Curlew Moon: An interview with Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award-winning writer and producer who is well-known for her work with BBC Radio producing programmes on natural history and environmental issues; including their Natural Histories, Shared Planet and Saving Species series.

Her new book, Curlew Moon, documents her 500-mile journey from the west coast of Ireland to the east of England to raise awareness and funds for the Curlew, now one of the UK’s most threatened birds. Part travel diary and part natural history, the book is also a beautiful exploration of the way in which the Curlew appears in local myths, culture and language.

We were delighted to chat with Mary about the book and about her fight to save the UK Curlew population before it’s too late.

Curlew MoonI guess I’ll start with the obvious question – why Curlews? What is it about them that captivates you and has made you dedicate so much time and energy to raising awareness for their conservation?

That’s perhaps the most difficult question. I honestly don’t know why Curlews in particular, other than I love the way they look, how they sound and where they live. Those calls over wetland and meadow or over mountain slopes are soul-grabbing. W S Graham described the Curlew’s call as a ‘love-weep’ a melancholic, yearning, beautiful sound. I grew up in the Staffordshire Moorlands and back then, in the 70s, they were common, so perhaps they infiltrated my brain! What I found on the walk is that many people feel the same. To know them is to love them. And over the last few years, as I became aware of what was happening not out on the savannah or in a rainforest, but right here under our noses, I decided to try to help. A contract with the BBC Natural History unit came to an end and the next day I started to plan the walk.

Curlew MoonWhere I live in North Wales, on the banks of the Menai Straights, the sight and sound of curlew are very common. Living somewhere like this, you could easily believe that they are both abundant and thriving here in the UK. Do you think that this, along with a lack of understanding of their complete natural history (e.g. the types of habitat they require to breed, food sources and predator pressures) contributes to masking the problems they face?

For sure that is the case. The UK and Ireland population of Curlew are boosted by winter visitors. From August to March as many as 150,000 Curlews rest up and feed ready for the breeding season. But come the warmer months most disappear back to N Germany, Scandinavia or Finland, leaving our own breeding birds thinly scattered. Also, as Curlew don’t breed until they are at least 2 years old, juveniles may well spend all year on the coast. The story of loss is in the fields and meadows. A Curlew’s life is complicated, and we are only just getting to grips with that. It needs whole landscapes to feed, roost, nest and over-winter. They bind the coast to the mountains and country to country. It’s hard to understand, but worth the effort. They really are fascinating.

Curlew MoonPoetry features heavily in the book and I absolutely loved how you explore the myriad ways in which the curlew features in the myths, legends and cultures of the areas you passed through. (I am currently in the process of moving to Clynnog Fawr so I was particularly thrilled with the tale of St. Beuno!). Why did you choose to style the book in this way rather than writing a more prosaic natural history and travel diary?

I think being a producer on Radio 4’s Natural Histories for two series deepened my understanding of just how much the life around us has contributed to art, literature, poetry, science, folklore and spirituality. For all of our time as humans on earth we have looked at the natural world and forged connections. We still do that today. Part of the reason for the walk was to discover how curlews have inspired us. I had known about the lovely story of St Beuno and the Curlew for a long time – enchanted by it – so I knew there must be more out there. And there certainly is!

Particularly at a time where it seems that we are encouraged to value wildlife primarily for how it can benefit us, and ‘ecosystem services’ type approaches aim to put a monetary value on our wild spaces and creatures, do you think the arts have an important role in highlighting and championing those species that might otherwise fade away without notice?

Yes of course, anything that helps us to re-engage with nature is vital, be that through arts or science or economics. People are complicated – each of us has so many facets, rolled into one being. We are consumers, parents, children, lovers, friends. We are both rational and irrational, emotional and calculating, loving and full of division. Spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, often all at the same time. The arts understand this complexity and great art touches all those facets. The role of the arts in our lives is incalculable, so it isn’t surprising it doesn’t appear on a financial spreadsheet. I’m not sure I could write a straight natural history of any animal, bird or plant. I will always want to delve into its connection to our lives.

Curlew MoonWith any conservation work, it can sometimes feel as though you are swimming against the tide, with every move forward followed by two moves back. Especially with a species such as the Curlew, where there seem to be so many challenges to overcome, how do you maintain the hope required to keep fighting and how do you prevent yourself from succumbing to despair?

I touch on this a bit in the book – in the section where I walk though the middle of England with a friend who is an ex- Dominican friar, a gay activist and a writer, Mark Dowd.  He helped put my feelings into context. This wasn’t a walk that will necessarily produce tangible proof of more Curlews on the ground within 5 years. Rather it is in the realm of hope –  that something good will emerge at some point. It was a walk of trust, that if you put yourself on the line, people will respond. And so I didn’t walk with the aim that there would be a 20% increase in curlews in the UK and Ireland by 2020 (although that would be great), rather it was underpinned by a hope that people will be more aware of what needs to be done and will act on it. The series of workshops I organised with help from so many good people also gave me hope. We may fail, we may yet lose curlews from large areas, but, as David Attenborough once said, “As long as I can look into the eyes of my grandchildren and say I honestly did what I could, then that is all I can do.” I agree with that.

My final question is of a more practical nature, as I’m fascinated by people who take time out of their lives to undertake challenging journeys. Are you a seasoned long-distance walker or is this the first walk of this length you have undertaken? How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?

I used to do a lot of walking, but then children came along and life changed. So for 20 years I didn’t do much. But determination takes you a long way – and going to the gym. I just felt ready for the challenge and was so sure it was the right thing to do. But I did suffer from blisters! Still, a small price to pay and a good excuse to buy new boots for my most recent long distance walk – 230 miles through the Sierra Nevada in California along the John Muir Trail. That was tough, it made 500 miles along footpaths look like a stroll in the park.

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell is published by William Collins and is available from NHBS. You can read more about Mary and her work at www.curlewmedia.com.

Signed copies of the book are available while stocks last.

 

The 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch

Great Tit by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Big Garden Birdwatch provides the RSPB with a huge amount of data and allows them to monitor changes in abundance and distribution of garden birds throughout the UK. Image by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – in 2017 almost half a million people submitted results! Now in its 39th year, this annual event has become vital in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the abundance and distribution of birds in the UK.

This year the survey takes place from Saturday 27th to Monday 29th January. It’s a great activity for the whole family, and all it takes is an hour of your time. Here’s how to take part:

  1. Choose a good place to view your garden. If you don’t have a garden then wrap up warm and head down to your local park or green space to take part from there.
  2. Watch the birds for an hour, counting the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. (This reduces the likelihood of counting the same bird more than once). Don’t forget to make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
  3. Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form.
  4. Look out for the results being published in March!

Useful links:

Recommended reading:

The Everyday Guide to British Birds
Charlie Elder
The perfect companion for nature enthusiasts and birdwatching beginners. It describes the most common and widespread species that a birder is likely to come across in Britain, and illustrates the features that make each of them unique.

 

Collins Bird Guide
Lars Svensson
The UK’s most popular bird guide. Covering Britain and Europe, the book provides all the information needed to identify any species at any time of year, with detailed text on size, habitat, range, identification and voice.

 

Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland
Rob Hume et al.
Focusing on identification and containing maps, facts and figures on numbers and distributions, this breakthrough publication was devised by a team of lifelong birdwatchers, all with many years’ experience of showing people birds and producing user-friendly field guides.

Guide to the Top 50 Garden Birds
Edward Jackson and Andrew Simms
This handy fold-out guide is designed to help identify the majority of species likely to be found in a garden throughout the year. The choice of ‘top 50’ is based on the relative abundance of species recorded in the UK by the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey.

 

RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
Simon Harrap
A compact and informative field guide which covers more than 200 of the most common birds found in Britain. Features concise descriptions of each bird’s main characteristics including plumage, calls and song, confusion species, habitat, distribution and status, and behaviours.

 

A Practical Illustrated Guide to Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds
Ed. by Jen Green
This is the complete book of bird feeders, bird tables, birdbaths, nest boxes and backyard bird watching. It helps you learn what to feed garden birds, from seeds, grains and peanuts to fruits, suet cakes and fat balls, as well as how to attract birds by planting the right flowers, trees and shrubs.

Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.


Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.


Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.

 

The Importance of Nest Sites for Birds and Bees

Changes in land use can result in strong competition between species that have historically survived alongside eachother, such as goldfinches and chaffinches. Goldfinch by Tony Smith is licenced under CC BY 2.0.

Over the last century, land use in the UK has changed drastically. Small mixed-crop farms, traditionally separated by lanes, hedgerows and wild meadows have been replaced with larger, more specialised facilities. At the same time, the density of grazing animals such as sheep and cattle has also risen substantially. This combination of land-use change and agricultural intensification has contributed significantly to habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, and has led to huge, often dire, changes for the wildlife that call these places home.

Understanding these processes is of huge importance to conservationists, and a considerable amount of research has been conducted into the broad scale effects of land use changes on biodiversity. It is less well understood, however, why seemingly similar species can be affected to a different extent by local changes in their habitat.

A recent study, conducted by Dr Andrew Higginson at the University of Exeter, suggests that competition for nesting space may be a key factor in the differences observed. His study used a mathematical model to predict the likely outcome when populations of birds and bees are faced with a reduction in suitable nesting sites. Results indicated that larger, earlier-nesting species tend to fare better in these conditions, but at the expense of smaller, later-nesting species who, in the real world, would either fail to find a nesting site or be forced into using a poor quality or risky location.

Dr Higginson’s results illustrate that, whilst two or more similar species can co-exist together very happily when there are sufficient nesting spaces available, as soon as these become limited, competition and conflict become inevitable. In severe situations, species that have historically thrived in the same environment may suddenly find themselves battling for survival.

A key message from the study was that conservation efforts should ensure that priority is given to the creation and maintenance of suitable nesting sites. Conservation practices often focus on provision of food for wildlife, such as planting wildflowers for bees and providing food for our garden birds. Preserving and creating safe and accessible places for these animals to nest, however, is just as critical if we are to ensure their continued survival.

Head over to www.nhbs.com for our full range of bird nest boxes and insect nesting aids, or download our full nest box price list.

 

A New Home for Old Pallets

Preparing pallets for the walkway. Photo by David Price.

The accumulation of stacks of pallets is an unavoidable part of working in a fast paced and varied retail environment. So when we were contacted by Keith Grant from the Slapton Ringing Group to ask if they could take some off our hands, we were both delighted to agree and eager to learn about the site where they would be put to use.

The Slapton Ringing Group is based at the Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve. This beautiful site is located on the south coast of Devon and contains the largest lake in the south west, separated from the sea by just a narrow shingle bar. Its location, together with the unique habitat conditions, makes it an extremely important place for local and migrating bird populations.

A job well done. The completed walkway leading to the ride. Photo by David Price.

The Slapton Ringing Group have been surveying birds at Slapton Ley since the 1960s, and for the last six years the site has been designated as a BTO Constant Effort Survey (CES) Site.

A regular rotation of willow cutting is undertaken at the site, which maintains the vegetation and helps to avoid major changes in species composition. A carefully constructed pallet walkway allows access to the ringing rides for the volunteers that meet here regularly throughout the ringing season.

The pallets salvaged from NHBS were used to replace old ones which have an obviously limited lifespan due to the constantly wet conditions. It is a pleasure to know that some of our “waste” is being used to support such a fantastic and long-running project.

For more information about bird ringing in Devon, take a look at the Devon Birds website.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

Supplier Interview: Fraser Rush of Third Wheel Ringing Supplies

Fraser-RushTell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.

Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.

Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.

The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.

Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.

What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?

One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!

High Flier Mist Net Support System
Third Wheel’s High Flier Mist Net Support System

What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?

On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.

It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.

Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?

Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.

I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.

On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.

How bird atlases swept the world… with a little help from their friends

The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.

More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.

But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.

1962 Atlas of the British flora - the great-grandfather of all natural history atlases
1962 Atlas – the great-grandfather of the natural history atlas

The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.  

Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And –  we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.

Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.

1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO
1970 West Midlands atlas; image courtesy BTO

The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.

The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland (2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013 prompted this look at bird atlases.  

1976 British and Iriah atlas; image courtesy BTO
1976 British and Irish atlas; image courtesy BTO

Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.

She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”

By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.

All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.

Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.

Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.

Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)
Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont (second edition, 2013)

At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.

The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.

A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.

“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”

Browse the range of recent regional bird atlases published in the wake of the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11.

 

The NHBS guide: Where to hang and how to maintain your nest box

House Sparrow Terrace FSC Nest Box
House Sparrow Terrace FSC Nest Box

With spring rapidly approaching, now is the ideal time to start thinking about nest boxes for your local birds. With this in mind we have put together some answers to the most frequently asked questions about nest boxes – covering where and when to put up your boxes, cleaning and maintenance as well as dealing with predators.

You can browse the full range of nest boxes we sell online and, if you’re keen to find out more, check out the BTO Nestbox Guide, which is packed with essential information.

When is the best time to put up nest boxes?

There really is no ‘best’ time to put up nest boxes.  By putting up boxes in the autumn you can provide much needed winter refuges for roosting birds and increase the chance of them staying and nesting there when spring comes around.  However, any box erected before the end of February stands a good chance of being occupied.  Even after February there is still a chance that they will be used; tits have been known to move in during April and house martins as late as July. Therefore, put your nest box up as soon as it is available rather than leaving it in the shed!

Where should I hang my nest box?

1B Schwegler Nest Box
1B Schwegler Nest Box

When it comes to nest boxes, the ‘where’ is much more important than the ‘when’.  Nest boxes must provide a safe, comfortable environment and protect the inhabitants from predators and the worst of the weather.  This may be difficult to achieve; a safe location out of reach of predators may also be exposed to the weather, so have a good think before you start bashing nails in.

Nest boxes can be fixed to walls, trees or buildings and different styles of boxes are available which are suitable for each.  Fixing to artificial surfaces means the growth of the tree does not have to be considered which is useful for Schwegler nest boxes which last for at least 20-25 years: a significant amount of time in the life of a small tree.  If you’re planning any building work, remember that some bird and bat boxes can also be built directly into walls and roofs.

Locating boxes out of the reach of predators can be a challenge (weasels can climb almost anything), but there are things you can do to make it harder for them.  Boxes in gardens should be located where cats cannot get to them and prickly or thorny bushes can also help to deter unwanted visitors. Some nest boxes also have anti-predator designs (e.gSchwegler’s Tree Creeper nest box).  It is best to avoid nest boxes that have a combined bird feeder and boxes should not be sited too close to the bird feeders in your garden. Visitors to the feeder may disturb the nesting birds and the feeder could attract unwanted attention from predators.

For many species the height of the box is not crucial.  However, by placing it at least several metres off the ground you can help prevent predators and human interference.  The direction of the entrance hole is also not too important but it is beneficial for there to be a clear flight path to the box.  Crucially, the box should be sheltered from the prevailing wind, rain and strong sunlight, so in most UK gardens aim for an aspect of northerly, easterly or south-easterly.  If possible, position the box with a slight downward angle to provide further protection from the rain.  Wherever you position the box, try to ensure that you can still get access to it for maintenance.  And finally, if possible, try to put it somewhere where you can see it so as to maximise your enjoyment of watching wild birds in your garden.

Is there anything else I can do to deter predators?

Entrance hole protection plate
Entrance hole protection plate

As already mentioned, location is the most important factor when trying to deter predators.  Whilst some mammals can climb walls, a blank wall is fairly inaccessible so can be a good choice.  Ensure that the box cannot be reached by a single jump from a nearby branch or the ground.

Box design can also help deter predators.  An entrance hole reinforced with a metal plate will prevent grey squirrels and some avian predators from enlarging the hole and gaining access to the nest.  Schwegler’s wood-concrete boxes are too hard for any predator to break through.  However, you can also reinforce a nest box yourself with metal protection plates or provide additional protection with prickly twigs.  Deep boxes may prevent predators reaching in and grabbing nest occupants, although some tits have been known to fill up deep boxes with copious quantities of nesting material.  If using open-fronted nest boxes, a balloon of chicken wire over the entrance can work well.  If you live in an urban area, cats are likely to be the most common predator.  Gardeners have long since used various methods to exclude these unwanted visitors, such as pellets, electronic scarers and even lion dung (available from your nearest obliging zoo), all with varying degrees of success.

How do I manage the nest box?

A well-designed nest box will only need one annual clean in the autumn. It is important not to clean out nest boxes before August as they may still be occupied.  Wait until autumn and then remove the contents, scattering them on the ground some way from the box to help prevent parasites re-infesting the nest box. Use a small brush or scraper to remove debris from the corners. Boiling water can be used to kill any parasites remaining in the box, but remember to leave the lid off for a while for it to try out. Do not wait until the winter to clean out nest boxes as birds may already be roosting in them.

How many nest boxes do I need?

House Martin Nests
House Martin Nests

The exact amount of boxes required will depend on the species and the surrounding habitat.  As a very general rule of thumb, start with ten assorted small boxes per hectare (ensure uniform spacing between boxes).  Keep adding several more boxes each season until some remain unused and hopefully you’ll hit on the correct density of boxes.  However, even if you only have space for one box it is still worthwhile, providing it is suitably located. Many UK bird species need all the additional nesting habitat they can get.

If you are interested in installing a nest box camera into one of your bird boxes, take a look at our “How to choose a nest box camera” article, for more information on choosing the model that’s right for you.

Further information about individual nest boxes, including advice on positioning, can be found alongside each nest box in our range.  If you have any other questions then please get in touch with customer services.

 

Doomsday for Devon’s birds?

Curlew in flight by Smudge 3000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0
Curlew in flight – attribution at end of post

My Atlas of Breeding Birds in Devon has a pale blue cover, a black-and-white picture of a stonechat on the front, and a price tag of £1.50. It is more than 40 years old.

The atlas, based on fieldwork from five breeding seasons, spanning 1968 to 1972, was described, somewhat inevitably, as an ‘ornithological Domesday Book’, from which changes in the status of the county’s breeding birds could be measured.

So how does the data, published in 1974, measure up to the new Devon Bird Atlas, published this year?

1970s vintage...
1970s vintage…
Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013
… This year’s model

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuckoo and starling were recorded everywhere in the old atlas, yellowhammer everywhere except Lundy. All three are now missing from large parts of the county.

The skylark was abundant throughout Devon then. Today it is scarce or absent from large areas, mainly farmland.

The skylark’s modern strongholds are Dartmoor and Exmoor and the new atlas says: “If present trends continue… the glorious song-flight will become less and less familiar in intensively farmed areas.”

The plight of the lapwing is even more pronounced. In the old atlas it was a widely distributed breeding species, despite a decline that had been noted since the 1930s; the new atlas records lapwing breeding in only three places, two of them at the RSPB’s Exe estuary reserves, the other on the southern fringe of Dartmoor.

Grey partridge was recorded breeding almost everywhere in the old atlas; now it is confirmed in only two places.

Dr Humphrey Sitters edited the old atlas, and in the preface to the new one says more agri-environment schemes are needed, but will only be put into effect if people who know what is going on “present the data we have collected and batter the politicians and bureaucrats into submission.

“Therefore, ultimately, if we lose our breeding birds it is as much our fault as everyone else involved.”

Species whose numbers have increased include siskin, Dartford warbler, Cetti’s warbler and great crested grebe.

Cetti’s warbler was not in the old atlas, the first British breeding record is from Kent in 1973 – it may now be present at all suitable sites in Devon.

There was little evidence great crested grebe bred in Devon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Numbers have since expanded, although it is doubtful more than 15 pairs successfully bred between 2007 and 2013, the years when data for the new atlas was collected.

The old atlas does not map where peregrine was breeding. During the fieldwork years only one or two pairs managed to rear young and the bird’s future, then blighted by pesticides and egg collectors, was too uncertain to risk identifying nests.

Today it is recorded as ‘possible, probable or confirmed’ almost everywhere, although in small numbers. Persecution is still with us, however, and the new atlas again tries to mask the actual nesting sites.

The sorriest story is possibly the curlew’s. It was breeding in more than half of Devon in the old atlas, although in small numbers – curlew had still not recovered from the historically cold winter of 1962/63, a trait then shared by many other species. Now breeding pairs are down to single figures, and the new atlas says the “future of the curlew as a breeding species in Devon looks bleak”.

The great landscape historian and great Devonian W.G. Hoskins described a Blackdown Hills parish, in the east of the county, as “a country of deep, winding lanes running from one ancient farmstead to another, haunted by buzzards in the valleys and by curlews on the heaths above, and full of flowers”.

The buzzards are still there but will we again be able to hear the curlew?

The old atlas grew from the BTO/Irish Wildbird Conservancy Atlas Project 1968-72, the new Devon Bird Atlas from the BTO’s Bird Atlas project 2007-11, which resulted in Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. A large number of other regional and county bird atlases are also available and NHBS has prepared a list showing upcoming titles.Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Buy a copy of the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013

Main image: Curlew in flight by Smudge 9000 via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped to remove border)