birds


corncrake

Crex crex: the corncrake or landrail, the fast running rasper, the nutty noisemaker, the long legged bird of the cornfield, the rooster of the corn, is the strangest and most elusive of British birds. Once a common summer visitor throughout the British Isles, it has been in steep decline for the last hundred years  Now there are just about 500 breeding pairs, confined to the far western fringes of Ireland and the Scottish islands.  

It was 50 years ago when I last heard a Corncrake.  I was staying in the observatory on Cape Clear,  a magical island just 4 miles in length and less than a mile wide off the coast of County Cork in Southern Ireland.  During the day, I took part in sea watches, counted Puffins on their burrows on top of the cliffs and recorded the migrants that flopped down exhausted in the fields around the island overnight.  One memorable morning I awoke to the sound of about 20 Cuckoos.  Each was perched on a fence post and calling in vain for a mate.  It was like being in a cuckoo clock shop in Titisee.  But at night, Corncrakes called from the wildflower meadows – a strange regular mechanical sound, like scraping a credit card across the teeth of a comb.   One night, as it was getting dark, I persuaded my friend to come out and track down a Corncrake.  We borrowed a pair of cow rib bones from the observatory, one with a serrated edge and the other with a straight edge, which, when scraped against each other, mimicked the call of the Corncrake.  Arriving by a bank at the edge of a field, we scraped our bones together.  Almost immediately, we had a response that seemed to come from just beyond the corner at the end of the bank.  Cautiously we edged our way up the side of the bank, scraping our bones all the while and were thrilled to hear the responding call approaching us from around the corner.  Eventually, it was so close, it could only be a few feet away, so we tiptoed to the corner and peered round.  There, crouched by the bank were two other guys equipped with a second pair of bones; so we all collapsed laughing and retreated to O’Driscoll’s pub for a beer. 

But In the Coronation Meadow between Treshnish Farm and Huann Cottages on the Island of Mull, where Joan and I recently stayed, there were three separate males calling thought the day.  On Iona, they were more common; an estimated 20 to 30 pairs at several different sites throughout the island.  Although we tried to stalk them and got very close, we never saw one, though locals told us that they would occasionally see them rush across the road.  Not only can they move very quickly through the long grass, they also seem able to ‘throw their voice’ so it is difficult to pinpoint where they are.  So fast on the ground, they are vulnerable in the open and rarely take flight.  With short stubby wings and their long legs dangling down, they are poor flyers. How they manage to fly all the way back to Southern Africa in the winter is difficult to imagine.  

Corncrakes or Landrails are such rare birds.  About the size of a blackbird and related to the Moorhen but with striated brown plumage and ginger flanks, they live in the long grass and wildflowers of summer meadows.  Once widespread throughout the British Isles, but rarely seen, Gilbert White once heard them near Paradise Gardens in Oxford and even ate one. Naturalists of the time frequently shot less common birds, dissected them and ate them.  As White described   “The bird, which weighed seven-and-a-half ounces, was fat and tender and in flavour like the flesh of a woodcock. The liver was very large and delicate.”  Mrs Beeton recommended that four Landrails roasted on a skewer made a very satisfying meal.  In the late eighteenth century, the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare, always heard then near his cottage in Helpston near Peterborough, but never saw one.   

’Tis like a fancy everywhere

A sort of living doubt

We know ’tis something but it ne’er

Will blab the secret out’

Their food is somewhat varied, consisting mainly of invertebrates and seeds though White recorded that ‘we once took a mouse from the stomach of a Landrail’. Although it is normally an extremely timid bird, which skulks in the long grass and is hardly ever seen in the open, a woman on Tiree once reported that a Corncrake living in her field would walk in through the front door and feed on kitchen scraps, while on Barra a bird that stayed over the winter would come and eat the chicken feed once the hens had finished.  

It is only the male that calls and may continue with scarcely a pause for as long as 6 hours .  Females lay two cliches of about 5 to 8 eggs in a shallow depression on the bare earth.  As soon as she has finished laying, the male will leave her and call for another female. After an incubation period of about 17 days, the eggs hatch and the chicks soon develop a black downy plumage.  The female then abandons her chicks after 12 days, hooks up with another male and lays another clutch of eggs.  At the end of August, Corncrakes migrate to Africa.  Birds from Scotland fly down the western route through France and Spain and the Congo to winter in South-east Africa, while birds that nest in the Ukraine migrate through Egypt and Sudan, but are often decimated by nets put out to catch Quail.  9000 Corncrakes were taken in Egypt in 1993 and 14,000 the following year.   Although Corncrakes are reputed to return to the same field, only about 30% of ringed birds make it back.  Some birds seem to get their navigation wrong and have been caught as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand. 

Corncrake numbers started to decline in in the late nineteenth century when farming became more mechanised and intensive.  More fields were grazed or, if left fallow, cut for silage much earlier in the season before the birds laid their second clutch of eggs.  Also the practice of mowing fields from the outside in ever decreasing rectangles concentrated the birds in the centre of the field where they were killed in the last swathe.  On the far flung islands of Scotland, the RSPB tries to persuade farmers to leave wildflower meadows uncut until the Corncrakes have left late in August and to alter the pattern of mowing to leave refuges and escape routes.  Traditional crofters used to cut hay by hand and used a crop rotation system, where fields were left fallow for two years, encouraging grasses and wildflowers. 

The maintenance of wildflower meadows does not just benefit the Corncrake, it promotes an abundance of inserts which attract a variety of birds and small mammals. Flocks of Twites, Goldfinches, Wheatears, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flew up whenever we passed by the meadows on our way from our cottage to the farm on Treshnish.  One morning we were awakened at 5.30am by a thump on the window and were eye to eye with a young cuckoo, perched on the window sill.  It was soon joined by its a foster mother, a Meadow Pipit, bearing a mouthful of insects; always good for a bird with a sore head! 

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st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

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?

 

 

 

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).

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