Bloomsbury Wildlife

Boid of the Day

This week, Bloomsbury authors Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy give us a glimpse of everyone’s favourite flightless seabird, the Great Auk …

 

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The Great Auk is second only to the Dodo in the extinct bird familiarity stakes. This large seabird populated the wide expanse of the North Atlantic. The largest of the auk family, it stood just a little shy of three feet tall in its stockinged feet. It most resembled a penguin and was equally as flightless, which didn’t help it in its fight or flight from extinction, making it easy prey for hunters.

But like a penguin, it was a true creature of the sea. In the water its wings would have
proved to be powerful oars steering it on its course, and it would have proved to be a bird of agility, a surging swimmer, and a devourer of fish.

There was a dreadful acceptance of the demise and imminent disappearance of the Great Auk, and frenzied specimen collection before it became extinct was a bizarre additional pressure on the last of the birds. The last known pair of Great Auks were both killed on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland, on 3rd June 1844. Some fishermen discovered this last pair, with the female sitting on a single egg. The birds were strangled and sold as museum skins, while the egg was smashed. The last solitary sighting of a living bird was made off the Newfoundland Banks in 1852. The bird was never seen again.

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Ralph and Ceri’s Extinct Boids will be released into the wild on the 26th of October. Order your copy now!

Silent Spring Revisited

I had the rare honour of being invited to give a talk about my first book, Silent Spring Revisited, at the Buxton Literature Festival. I have several talks lined up, but this was the first I’ve done. The journey through the Derbyshire Peaks was pierced by glorious sunshine, evening shadows spearing across a landscape by freshening rain, cut hay drying in the warm upland breezes.

Buxton retains all of its Victorian spa town elegance, and crowds milled in the gardens and outdoor cafes. A particular highlight was meeting Joanna Lumley outside the Opera House. Knowing her liking for birds and track-record as an environmentalist, I tried to lure her along to my talk. Alas she was much in demand and had other bookings.

 

Meeting Joanna Lumley at Buxton

 

I figured the easiest way to structure the talk would be around a few selected readings from the book, to give a flavour of its content and structure, and to fill the gaps between with discussion of Rachel Carson’s life and legacy, where my inspiration for the book had come from (an unlikely source – The Peregrine by J. A. Baker), and why I’ve taken the approach to writing it that I have.

Fifty years on from the publication of Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, my book is a tribute to her vision and courage, and an attempt to answer the questions: was Rachel Carson right? Did we listen? Year by year since then I chart the major milestones in environmentalism, in the UK, USA and beyond, and the fate of the birds and the dawn chorus. Around this I have woven personal anecdote and other political and cultural events and milestones, to place the movement in its wider historical context.

I’m quite soft-spoken, apparently, and the sound man told me I would need to pro-ject clearly in this large, hotel function suite, with its air-con and absorbent upholstery. His message was reinforced at an early stage but one elderly onlooker. So pro-ject I did. It was hot in there, and as I held the book at the lectern, and essentially shouted out the chosen passages, and in particular the section on the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster, with its images of burning seas, it dawned on me I might look and sound like a fire and brimstone preacher. And preach is what I’ve never wanted to do, when writing. I always adopted what I hope is a fireside manner rather than a pulpit one. That I was mopping sweat from my brow may have enhanced the undesired effect. I didn’t allow the image of the seabird drenched in crude oil to linger on the screen behind me for long.

Writing, for me, is about finding your inner voice. Bill Shankly once said that if you speak softly, people will work harder to hear you. I’ve always wished that he was right about this. It seemed to work for him. In that sweltering suite I made sure to read some of the more comic extracts, the part of me that has to laugh, although I fear a little for our future. But in any case for future talks a more intimate venue, a comfy chair, an evening time-slot might be more suited to me, the book’s style. Perhaps any book’s. Most aren’t written to be read aloud, after all.

The questions from the audience at the end were spot on, as you’d expect from a literary crowd, the feedback encouraging. One lady even called it the most thought-provoking talk she’d been to, although I’d “have to work on the presentation style – but that will come,” she added, reassuringly.

Buxton also made me realise that one of the loose threads running through SSR is the parallel I’ve often noted between environmentalism and other, more recognised, faiths. And that environmentalism, if not by name, may be a common subtext to all, or most. Is it in actual fact a new religion? Or is it perhaps the oldest? Perhaps I’ll throw that one open the next time.

Conor Mark Jameson

Silent Spring Revisited is published by Bloomsbury in hardback, price £16.99

Olympian Dreams

Conor Mark Jameson, author of Silent Spring Revisited and forthcoming Looking for the Goshawk, shares his thoughts on the Olympic opening ceremony…

Having recently grappled with the challenge of squeezing a 50-year history of the environmental movement into just one book (Silent Spring Revisited), I found myself watching the Olympic opening ceremony with mounting interest. Although I’ll admit to misgivings about the whole green and pleasant land cliché, and the cost (sport has vanquished other charitable pursuits in recent times) I couldn’t help but be impressed by the scale of ambition of the proceedings, and perhaps that was the point. Fitting all of history into an hour and a half in a sports arena was bold and ambitious in scale. Well done everyone.

Watching the cast of thousands going through their routines it was also hard not to take home a general message about the triumph of humanity – especially British humanity – over stuff, through sweat and toil and thumbs in britches and chimneys exploding like time-lapsed stinkhorns out of that now not-so green and pleasant land. And while on the one hand that is inspiring and arousing, on the other it encapsulates part of our problem as a species: perhaps just a little self-regarding? It’s 2012. The planet is creaking under our strain. Something has to give.

I’m not sure I’ve properly forgiven Danny Boyle for what was done to the beach in The Beach, but my old room-mate Hamish Hamilton was in charge of projecting the whole TV spectacle to the watching world, and so I was rooting for them all. Nervous, even. And for us as a country, or countries. I know quite a lot of morale hangs on these things, if not especially my own.

The highlights for me, beyond the obvious Mr Bean intervention, the NHS bed-a-thon, and the musical medley (we do music well – credit where it’s due) was from an unexpected source. Suddenly, among the top hats, collarless shirts and sideburns, another life form was present. A hawk was scooting across the screen, faster than anything else we’d seen. And of course flying, which is one thing we can’t really do. A kestrel! Kes, more precisely. The iconic raptor of British film industry and working people’s dreams, symbol of many of our aspirations. A reminder that we share the planet with something else, as inspiring for many of us as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Rebecca Adlington, Wiggo, whoever.

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Kes delivers Olympic flyby

One of the things that an Olympics event, wherever it’s being held, ought to be referencing in the year 2012 is the environment. The links between sport and conservation aren’t immediately obvious and have never been made so till now, but that needs to change.

What would Rachel Carson have thought? I think she would have agreed.

Conor Mark Jameson

P.S. I woke this morning to another welcome and unexpected wildlife/Olympic fusion. No fewer than six magpies were jousting on the roof of the barn opposite my house and bed. I blearily counted through the old rhyme… and of course it’s six for… gold! I’m pleased to say that for Team GB today the magpies were right on the money.

ImageMystic magpies – giving a gold prediction

Finding birds in weird weather

As the British summer continues (more rain forecast this week…) guest blogger Marianne Taylor writes on birding whatever the weather.

Are you a fair-weather birder? It’s OK, you can own up, you’re among friends. Bad weather, of which we’ve seen far too much lately, isn’t just off-putting to us humans, it can also have a profound effect on bird behaviour. Some species become very difficult to see on rainy or windy days, but for others, the arrival of a low-pressure weather front is the cue to get out and start searching.

A bad hair day for a Tufted Duck – most birds sensibly seek shelter from strong winds.

Cold, rainy, windy days make life difficult for large, soaring birds that use thermals (rising warm air) to gain lift. There’s not much point scanning the skies for high-flying raptors on days like this – it’s too energetically expensive for the birds to reach a good height without the help of the thermals, so they tend to sit out the bad weather.

Calm, still days are best for seeing reedbed birds like Reed Warblers

Small birds on migration in both spring and autumn are also likely to go to ground in bad weather – they’re liable to become exhausted and possibly blown off course so when conditions are dire they will often take a pitstop and spend the time feeding up, waiting for the weather to improve before continuing their journeys. This means that bad-weather days are good times to look for them, especially in coastal areas. They’ll be in the bushes or on the ground, depending on species – in spring some of the males will often sing, even though they’re just stopping off with no intention of staying on to breed.

Swifts will travel many miles to find good feeding conditions – the abundance of flying insects is very weather-dependent.

A Herring Gull making a splash. Most seabirds can cope with some quite rough conditions but tend to head closer inshore during storms.

Some of our most interesting birds are best looked for on the most uninviting days. Spring storms with easterly winds are perfect conditions to send migrating Black Terns our way, the tired birds often homing in on inland water bodies to feed. Autumn gales push scarce seabirds like Leach’s Petrels and Sabine’s Gulls close inshore and sometimes even upriver.

Warming air on fine mornings encourages birds of prey like Red Kites to take to the air – attracting the attention of mobbing corvids.

It’s not all about rain, wind and gloom though. Fine, warm days in late spring – and we’ll be enjoying some of those soon with any luck – can be great for birdwatching, with a chance of rarities like Black Kites, Red-rumped Swallows and Bee-eaters overshooting their normal breeding grounds and reaching Britain. Long summer evenings with a pleasant light breeze are great for watching Barn Owls, and still days encourage reedbed birds like Bearded Tits to show themselves, rather than lurking low in the reeds as they do on windy days. Even snow and a freeze can assist with bird-finding, as water birds concentrate on patches of clear water, and skulkers like Bitterns and Water Rails are more likely to venture into the open.

A cold snap may bring unusual wildfowl to any unfrozen waters, like this party of Bewick’s Swans at a Kent reservoir.

So, whatever the weather’s doing there are birds out there to find, but finding out a bit about different species’ habits will help you pick the likeliest targets and best strategy for a successful day.

If you are interested in this, you might like:

Marianne’s new book

Letter from Dominica

This week, another of our semi-regular posts from Bloomsbury author Hadoram Shirihai – tales of another adventure, this time in the Caribbean.

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I have just completed my second major expedition in the Caribbean, this time in the Lesser Antilles, aiming to to complete the photography of the region’s birds for my book (with H. Jornvall) Photographic Handbook of the Birds of the World, and to continue my search for ‘lost’ petrels in the region. I was especially pleased on this trip to complete the photos of all of the endemic parrots of the Caribbean Islands, including the biggest and rarest of them all, the Imperial Parrot from Dominica.

The Imperial Parrot – one of the world’s finest.

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The expedition also included some ‘pelagic mass chumming’ off Dominica. No Jamaican Petrel, I’m afraid, but we did record the first Band-rumped (or Madeiran) Storm-petrel off this island.

Band-rumped Storm-petrel off the island of Dominica in June.

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Nevertheless, the work at sea also included few days for my research into marine mammals, and especially the great whales – and here I am pleased to reveal how this has been done, often in rough seas, and often involving swimming with 9,000 feet of water below! Here’s a video clip of us in action – featuring some stunning underwater footage of Sperm Whales.

Sperm whale fluke by Renato Rinaldi.

More clips coming soon featuring other giants of the oceans …

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Hadoram is the author of Whales, Dolphins and Seals.

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Hadoram would like to thank the whale experts of Guadeloupe Island – Caroline, Manolo & Renato Rinaldi (Association Évasion Tropicale), and Maria San Roman, for highly instructive and pleasant work in the ocean.

The Garden List

This week, Nigel tells a tale of birding derring-do from the darkest corner of remote East Sussex …

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Most birders keep a garden list. It may be written down or it may be in their heads, but those who strive to attract birds into their gardens are usually well aware of which species are regularly seen and those that are more rarely recorded – some may have been seen only once or twice, but that still counts as a ‘garden bird’. But what are the rules about what can or cannot be counted? Obviously a bird physically in your garden is fully acceptable as a garden tick. Species flying over in ‘your’ airspace also count for most people. Purists might limit their garden list to these two categories, but I prefer to count any bird that is seen from my garden. So, a species does not actually have to be on my little patch of land, but I have to be to be able to see and identify the bird from the house or while I am in the garden.

Having established the ground rules, the key to a big garden list is location, location, location. A garden within sight of the sea or a large waterbody is much more likely to attain more species than an inland suburban one. It should be possible to see more than 100 species in the former, while 50 might be a reasonable tally for the latter. My own garden in rural Sussex is not close to the coast or on any migratory fly-line, but instead is surrounded by fields and woodland. It has taken me 12 years to reach a tally of 60 species – a modest total by my reckoning. Mind you, I do have a full-time job, and I don’t get up early very often to look for unusual migrants in spring or autumn. Anything I see in my garden is incidental to my usual activities. Having said that, the garden is quite birdy. There is constant activity at the feeders, with Marsh Tit being a very frequent visitor, and my three nestboxes are all occupied every year by Blue Tits and Great Tits. House Sparrows nest noisily in the ivy on the house, and the songs of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps can be heard persistently throughout the summer.

Siskins often visit Nigel’s garden in winter.

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This year, a pair of Nuthatches successfully reared a family in one of my nestboxes and Bullfinches are nesting in a hedge beside my vegetable patch. Every few years, I get an invasion of Siskins in late winter; the first ones appear in late January but February and March are the best months. My peak count was 85 – not bad for a garden bird. Most of them leave in April, with an occasional pair lingering into May. Common Buzzards are now seen quite frequently, in stark contrast to ten years ago when they were almost unheard of in Sussex. Perhaps the greatest find for my garden list was a pair of Ravens that flew over on a sunny day in September a couple of years ago. I was picking blackberries at the time, and the characteristic deep call caused to me look up. That was until last Sunday…

At around 12.50 on 17 June I stepped out of my front door and immediately heard the familiar call of a European Bee-eater. I looked up and, to my amazement, saw the back-end of a bird disappearing through a gap in the trees. Even on a brief view I knew instantly that this was a bee-eater. A few moments later, a group of four birds emerged from behind the trees, heading out across the open field adjacent to my garden. A fifth bird quickly joined them, and all five briefly circled and glided quite low over the field, keeping in close contact with each other with their constant calling, before continuing their journey in a SSW direction. I waited to see if they would return but had no further sightings. It was not the best of views. I had no binoculars with me and it was all over far too quickly, but there was no mistaking these distinctive birds. I have seen many thousands of bee-eaters abroad over the past four decades, but this species is a big rarity in Britain, and even in my active twitching days it was a bird that had always eluded me. Indeed, despite having a respectable British list in the mid 400s, European Bee-eater was probably the ‘commonest’ species that I had never seen in Britain.

Star of the show.

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But what were these birds doing flying over my garden? Where had they come from? Where were they going? One can speculate that they were a group of failed or non-breeders that had wandered up from France or Spain. Or they could have been a family party cruising around western Europe before heading south to Africa for the winter, having bred in central France, or even in Sussex! We will never know of course. But, by a strange coincidence, my friend Bill Harvey (also a Christopher Helm author) saw five Bee-eaters flying north over his garden near Tunbridge Wells, exactly 24 hours later. They must have been the same birds. Maybe they will fly over another birder’s garden to help us build a bigger picture of the movements of these mobile birds, but even if they are never heard of again, this was a spectacular addition to my British list – and to my garden list.

Along with being a publisher, Nigel is co-author of Where to Watch Birds in Britain.

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The happy denouement

Conor Mark Jameson completes the Cheerps blog trilogy.

First thing in the morning I confronted the task of working out how to get Cheerps back in his rightful place. I got the ladder out and climbed up alongside the nest hole. From the side, I could see a sibling sparrow’s head poking out, yelling encouragement at no doubt frazzled parents. The head turned unsteadily on a scrawny neck, got me in focus, fell silent, and slowly – comically – retracted. Looking from the front of the crevice I could see it, as though at a port-hole, like a Gary Larsson cartoon figure, peering, wide mouth now firmly shut, head still wobbling. To my intense relief I was able ease a slate up and gently return Cheerps to the straw bundle, sending the other occupants scuttling to the back of the box, hidden among straw and chicken feathers.

We know from research that late broods of sparrows are not very productive. By July the birds often struggle to find enough to eat. It certainly struck me, watching the parents come and go at the nest hole, how infrequently they visited, and how little they appeared to bring, especially compared to how much my foster sparrow has been able to pack away while under my supervision.

I’m hopeful I will still have my unruly band of local sparrows visiting for birdseed and crumbs through the winter. Maybe Cheerps will be one of their number. One thing I can be sure of, however, now that I’ve secured the nest site on the loft-side, is that there won’t be any more like him falling into the house next summer. All being well, future sparrow feeding duties will be a little less ‘hands-on’.

Tweet your questions tohttps://twitter.com/#!/BB_Specialistfor the interview with Conor on Monday at 12.

Bringing up baby – part 2

After yesterday’s cliffhanger, Conor Mark Jameson takes up the tale of Cheerrps…

My foundling sparrow looks surprisingly under-developed, semi-naked, perhaps a week old and only half way to fledging, with bare patches of skin and rudimentary feathers beginning to show. Nidifugous, they call it. Its bulbous eyes are partially open, glinting between crescent lids. To rescue it from the airing cupboard I had to remove my watch and squeeze my hand through a narrow gap, using a screwdriver to manoeuvre the chick into a place from which I could pluck it, as gently as possible, between two outstretched fingers.

Here, I had better make clear the difference between a nestling bird and a fledgling bird. I’ve had fledgling sparrows in the house before, and I put them straight back outside. One I was able to corner on an upstairs window-sill, and simply drop out of the window, to minimise its distress from being handled, and to show its parents where it was and what was happening. As I captured a male house sparrow hovered a few inches from the window pane, chirping abuse at me. All the thanks you get for letting them nest in the roof. I dunno…

A nestling is a bird that belongs in the nest (there’s a clue in the name). It isn’t yet ready for life outside the nest, as it won’t have the muscle development to hold itself upright, or the feather development to keep itself warm. Mine falls very definitely into the latter category.

This sparrow is slightly older than Cheerps

So now what? You’ve got a ravenous little stomach on your hands, all mouth and naked thighs, it’s 10.30 pm, there’s no way of popping it back in its nest (trust me on this, I’ve had a look in the loft). So I’ve soaked some scone and begun poking this mush gently into its gullet with the end of a teaspoon. After several dollops, in return it shuffles around, pokes its rear end in the air and offers me a dropping, or a foecal sac, as it’s known, which my fingers, it turns out, are not delicate enough to transport without splitting. Welcome to parenthood.

Half a dozen dollops of the mush later, the cheerping subsides and it’s time for lights out, shoebox closed.

Cheerps greets me first thing the next day. I have worked out a plan to try putting Cheerps (this is his name, and I have decided, for the purposes of this narrative, that it is a he) back in the nest, but I’m not going to have time to do the necessary research on this on a workday. I therefore have to take him to work with me, and the box of muffled cheerps sits discreetly by my desk. At least I think it’s discrete, but curious colleagues converge from all corners of the building. One leaves quickly, saying she might cry…Conservationists really ought not to be so flaky.

I pop to The Lodge shop for mealworms, which I thought would be more nutritious than wet scone  – not that Cheerps is showing any sign of losing his appetite for that. He makes short work of the mealworms.

I have a book on my shelves called Sold for a Farthing, the wartime story of Clarence, an adopted house sparrow. I consult it for some tips on sparrow rearing, and to remind myself of what I might be taking on if I can’t find a way home for my lodger. Clarence lived with his owner for 12 years, treated her bed as his, and attacked anyone who came near it…

Don’t forget to tweet your questions for Conor to @BB_Specialist this weekend.

Bringing up baby

Guest blogger Conor Mark Jameson answers the cheerrp of nature…

If you find a fledgling bird, you should leave it alone. That’s probably the most important thing to remember from what I’m about to relate. And yes I know you probably know it already, and have done ever since you first developed an interest in birds.

I need to stress this point because each spring and summer the RSPB’s wildlife advisors field around 10,000 enquiries from people who have found – or, in many cases, ‘rescued’ – a ‘baby bird’. Picking it up is the ultimate act of misplaced kindness. We have to advise each caller to take their refugee back to where they found it, and hope that its parents are still around to resume parental duties. It’s either that or rear the bird yourself. This advice can seem uncaring, and people are sometimes surprised to discover that the RSPB’s mission doesn’t extend to the rearing of birds: baby, sick, injured or otherwise. They simply aren’t set up or equipped to do it.

I hope therefore it won’t be too confusing if I go on now to describe how I’ve found a baby bird, and I haven’t left it alone.

The evening atmosphere is heavy. More June rain is falling to earth silent and straight; down the necks of the banks of red campion and ox-eyes out front. From the moment I got home I was aware of sparrow chirping – it goes on all day, most days, and at this time of year the sparrows are present in boisterous numbers, wheeling between my front garden hedgerow and the field margins opposite.

Sparrow visiting Conor’s gutter

But this sounds like a youngster. More cheerrp than chirp. More insistent. More penetrating. I look several times in the airing cupboard, the bathroom, the loft, but each time I try to isolate the source of the sound it seems to come from another part of the house, to be accessed a different way. I even find myself going outside to check.

10 pm, and the cheerrps haven’t abated. They are louder, if anything. It is too late and too dusk for nestlings to still be begging for food, in normal circumstances. I know for sure then that something is amiss, and I work out, by pressing the base of the airing cupboard (which juts down through the kitchen ceiling) and feeling the tremors, that the plaintive must be in there.

So I go upstairs with a torch, and by now would  cheerfully remove masonry to find the thing. Luckily I only had to remove carpet, and one floorboard. There it is, ensconced among pipes and rafters, wriggling. And cheerping…

To be continued…

Conor will be tweeting live on Monday at 12 about his book Silent Spring Revisited. Tweet your questions to us @BB_Specialist.

The Great Piddle Riddle

 

A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to get to spend the day with world-renowned cartoonist, caricaturist and friend of the extinct bird, Ralph Steadman. His spectacular, hilarious and often emotive artworks of a raft of long-gone (and many never-were) species formed a stunning centrepiece to the recent Ghosts of Gone Birds art exhibition in London, and have gone on to become the backbone of our book Extinct Boids, which will be landing in all good bookshops in October.

Pallas’s Cormorant, looking unimpressed about its impending doom.

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I headed down to Steadman Towers in remote rural Kent with filmmaker Ceri Levy, who wrote the accompanying text, a sparkling gag-packed narrative telling the tale of the birds (mostly extinct) and the boids (mostly the product of Ralph’s imagination). Its a gripping story alright.

Ostensibly, I was there to do a spot of filming and pick up a few pieces to take back to London, but to be honest I was just happy to get to meet the great man. Ceri, Ralph and I had a lot of fun through the day – much of it spent hunting for a painting of an elusive bird indeed, the Pale Blue Piddle, which had somehow avoided the scanning process and had escaped, hiding out in a remote part of Ralph’s vast, cavernous, painting-packed studio. At stumps, the piddle muddle remained unresolved.

Piddles: Archive footage.

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Ralph and I even had a chance to do some back-garden boiding, with some close observations of a nesting pair of crows in a tree by his house.

Later on, I took some photos of the lads deep in conversation about boids. Here’s some of the outtakes. The chat was ribald without ever crossing the mark.

In-studio in-depth heated debate.

Ralph gets emotional.

Artist meets editor.

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Joking aside, Extinct Boids is a remarkable work, featuring 108 superb artworks, including unique interpretations of well-known birds such as the Great Auk and Dodo, along with less familiar members of the avian firmament – Snail-eating Coua, for example, or Red-Moustached Fruit Dove – along with a variety of bizarre creatures such as the Gob Swallow, the Long-legged Shortwing and the Needless Smut, all captured with a riot of colour and a slice of trademark Steadman humour.

More teasers to come …

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