Are owls, bats, spiders and creepy crawlies really as spooky as we make them out to be? Bloomsbury investigates our biggest wildlife phobias…
Many creatures in the animal kingdom are associated with fear, loathing and in some cases sheer terror. Bats, spiders and owls are often seen as the biggest offenders. But why do these animals frighten us? Are there reasons for this or are our fears completely unfounded? This month we’ve been investigating the myths and legends behind these creatures – why they started and why they continue to trigger fears and phobias.
Owls, nocturnal and mysterious, have long been associated with magical goings-on. In times of old, they were believed to be messengers for magical folk – a tradition recently re-popularised by a famous Boy Wizard! Nowadays we recognise owls as valuable assets to our ecosystems, perfectly adapted to be nature’s best pest controllers.
Bats and vampires go together like witches and broomsticks – to the extent that the anti-coagulant saliva of vampire bats was named draculin after Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula – and it seems we can’t picture one without the other. True, the two do share some characteristics, both being nocturnal, fanged, flying things, but it is worth noting that very few bat species feed on the blood of other animals, and none of those species are native to the UK. In fact, British bats are harmless, mostly very tiny and, well, rather cute really. This is the perfect time of year to spot pipistrelle bats swooping around at dusk.
It’s perhaps not surprising that spiders are a symbol of Halloween when it is estimated arachnophobia affects 30 per cent of the world’s population. Spiders have been the focus of fears and embedded in the mythologies of many cultures for centuries, and no witch would be without one when it comes time to add some toil and trouble to their cauldron’s bubble. They also notoriously build their spectacular webs in dark, dusty places, like abandoned or ‘haunted’ houses – perfect venues for Halloween trickery. Yet witnessing spiders’ extraordinary web-building abilities and seeing their amazing spider senses in action is likely to leave non-arachnophobes spellbound. With the notorious ‘spider season’ upon us what better time to dispel some of the spookier spider myths and take a closer look at the many species we share our homes with.
Happy Happy Halloween!
From Bloomsbury Wildlife
This month, we’re celebrating one of nature’s real unsugn heroes – the Herring.
Scots like to smoke or salt them. The Dutch love them raw. Swedes look on with relish as they open bulging, foul-smelling cans to find them curdling within. Jamaicans prefer them with a dash of chilli pepper. Germans and the English enjoy their taste best when accompanied by pickle’s bite and brine.
Throughout the long centuries men have fished around their coastlines and beyond, the herring has done much to shape both human taste and history. Men have co-operated and come into conflict over its shoals, setting out in boats to catch them, straying, too, from their home ports to bring full nets to shore. Women have also often been at the centre of the industry, gutting and salting the catch when the annual harvest had taken place, knitting, too, the garments fishermen wore to protect them from the ocean’s chill.
In his book, Herring Tales, Donald S. Murray has stitched together tales of the fish that was of central importance to the lives of our ancestors, noting how both it – and those involved in their capture – were celebrated in the art, literature, craft, music and folklore of life in northern Europe.
Donald contemplates the possibility of restoring the silver darlings of legend to these shores. And to help spark some imagination, he provides some engenious examples of how we can make them live on via the box they arrive in!
A Wheel Barrow
A Baby Cot
A Dog Carrier
A Milk Box
Celebrate the Herring this month with Herring Tales – and join Donald on his campaign to restore this versatile little creature back to former glory!
Phoenix – arise from the ashes
Taken in the rubble of a bombed house in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra this photo, which appeared on Facebook, was immediately tweeted throughout the world, including by Frank Gardner, a keen birdwatcher.
The Facebook message from the Syrian birdwatcher who owned the book:
‘What is very precious to us, is totally worthless to others.’
Plans are now well underway for an Arabic version of the second edition of Birds of the Middle East and the exciting cover has just been unveiled. This book is a joint venture between Bloomsbury, BirdLife International and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. I hope the Bloomsbury’s ‘Helm Imprint’ Arabic logo catches on. I love it, especially as it translates into ‘Dream Field Guides!’ The plans are for a launch in Arabia next year.
Apps are now the new book and rapidly becoming the way of the world. Books, of course, will always be important and have their place, but sending them to remote places or where mail is not reliable can be a problem. With this in mind a new App has been developed for the remote mountain range of Peremagroon in Iraqi Kurdistan – internationally important for its fantastic wildlife.
One young Iraqi has just written, saying:
‘I loved it, now I know what bird I was seeing everyday in my faculty, thanks for the app its very useful. just one thing if possible put the Arabic and Kurdish name, if that is possible.’
Not only will this be done, but the whole app will be translated into Kurdish and Arabic.This App is just one part of a conservation education programme in Kurdistan between Nature Iraq, BirdLife International and the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants under UK’s Darwin Initiative. Read the story about some of its achievements:
It has been great to have Bloomsbury’s support for this.
Over the past eight years or so, working in collaboration with Donald S. Murray has taken me, and my work on a series of wild, wet and often wind-blown journeys, both real and imaginary! The journey for Donald’s forthcoming book, Herring Tales, began with a discussion on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, relaxing after a busy reading of The Guga Stone at the National Library of Scotland.
Talk turned to the new book, and particularly to Donald’s correspondence with renowned neuroscientist, Oliver Sacks. Sacks had included a copy of an article he had written for the New Yorker, Fish Tales – Clupeophilia, in which he describes a lifelong association with the humble herring.
Subconsciously influenced by Sacks’ title, this was to be the start of Donald, and myself, through the drawings, becoming clupeophiles, and in particular a fascination with the herrings of the northeast seaboard of Europe and the wider North Atlantic. Donald had discussed with me the basic structure of how the book was going to work, and I began to plan how I could add images to visually enhance the story of how the silver darlings’ shaped the human tastes and history of northern Europe.
A few ideas floated around, but it wasn’t until Donald decided he was going name each chapter after a well-known song title that the plan was firmly on the hook. I would create a series of chapter title images, in the form of an old-style vinyl record label (younger readers, ask your parents!), with the subject relating to the chapter’s text.
The result was fourteen drawings, with a wide range of themes: from kippers and gulls, to fishing fleets and gansey patterns, the odd recipe and many more. As always with Donald’s writing, this book was a gift to me, and I immediately could see images as I read the text. We have always had an empathy with each other’s work, and over the years this has developed into a strong friendship and working relationship.
Each image was developed through discussions with Donald and created to fit the record label format. Author and publisher were delighted with the ideas and the drawings carried on apace. Through weeks of research and sketchbook notes the drawings took shape, some chapters easy to work with, others not so, but finally it all came together beautifully with a mixture of serious and not-so- serious results. As with previous book images for Donald’s writing, I’ve used pencil as my medium for the work as I think it has a certain subtlety that you can’t get with ink.
Over the next two months, leading up to the publication date of the book, I shall be displaying the drawings on my website blog, The Net Mender, with descriptions of the work and sketchbook notes on how the ideas were created through our collaboration of words and images.
The Net Mender, named after a long lost photograph of my herring fisherman great-grandfather, has featured my collaborations, exhibitions and studio notes since 2007, including many with Donald S. Murray. One of the earliest posts, from November that year features a poem written by Donald after one of our first workshops together on Shetland.
Herring Tales by Donald Murray
Out September 10th 2015
Today the robin was crowned Britain’s National bird and author David Lindo a.k.a the Urban Birder has been fronting the campaign.
A nationwide ballot saw more than 200,000 people elect the robin as Britain’s national bird, after it swooped away with 34 per cent of the vote. It beat competition from the barn owl, which came second with 12 per cent, and the blackbird in third with 11 per cent.
It’s time now to give our national feathered friend it’s time to bask in the limelight. This month, we launch the next in our Spotlight series – which just so happens to be all about Robins! RSPB Spotlight: Robins gives us an insight in to their secret lives…
Our most iconic bird, the Robin, is one of the most characterful and familiar of all our garden visitors. Their melodious voices, bright red breasts and cheeky attitudes always endear them to us, but how much do we really know about them?
Despite their cute appearance, Robins are aggressively territorial and hold their territories all year. Their year-round presence has helped them become a beloved and instantly recognisable species. Now, in this delightful new book, Marianne Taylor provides a revealing account of their life cycle, behaviour and breeding, what they eat and how they hold their territories, and she looks into the many cultural representations of these much-loved little birds.
David Lindo said: “The robin is Britain’s most familiar bird so it’s perhaps fitting that it has been chosen by the nation to be our national bird. The Vote National Bird campaign is in fact a victory for all our British birds… It has reminded the British people how much they love the nature around us.”
David said he would speak to the Government once the public had voted to see if the winner can be awarded the title officially – all part of his greater plan to get more of us walking around in the cities to stop, close our eyes and #lookup. You can hear more on David’s musings in his new book Tales from Concrete Jungles out this week.
It’s not often one enjoys a refreshing saltwater facial courtesy of an eight-metre long shark – but that’s what happens if you sneak up and try to rub its back.
There are few creatures in our oceans quite as awesome as the basking shark, and a close encounter was one of the highlights of a year I spent travelling around Britain in search of our rarest and most endangered animals for my book
Few And Far Between.
I was fortunate in being able to join licensed researchers from Manx Basking Shark Watch who were collecting DNA samples from feeding sharks that cruise the bays around the Isle of Man in the summer. This involves steering a small boat up behind them and deftly rubbing the slime-covered dorsal fin with a pad on an extendable pole.
Drawing alongside the world’s second largest fish, and being showered with cold seawater as they headed off with a flick of an immense tail, was an unforgettable experience.
I had set myself the daunting challenge of tracking down 25 of the UK’s scarcest species, ranging from the surreal spiny seahorse and elusive Scottish wildcat to the striking golden oriole and noisy natterjack toad.
During my travels I enjoyed sightings of a number of species that very few people have been lucky enough to come across in Britain. These included the ice age vendace fish which lives in the depths of a few glacial lakes; the streaked bombardier beetle that ejects a boiling mixture of toxic chemicals to deter predators; the heavyweight wart-biter cricket once used to remove warts; and black rats living on an uninhabited Hebridean island – the last stable refuge in Britain of this one-time plague-carrier.
Some animals had the ‘ahhh’ factor, like the dormouse, and others a touch of the ‘yikes!’ (a nippy smooth snake among them), but without doubt the most breathtaking was the basking shark. It was the biggest on my target list (scooped on size, however, by a chance encounter with a sperm whale off Scotland).
Shark slime is pretty dark and smelly, but the Manx Basking Shark Watch team I accompanied got enough of the stuff to help build up genetic profiles of a dozen sharks during the day, and tagged a male with a satellite transmitter, which tracked its travels to north-west Scotland. The information will help efforts to prevent this once-abundant species, whose size spawned numerous tales of sea monsters over the centuries, from following its own legends into the history books.
Harvested around the world for their oil-rich livers, for shark fin soup and the Far East medicine trade, numbers of threatened basking sharks have been seriously depleted. Thankfully they are protected in our waters – the seas would certainly feel a lot emptier without them.
Charlie Elder’s travels in search of Britain’s rarest animals are described in his book Few And Far Between, published by Bloomsbury and available at book stores and online.
(Guest edited by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East)
When I was eight my next door neighbor in London, Miss Walcott, gave me a book: Birds’ Alphabet, a mixture of strange poems and even stranger illustrations! Over sixty years later I still have it and can recite, almost word-for-word. It started me watching birds – just a simple book that inspired. We all have our own examples, for most birdwatchers in Britain it will surely be that wonderful Observers Book of British Birds or maybe I Spy Birds? Yes, Big Chief I Spy had a role to play.
I’ve never forgotten the power of that book to capture the imagination and so when I became involved in conservation education in the Middle East, the promotion of bird books – in Arabic, of course, – seemed so natural. The first, written with Rod Martins (but translated by others!) was Birds of Yemen. Sponsored by BirdLife International, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, various embassies and oil companies, it covered 100 species – a blend of the common, familiar and threatened. Delightfully illustrated in colour by Mike Langman, it was aimed at children and, supported by the Ministry of Education, was widely distributed to Yemeni schools. Ten years later, this time teaming up with Tony Miller of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, we produced an Arabic (and English) Birds and Plants of Socotra – another simple guide, aimed again at children. It proved so popular on the island it was soon reprinted.
Dipping my toe into Arabic literary waters made me realise just how vital ‘wildlife material’ was in a developing – conservation-wise – region, so when Birds of the Middle East was published in 1996 I asked RSPB to help fund a translation into Arabic. This proved problematical: English technical terms don’t naturally translate into Arabic; layout is back to front and finding a suitable publisher – and funding was not easy. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon rose to the challenge and once again OSME came up trumps with sponsorship, as did the World Land Trust, Dutch Embassy in Beirut, European Life Fund and others.
Now we had a blueprint the next step was to produce Arabic country editions, and this is where environmental advisers in the World Bank stepped in with encouragement and sponsorship. At the World Bank they had became very excited about promoting local language field guides and had already helped fund translations of more than 110 titles around the world into local languages.
We took advantage and, spear-headed by the leading ornithologists of the country, the first ever Arabic country field guide was hatched – Birds of Iraq, soon to be followed by Birds of Syria and Birds of Kuwait. The English publisher – Bloomsbury – and artists were happy to waive any royalties in hope the books would kindle and inspire an appreciation of wildlife.
(The Yemen Minister for the Environment even asked for an Arabic Birds and Mammals of Yemen! Yes, even in unsettled times in the Middle East, these countries want their own wildlife books, in their own language).
And a further delightful spin-off has been Arabic bird books for children for Iraq and Jordan – aimed at five-year olds!
Now we have the second edition of Birds of the Middle East, authored with the late Simon Aspinall. With over 130 new species, advanced identification text, new maps, many new illustrations and easy-to-use layout I hope it will yet again inspire. As I write, an Arabic version is slowly taking shape.
Field guides on birds are only one cog in the conservation journey, enabling us to identify, quantify – and appreciate – the wonders of our natural world. For my generation these guides are books, but for the children of today it will increasingly be the eBook and App. But, leaving that aside, wouldn’t a wonderful next step be to see Arabs, who are such spell-binding story tellers, take up their pens – or iPads – and tell their own stories about their wildlife. I’d love to read the conservation equivalent of Arabian Nights.
This blog has been put together for us by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East. Richard has been involved with birds in the Middle East since 1966 and is an adviser on bird conservation for BirdLife International. He is the author or co-author of several books on the Middle East and the groundbreaking Flight Identification of European Raptors.
It’s January, which means one thing to us nature lovers – The Big Garden Birdwatch. Bird populations are a great indicator of environmental health. That’s why it’s so important to take part in surveys like this to keep an eye on the wildlife wherever we live. All you need to do is spend an hour over the weekend of 24-25th counting the birds in your garden.
And to support Big Garden Birdwatch, Bloomsbury have selected some of their top guide books, including the RSPB Handbook of British Birds to help you identify any new species you see in your garden. Order any book from our list and get 30% off this month!
If you’re not on kitchen duty over Christmas, forget slumping in front of The Sound of Music – instead, pull on your thermals, grab your binoculars and go out for a bit of birding. Winter is an exciting time for birdwatchers, especially in the lowlands and around the coasts, as there’ll be visitors from the uplands and from countries far north and east of us. Wild swans and geese, Scandinavian finches, moorland raptors and roaming seabirds could all turn up. Here are a selection fo species to look out for – some pretty common, others scarcer, but all of them easier for most of us to find in winter than in summer.
You have to feel sorry for our resident Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. As autumn approaches they’ll be eyeing up the berry-laden hedgerows and ploughed fields full of worms, and thinking that surviving the winter will be a doddle. But then, around October time, the invasion comes – three-quarters of a million Fieldfares from Russia and north-east Europe. They come in big noisy flocks, with their sidekicks the Redwings, and together they eat the lot. Look out for these colourful thrushes anywhere in the open countryside. Sometimes a lone Fieldfare breaks away from the group and sets up home in a single garden, usually one with an apple tree, and fiercely guards the windfall apples from any other bird that goes near.
Heaths and moors are bleak and particularly chilly in winter, so most of their birds decamp to milder spots over winter. Stonechats tend to move to coasts and low-lying farmland in winter. They draw the eye because they like to sit at the tops of bushes, rather than skulking within like shyer birds. If you find one, you’re very likely to find another, because Stonechats defend their winter territories in pairs. Though these are invariably male-female pairs, the birds don’t actually stay together to breed next spring – they find new partners when back on their breeding grounds.
Seeing Razorbills in summer isn’t difficult – go to a cliff-face seabird colony and there they’ll be, rubbing shoulders with the Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags. In winter, the colonies are deserted, and Razorbills and other seabirds disperse much more widely, meaning that you don’t have to live near the northern cliffs to stand a chance of seeing them. Try your nearest bit of sea – if you have a choice, opt for the more sheltered place, and pass an hour or so scanning the water. Weather has a strong influence on seabird behaviour – if there’s a day of storms, it’s always worth checking the next day in estuaries, harbours and other sheltered places for traumatised seabirds recovering and feeding before heading back to sea.
Nearly all of the duck species that occur in Britain are easier to find in winter. Goosanders breed on fast upland rivers but in winter they turn up on lakes and reservoirs across the whole UK and seeing one (or more) is a highlight of any winter birding trip. Look out for a big, sleek, rather predatory-looking duck that makes frequent long dives (it’s busy chasing fish while it’s down there, to seize in its ‘saw-toothed’ bill). Males look black and white at any distance (though the head has a green sheen), while females are mostly cool grey with a chestnut head.
5) Brent Goose
About 100,000 Brent Geese spend their winter in Britain, mostly on the south and east coasts. These Arctic geese are small and very dark, and lack the tidy discipline of the bigger geese in flight – rather than neat V-shaped skeins they tend to travel in clumps or straggling lines like unravelled knitting. They’ll stop to feed anywhere where there is saltmarsh and tasty eelgrass to eat, but you could see groups on the move over the sea from any seaside.
6) Black Redstart
This little bird is an oddity – a real rarity in Britain, but one that shows a distinct fondness for urban habitats – the grottier the better. Most of the handful of breeding pairs we have nest in old buildings in city centres. In winter numbers rise (a little – it’s still a rare bird) as visitors from the continent turn up, and they are then most likely to be found on the coast. Again, they show a liking for urban set-ups, particularly in the south-west, and if you live by the sea you might even find one in the garden, looking for all the world like a black or smoky-grey Robin as it hops pertly about and poses on garden ornaments.
Many pairs of Peregrines stay near their nest sites through the winter. But those that breed in inhospitable uplands, plus young birds that are yet to find a territory, will roam about more widely and turn up in places where you won’t find them in summertime – especially marshy coastlines where there are lots of ducks and waders for them to hunt. When you’re watching big flocks of birds on the marshland, a sudden uproar among them is a good sign that a bird of prey – very probably a hungry Peregrine – has just hoved into view, and you could be treated to a dramatic show of predator versus prey as the Peregrine tries to single out a victim from the swirling flock.
Most of our strictly insectivorous birds migrate thousands of miles south at the end of summer, to Africa where insects are much easier to find than they are in the depths of a UK winter. One that doesn’t is the Goldcrest, our smallest bird. Its size, agility and needle-like bill make it expert at finding and winkling out the tiny scale insects that shelter between pine needles, and so it scratches out a meagre living (though huge numbers of Goldcrests will die in very harsh winters). Look out for it in the garden and anywhere where there are conifer trees, calling incessantly in its squeaky-mouse voice and hovering at the tips of twigs.
If you’re still standing on that beach looking out to sea and trying in vain to see a Razorbill, have a look on the shoreline instead for our next bird. Most waders like squishy, muddy shores, but the Sanderling is happy to forage on all kinds of beach, from shingle to sand to rock. It’s also unusual in that it’s easier to identify in winter than in summer – if you see a small, hyperactive and pearly grey-and-white wader on a beach in winter, it’ll be a Sanderling (and probably it’ll be with a dozen or more other Sanderlings). They rush back and forth at the wave-line on sandy beaches to find morsels carried in on the sea, but on pebbles they search more deliberately, for flies, sandhoppers and other little seaside creatures. They are often very approachable and with a close look you’ll see another Sanderling trait – they have no hind toe. This helps make them extra fast when running after prey.
For many birdwatchers, this is the winter Holy Grail of birding – a spectacular, colourful, outlandishly crested bird that comes our way from Scandinavia and further afield. Part of the excitement is that Waxwings are ‘irruptive’ – in most years they are rather rare and more or less confined to the north and east, but in some years we get absolutely loads of them throughout the whole UK. An irruption happens when there is a serious shortage of berries in between here and their breeding grounds, forcing large numbers to move further south and west than they would like. They love mountain ash, pyracantha and cotoneaster berries, and often descend upon shopping centre car parks that have decorative stands of these plants. They will also come to apples, so if you have a garden apple tree keep an eye on it.
11) Snow Bunting
This is one of the most charming of all our ‘winter’ birds. In fact you can see Snow Buntings in Britain in summer, but only if you’re willing to climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm or other similarly huge Scottish mountains. In winter, though, the buntings descend the slopes (and more arrive from colder countries). Sandy and shingly beaches along the east coast are the best places to find them – in Northumberland you might find flocks 100 strong, while in Kent it’s more likely to be the odd one or two, but they are worth seeking out, being both very beautiful and almost totally unconcerned by human presence as they quietly pick their way along in search of weed seeds and other scraps among the stones.
So you didn’t fancy going out after all? Never mind – you probably need only walk to the nearest window to see the most Christmassy bird of all. Or indeed to hear it – the Robin is so invested in territorial defence that it sings even in the depths of winter when other birds are too busy finding food to bother. With nearly 7 million Robin territories in the UK, chances are there’s (at least) one in your garden. If you want to make your Robin’s Christmas extra special, the best thing you can do is offer it some mealworms, either dried or (even better) alive and wriggling. With patience you should be able to persuade even a shy Robin to take mealworms from your hand – a lovely bonding experience for both you and the Robin. Happy Christmas and good birding!
Happy Christmas and good birding!
This piece was written by Marianne Taylor, author of: RSPB British Birdfinder, RSPB British Birds of Prey, RSPB Nature Watch, Where to Discover Nature on RSPB Reserves, Owls, Dragonflight, RSPB Seabirds, Watching Wildlife In London, 401 Amazing Animals Facts, Photographing Garden Wildlife, Wild Coast, RSPB Spotlight: Robins