Sunday 24 September 2017

Sharing the Urban Jungle

Human beings are without a doubt the most destructive of earth's many million species. We pride ourselves on our opportunism, our intellect and our ability to succeed over any other species. The progress of human 'civilisation' has relied on it. Yet hidden among these traits is one which has caused us to inflict great damage upon the world we live in - through the destruction of habitat and the extinction of large quantities of the natural world - negligence. Human venture and comfort comes first, with hardly an afterthought for what affect it may leave upon the environment.  As a species, we've thrived, and our cavalier behaviour must take at least some credit for it. But it is  traits like these that we (we the human race, not necessarily you, me or the guy over there) seem to find deplorable when illustrated in far less damaging ways by any other life form. It was estimated in 2005 that the current rate of deforestation was a slowly decreasing 13 million hectares per year. I imagine an animal or two may be displaced (not to mention displeased) by that, it's not like we offer much of a re-homing scheme. And still, were a fox to so much as sniff a bin bag in certain areas London, it would find itself on the front cover of the Daily Mail, where, after much hyperbole and hysteria at the nuisance caused, an exterminator would find themselves slightly heavier of pocket.

Having lived my life in towns and cities I have seen first hand the behavioural adaptations species have had to make to survive in this, the 'urban jungle'. Through the destruction of natural habitat as we make way for the ever-expanding human population, we have left some animals with nowhere to turn except to our megalopoli.  Yet so detached have we become from the natural world that many seem intolerant of these species. Those that, like us, are chancers, opportunists that take advantage of the possibilities in front of them. What to us may be trash, to some species is a livelihood. They thrive off the laziness and waste of humans, making a utopia of this seemingly barren habitat.  In doing so, they may cause minor disruptions in our lives: a torn bin, a stolen chip... but surely that's a small price to pay when one considers what we have taken from them.

National statistics for the UK, as far as they can be trusted, estimate that the Herring Gull population has declined 50% since the nineties. However, in urban seaside areas, among the heaving herds of tourists, the species thrives. Ice-creams, chips, coffee cups... the diet available to them is vast and never in short supply.  I have lived part-time in Brighton for seven years, and so Herring Gull are part of everyday life for me. Their boldness is incredible, but it has caused them to be seen in the eyes of many, as pests. I've heard rumour that the ruckus they raise is also quite unbearable.

One evening earlier this year, I photographed a group of three gulls who were midway through a game of tug-of-war with a bundle of bin bags. Unsurprisingly, thin, cheap plastic gave way to the gulls' sharp beaks and the wonderful bounty of wrappers and spoilt food spilt forth. From it the gulls retrieved such rewards as an entire pitta bread, leftover salad and, alas some golden foil. To us, this was trash, but to the gulls it was dinner.  Our wasteful behaviour has created a niche, an abundant food supply, and nature isn't about to let that go to waste. This opportunistic behaviour, to take what's needed and leave a mess behind is moderately reminiscent of another species.... and yet, it caused names such as 'vermin' to be thrown their way by passers-by.

Referring once again to statistics of doubtful validity (well they're not from the Daily Mail so they can't be that bad) it is estimated that per annum 7.3million tonnes of household food is thrown away in the UK alone. A staggering, disturbing figure for such a small country. To have rubbish strewn across the street is in no way pleasant, but I think burdening the blame upon gulls, foxes and whoever else may go through your trash, is a way of avoiding responsibility.  It's not your broken phones and newspapers they're after, it's that 7.3million tonnes of food. These 'vermin' have discovered a niche caused by us and are exploiting it.... and can you blame them? The phrase, 'Waste not, want not' comes to mind.

Personally, I find it quite unfortunate that these species eat trash. For the most part it's a better outcome than the food going to waste, but the amount of non biodegradable material I've seen Herring Gulls eat is quite horrifying. Eliminating food waste completely is undoubtedly impossible - we're not going to become impervious to mould overnight - but there are most certainly steps which could be taken to significantly reduce the figures. I think we'd all like cleaner streets and slightly less plastic-filled gulls.

Like a stubborn toddler, it seems most metropolitans aren't keen to share their dirty delightful streets with anything more than humans and smartphones. With the population becoming more and more disconnected with nature, it is saddening to think that for some, their only remaining connection is their love to complain about it and the oh so huge nuisance it is for them.  Having wiped out as much of the natural world as we have, should we not strive to live harmoniously with those that have adapted to this new habitat we've created, not shun them away?

Saturday 8 April 2017

In Which There is a Lack of Both Sleep and Blue Rock Thrushes

Do you ever find yourself by some stroke of bad luck (or judgement) involved in a team project, the workload of which ends up sitting solely, and uncomfortably, upon your shoulders? Whether the project is personal, professional or projectile, being the provider of 100% of the effort input can be a strenuous position to hold. There is at least the benefit of then being in the position to validate having a good complain (as well all secretly love to do*), but that is but a small reward.
It is beginning to dawn on me, like a summer sunrise; gradually at first yet with increasing speed, that I have been stuck in such a situation with birding. My relationship (as it were) with birding has for a while been strained; when a rare occasion arises, and presents me with the opportunity to go birding, it seems that for all the work I put in - travelling, wandering around, more travelling - and all that I suffer - travel sickness, strain upon my decrepit old eyes, cold, hunger, more travel sickness - that birding does not in turn do its part. Like that one colleague whose phone is seemingly more important than the task at hand, the input from the 'birding gods' seems at best, half-hearted.

Over the last 6 months my life has become drastically more busy, what with full-time education, part-time employment and adding the weekly wear upon my camera's shutter-count. This being so, the occasions where have I actually have gone birding are probably few enough to count on... I'd like to say two hands, but I feel that would be an exaggeration... so, one hand it is... and that can most probably be done without including the thumb. A sad state of affairs yes, but it does mean that the crushing disappointment of dipping can be replaced by the subtler disappointment of not finding a Wheatear on the patch for yet another consecutive year.

This week however, with Easter break now in effect, the amount of free time available for me has increased rather drastically, leading me at times with nothing better to do than lounge in the sun and read... ah, 'tis a hard life. 
 When news broke of a Blue Rock Thrush in the county I thought perhaps an expedition away from the warmth of the balcony could well be in order. An egg (of metaphorical reality, of course) was laid, and from it hatched the birding bug. And, like a vivacious mosquito on a summer night, the birding bug bit.  And the bite? The bite didn't produce an 'itch' as such, more a calling. A calling that swayed my mind into believing that it was semi-acceptable to get up at 5:40am during Easter break. Fun fact: it's not.

Thanks to the generosity of a local birder who was willing to give me a lift, I was saved from the multitude of horrors that constitute the public transport system - were I a sardine, I would rather be in the sea than packed in a tin. Thankfully, I'm not a sardine, and so, don't have to be in either; but buses and tins can have a worrying amount in common.
 The thrush had been seen for most of the previous day and was still present at dusk, so our hopes of it remaining were quite high.... a little tip for birding: never, never get your hopes up.
 As we drove to the site we were greeted with a spectacular sunrise over the Sussex countryside. A spectacular sight, and one which was most probably as interesting as the day got, for, despite an hour or so of eye-straining, no blue thrushes of any kind materialised. 

After the hour or so had elapsed, other engagements called, which for me constituted little more than gaining some extra sleep.  It was decided, upon departure, that the bird had most probably, nay, certainly been plastic (as in not wild, rather than literally plastic. That being said, I didn't see any videos of it so you never know) and good riddance to it... No, I'm not a sore loser. Okay, well, maybe just a little bit, but I had only got 5 hours sleep. The hours of sleep one has in a night is yet another thing that should not be countable on just one hand.

It was at least an experience, a break from the norm, and that is something which in most cases should be strived for, even if it doesn't go exactly as you had hoped. Next time birding, you better play your part, otherwise I might just become a patch-birder for good....

*See, a good complain, now wasn't that fun?

Friday 17 February 2017

Of Marmite, Metaphors and Mathematics

Marmite. Aside being a yeasty condiment, it is also a frequently used and un-yeasty metaphor. It is claimed that one either loves Marmite, or one hates it. This is unfortunately an inaccurate claim, as some people, myself included, do not go in with such strong feelings for the spread. It's alright in small quantities.  Peanut butter is the only condiment worth getting emotional for.

The metaphor however is a useful one for expressing two opposites, and so will be used here, slightly adjusted from the classic and, perhaps overused, love-hate meaning. Here it will express a good-bad equation. With that still hopefully fresh in your mind, I will use this adjusted analogy to describe the birding (see, birds are involved, this isn't one of those food blogs. Yet) encompassed during my annual February excursion to the green ol' land of Ireland. Some years are good, perhaps even encroaching into peanut butter territory, and then some, some are like a tablespoon of Marmite forced down your throat - which hopefully you'll agree is not quite a favourable occurrence.  One year it may ooze with rarities, the next birds may be spread thin.

The first of these winter birding visits was in 2014. That was a good year, as should any year be when it contains both Ross's Gull and King Eider. After that things began to... well, undulate. 2015 was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable - this being said, for context, through gritted teeth. If yet further enlightenment is required, let me add that this was not the happy kind of unbelievable. It was one unfortunate failure after another and I consider it quite surprising that the events of this trip did not make it into a novel by Lemony Snicket. I guess there's only so much bad luck that can be believable. This trip led me to expect failure when birding (an adaptation that oh so rarely leads to disappointment), dipping 2 megas and 3 rarities in one week has that kind of an effect.

Come 2016 the fates had once again reversed, and like an articulated lorry, it made its reversal known. It was a week of seemingly non-stop luck in which, if memory serves (which would be as rare an occurrence as some of the birds seen) dipping played no part. To the world once again, balance was restored.

The problem with balance is that the load has to be shared equally, you can't have too much on one side of the scale or the balance will tip. One was good, one was so bad that hyperbole would have to stretch to touch it with the tips of its fingers, and one was the American Dream. Mathematically speaking (and who would dare argue with maths?), the law dictated that this year's visit would not be warranting a double thumbs up and a cheesy grin. At least, not where birding was concerned. And.... voila, bang on the money, 2 ÷ 2 = 1st prize (see, I'm smart, me) awarded to Mathematics. As if I needed another reason to dislike maths.

Sure, there wasn't all too much birding done, but when we did go twitching we employed my method to top form and managed to dip rather successfully.  Multiple circuits of an industrial site and its surrounding area on Little Island, Cork, led to a great deal of excitement when we finally found a tree containing berries. We were looking for Waxwing and saw a total of 0 out of 36.

To follow up this expected  great start, we went on to sit by the side of a river for an hour or two. Not one of those small pleasant rivers, but one which resembled the Thames: if it had had its face washed and scrubbed by a doting - if rather un-thorough - parent. Here, we saw a large quantity of gulls, most of which I'm sure consisted of many a (often hollow) boney part, but none of which, unfortunately, consisted of the right anatomic build to be a Bonaparte's Gull. This desired build being almost identical to that of a Black-headed Gull, the difference being that someone once claimed that supposedly, there is a difference.

Although the birding of the trip was not altogether a huge success (I do hope this is the deduction that you came to too), it's good to know that I can still dip. Where photography was concerned however, which was in most places, it wasn't all too poor, with moderately in focus images being achieved of Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Rooks and Robins.

If there's one thing you can say for maths, it is that it is, - like every rom-com ever made - predictable. Patterns will repeat. And so, it stands to logical reasoning that next years pilgrimage should contain enough traces of luck to bear an allergy warning. Or else it will end up like a rusty seesaw with a single occupant a spoon, and a jar of Marmite. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

What Am I?

What am I? Besides, arguably, from being human that is. Back in the good old days almost the single most important thing to me, was that I was not a twitcher. I was very adamant about that. What could be worse than being called a twitcher? The shame of it.  Many a blog-post was written to ensure everyone knew that I was just a twitcher birder.  Soon though, the evidence built up against me... I couldn't pretend that I'd just ended up at Kinsale by accident and that the Ross's Gull found there was just a happy coincidence.  Nor could I claim the several hour detour to Aberdeen when I was in Scotland was for the scenery and not for the Harlequin Duck.  It was around this point I decided not to mention my stance on the matter anymore. While I still had some face left to save...

From then on I was an all-encompassing birder.  A couple of days a week I was a patcher, a couple of times a month I was a birder, and here and there I was a twitcher.  It was a happy and prosperous time. But then, (If you had deduced the coming of a 'but', please allow yourself a pat on the back, be it from yourself or a third party) I ran out of that all important thing - Luck.  There came a time when I would have loved to take the title of twitcher.  If only! I became a, oh my this is difficult to say. I became a... a... a dipper.  And a good one at that.  Now, if you're thinking, oh, that's not so bad, a small black and white bird that lives along streams, then you have lost all pat-on-the-back privileges which may previously have been earned. Alas, no, I mean dipper in the sense of a birder (okay, twitcher) who, having travelled to look for a bird, has failed in their quest. Long journey no birdie.  It was a difficult time.  There is a frequently used expression, rock-bottom, which depicts the furthest someone can fall. In the February of 2015 I went at rock-bottom with a pneumatic drill, when in the space of about a week, I dipped two mega's and 3 rarities. At the ripe old age of fifteen I was a washed up birder, it was just about time to retire.

 I settled down soon after, to become more of a patch-birder and occasional local twitcher, and things were good you know, every once in a while I even got to see a Meadow Pipit (insert sarcastic 'wow').  And thus, really, it has remained since. But now, now I face a new conundrum. Can I even call myself a patch-birder?  Sure, I visit my local patch usually 3-4 times a week, and when something unusual turns up, I notice it. But do I ever go over there with a pair of binos?  Do I ever keep a list of what I see in a day, a month, or even a year? To both those birder-ly things, the answer is no. Not anymore.
 Now, when I head to the patch it is to take photos of the birds... and... increasingly, the mammals. Hey, don't judge, mammals are about as good as avians... I mean come on, foxes are too awesome not to photograph.

Throughout my whole birding 'career' wildlife photography has always played a big part, a part which ran alongside and worked in conjunction with the birding. But now it is starting to take the reins for itself (figuratively, I'm too scared of horses for it to be literal).  I'm not saying this is a bad thing, far from it, there's very, very little I enjoy more than wildlife photography.  Yet still... after all this time, all the places I've gone, all the things I've seen... have I lost the title of 'birder'?
Must I change the name of this blog to read 'The Early Worm Wildlife Photographer' and suffer the wrath of misled non-arthropod-invertebrate fanatics?  I'm not sure anyone would deserve to be placed in such a situation as that. Although I doubt it would be too hard to worm one's way out of...
Birder, Patcher or Photographer... what do you think?

Sunday 15 January 2017

Farewell Valentino

Tradition. It's a well known phenomenon. Whether it's reading a book for half-an-hour before bed every night or eating a peanut butter and cheese sandwich every Wednesday at 14:43, everyone has their little habits and routines.  It's a condition even animals buy in to.  Some people will choose to spend their summers in France each year, and some birds, who have the ability to go almost anywhere, will choose to spend their winters in a London park.  Anyone who has these sorts of regular rituals will know that they can be hard to stop. Once it's become ingrained it's almost second nature.  And really, if you've got something good going, why would you want to stop? 
Now, let me ask you this: Is Valentines Park not a good place to spend your winters? Okay, wait... maybe let's not answer that one...  But surely, a sixteen year long tradition of doing so would be hard to break. By that point it's practically ancient lore, and you can't break ancient lore - there's probably a law against it. But the routine has been broken. And alas, it is for these very reasons that I have passed through hope and denial, and been led to fear the worst for our good friend Valentino. Yes, Valentino the Mediterranean Gull; Ilford's biggest celebrity and only interesting bird. After sixteen consecutive winters, he has not returned.

Cue the sad piano solo.

In previous years he would usually arrive in early October, with his latest turn up being on the 26th of that month. But October has passed. As has November, as has December, and still no Valentino. 
Maybe, just maybe, he's still out there. Somewhere. Perhaps after sixteen winters on the Boating Lake he was beginning to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I imagine the thrill of grey weather and mouldy bread wears off after a while. After 80 or so months.... it may become dull and just a little bit repetitive. An endless cycle of competing for scraps which is interspersed only occasionally by some bozo with a telephoto lens.... living the dream?  Perhaps not.

Has he passed on or has he just broken tradition? Which, well I guess we will never know for sure. Perhaps he's decided to settle down in his home country of Belgium - I hear they produce some rather delicious cocoa based confectionery. Maybe Brexit was the final straw....
 Wherever he may be, whatever he may be doing, let us just take a moment of silence to appreciate just how awesome a gull Valentino was - except when he betrayed us for Wanstead Flats... that wasn't cool. You and your lovely white wings will be missed in the park.

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