Thursday, 27 August 2015

Birding on the Blyth (again)

If, like me, you define yourself as a dedicated patch watcher you will no doubt know that even something rather mundane can cause excitement when it turns up on your turf. This was certainly the case a few days past when a run of the mill walk along the River Blyth came up trumps with a delightful Pied Flycatcher. The individual in question was located in the vicinity of the sewage treatment facility toward the eastern boundary of the patch and put on a mighty fine show for a good fifteen minutes, snagging insects in typical elegant Flycatcher fashion. This species marked a first for my humble Blyth patch and comprised the unparalleled highlight of what was, in retrospect, a rather pleasant evening. An account of which can be found below..

Truth be told, I had expected to find at least one interesting migrant on the patch on Monday evening. Rarities galore had  dropped in elsewhere on the Northumberland coast and in all honesty my expectations were rather high. Barred Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Red-Backed Shrike, what would I find? Well, nothing. Alas dreamt up rarities never materialised and migrant passerines were in fact few and far between. The aforementioned Pied Fly the only bird of note. Elsewhere the sewage works held only a few "hweeting" Chiffchaff and a young Willow Warbler. Indeed even resident song birds proved scarce with Robin, Goldfinch, Pied Wagtail and Chaffinch the only species noted. As is usually the case in these situations my attentions soon began to wander and soon enough I turned my attention to the harbour where pickings we're marginally less slim. 22 Goosander were the highlight here, loafing around just off shore in the company of a few Shelduck and Mallard. Cormorant too were numerous here and 4 Grey Herons loitered nearby looking typically menacing. Aside from these however only a few Sandwich Terns and the odd Swallow were of note and with this in mind I opted for a scan of the mudflats spanning the nearby estuary.

Walking a little further upstream things improved markedly with 10 superb Knot the first birds noted. Knot are a species I am not too familiar with and it was nothing short of a delight to get up close and personal with this miniature flock. Said birds showed impeccably for a good ten minutes giving me more than enough time to scrutinise their plumage which varied in hue from full summer rouge to dowdy winter grey. Knots aside the estuary held a splendid array of waders and further exploration revealed c130 Redshank, 25 Curlew, 80 Dunlin, 40 Ringed Plover and the odd Turnstone and Oystercatcher. Better still was the addition of 4 Common Sandpiper, all of which looked a little out of place on the flats alongside the larger, coastal waders. Finally, 4 Black-Tailed Godwit and 8 Whimbrel were added to the days tally, the latter heard on numerous occasions before one of the birds finally gave itself up and showed well amid a small flock of Curlew, it's sooty supercillium setting it apart from its larger and somewhat duller cousins. Not that I dislike Curlew..

Moving further up River and a shimmering flash of blue heralded the arrival of a Kingfisher though my initial joy was rather short lived as the sapphire beauty continued up steam and soon passed out of sight. A Little Egret was also picked up here though this concluded the days avian offerings. Turning my attentions to the sites Lepidoptera a quick butterfly survey revealed a host of goodies including Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Green-Veined White and perhaps best of all, a few Painted Lady. A species that until now has been rather sparse this year. Heading home a Fox was also noted all be it rather briefly. A fitting way to conclude yet another enjoyable evening on the patch.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Birdfair; First Impressions.

Well, there it is, the avian extravaganza that is Birdfair has been and gone. For me the past weekend marked a monumental first, comprising my first trip Rutland Water and my first trip to this truly fantastic festival. Aside from copious amounts of craft ale, delightful pulled pork sandwiches and a star-studded rendition of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, two things stood out for me above all else. The first, the sheer passion and dedication of the many of the fantastic young birders, conservationists and naturalists in attendance, the majority of them associated with A Focus On Nature (Found here). Secondly, the wonderful wildlife on show around Rutland Water. As this is indeed a wildlife blog I will begin with the second..

By my own admission I didn't really commit to too much purposeful wildlife watching during my time at Birdfair, my exploits limited to a few minutes spent in the Swaroski tower and a brief outing around the campsite. With this in mind I still managed a few interesting odds 'n' ends including a few firsts for the ever growing Pan List. The highlight of the weekend was almost certainly the two Black Terns picked up from the aforementioned hide. This is a species I have only ever seen on the continent and despite not looking at all "black" the pair proved thoroughly enjoyable. Though I missed both Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper from the hide I did however manage a few common treasures including 22 Egyptian Geese (new for the year), Little Tern, Great Crested Grebe, Little Egret and Yellow Wagtail. Birds aside; a number of Emperor Dragonflies provided my first non-avian tick, closely followed by a number of Bushcrickets, one of which was kindly identified by a passerby as Long-Winged Conehead. A guided bug hunt with the extremely knowledgeable Ryan Clark (@RyanClarkNature) also turned up some goodies including my first 24-Spot Ladybird, Common Darter, Common Blue & Blue-Tailed Damselfly and a myriad of beautiful Crab Spiders, moths, froghoppers and grass bugs. I have been a fan of Ryan's fantastic ecology blog for a longtime and it was lovely to finally chat to the man himself. All in all not a bad weekend though on this occasion it was the people, not the wildlife that took precedence.

Meet AFON and NGB!
A rare bird indeed..
Wall (Lasiommata megera)
As I mentioned earlier, Birdfair provided my first opportunity to socialise with the many young naturalists I've come to know online throughout the years. It was fantastic to finally attach names to the various Twitter handles I am familiar with and during the course of the weekend I met no fewer than fifty new faces. Josie Hewitt (@josiethebirder) and Georgia Locock (@GeorgiaLocock) were nothing short of inspirational and though I couldn't make their initial talk on the Friday evening I was delighted to attend a similar event the second day. Both of the girls spoke passionately, confidently and earned a roaring applause from the captivated crowd. If young naturalists like this are indeed the future of conservation then the future is very rosy indeed. Both girls are a fountain of knowledge and enthusiasm when it comes to their chosen fields and I would advise everyone to follow them on social media. Whilst on the subject of young naturalists it was also wonderful to catch up with Toby Carter (@TobyWarbler) and Ben Moyes (@MoysieBirder), both of whom conducted themselves wonderfully on the BTO stand during the weekend. Toby even brought my attention to the aforementioned Black Terns. Are my eyes really going at only 22? I do hope not. Anyways, thank you Toby! These young people and others such as Sorrel Lyall (@SorrelLyall) and Billy Stockwell  (@StockwellBilly) have all gone some way to refreshing my view of the future and with such talented individuals waiting in the wings I now stand wholly optimistic as to what that future may bring.

Another thing that really struck me about the weekend was the sheer passion and determination of the various AFON members present at Birdfair. I have been a member of the group for a few years now but until now have remained firmly on the sidelines, excluding of course the odd competition entry and blog post. This may soon change I fear as these talented young people demonstrated perfectly how an organisation such as this should be run, showcasing knowledge, passion and infectious enthusiasm in equal measure. The AFON children's art mural manned by Beth Aucott (@BethAucott), Chris Calow (@ChrisCalow) & Emily Robertson (@MoticillaAlba) created a relaxed and fun place for children to express their nature based creativity and was a roaring success whilst the talks I attended courtesy of Matt Williams (@mattadamw) and the fabulous Lucy McRobert (@LucyMcRobert1) were nothing short of eye opening. I guess what I am trying to say is that if you're young and interested in the natural world, join AFON, you will not regret it. 

Elsewhere I somehow managed to subscribe to umpteen Journals, magazines and wildlife organisations, many of which (The Wildlife Trusts and British Birds included) were long overdue. On a personal note it was extremely humbling to be recognised but complimented by so many people over the weekend. My years of tweeting, blogging and general bird based blabbing are clearly paying off and I was actually quite touched to find that people actually enjoy what I write. If anything this has served only to motivate me further and as such I am very grateful to all those involved. All of this, combined of course with the chance to meet some of my childhood heros helped make Birdfair an all around wonderous event. I look forward to attending the event next year and look forward to watching the Youth Conservation Movement reach new and exciting heights.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Feral Pigeons; from Riches to Rags

Pigeons are among the most maligned urban wildlife despite the fact that human beings brought them to our shores and turned them loose in our cities - not something that they chose” - Ingrid Newkirk

Pigeons; dare I say that no other bird inspires such blatant contempt among Britain’s human populace. Farmers, city goers, council workers, gardeners and cleaners, many hold the pigeon in appallingly low regard. Others, like me, adore Pigeons though I fear I stand amid a ebbing minority in this regard. Whatever your stance it is hard to deny that the story of the humble pigeon is a fascinating one. More than any other bird it seems, the history of the Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) is intricately intertwined with that of our own, often in intriguing fashion. Throughout the centuries the pigeon has adorned our tables, delivered our messages, acted as a religious symbol and developed into a beloved pet. Only to be cast down in a hail of air rifle pellets. How is it that this resilient and undeniably successful bird has gained the demeaning title of ‘flying rat’? How is it that this once revered comrade now stands as public enemy number one? Pigeons have truly gone from riches rags though I for one am saddened by this exponential fall from grace.

The Feral Pigeon can trace its ancestry back to the Rock Dove (Columba livia), a species of pigeon native to the coastal cliffs of Southern Europe, North Africa and South Asia. Long ago, these birds coexisted alongside humans and soon learnt that humans offered a reliable source of nutrients in the form of seed and grain. Unlucky for the Pigeons we too shared the sentiment. Soon enough the people of Mesopotamia and Sumer provided the wild doves with safe places to roost and created nest houses amid towns and farms and thus the long process of domestication begun. Whereas Red Jungle Fowl (the relative of today’s chickens) provided a sustainable source of protein in much of Asia, pigeons fed the growing populations of Europe and the Middle East though it did not take long for humans to realise that there was more to Pigeons than a tasty morsel..

Years after their domestication for culinary purposes pigeons rose from a mere ingredient to a celebrated religious icon. This ascent to the heavens came about upon the realisation that pigeons display many behaviours that we humans hold in high esteem. Pigeons are monogamous, meaning that they are faithful to only one partner during the breeding season. Whilst breeding, both male and female pigeons evenly distribute the parental duties and both display a fierce protection instinct at the nest. Couple this with the famed homing instinct and it is little wonder that people began to revere the pigeon for living what for all intents and purposes seemed like an idyllic and above all else, pure existence. Following this, Pigeons became exalted in many cultures and faiths. Noah famously released a Dove (white pigeon) from his Ark whereas elsewhere the ancient goddesses Aphrodite and Venus were represented by doves and in China the pigeon was later revered as a symbol of fidelity and longevity. 

The famed homing instinct of the pigeon, immortalised in the Holy Bible, allowed the Pigeon to ascend to even greater heights. Now the pigeon took on a whole new use, its ingrained instinct to return home making it the ideal candidate to carry human messages. Exploited for this purpose as early as Greek and Roman times the role of the Pigeon throughout history cannot be overstated. Writing in the 14th centuary, Sir John Manderville records their use throughout the Middle East, an account that wonderfully explains the usefulness of Pigeons in times of human warfare and strife. He writes: 

The people of these countries have a strange custom in times of war and siege; when they dare not send out messengers with letters to ask for help, they write their letters and tie them to the neck of a colver (pigeon) and let the colver fly away. They immediately seek the place where they have been brought up and nourished and are at once relieved of their messages by their owners and desired aid is sent to the besieged.”

The use of Pigeons in times of war continued for hundreds of years, throughout both World Wars. The British Intelligence Service even used Pigeons to deliver messages to resistance movements and sympathisers operating in enemy territory throughout France and Germany. Indeed by the 20th Century the status of the Pigeon had reached a new high, commended and praised the Pigeon stood supreme as one of our most useful animal allies. A fact made clear by the famed case of Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon responsible for saving the lives of 200 servicemen during World War 1. Translating to “Dear Friend” in French, Cher Ami was only Pigeon, or indeed to the best of my knowledge animal, to ever be awarded with a medal for gallantry. Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre and now stands triumphant in the Smithsonian Institute where his story has been immortalised for all to read. The harrowing story of Cher Ami can be found here, completed with a poem written in his honour by Harry Wed Farrington. Baring all this in mind, how is it then that the pigeon has fallen so spectacularly from grace? Made redundant by technological advances the story of the Pigeon in the 21st Century is a much grimmer affair..

In the present day our opinions on Pigeons have shifted massively. Where once we favoured them, worshiped them even, we now persecute them relentlessly. Many see the Pigeon as a menace, plundering crops, befouling our cities and looking ungainly in bus stations the world over. Pigeons are shot, poisoned and trapped with immunity throughout the UK and further afield, whilst buildings are adorned with spikes and nets, pigeon proofed to deter the winged ones from invading our homes and residences. Though I admit that in the right circumstances an excess of Pigeons can become a problem I cannot help but admire the grit and determination of the Feral Pigeon. Indeed, no other species with the exception of man has colonised the world with such vigour. Pigeons are now found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica and have taken readily to our towns and cities, habitats that pose problems for the vast majority of species. To me, the global domination of the Pigeon is something to be celebrated, not scoffed at. I for one make a habit of feeding Pigeons whenever I venture into the city. To me their cooing and rather comical courtship displays are all part of life in an urban setting. To me, the Feral Pigeon is beautiful, their iridescent colouration and charming behaviours overlooked simply due to abundance. Perhaps before judging these resourceful birds we should take a step back and assess just what this iconic symbol of human/wildlife cooperation has done for us. It is after all rather ironic that we bare such prejudice against the city pigeon following cooperative triumphs in the past; under no circumstances should our past debt to this charismatic bird be forgotten.