The Seabird’s Cry

the seabird cryI’ve always enjoyed time spent by the sea, and particularly Britain’s cliffs and the plethora of seabirds to be seen there. Beeston Cliffs, St Abbs Head, South Stack, Duncansby Head, Summer Isles, cliffs of the South West of England and Wales, and more… So many places. Until recently I never questioned if these great massings of seabirds would ever not be there. Yet they are in perilous decline and danger, as are seabird colonies the world over. Industrial fishing, pollution and climate breakdown are presenting insuperable problems to many species. The spectre of multiple extinctions looms.

In his magnificent and illustrated book The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson takes us through the glory of common species of seabirds, the threats they face and the effects on populations, mostly declining. It is a story at the same time beautifully told, yet almost impossible to bear.

A few of my notes will give a flavour, or skip to the summary below.

  • Fulmar, the most streamlined of birds. Able to fly without effort in a gale, which would ground most birds. Fulmars once supported the population of the remote island of St Kilda, at times the only source of food.
  • Puffin, specialised for deep diving in search of fish and not good flyers. Live in colonies of burrows, and rear but a single egg at a time. Many populations have been decimated or lost, such as the Westman Islands off Iceland.
  • Kittiwake lives on high cliffs and the open sea, good flyers but shallow divers. Call sounds like their name: kittiwaaak. Persecution in 19c led to the 1869 Seabird Preservation Act. Populations in steep decline.
  • Gulls, opportunists, shore birds. White camouflage for taking prey. Prolific breeders, cannibals, expanding on land where they can find food. 34 species.
  • Guillemot, deep diver, long beak. Very close nesting on cliff in families.
  • Cormorant /Shag, bird of greed. Dark one. Shallow diver. Need to dry feathers to restore insulating properties, hence the characteristic ‘wings out’ stance. Many die young. Expanding inland.
  • Shearwater, dip wingtips in water hence name. Related to Fulmar. Sleep in burrows, wait for night cover before entering. Many migrate to southern hemisphere. Strong sense of smell.
  • Gannet, plunge divers. Dense colonies, eg currently on Bass Rock. Ferociously competitive. Currently booming in North Atlantic.
  • Razorbill, chicks fledge with father at sea. Declining. Relative of the extinct great auk. Retells the story of the great auk.
  • Albatross, among the largest birds with 11ft wingspan. Live by the wind, travelling many thousands of miles. Follow ships and have inspired many sailors. Live for many years and whiten as get older. Declining, spectre of extinction.

Summary

In his last chapter Nicolson summarises The Seabird’s Cry.

Populations of seabirds across the globe have fallen by 2/3 in 60 years. Just cormorants and gannets buck the trend. The culprits are fishing practices, pollution and climate change. His words express this so much better than I can:

“There are no grounds for complacency… The great extinction is going on every day and the rate of change in the nature of the oceans is almost certainly too rapid for many of the inbuilt resilience mechanisms to cope.”

“The grand cry of a seabird colony, rolling in its clamour around the bays and headland of high latitudes, will become a memory, its absence unnoticed because people will not miss what is not there. ”

“What is to be done? Only all that can be done… the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the ocean, both its temperature and its acidity, needs to be brought under control. “

At stake is humanity’s whole relationship with nature. Are we to destroy the paradise we were born into, because we got too many, too unthinking and too greedy?

“The seabirds and their colonies were and are a last bastion of wholeness…”

A necessary, poetic and disturbing book.

Featured image of northern royal albatross by Benchill [Public domain]

Wall Wood

Situated near the entrance to Tatton Park, Knutsford’s Wall Wood is hardly a wood, more a grove of trees, triangular with roads on two sides. Enter one of the two paths running through it and you are suddenly isolated from the busyness of the traffic, refreshed for the moments it takes to stroll through. Even a small number of trees can have such an effect.

The wood is currently magnificently carpeted with fallen leaves.

wall wood

I’ve also heard this space called the walled garden; maybe at some time it was walled and contained a garden of fruit trees? (pure speculation)

The only camera to hand was my smartphone. The afternoon light was beginning to fail, so a bit of editing was needed to bring back the colours as I remembered them.

Bracket Fungi

It’s the time of year for fungi. I recently came across these two bracket (or shelf) fungi in York (polypores is the more scientific name). They live on tree branches or trunks and consume the wood.

Apparently there are thousands of variants. Of these two, the first is rather large (shelves over a foot across) and the second rather small (under an inch).

Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle

This long (more than an inch) black beetle was all but invisible on the stony path I was walking on in Tatton Park. I had no great hopes for the photograph, but the image comes up reasonably well with a bit of brightening up.

devil's coachhorse

I think this is a Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle. Apparently, this is one of 46000 species of the rove beetle family, a fast and ferocious night time predator. And it has a nasty bite and can emit a foul smelling odour. I had sort of intuited that it was an unsavoury character!

The segmented abdomen allows it to curl the tail up, like a scorpion. Neither the Wildlife Trusts (above link) nor Wikipedia explains why – I’d guess it’s for balance.

Shooting Wildlife

We’re driving through the Limousin countryside on a Sunday morning. I become aware of strange goings-on.  A man is sat on a chair on his own on the edge of a field. A car is parked in a field entry. A man is striding along with a shotgun. Two men are in a raised wooden platform in the middle of a field. All men. All with guns.

Yes I’ve heard that shooting anything that moves is a French country pastime, this is the real thing.

Now, as far as I can see, there is no great preponderance of wildlife in this part of France. It’s much like the rest of Europe, over-cultivated and lacking in the huge biodiversity of some other parts of our planet. Even perceptibly over a lifetime, nature’s abundance has been reducing, notably with declining populations of insects and birds.

Yet still many thousands of country dwellers continue their ‘traditional’ pastime, once essential for feeding the family. Some of it is no doubt to keep down exploding populations of wild boar, due to lack of top predators. But I cannot see that this requires so many shooters, and suspect that they shoot anything that moves, rather than just what the authorities approve.

Other countries face similar problems from this apparent male bloodlust – migrating birds shot in Malta, hunting and nature conservation are almost synonymous in the US, imported birds systematically shot by ‘traditional’ grouse shooters in the UK, and on and on.

You could say it’s in our blood, the old hunter-gatherers – that is how we once survived. But now, it seems perverse to increase the stress on natural populations already struggling. There are surely now too many people on our planet for these old ways to be sustainable.

If only more people would abandon the gun for the camera. Similar skills can be deployed to ‘shoot’ the wildlife, while leaving natural populations relatively undisturbed.

Featured image of hunters by FOTO:FORTEPAN / Ebner, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51244418

Five or six spots?

This post shows the benefits of just leaving a bit of land fallow, to become a wildflower meadow. What a profusion of butterflies and moths take advantage, including this five spot burnet moth!

Eyes in the back of my Head

P1080129

I recently photographed this burnet moth in the Dordogne, at a place on a walk we enjoy in the hills near the river Vezere. We’ve dubbed this place Butterfly Corner. It’s where the path through the woods opens out and joins a road which leads down to the nearby village.

Why is it Butterfly Corner for us? It’s because the patch of land belonging to the house there has been allowed to go wild and be natural, and it attracts a large number of insects – we saw bees, a hornet, and plenty of butterflies. It’s no great hardship, after a walk uphill, to hang around for a while watching and photographing what we see there, busy in the wild flowers.

I was quite excited to see this burnet moth as I’ve not seen one in the UK for several years. I said, with the confidence of the incorrect…

View original post 109 more words

Seven Simple Actions for Birds

Most of you will be aware of much of the following from Cornell Lab of Ornithology: seven simple actions to help birds. But if you’re like me, you’ll realise that, although you are aware of them, you may not be doing enough. In the modern world, birds are absolutely dependent on the sum of the actions of all of us. With bird populations in decline, it’s vital that we each do all we can.

Here is a quick summary of the seven things – but do go read at the link above. Sorry it’s US-centric, but the principles apply everywhere.

1. Make windows safer – so many birds fly into them.

2. Keep cats indoors. They are frighteningly effective predators of small birds.

3. Reduce lawn, plant native species to provide food and habitat.

4. Avoid pesticides entirely. They kill natural things, all the way up the food chain.

5. Drink coffee that’s good for birds (shade grown).

6. Stop using throw-away plastics.

7. Watch birds and share what you see.

I’d add

8. feed local birds, and

9. provide nesting places and materials.

No doubt you can think of more… Go to it.

Featured image is from the Cornell article.

 

Ruddy Shelduck

No, I’m not swearing at the duck/goose known as the common shelduck. We saw this pair of a different variant, the ruddy shelduck, while in transit at a park in Chauvigny, near Poitiers.

ruddy shelduck 1ruddy shelduck 2

The pair kept well out of the way of the large number of more common birds on the lake, including mallards and coots.

Also known as the Brahminy Duck, these birds are common in Asia. This is not the case in France, and these are probably escapees.

 

 

Red Admiral

Our buddleia continues to attract more butterflies than we have seen for many years – more like they used to be in earlier decades. We have even seen several red admirals at the same time.

What a difference bright sunlight makes to the vibrancy of the colours, really picking out the zebra-style antennae.

The underwing shown in the featured image is quite unexpected.