Remarkable Birds – a Times book of the year

remarkable-birdsThis was a very pleasant surprise!  When I returned home yesterday evening, in time to watch Strictly, after a lovely day at a Dorset Bird Club/BTO conference, my Mum was on the ‘phone reading me this review of Remarkable Birds which appeared in The Times as a book of the year in the ‘outdoors’ category:

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery
If I don’t always agree with the environmental solutions of the former RSPB director Mark Avery, I do admire his fight for birds. Here the Birdman has curated a “showcase” of 67 significant birds that we share, or have shared, planet Earth with. Songbirds, raptors, useful birds, adored birds. Avery’s pen portraits are exquisite, as are the hundreds of accompanying antique paintings and drawings by the likes of Audubon and Thornton. The book is like holding gold or jewels. I cannot put it down.
Thames & Hudson, 240pp, £24.95

Thank you very much John Lewis-Stempel!


Sunday book review – Walking with Birds by Colin Whittle



This is a very pleasant book of observations of birds around the author’s home in the Lake District. There is a lot about the flight of Buzzards and the song of Blackbirds.

I really liked the author’s watercolours of the views and some birds of the Lake District and nearby areas although I’m not sure that the cover was well-chosen with that monster Buzzard dominating the landscape.  Their style reminded me of Rowland Hilder’s Kent oast houses which used to hang in our dining room in my youth.

This is a homely and soft book into which you can settle like you might into a comfy armchair. It is a largely comforting read.


Walking with Birds by Colin Whittle is published by Brambleby books.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.  Updated paperback edition now out.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson.

I have a few hardback copies of  A Message from Martha left to sell at paperback prices – but not many.


Tim Melling – Nightjar


Tim writes: Like Desert Island Discs, if I had to choose just eight species of bird to be stranded on a desert island with, Nightjar would definitely be on the list.  It took me ages but I finally succeeded in finding a nest of my local Nightjars in the Peak District moors.  This is quite an achievement as they are extraordinarily elusive. The camouflage is unbelievably effective and by sitting motionless they do not betray their presence.  Another adaptation is visible here, the fan of rictal bristles around the bill which increases their insect-catching ability as they fly around open-mouthed.  I suppose it’s a bit like a baseball glove increasing the area of catch.

The scientific name Caprimulgus translates as goat-milker from the ancient belief (dating back before Aristotle) that Nightjars fed from goat udders, which caused them to stop producing milk, and eventually to go blind.  This seems to be based on the simple observation that they have large mouths that might be capable of clamping on a goat’s udder, but is really to catch insects with.  Because milk is a mammalian product, birds have never evolved the enzyme lactase that enables them to digest milk.  It was fat that the Blue Tits used to steal off the top of the milk, and they stopped doing this once our tastes changed to low-fat semi-skimmed milk.

Taken with Nikon D7000 and Nikkor 80-400mm at 400mm  1/400 f5.6 IDO 800


Saturday carton by Ralph Underhill



British Beavers Back to stay

rewildingEurasian Beavers living in northern Britain, Scotland actually, are to be given legal protection so that they can spread their range naturally.

This is a big step forward for rewilding proponents and anti-de-wilding proponents but I forecast trouble ahead. Already the NFUS is up in arms about this and has said that proper management of the species would be needed and John Mackay, a potato grower from Angus, is reported as suggesting that proper management might include destroying Beaver dams wherever they are built. It’s always good to have an evidence-based position and seek the common ground (which might be a bit sodden in this case).

I hope to post a guest blog from the Scottish Wildlife Trust on this subject on Monday – the rewilding theme continues.

Here are links to news coverage of the announcement by the Scottish government:






I’m delighted that Beavers are back and partly through properly regulated pilot projects but they are also back through illegal releases. How should we feel about that?

I think that conservationists are getting fed up with the illegal killing of protected species such as Pine Martens, Wildcats, Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers (to name but a few) and we will see more and more unlicensed and therefore illegal reintroductions going on both north and south of the Border. I’d be surprised if van loads of Pine Martens aren’t already finding their ways to English forests (as well as properly licensed to Welsh ones) and more of this will happen. Mammals may be a better bet than most bird species as they sometimes remain largely unnoticed until their populations are reasonably well-established.

Given that governments north and south of the Border are being slow to clamp down on illegality which kills protected species, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if those who wish to help those and other persecuted species think they’ll bend the rules too. Raptor persecution is illegal but happens routinely and has massive impacts on the status of protected species whereas a reintroduction project requires licences and all that red tape that landowners usually complain about. You can’t let some native White-tailed Eagles go in East Anglia but you can let 40+ million non-native Pheasants out each year. It’s all a bit of a mess.  And that’s what happens when the criminality is allowed to continue.