Bloomsbury Wildlife

Rachel Carson Day

Conor Mark Jameson writes …

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The RSPB holds its annual weekend for members at York University each spring during half-term. The students are away and the wildfowl own the campus. Members (and staff and volunteers present) are treated to a range of stimulating talks and activities, guaranteed to recharge the batteries, and remind us what multi-tentacled beast is this organisation, grappling with challenges on all sides. Most of all you leave York with the strong sense that there is hope yet for saving nature. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk that I call Silent Spring Revisited – Rachel Carson’s legacy.

As I did a bit of last-minute adjustment I realised the significance of the date. Tuesday 14th April was the day in 1964 when something very significant happened that is much less well remembered than Silent Spring itself, published just over a year earlier.

On that spring morning, Rachel Carson died. It comes as a surprise to people when I tell them this, just as the event itself came as a shock even to many of those who knew well the naturalist, scientist, author and campaigner. They didn’t know she’d been ill, and they didn’t know because she hadn’t told them. She thought that knowledge of her condition would be used against her by her opponents, deniers of the widespread harmful effects of indiscriminate pesticide use.

In fact Rachel Carson had been battling cancer and a succession of illnesses for a large part of the four and a half years it took her to research and write Silent Spring. Arthritis required her at times to use a wheelchair.

Forty-nine years on, this anniversary Sunday morning fittingly brought strong, mild blustery winds from the south and west. With them came the long awaited and much delayed spring migrant birds from the south, where they had been backing up around the Mediterranean and beyond. Chiffchaffs at last were calling from the bare treetops among the halls of residence on a misty Yorkshire dawn.

The turbulent air also encouraged our Scandinavian visitors to head once again north and east. Redwings streamed overhead and out towards the sea, and we craned our necks seeking our first glimpse of swallows arriving to replace them. Someone reported seeing a waxwing and a willow warbler in the same hedgerow – an unusual collision of arrivistes and the departing. But it wasn’t till I’d made the journey home afterwards, south by train against this general flow of returning nature, that I found my first swallows. There were three of them, surfing the wind over the village a few hundred metres from the house, by way of welcome. They’ve made it again, as always oblivious to all that’s going on below them, in our increasingly uncertain world.

Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s passing. It would be fitting to mark the occasion then not with a minute’s silence, nor even with a minute’s applause, but with a minute’s birdsong, and other springtime sounds from nature. Perhaps we might even officially designate it Rachel Carson Day.

People wherever they are might then listen for the birds, and take a moment to recall Rachel Carson’s determination, courage and sacrifice, in the face of powerful opposition, in raising the alarm about the danger of biocide misuse. She didn’t live to find out what came next. She did this work not for her own benefit, but for those who would follow. This is one hero we mustn’t allow to be unsung.

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Conor’s book, Silent Spring Revisited, is now out in paperback.

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Phantom

Conor Mark Jameson describes his meeting with the elusive Goshawk…

Berlin. Late February. As chill, and still and drab as all the Cold War, spy thriller clichés. I am here with ‘Altenkamp!’. That’s how Rainer answers his hands-free, as we drive to the fourth and last of our destinations this afternoon, here in the east of the sprawling city. This is Rainer’s ‘precinct’. This is where he does his stake-outs, stalks his quarry, makes his notes. We aren’t looking for dissidents, however. Those days are gone. We are looking for goshawks.

Improbably, we are in a swing park. And not a very big one. It makes a change from the first three venues of my whistle-stop tour – cemeteries. We found evidence of goshawks in all three – plucking sites, nests, tantalising goshawk calls.

The park is dotted with people. The quiet is punctured by the cries of children and small dogs. There is a tennis court, a roundabout and swings. Mallards loaf on a tiny duck pond, ice still intact around its muddy, scummy rim. It doesn’t look promising, all this. I’m still stuck in my image of the goshawk as a bird of remote and expansive conifer woodland, where they remain strangely invisible.

The trees here, however, are towering in places. In one, Rainer points out a gos nest from last year. Further on, we spot what must be this year’s: another huge, dark cone against the grey, in the highest fork of a beech. And I notice dark feathers on the ground. They catch my eye because some are still stirring in the faintest breeze. Not

wet and stuck to the grass like in the graveyards. Fresh. There is a trail of them. And I notice downy feathers too, and some of these are in fact still airborne.

I absently follow these round in the air with my finger (I realise now this probably looked like the exaggerated, gormless gesture of someone in pantomime). Without realising it, I am looking up open-mouthed and pointing at the source of this feather trail: a hooded crow, prone on the branch of an oak, ten feet above our heads, in the firm grip of a juvenile female goshawk.

It is a hyper-real scenario. The phantom of the forest, the grey ghost, the bird you normally see well only in books or glass cases – glass-eyed – now close, animate, fiery-eyed, moving, pulling and tearing, twitching as she dips her head. Purposeful, focused, alert and aware, yet somehow not really looking at us. Looking beyond us, or through us; as though maybe we are now the ghosts, the phantoms. A little disconcerting. Haunting. And quite amazing.

‘Don’t point at her!’ hisses Rainer. Of course, I immediately feel like the gauche, rooky cop, liable to give the game away in his enthusiasm after a prolonged investigation that has led finally to the clinching encounter. I pull my hand away abruptly.

‘We need to not look at her – she might not like it,’ he whispers. ‘We should take turns to look over, while talking to each other – like this…’ As he demonstrates the ruse, I sense that Rainer, even after 15 years of study, is nearly as excited as me. Not old and cynical like the veteran cop of cliché. In a way, I’m also gratified to confirm that I can still have feelings like this myself. I’m like the kid that once was me, seeing my first buzzard, up close.

We attempt a rather awkward, stilted semi-conversation while I at least am struggling to disguise my excitement, stealing glances at this mythical bird, come to life. The goshawk – ‘the bird you know is there, because you do not see it’, as they say in rural Germany – plain as day, relaxed as a pet, more beautiful than books, pictures, films and of course taxidermy can ever hope to emulate – is right here before us: in a city centre swing park.

It becomes steadily clear that she has not batted a mad, raptor eyelid. This is confirmed when a pram-pushing couple stop immediately below the branch and, as one, look up at her and, yes, point. Perhaps they too have noticed the crow’s stomach on the path, discarded by the dining hawk with the bulging crop. Or maybe they just couldn’t miss her.

She is 26-inches long, lean, muscular, saffron-tinted and streaked with chocolate-coloured arrowheads. She has that goshawk glare – looks invincible. Perhaps she is. Perhaps the routinely persecuted goshawk has at last found real sanctuary, so close to us now no one could find it in their heart to hate it, far less shoot it, or trap it, or poison it, or put it in a glass case. In Berlin at least, the goshawk is now out of the woods, and back in our lives, and no longer considered a threat to the state.

The goshawk, after finishing her meal. Photo by Rainer Altenkamp.

The goshawk, after finishing her meal. Photo by Rainer Altenkamp.

This story first appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, as the winning entry of the 2010 Nature Writer of the Year competition.

Looking for the Goshawk, the full story of what happened next, is out now.

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Osprey returns to snow and fog

Tim Mackrill, author of The Rutland Water Ospreys has some news…

Picture the scene. It’s early March on a West African beach and 03(97) – Rutland’s most successful breeding Osprey – is tucking into a Needlefish which he has just caught. He glances up to watch a fishing boat drift past, a mixed flock of terns alights nearby and a Pied Kingfisher zips past, calling noisily. The early morning sun is warming the beach; by the middle of the day the temperature will have reached more than 30 degrees. Things couldn’t be more tranquil.

Fast forward a few weeks and the scene is very different. Yesterday 03 returned to his nest at Site B to be greeted by a blizzard and thick fog. Yes, you read that right, 03 is back in Rutland!

The weather of the past week – not just in the UK, but in much of France – meant we were expecting many of our summer visitors, Ospreys included, to be delayed by a few days. 03, though, has confounded this by returning two days earlier than either he, or any of the other Rutland birds, has ever done.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Our recent satellite tracking studies have demonstrated the extraordinary migratory ability of Ospreys. For instance, unlike most other birds of prey, they don’t rely on thermals to aid their migration. In his urgency to get back to the nest where he has raised 27 chicks since 2001, 03 obviously just powered on through the worst that the European ‘spring’ could throw at him.

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Once back at the nest Sunday morning – he may even have arrived on Saturday evening – 03 set about rebuilding his nest. It wasn’t long, though, before heavy snow forced him to take shelter on the nest tree. A couple of hours later the nest was shrouded in thick fog. The contrast with his wintering grounds could hardly have been more pronounced.

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03’s early arrival will ensure that he has no competition for his long-established nest, but it is likely to make fishing difficult for a few days. The temperature is forecast to drop below freezing most nights this week, meaning fish in the reservoir, and 03’s other regular fishing spots, will retreat towards the bottom of the water column, making them more difficult to catch that usual. However, many Scandinavian Ospreys return to find snow at their nests each spring, so we know that 03 will be fine. If a little colder than usual.

With 03 back in Rutland, we wonder who will be next? Last year 5R(04) returned to the Manton Bay nest on 19th March. So keep a close eye on the webcam over the next few days! Even better, why not come and pay us a visit at Rutland Water. The Lyndon Visitor Centre is open 7 days a week.

Read the whole story of the successful rentroduction of the Ospreys to England in:

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The big Bloomsbury bird race

Marianne Taylor shares the drama of the bird race…

First light on a January morning, hot tea and bacon sandwiches in Nigel’s conservatory. There is a cheery babble of conversation around me but I’m not joining in, because I’m staring at a bird feeder. The birds come and go like lightning. I keep my binoculars up at my eyes, aimed at the feeder, it’s the only way. Then, sneaking in among the colourful Blue and Great Tits, a little mousy bird with black cap and bib. ‘Marsh Tit! On the feeder now!’ I yelp and everyone snaps round to look. There are congratulatory noises and I scrawl its name down on a list already more than a dozen strong. We’ve got what we were waiting for, now it’s time to go.

Foxes, Fairlight

Foxes, Fairlight

We follow tight, high-hedged country lanes towards the coast. In and out of Hastings town, then eastwards to Fairlight. We park up and scramble across a squashy mudbath of a field, over the pulled-down barbed wire to the crumbling cliff edge. A sheer drop and a wide, still expanse of English Channel lies before us. Nigel scopes the sea, the rest of us watch a pair of Foxes as they gingerly explore the scene of last year’s rock-fall over to our right. Out on the water bob rafts of Great Crested Grebes, among them the odd diver and scoter. Fulmars hang-glide over the tiny wave crests. Any moment now a Peregrine or Raven might round the Cliffside and give us a jaw-dropping flypast. But we have limited time and lots more to do.

Cormorant, Pett Level

Cormorant, Pett Level

Pett Level is just a few miles along. Here we look out across miles of intensely green, soaking wet pasture, interspersed with shallow pools that teem with wildfowl. The ecstatic whistled whoops of the Wigeons predominate, the soft purrs of the Teals provide a backing track. Lapwings and Curlews busily patrol the fields, further out a family of White-fronted Geese graze alongside their commoner Greylag cousins. Nigel finds two Peregrines having their mid-morning break on a picturesque wooden gate. The list grows and grows.

Rook, Pett

Rook, Pett Level

At Dungeness, we find a gleaming white male Smew among the Pochards on the ARC pit, and in the willow scrub there’s a split-second, heart-stopping glimpse of a Firecrest. A Cetti’s Warbler sings from some hiding place or other, rich, vibrantly fruity notes that sound out of place here in this chilly shingle wilderness. Our six sets of walking boots scrunch along the pathway back to the car.

Glaucous Gull, Dungeness

Glaucous Gull, Dungeness

Post-lunch, the light evaporating fast, we’re gathered at the end of a row of fishing boats, watching a great swirl of gulls. Among them flies a single Glaucous Gull, a great barrel-shaped bird, its wings tipped white rather than black like the others. Kittiwakes are commuting to and fro along the shoreline. Further out, there’s a melee of seabirds – Guillemots and Razorbills rubbing shoulders with grebes on the water, Gannets circling above. Once in a while a Gannet folds itself shut like an umbrella and freefalls headfirst into the water. I imagine the undersea chase, the Gannet gulping down its fish prey and fighting its way back to the surface. We head back to the Dungeness RSPB reserve.

Kittiwake, Dungeness

Kittiwake, Dungeness

Goldeneye, Dungeness

In near darkness, we’re all getting cold and ready to head for somewhere indoors. But Nigel stands on a hill of shingle til the last, watching and hoping for the Bittern that would bring our day list to 86. He doesn’t see it. Instead, a Water Rail squeals from the reedbeds, and far away a Sparrowhawk is hunting over the fields, hoping for one last meal before nightfall. It’s the last to join our list – 87 species in one January day.

 

Marianne Taylor is the author of:

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Kenyan delights

Happy New Year! To launch us in to 2013, we have a post from Steve Spawls on some of the amazing wildlife you can see in Kenya.

Once in a while my wife lets me off the leash to go and look for snakes, usually in Kenya, on the strict proviso that I do some serious field work and don’t stay at any fancy lodges or hotels; which would make her jealous. So I went to Kenya at half-term, and spent a couple of days with Glenn Mathews, my co-author and long time friend, at his smallholding on the southern edge of Nairobi National Park. It’s a lovely place; you sit on his veranda and look across the Mbagathi River straight into the park. On a good day you might see a rhino or two. Glenn’s plot slopes down to the river, and the bush is thick there.

Sunbird tapping at the window

Sunbird tapping at the window

A stroll by the river is hazardous. It’s not like walking on Buxton Heath; there you might see a roe deer, or hare, and an adder or two in the right season. And yellowhammers, always. But at Glenn’s place, the thick bush often provides shelter for buffalo, and you don’t want to startle them. I always sing or whistle when going through the riverside bush, which scares the birds, of course, until you can find a vantage point and sit quietly. The first morning, after being awoken by an irritable variable sunbird banging on my window – he wanted to fight with his reflection – I went down to the river. I was sitting there, watching a gymnogene on her nest when Glenn’s son Jesse spotted a young rock python and shouted for me to come. I lost my balance on the slope, covered myself with mud and by the time I arrived the python had slipped into the river. So back to Glenn’s house to clean up, and I decided to go for a walk higher up along the ridge, not forgetting to spray my legs with insect repellent. In the grass there are pepper ticks, which are really tick larvae, and if you get these tiny mites on your skin they get into the pores and cause intense itching. A stroll along the ridge produced a real gem. It’s always the way, when you walk in a wild place. As I pottered through the grassy savanna, among the low whistling-thorn trees, a nightjar suddenly fluttered up from under my feet. Usually, when you flush a nightjar, it floats away on silent wings, flies off thirty or forty yards and settles. You can try to stalk it again, if you can spot it. Their camouflage is superb and if they think you haven’t seen them, they will sit tight. But this nightjar didn’t respond normally. She squawked as she got up, plumped down five yards away and began limping away, trailing a wing and hissing at me. She was trying to drag me away, which meant she had young nearby. I took a couple of pictures of her and looked around carefully, but could not see the chicks. So I walked away, sat down thirty or so years and waited. She didn’t come back, so I made a little cairn of stones and went back to the house for some coffee with Glenn and Karen.

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I came back an hour later, and approached my cairn slowly. This time the mother nightjar tried a different technique; she shuffled off her nest very quietly and began to creep away. I saw her as she was shuffling off. I sat down, and after a few minutes she crept back, into a patch of grass. Then I approached obliquely, and eventually, after staring for a good five minutes, saw her blink an eye. And she had two chicks, right in front of her. I got a couple of photographs, and then backed off.

Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar?

Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar?

I find Nightjars are tough birds to identify. I can tell a few by their calls – the freckled nightjar, often on stony hills in Africa, has a squawk like a little dog, but all nightjars look very similar, although the males of two species develop magnificent wing projections that enable identification. I sent my pictures to Nik Borrow, an expert African ornithologist, and he said either Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar. But not even he was certain. However, Nigel Redman copied the pictures on to a friend who specialises in nightjars, Nigel Cleere, and he reckoned it was dusky. But when you struggle with a particular group of birds, it’s nice to know that even the experts are sometimes unsure.

Steve is the co-author of Kenya: A Natural History.

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Find out more about Nightjars:

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A Turkey is not just for Christmas

 

Artist and author, Celia Lewis shares her experience of hatching and keeping Turkeys. 

 

I’m lucky enough to own a small incubator.  It’s the most fascinating piece of equipment that does the work of the hen or whatever bird’s eggs you’ve chosen to hatch.  As turkeys come into the Ducks & Geese book I thought I would hatch a few to really get to know them. 

 

Firstly one must find someone willing to sell their eggs – google to the rescue and although September is late in the year for turkeys to still be laying I easily find someone willing to post me 6 eggs.  Into the incubator they go, it is programmed to stay at the correct temperature, and rolls the eggs slowly backwards and forwards to mimic the mother bird who would turn her eggs several times a day.  All you have to do is make sure the humidity is correct and fill up the water containers when necessary.

 

It is a long wait – 4 weeks in the case of turkeys but at last the day comes, often preceeded by cheeping from inside the egg before it even cracks.  The chick pecks its way out and is dry and standing within minutes.  All this you can watch through the lid of the incubator – a great time waster.  Patience is required as its very important at this stage not to let the humidity or temperature fall so one has to resist the temptation to take the lid off for a better look.

Once all the eggs have hatched they can be transferred either to a broody hen or under a lamp.  I was lucky and had a broody that I’d settled into one corner of a stable.  Four eggs hatched and were soon settled with their new mother and all seemed to be going well.  However a week later I found the largest chick dead.  The only explanation I could come up with was that the hen had trodden on it by mistake – down to three.

 

When the chicks were large enough I put the hen back in the run with her friends – I intended the turkeys to be free range in the garden reckoning that when full size they would be more than a match for a fox.  They grew and grew, 2 male and one female and eventually I allowed them out of their temporary run and they took to roosting high up in an oak tree.  They stayed by the hen run (occasionally flying in as I think they were convinced they were hens having been brought up by one) and became charming friendly birds.  However, you’ve probably guessed, one morning only two came to greet me and I soon discovered that a fox had indeed managed to catch one and carry it away – incredible, these were full size birds standing a metre high and heavy.

 

Now there were only 2 left and for their own safety they had to join the hens in Fort Knox aka the hen run.   Turkeys are delightful birds, not beautiful perhaps but surprisingly gentle – I don’t think they will end up on the Christmas dinner table.

Celia’s beautiful painting of a Bourbon Red Stag

Find out more about keeping Turkeys in Celia’s book:

Celia is also the author of:

Of boids and buttercream

 

And lo, it  came to pass that Extinct Boids was published, free to run and squawk in a good bookshop near you. The book launch took place on Thursday at Rough Trade East – a proper record shop, like they used to make them, in the heart of über-trendy Brick Lane in London.

There was considerable fanfare. First a Q & A between Ceri and Ralph. Then a Q & A between commentator, illustrator and audience, with highlights including Ralph spilling a jug of water over himself while delivering a passable imitation of the mating cry of the female Dodo. It was that sort of night. Free beer from the good folks at Flying Dog added pepper to the rich boid stew.

Ralph in action – more book-signing for the boid-loving public.

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The Boidmasters in action, live on stage. Here, Ralph delivers a high-level probe into the origins of the Ex-Stink Boid.

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It was good, clean, slightly sozzled fun.

And there’s more. Have a look at what my very talented Mum made me this weekend.

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Our cover star, Di Dodo – immortalised forever in the form of tasty sponge and buttercream.

Well, not forever, we’ve already scoffed it, but you get the general idea.

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Boids on the Beeb

An exciting day today. I was lucky enough to have the chance to head to Broadcasting House – to the BBC! Where Ralph and Ceri were bring interviewed for Radio 4’s flagship art and literature show, Front Row. I was caste in the role of Ceri’s ‘people’ … more than happy to play along. The discussion revolved around our brilliant book Extinct Boids, which is on sale from next Thursday.

The lads were interviewed by the wonderful Kirsty Lang, who marshalled the mayhem during 40 minutes of anecdotage, birdy talk, boidy talk and a lot of laughter, with a smattering of boidsong thrown in for good measure. They’ll chop this down to ten minutes for the show, which goes out tonight – after The Archers!
Here’s some photos of the day:

 

Primed and ready for action.

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Kirsty, Ralph and Ceri, post-interview.

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Commando ornithology

Today, another in our semi-regular postings from far-flung author Hadoram Shirihai, this time from Panama …

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Once again I am pleased to report back from my ceaseless work in the field. This time I’d like to present a special birding report from my photographic expedition to the remote Pirre Mountains in Darién Province, Panama, that took place in May 2012.

Under the umbrella of two long-term projects, the forthcoming Photographic Handbook of the Birds of the World (Jornvall & Shirihai, in prep.) and  Illustrated Checklist to the Birds of the Neotropics (Jornvall, Kirwan & Shirihai, in prep.), we are building up a sizeable base for our avifaunal photographic collections. This base collection derives from photographic expeditions designed for these projects.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia (© Hadoram Shirihai).

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In the Neotropics alone, the projects’ photographic collection has already reached  3,200 species photographed, through extensive work in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, northern Argentina, Ecuador, Guyana, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean Islands.

As you can imagine, as we approach 3,500 species photographed in Central and South America, the project is entering a very interesting stage. Photographing new species now means exploring extremely remote areas, at considerably greater risk, in aiming for the rarest birds; this brings us to my current report “Commando Ornithology: After Extreme Birds”, from the Pirre Mountains.

Black Oropendola (©Hadoram Shirihai).

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In May 2012, in collaboration with  Panamanian Security Forces and the National Park authorities, I managed to document most of the Darién endemic birds, and to end successfully a most challenging yet fruitful expedition!

Black-crowned Ant-pitta (©Hadoram Shirihai).

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The full story of this unique expedition, with me and my 15-man expedition team, including a commando jungle fighter escort, is accessible here in PDF format. There is also an accompanying 8-minute video clip here.

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Hadoram is co-author with Lars Svensson of the forthcoming Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds.

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Signing shenanigans

Yesterday, we had some distinguished visitors to Bloomsbury Towers, in the form of Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy. They came in to sign copies of their new book, Extinct Boids, but despite my best efforts to maintain a rigorous iron grip on proceedings, the day swiftly degenerated into a farrago of scribbling, jokes, free-flowing conversational digression and hi-jinks, with a great deal of ink-based misbehaviour. Here’s some photos of the action.

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The enormity of the task.

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The lads get to work.

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Serious Steadman focus.

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Editorial approval remains an essential part of the modern publishing process.

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Ralph’s ink-splodge technique means a danger-zone of several feet, in all directions.

 

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Ralph and Ceri’s Extinct Boids is on sale in all good bookshops, from the 26th of October.