Guest blog – Through the Looking Glass by Colin Rees

Colin Rees is a life-long natural scientist and has worked as an environment/biodiversity specialist for international organizations in over 80 countries. He is co-author of Birds of a Feather: Seasonal Changes on Both Sides of the Atlantic (reviewed here) and author of A History of Cornish Ornithology: the path to conservation and Nature’s Calendar: a year in the life of a wildlife sanctuarypublished by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is Committee Chair of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership and divides his time between Annapolis and the Cotswolds.

Jonathan Rosen:  Bird watching is really all about the quest for balance – between the curious animal at the near end of the binoculars and the wild animal at the far end; between the classifiable and the ineffably mysterious; between our killing, conquering urges and our impulse toward conservation.    

Along with birders, butterfly watchers celebrate the fall of the year with its promise of strays and vagrants. Both parties frequently share the same habitats, but it’s surprising how little curiosity they have about the other’s interest. On one occasion, my wife and I had waded into a flowering bush on the edge of a forest to admire some butterflies and other insects, when out popped three birders with a pointed question: “Anything of interest? We’ve just seen a Tennessee Warbler” “Yes,” we replied, “we’re looking at migrant red admirals and question marks.” A squall of pain crossed their faces and they quickly turned heel in search of more compelling rewards – for them!

Such monocular vision compartmentalizes the natural world and denies the viewer the joy opening up nature’s full tapestry: new worlds, new insights and “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” as Darwin put it.  Since childhood I have collected bird and other faunal identification guides and now have some 150 covering many countries and hotspots. I still collect them, especially when visiting another part of the world or finding one that’s been updated. Over the years improved artwork and, to a lesser degree, photography have rendered the images clean and healthy as if untouched by nature. But here’s the rub: with their tendency to project a narrow view of the natural world, individual species become separated from their habitat and ultimately concern for their protection. Such sanitization and disjunction brings costs to a full understanding of birdlife and the threats it faces, indeed the larger natural world.

Roger Tory Peterson stated, “Make a birder, and you make a conservationist” and some of his kaleidoscopic illustrations on flycatchers promoted a move toward that end. His statement sustained a belief that connections between field guides and conservation were beyond question: knowing more about plants and animals makes for a wider knowledge of the natural world. True some recent field guides have begun to build this relationship – such as The Crossley ID Guides and The Sibley Guide to Birds along with guides for specific localities – yet most continue to ignore crucial aspects of the species’ ecological health with the result that causal relationships that the birdwatcher might forge with natural habitat remain elusive.

Books, it seems, do best at showing how birds look; they fare less well in representing their sound and habitat or niche. Consequently, electronic means are now being increasingly developed, such that birdwatching is but one way of studying birds. The next step must be to inculcate an appreciation of the birds’ context (habitat) thereby encouraging birdwatching in many dimensions and deepening interaction with the natural environment.

John Griggs’ All the Birds of North America points the way. He arranges species by their feeding adaptations and field-recognizable characteristics along with images of birds living in highly modified landscapes. It is a major departure from traditional biological illustration and taxonomy and grounds avifauna in a more ‘realistic’ setting. Such a guide invites the user to comprehend the ecological niches in which birds live and to ponder the need for their protection. In a profound sense it is mainstreaming the findings of ornithology and scientific inquiry, as was the case at the end of the 19th century when the authors of field guides regarded themselves as naturalists and argued for conservation.

South African ornithologists have taken Grigg’s approach to another level by asking what habitat the bird is in and observing a bird’s behavior. Illustrations are provided for each major summer and winter habitats along with descriptions of the behavior of the birds present.

In his Guide to Bird Watching, published in 1943, Joseph Hickey called on fellow bird watchers to re-tool their hobby in a world “full of prejudice and politics and loose thinking” (sound familiar?). He laid out certain principles “that should govern the thinking and conduct of every birdwatcher” and that have resonance in today’s world:

      1. More than ever before, the conservation movement now demands the mutual cooperation of many people interested in diverse things;
      2. Many of the needs of conservation can be met by community action;
      3. Last-minute laws and eleventh-hour sanctuaries are sorry efforts to correct long-continued land abuse and lack of long-range planning; and,
      4. Misuse of wildlife is but a symptom of universal land abuse.

Hickey maintained that conservation is a product of “intelligence times persistence” and called on bird watchers to have plenty of both. We must hold that while it is worthwhile and enjoyable to observe and protect wildlife in its totality, we must not hide in bird blinds and leave nature to cure itself.

Happily, some bird watching societies and clubs, such as the MOS, have appointed conservation chairs and funded species and habitat conservation initiatives, sometimes using state wildlife action plans. Such plans often coalesce around partnerships with conservation bodies as well as state and federal government funded projects. Citizen science contributes substantially to these endeavors, especially in the areas of monitoring and habitat restoration.

But are we not missing the next step? Many of the tools are available – conservation strategies, remote sensing and other modern technology, workshops and human resources. But we need to bring these together into a coherent whole so that a more systematic approach may be adopted. That is the challenge.


4 Replies to “Guest blog – Through the Looking Glass by Colin Rees”

  1. Superb blog Colin, many thanks – I had never heard of Joseph Hickey, his principles are spot on. I’m very interested in raising the very low public profile of the many species that are struggling because of a lack of deadwood. One idea is that tree guides mention associated species for the relevant dead/dying tree. They should also do more re species that live on live trees, alder buckthorn being the foodplant for brimstone butterflies is often the sole example provided. Galls would be another good one.

    Since many tree guides highlight how people use the wood each tree if anything noting linked fauna and flora should be more appropriate. A particular caterpillar on a leaf could even help confirm what a tree is, or a beetle emerging from a stump indicate what tree it was. There’s also some really interesting work using hydrophones to assess what species live in ponds – I’m positive that young kids especially would be blown away by the sounds a hydrophone can pick up from a half decent pond, it’s like the soundtrack from a science fiction film.

    1. Les,
      Thanks for your reply. Good to know that someone is concerned about deadwood and its role in woodland ecosystems.
      Curiously, I have just started reading James Nardi’s The Hidden Company That Trees Keep: Life from the Tree Tops to Root Tip, a most revealing account how trees fend off predators, develop immune responses and recycle their nutrients. Other accounts I have read recently includeDavid George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature and Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
      All highly readable and providing insights to woodland ecology.
      Hope this helps.

        1. Your note on aquatic insects reminds me of an entry in my Nature’s Calendar: A Year in the Life of a Wildlife Sanctuary:
          Noises Under Water
          As a child and later as an aquatic ecologist, I was drawn to the whirligigs and water striders effortlessly plying water surfaces and water boatman and great diving beetles swimming below. But only now do I learn that these and other water denizens produce sounds that are the loudest in the animal kingdom relative to their body size. Scientists have recorded water boatman “singing” at up to 99.2 decibels, the equivalent of listening to a loud orchestra.

          The 2mm lesser water boatman makes the sound by rubbing its penis, a stridulatory peg, over a plectrum to cause a pulse of sonic vibrations. The more pegs scrapped over the plectrum, the more variable the pitch, intensity and rhythm of the sound. Researchers say the song is a courtship display performed to attract a mate and that sexual selection could be the reason why the insects’ songs reach such high amplitude. “We assume that this could be the result of a runaway selection,” biologist and co-author Dr. Jerome Sueur from the Museum of Natural History, Paris, told the BBC. “Males try to compete to have access to females and then try to produce a song as loud as possible potentially scrambling the song of competitors.”
          What makes the water boatman extraordinary is that the area they use to create sound only measures about 50 micrometers across, roughly the width of a human hair.

          Source: Sueur et al, 2011

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