Category Archives: conservation

A bittern booming in the mire

It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.

The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.

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A well-camouflaged bittern. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning  something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.

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Image: RSPB

The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.

Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.

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RSPB Ham Wall reserve, April 2018
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The plastic plight of seabirds

In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.

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The contents of a decayed albatross carcass. Image: Algalita.org.

In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).

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Plastic debris drifts from the ocean into this bay in the Philippines. Image: Erik de Castro.

In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)

In fact, we’ve apparently taken up this challenge at the right time: Blue Planet II has apparently really caught the public attention on issues of plastic; China has stirred things up by rejecting imported plastic from the UK from this year; and only days ago Theresa May made the headlines by discussing ambitions to force the big UK supermarkets to rethink packaging. Here’s hoping.

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A UK landfill site. Ironically, these mounds of waste have become beneficial for some seabirds, gulls, who have adapted to become urban dwellers. Image from edie.

I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.

Sri Lanka’s endemic enigmas

Where earth’s greatest landmass narrows to a subcontinent, below where mountain thrusts up rock to earth’s highest peak and river runs down to dry plain, just beyond where land tips into ocean, in one slip of forest in the wet mid-hill tropics that rise up on a small island once bridged to south-east India, behind the obscuring branch of one jack tree, there is a blue magpie.

We’ve come a long way for this bird. It is truly magnificent though. Don’t think your usual black-and-white, garden-menace job. The Sri Lanka magpie is of quite another order: blue body, blue tail – true blue, bluest in the forest – head and wings of dark tamarind, feet and a heavy corvid bill the colour of pomegranate arils. The same red neatly circles the eye. It’s a bird to travel for.

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Sri Lanka blue magpie. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In cloud forest, good views of anything can be hard; it’s alarm and frenzy in the tops, exotic calls and brief flashes above. Tall is habit in a place like this – trees reach 40, 50 metres high, their boles straight up into tree domain – but such thick vegetation down here obscures verticals and heights.

The trick is to stand still, tune in to what you hear. In this valley, dawn is a broad coming like a passing eclipse. We stand in the green air on the edge of the clearing before the heat arrives, waiting for birds at first light. Orange-billed babblers are easy enough – their fuss and squabble shake the foliage with monkey-vigour. They are joined by the odd ashy-headed laughing thrush or drongo. Higher up, there are white-faced starlings and hill mynas.

The rasp of the magpie gives it away. And where there’s one, more follow. We watch six in total, a raucous mob tailing each other from tree to tree for just two minutes, so plainly blue you wonder how they do such a good job of disappearing.

 

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The rainforest canopy at Sinharaja
The Rainforest Ecolodge in Sinharaja forest.

We’re very pleased to see them. The thing is, you won’t find any of these birds anywhere else. Not just in Sri Lanka, but nowhere else in the world. Like so much of the immense biodiversity on this island – trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, flowers, butterflies, mammals, birds – the blue magpie is an endemic. Sri Lanka’s ancient insular existence has evolved a remarkable ecology of highly specialised creatures. Amongst birds alone, of the island’s 27 full endemic species (there are subspecies too), most of these can only be found in the wet-zone hills in the far south, and some of these, even, only in isolated pockets of this territory. Only sixteen years ago, in fact, a new owl species was discovered in these forest fragments that survived colonial rule. It’s a reassuring sign in this age of loss and destruction.

Sri Lanka hill myna. Image: Isuru Gunasekera.

Find this little lodge near Deniyaya on Google Earth, scroll in, then right out to see India, and Eurasia, and the whole globe. This is to know the fragility of every part of all things, yet wonder that the infinitesimal can still hold mysteries.

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Rhino horned lizard: one of the numerous endemic lizards. Image: Janaka Gallangoda

February is the cruelest month

Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ achieves its haunting allure because the bird at its centre features an unresolved and disquieting contradiction. It is both everything we might expect a song thrush to be – tuneful, ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’ – and yet ‘frail, gaunt’, intimately associated with the ‘growing gloom’. It is a favourite of mine precisely because of this ambiguity – effortlessly simple but, like all great poems, endlessly regenerating new meanings. Originally titled ‘The Century’s End, 1900’, for instance, the poem clearly expresses some sense of fin de siècle anxiety, but Hardy could not have guessed how much more painfully ominous his words would seem following the advent of the Great War. The poem presents a restless mixture of despondency and hope which might carry all sorts of valencies, including perhaps, in the early 21st century, the ecological.

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I was minded to recall this poem today. Here on the Essex coast again, I walked at Tollesbury Wick along the Blackwater in late afternoon light. We had been out all morning, but with mid February now suddenly cold I am indulging a little winter solemnity while it lasts. Mornings have been below freezing – a hard frost, the ground brittle under hard glistenings. Out on the marsh, raised on the sea wall, the North Sea blast comes straight at you. There are huge flocks of huddled wigeon and teal on the reed bed pools, shifting lapwing and golden plover; on the other side, solitary redshanks on the exposed mudflats. I watch a barn owl quarter the banks way out on the grazing marsh. The bare hawthorns along the path have endured this for years – wind-beaten and crouching, aged with silver lichens that wreath the branches like dense fogs.

In these circumstances, I had not expected to be brought up short. But there it was. A single hawthorn in full bloom. I circled the shrub as though in ritual, brushed the white flowers. Then got in close to frame winter out – here was something wholly of spring, its delicate petals and scent, sweet green shoots lilting warmth and renewed earthly energies. I moved out, glanced up and across to Mersea where the clouds gusted, the colour of dented pewter. A small group of black-tailed godwits called overhead, all subdued greys.

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A week before, perhaps I would have not been quite so astounded. It’s been an exceptionally warm winter – record-breaking – with temperatures well into the teens through the Christmas period and into New Year. I noticed daffodils, butterflies in December, primroses in January; naturalists and writers all over Britain have been noting these strange occurrences (see here, and here). Swallows were recorded months after they should have departed for Africa, and have already been sighted again this year. What might this have to do with the swift I saw at the beginning of September? This is one pleasure (and consternation) in watching nature; you see things that go entirely missed by others, both that which is expected (the firsts and lasts of each season), and that which is out of joint.

It is staggering, quite incomprehensible to think that here at one spot in squelching mud on this stretch of a tiny peninsula in south Essex I might be witnessing some phenomenon, a possible link between this moment and extreme weather patterns all around the globe prompted by Pacific ocean currents; the El Niño, droughts in Africa, a disrupted jet stream, a dragonfly in November, and the premature blooming of one young hawthorn. Even in our modern age, when the causes for such events can be explained, thinking upon the implications still invokes the portentous. I do not know precisely what atmospheric influence or telluric force is at play here, but one single feature of the natural world has reminded me of the intimate and far-reaching interrelations of all things, and I  am embraced with it. I think of Hardy’s singing thrush. My hawthorn blossom in February’s ‘weakening eye of day’ conjures that ‘ancient pulse’, something ‘whereof he knew / And I was unaware’.

Hen Harrier Day

Today is a significant day to write about hen harriers, but not for the reasons I’d like. I’ve been privileged to watch these birds numerous times in the Scottish Hebrides, most recently on Islay where they smooth over the vast, flat stretches of peat bog. On Coll, two years ago, I happened upon recently fledged youngsters gaining the heather and loch in first days on the wing with their parents. Those are hen harrier encounters to write about. But today, of course, marks the beginning of the shooting season on upland moors. Not that this, in itself, is the gripe for many of us, but, rather, the fact that this sport is annihilating the population of breeding hen harriers for no other reason than the fact that unscrupulous rogue individuals associated with the moor estates keep shooting or poisoning the birds. Illegally. Still. Even this year. (See here and here.)

(Photo: Barry O'Donoghue, Birdwatch Ireland)
(Photo: Barry O’Donoghue, Birdwatch Ireland)

I’m heartened that there has been progress over the last year on this front. Some folk in conservation have been doing superb work to bring these heinous practices and the harrier’s plight to government and public attention. Mark Avery (former conservation director for the RSPB) in particular, along with the likes of Chris Packham, has worked tirelessly to mount a campaign (keep up to date with Hen Harrier Day, the online petition and Mark’s new book on the subject, Inglorioushere). But there’s still a worrying lack of response or action from those that can actually do something about all this. What harrows me is not so much that grouse shooting represents an affluent elite intent on upholding a tradition of leisure shooting (I can deal with the class thing); not just that rich landowners have far too much power in this country; not just that these landowners claim that they are working in the interests of conservation to manage rich, biodiverse moorland (read George Monbiot’s excellent chapter on this in Feral); not just that our government is swung in the interests of those landowners; not that this dilemma occurs at a time when we have in office a prime minister who has apparently no scruples about breeding hunting hounds for pharmaceutical testing (well, if they’re not going to tear apart fox flesh what else are we going to do with them?); it’s not just that this comes on top of the catastrophic bird losses sustained each year in Malta because the European court of justice continues to let this country flout laws everyone else obeys.

It’s a complex socio-economic issue, I get that. Hen harriers predate the grouse which bring in the money. Ok. But if we’re such a damn brilliant species, surely this isn’t insurmountable? What bothers me most is that we still stubbornly persist in our ingrained, age old belief of human exceptionalism – “here’s a species which is preventing us from doing what we bloody well like, but it’s only a bird so let’s get rid of it”. Surely we can find a solution to this; we can minimise hen harrier predation and conserve their populations? It must be possible to avoid eradicating a species just to satisfy our own petty demands (and ultimately, shooting is petty – it’s a leisure pursuit, an exclusive leisure pursuit). How, in the twenty-first century, is raptor persecution still active and permissible in this country? We mourn the losses of red kites and white-tailed eagles in previous centuries, celebrate their return, and yet still, here’s the same old story.

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

I recently wrote a review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, focusing on his passionate and detailed portrayal of devastating wildlife losses in this country over the last forty years: half of our natural abundance, half. And let’s not underestimate the reason for this – it’s us. In the chapter ‘The Great Thinning’ (read this if it’s the only chapter you read), he depicts his title image – the great insect clouds that once shared our summer dusks. You could only really comprehend the great multitude of all this life if you drove at night, when they would be illuminated in the headlights and you’d have to stop every so often to wipe down your windscreen. I’m not old enough to know what this ‘richness of organisms that were glorious’ might have been like – it’s only myth. That saddens me. Just as I’m sad to never know what the biblical masses of birds were like for the naturalist Richard Jeffries in the nineteenth century:

Sparrows crowd every hedge and field, their numbers are incredible; chaffinches are not to be counted; of greenfinches there must be thousands. From the railway even you can see them. I caught glimpses of a ploughed field recently sown one spring from the window of a railway carriage, every little clod of which seemed alive with small birds, principally sparrows, chaffinches, and greenfinches. There must have been thousands in that field alone. In autumn the numbers are even greater, or rather more apparent. (‘Flocks of Birds’ in Nature Near London)

I feel this too about our summer migrants that have suffered sharp declines in my own lifetime. Turtle doves were never common for me, but I have to really work to see one now. I was very pleased to show my girlfriend her first ever earlier this year, but it seems likely I won’t have the chance to show this beautiful species to my future children, that they won’t hear that pink-throated summer purl; rather, it will entail a story of extinction, a regrettable apology about just what characterises our relations to nature in the current century. I fear the same for the hen harrier.