, for the perspective it gave me, or for the fact that school made me just about scientifically literate.

2. Your new book looks back over a life’s work and features a collection of ‘occasional writing’; how did you decide which works to include?

I realised I had got a good portion of the work already done. Over the past 20 years, I’ve done a fair amount of writing – essays, introductions to other writers’ books, radio programmes – which contain autobiographical elements. So, a long think piece I wrote for the Guardian about the history of foraging in Europe contains an account of how I came to write my own contribution, my first book, Food for Free. A BBC Radio 3 talk I delivered live from Bristol (as part of a Nature and Music festival) became an exploration of the relation between birdsong and human music. I worked a lot on most of the pieces, extending them and cutting out overlaps, and strung them together so that they made a rough sketch of a working life.

3. Is there one ‘nature writer’ that has been an inspiration to you?

There are dozens. But the one who struck most sparks is Annie Dillard. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) uncoiled new mycorrhizal links between imagination and the physical world. Pilgrim is a poetic interrogation of evolution, done through an acute contemplation of the natural life of a remote Appalachian creek. Why should anything – light, love, leaf – be the way it is? Dillard’s style is mischievous, gleeful, explosive- just like creation itself. I’ve long been a fan of American nature writing- Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Gary Snyder, back to the master Henry Thoreau. The States’ vast untrammelled landscapes seem to nourish a similar freedom in its writers, in contrast to our own corseted acres. The British writers who have most inspired me tend to be radicals who set themselves against this ordered and orderly back cloth; eg John Clare and his poems of solidarity with commoners of all species; Kenneth Allsop, firing broadsides through conventional “country writing” in the 1970s.

4. Do you think the genre of nature writing has changed during the time you have been writing?

I’ve been writing for more than fifty years, so have the luxury of a long view. But I think the idea that the nature writing of the last ten years is in some essential way “new” suggests a great forgetting of our tradition. Current nature writing is a very broad church, from lyrical science to introspective memoir. Yet even the most conspicuous trait – the personal “journey” – has deep roots. I’m no fan of his work but think of Gavin Maxwell in the 60s or John Buxton in the 40s and WH Hudson at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the most exciting trends is the emergence of fiction with strong affinities to the agendas of nature writing, as in Richard Powers’ astounding epic The Overstory (but this too was happening in pre-WW2 fiction).

5. You have won awards and many accolades for your writing; what is your proudest achievement as a nature writer?

I think it would have to be Flora Britannica (1986) not least because it incorporates the voices and stories of many thousands of contributors as well as my own. When I set out my plan to try and survey where wild plants stood in our culture in the late 20th C, I was met with heavy scepticism at first. “Nowhere” was the implied response. When the contributions began to pour in from the general public they were heart lifting, not just for their passion but their diversity. There was very little of the rehashed Victoriana usually passed off as “folklore”. Instead we had deeply felt personal stories from individuals, families, children’s gangs, about the importance of wild plants in their lives: plants used in weddings, and tossed onto a parent’s coffin; outrageously inventive playground games with invasive aliens; favourite local trees used as landmarks, hideaways, sites for lovers’ trysts.
The four years I spent working on this book were certainly the most rewarding of my writing life. I toured the UK meeting contributors, looking at locations, and then in the long writing process (it is a quarter of a million words long) trying to relate these contemporary experiences to the plants’ social histories and ecologies.

6. The loss of nature seems to be more prominent as a newsworthy subject; do you think nature writing can help towards restoring nature and if so how?

The language of loss is as hard to create as to read. I know I’m far from alone in finding that my head and my heart can pull in opposing directions. My intellectual understanding of the terrible collapse of nightingale populations cannot co-exist with the rapturous in-the-moment experience of listening to its song. But I’m encouraged by what has been happening in the last couple of years when the crises of climate change and extinction seem to have revealed not just the vulnerability of the natural world but a new appreciation of its resilient vitality. To paraphrase Amitav Ghosh is his powerful book The Great Derangement (about the implications of ecological catastrophe on writing) it is as if the improbable events that are happening to us have brought about a recognition that humans have never been alone, but live alongside beings who share with us elements we have always assumed were uniquely ours: sentience, will and above all agency. The challenge writers face is how to express this more-than-human agenda in human words.

7. Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?

Age creeps on, and ideas are scarcer fruits. I have no particular plans but hope I’m not written out. Maybe I’ll do a short philosophical meditation on the concept of human-nature “neighbourliness” which I begin to explore in Turning the Boat for Home. Ideas from readers most welcome!

 

We have a limited amount of signed copies available of Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing about Nature

Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing about Nature
Hardback, Oct 2019,  £15.99 £18.99

Due to be published in 2020

Birds Britannica
Hardback, due March 2020,  £42.99 £49.99

Fifteen years after the very successful first edition, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey return for the second edition of Birds Britannica, paying homage to the strong bond the British have with birds.

 

Browse all our Richard Mabey’s books.