This year’s Big Garden Birdwatch will be held from 26-28 January: are you ready?
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – now in its 40th year! What began as a simple activity for junior members of the RSPB has now grown to a UK-wide activity with over half a million people regularly taking part. With 40 years of data to look back on, this annual event has become important in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the distribution and abundance of birds in the UK.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is easy to join (and you don’t have to be a member of the RSPB). Here’s how to take part:
Choose a good place to watch from for an hour between between Saturday 26th and Monday 28th January – either your garden, or a local park or green.
Relax and watch the birds.
Count the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. For example, if you see a group of three house sparrows together and later another two, and after that another one, the number to submit is three. That way, it’s less likely you’ll double-count the same birds.
Make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form. Even if you don’t see anything, that’s still useful information.
Look out for the results.
You don’t need much to take part in BGB apart from a nice hot drink, some snacks and a pen and paper; but if you’d like to brush up on your garden wildlife here are a few books and items that can get you started:
Standing a metre tall, with a wingspan approaching three metres, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is a magnificent and impressive bird.
Published in November, Richard Sale’s new book is the first English-language study of this bird of prey. A translation of an earlier Russian book written by Masterov and Romanov, the English version benefits from significant updates and a wealth of new photographs.
We recently chatted with Richard about the Steller’s Sea Eagle, his passion for birds and his love of the Arctic.
In your author biography you are described as a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics. Is physics still a part of your life or do you now devote all of your time to your writing and natural history studies?
Physics will always be a part of my life. I started out as a working physicist, at first as a glaciologist in Switzerland because they paid me to stay in the mountains where I could climb on my days off. Then I moved back to the UK to work. After a few years I left full-time employment and started a consultancy which allowed me to share physics with my love of birds and of snow and ice.
You obviously have a huge passion for birds, and you also spend much of your time studying Arctic ecology. Where did these twin passions come from?
The love of birds started with my father who was a birdwatcher. Our holidays were geared around the breeding season and we went to the moors rather than the beach. He taught me to really watch birds, not just to be able to name them but to able to understand their habits. My other love as a kid was climbing; at first rock faces, then mountains. The love of snow and ice and birds led naturally to wanting to visit the Arctic. After the first trip I really didn’t want to go anywhere else, especially as I am no lover of hot weather.
How did the collaboration for Steller’s Sea Eagle come about? Were you approached to work on the English version of the book or is it something that you yourself instigated?
I had visited Kamchatka in summer and winter and been in the field with Yevgeni Lobkov, one the experts on Kamchatka’s Steller’s. I subsequently went to Hokkaido several times to see the eagles on the sea ice. Then I found the Russian book and corresponded with Michael Romanov. That led to the idea of translating it into English, so I obtained the English rights from the Russian publisher. At first the idea was just to translate the Russian book, but by questioning Michael and Vladimir about sections of text, and then suggesting that we include my work on flight characteristics, the two of them suggested I should be co-author as the book was now looking substantially different from the original.
Can you describe your first sighting of a Steller’s Sea Eagle? How did it make you feel?
I mentioned Yevgeni Lobkov above. He and I took a trip along the Zupanova River in a Zodiac and I remember the first time a Steller’s came over us. It was low down and seemed to blot out the light because of its size. No one who sees a Steller’s can avoid being impressed and I was immediately enraptured.
I was intrigued to read that you have worked with a captive Steller’s Sea Eagle here in the UK. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Once in the Arctic, on Bylot Island, I was watching a Gyrfalcon hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels and because of the terrain, a narrow valley, I could see the falcon was not stooping in a straight line. That led to investigating the physiology of falcon eyes, and to designing a small unit with gps, tri-axial accelerometers, magnetometers and gyros (and other bits) to fly on falconry birds to study how they fly. I managed to get the weight down to a few grams – though that hardly mattered when I found someone flying a captive Steller’s in England as it weighed 5kg. It was flying the units on that bird that is in the new book. Atlas, the eagle, was flown in demonstrations for the public and allowed me to investigate wing beat frequencies, speed etc. It was great fun as he was such a docile bird, a real gentle giant, and being allowed to get so close to him was marvellous.
It seems that two of the main pressures on the Steller’s Sea Eagle are fossil fuel exploration from humans and predation from brown bears. Are there currently any population estimates for the species, and are you hopeful for their future survival?
The situation is not good. The company drilling for oil and gas have been helpful in taking enormous care over onshore works near breeding sites and are to be commended for that. But the fact is that, as human activities of all sorts have expanded close to Steller’s habitats (most of which are well away from the oil/gas exploration sites), the population has gone into decline. We can overcome bear predation by fitting anti-bear devices to trees. We can erect artificial nest and roost sites. But despite all of this, at the moment the population numbers are slowly coming down, probably as a result of global warming, though we are not yet definite about that. Hopefully the population will stabilise but only time will tell if our efforts have been sufficient.
Within a given year, how much time do you spend travelling and how much writing? Do you enjoy each part of the process equally?
Age is catching up with me now and so I spend less time in the Arctic than I did (when I could be there for many weeks during the breeding season). But I still get into the field regularly – particularly at the moment with my units flying on falconry birds and with studies on Merlins in Iceland, Scotland and Hobbies in England and Wales. But I also spend a lot of time in the library reading about birds and, sadly, the damage we are causing them through industrialisation and climate change. As everyone knows, there is hardly any money to be made nowadays as a writer of books on natural history and related topics, but I also enjoy the process of writing and preparing books for publication.
Another of your books, The Arctic, is due for publication in December. What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the pipeline?
That book is an updated, but shortened, version of one I produced some years ago with new photographs by myself and a Norwegian photographer I bumped into one winter out on the sea ice of Svalbard. We have made several journeys together since and stay in close touch as we share a love of the Arctic. The next will likely be an updated and expanded version of the one I produced on the Merlin. Merlins are my favourite raptor. Falcons are, in general, warm-weather birds. The exceptions are the Gyrfalcons, which are the largest falcons, the Peregrine (which lives more or less everywhere) and is also large, and the tiny Merlin. I am as entranced by these little birds making a living in the harshest climates as I am by the huge Steller’s.
Richard Sale is a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics, who now devotes his time to studying Arctic ecology and the flight dynamics of raptors. With Eugene Potapov he co-authored The Gyrfalcon monograph which won the US Wildlife Society Book of the Year in 2006. His other books include The Snowy Owl, Wildlife of the Arctic and the New Naturalist title Falcons.
Landfill is the story of gulls. Often derided as ‘bin chickens’ these complex birds are a surprising success story, exploiting and enjoying a niche created by our own waste-making behaviours.
In Landfill, Tim Dee has written an honest, funny and intelligent ode to these inquisitive, resourceful and daring birds. Their story is interwoven with our own – it is a nature book for our times.
We asked Tim a few questions regarding his fascination with gulls and his thoughts about these ubiquitous and canny survivors.
Why did you choose to write about Gulls?
I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years and grew up in a simpler world of gulls. They were mostly still ‘seagulls’ then – marine species – and there were only a handful regularly occurring in Britain. Thirty years ago – but without me fully clocking it at the time – gulls in Britain got more obvious and more interesting. Gulls became urban birds then, like never before – moving to breed in our cities and feeding on our rubbish dumps and stealing our chips – and they were also taxonomically reappraised so that the few species I thought I knew became a dozen or more species to search for and to learn to identify. These changes and the ways the birds have continued to live as often the wildest creature closest to our contemporary lives made them interesting to me, troubling even, and I started trying to work out what was going on.
J.A. Baker, the author of Peregrine and perhaps the founder of nature writing once wrote ‘science can never be enough; emotion and sentiment will always rule.’ Public perceptions of gulls range from dislike all the way to loathing. Is there anything that might make us more accepting of gulls and their place among us?
I think they hold a mirror up to us. They have flown in our slipstream in the last 100 years, coming ashore first to feed on fish guts, then following ploughs, and more recently finding life in our leftovers on city streets and rubbish dumps. They have found a way to live alongside us. Most birds have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of admiring the gulls for getting good at various human-like activities (surviving in the jostle of cities, shifting to new places where opportunities arise, making do in strapped times) we have derided them. I think we fear them with a dark loathing and, in an atavistic way, other animals that we see as succeeding. This is quite wrong. We have made the world the gulls have adapted to and we should look to our own debased and wasteful existence before hating other species for getting on with their lives. They might teach us about ourselves if we could learn how to know them properly. The gullers in Landfill know this and I have tried to write the book for the gulls as much as about them.
Gulls have proved to be adaptable, especially regarding human interaction; what changes have they already accomplished and what do you envisage for them in the next fifty or even one hundred years?
There has been a gull moment and it looks like it is coming to an end. Urban gulls – living in cities and eating our food waste on dumps – are a product of urbanising humanity and the throwaway decades of the 1960s-1990s. Nowadays the large species (herring and lesser black-backed above all) have two largely separate populations – one urban and one still marine. The seaside gulls are threatened species now and not doing well. At the moment the urban birds are still expanding their range and populations (there is remarkably little traffic between the two populations). But food waste recycling is increasingly efficient in the UK and little or no putrifiable waste is soon meant to be arriving on dumps. The food source is ending for the gulls. We don’t yet know what will happen. It seems likely that the numbers of the birds (100,000 pairs of urban herring and lesser black-backed gulls in Britain it is thought) cannot be sustained without this food source. It is good for us to be recyclers and to be less wasteful but the gulls may well not be so pleased.
With their increased visibility in towns and cities, what might be their impact on the urban wildlife that is already established there?
I’ve seen them eating a starling chick, others have seen them eating human hair outside a barber shop. The slum avifauna as it has been called is a dynamic one. Urban human life drives change in the leftover wildlife that can survive in the hectic built up world. Gulls take pigeons. And rats. But it is tough times for all species in these environments. On the rubbish dumps I have visited to ring gulls a super bold landfill red fox will take black-headed gulls if we are not careful to throw the ringed birds back into the air. Marginal living is hard for all. And in these shifting landscapes in states of permanent rebuild no one can tell who is going win out.
During your research for Landfill can you think of one stand-out surprising fact or discovery that you didn’t previously know?
Cities are warmer and safer and more nutritious for gulls than their original habitats; lesser black-backed gulls used to be migratory birds in Britain but seem to be evolving into sedentary birds; Caspian gulls are storming out of Eastern Europe, but are running out of their own species to mate with so are hybridising with others: nothing sits still for long in nature. Evolution is relentless, and the gulls are telling us how it is.
Are there plans for, or are you currently embarking on any new writing projects?
A nicer book in some ways I hope – I am writing about the spring in Europe following migratory birds north from south of the Sahara to the top of Arctic Scandinavia. Spring moves at about walking pace north and it is my favourite time of year. I have tried to walk the season from south to north in time with swallows and wheatears and nightjars and redstarts. And not many gulls, though I love them now too of course.
We currently have a limited number of signed copies available!
For most of her life, Miriam Darlington has obsessively tracked and studied wildlife. Qualified in modern languages, nature writing and field ecology, she is a Nature Notebook columnist at The Times. Her first book, Otter Country was published in 2012 and her latest book, Owl Sense was recently Book Of Week on BBC Radio 4.
We recently chatted to Miriam concerning her quest for wild encounters with UK and European owls.
It seems the main threat to barn owl numbers is the way our landscape has changed regarding commercial development and farming methods. What do you think is the single most important action regarding land management that could halt their decline and get their numbers growing sustainably?
It is all about protecting the owls’ habitat. As field vole and small mammal specialists the owls need rough grassland, where the small mammals live. The rough grassland needs to be protected, and wide enough strips around the field margins maintained and left so that a deep, soft litter layer of dead grasses can build up. This litter layer is essential for voles to tunnel through; this is what they need to survive, so it is all about helping farmers to be aware of this and funding them to manage this type of wildlife-friendly grasslands. Nesting sites are also vital; as mature trees are not replaced, and barns are unsympathetically converted, the owls will have no roosts and no nesting sites. Barn Owls need specialised, sheltered nest boxes in farm buildings. If they can feed, they can breed, and if they can breed they will continue to grace our countryside.
The volunteer work you undertook with The Barn Owl Trust was very interesting, but seemed quite intrusive to these reclusive, easily alarmed birds. What can you say to assuage my concerns?
The Barn Owl site surveys that I observed and described may seem like an intrusion, but it was a vital part of the BOT’s conservation work and always carried out with the utmost care. I would describe it as a necessary intrusion, as it was part of a 10-yearly survey, an information gathering exercise altogether essential for our knowledge of how many owls are breeding in Devon and the South West. The status and numbers of occupied sites were ascertained, and farmers, landowners and general public could be advised accordingly; nest boxes were repaired or replaced, risks assessed and owners given invaluable conservation advice. I described an incident in the book where an owl flew out of the barn we were surveying, demonstrating that owls are very sensitive, the utmost care is always taken, and the laws around the protection of owls are very strict. We were working in warm, dry conditions and no harm came to the owls. The Barn Owl Trust work under licence from Natural England, knowing that if any owl is inadvertently disturbed, they will usually quickly return to their roost. However, with the risks in mind, the greatest care and respect as well as a strict protocol was always followed when surveying sites . We had to work quietly and quickly, counting, ringing and weighing young as rapidly as possible with no time wasted. Adult owls often roost away from the nest due to it being full of pestering young, so they were usually unaffected by our visit. In other cases, the adult owl(s) looked but stayed put as they were well hidden. In some cases, for instance busy working farm barns, the owls are used to all sorts of noise, machinery and disruption, and were completely habituated, and not disturbed at all. Most of the time the adult owls I saw were vigilant, rather than stressed. The young have no idea what is happening and become biddable when approached. All-in-all, the value of the data we gathered would far outweigh any small intrusions. But the general public should be aware that it is illegal to recklessly enter a nesting site without a licence, especially with the knowledge that owls are breeding there.
Historically, owls were viewed as harbingers of doom. This seems to have been replaced by the commercial ‘cutifying’ of owls. Can this still be considered a sort-of reverence – is this the best regard wild animals can now expect?
No, I feel we need more than that; we need to respect their wildness, not their cuteness. Humans need to remember to keep our distance; the owls are not there for our enjoyment after all, but as a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. It helps to attract our attention that they are beautiful and charismatic, and it can be thrilling to catch sight of one, but I don’t feel that simply seeing them as cute is any help at all. We need a deeper respect for them than that. We need to care for, respect and understand their needs, but I think reverence is probably too much to ask! I would say sympathy is important, and that should be taught/encouraged in schools.
I found the descriptions of Eagle Owls foraging around waste dumps quite disconcerting. Away from their natural environment, sustaining themselves on human waste seems a sad fate for any animal, let alone a magnificent eagle owl. Am I being overly sentimental and unrealistic?
Yes, it’s easy to see only ugliness there, and it seems like a shame, yes perhaps it is disconcerting, but it shows these creatures are adaptable. It is not desperation, it is opportunistic…and they were feeding on rats, not human waste, so it was probably win-win.
Staying with human and wild animal interactions, you mention recent new builds and the impact they can have. As the rate of new builds is unlikely to decline, do you think developers could do more to take wildlife into account and, if so, what would these measures look like and how would they be enforced?
I believe developers are legally obliged now, and have been for some years, by local authorities, to survey for wildlife and to mitigate for any wildlife found to be breeding there. I visited a site on the edge of my town recently where some of the houses had bat boxes and swift boxes. It is legally enforced already, but many people may be unaware of this.
Captive owls are increasingly popular, and you wrote a reflective passage concerning a little owl called Murray. Even naming a wild animal is anathema to many conservationists. However, your initial concern about a captive owl seemed to diminish as you saw the effect it had on the audience. Do you think displaying captive birds can help conservation efforts?
It is very complex. I don’t think keeping and displaying captive wild animals is the best idea, ultimately. Humans have been domesticating animals for millennia however and it is interesting to look at the long view. Although I am very uncomfortable with keeping wild animals as pets, I have witnessed two things: 1. That when they are kept properly by experienced professionals, they do not seem to suffer and can lead long and relatively safe and healthy lives; and 2. that they can have benefits; increased sympathy and understanding for the species, aspirational opportunities for marginalised people, help for suffering or socially isolated people. I’m not a scientist however. I don’t feel qualified to make the final decision on this. It’s easy to pontificate about the morality of it all, and to see the risks, but not so easy to untangle the costs to the animal and the benefits, economic, emotional and otherwise to some humans. In the end, when we wanted an animal for my family, we got a domestic dog, not an owl. I think that’s the best one could wish for, in the circumstances.
In your previous book Otter Country you describe the places you are in with as much awe as the animal you are hoping to see – the same with Owl Sense. Is it the wild place or its occupiers that move us? Even the government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan alludes to the mental and physical health benefits natural spaces can provide; do you think conservation efforts would be better focused on wild places for their own sake or concentrate on the fauna and flora that inhabits them?
You can’t separate the two. The habitat comes first, but any expert will tell you that the animals are inseparable from their natural habitats. Look at what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite. The whole ecosystem began to restore itself when the wolves came back. My philosophy is to describe both; I feel passionately about the connections of the whole ecosystem, including the humans in it. I want to engender understanding and sympathy for that inseparableness. For most people, however, I expect going to a countryside place or a wild place is the most important, and encountering a wild animal, or knowing that there is a possibility of it will come second. I have focussed on owls and employed them as ambassadors, and animals can certainly attract public sympathy, but I suspect it is ownership of the land, stewardship of the land, the economic, health and social impacts of the land, that might win us the argument.
Your journey to Serbia to see the long-eared owls was amazing. So many owls, living in apparent harmony in close proximity to humans. As these spaces develop, however, this balance will of course shift, and not in favour of the owls. The only hope offered seemed to be tourism and, ironically, hunters preserving the landscape. Do you see these two options as the only solutions to ensuring the long-term survival of long-eared owls in Serbia?
Yes. I wouldn’t call it harmony necessarily, more like tolerance! The owls have been coming to the towns for many, many years and that will not change as long as the roost trees are preserved and farming does not intensify too quickly. As with Barn Owls, the owls need to fly out into the fields as they feed on the small rodents and small birds in the farmland.. this may become threatened with changes in farming as the country becomes more prosperous. Ecotourism will probably protect the state of things, as with the large owl roosts that are so spectacular; this economically deprived country needs every help it can get. The local people have caught on to this, but the authorities have some way to go with supporting it and fully and sustainably harnessing it. They key would be to harness ecotourism wholeheartedly. And yes, the hunters wish to preserve the habitats, which is excellent. It seems like the best arrangement, in the circumstances, and probably quite sustainable.
Your French guide, Gilles alluded to a dislike towards bird watchers (les ornithos) in the provinces. He said that, while in the countryside, he couldn’t leave his bird book on show in the car as people would slash his tyres. Things aren’t so bad here in the UK, but do you consider being a conservationist akin to being a radical and a subversive? – has protecting the environment fully entered the consciousness of the mainstream?
I think it has entered mainstream consciousness, and has some superb advocates now, but the activists should never let down their guard; we all need activists keeping an eye because right now we can never afford to be complacent – complacency is a very human trait and one that has brought us into this mess. We need to be constantly asking questions, constantly probing, curious and vigilant, and if that is a form of activism, I’m with the activists. It’s about questions and sometimes challenges, I think that’s what the best journalism, environmentalism, nature writing, scientists and conservationists do best.
You make it clear that the decision to leave the EU is not what you would have wished for. Aside from potentially losing a connection with mainland Europe, do you envisage any pro and cons for the UK environment regarding Brexit?
I’m not enough of an expert to be able to answer that. I was mortified to find that Britain was going to separate itself from what appeared to be a friendly and well-meaning, beneficial alliance, especially in terms of conservation regulations, but am completely naïve about the economic and the conservation implications for the future – I think we just have to continue working to call our leaders to account, and never lose sight of our priorities.
Miriam’s writing centres on the tension, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations. On a personal note I thought Owl Sense fulfilled this challenging undertaking. The personal and evocative writing, all underpinned by the ecology, biology and historical significance of these amazing animals made this a joy to read.
Miriam called into NHBS to sign our stock; these will be available only while stocks last.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our 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.
In 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.
The 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.
Citizen 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.
Orison for a Curlew takes us on a pilgrimage in search of the slender-billed curlew; once a common sight in its breeding grounds of Siberia, but now diminished to a handful of unconfirmed sightings. In this article, one of our book team Nigel Jones, talks to the author, Horatio Clare, about conservation, environmentalism and his hopes for the future of the titular bird.
Despite the rather gloomy prognosis for the fate of the slender-billed curlew, your book seems to me about hope. Are you optimistic that conservation will gain ground due to stories such as the plight of Numenius tenuirostris, or do you think this story is more of a prelude of things to come?
It is about hope. I do think the hunger for watching nature footage, and writing and reading about the natural world will translate, given the unavoidable nature of climate and environmental awareness as the world changes, into action. My sense of my generation, currently in our forties, is that we came out of an easy time – the nineties – well aware of how lucky we were, and how things were going with the planet and capitalism generally – and that we have not seen the best of us yet. We have been getting it together, I know of great people in powerful positions, and others doing tremendous work, and I hope things will change for the better. Brexit and Trump are shattering reversals for the world and nature, but not insurmountable. Moreover, it seems the slender-billed curlew may not be on the way out! A population may breed in Kazakhstan and the birds may have been seen and filmed a few years ago in Holland.
Being such a delicate and ethereal creature; do you think the slender-billed curlew was always vulnerable to possible extinction, regardless of human activity; was there a more dominant species pushing it out of it’s niche?
No I am sure we are the dominant species which pushed it out, by draining marshes and polluting the water. It was surely vulnerable in that it is highly specialised.
The relentless corrosion of diminishing natural spaces is a strong theme in your book. The argument for development is usually ‘people come first’ and, by definition, wild spaces are mainly unoccupied by people. I would love to see the hundreds of white pelicans, spiralling up to find the thermals that you describe. However, most of us will only see a spectacle such as this on television, or envisage it vicariously. For me this is the paradox of conserving wild spaces for their own sake – how do we get everyone involved with conservation when only a few people ever get to experience what it creates? How do we make wild spaces matter to everybody?
Knowledge of the natural world and knowing what you are looking at can make a walk in the garden, park or road a safari. That is the way you make every space matter: put names and stories on the creatures that inhabit it. Funnily enough I have written two children’s books on the subject! Which makes me think, children’s literature being a kind of menagerie, we all begin as nature-lovers; it’s just that some adults discount the planet’s marvels, and certainly its needs. And of course corporations exist solely to harvest the planet’s riches as quickly as possible, heedless of environmental cost, if they are allowed to be, for the benefit of share-holders. I think some form of cooperativism between individuals and between nations offers the only hope for long-term sustainability.
There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?
It is a sin to cause the extinction of a species, as Prof Kiss puts it in Orison. To fail to prevent the extinction of a species seems of a different order, if hard to enjoy. If you regard our privilege of dominance as responsibility, then we have a duty to look after all of what used to be called God’s creatures. We should not really accept anything less than bio-abundance and biodiversity, should we?
I really enjoyed meeting all the people in your book; their dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation was wonderfully described, without ever reducing them to parodies or caricatures. For me they represented the ‘hope’ in your book. However, they all seemed at odds with the world, probably viewed by their relative governments as part of an ‘awkward squad’ and their work and funding was often in decline. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?
With journalism going through tough times, there is no better way to have the fun and the interest of being the awkward squad, travelling the world, getting up the noses of baddies and making the planet a better place than becoming an environmentalist! What a blessed and admirable profession! What adventure it offers! And…the happiest people you meet are naturalists and environmentalists, on the whole, though they deal in tragedy and folly often.
The hunting for sport, the mist nets and the bird markets make for a very threatening environment for migrating birds. However, it’s the drainage of the marshes for agriculture and the encroachment and contamination of heavy industry that you more frequently allude to as the biggest threat. Do you see hunting as a potential partner to conservation, or are those two pursuits always going to be in conflict?
Having just read Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier by David Cobham I feel hunting is unhelpful, if not abominable, but that may be a grouse-centric view. In Greece the numerous hunters are thought of with something like revulsion by some conservationists; the hunting I saw while living in Italy was an absolute disgrace. No doubt many hunters are great and ardent conservationists. Unfortunately many are not.
The slender-billed curlew sightings in recent history are difficult to verify. What are your hunches about their authenticity and when was the last recorded sighting that you believe was accurate?
The birds filmed in Holland in 2013 seem genuine but I am no expert. I believe they are seen – and recorded – now and then. I heard a report from Oman, but a confirmed sighting is a tricky thing: it seems you need two or more photos and absolute proof. My friend Istavan Moldovan is cautious about the 2013 footage – as I write he is chasing relict populations of Apollo butterflies in the Carpathians in Romania. Does that not sound like a great career?
The last question is a simple one, but maybe the most difficult to answer. I know you certainly hope so, but do you believe Numenius tenuirostris will ever be seen again?
I absolutely do. I am quite sure they are out there and it is my dream to see one! Thank you so much for your wonderfully intelligent and acute questions, quite the best!
Orison for a Curlew, written by Horatio Clare and illustrated by Beatrice Forshall, is published by Little Toller Books and is available in paperback and hardback.
Little Toller was established in 2008 with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles.
Their Nature Classics Library series was established to re-publish gems of natural history writing, with up-to-date introductions by contemporary writers. The success of the series has now developed into a publishing programme which includes a series of monographs by authors like Fiona Sampson, John Burnside, Iain Sinclair and Adam Thorpe as well as stand-alone books – all attuned to nature and landscape and aimed at the general reader.
Each Little Toller writer brings something new to the series – but it’s always characterised by a deep understanding of the subject, combined with wonderful writing. A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative. Little Toller also pay a great deal of attention to the aesthetic of their books, using artists to complement the writing to create a beautiful object, befitting Little Toller’s high publishing standards.
Little Toller is now preparing its books for the latter part of the year, notably the first ever biography of the legendary but enigmatic J A Baker, author of The Peregrine, and access to the new Baker archive has led to important new insights into his life. 2018 will see new books from Tim Dee on Landfill, a book about Ted Hughes and fishing called The Catch, and an examination of the landscape of the north of the Irish republic from Sean Lysaght. Little Toller’s sister charity Common Ground is also working on a large exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park next year, for which there will be a raft of publishing.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.
Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?
James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!
Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.
What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.
All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.
Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?
Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!
Who is your target audience for the book?
Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.
For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?
Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.
Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!
How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?
At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!
Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?
James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.
Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!
With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?
Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.
It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?
Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.
How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?
As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.