Ralph Underhill cartoon


Ralph Underhill: http://orangejam.boldlight.co.uk/



Cley: past present and future

I’ll be at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Visitor Centre tomorrow morning signing copies of my book, Fighting for Birds, for anyone who wants a copy (or copies – remember Christmas isn’t that far away).

I have many happy memories of Cley, but before we get on to them, and how you can help to give future generations happy memories of this fantastic place too, let me just say ‘Thank you!’ to Stephen Moss for his fantastic review of Fighting for Birds in the current issue of Birdwatch.

Cley NWT Visitor Centre. Photo Richard Osbourne.

Now Cley, and its famous East Bank, was one of the places that I really wanted to visit as a kid keen on birds.  Eventually I did get there, on a family holiday, and it lived up to expectations and produced my first ever bittern and first ever bearded tit – just the type of birds a West Country boy hoped to see in East Anglia.

I’ve kept going back to Cley over the last 40 years for the birds, for the birders and for the fantastic scenery.

Over the years I’ve seen little auks, Sabine’s gulls, pomarine skuas, grey phalaropes and sooty shearwaters off-shore; great reed warbler, black-winged pratincole, barred warbler, dusky warbler on the reserve or very nearby and hosts of waders from Kentish plover, Temminck’s stint and pectoral sandpipers on the marshes.  Throw in the waxwings, ospreys, glaucous gulls, spoonbills etc and it is a place with many great birding memories.

Cley has been the place for many chance-encounters with friends and in the early days of my visits was a place to learn from the great Richard Richardson (who was a kind mentor to young birders) and encounter the rather gruff former-warden Billy Bishop.

Golden plover at NWT Cley Marshes, February 2009, Anna Guthrie

But even on a completely birdless day – and there aren’t many of them – Cley is a beautiful place if you can lift your eyes and your heart away from simple bird-spotting.  As you look back south across the marshes from the shingle beach it is a glorious view. The flatness of the marshes and reedbeds stretches away to the coast road and behind that in front of you lies the new visitor centre which is actually rather attractive (and if, instead, you are inside the visitor centre you have a wonderful view north to the coast (and just behind you on the shelves are copies of Fighting for Birds)).

To the right lies the village of Cley, where birders come to die, and where sits the attractive windmill that stars on many postcards.  Inside Cley is the George Hotel (I don’t know what it is like now – probably very nice – but it has never had the friendliest reputation in my experience) and the Pinkfoot Gallery on the other side of the road from the Cley delicatessen which will sell you a decent wine and a decent sun-dried tomato to make up your picnic! In the valley of the River Glaven there is Wiveton church near where I saw one of my last UK great grey shrikes quite a few years ago.

Back on the beach though, the church to your right which dominates the skyline is that of Blakeney set on the hill dominating the westward view.

Bring your gaze back across the reeds and marshes in front of you and you may well see a marsh harrier, little egret or avocet in flight.  Look further east and you look towards Salthouse where its fine church dominates that part of the view.  Behind it is Salthouse Heath where nightjars still churrrrrr in summer alongside the occasional burst of nightingale song.

This must appeal!

Between you and Salthouse, and north of the coast road, lies a mixture of reed-fringed fields which I have walked past and driven past often, but never penetrated although all that may change if the Norfolk Wildlife Trust are successful in their appeal to raise £1m.

If NWT can buy this land then they will be able to improve its management for wildlife and the access that birders like you and I have to this beautiful and bird-rich part of the north Norfolk coast.

I wish them every success – why not donate to the appeal and tell the world what Cley means to you.

Maybe I’ll see you on Saturday morning at Cley NWT between 10am and 12 midday, but if not then maybe we’ll catch up at RSPB Titchwell between 1pm and 3pm?


Marsh Award for Ornithology 2012 – Professor Jeremy Wilson

Yesterday evening, at the Mall Galleries, surrounded by beautiful artwork,  Professor Jeremy Wilson of the RSPB Conservation Science team received the Marsh Award for Ornithology.

I’ve known Jeremy for many years and he is both a very nice and a very bright bloke.  Here’s what he said to me:


MIA: How do you feel about getting this award?

Prof Wilson: Very surprised, and also delighted!  And then reflective.  I’ve been very lucky indeed to have a family who encouraged a germinating natural history interest (not just birds!) from an early age, and then to have worked with and learned from some of the best ecologists, conservation biologists and ornithologists around, whether in Edinburgh, Oxford, Thetford or Sandy.

MIA: where did you grow up?

Prof Wilson: Keighley,West Yorkshire, and spent the first 9 years of my life living in a village called Steeton, just on the edge of the Dales.

MIA: When did you start birding?

Prof Wilson: My first birding memory is of seeing a Treecreeper in our back garden and identifying it in the Observer’s Book of Birds. Determined efforts to build on that success by finding a Hoopoe down at the local playing fields were never rewarded.  I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.  After that, I think my birding life got started as a consequence of a better field guide, some binoculars and very patient and supportive parents ferrying me (and my mystified younger brother – but he got the bug too in time!) to local and not so local sites such as Knotford Nook, Bolton Abbey, Fairburn Ings, Leighton Moss and Spurn Head.  By the age of 12, family holidays started to become focused around birdwatching – often to Suffolk or the north Norfolk coast.

MIA: Would you call yourself a birder as well as a scientist, conservationist etc?

Prof Wilson: Yes, and I’d have to confess to the occasional twitch.  For the most part though a relaxing day of walking and birdwatching is just a great way to recharge the batteries and remind myself what the long days in a meeting room or behind this computer screen are for.

MIA: What was the highlight of your PhD study?

Prof Wilson: Hmm, tricky.  Three years studying the social organisation and display behaviour of great tits in an East Lothian wood doesn’t set one up for a life of thrills and spills, unless you count repeatedly digging a car out of deep snow.  However, I’ll try two answers, one related to the birds and one to the people.

The birds;  I got to to know my birds very well indeed – as individuals – and came to realise just how astonishingly variable different individuals are in the way they live their lives – even within one local population.  After a while, I could have taken the colour rings off and still been able to identify the majority of the birds simply by their behavioural individuality.  I miss that deep knowledge of birds as individuals, rather than populations.

The people;  Edinburgh was a real hive of activity in avian ecology during the late 1980s, and I was fortunate to work alongside and be educated by some of the most skilled field ornithologists I know – Andy Evans (who has become a lifelong friend), Phil Whitfield, Nigel Clark and Will Cresswell – as well as two of the most inspiring teachers I know; Aubrey Manning and John Deag.

MIA: and After your Ph.D.?

Prof Wilson: After my PhD (1986-1989) it was (i) two further years in Edinburgh (1990-1991) as a Royal 1851 Commission fellow, working on dispersal of dippers, (ii) two years at BTO (1992-1993) running the first study of bird responses to organic farming, (iii) three years at Oxford with John Krebs, establishing a group working  on problems related to the decline of farmland bird populations (and working increasingly closely with RSPB during that time), then (iv) moving to RSPB in 1996 as a Research Biologist, where I have been ever since; moving to Scotland in 2001.

MIA: What’s your favourite bird?

Prof Wilson: Corn Bunting and Dipper are neck-and-neck here in the UK.  Globally, it has to be the Kakapo; definitely the bird I’d most like to see before I die!

MIA: Your favourite place to go birding?

Prof Wilson: The Western Isles machair.  Not often bestrewn with rarities (though it has its moments) but Ellen and I have fallen in love with the place and in May and June it remains an astonishing wildlife spectacle from corncrakes to corn buntings to corn marigolds; the embodiment of ‘High Nature Value’ farming.  Long may it remain so.

MIA: What’s the biggest challenge for conservation science (small ‘c’ small ‘s’) on birds in the UK?

Prof Wilson: Oh dear, I suspected you’d end on a difficult one. It’s not going to sound very original, but I think it’s impossible to escape the fact that we need a much better understanding of how bird populations are actually responding to climate change rather than simply predicting how they might.  The work on golden plover led by James Pearce-Higgins when he was at RSPB is an excellent example of the kind of work we desperately need more of to help us plan intelligently through a changing 21st century.  Underneath that broad climate change umbrella, I think I would look to our seabird populations as the bird assemblage for which the UK matters most in a global context.  Beyond the coasts on which they nest, our knowledge of the ecological and conservation needs of our seabird populations remains perilously limited given the the combined and growing pressures of climate change, offshore energy developments and fisheries, and the complete lack of an offshore protected area network.  New GPS tagging technologies are beginning to give us real insights into the places and ecological conditions that support the prey on which different seabirds depend, but we wont be able to tag all species in all places, so a key need is to begin to turn tagging data into ‘habitat association’ models for seabirds at sea.

Other things that spring to mind: are the population trends of our migrant species driven mainly on the breeding grounds, on migration or in wintering areas, and how does this differ between species? Can we develop as good an understanding of how to manage upland landscapes for birds of high conservation concern as we have on lowland farmland? And whilst on the uplands can I flag a single species?  Curlew.  Now globally near-threatened and the responsibility lies primarily in the British Isles as this is a (non-seabird) species where we are responsible for a high proportion of the global population. Rates of population decline are very worrying in Britain and catastrophic in Ireland.  We need a concerted research and conservation effort to understand and reverse the decline of this species, potentially involving action both on the breeding grounds and on the migratory flyway.  The genus Numenius is a growing catalogue of loss.  Let’s not have N. arquata join the casualty list.

MIA: Anything else you’d like to tell me?

Prof Wilson: The Marsh Award for Ornithology is awarded jointly with BTO. This made me think about my many and varied connections with them. From my Bird Study collection, I think I have been a member for over 30 years, and a permit-holding ringer for over 25, and Rob Fuller gave me my first ‘real-world’ (i.e non-academia) job in ornithology when I came to Thetford to work on the organic farming study.  Needless to say, much of the research I have been involved with has depended in one way or another on BTO’s data holdings.   And the first Breeding Bird Atlas was one of those books that changed my life.     I remember poring over the dot maps before every family holiday, and I think I was the book’s borrower from the local library for about 5 years!  I may now work for the RSPB, but I hope and expect the BTO to be much a part of and influence on my life for the next 30 years as it has been for the last.


leo terram propriam protegat – wouldn’t you agree?

I live in a big village in east Northants that thinks it’s a town, and maybe it is.  We number about 8000 inhabitants and I don’t get the impression that the government is particularly worried about what we all think of what they are going to do (although the fact that we are having a by-election in a couple of weeks time does mean that there are itinerant politicians and journalists passing through).

Imagine then, that you are an inhabitant of the UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands – although that might be a bit of a stretch as there are no permanent or native human inhabitants there.  Lots of wildlife though!

The Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) has established a “Marine Protected Area” in its Exclusive Economic Zone and is now consulting on what protective measure should be included.  The consultation ends on 2 November so you will have to get a move on to have your say.

Photo © Samuel Blanc [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Since there are no native or permanent inhabitants of South Georgia the GSGSSI must be consulting you and me! The 400,000 king p-p-p-penguins  may find it difficult to p-p-p-pick up a pen right now so you’ll have to speak for them and the chinstraps, gentoos and macaroni penguins too.  And then there are the black-browed, grey-headed and wandering albatrosses as well as the giant petrels.  And there are lots of fur seals and these are waters with whales too.

The seas around South Georgia have been regarded as the most biologically diverse in the Southern Ocean and being richer than the seas around more tropical sites such as Galapagos and so, surely, they need a high level of protection.

The UK already has created the largest no-take (properly protected) marine reserve in the world – around the Chagos Islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory.  Because of the UKOTs, we have plenty more scope to contribute to the targets which were agreed internationally in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010 to protect 10% of the coastal and marine areas with marine protected zones.

Although there is a highly rated toothfish fishery operating in these seas there are still concerns about the sustainability of krill fishing and whether the proposals extend far enough in terms of distance, timing and rigour.  This is one of the most pristine areas of ocean in the world.  How about we don’t even think about mucking it up for a few million pounds? What would the penguins and albatrosses and seals and whales ask for if they were able to respond to the consultation?

By historicair 22:10, 30 May 2007 (UTC) (Own work (Lyubomir Ivanov)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The consultation paper contains the most remarkable phrase ‘GSGSSI sees little advantage in protecting large areas of the South Georgia Marine Zone where there are no current risks or threats to species or communities. If new threats to such areas, species or communities arise in the future, then appropriate protection will be considered.’ which is nonsense!  It’s exactly when there is no threat that you do set up protected areas because it’s very difficult once they are threatened and a vested interest gets involved!

There is almost no better demonstration of the former might of the British Navy than the fact that a widely dispersed collection of rocks in all the world’s oceans are UK Overseas Territories.  They mostly contain few people, but mostly contain impressive wildlife (though they have experienced their own losses too).  I feel that it is by chance, and through past bravery of course, that this disparate group of territories have HM the Queen as their Head of State and that given the slightly arbitrary nature of the UK ‘hold’ on these areas we should be careful to treat their ecosystems and ecology with the deepest of respect.

Please email ceo@gov.gs (copied to mfs@gov.gs) asking that the GSGSSI sets up a no-take zone covering the whole of the South Georgia Marine Zone, with no delay (you could cut and paste this blog to make it simple, if you like), in order to live up to the island motto ‘leo terram propriam protegat’ (‘may the lion protect his own land‘) at sea too.

There won’t be many consultations in your lifetime where, if you stir yourself, your voice will be such a high proportion of all the opinions voiced on the subject.  So why not respond?  After all, the penguins and albatrosses and fur seals are relying on you.


Wildlife photographer of the year 2012

This exhibition is always worth a visit – even if it does cost £10 to get in.

And nature looks as good as ever!

There are some constant favourites – more polar bears and other bears, tigers and foxes, whales and penguins – all deserving of their places as they were striking images.

But there was a lone hare in a field which reminded me of seeing them once near Vienna airport (and I discovered that the photograph was from Austria) and a mass of grey knot which reminded me of Snettisham (and the photograph was taken at Snettisham).

In a way, my favourite was the image of a raven looking cute and cuddly – great PR for the black killers of the uplands.

I’d like to see more ‘every day’ images in here – a few more to remind us of the beauty on our doorstep. Go see for yourself the pasque flower and the jays and the black-headed gull and the mosquito.

Which is your favourite?