I liked Coshocton very much, and if I find other places as nice, that would be good. I am, now, in Wisconsin, which means I have done a lot of driving today.
I drove through Chicago with Ol’ Blue Eyes on full volume, and on ‘repeat’, singing ‘My kind of town, Chicago is…’ over and over again.
But after an early breakfast in Jerry’s (same meal as yesterday except with wheat toast instead of rye toast) I did some writing (this isn’t a holiday you know) and then headed to the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. I’d have gone sooner but it it doesn’t open until 10 and it isn’t open on Monday or Tuesday so Wednesday at 10:15 I arrived.
There were lots of those lovely evocative yellow school buses arriving too. And they were full of excited kids – so I fitted in well. I paid my $10 entrance and asked the nice man whether he knew where I could find a passenger pigeon to look at. He thought it might be just down the aisle, but if not it would be in the natural history section.
It was in the natural history section in a case with other extinct species – Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and blue pike. There she was – ‘Buttons’ – the last wild passenger pigeon that was shot by a lad in Pike County (in March 1900).
Given her age and her manner of death I thought Buttons looked pretty perky really. Although the unbiased might have said slightly dull and tatty. But this was the last wild specimen of the most abundant bird on Earth. Hardly anybody else gave her a glance. She suffered from there being a stuffed bison just down the way and that got a lot of attention.
But I stood for a while and looked at her while young excited Ohioans rushed past.
I thought this was an excellent museum. Not stuffy at all. Light and airy in decor and design and light and friendly in interpretation. Here are some things I learned about Ohio relevant to the passenger pigeon story.
In 1800 9.5% of Ohio was forest but in 1900 that figure was less than 0.5% (a 90% reduction) and has now bounced back to around 3%.
In 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1920 the rural human population of Ohio remained fairly constant at 1.9, 2.2, 2.2 and 2.1 million whereas the urban population went from 0.4 to 1 to 2 to 3.7 million in the same periods.
Given that the passenger pigeon went extinct in the wild in Ohio, and on this planet, in 1900 it was interesting to see that other species went extinct in Ohio in the following years; bison (1803), red deer (or elk, 1838), wolf (1848), mountain lion, lynx, fisher, marten ( all 1850), trumpeter swan (1860 – being reintroduced), black bear (1881 – coming back from W Virginia on its own), snowshoe hare (1900), raven (1900), porcupine (1906) and prairie chicken (1934).
A very interesting museum indeed.
I was still thinking about all that when I listened to Frank Sinatra in traffic going through Chicago. The Wrigley Building is still the most beautiful part of the skyline but not by any means the tallest these days. Things change.
And now I am just in Wisconsin - ‘home’ of cheese (there are cheese factories, cheese adverts and restaurants offering cheese curds everywhere).
The highpoint today was success in a cemetery – but that’ll be going into the book so it’s a secret.
Much of today was doing domestic stuff. I bought some water to keep hydrated as I drive, and filled up with gas at the same time. A nice lady at the gas station and I talked about the oil boom in this part of Ohio – everywhere has oilmen, which means that fuel prices are low (lots of competition) but room prices are high (lots of competition for a limited resource). She thought I was Australian and had a nice accent.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Coshocton today. It’s a convenient centre for things I want to do – visit cemeteries, see old trees and see a stuffed bird (tomorrow).
But Coshocton is full of nice people – they may all hate Obama, for all I know, but they seemed very nice to me.
The lady in Walgreens, where I bought toothpaste and a new pair of cheap specs (having sat on one of my two pairs – silly me, but that’s why I buy cheap ones (so that I can enjoy sitting on them!)) pointed me in the direction of Bob Evans for breakfast but nearby was a place much more my scene – Jerry’s family restaurant - where I had two eggs easy over and hash browns (very nice too). Next door is the Motel where I am staying.
A very nice lady (a lot of ladies aren’t there?) in the optometrists on Main Street replaced a screw (no I didn’t have one loose) in my RayBans and wouldn’t take any money for it – even a couple of dollars for charity. She hadn’t heard of passenger pigeons but she might buy my book when I’ve written it. She also pointed me to Radio Shack where I looked for a battery for my camera.
My plan was to take photos every day but on my last day in the UK I realised the rechargeable battery was flat and wouldn’t charge. I have been searching for a battery, not very hard so far, ever since. Radio Shack seemed a possibility.
Radio Shack didn’t have the battery I wanted but they gave me some help. There was a man (see – I do talk to men, when I must) and also a young lady. I asked about good places to eat and was pointed to The Warehouse which is near the motel and where I have just had a very fine burger, salad and sweet potato fries, with Pepsi, for $8 – good food and excellent value. I also bought a charger for my phone – see, very domestic. The young lady was very quiet and I said to her ‘You think I’m mad don’t you?’ and she said ”No, I wish you’d stay and talk to us all day’. I probably blushed but since none of us had a camera we’ll never know.
Neither of them knew of the passenger pigeon but the guy confused it with the carrier pigeon – quite a few people do.
I checked into the Motel and the lady there knew nothing about the passenger pigeon. And then I did some washing – there are shirts and socks dripping dry in the shower right now.
But then I went to see some old trees!! Twice in two days!
The Johnson Memorial State Preserve is about 200acres of old growth deciduous woodland an hour and a bit north of here. It is a really lovely spot.
It has red oak, white oak, pin oak, beech, shagbark hickory, black cherry, white ash, sugar maple and white ash (because the interpretation boards say so). It also has a pair of red-eyed vireos feeding their young – ‘cos I say so.
Many of the trees are over 400 years old. There is lots of dead wood and, really, I thought there was a lot of birdsong. Some of the trees are enormous. It was another glimpse into what the woodland would have looked like when the passenger pigeon was the commonest bird on Earth.
And this wood, this small remnant, was in an area where there are good records for tree cover through the 19th century. Even in 1800 practically the whole township was woodland like this with the main gaps being in the boggy areas. And this area, Wayne County, was an area much used by passenger pigeons for winter roosts too.
Tomorrow I am off to Columbus to see Buttons – I hope.
PS Yesterday I checked the BBC news to see what had happened in the Test Match and got the news about tornadoes in Oklahoma – and it’s on the TV all the time here of course. It’s a long way from here – but Shreveport (night 1) had a tornado warning for today. And in a couple of weeks I’ll be quite close to Oklahoma. The destructive power of nature, eh?
Today I had the worst breakfast I’ve ever had in the USA so the names and locations in this tale have been changed to protect the guilty. But the food was not the worst part (there are happier bits later in the blog).
The coffee wasn’t good, the eggs were only OK, the toast wasn’t good and the home fries were poor. But the place had a sort of lack-lustre character about it. There was no waitress, only, shall we call him Gerald (not, definitely not, his real name)?
Gerald’s regulars were all men above the age of, I guess, 60. Some came and some went but at any one time 80% of them had baseball caps on, and at any one time about a third of the baseball caps were John Deere. We are talking rural Ohio here.
And that’s important because rural Ohio is different from urban Ohio. Ohio is a bit like, in political terms, my home constituency of Corby. How – you might ask? Answer – it’s a swing state, like Corby is a swing constituency. The voters of both change their minds when the country changes its mind.
Ohio is very good at it too.
Most of Ohio, geographically, voted Red in the last Presidential, which confusingly for we Brits means it voted for the Right not the Left. Only the cities were Blue, and the three main cities are the three Cs; Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. But lots of people live in cities and so the overall vote was Blue (for Obama the man of the ‘Left’).
It’s rather like that in Corby too – Corby votes Labour, the small towns vote one way or the other and the countryside votes Tory.
Where I had breakfast, quite a poor breakfast, was rural and probably Right-leaning.
When I arrived and sat down there was talk of potatoes and racoons as garden pests – they could have been Countryside Alliance members for all I know. Then one guy pipes up, let’s call him Clarence, and asks:
‘That Obama done good. Done reduced tax on us. What do you think of him now? He done good.’
This remark may have been uttered to get the torrent of disagreement that it evoked – Clarence struck me as that type. One of Clarence’s friends said:
‘Don’t trust him. Good at playing dumb.’ which I have been thinking about all day. Very profound.
The conversation then turned to agricultural matters for a while before Clarence said he had bought some metal monkeys and they were rare (Can’t get ‘em on the internet’) but he was prepared to sell, at profit, which he suggested was over $25. He talked about these two monkeys for a while, and the crowd got interested (and so was I but trying not to show it) so Clarence got a monkey from the car.
It was an ugly little thing, hollow cast, and certainly a monkey. Clarence said it was made of ‘that yellow metal’ – someone said ‘gold?’, and Clarence smiled. I don’t think Clarence was anyone’s fool.
There were offers of $2 on the table already but Clarence was holding out for more to recoup what he said he had paid for them – I don’t think Clarence was any sort of fool.
There was apparently a little bit of yellow showing and the conversation centred on them being brass monkeys.
One man said ‘It’s dark’
Clarence ‘Scratch and you’ll see it’s yellow’.
Other man ‘Scratch Obama – what colour’ll he be?’.
Clarence and others ‘Still black’.
Someone ‘Monkey here looks like Obama – might be his ancestor’.
General laughter, then someone asked for wheat toast and gravy.
I don’t think you’d hear that sort of talk in Beans in Oundle!
I am quite shocked at the hatred for Obama in some parts of the USA. I have seen roadside signs saying ‘US threatened by foreign leader – Obama!’ and ‘Obama bringing down US economy with spending policy’.
Now the latter is a fair economic debating point but even I, as an ordinary citizen, haven’t bothered to make a sign criticising the boy-Osborne’s duff economic policy and put it in the garden.
Is it just a political difference? Is it fuelled by the fact that Obama is young? or good looking? Maybe the fact that he is clever is the problem. Maybe it’s all of these and more. Maybe, dare we say it, it is at least partly because he is black?
It was just an overheard conversation over a bad breakfast – but it left a worse taste in my mouth than did the breakfast.
But happily I met some really nice people, who were really helpful, and put me in the direction of Dysart Woods where there is a chunk of old growth forest. I stood by oaks and beech that were around 400 years old. When the passenger pigeon was still at its most abundant these trees were alive.
Some trees there have been dated to 600 years old – before Columbus arrived. This forest may resemble the forests before Europeans invaded America. Certainly some of the trees probably had passenger pigeons perching in them over the years. If they could talk they would talk of the rivers of pigeons passing by unpredictably and in search of acorns and beech mast.
There is more to tell of these woods and the impact of our management of them on passenger pigeons – but that’s for another time and place. But it’s late, and I need to sleep and dream of ancient forests and rivers of pigeons flooding the skies.
One of the noticeable things about America is the number and variety of churches. I don’t go to church but I am quite proud of my local church at home. It has an impressive spire, medieval wall paintings and has dominated the landscape for hundreds of years. If I come home after dark I can look along my street and see the lit spire of St Peter’s, erect as it has been for centuries, and that makes me feel content.
But America hasn’t been around for building churches for centuries and so many churches are very modern, rather small, and instead of being at the geographic centre of the community they are on the edge and surrounded by a parking lot.
I didn’t go to church but I paid my respects to nature (and Man, a bit) in four different ways.
I started with some early morning birding in the John James Audubon State Park – no breakfast today! This was the first birding (rather than looking out of the car window and wondering what most things flying past were) I’ve done. It was good to have a few hours to stroll around the Park and add some species to my list.
Here are some of the highlights; hooded merganser, American redstart, chipping sparrow, Carolina wren, cedar waxwing, parula warbler, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, American goldfinch, eastern wood pewee…
And there were lots of eastern bluebirds, and I was in Kentucky, so it seems appropriate to remind you of the words of the song:
Kentucky bluebird, fly away
And take a message to Martha, message to Martha
When it looked like it might rain I nipped out to fill up with gas and buy a coffee. At the gas station I was told ‘I love your accent’ to which I replied that I loved her’s too. By the way, I should have said, Kaitlin ‘sweet-hearted’ me yesterday but I got no ‘honey’ from Karen the day before.
Back to the John James Audubon State Park for a spot more birding and a wait for the Museum to open. I watched, and listened to, Carolina wrens at close quarters and I think I have their song fixed now. Although, to be fair, I had thought it was one that I knew. ‘tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle’ describes it quite well but the first I heard today made me think ‘thrush’ not ‘wren’. I wonder how many extra species I would have recorded if I had ‘American ears’?
Birding was my first way to pay my respects. Visiting the Museum was my second. It’s an unprepossessing building from the outside – a bit Victorian gaunt I thought it looked, but it opened in 1938.
The centre has a shop (I bought postcards), a discovery room (where a father and elder brother were encouraging the younger brother’s interest in nature (nice to see)), a gallery downstairs which had an exhibition of local artists (I skipped that) and a viewing gallery over some bird feeders (stunning American goldfinch) as well as the Museum.
The Museum is superb, at least it is if you are a fan of JJA (and I am). You get his life history, an account of his meeting with Alexander Wilson (it was a bit cool -and you would have thought that a Frenchman and a Scot could at least have found common ground moaning about the English!) and a look at his art.
On December 6, 2010, a copy of Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book. The Museum has four original double elephant folio copies – and I saw them this morning.
Audubon drew from skins but also from knowledge. But his paintings aren’t very accurate in many respects. The passerines, in particular, often look rather dead! But many of the paintings are incredibly beautiful: for example, the turkey, bald eagle, great blue heron and, yes, the passenger pigeon.
And the work that went into producing the set covering all of America’s known species was phenomenal for that time, 1820s-30s (or any other time, come to that). This was artwork celebrating nature, and I was pleased to go and celebrate JJA in my own little way.
I had a very nice chat to the lady on the desk who seemed knowledgeable about JJA. We agreed he looked rather handsome, and I said he reminded me of the French footballer David Ginola (in the days when he was endorsing L’Oreal hair products) which got us onto Beckham, so it was time to leave.
Next stop, was Cincinnati Zoo where Martha, the last passenger pigeon of her species, died on 1 September 1914. I made the same visit to pay my respects two years ago and nothing much has changed since then – although it is now $15 to get in instead of $10, but still $8 to get out of the car park. I was able to check a few things for my book, but really I couldn’t pass through Ohio without checking in at Cincinnati Zoo, could I?
Just briefly, so far the last few miles of Kentucky approaching Cincinnati have been the only cross-overs with my previous trip. I was interested to see whether the view of Cincinnati that you suddenly get as you sweep down a hill on the I71 and turn to the left, and there it is in all its glory, would impress as much as it did last time – and it did. It’s an impressive, suddenly-revealed view of tall skyscrapers.
Finding the Zoo last time was a nightmare – with satnav this time it was a doddle. I definitely went the quick way and it definitely wasn’t the same way as last time! I was taken, by the female instructing voice of my satnav, past the most priapic of the tall buildings and down Martin Luther King Avenue to the Zoo.
So that was my third homage to nature.
Now I am in Piketon, Ohio. It’s 2230 and I’ve filed my July column to Birdwatch – written in May, out in June, called July.
Piketon is not big but this motel room is clean and cheap. It is, I have noticed while working at this keyboard, close to the railway line – sleep is for wimps!
The nice Indian woman who checked me in told me that Ritchies did a good steak (although she is veggie herself) and as I had only had a couple of doughnuts all day (and lots to drink – it’s been hot) I looked it up. Ritchies was shut so it was take-away pizza from Gio’s.
Just down the road from here, as I have had a look, is the location where the last wild passenger pigeon was shot – in 1900. I’ll have another look tomorrow, and I might tell you about it, or, it might all go in the book!
So, a funny day in a way. Paying homage to live birds early in the day and then a dead Frenchman, a dead caged pigeon and a dead shot pigeon as the day wore on. But it’s been good. It’s been a long day though – how was yours? I’ve been working!
I was writing that last blog just before going out for a quick bite to eat and something to drink.
I sat in Henderson’s On Deck Riverside Bar overlooking the Ohio River. I watched the sun set behind the trees on the other side of the river while sitting outside eating tacos and drinking coke. Well, actually it wasn’t Coca Cola, but nor was it Pepsi; it was RC (Royal Crown cola).
My waitress, Kaitlin wants to be a world history teacher and will be in London fairly soon – but don’t worry (anyone), we did not exchange cell-phone numbers and nor did we talk about passenger pigeons.
Sitting outside, drinking a cool drink and watching the sunset was good. I was planning tomorrow’s travelling and flicking through Sibley to check bird id.
I find it difficult to get American bird songs into my head. Maybe I should stick to evening birding as sitting there I was listening to the characteristic noises of chimney swifts and I picked out the cried of nighthawks too. There were house sparrows chirrupping as well. And the other night-time songster that I associate with jet-lag, because that’s why I’ve heard it at night, is the mockingbird. These four species can be heard in the middle of Washington DC as well as on the banks of the Ohio and many. many points in between, north, south, east and west.
The other thing I could her was music of my vintage coming from the bar – The Eagles and Bob Seger (I have cds of both with me). I’ll have to tell you about music playing in the car, upgrades, sat navs, fuel consumption etc etc as time goes on. Don’t get too excited!
American history must be quite easy – they don’t have as much of it as we do. But then maybe they have more of future than us? Who knows?
Actually (oh!, and by the way, today’s waitress is Susan), the USA seems to have fitted in a revolution, a civil war, a couple of World Wars (although arriving a bit late for both) and lots of other wars in a very short space of time.
I had a refresher on American history on the flight over – I watched Django Unchained and Lincoln so I’ve got the Civil War period more or less taped. If you have a 10-hour flight then the more 2.5 hour films you watch, the better.
I am in historic Henderson, KY. It’s historic because John James Audubon lived here while producing his great work on American birds. I’ve had a quick look at the Audubon State Park and hope to be there at dawn tomorrow listening for warblers and vireos and then looking at the exhibits.
Audubon saw a flock of about one billion passenger pigeons just east of here. Here is a cheap motel on strip of cheap hotels, and cheap eating places just south of the mighty Ohio River.
Audubon’s sighting was about 200 years ago near a place called Hardinsburgh. Hardinsburgh is still there even though there aren’t a billion pigeons there.
It must have been a small place, only about 30 years old, when Audubon stayed there. Today it is clearly a farming town as John Deere and New Holland compete across the road to sell you a tractor on one road into town. There is also a US Department of Agriculture Service Center (!), a Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Services (with an American so-called robin in their parking lot) and Southern States have a 15% off offer on chicken wire.
I was up early and looking for breakfast at Hardinsburgh – where it was drizzling. There was nowhere obvious, but with all those farmers nearby I thought there must be somewhere. So I got some gas from the Marathon station at the crossroads and asked Trish where I should look. After trying to sell me a microwaved sausage bap (fair enough for trying – but no thanks) she told me where to find Jake’s Place. Trish, with her striking dark eye-liner underneath her eyes, had heard of Audubon (and there are quite a lot of businesses, roads and parks named after him here) but not of passenger pigeons. She was very helpful but not a waitress.
Susan is a waitress. She is (not that looks are everything) short, thin, limps in her right leg, is a bundle of energy and quite mouthy! I ordered the special (since this was the first food since breakfast yesterday) of two eggs easy-over, hash browns, ham, toast and coffee. Susan persuaded me to have gravy with it – white gravy.
The food was good but I’m not sure I’ll have white gravy again
I got chatting to two guys from Pennsylvania about passenger pigeons. Susan told us that she had had one in her garden. She’s also, apparently, had ‘that extinct woodpecker’ in her garden too. I wish I’d had an invite!
I liked Susan. She was full of energy and did a huge amount of work while I was there and yet still had conversations with lots of people including me. My suspicion is that Susan is a bit interested in birds but wouldn’t admit it.
Hardinsburgh was a nice stop. It was a good breakfast.
During the day I didn’t track down a passenger pigeon but I visited some places and saw some things that will find their way into my book eventually.
It was a history day and I visited both the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum and the Thomas D. Clark Center (!) for Kentucky History too. I did know, even before watching those two educational films that Abe Lincoln came from Kentucky but I hadn’t realised that Jefferson Davis, his opponent on the Confederate side, was also from Kentucky.
You see, Kentucky’s past was rooted in the South but its future was looking to the abolitionist west and north – it was conflicted. Not so conflicted were the KKK who were (are?) quite strongly represented in Kentucky. Did you know that in the 1890s there were 92 lynchings in Kentucky – 66 of blacks and 26 of whites? Neither did I until today – you see how educational this blog is?
You can’t understand the present without understanding the past (generally speaking). That’s true of race relations, voting in politics and the status of the passenger pigeon.
Today is tomorrow’s past.
And birds? Wild turkey (like on the bourbon bottle), gray (!) catbird and blue-gray (I can’t keep !-ing American spelling mistakes) gnatcatcher were old friends with whom I have become reacquainted. Hoping for at least a couple of hours of proper early morning birding tomorrow.
Jet lag is a funny thing. Despite having a very long day yesterday, and feeling knackered as I crawled into bed, I woke after just over four hours and have been awake from 0230 local time until after 2200 local time (although, the six hours that someone gave me as extras yesterday have been reduced to five somewhere between Shreveport, LA and Henderson, KY. Still, never mind, I’ll get it back in a while!
I drove for most of the day and added two states to my life list: Arkansas and Missouri. I had breakfast too – but I’ll keep that until the end.
Since arriving at Houston yesterday afternoon I have mostly been driving a car. You could say that I have spent two days undoing the progress of the last two hours of the flight – as we flew over here a while before landing.
Imagine yourself birding from the UK’s motorways and A-roads – you’d tend to see large, obvious birds and a lot of the small stuff would go down as unidentified. That’s what it’s like for me here too.
The first three birds I saw on arrival were; common grackle, great-tailed grackle and starling. I’ve seen lots of the common grackles and starlings but only a couple of great-tails. But I have now seen zillions of red-winged blackbirds which has reminded me of how red their wing patches are.
Here is a selection of other species: lesser snow goose (a flock in a field in Arkansas), turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, killdeer, eastern meadowlark, white ibis, a few herons, American so-called robin, eastern phoebe, northern mockingbird, ‘our’ collared dove, mourning dove, distant unidentified terns, unidentified small woodpeckers flying across the road, barn swallow, cliff swallow, rough-winged swallow, chimney swift and the nighthawk outside my motel room.
The UK version of this would be similar – wouldn’t it? Some raptors, corvids, hirundines, swift and pigeons with a few other things thrown in (and some pheasants?).
This isn’t primarily a birding trip, but I will see some birds whilst here, and I might even see a passerine or two as time goes on.
As I stopped outside Red’s Restaurant on the 79 near Fordyce, AR, I heard a familiar song. There are very few songs of US birds that I have committed to memory but this one has stuck, thanks to good teaching by Wallace Kornack in Rock Creek Park two years ago.
I remembered the song as being like a very loud marsh tit call – I just couldn’t immediately remember which American species made this noise. Having thought about it over several hundred miles I now remember it was the ovenbird.
Red’s Restaurant had eight customers as I entered to be the ninth. Our waitress, Karen (and I have been challenged to tell you the names of all waitresses involved in this journey and I intend to meet the challenge), gave me a smile and the menu and went off to get a coffee mug for me.
The other customers had all given me the once-over as I entered, but they had also all nodded or even muttered a ‘good morning’.
I opted for cheese omelette and hash browns, with toast and orange juice as my start to the day – although to be fair, I had been awake for six hours already and this meal was the only one of the day.
The omelette (or in American, omelet) was fine (although no better than I could have cooked myself) but the hash browns were perfect – browned and tasty slivers of potato.
Altogether this was a very good breakfast experience. I was struck, as I have been before, that everyone else in Red’s knew each other, greeted each other by their names as they arrived and said goodbye when they left. Red’s seemed part of the community – and maybe an important part too.
Karen buzzed about, fuelling the atmosphere with both food and remarks to individuals and the room.
It was a rest from driving, a refuelling stop for the body but also a refreshing reminder of the atmosphere of rural America.
I paid, tipped, asked Karen her name (!), nodded to the room and stepped outside to be regaled by the sound of what seemed to be a giant marsh tit – for it was very loud.
Hash browns, ovenbirds and waitresses – I was back in the USA.
Please do leave comments on this blog – but note that they are likely only to be moderated at the beginning and end of my day (which is going to be between five and eight hours out of synch from the UK readership’s days). Thank you to those who commented yesterday. I now have a cell phone and its number is 870-575-2654
I am writing this in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s been a long day so it will be a short blog.
The day started in the UK at 430 am and at 430 pm I set off in my hire car from George Bush (presumably Snr, but maybe both) International Airport, Houston, TX . It’s now 930 pm so that’s 17 hours but you also have to add in the 6 hours time difference so it’s been a long day. And I got 15 minutes sleep on the 10 hour flight. But I’m not complaining as I have seen a new species of bird, a new species of mammal and two new US states.
The mammal wasn’t looking at its best as it was squashed on the road, but I’ve never seen an armadillo before – and this was presumably the 9-banded one that has, I seem to remember, identical quads.
The bird was a bit frustrating as it was a scissor-tailed flycatcher – a stunning looking bird (according to the books) with an unmistakeable tail (according to the look I had before the lights turned green in Lufkin (what a lovely name!), TX. Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are, but not if they are small birds with amazing tails.
New birds that you see on Day 1 of a trip are ones that you tend to think ‘Oh I expect I”ll see plenty of them’ but I am, even now, teetering on the edge of this species’s range and will only reenter it after three weeks, or depending on route taken, maybe closer to six weeks – so one can’t be too sure.
Just a short blog to tell the world, but more particularly the few people who will be looking out, that I arrived safely and that the trip is underway.
Please do leave comments on this blog – but note that they are likely only to be moderated at the beginning and end of my day (which is going to be between five and eight hours out of synch from the UK readership’s days.
I liked Conor’s previous book, but I like this one even more. Whereas in Silent Spring Revisited Conor lived through the events described but seemed, to me, to be a little detached from them, this is a book where he describes what he did, and where he went, to get to grips better with a magnificent but elusive bird.
He takes us to Berlin, Cornell, Bedfordshire, the Peak District and many other places on the trail of goshawks and those who admire, watch and protect this bird. We are accompanied, on parts of the journey, by TH White, William Henry Hudson, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, and many other famous and erudite folk, but also by a bunch of Conor’s colleagues at the RSPB (where he works).
I’ve rarely seen a goshawk. That’s not an unusual experience – or lack of an experience. They are not that common, but even where they are present they show themselves with more discretion than do, say, kites or buzzards. There may be goshawks near you but you may not realise they are there.
As far as this book is concerned, you don’t need to have seen a goshawk to enjoy it. You don’t even need to want to see a goshawk to enjoy it. Conor’s cultured writing and enthusiasm for the natural world and the people, like him, who care about it, will carry you along through the chapters.
Nice cover to – by Darren Woodhead.
Published by Bloomsbury.
Lucy McRobert is an environmental historian, nature writer, wildlife blogger and Creative Director of the ‘A Focus On Nature’ scheme, which seeks to encourage young people into nature conservation careers in Britain. She gained a First Class degree from the University of Nottingham in 2012; she has written for Nottinghamshire Today in conjunction with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, the Ghosts of Gone Birds international art/conservation symposium, 2020 Vision (2012) and was runner-up in BBC Wildlife magazines ‘Nature Writer of the Year’ competition (2012), as well as blogging regularly for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
I’ve heard my generation dubbed as many things: the Millennial generation; Generation Y; and even, to my lasting mortification, the ‘TOWIE’ generation. But, there’s one adjective that I’m rather fond of and that is the ‘Facebook’ generation. Whatever your opinion may be of the internet and social media, there’s no getting away from the fact that it was a member of this young, dynamic and intelligent generation who challenged and transformed the way that we view communication, marketing and advertising in the twenty-first century; and like every other industry in the world, British nature conservation has had to adapt, too.
Since Stephen Moss’s Natural Childhood for the National Trust (2012), adapted from Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005), Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) has become a cause célèbre for nature conservation policy-makers and professionals. There is a growing anxiety that children are becoming isolated from the natural world, wary of the supposed dangers, symptoms of our society’s over-reliance on protection laws, stranger-danger and our dependence on modern technology. Many investigations have outlined the potential problems as a consequence – a deficit in the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of our children, and a lack of empathy and understanding of the natural world, with potentially dire consequences for the wider environment.
However, let us examine the bigger picture, which is that ‘Facebook Nature’ (my own terminology) has succeeded in bringing the great outdoors directly into the home, allowing for access and interaction with wildlife in a way that simply isn’t possible in physical terms for most ordinary, hardworking, urban/suburban people. So I’d like to raise a glass to just a few of the positive things that the internet and social media have done for the British nature conservation movement.
FOLLOW THE LEADER – Looking at the basics, Twitter and Facebook have played a staggering role in allowing the nature-loving British public to interact with wildlife experts, TV personalities and eNGOs. This can be a wonderful experience, to see a photo that you ‘Tweeted’ appear on national television, or get a response from a nature conservation hero. Some random figures: BBC Springwatch – c.50,000 followers, c.60,000 likes; the average Wildlife Trust – c.3,600 followers, c.1,200 likes; the RSPB – c.56,000 followers, c.35,000 likes – not including thousands who only follow their local region or reserve.
SPINNING THE WEB – If there’s one thing I love about reading an online article, it’s the guaranteed barrage of comments underneath that represent a whole variety of opinions. This kind of intelligent and thoughtful debate (well, mostly…) has been aided by the use of forums and blogging to discuss environmental issues; take Mark’s blog for instance: c.9,000 unique visitors per month, with up to 100 comments per post, reaching an audience of politicians, journalists and conservation professionals as well as normal wildlife enthusiasts. Of course, anyone can say anything on a blog or forum without any credentials or expertise, leading to some outrageous, false or plain boring statements, and so must be treated with necessary caution.
STATUS UPDATE – Citizen Science projects have come on leaps and bounds since the development of the internet. Whilst some, like the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch provide a snapshot in time, on-going surveys, for example BirdTrack, contribute to a growing depth and breadth of information, helping to chart arrival/departure dates of migratory species, and contribute to large scale projects such as the BTO Bird Atlas (2007-11). There were over half a million records submitted to BirdTrack in April 2013, along with 14,600 complete lists, showing a staggering response to improvements in technology (the launch of the BirdTrack App). Detailed surveys like this would be more costly, more time-consuming, and less richly sourced were the data still submitted completely in hard copy.
VIRTUAL PEEPSHOW – Whilst there is the possibility that watching nature on a screen may prevent observation in real life, I prefer to view webcams as stepping-stones to watching nature, especially relevant in areas where wildlife may be less visible. They are inclusive, enhancing a communal identity – for school children and students as well as wildlife junkies, and allow for participation with global audiences; the Nottingham Trent University peregrines have attracted 300,000 views this year, and since January, the Brownsea Island Lagoon camera has attracted over 10,000 visitors, with numbers increasing since the return of the terns. Let’s hope that they start replacing soap operas!
YOU’VE BEEN TAGGED – Wildlife does not respect political boundaries, making the protection of migratory animals very difficult. In recent years, eNGOs have made the most of satellite tagging on birds and mammals to track their movements across continents, often allowing sponsors to track the movements of an individual animal. The WWT stirred up support with the tagging of 11 red-breasted geese in Bulgaria recently, but the award for public engagement has to go to the BTO Cuckoo Tracking project, started in 2011. Maybe it was the celebrity involvement; maybe it’s that the sound of the cuckoo resonates with so many; or maybe it was the optimisation of the internet and social media that has ensured the projects on-going success. Go, Team ‘Chris’!
LIKE • COMMENT • SHARE – Whilst e-petitions can be mildly irritating and arguably irrelevant, evidently we’re not happy to let the government have its wicked way with us. The ‘Stop the Badger Cull’ petition is well past 200k signatures – five times more than the hardcopy petition that halted the Grey Seal Cull (1978). And whilst the torrent of Facebook abuse over Richard Benyon’s proposed buzzard cull seems to have been removed, the Independent’s article attracted 103 overwhelmingly negative comments, 416 retweets, and 1,800 Facebook shares. We are yet to perfect our online campaigning techniques, but it certainly is one way to make your voice heard.
#NATURE – To postulate that the internet can even go a tiny way to replacing our connection with the natural world would be flippant, narrow-minded and dangerous; however, when used intelligently and responsibly, it offers the chance to take British nature conservation to an entirely new level of understanding and interaction. It has the power to educate, excite and engage with a wider audience than any single organisation can achieve through hardcopy publications, or that any educational institution can accomplish when shackled by a counter-productive and safety-conscious curriculum. It has succeeded where every government agency or voluntary body has struggled, by creating a local, national, even global wildlife constituency of millions of individuals interested in the preservation of our natural world. The next ten years will show yet more dramatic changes not only in our ecosystems, but also in the way that we communicate these challenges to a mass audience; it is up to us to decide how far nature and technology can realistically work together for mutual gain.
Thanks to Sarah Thorp (Nottingham Trent University Environment Team); Erin McDaid (Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust); Nick Moran (BirdTrack); Paul Stancliffe (BTO); Paul Morton (Birds of Poole Harbour); Rob Lambert (University of Nottingham); and of course, Mark!