St George, Shakespeare and little owls

Today is St George’s Day and apparently Shakespeare’s birthday and the day he died too (how tidy!).

It is also the day when little owls, an introduced species, were first proved to breed in the UK  – and that was in the county of Northants and just down the road from where I am writing.  I still haven’t seen a little owl for a while – and I am looking for them.


, via Wikimedia Commons”]St George  was a Syrian soldier who went around killing wildlife – dragons anyway. Although it appears to be his dying rather than his killing for which we should admire him the most.

You can find just about everything in Shakespeare (maybe not mobile phones – although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of an apparent allusion) and birds there are aplenty.

When Will wrote of the ‘vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife‘ (Merchant of Venice) his audience would have been familiar with the arrival of the wryneck in March and its high-pitched piping call – but you and I aren’t, as, though the wryneck was a common and widespread bird across southern England a century ago it no longer is.  I wonder how many readers of the M of V realise that the wryneck is actually a bird?

In All’s Well that Ends Well Shakespeare refers to the phrase ‘took this bunting for a lark‘ which refers to the disappointment of bird trappers when they catch a dull corn bunting rather than an exciting skylark.  It may well be that bird-catchers these days might prize the bunting higher than the lark although their chances of making much of a living in the English countryside would now be very much reduced from Shakespeare’s time.

Looking from the cliffs of Dover, King Lear looked down at the choughs and jackdaws – just jackdaws now, I’m afraid.

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Kites were commonplace birds – and so they are becoming again these days (hooray!).  Nowadays they are not feeding on corpses after battles with crows (eg Coriolanus) but may still pinch scraps of linen for their nests: ‘When the kite builds, look to lesser linen’ (Winter’s Tale).  A former colleague used to tell of kites stealing knickers off clotheslines for their nests.

More information of birds and the Bard here.  It’s clear that Shakespeare knew his birds but then he also assumed that his audience knew them too.  Do we?

And if you can do much better than Shakespeare then why not enter the RSPB Rialto Poetry competition – you have until the end of April to submit your entry.  I’m not quite sure why I am encouraging you but my efforts are already entered.


Another world record coming up?

Some time this week a team from the  Cornell Lab of Ornithology will attempt to beat the world record that they set last year of seeing the most North American bird species in a day.  Last year they set a record of 264 species in Texas and that’s where they are based now.

It’s not really putting it in any sort of context but I saw 283 species of birds in six weeks in the USA last spring crossing the continent from Atlantic to the Pacific – so I clearly didn’t have my eyes or ears open.

I met two of the team, Chris Wood and Jessie Barry when I visited Cornell in late May last year and was very pleased to see them both again at the Bird Fair last August. I wish them and their team-mates well.  And if you’d like to contribute to their fund-raising you can do so here.

I should think that there are many years when I have seen fewer than 264 species of birds but I’ve never been to Texas in April (or any other month) and so I’ve clearly not had the right opportunities.  One of the things that was brought home to me in the USA was the reliance I put on my ears to ‘spot’ birds.  About 40% of the birds I identify on my local patch of Stanwick Lakes are first recognised by sound and in the USA I felt severely handicapped by not knowing more than a handful of songs.  Maybe I should have spent lots of time listening to tapes before I set off – although I’m really not sure whether that would have worked.

I must admit that I’ve never been on a bird race and I quite fancy the idea although I am possibly more attracted these days to something called a bioblitz – have you heard of them?  Bioblitzes are 24-hour events in a location such as a park or nature reserve where expert scientists and members of the public like you and me get together and try to find and identify as many species of plant and animal as possible.  They are a mixture of fun and useful recording.

I’ve often wondered how many species of animal could be found in my garden through the whole year – maybe 30+ bird species and half a dozen butterflies (at least) and one bee-fly to start with but how many earthworms are under the lawn? and how many flies and spiders are there?  I wonder.


Marmite poll

You have 10 days to vote in this poll of which wildlife NGO you like the most – and which (out of those listed of course) you like the least.

The interim results are fascinating with the RSPB leading the ‘likes’ but also third in the ‘loathes’.  BASC is leading in the ‘loathed’ stakes.

There are over 1200 votes cast so far across the two polls with just under 700 votes on the ‘likes’ and over 550 in the ‘loathes’.  Those figures are interesting in themselves – people seem almost as keen to express their dislikes as their likes.

I’m very interested in how badly some large NGOs are doing – and how well some small ones are performing.  Yes, this is just a small and biased sample of peculiarly wonderful people – the readers of this blog – but it’s a squint or a leer into what people think of different NGOS.

10 days to vote – anyone could win either poll.  Do vote if you haven’t yet and do encourage others to do so.


Is the answer blowing in the wind?

I’m glad to see that the RSPB is hoping to have a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire HQ – this has been a long-running hope and I wish the plans well.  And it is a sensible thing to do for an organisation that supports a move to renewable energy.

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said: “We are keen to promote the use of wind energy where it does not result in unacceptable impacts to wildlife and we are confident that this is a suitable location to do so.

It isn’t quite right to claim that this will reduce the RSPB’s carbon footprint as everyone knows that you can’t get thin just by eating more lettuce.  It’s only if government makes the right decisions about overall energy production that emissions will drop (or if we just cut our use of energy that would work too).  If everyone had a wind turbine, but also used as much ‘dirty’ electricity as now then all those extra wind turbines wouldn’t have done any good (in terms of reducing future climate changes) – they would just be additional power generation. We do need to reduce our use of fossil fuels and replace that lost generated electricity with cleaner electricity.

But at least a recent study by the RSPB and BTO suggests that wind turbines are not all giant bird mincers! In the uplands there was evidence that some species, such as snipe and curlew, decrease in numbers during the construction phase of a windfarm (presumably through disturbance and habitat loss) and may not recover afterwards.  As the RSPB’s Jeremy Wilson said, it all depends on where you put the turbines – which is what the RSPB has been saying for years (and quite right too!).

One of the things that I have more time to do these days is pay a little more attention to events near where I live.  A few weeks ago there was a public meeting to discuss proposals for a relatively small limestone quarry.  Your views on whether it is small or not may depend on how close to your back garden it is.  None of the locals seemed very keen on the idea (and I can understand that).  The irony of the case, only to be appreciated by those not too closely affected, is that there were proposals for a small number of wind turbines on the same site a while ago which were strenuously fought by locals too.  On the night, many were of the view that they’d rather have the turbines than the quarry so there is an element of out of frying pans and into fires involved.  I’m rather assuming that because the site is (at least partly) in the local minerals plan then it is likely to go ahead and that it will be a victory for the NPPF.  We’ll see.

According to the always reliable Daily Mail, the government has turned its back on wind turbines.

I’ve rather lost track of whether this government does have a coherent plan to meet the legally binding 80% emission reductions by 2050.  Greenest government ever meets presumption in favour of sustainable development?

You may remember that I can see 10 turbines from my house – they are , though, quite a long way away.  I’d be happy to see more in the countryside around me provided they are put in sensible places.  And by that I don’t mean ‘somewhere else’, I mean in places where they don’t do (too much) harm to wildlife, do produce useful amounts of electricity and don’t mar our finest landscapes.

I quite like the turbines in my local landscape – they certainly aren’t the ugliest things around and at times they can be very beautiful.  But even if I hated the sight of them I should be asking myself whether I had a better way of reducing our carbon emissions? We need to find a lower carbon diet and substituting lettuce for burgers, or turbines for coal, will help.  There’s no single measure (except perhaps reducing the human population dramatically) that will get us where we need to be so it will have to be done with lots of smaller measures.

Well done to the RSPB for seeking to generate some green energy, it’s a small but meaningful contribution provided government steps up to play its part properly.




April non-showers

Last spring it was hot and dry – do you remember that?  At the moment we seem to be getting drizzly days which aren’t ideal for butterflies.  But last year was good for spring butterflies, even though not so good for summer-flying butterflies because the weather turned cold, according to Butterfly Conservation.

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Last year’s warm spring made it a good year for the Duke of Burgundy – a declining butterfly which I intend to track down in a few weeks time, if the weather will let me.

Dr Tom Brereton, Head of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, said: “The great spring weather provided respite for our beleaguered butterflies but wide-ranging conservation efforts are needed to reverse long-term declines.”

And that’s the point.  Just as one poor summer isn’t a disaster for butterflies like common blues or white admirals, one good spring isn’t salvation for Dukes of Burgundy or grizzled skippers.

We can’t do much about the weather (although we need to do more about the climate) and our butterflies have coped with the ups and downs of April showers, April downpours, April heatwaves, April snow and April gales for thousands of years.  What they need is well managed habitat and that requires work and effort and, yes, money.  I notice that Butterfly Conservation are appealing for money to continue and expand their excellent and successful recovery project for large blue butterflies.  They want to buy some land in the Cotswolds and reintroduce large blues.  The large blue is one of the best conservation success stories of recent decades in the UK and I hope Butterfly Conservation can smooth the way for the large blue at Rough Bank.

Butterfly Conservation is punching above its weight in our ‘marmite’ polls of conservation NGOs.  At the moment they are the only one of the 14 listed organisations not to have picked up a single negative vote (MCS were with them in that respect until very recently) and are doing respectably in the positive votes although not as well as Buglife at the moment.  Do vote if you haven’t already.