Rank #1: GOB 66 – Vintage Birds
GOB 66 – Vintage Birds…
(This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
Waiting while Hawkeye found more ways to spend my ‘hard earned’ in ‘George’ at Asda my eye’s corner spied the Herring Gulls on the grass verge and their behaviour held my attention. We had a shower last night so the verges were damp and, despite being less than a mile from an ebbing tide half a dozen gulls were paddling for worms. Clomping up and down on the sward like kids playing in their parents shoes. I can’t remember when I first saw this behaviour, years ago for sure.
It got me thinking about what sort of birder I have slowly become and I realised that birding, not unlike drinking alcohol has followed a ‘career’. You start out unaware of booze, then become fascinated and take a tentative teenage tipple before rushing headlong into the student bar or music club. Similarly birds slowly register as things of grace and beauty that behave in fascinating ways before becoming an obsession. My alcohol use peaked in my late twenties and early thirties when the pub was the focus of my social life. Birding followed a similar path filling my spare time until I began chasing variety like the late night emptying of an hotel room’s minibar.
My work with substance abusers made drinking close to where I worked inappropriate and, when I bought my first car, I found myself going to new pubs, but making half a shandy last several hours or drinking a G&T without the ‘G’. That was when I stopped twitching and turned instead to foreign trips and, some years on, working a patch.
I may slip out and twitch a ‘world lifer’ if it turns up close to home, just as I might have a cold beer on a really hot day or a vodka and tonic at Christmas, but twitching and boozing are fast fading memories.
I may go for a local tick or lifer once a year these days, if that, and have a cupboard full of bottles that I have to dust off if ever I take them out at all. If I do take a drink I savour the flavour and allow its mild intoxication to stay just that, mild.
So, I’ve come full circle and find myself once again birding because of a fascination with what birds do and are, rather than how many new ones I can tick. My ID skills go on improving, but they come a poor second place to general observation.
Before I was a birder my dad took me fishing. When sitting by the edge of a lake with reeds on two sides and trees behind you, you are virtually in a hide. Whatever swam or flew was often close by and I recall seeing Great-crested Grebes in their mating dance and a Cuckoo ousting its Reed Warbler step-siblings. Field mice ate our bread bait and grass snakes swam up to us and rustled by. I realised I had become a nature lover by counting how many bites I missed because my float disappeared without me noticing it as I was pre-occupied with dragonflies buzzing my head or Spotted Flycatchers looping from their perch to bag yet another midge.
I now know I’ve come full circle because I am once again just enjoying what I see rather than looking for new pastures. It pays dividends too. In over fifty years I had never seen a water rail in flight… this year I’ve seen this happen twice in different places a few weeks apart. Yesterday my son told me he had seen a couple of Treecreepers actually perched on a fence post and realised he had only ever seen them work their way up a tree trunk or bough.
I think this circle has turned for many people although the most thumbed birding literature is still about ID rather than bird behaviour as it was in Gilbert White’s day.
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-66-edited.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #2: GOB 67 – Road Rage
GOB 67 – Road Rage
(This article first appeared in the August 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
I was asked to speak at the Scottish Bird Fair – or to give it its proper title ‘Scotland’s Big Nature Festival’, and knowing that there was no way I could take all I needed on a plane, and having picked myself up off the floor when I saw the price of the train, I decided to drive up. Hoping to see some species we don’t get down in the southeast corner… naively as it turned out. So Hawkeye and I loaded up and got going.
It’s a fair old drive so there was plenty of time to watch out for wildlife all the way. The mammals list was extensive. Muntjac, then fox, rabbit, hedgehog, grey squirrel and brown rat were all expected. No less than two polecats was a bigger surprise… although, more than likely they were feral ferrets. Several badgers were inevitable, but as we got further north there were a number of hares and three roe deer. Birds included blackbirds and lots of pheasants with some corvids, two kestrels and various others I could not ID.
Of course the sad truth is, none of these were extant, but each was a squished fur or feather ball on the side of the carriageway.
I assumed that the motorway would be the biggest slaughterhouse, what with plenty of traffic and fast speeds, but not a bit of it. It was the frustrating ‘A’ roads, the ones where you might spend 20 minutes with only the back of a truck to look at. The A1 over the border was carnage with deer in the road or lying barely scratched on the embankments.
You might assume that this is just bad luck… random strikes on critters accidentally crossing the path of an HGV driver. However, looking at the endless English & Scottish fields and the open hillsides en route it dawned on me that wildlife was concentrated on the edges where the habitat was richer. Hedges and verges, motorway banks that the public cannot access, ditches and all were more attractive to bird and beast than the arid agri-businesses and boring monocultures. Its no wonder that animals are drawn to the most dangerous places for them. Pesticides push insects to the fringes, attracted by the warm the areas cars create as they pass through or the weed seeds that are blitzed in the fields left to run riot on the verges. Its as if we magnetise the strips that run between hard surfaces and no-go zones.
It is fortunate that there are still some areas of the UK with huge natural habitats but the more pressure we put on the green world to feed or house us, and the more concrete paves our roads the more wildlife gets marginalised.
The journey north had another profound impact on me. I’ve always thought of the ‘garden of England’ as one of the richest in birdlife and, during migration times or in specific coastal wetlands that may still be the case, but every village I went into in the northern bits of England and the southern bits of Scotland I was struck by how much richer they were than my home county. Swifts, swallows and house martins all seem to be doing well in Yorkshire villages or Scottish towns compared with how thin on the ground they seem to be the southern climes. Warblers, flycatchers and finches seemed to be the norm on village edges, whereas my corner of the world gets skinnier pickings.
Maybe its the intensity of land use in town and country but I am also convinced that the rising sea temperatures are pushing a lot of everyday birds further north and robbing the south of its diversity and abundance.
Johnson said the only good thing about Scotland was the road to England, but I want to emigrate to where the government, the wild places and the wildlife suit my soul.
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-67-edited.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #3: GOB 79 – Birding 101
GOB 79 – Birding 101
(This article first appeared in the July 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
How enamoured are you of today’s birding scene? Do you relish the technological advantages today’s birders have or miss the old ‘anything about mate?’ days?
Like the famous Curate’s Egg… birding today is good in part, but not everything has got better. Yes, I know I am an aging curmudgeon pining for the ‘blue remembered hills’ of yesterday’s birdwatching, but I’m also a bit of a techno-bitch, slavering to stay apace with ever-changing upgrades and envelope bursting ‘progress’.
There are plenty of changes I can enthuse about but some things get my goat so bad I want them assigned to the fabled Room 101!
Here are my three candidates:
“I spent the morning watching viz mig, but it was mostly mipits and by the time I got the call for PGTips a spawk had it, so I dipped on another stonker”.
This is an example of deliberately esoteric language to eliminate communication with normal mortals. Does it really tax these poor souls too much to say ‘visible migration’, or is all that energy saved a necessary boost for twitching? Meadow Pipits and Sparrowhawks may be common, but contracting their name to a single brief word hardly makes them more or less exciting. As for the truncated Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, turning it into a commercial cuppa makes just no sense at all. These guy’s notebooks must be as hard to read as Pepys’ diary!
Stonker is another word that irritates me no end… because it is not a measure of loveliness, but of rarity. I’ve twitched with the best of them, but nothing will lead me to spend hour upon hour watching one LBJ simply because it had a bad sense of direction or go caught out in a storm. I appreciate the cryptic splendour of a common pipit or wren no more or less than a rare one. Rarity does not render anything more beautiful, and a tick is a tick whether you take ten minutes or ten hours to watch it. An adult rose-coloured starling or a lesser grey shrike are stonking birds, olive-backed pipits and juvenile rose-colored starlings are great ticks, but Miss World they ain’t!
I’m a lister; keeping year, county and country lists, but really do not see this as any sort of competition with anyone other than me. There is nothing on earth that will convince my oldest birding buddy that he and I are not competing! This might, of course, be due to the fact that his UK and world life lists are both longer than mine… but I really, really don’t mind! What I hate most is that some birders feel triumphant when their friends miss out… I mourn other people’s dips. Sit alone watching the funniest movie ever made (Bridesmaids) and you will smile a lot, watch it with friends and you will all be crying with laughter… birding like laughter is best shared.
The Fieldcraft Void
Because of the ‘sport’ of twitching lots of new birders have no experience of how the environment works, no grounding on common birds and other fauna and flora and often no understanding of how to view wildlife with little impact on its wellbeing. Their ID skills may be very well developed, but they may have no clue about what impact they have on avian life, let alone the livelihood of landowners or wider conservation concerns. If all you want to do is get a sight of a new bird with no care for others, the bird itself or the habitat its appeared in, then you need not bother to learn to tread quietly, respect others and put the welfare of wildlife above all else.
I’m not attacking twitching here, only some of the mindlessness that spoils too many twitches. With luck twitchers become birders become conservationists, but until they do I’m for isolating them in cell number 101.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-79-Birding-101.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #4: GOB 91 – Birding Doldrums
GOB 91 – Birding Doldrums
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine June 2017
Picture this, everyone around you is just getting into their shorts and sandals, beaming with bonhomie and generally frolicking in the sunshine and you stare out at the blue skies with a miserable face.
Spring is over and it’s not yet autumn and the rest of the world celebrates while you slump into the shallows of despond.
What’s wrong with you? Get out there and enjoy the verdant foliage and lush woodlands… except, of course, the mass of leaves hides most birds from view… nothing much new is turning up on your patch and the twitching media are hushed except for news of cetaceans, Odonata or Lepidoptera… if you wanted to know about the latter you would be a bugger not a birder your internal dialogue concludes as you sigh inwardly.
Even when you do go out to stretch your legs, or the dog’s, everything is confusion. Mega tick waders first glimpsed turn out to be young redshank… weird warblers and funny finches turn out to be newly fledged old hats. Apart from the faithful blackbirds and raucous Cetti’s warblers most of the birds cannot even be bothered to serenade you as they stay up to all hours grabbing grubs to stuff the mouths of their over demanding youngsters.
When you do get back the will to bird it is nipped in the bud by a spouse or relative expecting you to chuck another prawn on the Bar-B or gather a tribe of gosling-like children and fiddle about in rock pools or exhaust your bank manager’s patience to afford a visit to some madhouse of a mega park where you are expected to enjoy being endangered by fast moving Ferris wheels or lunch hurling switchbacks.
Even the pub is off limits as the garden is filled with nestlings and the lounge bar with musically challenged fledglings who think volume is the whole point of music. Your mates are not available for sneaky outings as they too are required to be grandparents, parents or willing participants in the living hell that is a family holiday in Blackpool, Benidorm or Bournemouth.
Cars that should be parked in the shade of Titchwell or Leighton Moss are nose to tail on the M forty something or the A-road to ferry ports.
Courage mon brave, all is not lost! If you can sneak away from Southport sands or Terra Mitica’s grasp there are birds to be had. Just away from the sands are mudflats and inland are marshes, on the fringes of Benidorm are Black Wheatears and Hoopoes.
If dad looks after the kids you can sneak off for an hour or two of tranquillity, if mum takes the reins maybe you can slip off to a cool hide and test your ID skills out on all those fluffy balls of wader chickery or just enjoy the breeze and baby birds.
Late on a summer evening when the air is cooling over the marshes and the still pools are alive with insect hatches you can watch the wonder that is the Swift as it ploughs through the air sucking up the invertebrate soup with the majesty of the most birdy of birds. If you are in the right place you can soar with the hobbies as they take out drifting dragonflies or chase hapless sand martins. There are still quiet lakes where Spotted Flycatchers ply the sky with their constant looping from their perch into the midges and back to their perch again. The luckiest of us may find a quiet Scottish moor and listen to the clapping wings of a Short-eared Owl’s display or perhaps an East Anglian pine forest clearing to see Goshawks soar, Woodcock rode or Woodlark sing. Stay late on the lowland heath and watch dusk broken by the white flashes of a nightjar’s wing or lay awake in the small hours by a scrubby hillside where nightingales still sing.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-81-Birding-Doldrums.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #5: GOB 45 – November
GOB 45 – November
Thomas Hood famously wrote:
No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
Well, Hood’s prophetic poetry still holds for the most part, except for the intervening variable of global warming.
In anticipation of the storms of October and the murk of November I tidied up my garden. I trimmed back the dead foliage and flower heads and upped the ante on fat-balls for the feathered visitors. The untidy corners are deliberate nature havens, not, as the boss says, evidence of indolence.
Storms certainly came… I watched the forsythia bush at nearly seven feet high touching the pavers with its topmost leaves as it bent double. I wondered if we would still have a fence by morning… last time it went missing I only found one panel in our street the rest is most likely still English Channel flotsam.
My shed roof already leaks. I pondered the possibility that it would not be a problem because the whole roof might blow away.
When it finally stopped raining some days later we put back the fragile feeders and thanked providence for an intact fence and bushes with flexible foliage.
November dawned drearily… then the sun shone and our four feet high osteospermum is newly smothered in its third batch of bright yellow flowers. A few hoverflies are still picking over it.
Then the wind again blew, it rained and the temperature dropped ten degrees only to bounce back at first overcast then sunny.
The storm had bought on my sun-envy and I started arranging my annual trip… I still think of it as annual despite the fact that circumstances have conspired to keep us in blighty for over two years.
The drear continued and it rained, and it rained and, in between times, it rained some more. Then it waned. A November day dawned like the perfect January day… crisp and cloudless. Cool but bright. Through my office window it could have been high summer… gulls soared and drifted, doves purposely crossed the clear blue sky in every direction. Seven parakeets looped in a line towards the park ignoring our strung out apples. (Who isn’t strung out in these stressful times) The sparrow hawk pair drifted low over the garden at my eye level. On the feeders it was like spring as tits and finches, starlings and sparrows noisily queued, squabbled or fed.
A robin rasped and posed for his Christmas card photo session.
In the pyrocanthus bush a wren moved like a woodmouse while dunnocks vacuumed the floor under the feeders. A ‘brown cap’ found the minute insects that inhabit the flowerpot microverse. I took the day and stored it for when the wind lashed rain next obscures the view.
My son visited and braved the rain to take the grandchildren to our seaside ‘amusements’. We stole an early morning hour or two together to check the storm-tossed sea. It was neither stormy nor tossed but flat calm. Distant gannets were gliding in sixes and sevens a mile or two out passed the enormous array of wind turbines and we mused on what avian harm they might do. He laid on the beach to photograph Rock Pipits and we trailed inland to see if the winter thrushes were yet stripping berries, but the hedged fields were bare of birds.
November – no birds? Hardly. But they take more finding as increasingly November is the switchover month that October used to be.
The agri-desert is still our environment’s worst news… farmland birds continue to decline and we can only save them by caring more about them and less about profit.
But there is good news for November.
A newly published report shows that the vast majority of seabirds and migrants have little to fear from turbines as they tend to fly between two and five metres above the sea. Tall turbines can be a problem for gulls. They fly lower than many migrants but higher than virtually all other seabirds.
High flyers always escape adversity unscathed, low flyers know how to get by even in the worst times and places. It’s the middle classes that seem unable to cope in hard times.
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-45-November.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #6: GOB 55 – Gone Fishing
GOB 55 – Gone Fishing
(This article first appeared in the September 2014 edition of Birdwatching)
I enjoy watching boxing. I feel that brute force and athleticism combine, creating choreography no less fascinating than the ‘beautiful’ game we English get so over in a World Cup year. However, I think boxing is barbaric and should be banned. It damages the pugilists and makes me see beauty where I should see only blood and pain. There is a chasm twixt head and heart.
I supported the hunting ban. The debate pitches pest control and country tradition against cruelty to wild animals. One of my objections to hunting with horses, beside the distress or worse for fox or deer, is that it brutalises the participants and onlookers. The forces that ‘enclosed’ common land to make it private property are the same as think they own wild creatures.
Where am I going with this apart from having a justified dig at those who set out to kill wildlife?
Now here’s the thing. I went fishing a while ago for the first time in about five years. I cannot justify the practice of hooking a fish as it must cause pain. Of course fish are returned to the water and evidence shows that some carp have been caught repeatedly over decades without long-term harm. Anglers do try to do as little harm as possible.
There are more of us who participate in this pastime than almost any other. I was talking a fellow birder the other day whose only reason for not voting ‘green’ was that he was afraid they would ban fishing for pleasure. With five million people regularly fishing and a huge tackle and bait industry that seems unlikely.
I enjoy pitting my considerable human wit against the small brain of a cold-blooded creature and mostly coming off worse! But the enjoyment has little to do with the fish. Golf may be ‘a good walk spoiled’, but it is a focus for exercise. By the same token angling is a way to enjoy nature occasionally interrupted by a fish outwitting you. My late father-in-law fished for nearly ninety years and was unbothered if he caught nothing because he loved angling’s tranquility.
So I sat by a lake occasionally catching small fish. It helped that only a bank separated the lake from a nature reserve. During my seven hours of virtual mindlessness I watched a dozen Marsh Harriers and a party of Willow Warblers appropriately in a willow ten feet from me. A stentorian Cetti’s Warbler burst into song three feet from my ear amid Rosebay Willow Herb popping out to look at me. I watched a beautiful grass snake swim right passed my fishing float. A cuckoo called and flew into a dead tree to make sure I had noticed and a Green Woodpecker looped across the lake yaffling the while. In the afternoon Swifts gathered overhead then Swallows dipped beaks into the lake to skim a drink. A Beautiful Demoiselle thought about landing on my fishing rod then fluttered away. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and the world’s heartbeat seemed to slow while I lost count of the number of ‘bites’ I missed distracted by quiet, unhurried nature.
When a childhood accident prevented boisterous play for many months Dad decided to teach me to fish. He parted reeds for me to see a Sedge Warbler nest full of chicks and pointed out Greater Crested Grebes’ mating dances. If ever near water now I think of powerful Tench pulling my float through the Lilly pads while Spotted Flycatchers feed from a bough and Woodpigeons call in the quiet time before dusk.
I’ve rarely met anglers immune to bird song or a butterfly’s beauty, and most are convinced conservationists. Angling made many of us birders by introducing us to the beauty of the countryside. Fishing may have the hunting instinct at its centre, but at its heart is a love of nature.
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-55.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #7: GOB – 95 Tales of the Riverbank
GOB 95 Tales of the Riverbank
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine October 2017
Boxing is brutal with many more losers than winners. One might argue it saves tearaway teenagers from a life of crime, but, in a progressive society it should be banned. I would, on balance, support a ban, despite the fact that I love to watch ‘fight night’ and Mohamed Ali remains my all-time sporting hero.
Shooting for pleasure crosses that line as the object is to kill not win, otherwise shooting clay pigeons would be the chosen, humane alternative. What bothers me most is the effect it has on ‘sporting’ humans; desensitising them to killing, let alone its effect on wild animals. One can make a strong case in support as, where shooting of released game birds goes on, the land is often enhanced for other wildlife. Pheasant shoots in my locality, managing the land for gamebirds, rather than intensively farming it, has led to some of the best raptor watching in England with high densities of small mammals and passerines.
Of course, the same cannot be said for grouse moors or Scottish deer-stalking estates, where the land is managed badly for competing species whether they be predators or rivals.
Angling is hard for me to be dispassionate about as I occasionally indulge. Like many a wildfowler, I enjoy it as much for the wildlife watching as for the fishing. It is bizarre that I find it so hard to outwit an order of animals supposedly many hundreds of millions of years behind me in brain power! On my last outing, the fish won 10.5 to 2.5. I ‘missed’ ten bites, lost one fish in the weeds and caught just two (obviously gently returned to the water). I cannot justify my actions, I enjoy the ‘hunt’ aspect, just as one enjoys hunting for new birds. I dream of hooking a fish large enough to test my strength (although these days that doesn’t have to be that big!). I’d miss the possibility of fishing, but cannot, in all conscience defend it. I cannot lie to myself, fish feel pain and being hooked in the mouth must be nasty. Ironically, my last outing followed a tooth extraction so I did empathise.
That lakeside outing prompted this month’s article.
I rarely rise early to bird nowadays, just like I almost never twitch. I don’t go to reserves because there is some reported rarity, but rather I decide where I want to go and then just enjoy what’s there. In high summer this may well be insects or in spring it might be hares. However, the lake where I fish has one corner spot that I favour for its shade and tranquillity and I know it is popular, so I had to be there before 7.00am to stand a chance of occupying it.
In those few hours rooted to one place my eyes often failed to focus on my fishing float because there were so many distractions. Two pairs of reed warblers flitted from the reed stems to a bush three feet away from me. Yaffling green woodpeckers flew over. Cetti’s called and occasionally popped out from the reeds. Moorhens and ducks paraded their fluffball families for me. Twenty minutes after I set up, a year-tick kingfisher left the bankside vegetation next to me where it had sat unnoticed, streaking by a foot from my rod tip. A frog swam by kicking out his legs lazily then sinking into a weed-bed. Overhead a Marsh Harrier began her day’s hunt. As the sun strengthened Small Heath and Gatekeeper butterflies took to the wing. A common Blue Damselfly landed on my float, but was dislodged by a Black-tailed Skimmer living up to its name. Like a cretaceous monster an Emperor Dragonfly lorded it over the lake.
One might argue that a bird-hide sojourn would give one the same experience, but angling has me just quietly sitting among nature’s glory.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/09/GOB-95-Tales-of-the-Riverbank-Edited.mp3
Sep 12 2017
Rank #8: GOB 82 – Brave Kiwis
GOB 82 – Brave Kiwis
(This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
I remember the first time I visited my parents after they emigrated to New Zealand; as we started our descent into Auckland the pilot came on and as part of his introduction to ‘God’s own’ country he said, “…welcome to New Zealand, a country with a population of Forty-six million; Forty-three million of whom are sheep”.
As a recent BBC TV documentary amply showcased New Zealand has a unique fauna due to its separation from Gondwanaland millions of years before mammals appeared on the planet. For the most part the ecological niches occupied by them elsewhere are, or were, occupied by birds instead. Before man turned up seven or eight centuries ago the world’s biggest birds (fourteen species of Moa) roamed the land and were preyed upon by the New Zealand Eagle… the world’s biggest ever raptor, more the size of a small aircraft than a bird!
Even although man wiped out Moas, letting the eagles starve, NZ still has many unique birds and a range of unique invertebrates, fish, amphibians and reptiles including the sole representative of a complete animal order the Tuatara, a mini dinosaur.
Bats made it by themselves but man has accidentally or deliberately introduced many mammals and other species many of which have caused the extinction of native bird species, with almost all the others under threat.
There are more Brushtail Possum in New Zealand than in their native Australia. The good old British Hedgehog thrives there better than here, and is free of fleas apparently lost on the voyage from Blighty. Both out-compete native birds and prey upon their eggs and young. The worst pest of all are mustelids – stoats are the bane of birds everywhere. Rats, mice, cats, hares, goats, feral pigs and deer abound too. Each seems to threaten some poor local. For example, one species of bird the Kakapo eat fruits from the Rimu and Kahikatea trees, the shoots of certain shrubs, and the seeds of Manuka wood and leather wood… now so well browsed by deer than there was no food for these flightless parrots! Ground nesting Kea’s are pushed further and further back in Fjiordland as stoats find their nests and eat the young.
The response has been some of the best conservation projects in the world. For decades the kiwis have been eradicating rats and other predators from off shore islands (and even some in the middle of large lakes) and culling goats, pigs and deer. Left to their own devices remnant populations of some stunning birds like Saddlebacks, Kiwis, Stichbird, and even Kokako and Kakapo have thrived.
These successes led to more ambitious schemes whereby birds were re-introduced to other islands that were predator and competitor free such as the wonderful Tiri Tiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. The next brave step was to establish mainland ‘islands’ of forest where predators and other invasives are constantly kept at bay and rare breeders like kiwis are monitored.
But here’s the thing – a lesson for the whole world surely – their Prime Minister recently announced a thirty-year programme to eliminate ALL the invasive mammals from New Zealand. This will be done by using a poison that only effects mammals. Using baits that will be ignored by ruminants (those 43 million sheep etc.,) and harmless to birds and reptiles, every part of the country will eliminate the problem species.
This is done in the face of some scary opposition. Not the cat owners (he is one himself and emphasises that indoor cats will be safe), but the hunting lobby. They want to keep the deer and wild boar for sport. This is not a timid lobby – a scheme to cull deer undertaken in a National Park saw the warden’s hut and car torched!
Such courage shames UK ministers who issue buzzard-killing licences and fail to prosecute grouse moor owners where Hen Harriers are shot.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-83-Brave-Kiwis.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #9: GOB 58 – Shoes, Ships & Sealing Wax…
GOB 58 – Shoes, Ships & Sealing Wax…
(This article first appeared in the December 2014 edition of Birdwatching magazine)
Birding has gone all hi-tech lately, with apps and software, anti-shake bins and pictures taken through your scope by mobile phones, but have the essentials really changed?
I started birding with nothing more hi-tech than eyeballs. Sitting by a lake fishing, unable to move due to a freak roller-skate accident (sadly true) the first birds I noted swam into my field of vision or hung about in the trees and bushes around us.
The big white things that annoyingly swam between my fishing float and me often pulling the line and dislodging my bread paste bait were easy; they were swans. A decade later I started calling them Mute Swans, although they were very vocal if I discouraged them with a pebble plopped into the water close by. Dad – my fishing companion – would allow nothing to hurt any of nature’s critters, and I followed suit appreciating natural beauty.
More than fifty years ago the Great-crested grebes that danced over the water in spring were a sight seen only by the privileged, they were not the everyday birds they are today. On the other hand the Spotted Flycatchers that flitted out for their mosquito meals were guarantied everywhere, not in today’s desperate decline.
Swallows and Swifts scooped aerial soup over the lakes, Tufted Ducks dived for aquatic insects and a lanky Grey Heron could be seen in the secluded shallows spearing small fry.
A few years on and technology helped me to tell a Redpoll from a Siskin high in the distant Alders if I could hold the binoculars to my eyes long enough. Old Russian Navy 10×50 bins took some hefting, making up for in magnification what they lacked in clarity, just good enough to tell a Royal Navy Corvette from a Soviet Battleship. I grew into them by the time I lay on my belly on a bank overlooking mudflats distinguishing between godwits or in Minsmere Marsh Hide following a fly-by Marsh Harrier.
Fast forward to the early 1980s and I swapped some heavy Bresser’s for Swift Alpins the lightest binoculars I could find to ease my aching back. A few years on and I developed the usual birder’s need for a scope… Kowa obliged with what then seemed unsurpassable brilliance.
I reluctantly abandoned Alpins on finding that Swaro’s were an order of magnitude better. Not as light but such clarity, colour-true and crisp image right across the lens.
About then was my one and only proper twitching year and I’m surprised at how encumbered I became wielding fieldguide carriers, tape playback machines, waterproof clothing, scope slings and all, you name it and I acquired it, convinced that all were birding essentials.
In my incipient dotage I have necessarily paired back. Sometimes I take the scope, but mostly I sling the bins over a shoulder and thread the lightest weight waterproof jacket through the strap and I’m set for a morning in the field.
They say that once over 42 you can no longer take in new technology… not quite true as when I’m overseas I upload the relevant fieldguide to my iPad and they weren’t even invented when I was that age!
How about you, apart from the bins or scope what are your essential traveling companions or must have tech?
A while back I had a couple of problems when birding overseas. When returning to my hotel from Queensland’s Cairns foreshore I dropped my tripod handle. When I looked for it later the grass had been mechanically mown… only mangled ironmongery remained. In South Africa I pressed the quick release on the tripod head and springs flew in all directions. So I spent three weeks with my scope permanently tied to the tripod.
So now I have one other essential high-tech gadget when I am abroad, a 12-inch dowel wrapped in Nylon cord, together they meet my every hi-tech need!
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-58-edited.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #10: GOB 49 – Give me my Raptor today… II
GOB 49 – Give me my Raptor today… II
(This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
Mrs Grumpy and I are fans of Van Morrison and whenever we sing along to ‘Give me my rapture today…” we change rapture to raptor as we are even bigger fans of birds of prey.
My regular readers will know that ‘Hawkeye’ is second to none in her ability to spot distant raptors, twice getting raptor ‘lifers’ for our tour guides!
On a Scottish moor she managed to spot no less than seven raptor species in 10 minutes, when the only other birds we saw were two skulking meadow pipits!
Her skills ensured success yesterday searching grazing marshes for overwintering and resident raptors – 30 birds of eight species… not counting raptor-shaped distant dots.
Raptors top many birders’ wish lists, but why when they are red in beak and claw and rapacious, so just what we hate in humans! Being top of a food chain makes for superlatives… to catch prey they have to be faster, more agile and energetic than their quarry. To fail is to starve.
A harrier harrying shows more stoicism and persistence than even the hapless moorhen that is fighting for its life. A peregrine stoops faster than superman saving Lois Lane from Lex Luthor. A bewildered starburst of startled pigeons avoid the feather flurry that was a brood-mate which succumbed faster than thought itself.
Raptors are majestic, magnificent and awe-inspiring; feather-clad poems of power and beauty.
So how prosaic must one be to poison eagles or stamp on harrier eggs?
The answer is ‘as prosaic as a banker loving money above all else’. What other motivation can there be to foster an industry geared to those with more money than sensitivity.
When I was a boy wandering the woods that were, no doubt, on private land, I once came across a ‘keeper’s larder’. If you have never seen one this is usually a barbed-wire fence on which a keeper hangs his kills. There is a wall of rooks and crows, weasels and foxes, desiccated or fresh to mark the passing weeks. They are there for one reason alone – to show the employer that the keeper is doing his job by eliminating any creature that he believes is a rival to rich sportsmens’ guns. Any living thing must go that might reduce the number of pheasant or grouse that they can enjoy blasting out of the sky.
Make no mistake, no keeper would pick off species against the express instruction of his master. He would not lock illegal poisons in his hut if he had been told not to by the boss man, nor use them to lace a carcass to kill a fox without knowing full well that it could claim the life of a Hen harrier or White-tailed Eagle just as easily. A shocked look on a landowner’s face when a pole-trap is revealed may be real enough, but not because they were ignorant. It will be shock that their practice has been uncovered.
Gamekeepers know a great deal more about wildlife than their masters… although some also hang on to misinformation just as tenaciously. They are paid to do a job and the paymaster will make it clear that he brooks no competition to the guns.
BUT IT NEED NOT BE SO!
Bird a winter grazing marsh that is farmed more for the pheasants and partridge than the cattle; a properly managed one, and raptors abound! Of course they take some birds as prey, but it will be the most sickly or least likely to survive the winter. Plenty of ‘game’ birds will be left for those who enjoy their ‘sport’.
Wildlife crime is pernicious, ignorant and selfish of course. But it is also theft… raptors cannot be owned like land, they are held in common, belonging to us all. Birders should help stop those who steal from us all!
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-49-Give-me-my-Raptor-Today.mp3
For Birders who want to help make a difference see: Birders Against Wildlife Crime
Jun 29 2017
Rank #11: GOB 71 – I wandered lonely as a cloud…
GOB 71 – I wandered lonely as a cloud…
(This article first appeared in the October 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
I blame Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Hardy, Brontë, Burns & Tolkein, Turner, Landseer & Constable. Between them they have led us to believe in a unique British countryside of bare rolling hills, blasted heaths, heather-clad glens and friendly farmers in a pastoral heaven. If only we had been brought up on the brothers Grimm we might be into vast forests tended by heroic woodsmen. Instead we favour barren hillsides and fields worked by Farmer Giles.
Our cultural memory is beset with ‘blue remembered hills’ where sheep can safely graze. Well folks, the sheep should be safely grazing in the valley not on those heavily government subsidised hillsides. They should be re-wilding from pasture, to scrub to hanging woodland.
Monarchs of the glen roaming in the gloaming are all very pretty, but the predator-free deer in artificially high numbers are stopping the Caledonian forest from re-generating. The upland heaths are only blasted because grouse shooting interests burn them off to encourage new shoots for the farm-bred grouse to multiply in front of their guns
Our picaresque past is peppered with the wholesale slaughter of predators and the decimation of forest for pasture, then shipbuilding, pit props and railway sleepers. Bears, Lynx and wolves were assigned to history until we only have the foxes left for sport and the badgers left to eliminate instead of inoculating cattle against TB.
What are we doing to restore the land to how it was before we decided that every thing the swims, flies, walks or wriggles is bad unless its fit for human use? Almost sweet FA… A handful of beavers are still making their case whereas the rest of Europe numbers have recovered into many thousands due to conservation efforts. The several hundred feral boar are seen as a threat to crops rather than welcome returnees.
Wild goats, chamois et al across much of Europe have gone from a few dozen to hundreds of thousands. The last remnants of Bison have been carefully nurtured back to flourishing herds expanding across international boundaries.
We loudly and rightly condemn European hunters and the mass slaughter of songbirds but we don’t even whisper about the re-introduction of lynx and bears and wolves across their former range.
A few brave souls try to overcome our romanticised concepts to suggest that the rest of Europe can live with lynx, withstand wolves and are not bothered by bears. Yet we hang on to our delusion that we are animal lovers and pioneers of conservation. We don’t love animals we pamper pets, we do not conserve so much as set up tiny sanctuaries for the rightful users of the land to hide in.
Back in the day a handful of the great and good ladies got together to denounce the feather trade. They were the suffragettes of conservation. What we have now is not conservation but conservatism. The National Trust preserves the monuments of past feudalism and lets the heirs chase foxes across their lands. Our government talks about the environment being safe in their hands, but will allow fracking beneath SSSIs. Where are the conservation charities that should be on the front lines? What is the point of re-introducing hairy bumblebees if the honeybees are being killed off wholesale with pesticides?
I don’t eat meat. Not because I am sentimental but because meat production is an inefficient way to grow protein and the cost is rainforest destruction and third world hunger.
I have never had sympathy for those animal rights campaigners stupid enough to release mink into the English countryside. Nor have I saluted rich old ladies who leave their fortunes to the cats home. Its time to stop putting pets on a pedestal and thinking that cows are more important than badgers. We need a radical movement dedicated to the rights of or wild animals over human self-interest. Making Nature’s Home People Proof!
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-71-Edited.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #12: GOB 53 – Do Bears Sit in the Woods?
GOB 53 – Do Bears Sit in the Woods?
(This article first appeared in the July 2014 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
If, like me, you grew up in 1950s England you will probably have a love/hate relationship with the French. The French have been our allies for generations, yet many of our former enemies stand in higher esteem. Perhaps it is like sibling rivalry – simply a matter of proximity. Supposed to love our neighbours we find it easy to fall out with them.
The enmity does not preclude our love of French wine and cheese, nor stop us raving about French cuisine and we admire their prowess in matters of the heart. We may get annoyed in a French traffic jam caused by noisy, ‘work-shy’ protestors, but we envy the wages and pensions such protests win. Despite all our misgivings we are more likely to holiday in France than anywhere else in the world. Even the worst of Francophobes will concede that ‘la belle France’ is indeed a very beautiful country.
Enjoying the freedom of their half-empty toll roads we head south in our millions for the fine weather, or head inland to the quaint villages, chateaus, lush oak woodlands and majestic mountains. If we get really lucky we might spend a weekend in Paris with a lover.
It seems that, after all, we find a great deal to admire once we get passed a Gallic shrug, a few sneers and their chauvinistic distain of the English language. So much in fact that France is our first choice for an overseas second home.
But wait a minute! Don’t they shoot everything that moves and delight in feasting on larks and buntings? Well, no doubt some still do, but nowhere near as many as once did. Moreover, there are far more wild places than over here because France is twice the size of the UK with a roughly similar population… so they have twice the space that we do.
While we have been paving over the southeast, turning our fields into chemically farmed wildlife no-go zones, and cladding the hills with Lodge Pole Pine the French have been becoming increasingly ecologically aware.
Conservation is not just a subject for conversation, it is ever more real with large national parks and wildlife reserves now well established.
The European Common Agricultural Policy was actually invented by the French to ensure that their small dairy farms and family vineyards would survive to fuel our cheese and wine desires. By contrast in the UK it has been an excuse to rip out hedges, fill in ponds and cynically set aside fields in the short term rather than let some areas permanently revert to the wild. What could have been used to help wildlife and preserve the environment has put fuel into some large landowners Range Rovers and lined the pockets of city investors with land banks.
These same large landowners have prevented the modest reintroductions proposed in Scotland. Some forestry owners rant about the destructiveness of beavers. Rich city folk fuel the unfounded fear of wolves despite all the evidence. A landowner with a couple of Elk is castigated by the same people that encourage the overpopulation of red deer; an imbalance that only serves the stalkers’ guns.
But almost unheralded the ‘chauvinistic, self-preserving, song-bird eating, wild critter shooting’ French have bought back lynx, wild boar, wolves and bears to the Alps and Pyrenees and re-introduced Marmot, Beaver, and Otter. They have even expanded their eagle and vulture populations.
Meanwhile some of us humour loving and courageous British; we denizens of a proud land unconquered for a thousand years are famous for our love of animals and our million RSPB members. Yet some noble Englishmen still stomp on Hen Harrier nests, some notoriously inventive Scotsmen use their ingenuity to hide their poisoning of eagles and kites while some Welshmen still steal Peregrine eggs.
Damn it, we can’t even leave our foxes and badgers alone!
Vive la France!
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-53-Do-Bears-Sit-in-the-Woods.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #13: GOB 92 – Old Gits & Spoilt Brats
GOB 92 – Old Gits & Spoilt Brats
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine July 2017
Rant Warning! Why on earth would you be bothered about disability access to nature reserves? It’s obviously not much of a problem as just about every hide you’ve been in has a wheelchair slot and you hardly ever see any birders in wheelchairs; if they can’t make the effort, why should you? I mean, the only bloke you ever see in the wheelchair slot is some rude old git who doesn’t even answer when you speak to him. All this access rubbish is just part of the politically correct nonsense that plague’s our society. The disabled should stick to blocking Post Office queues and whining about everything. They are almost as bad as the muesli brigade driving round in Chelsea tractors, round in their Berber and Northern Exposure gear, dragging noisy brats into the hides scaring off anything worth looking at and groaning on about how lovely larks are and isn’t that swan pretty. I mean what’s that all about?
Well my friend, let me enlighten you. Those middleclass ramblers with brats are trying to get kids to appreciate nature before it disappears under concrete and tarmac. These urbanites (like most of us) may not know terns from tertials, but given time they just might. That’s if the kids are put off forever by some misery with a long lens and a bad attitude shushing them for getting enthusiastic. Chances are they will have trouble seeing anything out of the hide as viewing slots and elbow shelves are too high for them and the low-level ones in the ‘wheelchair’ space has no seating.
By the way, that rude old git is me. I am by nature curmudgeonly, but the ‘rudeness’ is because I haven’t put my hearing aid in so never heard you speak. I probably have my hearing aids on a setting that lets me hear bird song for the first time in years!
The wheelchair slot is an increasingly common ‘concession’, and sometimes is even fit for purpose with extra knee room, however, mostly it’s just a gap between fixed benches with a lower window. Not so much a concession as a bone thrown to starving dogs. Seemingly an act of kindness, but bringing a sense of benevolence to the bone thrower. The hide has a wheelchair slot and a ramp – what more do you want!
I’m going to tell you, not set back the cause like one TV presenter by claiming that making concessions to disabled people is a threat to wildlife! We don’t need extra paths or closer viewing, but making what is there better for everyone!
I’m an example. My front is curved by over indulgence, but my back is curved by fate. I have to prop my elbows up higher than is comfortable so can’t raise my bins. If the fixed bench is too far away I have to balance on my coccyx or not lean on my elbows. If the benches were moveable and the slot heights variable I, kids, elderly folk and a whole range of non-standard birders would be better served. If paths had periodic benches or simple perches I might be able to make it further than the first hide on a good day with the wind behind me.
Some disabled people must use wheelchairs, and they need concessions… the majority of people with mobility issues need a lot more thought! Hide facilities are not ‘one size fits all’ unless you are six feet, fully fit and very flexible. The vast majority would benefit from variety. Good design costs no more in cash, just a lot more in empathy and brain use!
Why should you care? Because you were young once, will (if you are lucky) get old, are likely to suffer some mobility restriction even if temporary and may, if you have a better attitude, get to breed small people of your own!
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-92-Old-Gits-Spoilt-Brats-Edited.mp3
Jun 30 2017
Rank #14: GOB 87 – Waxwing Winter Wonders
GOB 87 – Waxwing Winter Wonders
(This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
This winter waxwings were far enough south for me to see some on an outing that took just forty-five minutes, including thirty minutes watching time! Half a dozen of these beauties surprisingly, were not gorging on hips and haws, but actually catching flies. That was a new observation for me, but obviously, these birds can only eat fruit when there are fruit to eat, so eat insects when raising a family at their spring and summer homes before there are any fruit about. Moreover, I happened to be reviewing some really top flight binoculars so got incredible views. With the birds close by and in full sharp focus I could practically count the number of feathers in their erect quiffs.
It struck me how convenient the birds were, perhaps only 500 yards from where I had last seen waxwings a few seasons ago. Then something more awesome struck me… they were less than three hundred yards from where I first saw waxwings decades ago, way before I moved to the area. Clearly not the same birds, so there could be no true site loyalty, (such as is seen in winter swans that use the same isolated ponds to rest on their long migrations and suffer losses when such ponds are filled in).
So why have I so often seen waxwings there, when better berry sites have never produced waxwing sightings by me or others? I’ve pondered this mystery deeply, but not come up with a satisfactory answer; I can see nothing special about the location. Waxwings do not fear man, so winter invasions often favour city centre ornamental plantings. I imagine the added warmth of cities keeps food more available to them, but my site is nothing out of the ordinary.
It begs the question, why are birds where they are, when they are?
There are plenty of good solid reasons, such as the right habitat, the right weather, migration routes, food abundance, roosts sites et al., but there are plenty of times when it seems completely random and sometimes desperately annoying.
Try taking a visiting birder to your ‘guarantied’ spots for particular species… that will be the day when you might as well be at the north pole or in the middle of the Kalahari Desert… not a bird will show. Never, ever, say ‘I always see (add the species of your choice) here’… as it will work like black magic to conjure them elsewhere.
Big days and bird races are another way to charm the birds out of the trees before you turn up. You can prepare your route for weeks in checking sites daily and finding your targets happily munching seeds, but on race day several of those easy peasy lemon squeezy ‘bankers’ will have decided to temporarily migrate.
Try perfectly timing a trip to a part of the country where you can see some special birds too. I went up to Scotland in one May and loved the trip, the only disappointment being missing out on Osprey… we got home to find out that no less than two ospreys had spent that week fishing in our local reservoir!
Of course, if you really want prime examples of birds at the wrong place at the wrong time then consult my old twitching diary… my year of chasing rarities. It wasn’t too full on, but as much as a more than full time job allowed. I lost count of the number of times I arrived in the nick of time, exactly that moment when the bird had just disappeared over the horizon!
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-88-Waxwing-Winter-Wonders.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #15: GOB 77 – Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be
GOB 77 – Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be
(This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
The thing about ageing is that you tend to look backward at things with more than a hint of roseate tern to your specs. ‘The Good Old Days’ of birding are no exception. The ‘blue remembered hills’ of youth were full of redstart’s song, hunting red-backed shrikes and red squirrels, red skies blessed every evening and every birding day was a red-lettered day.
The other thing about ageing is, of course, an ever-declining memory. We tend to remember the good times and consign the bad to a cobwebbed corner of our minds.
Anyone of pensionable age who grew up in the countryside probably collected bird’s eggs. Most of us were half-hearted (thank goodness) and after an unlucky few blackbirds had to re-count their clutch, we moved on to building dams across streams or playing endless games of marbles, or whatever fad was in vogue at the time. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s gamekeepers still set pole traps galore and farmers would think nothing of discharging their shotguns at the retreating backsides of us scrumping lads. So it was not all a bed of roses.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain, habitat was under less pressure from all of todays ills, whether it be too many people tramping over it, too many chemicals polluting it, too much of it under concrete or too much agri-business degrading it with monoculture and mixed flora- and fauna-cide.
Another aspect of ageing is that time dilates. When you are nine years old one summer break from school seems and endless age of freedom. When you get as grey as me years slip by quicker than a peregrine can stoop.
But it is not just my elderly impression that the pace of change has quickened; it’s a bare fact. Fifty years ago our local paper mill had a computer, just to work out the wage bill for 150 staff. It had its own temperature controlled room the size of my bungalow. Now my phone has a billion times more processing power. But my last phone, scrapped all of a year ago, seems as archaic and anachronistic as typists and bus conductors.
I moved to my current house seventeen years ago. I was overjoyed by the new birding opportunities afforded by a seaside patch. I found myself within half an hour of every habitat bar mountains. Reedbeds, marshland, seashore, woodland, scrubby hillsides and duck-filled lakes were all on my doorstep.
Most are still there but now the houses have moved ever closer and that which is not deliberately managed for wildlife is impoverished.
My right to roam has not only been curtailed by increasingly annoying arthritis, but by my birding nooks and crannies fast disappearing. Where once I could pull my car off the road to look over saltmarsh to the sea there are concrete barriers and ‘residents parking only’.
The woodland carparks where I used need not wander more than a few yards to see woodpeckers and hear nightjars are now litter-strewn and frequented by a million dog walkers by day and dozens of steamed up cars at night. Every quiet beach seems to have half a dozen dog owners, all of whom are intent on encouraging their mutts to chase waders.
Every grasshopper warbler’ish ditch has been drained or dredged or filled with plastic. Where once I could drive a concrete farmers road there are now impassable barriers erected to stop the ever-growing hoard of selfish idiots who think their old mattresses and fridges should grace the hedgerows… if they haven’t already been grubbed out or mechanically shorn to a tattered shadow of their former bird rich glory.
Fifty or sixty years ago we roamed across the British countryside and watched birds in its rich, quiet corners. Now the corners are ploughed up and fenced off and we are discouraged from entering these agribusiness units.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-77-Fings-Ain’t-What-They-Used-To-Be.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #16: GOB 94 – Crop Rotation
GOB 94 Crop Rotation
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine September 2017
Half a century ago, a Malaysian friend told me of his dream. He wanted to write, but first needed to earn enough money to buy a small plot of land where he would dig a pond for carp, plant breadfruit trees around it and keep pigs. He would always have water, and food, having carp, pig meat and breadfruit; his dream was of agricultural perpetual motion. Breadfruit would fall from the trees for the pigs to eat, pig manure would keep the trees healthy and shovelled into the pond would feed the carp, any leftovers from the carp would be quickly eaten by pigs!
Not my idea of heaven, even if the breadfruit trees held Broadbills and Bee-eaters, I don’t eat meat, don’t like breadfruit, don’t really fancy shovelling pig dung under the hot sun and the only time I ever ate carp it tasted like mud with bones in! However, it is an ideal sustainable life-style.
Until the industrial revolution every country had its version, here it was a mix of crop rotation, irrigation or drainage and the use of animal and human ‘night soil’. Until relatively recent times, sewage was a blessing not a problem, and land was kept in good heart by its recycling. Pests were kept in check by the continuous switching of crops around the fields. I’m not trying to bring back the night soil men; untreated human waste can carry disease and intestinal worm eggs, but ‘sludge-management’ as it’s called, would save the country millions in imported fertilizer and save the earth from being despoiled and the seas vacuumed clean of all life. However, sludge management would need an upgrade as micro-fibres build up in it from our washing of fleece jackets and microbeads of plastic from exfoliants. Their effects on the land is uncertain.
Sorry if you are enjoying breakfast, but what is it with our use of our toilet bowls as waste disposal units? Eco-conscious city dwellers recycle their Merlot bottles, hang their Harrod’s ‘bag-for-life’ in the crook of their arm and sort their Daily Telegraphs into the paper bin with their shredded restaurant receipts and unpaid tax demands. So why can’t they resist the lure of the flushing maelstrom, but must add to its turbid waters that which cannot rot, so half the country’s sewers are clogged with cotton buds and less mentionable non-recyclables! All too often of course, these eventually flush into our increasingly polluted sea.
I live in ‘Cauliflower City’. Here the fields crow continuous cabbages. Half the crop is rejected by the supermarkets and ploughed back in. Within weeks the same field sports more of the same. When the plough is in action the corvids, gulls and pigeons follow more in hope than expectation. Thereafter, the agri-desert is even devoid of doves.
If you add the cost of fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, wasted seed and unbought crops together the margins are too tight to sustain individual farms, just the combined ‘units’ of land held by massive businesses. Turning back the clock to rotating crops is a no brainer… millions could be saved on the chemicals used to scour land of disease and the return to a healthy, albeit man-managed eco-system would go towards our own well-being. Stepping back to centuries-old methods would not just see wildlife return, but sold direct to local shops would see farming profits return too.
It is often said that to survive farms have to grow in size, cover every type of agriculture and diversify into other activities. But I submit that a backwards step could actually be the key to progressive farming!
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/08/GOB-94-Crop-Rotation-Edited.mp3
Sep 11 2017
Rank #17: GOB 93 – Rubbish Party
GOB 93 Rubbish Party
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine August 2017
The ‘Rubbish Party’ won a council seat somewhere in Scotland in the last council elections. If you think this appellation is an unprecedented admission of political ineptitude, let me disabuse you; their main policy is cleaning up local litter.
Litter, as I have ranted before is an issue of utmost concern directly or indirectly responsible for the death of millions of animals world-wide from plastic bags swallowed by cetaceans to grebes strangled by fishing line.
Ironically our massive trash heaps are one reason why gulls became familiar to the most inland of sites. We still send half a billion pounds’ worth of food to landfill, so gulls, corvids and rats have plenty to recycle. The best of us create very little waste and compost our peelings or send food scraps to the bio-digester. But most of us buy it, forget it, then dump it in the bin fooled into thinking ‘sell by’ means ‘die if you eat after this date’. Indeed, many of us ‘err on the side of safety’ and scrap anything even approaching the meaningless ‘best by date’. This viscous cycle of silly sell-by dates, consumer paranoia and supermarket stupidity in selling overlarge packs with ‘bogof’ offers keeps the heaps piling up and the farmer’s prices tumbling. The latter faced with the ‘need’ to offer uniformity for packaging not only add to the ever-growing pile of what is grown but not eaten, but they use more chemicals, maximising yield by minimising loss to wild creatures great and small.
So, gulls dine out on doughnuts and peck at old pizzas risking life and limb from sharp cans and entangling plastic. Learning, of course, that such bounty is available via the shortcut of tearing open black sacks and scattering our household waste down the street before the bin-men can collect it.
As bin collections become less frequent and certain items banned we seem to be replacing the family visit to old friends with an outing to the re-cycling centre. There we unload the garden grass cuttings, bung the technologically surpassed telly and cart our cardboard to the giant paper bin.
If we have indulged in DIY, or have an old freezer we hire a trailer which we have to leave outside the centre and drag stuff in by hand. Why? To stop the commercial exploitation of this domestic service. Apparently, white van men by the million would sneak in their old sofas and builder’s rubble and do what? Recycle them without paying for the privilege! Can someone please explain to me the logic of this municipal madness!
Two miles from my ‘household’ recycling centre is another ‘commercial’ one where companies and lone traders are charged to get rid of the guts of a refurbed house, or the unsaleable leftovers of a house clearance.
Has any local authority ever compared the revenue generated against the cost of fly-tipping? The ‘black economy’ is peopled by those who pay no tax, drive un-insured, un-roadworthy vehicles – do the local authorities really believe that they will develop a conscience and pay to dump trash? The ONLY reason people fly-tip is to avoid paying.
You may wonder what sparked this diatribe apart from righteous indignation about the despoliation of what passes for wilderness in our over-urbanised land. Well, for years I’ve used a lay-by on a country lane as a raptor watchpoint… I can sit in the car out of the elements and scan the skies over wetland and shoreline. Or I could until the farmer decided to fill it with huge containers, to stop the idiots who regularly heap detritus there!
Hear the Podcasthttp://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/07/GOB-93-Rubbish-Party-Edited.mp3
Sep 08 2017
Rank #18: GOB 88 – Mindfulness
GOB 88 – Mindfulness
(This article first appeared in the March 2017 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword of the last year or so… it’s a therapeutic technique, the idea being that you achieve a desired mental state by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, etc. It has come to be a shorthand for those activities that produce the desired serenity.
It’s not a new idea of course, just a recasting of an old one. Hindus were meditating 3,500 years ago!
Our pastimes are not all adrenaline rich activity some are very much in the mindfull mode. Isaac Walton wrote in ‘The Complete Angler’ (1653) “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.” He also reported Sir Henry Wotton saying “…angling was an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness;” and “that it begat habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practised it.” To my mind everything these guys said about fishing I can say about birding, but in spades!
I have maintained for many years that a day spent birding is a day added to your life.
But like other pastimes some of us are more mindful than others. Just as there are anglers who trudge the banks spinning lures or whipping flies across rushing streams, so there are birders who want to rush through the countryside chasing rarities or adding ticks. Any long-term reader of this column will know that I believe we ‘…also serve who only stand and wait’. You will also know that more and more pundits are declaring the need for wilderness not for the sake of the planet or even its wildlife, but because it very directly impinges on our own mental health. Sure, we need green and unpolluted spaces to act as the world’s lungs and reservoirs of wildlife, but even if that was not the case they would be needed to keep our souls in fine fettle.
Why is this important to more than the individual birder’s well-being? Simply, because the more we adopt this mindful way of being, the more good we will incidentally do for the birds. Manning the conservation barricades always leaves one open to the accusation that we are just tree-hugging, woolly-minded, liberal do-gooders putting the needs of hawfinches above that of humans. Like you I think this is a spurious argument, but one seemingly in vogue right now as selfish politics seem to reign here and overseas. As a culture, we seem to be losing site of compassion for suffering humanity, let alone cruelty in farming, the unnecessary culling of badgers or the needs of non-furry beasties. If we are back to the days of selfishness and greed then we need do more than admonish and cajole, we need to show how conservation can be self-serving.
If we all want to reduce stress and retain our sanity then we need to find ways to spend time mindfully… what used to be called ‘communing with nature’ does just that.
Have you ever sat on a bird reserve bench with the sun on your face, swifts wheeling over the reed-beds, warblers chattering in the bushes and frogs croaking in the stream; drifting between sleep and wakefulness revelling in the world as it once was and could and should be once again? We birders can leave the rate race’s existentialist nightmare and show others how to join the human race again.
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-89-Mindfulness.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #19: GOB 85 – Women’s Work
GOB 85 – Women’s Work
(This article first appeared in the December 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
In the 1970’s TV sitcom ‘I didn’t know you cared’ Uncle Mort says that women are made for the fripperies of life, like DIY and carrying in the coal, whereas men do important stuff like sitting in their shed thinking.
Women have long been socialised into caring, nurturing roles and, whether by nature or nurture many feel the same way about the planet’s wild places. Like children they must be protected with tigress-like ferocity.
Since the last Bird Fair I’ve been trying to give support to two such women and have corresponded with another for nearly two decades. There is something about their fearlessness that puts most men to shame. We stand back or leap in angrily; strong women grab hold and don’t let go until the wrongs are righted. No wonder so many work in conservation.
I’ve known Denise Goodfellow for longer than either of us care to remember. A woman who has literally wrestled crocodiles, she has spent half her life standing up for the rights of native Australians so tenaciously that she has made many political enemies. An artist, author and guide she loves to show people the birds of the ‘Top End’ and has battled away for years to get local tourist authorities to recognise just how important birding tourism is, even to the extent of writing her PhD on the issue. When others might be taking it easy she has set out to combat the invasive species on her property – a relentless two-year battle with Mission, Rats-tail and, in particular Gamba grass… and this means pulling out acres of the stuff by hand! She is single-handedly demonstrating that it can be done if you have the determination… not many people are thanking her, but there are a lot of endangered Partridge Pigeons quietly applauding.
Do you care enough about nature to spend your own money to lease a lake, saving it from destructive fisherman who shoot all the birds? Well Alex Appleby does. She fell in love with the lake and has ever since been trying to raise money to sustain its conservation, well what do you expect from someone who once lived alone (if you don’t count her dogs) on a small tropical island.
Talking of Islands there’s my third friend who currently lives on the popular holiday island of Lanzarote, famed for its volcanic national park and all year round sun. Carmen Portella runs a small tour company there and invited me to take a look at the birds (try migration times when anything from Europe or America might turn up). Less well-known is El Jable a unique desert formed in the ice-age when lower seas exposed the sea-bed and trade winds blew the sand against the towering cliffs of this Atlantic island. More than half the plants that live there are endemic as are a number of races of birds like Linnet, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Southern Grey shrike along with some other wonderful desert species like Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser and Stone Curlew. Despite the fact that the entire island is designated as a World Biosphere Reserve, the desert is unprotected. The problem was bought home to me when Carmen told me how a local farmer had said that when he had shot and eaten Stone Curlew he always found that their crops were packed with desert snails. She is doing everything she can to ensure the desert is not ruined by grant-generating ‘agriculture’ and dune-buggy destruction.
Blokes have had our way for too long, sowing wild oats, fighting wars and organising religion. I think we are the ones who started to see the world as there for our exploitation, incapable, with exceptions of course, of seeing the need to sustain it all for future generations. Lucky that a lot of us men now ‘get it’ too. These strong women, and others like them need the support of both genders!
To learn more about these women and their causes see:
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-86-Womens-Work.mp3
Jun 29 2017
Rank #20: GOB 89 – Nature Study
GOB 89 – Nature Study
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine April 2017
The question I see asked on local birding forums, more than any other, is ‘how do I get the kids interested in birding?’ Some may take to birding like ducks to dabbling, but most will reach their boredom threshold after about fifteen fidgeting minutes in a hide. The more they are encouraged to enthuse over the simple beauty of a rare brown blob doing nothing much, the more, depending on age, they are likely to pine for the X-box, snap-chatting their friends or excluding the real world by attaching ear-buds and focussing on a You-tube ‘epic fail’.
The wild world is not what it was in ‘our day’ whenever that was. Greybeards like me, at junior school in the 1950s remember a very different world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those who thinks the past was all rosy. I remember rationing and racism, polio and poverty, but there were some valuable practices that have all but disappeared. For example, I remember proudly putting a bird skull or pretty leaf on the school ‘nature table’, which was permanently in the front entrance, for us all to see and enjoy. I went looking for bird’s nests in the Easter holidays, not to rob them, but to marvel at them. Is there anything more perfect in the world than the ball of moss, sheep’s wool and gossamer of a Long-tailed Tits nest?
These days kids may be trailed round a city farm at best, or, at worst, rely on unnaturally vivid Disney-coloured cartoon worlds with nice fluffy talking animals and equally nasty animal villains to miseducate them about the natural world. When I ran youth projects in the 1980s and 1990s I knew kids who really believed that carrots grew in bunches and were shocked when they found out where milk came from… we dared not reveal the truth about the origin of eggs!
If our children and grandchildren are to fall in love with birding they must become fascinated by birds, and to do that they must see how they fit into nature and soar above it. There is only one way and I think that it is more or less constant exposure to the real countryside and daily doses of its wonders. Don’t expect them to enjoy seemingly pointless walks or try to stuff feathers down their reluctant throat too early… boredom is more likely to put them off for life. To be fair, I never went on ‘walks’ either. I spent my entire childhood in fields and woodlands, messing about on streams or building dens out of dead branches… everything I did had a point, albeit an esoteric age-related purpose.
Why not try taking them ‘geocaching’, my grandchildren love it… exposure to fields and fresh air wrapped up in mystery solving and the hunt for clues. With younger children, a walk in the country can turn into a challenging game if you set them ‘treasure’ like an acorn or a snail shell to find before their siblings.
The RSPB is taking the initiative with a brand-new schools’ programme with their ‘Big School’s Birdwatch’, but a few days a year will not hook them on nature forever. In Majorca, every schoolchild must visit the Albufera reserve every year, thus cementing the relationship between freedom from school discipline and enjoying wild things. But none of these are enough.
I say bring back the nature table. Moreover, sport isn’t the only way to get kids to exercise more, so put active ‘nature study’ firmly back on the junior school curriculum and don’t you forget to help them with their homework!
Hear the Podcast:http://fatbirder.world/grumpyoldbirder/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2017/06/GOB-90-Nature-Study-Edited.mp3
Jun 29 2017