birds


spotted flycatcher

Last week, I brought a cardboard box in from the outhouse to dismantle and put into the recycling. As I went to pick it up several hours later, a large reddish-brown moth flew out and fluttered against the window. I had to let it out even though I knew that with the temperature dipping towards freezing, it was unlikely to survive. Moths and butterflies have declined by 50% since 1990. The moth snow storms that I used to see in the headlights while driving along quiet country roads in summer are no more; I rarely have to clean squashed insects off my car windscreen. Also gone are the clouds of flying insects that used to cluster around the gas light in my tent. Perhaps if I had caught my moth it and put it in a matchbox, it would have survived until next summer and I would have made a gesture. But I didn’t.

Even if my moth had survived and laid a million eggs, it would have made no difference. The bigger picture is overwhelming. A group of amateur scientists from Germany has just reported the results of a thirty year survey of flying insects caught using Malaise traps in 63 nature reserves throughout the country. The results are shocking: a 75% decline in the biomass of all the flying insects over 30 years; 82% if they just included the summer.

We already knew there has been a dramatic decline in honey-bees (45% since 2010) and butterflies, but this is the first reliable study that has included all flying insects. Flying insects pollinate 82% of flowers and are food for 60% of birds as well as 100% of European bats and many freshwater fish.

Insectivorous birds have also shown a dramatic decline. Spotted Flycatchers always nested in the road where I live, perching on telegraph wires to dive for insects, but it must be 10 years since I last saw one. Cuckoos are specialist feeders; they especially like those big hairy hawk moth caterpillars, like those of the Tiger Moth. I still hear them on the moors a few days each year, but they have disappeared from the valleys. Swifts, those screaming ton-up mobsters that used to race around the village in May and June have also disappeared. It’s the same picture with Redstarts and many of our summer visitors from Africa. Overall, farmland bird numbers have dropped by 55% since the nineteen seventies and numbers of common insectivorous birds such as starlings, swallows, thrushes and warblers have fallen by 35%.

The reason for the decline is almost certainly due to the widespread use of pesticides; that and the increasing amount of land given over to arable and the intensive planting of monocultures. Rachel Carson realised why this was happening way back in 1962 when she wrote ‘Silent Spring’. Meadows of wild flowers at a rarity in Britain now. Instead we have wide swathes of what are essentially poisonous deserts where the insects and the creatures that feed on them cannot survive. Although the German survey was conducted in protected nature reserves, these were surrounded by poisonous agricultural land. Even corridors of hedgerows and wild flowers at field margins have been grubbed out and ploughed over.

Of course, environmentalists will want to know how representative the German study is, though the fact that it was conducted carefully over 30 years and many different sites must suggest the similar results would be seen in other areas and countries employing intensive agriculture. Similar studies should be instigated in other countries, but we can’t afford to wait another 30 years for the results. We have to act now.  It may be that wilder regions in countries, like Scotland and Finland, or islands that employ organic farming methods, might retain their flying insects and have a much more healthy biodiversity.  If so, we will need learn from them.

Could these trends ever be reversed? Should governments just ban pesticides forthwith? Is there a political will? Would it make any difference? How can we protect the environment when there is so much anxiety over rising populations and food security? Notwithstanding that argument, 30% of our crops are pollinated by flying insects.  If that were to fail, we would soon have a food crisis and insufficient resources to rectify it.

Similar arguments apply to marine environments. On the same day that I heard about the German insect study, I also learnt that the proposal of the Tasmanian summit to establish an enormous marine sanctuary in eastern Antarctica has been blocked by Russia and China because they wanted to protect their rights to fish there!

The threat to life on our planet by climate change, intensive agriculture, land clearance, not to mention global conflict, are now too urgent and important to be left to individual nations. We need to establish an international organisation with the authority to legislate on the measures that must to be taken to protect the planet and to hold individual states to account. But I guess things will have to go past the point of no return before politicians have the will to act. We are living in such dreadfully insecure times, I wonder if there is a connection between the threat of environmental disaster and the rise of populism? Is it all a desperate quest for somebody to make it right?

 

 

 

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Hoatzins-ecuador

The Hoatzin

They were all over the path and on the field beside it. There must have been about 50 of them scampering about, twittering to each other and occasionally bending forwards to peck at some insect or seed. They were Japanese pheasants, slightly smaller and much duller than our own magnificent pheasants, which we regard as indigenous but were actually imported by the Romans from their natural range to the east of the Black Sea. I ran closer and they scattered and ran away, behaving not so much like birds but like little dinosaurs. It reminded me of a scene from ‘Jurassic Park’. Flying is a last resort for pheasants; with their small wings and large bodies they can only make it to the next copse or area of scrub. Other ground nesting birds, the American Road Runner, which is actually a type of Cuckoo, the Stone Curlew, and the Great Bustard, also seem to resemble dinosaurs more than they do birds.

So have birds evolved from dinosaurs? Our notion of dinosaurs, large lumpen grey-green reptiles that roamed through swamps or terrifying blood thirsty monsters as large as a double decker bus would seem to make that highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, the discovery of the Archaeopteryx is Southern Germany in 1861 shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, seemed to settle the question beyond any doubt. This strange creature, which was about the size of a pigeon, but had a skeleton like a lizard and wings with flight feathers, was heralded as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Only a few specimens were discovered, but deep in Amazonia there is a strange bird that sort-of resembles Archaeopteryx. This is the Hoatzin. I spotted one once while travelling up Rio Negro beyond Manaus in a small motor boat. It was about the size of large pheasant, with a bald face, big maroon eye, punk-like spiky crest and the most striking rufous red wing and tail feathers which it displayed frequently. The Hoatzin is the sole member of the family, Opisthocomidae, which is thought to have split off from the evolutionary trajectory of other birds after the extinction of the dinosaurs. This weird chimera eats fruits and leaves, which it ferments in its chambered crop like a cow. For this reason, it is also called ‘the stink bird’. Hoatzins are too heavy to fly far, preferring to spend most of their time eating and calling noisily to each other. The chicks have one other curious atavistic feature, claws on the first two digits of their developing wings, which, together with the claws on their feet, help them climb trees. So that was it: the evolution of birds from dinosaurs rested on the Archaeopteryx, a strange bird living in the Amazon basin that resembles the  Archaeopteryx, and few other strange creatures, such as the Hesperornithes, large seabirds that resembled divers but had teeth, and the flightless ratites (Ostriches, Emus, Rheas, Cassowaries, Kiwis and Moas).

Nevertheless, for more than a hundred years, the fossil trail from dinosaurs to birds ran cold. No new feathered reptiles were discovered. Palaeontologists muttered about freak mutations, but nothing seemed to make much sense. Then twenty years ago, in the sediments of prehistoric lake beds in Liaoning Province, North Eastern China, local farmers started finding strange fossils.  These were identified as dinosaurs but they all had feathers. In many cases these were just hollow quills with tufts that probably served to insulate them from the cold, but some had flight feathers and wings, which were probably used for display before they evolved for flight. Under normal circumstances, the soft tissues of fossils, including feathers, would decay and be eaten by insects, but the Liaoning lake beds were covered by a layer of volcanic ash, which preserved the structure of fossils in great detail. The fossil beds are so extensive and the specimens so numerous that new discoveries are being made at a rate of one a fortnight.

Palaeontologists now have a complete fossil record of the evolution of birds from Therapod dinosaurs, depicting the development of every change: reduction in size, a light, air-filled skeleton, flight feathers, a beak like structure, the loss of teeth and a unique system of air sacs for breathing. Microscopic examination of the feathers has even revealed melanosomes, little packages of colour, so it is likely that like birds, these small theropods were multicoloured and probably used their plumage for display.

Dinosaurs were the dominant species on Earth for 200 million years between the Triassic and Cretaceous epochs and over that time achieved a remarkable diversity. They were extinguished when a six mile wide asteroid plunged into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, 65 million years ago, but they did not die out completely. The survivors evolved into birds and crocodiles as well as a host of reptiles. But why was it that birds survived while most other groups died out? Was it their small size? After all, it was the shrews, that survived to diversify into mammals. Could they have escaped the destruction of their habitat by flying? Did their covering of feathers allow them to survive the prolonged volcanic winter at would have followed the asteroid impact?

The recent discovery of these spectacular dinosaur fossils in Liaoning overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs and is probably the best-documented major evolutionary transitions in life history.  As ever, these new discoveries raise lots of new questions, but what an exciting time to be a palaeontologist. The irony is: this exciting discovery comes just as we are on the brink of another species extinction.

 

 

 

Redpolls (Carduelis caberet), fidgeted high in the larch, picked clean Capability’s cones  

 and a few fragile fallow fawns shivered by the guard of red stags.

 Then  with a flash of blue’, the final whistle sounded on the plough, 

 the white swan took flight with a last wheezing of the pipes,

 and I stood in the grove while silent swallows swerved around my knees.

 

Was there ever a more thrilling ensemble?   

The wild whoops and daring dives not of the solo violin,

But the rolling tumbling, death defying  lapwings. 

The woodwind section, a haunting of curlew,

their querulous ascent and curdling decline, 

 a wild race of  whistling oystercatchers,     

the redshank that pipes and dips from the wall.  

The choir, an alchemy  of plaintive plover,

banking  gold and white and back to gold again,  

 the skylarks locked in their trilling elevators

and the paragliding squeaking of pipits,

the brass is the honking  pairs of greylag  geese on morning  patrol,

percussion, the  humming, thrumming, drumming of roller coaster snipe. 

All this, while wheatears, that slate and primrose spring  

take silent  ownership  of cup and ring.    

There was a kind of magic that earlier spring, under the Quantock ridge, where Hope Corner Lane crossed the Kingston Road.

 If we left home early in the half light, before breakfast, the white owl would still be ghosting alongside the hedgerows on silent wings to take a last late vole to the shadow of the barn.   And  there in the garden of the big house, behind the wall, a fairy woodpecker, red head and ladder back would be fidgeting his way up the tall trees.  

Alas, the house has been demolished;  the barns pulled down, the birds gone, even the chinking of Corn Buntings in the fields.  The spectral owl still hunts in the wildernesses,  but the fairy woodpecker is a figment, an image torn from a book, a trace in the memory.     

Fifty three more springs have passed.  And then on Thursday,  lying in sharvasana  (the corpse posture) under the tall beeches on the Tumps,  I heard a soft regular tapping, more like a snore or the purr of a contented cat, and a high pitched call repeated three times.   I opened my eyes and caught a flutter as a tiny bird, no bigger than a sparrow but more fragile, moved to another dead limb and rattled a different pitch.  I focussed; the same white stripes, the red cap, the cheek patches and I believed in miracles.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has declined by more than 90% in the last fifty years in the UK and cross Europe.  There are now fewer than  2000 pairs left in Britain.  At least two pairs are present amid the deer and open woodland in Chatsworth Park. The British Trust for Ornithology identifies the possible reasons for its decline as competition with and predation by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and reductions in small-diameter dead wood suitable for foraging, while the species’ large home ranges suggest that landscape-scale changes in woodland (loss of mature broadleaved woodland, losses of non-woodland trees such as elms, and woodland fragmentation) may also be important (Fuller et al. 2005).

Sorry to moan, but I’ve got flu.   At least that’s what I think I’ve got.   It could be the return of the auld trubble – the malaria, but it doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  I begin to feel wobbly and shivery about dusk every afternoon, not every other day like I did with malaria.   My back and the muscles of my shoulders ache and I have a fairly superficial pain just above my nose where the sinuses are.   I’m coughing thick yellow phlegm and expelling the same gunk through my nose.  And I feel so tired I just can’t do any more.   No, let’s call it flu.  That’s what a lot of medicine is, after all, informed guesswork.   And before you ask, I didn’t take up the government’s offer of a flu jab this winter. 

I went to see the quack this morning.  The snow had all but thawed, but the wet ice outside the surgery was treacherous.   Was this an opportunist way of creating new business by a new entrepreneurial NHS?   Anyway, Dr Watson agreed enthusiastically with my deductions and I now have a bottle or crimson and custard minibombs to assist my waving immune system, a caution against unwise excursions into the mountains and more concern that the stress may have aroused dormant histiocytes.  I get the blood tests back tonight.   

It’s amazing in a way how a non specific infection like flu can bring on the gamut of unexplained symptoms; the exhaustion, fatigue, depressing muscle ache, the anorexia and early satiety, the bowel aches and pains, shortness of breath, the lot.   It’s like the virus switches on a non specific pattern of illness not unlike that induced by trauma, grief or disappointment, the chronic loss of hope that erodes life force.  I didn’t hear from my daughters this Christmas.  Maybe that’s what’s got to me

I came across a lovely few lines by Emily Dickinson on hope

Hope is that thing with feathers,

that perches in the soul,

and sings a song with no words

and doesn’t stop at all.

 

Only that particular yellow bird had gone off to feed in another garden. 

Time to re-stock the feeders.

They called him ‘The Fire of the North’. 

Once a soldier, man of action,

with connections to the King,  

A traveller, he healed the sick 

From Dumfries to Berwick,  

Made miracles

from Durham to Dunbar,

Received acclaim from Rome.  

.

Be our bishop, they cried.  

At first, he denied. 

Too much work,  he replied. 

I need peace, time and space

to converse with the grace 

of God, but don’t mention the ducks,   

We’ll throw in the island, they said,

Bring you breakfast by boat.  

.

You can wash our feet, they said

if that makes you feels good. 

But he waved them his blessings 

And cuddled his ducks instead. 

.

They must have thought Cuthbert was the man of the moment, a born leader, active, wise, understanding and willing to travel.   But he was also widely known for his piety, diligence, obedience and asceticism.   Northumbria extended as far north as the Forth and as far west as Galloway.  Cuthbert travelled the length and breadth of the country,  preaching,  performing miracles and talking to the people.  His generosity and gifts of insight and healing led many people to consult him. He set up oratories and churches throughout the Kingdom and established a reputation for himself and the church further afield.   When Alchfrith, King of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, it was Cuthbert who became its praepositus hospitum or visitors host. He was a leading exponent of the customs of the Roman church at the synod convened at Twyford on the River Aln and also at the synod of Whitby.     

King Eagwith, about whom the great historian Macauley once said, ‘Who?,’  was impressed and prevailed on the Abbot of Montrose to release him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne,  but Cuthbert didn’t want that sort of responsibility.  He liked coming up with ideas, but he needed space to think and contemplate.  He agreed only if he could live for as much time as he needed in solitude on Inner Farne.  Cuthbert loved the sea and had frequently travelled from Melrose to the priories at Lindisfarne and St Abb’s.  It was said that he could communicate with the wild creatures.  The Eider Ducks were so tame they would nest in his hut.  To this day, the locals refer to them as Cuddy’s Ducks. 

But Cuthbert spent more and more time on his remote island.  If anybody, even the King, needed to see him, they would have to get a boat and a pilot and undertake the often perilous journey from the mainland.  At first he would welcome visitors and wash their feet, but later he waved his blessings from the window and returned to his contemplation. Cuthbert preferred the company of his wild creatures to man, but his inaccessibility only added to his reputation for piety.  

He died in his island hermitage and his body was brought back in state to be buried at Melrose.  Some years later, it was exhumed and his beatification was assured when it was found that no decomposition had set in.  It now rests in Durham Cathedral. 

So what kind of man was Cuthbert?   A reluctant leader?.  A man of great promise, who could not deliver; always out for a duck?  A selfish recluse?   This is open to conjecture, but I like to think of him as a scholar, a man of ideas and inspiration, who could be too affected by others’ agendas.  He needed to escape, to cease the chatter, the demands and be alone.  It wasn’t that he was selfish; quite the opposite.  But he was no politician.  He could see everybody’s view and could so easily be compromised.  And he was quite unsuited to administration. Luckily for him the King recognised Cuthbert’s symbolic importance and his retreat to the island just added to the mystique. He even passed a law protecting the ducks.   

I have just completed St Cuthbert’s Way across the Border Country from the abbey at Melrose to Lindisfarne Priory. It crosses the Eildon Hills (the Roman Trimontium), then follows the broad upland River Tweed as far as the crystal well at Maxton,turns south along Dere Street, goes up over the Cheviots to Wooler, gains the sea at Beal and follows the Pilgrim’s Route across the sands to The Holy Isle.

I rubbed up  a whole new crop of blisters and trudged the mud and sand of the Pilgrim’s Route barefoot and bloodshod.  Half way across, the sky darkened and a squall blew in from the North Sea.  It was then that the it started, an unearthly sound as if all the souls of the departed sailors shipwrecked on this coast has been disinterred and were howling in agony.  It came from what looked like a clump of rocks on a distant sandbank. I focused my binoculars and saw between two and three hundred seals, half of them pups.  This would have stirred Cuthbert’s heart and it stirred mine.                           

My feet have healed and I’ve donated my boots to the RSPCA.  Maybe a duck will find them useful.

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