Friday, July 20, 2018

A Cure For Ornithophobia

I’ll bet we have all met people who don’t appreciate birds. You know the type. Just as you’re enjoying a quiet spot of birding, relishing the grace and beauty of a Spotted Flycatcher or watching a Peregrine beating up the waders, along comes Mr Dickhead, all mouth and an over-abundance of non-functioning brain cells. He’s hoping to wind-up a nerdy birder. Although he’s never met a birder he knows they are all nerdy 'cos his mate in the pub told him. 

Spotted Flycatcher

"Spotted anything interesting pal? What use are birds anyway? I can’t sleep at night because of bloody seagulls on my roof from dawn until dusk. And they shit too much. That is when they are not rooting through my bin bags and scattering KFC boxes all over.” 

“And those sodding pigeons, rats with wings I call them, clogging up the town centre and crapping everywhere. Same with those duck things in the park. My kids can’t eat their jam butties in peace without “Quack, quack, bloody quack. Give us our daily bread”. 

There’s not much point in trying to explain science to a moron, someone who’s never taken the trouble to think about birds’ role in the natural world; how birds maintain sustainable population levels of their prey and predator species and, after death, provide food for scavengers and decomposers. How birds are important in plant reproduction through their services as pollinators or seed dispersers and why birds are important members of many ecosystems. 

I suppose the poor chap could have a touch of Ornithophobia. Yes, there’s a name for a person's abnormal and irrational fear of birds, or someone with a dislike of birds because of their habits or reputation as pests e.g. Carrion Crows, Collared Doves, Jays, Starlings, Gulls, Magpies and pigeons (feral & Woodpigeon). 

In such cases, keep it simple. I mention that birds eat a lot of insects, bugs and creepy-crawlies, all the things that Mr D also hates, and that if birds didn't do that, the world would be knee deep in such things within the week. Such a mind-blowing, revolutionary idea is often enough to make their dimmed light flicker, at least for the time being.  Off he goes in search of more worldly knowledge and I go back to birding with a cheery under my breath “bugger off”. 

But, here’s proof. “Birds around the world eat 400 to 500 million metric tonnes of beetles, flies, ants, moths, aphids, grasshoppers, crickets and other anthropods per year.”


It’s from Science Daily, 2018. The numbers have been calculated in a study led by Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland. The research, published in Springer's journal The Science of Nature, highlights the important role birds play in keeping plant-eating insect populations under control. 

"Nyffeler and his colleagues based their figures on 103 studies that highlighted the volume of prey that insect-eating birds consume in seven of the world's major ecological communities known as biomes. According to their estimations, this amounts to between 400 and 500 million tonnes of insects per year but is most likely to be on the lower end of the range. Their calculations are supported by a large number of experimental studies conducted by many different research teams in a variety of habitats in different parts of the world. 

"The global population of insectivorous birds annually consumes as much energy as a megacity the size of New York. They get this energy by capturing billions of potentially harmful herbivorous insects and other arthropods," says Nyffeler. 

Bee Eater

Forest-dwelling birds consume around 75 per cent of the insects eaten in total by birds which make up about 300 million tonnes of insects per year. About 100 million tonnes are eaten by birds in savannah areas, grasslands and croplands, and those living in the deserts and Arctic tundra. Birds actively hunt insects especially during the breeding season, when they need protein-rich prey to feed to their nestlings. 


Further, the researchers estimated that insectivorous birds together only have a biomass of about three million tonnes. Nyffeler says the comparatively low value for the global biomass of wild birds can be partially explained through their very low production efficiency. This means that respiration takes a lot of energy and only leaves about one to two percent to be converted into biomass. 

"The estimates presented in this paper emphasize the ecological and economic importance of insectivorous birds in suppressing potentially harmful insect pests on a global scale -- especially in forested areas," explains Nyffeler, who says that this is especially so for tropical, temperate and boreal forest ecosystems. 

"Only a few other predator groups such as spiders and entomophagous insects (including in particular predaceous ants) can keep up with the insectivorous birds in their capacity to suppress plant-eating insect populations on a global scale," he adds. 


A study from 2017 which Nyffeler also led showed that spiders consume between 400 and 800 million tonnes of insects each year. Other predator groups like bats, primates, shrews, hedgehogs, frogs, salamanders, and lizards seem to be valuable yet less effective natural enemies of plant-eating insects. He says their influence seems to be more biome-specific rather than on a worldwide scale. For instance, lizards help to suppress insects on tropical islands, but less so on a broader scale. 

"Birds are an endangered class of animals because they are heavily threatened by factors such as afforestation, intensification of agriculture, spread of systemic pesticides, predation by domestic cats, collisions with human-made structures, light pollution and climate change. If these global threats cannot soon be resolved, we must fear that the vital ecosystem services that birds provide -- such as the suppression of insect pests -- will be lost," says Nyffeler. 

Short-toed Lark

Maybe all birders should carry a paper copy of the above? It would come in handy when we next meet up with Mr Butthole; although the chances are he can’t read. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

One Good Tern

The Common Terns at Conder Green are very unhelpful to anyone with a camera. Since they arrived in May they have kept their distance from the nearest viewing point. They are so fast, erratic and unpredictable in their flight patterns that it’s only possible to get a decent in-flight picture with a very fast and expensive lens. With its long tail streamers, general shape and zig-zag flight there’s a good reason that the species was once known colloquially as the “sea swallow”. It’s a term that has fallen out of fashion and one I never hear nowadays. 

Fortunately the pair that bred at nearby Glasson this year have been a little more obliging by resting occasionally, especially so this morning. There’s a question; did you ever see an adult tern sit on the water? I’m not sure I have. 

Common Tern 

Common Tern 

During the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s Common Terns bred on the north side marshes of the River Lune. Here and from either side of the river channel they became a daily spectacle fishing the tidal flows. The Common Tern was another one of those birds that we birders took for granted; no one imagined that such a numerous and easily seen species could vanish. Years of disturbance from weekend sailors, jet skis, wind surfers, walkers with & without dogs, plus miscellaneous nuisance and even deliberate destruction took its toll until the birds finally abandoned the River Lune.  

Fortunately, and after almost twenty years a pair arrived at Conder Pool in 2014 and bred successfully on an island situated relatively safe in the centre of the pool/small lake. Since then a pair have bred each year with every sign that the population might increase. Not that it will ever reach the dizzy heights of c250 pairs of Common Terns when the marsh colony peaked. 

Common Tern

Apart from the chance to photograph and be alone with a Common Tern, the other highlight of my morning was the sight of 50+ Swifts over Conder Pool. That’s a fairly good count that must include some birds of the year. Meanwhile there were just 20 or so House Martins around the creeks, plus a handful each of Swallows and Sand Martins. 

There was a single Kingfisher today. In addition - 190 Redshank, 20 Oystercatcher, 15 Lapwing, 4 Curlews, 3 Greenshank, 3 Common Sandpiper, 1 Black-tailed Godwit and 6 Little Grebe. 

It was almost 10am before I got to Jeremy Lane where I was in time to see a Barn Owl hunting across the fields. After sitting briefly along the fence it disappeared into the distance. I was to see another one later a good 3 miles away. It too did the same vanishing act. 

Swallows seem to have done well so far this year with my best count of 60+ in and around the fields up towards and including Cockersands. 


At Cockersands itself I spotted a Kestrel chased by Swallows plus singing Whitethroat and Reed Bunting; plenty of sparrows by way of a flock of about 40 House Sparrows & 12 Tree Sparrows and the usual collection of Collared Doves around the farm buildings. 

Tree Sparrow

House Sparrow

 Collared Dove

In the direction of Lighthouse Cottage were 20 or more Swallows, 5 Sedge Warbler, 5 Goldfinch 2 Reed Bunting and 2 Linnet. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Three Of A Kind

We had a drop of rain on Friday; the first here for several weeks, just a few showers that barely wet our parched, straw coloured lawn and briefly dampened the roof tiles. By Saturday morning we were back to sun and blue skies but I rather hoped that the scattered showers had produced a different bird or two as the birding of late has been rather predictable.

So I hit Micawber Road at the usual unearthly hour in the hope that something might turn up.  Naturally I headed for Conder Green, one of the most productive of local birding sites and where a couple of extra places are but a stone’s throw away to make for an often satisfying circuit.

It was good to see up to 20 Swifts hawking insects over the surrounding hedgerows this morning. That’s probably as good a count as anyone has had this year.

July sees the first Kingfishers returning to the pool. They breed close by along the canal or the associated River Conder. “River” is something of a misnomer since the waterway resembles the final throes of a babbling brook rather than a mighty river. I was more than pleased to see three Kingfishers today, a family group that stuck close together but stayed distant from the camera. Sorry for the poor images. Today wasn't the most productive in the picture stakes but you get the idea.



Kingfisher and Common Tern


Like many other species, Kingfisher families stay together for a week or two after the youngsters fledge so that the inexperienced birds learn from the parents about growing up and how, where & when to feed. It’s rather like a human family except that kids and teenagers are very slow to learn, always think they know best, and if they ever leave home will likely be back.

The single pair of Avocets still have three good sized chicks ably looked after by their aggressive parents. In turn I watched both adults chase off a Grey Heron, a Little Egret and any number of Redshanks and Oystercatchers.


Grey Heron 

Other waders noted as 120 Redshank, 18 Oystercatcher, 15 Lapwing, 4 Common Sandpiper, 4 Curlew, 2 Snipe, 2 Greenshank. Smaller stuff – 6 Pied Wagtail, 2 Blackcap, 2 Reed Bunting, 2 Whitethroat and 2 Reed Warbler.


Pied Wagtail 

Six Common Terns still around as they vied with the Kingfishers for the prime launch pad into the water below. Three Little Grebes on the water and now just 8 Tufted Duck and another mostly unproductive year for the persistent tufties.

Common Tern

There's still a pair of Common Terns hanging around Glasson Dock and here’s where I found a flock of 18/20 Goldfinches and a healthy number of House Martin nests right in the village centre. The martins fly down towards the dock gates for their building materials and where the tidal flow leaves exposed mud in this driest of summers.

Common Tern

House Martin

I called into Gulf Lane where a small party of 6/8 Linnets plus 2 Whitethroats suggested it will soon be time to cut that ride for project Linnet.

That’s for another, cooler day.

Linking today to World Bird Wednesday and Anni's Birding Blog.

Dove Tales

I found an interesting piece on-line about the work of scientists at Lincoln University UK. It concerns the Turtle Dove, another rapidly declining bird of British farmland. The Turtle Dove is without doubt the most beautiful of the UK family of wild doves and pigeons. 

Turtle Dove  

Turtle Doves are pretty rare on the west coast where I live but they cling on in southern and eastern parts of the UK. Many years ago I used to see lots of Turtle Doves on family drives to the east coast of the UK when groups of the doves would scatter at sight of an approaching car. Like those other members of the pigeon family, Collared Dove, Stock Dove and Woodpigeon, the Turtle Dove is not averse to early morning feeds along the carriageways of major roads where they find grit essential to grind up their diet of grain. I believe that those self-same roads of Middle England and Yorkshire no longer produce anything like the number of Turtle Dove sightings due to the species’ decline. 

I see lots of Turtle Doves each year when we holiday in Menorca where they are still fairly common, but even here I have seen a decline in 15 years of visiting the island. It’s no secret that many, many thousands of migrating Turtle Doves are shot in the Mediterranean area each year, the main culprit being the island of Malta where at least 10,000 Turtle Doves were shot during 2015. 

Turtle Dove 

“New research into Britain's fastest declining bird species has found that young Turtle Doves raised on a diet of seeds foraged from non-cultivated arable plants rather than foods provided in people’s gardens are more likely to survive after fledging. 

Ecologists at the University of Lincoln investigated the dietary habits of adult and nestling European Turtle Dove -- a IUCN Red List Threatened Species -- breeding in the UK, using DNA analysis of faecal samples. They found significant associations between the body condition and the diet of the bird. 

Nestling Turtle Doves still being fed by their parents were found to thrive on seeds foraged from non-cultivated arable plants such as scarlet pimpernel and chickweed, but the birds were in poorer condition when their diet was high in seeds provided by humans in back gardens or public spaces. In contrast, adult body condition was better when more cultivated seeds such as wheat, oil seed rape and barley were present in the diet. 

Data collected for the study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the University of Sheffield and Cardiff University, was compared with the results of previous studies carried out in the 1960s and 1990s. It revealed a fundamental shift in the diet of Turtle Doves, showing that the birds are now relying more heavily on food found in gardens, such as sunflower and niger seeds, than they did 50 years ago. 

As the UK's fastest declining bird species, the results of the study have important implications for conservation strategies to save the Turtle Dove. Previous research has shown that nestling birds with better body condition are more likely to survive after fledging and strategies should be developed to provide the correct diet for the bird at each stage of its life. 

Turtle Dove 

Dr Jenny Dunn, Lecturer in Animal Health and Disease in the University of Lincoln's School of Life Sciences, led the research. She said: "Turtle Doves are the UK's fastest declining bird, with a loss of 98% of breeding birds since 1970. Researchers are trying to tackle the problem by identifying ways to provide food resources for the species while they are breeding in the UK, but for this to be effective we need to understand the birds' food sources and the impact they have on both adults and their young. 

"The results of this study suggest that conservation strategies should include provision of anthropogenic seeds for adults early in the breeding season, coupled with habitat rich in accessible seeds from arable plants once chicks have hatched." 

To understand the diet of the birds, researchers caught Turtle Doves on breeding grounds at 11 sites across East Anglia, and extracted DNA from the faecal samples which enabled them to identify the diet of each bird. Their body condition was also examined, and nest sites monitored. Further research is now needed to link the findings of the study to the use of habitats provided for Turtle Doves through agri-environment schemes.” 

Turtle Dove 

Thanks go to University of Lincoln. "Garden seed diet for threatened turtle doves has negative impact."  Science Daily  June 2018

This research may have implications for other species that regularly feed in gardens on supplementary food.  I guess the moral of the story is that when using additional feed systems in our gardens we should aim to provide food that is as near to a birds natural diet as possible.  Don’t feed on the cheap, and always buy the best you can afford.

Linking today to Eileen's Blog.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Making Hay

Thursday. Sitting in the shade of the old apple tree with a cup of PG Tips while reading more of Unnatural Selection felt like a good plan.

But then the dawn of yet another sunny day set me off on a trip over the meandering lanes of Stalmine moss. Eight weeks of this fine weather means we’ll pay big time when it finally breaks but in the meantime it’s “make hay” for birders and sun-worshippers alike.

Stalmine, Fylde 

There’s been a Corn Bunting or two singing of late but no firm evidence of breeding intent, and I know from experience the Corn Bunting is very secretive when it comes to giving away their ground nest hidden in an expanse of monoculture. A needle in a haystack has nothing on a Corn Bunting nest. But, there was a bunting singing from directly above the road only 40 yards away from the regular song post; if it’s the same male of course!

Corn Bunting 

Another car came along and then as it whizzed by, the bunting flew off. So yet again there’s real no evidence that this species has bred in our area or that it ever will again.

I’d briefly seen a Little Owl a few days ago in a location new to me. Early July and Little Owls have all finished breeding now so I reckoned this was a young one that might let me take a little look. As it shuffled along the ledge of the broken down shed it wasn't for letting me too close but made a mental note for year listing. Not.

Little Owl 

 During the winter most birders, including me complained that Conder Pool was too full of water, overflowing almost. Well now there’s very little and a fair bit of green algae on the surface but it looks ideal for a wader or two. Good shout as I spotted a single Snipe patrolling the muddy margin and then two black-bellied Dunlin.


Oystercatchers were busy with their usual piping and running along the margins plus several Redshanks. But they all know to stay away from the mud nearest the public viewing spot, except any little ones that can’t yet fly and/or choose to hide away from the hot sun.

Oystercatcher with chick 

Otherwise things: dozens of Redshank, 2 Greenshank, 2 Common Sandpiper, 2 Little Egret, 1 Grey Heron, 14 Tufted Duck, 3 Little Grebe, 12 Lapwing, 2 Curlew and 2 Teal, the latter the first of the “autumn” arrivals. And there were the usual Common Terns but no Avocet today.

Sedge Warblers got off to a slow with reduced numbers start this year but I've seen and heard half-a-dozen of them on every look around Moss Lane, Jeremy Lane and up to Cockersands.

It was the same today with both Whitethroat and Reed Bunting on view but very quiet and unobtrusive. My theory is that the reduced numbers of singing males results in wider territories than normal years  with less need to sing.  That’s my notion so shoot me down in flames if necessary.  It’s not quite the same with Reed Warblers which do seem to be in small numbers even now – just two singing males at Conder Green but none along the reed fringed lanes. We can but hope that the record breaking weather of 2018 allows birds to produce lots of youngsters.

Sedge Warbler 

Sedge Warbler

Reed Bunting 

That male Reed Bunting is already showing signs of post-breeding moult, black head losing colour, wear on feather tracts and tail. I wonder where it’s been to get that ring on the right leg? It may have come from our own ringing at Glasson, half a mile away last winter.

That’s all for now folks. I'm off to sit in the sun for a while.

Linking today to Anni's Birding Blog and Eileen's Saturday Blog.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw. A Book Review.

I came across Katrina van Grouw’s work as an author in 2012 when I reviewed her first book The Unfeathered Bird here on the blog. The book was somewhat unique, a seamless marriage of instructive art and natural science which portrayed Katrina’s talent as a self-taught scientist and a gifted illustrator of animals. That first book was an impressive and quite remarkable début. 

And now I have a copy of Katrina’s second book for review. It is even more outstanding and stimulating than the first; a brilliant concept that is quite stunning in its presentation and execution. 

Unnatural Selection -  Princeton University Press

Unnatural Selection is a celebration of the work of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s classic work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). Darwin’s most famous work is of course The Origin of Species (1859). Whilst formulating this theory of evolution Darwin’s years of research included extensive experiments in the selective breeding of plants and animals. He found evidence that species were not fixed and his investigations led to many detailed ideas which refined and substantiated his then revolutionary ideas about the origin of life on Earth.

The cover illustration and inside double page spread of Unnatural Selection “The Ascent of Mallard” (shown above) neatly hints how evolution is discussed in the ensuing pages. The drawing portrays how with gradual artificial selection, the common or garden Mallard Anas platyrhynchos became the Indian Runner Duck Anas platyrhybcchos domesticus – evolution intensified by the hand of  man

Katrina reminds us early on of her wish to weave art and science into the narrative, that the two subjects are not mutually exclusive and in tandem can prove exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. “…evolution… the most profound and exciting field in all biology. Art and science are not at opposite poles…….pursuing both needn't be a compromise. Pity the dry scientist or the airy-fairy artist with their narrow perception of the world. Together art and science add up to a richness and depth that far exceeds the sum of their parts." 

The book comprises 4 Parts - Origin, Inheritance, Variation, and Selection. Within those parts are 12 Chapters of crisp but detailed explanation that build on the analogy that Darwin himself used by comparing the selective breeding process (as opposed to simple domestication) with natural selection in the wild. Katrina’s background in natural history gives her a clear appreciation of both wild and domestic animals, their anatomy and variation. She has numerous accounts and stories behind them and recognises their significance for the understanding of evolution.

She features a multitude of examples of familiar selective breeding that go largely unrecognised as a form of evolution e.g. - dogs, cats, geese, ducks, canaries, finches, budgerigars, wildfowl and pigeons. A perfect example is familiar but perhaps not realised by all - the wild Rock Dove, Columba livia, the ancestor of domesticated, feral and racing pigeon.

Dogs - all descended from the Grey wolf. - Unnatural Selection

Katrina’s writing is full of passion and excitement for her subject. It is also intelligent, fluid, witty and easily read & understood, even for someone unscientific like me.

Here’s one tale from the many pages of her vivid writing: Chapter Four, Coloured Liquid; Coloured Glass. “One winter’s afternoon¸ I could have been seen fighting my way through a snowy squall across a desolate expanse of common land in north-east England leading a nanny goat on a length of rope. I was looking for a billy goat. My goat, Alice, was on heat, and as she was destined to be a milker, she had first to conceive. Goats don’t remain in heat for very long, so, regardless of the inclement weather I was forced to answer the need for immediate sex. There were usually animals tethered out on the common and, as I hadn't the slightest intention of paying for the service, it was a case of seizing an opportunistic union when no one was looking. Alice was a strapping beast, of no particular breed, but quite the tallest goat I've ever seen. However, the only male I could find that day was a tiny pygmy goat that could have easily walked between Alice’s legs without touching her belly. Undeterred, I untied the little chap and led both animals to a steeply sloping bank where I re-tethered the male at the top and Alice at the bottom, thereby compensating for his vertical challenges at least. Five months later she gave birth to two normal-sized kids, each barely smaller at birth to their pygmy goat father.”

The chapters are liberally dotted with fine illustrations that relate directly to the examples she describes. These splendid, sometimes full, or even double page drawings, are without exception simply magical, so delightful and brilliant that if anything, the reader is drawn to study them in such a way and for so long as to neglect the text and then lose the thread of the discussion.

There are 400 illustrations in the book. I use the word “illustrations” advisedly as this is the term given by the publisher. I rather think that many of the superb illustrations are works of art in their own right, up there with the very best of wildlife fine art. One of my favourites is her study of geese - simply superb.

Goose Ancestry - Unnatural Selection

In the Preface the author relates how in a previous life her application to study Zoology at Oxford University was rejected. Oxford’s loss is our gain so Kudos to Princeton University Press and their realisation that Katrina van Grouw has a unique talent; full marks to them for helping her to follow this now chosen path and to produce such an outstanding book. Unnatural Selection is so special and so brilliant in every way that I would not be surprised if it soon carries off a major prize of the book world

Just lately I donated my copy of The Unfeathered Bird to a local school of 11-15 year olds in the hope that it might inspire one to follow such an interest or a career in either subject.  Eventually I will do the same with Unnatural Selection but for now I will read the book cover to cover and savour each page.

Pigeon Tails - Unnatural Selection

I highly recommend Unnatural Selection for lay readers as well as the more experienced natural history buff or biology student.  It is highly suitable for students of art, in particular those looking to follow a career in natural history illustration. It goes without saying that Unnatural Selection conforms to the very high standards of format, presentation and finish that we expect from Princeton University Press.

Dear Reader. You can own this extraordinary book for just $45 or £35 at Princeton Press.

There are more sample pages from the book at Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Another Bag Of Smarties

Tuesday morning 0630. I met up with Andy at Cockerham quarry where we hoped to catch up with Sand Martins (Smarties). It had been too long since the last visit but an unavoidable break in our plans - Last time.

On that occasion we caught 63 new Sand Martins, all of them adults, late May being too early for any young martins to be around. We did slightly better this morning by way of 67 Sand Martins, 57 of them new to us plus 8 recaptures from earlier this year and 2 from 2017. 

Of the 57 new, 40 proved to be adults, split 50/50 male/female together with 17 fresh juveniles. The colony seemed to be well on with their second brood, some females in the throes of egg laying. 

Sand Martin - juvenile 

Sand Martin - adult 

We’d finished our work by 9 o'clock so I went up to Glasson and Conder for a quick check. Fresh arrivals at Conder Green were a party of 4 Avocets, more Little Egrets than of late (6) and also 2 Greenshank. There are still 180+ Redshank. The four Avocets spent ten or fifteen minutes making a lot of noise before they flew off west, leaving the summering singleton but territorial Avocet behind. 

Little Egret

A single pair of Common Terns continues to feed young, 2 chicks on the pontoon, one on the island.  

Meanwhile I up at Glasson Dock I found the pair of terns, the ones that bred successfully very close by. 

Common Tern 

Common Tern 

Common Tern 

That all for today folks. Don’t forget,  tomorrow’s post will see a review of Unnatural Selection.

Linking today with World Bird Wednesday

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