Nicola Chester invites you on a trip to see that well-loved British mammal, the otter.
I am obsessed with all manner of British wildlife, but particularly so at the moment with otters – having just spent the past year writing about them. I read about otters, track them and, very occasionally, see them. But this winter’s flooding has meant my usual riverine haunts are off limits – changed and overwhelmed.
So I dream about them more, think I see them in unlikely places: I have an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.
The flooding will have displaced them, as it has so many other species, including our own. The tunnelled tracks through the grass, the slides and the sprainting ‘seats’ on the tumps of greater tussock sedge – all my touchstones, as well as their holts – are still under water.
On my last foray, I went as far as my welly-tops allowed, to stand in awe at lakes gated and divided by fences, drowned snowdrops gleaming below the surface like a submerged village. Half-forgotten streams, brooks and bournes had risen and swelled, rioting like a pack gone wild, hunting downstream to re-plumb their map of old routes and break over new ground to pour into a river already too full of itself.
Even now, as I look for the river’s edge through the wood, leaves from the tall poplars still carry the reverberations of all that rain like tuning forks; their frisson of rustling making the sound of rushing water. I find my way in at half-past-five, testing alternate steps for solid ground. Barbed wire and bramble arches are festooned with rags of reeds tugged from the water’s flow.
It is impossible not to avoid the crack of so many fallen branches or creep quietly over such sticky, sucky ground. I concentrate hard, and before I have time to register a singing whine of steel rails, a train rushes up from Exeter and a brief moment of panic nearly sends me into the river as it blasts right by. I had forgotten the track was there at all. I compose myself in the quiet afterwards, and find a tree to lean on.
This benign chalk stream, famed for its gin-clear clarity, is not like itself. It is flint green and grey as bath water and moving frighteningly fast. I think about the local stories of otter cubs being rescued downstream. Otters are intelligent, resourceful, curious and nomadic creatures and, although the challenges are many and varied, experienced, independent adults are equipped to deal with such a rapidly changing environment.
Just before the light starts to fail and I must go, something eel-like rises from the water in a curve and vanishes, downstream to where I’d been looking. There was no splash and it was not a fish. I watch the river until my eyes sting and run, but nothing re-appears. I know that, sometimes, this is all you see of a passing otter: a wave of its thick rudder tail as it dives, having spotted you first. What I saw whispers otter – but does not shout it. It could have been a branch, smooth and turning in the strong current – and I know, to be here at the precise time the otter was passing, in a river in spate such as this – and to see it? Almost – but not quite – impossible.
Nicola is the author of RSPB Spotlight: Otters
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Could today be the start of dragonfly and damselfly season? asks David Chandler…
April 17th. That’s my earliest date for seeing a dragonfly or damselfly in the UK. It was 2011, I was in Devon, and the record-breaking beast was a Large Red Damselfly. This species is normally the opening act of the dragonfly season. Most Large Red Damselflies emerge over a three-week period in the spring, though some emerge later and the further north you are the later they are likely to emerge. This is an easy species to identify – they are damselflies, they are red, and they are large! The only species you might confuse it with is a Small Red damselfly, which is much rarer. One way to tell them apart is to check out the leg colour – red on a Small Red, and black on a Large Red. As an adult, a very long-lived Large Red may hit the six-week mark. But most of its life is already behind it when it emerges from the water. Typically, its submarine larval existence will have lasted about two years.
Find out more in:
Easter holidays are here, take the chance to get out and about in a woodland near you. Tessa Wardley describes a recent trip:
I’m crouched down leaning against the smooth bark of an old Beech tree, it is a rare sunny day this winter and I’m hiding, as part of a game of ‘thicket’. I’m well hidden by the girth of the tree even in my layers of down jacket and I peer up to contemplate the canopy that reaches invitingly over my head. At this time of year there is little leaf cover but if I close my eyes I can imagine the light filtering down through the leaves, each one a tiny solar panel, carefully arranged to capture the maximum amount of light without stealing it from another leaf. The sensation of walking through a woodland in leaf is often compared to swimming in an underwater world.
As the weak, green light envelopes you, birds swim through the tree tops making shrieking dives through to the lower layers as if fish slicing through water. The clicks and creaks of underwater sounds are echoed by the activities of insects and small mammals in the trees and undergrowth, the rub of bark where branches overlap; and the ebb and flow of the wind in the leaves is very reminiscent of waves breaking on a sand and gravel shore
The quality of the attenuated light that filters through the leaves of a woodland canopy compares closely to the light that filters through the upper surface of water. In a mature beech wood just 5% of the incident light will reach down to the forest floor, the leaves filter out the long and short wavelengths of the blue and red ends of the spectrum for photosynthesis, leaving the mid length green light to dominate the light. Similarly when we are underwater the red and orange, long-wavelength, light is absorbed rapidly in the upper surface of the water leaving the greens and blues to penetrate more deeply and be absorbed more slowly. Biologically rich waters will also absorb the blue end of the spectrum, leaving again the green tinged experience reminiscent of the woodland walk.
My thoughts are wandering along in this vein when I am interrupted by the wet, black nose of our dog Alfie and my hiding place is rumbled – ‘Mum I can see you behind the tree!!
Have a go at Thicket with instructions from Tessa’s daughter.
Tessa Wardley is the author of:
Euan Dunn, RSPB’s Principal Marine Advisor and author of the new RSPB Spotlight: Puffins, looks at the effect of winter storms on Puffins.
We have heard a great deal, and rightly so, about the massive impact that a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Atlantic storms had on the Somerset Levels and elsewhere on land. But the waves as tall as church towers that battered the coast were, beyond the scope of telephoto cameras, meanwhile wreaking havoc on seabirds out at sea. The scale of the damage inflicted, especially on Puffins, is only now becoming clear. Seabirds are well adapted to wintering far offshore but those that dive for their prey cannot cope when the surface waters are whipped metres deep into something resembling the spin cycle of a washing machine. Puffins are remarkable deep divers in pursuit of their prey, capable of plumbing depths to 70 metres, but they mostly fish in the top 10 metres where they are highly vulnerable to hurricane-force weather. The result has been mass starvation and mortality of seabirds along the Atlantic coats of France, the Channel and Wales. In a phenomenon known as a seabird ‘wreck’, around 30,000 seabirds had been washed ashore, dead or dying, and mostly emaciated, by the first week of March (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-26440087). It’s the tip of the iceberg as many more will have foundered at sea undetected. Over half (nearly 16,000) of the victims were Puffins, followed by Guillemots (nearly 9,000) and Razorbills (over 2,000). Casualties still alive were taken into care for rehabilitation but most have been beyond saving.
These birds were in the throes of homing in on their breeding colonies so it remains to be seen what impact this, the biggest wreck of its kind in living memory, might have on numbers breeding in spring. Especially vulnerable could be very small, local Puffin populations including those on the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, and Lundy in the Bristol Channel where the species is just beginning to repopulate after rats were eradicated from the island.
Following hot on the heels of last year’s Puffin wreck in the North Sea which killed around 4,000 birds we know of, the fear is that increasing storm events associated with climate change will be a growing threat to our seabirds which are already under pressure. Their staple diet of sandeels (a small shoaling fish) is in decline in the North Sea, apparently linked to sea warming, which makes it harder for Puffins and other seabirds to find enough food for themselves and their chicks.
Organisations like the RSPB can and do help seabirds on land by protecting their breeding sites and undertaking island restoration projects to rid them of rats and other predators. But the challenge at sea is how to make them more resilient to the devastating effects of such storms. One thing we can do to give them a fighting chance is to establish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) such that critical feeding areas for Puffins and other seabirds are safeguarded. The UK’s network of MPAs is still more of string vest than a well woven wind-cheater and much remains to be done to bring it up to scratch. In the end, however, winter storms on the scale just witnessed are overwhelming and demand much greater political will to reverse the root cause of global warming.
Euan is the author of RSPB Spotlight: Puffins
RSPB Spotlight is a new series introducing readers to the lives and behaviour of our favourite animals with eye-catching photography and informative expert text. The other title launching with Puffins is Otters:
Author and photographer, Bob Gibbons suggests this is the perfect time for a trip to The Mani Peninsula to see amazing displays of wild flowers.
There’s a remote peninsula in the far south of mainland Greece that still, after more than 20 visits, seems to me like a little bit of paradise. It’s the central peninsula of the Peloponnese, pointing, like a bony finger, southwards towards Crete and Africa, and when you’re there it feels like the end of the line. The whole Peloponnese is a strikingly mountainous land, wild and unspoilt; just to reach the Mani, you have to cross the highlands south of Tripoli, and running like a spine down the Mani itself are some of the highest mountains in Greece. It’s a harsh land, with bare limestone, drystone walls and cliffs everywhere, and if you were to only visit in high summer or early autumn, you would think it was a sterile land, too. But come in late winter or spring, between February and May (and my very favourite time is the end of March or the first week in April) and it is one of the most spectacularly flowery places in Europe. The ancient olive groves, unspoilt roadsides, rough fields, wild hillsides, cliffs and churchyards are all ablaze with flowers, from blue vetches and pink cranesbills to intense yellow-green spurges, scarlet tulips, and dozens of species of orchids. It’s an endless visual feat if you’re lucky with the season and the weather (every year is different, and the very best is a wet winter that warms up in late March as the hours of sunshine increase) that takes your breath away.
But the wonderful thing about the Mani is that these botanical riches drape themselves over a spectacular land that is rich in history and the long interaction between man and nature. There are prehistoric terraced fields from a wetter past, extraordinary numbers of gorgeous little byzantine churches often hidden away in olive groves or on rocky promontories, and lovely villages scattered up the mountain slopes. Perhaps the strangest features, to be seen everywhere – though many are now derelict – are relics of the Mani’s dynamic war-torn past. Two groups were at each other’s throats for hundreds of years and, because they often lived in the same villages as each other, they constantly strove to build higher houses than their enemies’; the result is the extraordinary Mani tower houses, which point rigidly skyward in even the most barren and remote landscapes.
Not a great deal has changed in the 25 years or so in which I’ve known the Mani; the motorway from Athens creeps ever closer, and more tourists fly into Kalamata, so it’s become busier and there are more hotels and second homes, though, as a result, the food is better, there are more places to stay, and more crumbling buildings are being saved and restored. Any time in the Mani is beautiful, but, I’d go in spring for the fabulous flowers, the spring sunshine and the lack of crowds.
Bob Gibbons is the author of Wildflower Wonders: The 50 Best Wildflower Sites in the World, available in paperback from May.
Conor Jameson marks the death of The Goshawk author T.H White.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of author T. H. White, probably best remembered by bird enthusiasts for his mini epic The Goshawk (1951), and by the general public for The Once and Future King, his Arthurian novels, and the blockbuster Disney and Broadway spin-offs that ensued. Like J. A. Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), White’s work has inspired a number of prominent naturalists. It seems timely to remember the man, and reflect on his life and influence. J.K. Rowling, for example, acknowledges White’s character Wart, the young King Arthur as depicted in his novels, as the ‘spiritual ancestor’ of Harry Potter.
White wrote The Goshawk in the mid 1930s but hid the manuscript until Garnett chanced upon it more than a decade later. Garnett managed to convince White that it should be published, even though the writer was sheepish about the various personal and practical imperfections his words lay bare. For if White was no expert ornithologist at this stage of his life, he was no expert falconer then either. But he did love birds, and animals in general, probably more than he cared for the grown-up world. ‘I had only just escaped from humanity’ wrote White of his captive. ‘The poor gos had only just been caught by it.’
White was an enthusiast – a ‘smatterer’, as his biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner put it – and an avid learner of new skills. He was driven by a need to preoccupy himself, his discontent stemming from a traumatic childhood. ‘Everything collapsed at a critical time in my life and ever since I have been arming myself against disaster,’ he once confessed to Garnett in a letter. By the mid 1930s White had given up a teaching career to rent an old keeper’s cottage, and he wrote to Germany for a goshawk. Weary of society, he hoped to ‘revert to a feral state’ – thinking that somehow winning over the hawk might give him this.
He sought to train the bird using medieval methods, and make a living from his account of their relationship. But he had overestimated his ability to do this single-handed. The archaic method usually involved more than one person ‘watching’ the bird – staying awake for days and nights while the hawk repeatedly ‘bates’ from the wrists to which it is tethered, until finally it must sleep, and thereby submit to its captive state. And maybe he underestimated the brute intransigence of the bird, taken as a well-grown nestling and already wired with a detestation of the human form.
The modern method of manning a hawk is much gentler on both parties, and takes longer, with the bird gradually accustomed to the proximity of humans and their paraphernalia, steadily overcoming its innate suspicion. But that wouldn’t have made such a compelling tale, or involved such an intense battle of wills. While the book tells us little or nothing about the goshawk in its wild state – it was extirpated from the UK by the Victorians and only the occasional escapee was at large in the landscape here – it tells us much about the relationship between people and birds.
In later life White gave up field sports and contented himself with watching instead. He birdwatched across North America between stages of a three-month lecture tour in winter 1963-64. He kept a journal of the tour, later published as America at Last, a revealing snapshot of the nation through a turbulent period in its history – encompassing the Kennedy assassination – and decorated with descriptions of birds and other natural features seen.
On the tour he lectured about his work and his inspirations, sometimes to audiences of thousands in open-air stadiums. He was ‘box office’ in America. The Arthurian legends played well here. The Disney deal had made him wealthy at last. This often shy, prickly and reclusive man had probably never been happier, appreciated and liberated in that vast continent beset with social problems but so alive, he discovered, with openness, optimism and possibilities.
Tour over, he said his tearful goodbyes. He returned to Europe by ocean liner, partly because he hated flying (despite having trained as a pilot to learn another new skill and to attempt to overcome his fear) and partly so he could visit Athens. His ship docked in Piraeus harbour there, and it was on the morning of January 17 he was discovered dead in his cabin. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure. He was just 57 years old.
He never made it home. With no family in England, it was decided that he could be laid to rest in the corner of an Athens cemetery, within view of Hadrian’s Arch. The Emperor Hadrian was one of his passionate interests. Within White’s oeuvre is a satire on field sports called England Have My Bones. He would have enjoyed the irony that England never got them. Nor did England get his archive, which is housed at the University of Texas. It seems that even in death he was ill-fitted to this country: a misfit, much like the bird of which he wrote so vividly.
In part to correct this estrangement it struck me that this year’s anniversary of his passing might be formally recognised in some way, perhaps with a modest plaque or sculpture installed at one of White’s many stopping off points here in a nomadic life. Maybe Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where he taught, and near where he took the keeper’s cottage and did his best work. Or Doolistown in Ireland, where he spent the war years. Or the Channel Island of Alderney, where he lived last. But my enquiries and promptings have left me with no strong sense of a lasting appreciation of White here, or much appetite for resurrecting him.
If his literary legacy is not quite assured – I’m guessing because his most famous work was written for children – perhaps his contribution to natural history, albeit by an unorthodox route, can be recognised now. The Goshawk may not add much to the sum of knowledge about the species’ conservation status, but it is the only British book written in the 20th century devoted to the bird. For The Goshawk alone we might doff our caps to Terence ‘Tim’ Hanbury White, and acknowledge the place – and the lasting legacy – of the misfit.
Conor Mark Jameson
This has also been published in British Birds, January 2014. www.britishbirds.co.uk/
Conor Jameson’s British Birds feature provides food for thought on the changing status of species at Southill Park over the past 60 years.
While doing some research for my book Silent Spring Revisited, I came across a 1963 issue of the Bedfordshire Naturalist journal that included an account by Bruce Campbell of a nesting bird survey that he and the (then) British Birds editor James Ferguson-Lees carried out that year. They were repeating a survey first conducted sixty years earlier.
Campbell takes up the tale: ‘On June 4th, 1903, Jannion Steele-Elliott, the great Bedfordshire naturalist and his friend Ronald Bruce Campbell, my father, spent the day at Southill Park and found nests with eggs of 27 different species of bird, a feat which can have few parallels in British field ornithology.’ Sixty years on: ‘On June 5th, 1963, Jannion’s nephew, Dennis Elliott, James Ferguson-Lees, like my father a Scoto-Bedfordian… and I celebrated the diamond jubilee of the 1903 visit.’ Nothing was published at the time of the 1903 visit, but Campbell had his father’s diary of the event for reference.
In 1963, the three searched from mid morning till around 9.00 pm, and only just failed to emulate their predecessors: ‘Allowing ourselves the Blackcaps [fledged young rather than the nest itself], our tally was 60 occupied nests of 26 species. Considering the effect of the previous winter and that none of us knew the area well, whereas Steele-Elliott was certainly familiar with it, we felt we had not done too badly.’
With the 50th and 110th anniversary of this unusual and occasional survey approaching, I felt that it ought to be repeated. Richard Bashford, Barry Nightingale and I approached the estate; the necessary permission was generously granted by the Whitbread family and we did a dry run in June 2012. It was clear that the emphasis of our informal survey would not – indeed should not – be on locating the actual nests of many of the species likely to be present and breeding, to avoid risk of causing disturbance. Times and of course ornithological conventions have changed.
And so, on 9th June 2013, the three of us met at 6.00 am on the edge of the Park. In common with 1903 and 1963, our spring followed a hard winter, although not on the scale of 1963’s fabled three-month freeze. ‘From a general comparison of the two days,’ wrote Campbell, ‘it  must have been a late season, whereas 1963, in spite of the famous cold spell, had by June become rather an early one.’
A cold wind from the east made for thinner pickings than we might have expected at the Keepers Warren, where we set off. It was evidently heathland and not long planted, in 1963. The predated Wood Pigeon fledgling we found on the track may have been evidence of Sparrowhawk, absent 50 years ago. We found some other signs of life, such as the Muntjac Deer that trotted calmly across the track up ahead of us. The one that Campbell noted in this very part of the estate he described as his first glimpse of this recently introduced species in the wild.
At a clear-felled area we speculated on the species that might have occurred in days gone by – Nightjar, Woodlark, Whinchat, Tree Pipit – but we found nothing. We did pick up half a white eggshell, which looked good for Tawny Owl. I popped it in my bag for later verification.
The ’63 group had gone first to the lake, and enjoyed early success. ‘The boathouse gave us our first score, a House Sparrow with 4 eggs on a beam; there were several others to which we did not climb,’ Campbell reported. The boathouse is still there, crowded by trees, but the House Sparrows are long gone. The lake covers around 20 ha and remains a place busy with waterfowl and other wetland specialists. In 1963, Campbell recorded that ‘… herons lumbered off the tall trees on the island. The heronry was not in existence in 1903, so this gave us one species in hand for a start.’ We too were able to add Grey Heron to our list.
The 1963 search became ‘amphibious’ – the two men were equipped with gumboots and a mirror on a stick. They found Sedge Warbler and – curiously – a Bullfinch nest in sedges over the water. ‘The colony of Reed Warblers was known to Steele-Elliott but no nests were recorded on the 1903 visit… we tallied eight Reed Warblers with eggs.’
In 1963, the Turtle Dove accidentally flushed from its nest and young as the men returned to shore we could only dream of nowadays. They also stumbled on a Common Whitethroat nest nearby. We found a pair not far away, but only derelict nests were apparent.
For all their abundance over the lake we could add no hirundines to our list of breeders. The lake gave us one notable record – Egyptian Goose with goslings – and also something that our predecessors had noted, but of which we were unable to prove breeding on the day: Mute Swan and Great Crested Grebe.
Things improved after lunch, as we found Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers attending nest holes, Eurasian Nuthatches with a brood of five, and family groups of Eurasian Treecreeper and Goldcrest (‘a rarity in 1963’). Perhaps best of all were the Marsh Tits feeding recent fledglings.
The arable fields added little to our list, the winter wheat no doubt too high and dense already for ground nesters. The lack of hedgerows here ruled out several others. One real bonus was our discovery of the return of Spotted Flycatchers to the vicinity of Gothic Cottage. They were missing in 2012.
Ten hours in, and flagging, we went in search of what would have been number 26, returning to a Stock Dove nest hole we’d identified on our recce last year, but without success. We looked instead for Song Thrush, but chanced on a Common Chiffchaff gathering food. A pleasing one to end on.
What was most enjoyable was reflecting, as we strolled between habitats, on what these surroundings might have looked and felt like to our forerunners. Am I right to imagine that what has changed most is the general abundance of life?
It’s tempting to believe that there was just more in the way of life forms present, fifty years ago. Notwithstanding our competence, there is the definite sense that nests were easier to find, back then, presumably because birds were simply much more abundant. Perhaps insects were too. Campbell describes Ferguson-Lees being bothered by midges as he tried to locate Willow Warblers in a patch of Ground-elder. I wonder if this snapshot alone reveals a lot about the contrasting world they inhabited. We didn’t hear a Willow Warbler all day, and saw nothing resembling a midge. I don’t think we saw more than a single butterfly all day either, even after the sun broke through towards the end. What is perhaps more troubling is that this didn’t even occur to me as odd until I thought about it later that evening.
It also then occurred to me that I still had the eggshell in my bag, and towards midnight I checked it against the book. It made a perfect match with the Tawny Owl egg depicted there. So this gave us number 27, the same score as the class of 1903. And one more than in 1963.
So we could say that we matched their feat, more-or-less, though we did re-write the rules. In fact, the only intact eggs we saw all day were those of Common Coot, which would have been impossible to miss. What seems clear is that, not only were our predecessors’ nest-finding techniques greatly superior to and much less trammelled than ours, it also seems likely that there were, in all likelihood, many more nests to find.
Really, we can’t claim to have emulated the feat but that was not really the point. What is much more instructive is the glimpse the outing has given us of what has changed, and the pleasure of walking this interesting and varied landscape and imagining it five and eleven decades ago, our counterparts in tweeds or khakis, with their basic optics and much closer search focus. The need to prove nesting was novel for us. ‘It really changed the way we birdwatched,” Richard later reflected. It also gave us some life firsts – the family parties of some of the species, in particular. The Red Kites, Buzzards and Ravens that we saw would also have gladdened our fore-runners, I am sure.
So how will it be, 50 years hence, in 2063? One thing’s for sure, we won’t be the ones doing the 10-hour trek.
The year that was
1903 British Birds journal was still three years from its inception, but in spring 1903 the Society for the Protection of Birds (its Royal Charter was still a year away) was launching Bird Notes and News – the precursor to Birds magazine – to provide ‘news of the doings of the Society’ to its members. The first issue spoke of the challenges of tackling the ‘conspicuous brutality’ of the plumage trade – the absence of herons from the 1903 Southill survey may reflect a wider depletion of the heron family – and the practices of caging and often blinding songbirds.
1963 In spring 1963, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in the UK. The perils of which it warned were only just dawning on a wider public. And while we have no record of Southill Park being affected, estates not too far away had been reporting dead and dying birds (and other species such as Foxes) in great numbers. The RSPB, BTO and Game Research Association had formed an alliance to mobilise volunteer support and quantify the carnage. On top of this, resident species were recovering from one of the harshest winters on record. Barry Nightingale can himself recall field edges littered with the corpses of Wood Pigeons. Bird Notes was still two years from evolving into Birds magazine. It reported that National Nature Week had just been held.
Footnote In July 2013, while browsing once again in the file of Bedfordshire Naturalist journals, I discovered that the 1963 group repeated the survey two years later. It is worth adding this for the record, and to pick out a few of the noteworthy aspects of that visit. They returned on 1st June 1965, a ‘dull but promising’ day, and the promise was fulfilled as they racked up 100 nests of 35 species, way in excess of their 60/26 score of two years earlier. It supports the theory that there were many more nests to find, half a century ago – even more so perhaps as bird numbers recovered in the wake of the big freeze of winter 1962/63. There are some other poignant reflections: ‘The Muntjac was certainly not dreamed of at Southill in 1903 nor, probably, was the Grey Squirrel,’ wrote Bruce Campbell. ‘Another striking change, we reflected, was in the variety of noises which have invaded the countryside. At least during working hours, tractors, aircraft, bird-scarers and a power-saw reminded us of the age of technology. Perhaps in another 60 years science will have conquered noise and our successors will not strain to catch the off-nest calls of Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler.’
It may be that there was more human activity and therefore more noise then than now. But I think Campbell may have been especially surprised to learn that, 48 years on, there are no Willow Warblers left to hear.
With thanks again to the Whitbread family and Southill estate staff for their kind permission to repeat this historic survey, and of course to Barry and Richard for their vital contributions.
Author Tim Harris gets a rare opportunity to watch critically endangered vultures dine…
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in a covered trench in pitch darkness. Beside me, my friend Neil crouches behind his enormous lens, waiting for the first indications of a new day. The odour of rotting flesh wafts through the screen in front of us, not too bad but enough to remind us that the previous day a cow’s carcass was dumped on the ground a few metres away. Time moves slowly and I’m constantly trying to find a more comfortable position. No padded seats here. In fact, no seats at all, and the log I’m sitting on was definitely not ergonomically designed. We speak not a word, however, since silence is all-important.
Just after 6:00 now, and the ‘whoosh’ of a very large bird passes directly overhead, followed by some flapping and an evil-sounding hiss. I risk parting the reedy screen a few centimetres and notice that the sky has lightened by a few degrees, revealing the silhouettes of several vultures in the top of a tree. Much closer, several of these giants are already jostling with each other on the ground, just 30 metres away. I’ve never had a problem watching others eat but this is very special. The vultures spent yesterday afternoon investigating how best to gain access to the deceased bovine’s best joints. Clearly that is no longer an issue since the animal has been reduced to a pile of bones and offal.
As the sun comes up over this corner of dipterocarp forest on the northern plains of Cambodia, the diners’ identities are revealed. Most are Indian White-backed Vultures but there are also a handful of Red-headed Vultures with their strangely perplexed expressions. The latter seem to spend most of their time standing around, doing very little, but they are clearly one step up in the pecking order. Then there are the Slender-billed Vultures with their black, snake-like necks, perfect for going deep inside any dead animal. It is quickly clear that they always get what they want. The others back away when the Slender-bills hiss out a warning. Screams, hisses and the sound of wings flapping … this is the accompaniment to the end game as bones are stripped of their last morsels of flesh.
Apart from their love of carrion, these vultures are sadly united by one thing: their extreme rarity. The 60-odd birds we are watching represent a significant proportion of the world’s population of each species. All are classified as Critically Endangered, and extinction is now a real threat. It was not always so but vulture populations have crashed catastrophically since the 1990s, down by as much as 99 percent, due to the treatment of cattle with Diclofenac. Those populations that remain are now disjointed.
The drug was never used in Cambodia and only on the northern plains of that country are the vultures holding their own. In fact, here they are just about increasing in number, largely thanks to a series of ‘vulture restaurants’ where geriatric cows are slaughtered on a regular basis to provide a supplementary food source, a strategy driven by the Sam Veasna Center (sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society), which works with village communities to encourage them to engage with their local wildlife.
Visiting birders and photographers pay for the privilege of witnessing the vultures (and other threatened species such as Giant and White-shouldered Ibis) and the cash goes into the hands of the villagers who provide the carrion. To be fed and guided by local villagers, who also maintain the hides, is an inspirational experience. Families gain extra income; villages are able to fund water pumps, schools and roads; the community is actively involved in conservation. Everyone benefits. This is a magnificent model for sustainable conservation and ecotourism, one that should be adopted elsewhere. Even if you couldn’t stomach the spectacle of vultures poking around in a dead cow’s digestive tract, it is an initiative worth supporting.
For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see
Photos: Neil Bowman
Tim is the author of RSPB Migration Hotspots. You may like to read more on critically endangered birds in Facing Extinction.
Photographer Mark Sissons shares his passion for Puffins.
They are often called the clown prince of the cliff tops and with good reason given their comical appearance, but for many nature photographers here in Britain the summer just wouldn’t be the same without heading to the coast to spend some time with one of the most enigmatic and amazingly approachable birds, namely the Puffin.
For me they are an addiction. Not simply from a photographic point of view (although I have tens of thousands of Puffin images on my hard drives it has to be said) but also because of the sheer enjoyment that I have had over many summers spending time in their colonies. These colonies have been spread far and wide too – from the nearest major one to my land-locked home county of Shropshire at Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, through the Farne Islands in Northumberland, multiple colonies in the Shetlands, their main breeding grounds in Iceland and also in the late grasp of winter in northern Norway where there was still snow when the early birds returned ashore.
There is simply always something going on in a Puffin colony especially if you have an eye and a love for such things. Whether it be the head shaking, bill raising acts of courtship, the digging out of a new burrow, the bill tapping communication that can sometimes lead to aggression and some amazing beak-locked squabbles, the appearance of a new parent on the cliff top with a beak full of sand eels for the below ground Puffling to consume, the agony of watching the effort of said fishing expedition grabbed away by a marauding Gull, or the delight of a late summer evening when the youngsters make their first wing flapping ventures above ground before literally jumping off the cliff to the sea below probably not to return to shore for a year at the very least. A Puffin colony is much like a classic soap opera really and the more time you spend there the more you understand in terms of just how these pocket rockets of the bird world live and interact.
Photographing this iconic bird for ‘The Secret Lives of Puffins’ was therefore so much more than just another assignment or project and one thing is certain – I’ll be back on the cliff tops once more next summer!
Copyright for all photos: Mark Sisson.
Conor Jameson has a mystery to share…
It has some of the hallmarks of a Conan Doyle murder mystery, complete with period costume, a shooting, a body, a fairytale Victorian Highland setting, suspects, big city and small town locations, journeys in between, and – for good measure and Hollywood appeal – a strong American angle. In fact the central character is a ‘Yank’ – Accipiter gentilis atricapillus to be precise – the fabled Northern Goshawk.
It’s spring 1869 and there is unrest in the British Empire – Canada, this time. The finishing touches are being put to the Cutty Sark in a Glasgow shipyard. She will be one of the last of the tea clippers built, as the age of sail gives way to steam power. The journal Nature is also launched, and the People’s Friend. A gamekeeper called Stewart is patrolling the slopes of Schiehallion – the ‘hill of the fairies’, some say – in Perthshire. Spying a bird of prey, in the tradition of the day he shoots it dead.
By and by, he gets into conversation with a road surveyor called Menzies, who relieves the keeper of the bird, which has been crudely gutted. Menzies takes it to the town of Brechin, on the east coast, and a shop owner there by the name of Lyster. Lyster can turn his hand to taxidermy, and sells many things, chief among which are fishing lures, for which Red Kite Milvus milvus feathers are particularly suited. But the skin he is presented with is no kite, or gled, as they were then known. In any event he has better things to work with, and puts it aside.
Some time later a man called Gray drops in. He’s a keen ornithologist in his spare time and an inspector of banks by day. It’s not in great nick by this time but he recognises the bird skin as that of a Goshawk. He takes ownership of the specimen, and arranges for it to be sent on to Glasgow. There, he has another taxidermist clean, stuff and mount it. Goshawks were by this time rare, even in Scotland. It would be extinct as a breeder in Britain in little more than a decade. Having collected his order from the stuffer, it is only now that Gray realises there is something particularly unusual about this Goshawk. It is of the North American race atricapillus. At face value, this is the first record of its kind for Britain. The record is generally accepted. Gray later becomes a renowned and respected ornithologist and author of books on the subject.
Fast-forward a century, and cutting a long story short, this American Gos is dropped from the Scottish list. No one today seems very sure why. By this time there were several records of American Goshawk from Ireland and one from England (Tresco, Scilly, 28th December 1935). In each case the birds were evidently shot, enabling close inspection.
Forward again, this time to the present day, when the Perthshire record is reviewed once more, and officially rejected. Over at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, experts are once again peering at the mummified corpse. The identity of the bird is not in dispute, but there is apparently sufficient doubt over provenance, with the possibility that a different (American) Goshawk skin replaced that deposited by Gray in the Glasgow shop.
The verdict suggests a general doubt over the American Goshawk’s ability to cross 5,000 km of ocean, a doubt in which it is easy to share. Even with a hurricane at its tail (there was such a weather event and a major fall of Goshawks in the USA in the late 1860s) and/or with the help of a boat, believing the gos can achieve this feat assumes a voyage of weeks or even months rather than days, and a diet of seabirds caught on the wing, over the waves, en route… unless Roger the Cabin boy had taken pity on the stowaway in the rigging, and was bringing it ship’s rations, or rats.
Some ornithologists I’ve spoken to have shrugged at the idea of atricapillus being capable of crossing the Atlantic. ‘Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius and American Kestrel Falco sparverius can do it,’ they’ll say. But this is to equate the talents of Mo Farah with those of Usain Bolt. The Gos, we know, is a bird that will spend most of an average day loafing, waiting for prey to come within ambush range: a sprinter, not a distance runner. They are three times as heavy as harriers. We know they can cross the North Sea, but show a peculiar reluctance to do so, if the low number of records for Shetland, the oil rigs and coming in off the east coast are anything to go by (one Scandinavian ring recovery, ever).
But is it any more feasible that a Victorian trader would import such a specimen, and not label or market it for maximum value as an exotic? That it would be so casually or carelessly switched by a professional taxidermist for no apparent additional fee?
In the end, we can only speculate. Despite some of the finest minds having been trained on it, the Perthshire Goshawk saga will probably remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of ornithology, and just one of the many riddles surrounding the enigmatic, spectral, much-studied yet poorly understood and dare I say widely overlooked Northern Goshawk.
Conor Mark Jameson
Footnote – the Irish goshawk records are also currently under review. The fact that two of the Irish records occurred within days of each other (both birds shot), and within weeks of the Perthshire gos, merely adds further intrigue to the overall tale.
Conor’s book Looking for the Goshawk has recently been published by Bloomsbury.