Chilling out with Nature

We’ve booked to go out for lunch, and with a couple of hours to kill before our appointed time, we decide to treat ourselves to a spot of birdwatching. Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve was once home to a sewage works and an opencast mine. It doesn’t sound promising, but in recent decades the local council has done a good job of restoring it as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. The locals call it Swan Lake, but the Reserve has plenty more besides the eponymous Mute Swan to tempt nature lovers.

On arrival we’re surprised to see that the Straw’s Bridge lakes are frozen in places. Instead of swimming elegantly across wide expanses of open water, the Mute Swans are reduced to an ungainly waddle and appear in mortal danger of ending up flat on their beaks at any moment. Meanwhile, Black-headed Gulls huddle together miserably on the ice, as if bemused by the sudden meteorological change that has turned their familiar surroundings into an unwelcome skating rink.

As we set off to walk a series of trails around the lakes we spy a robin sitting atop a rubbish bin. Like many of his species, our red-breasted friend seems unperturbed by proximity to humans, even as Mrs P creeps ever-closer in pursuit of the perfect, full-frame photo. She snaps away merrily, the robin sings lustily and I take a bit of video footage. Contentment reigns supreme!

A bit further on we watch an unexpected face-off between a Grey Heron and a mob of Mute Swans. The heron has staked its claim to a section of ice, and although they have a whole lake to choose from the swans evidently decide that the ideal place for a family gathering is the precise spot on which it’s standing. They close in on the heron, which eyes them warily. I train my video camera on them all, expecting to see feathers fly. But the heron clearly thinks better of it, and goes slip-sliding away from the mob in search of a swan-free life. Good luck with that at Swan Lake, my friend.

We continue our stroll around the lakes, revelling in the golden colours of the winter reedbeds. Despite the glorious sun beaming down at us from a clear blue sky, it’s a bitterly cold morning. But we’ve come prepared, wearing so many layers of thermal clothing that we feel comfortably toasty. In the leaf litter beneath a small stand of trees, a solitary redwing – a refugee from Scandinavia, where winters are much colder than our own – searches energetically for anything edible. Meanwhile, in the far distance we spot a flotilla of mallards and coots circling in a patch of open water, while a buzzard scans the landscape hopefully from its vantage point at the top of a nearby tree.

And finally, we happen upon the star of this morning’s birding expedition. It’s another Grey Heron, this one sitting amongst the dead vegetation at the edge of an ice-free section of the lake. The bird is indifferent to our presence as we creep ever closer, and looks majestic in the soft midwinter light.

Thoughts inevitably turn to my Mum. After Dad died in the mid-1990s, we started taking her out on birdwatching excursions with us. She got to love it, and the bird she loved most of all was the heron. The tall, long-legged, long-billed wader fascinated and enthralled her, and was her highlight of any outing to a wetland habitat. Such happy memories!

Far too soon, it is time to head back to the car and drive a couple of miles down the road to where we will be taking lunch. There’s one final surprise in store – in the lakeside car park we see a Pied Wagtail cavorting across a car bonnet, presumably in search of its own lunch of splattered insects.

It’s been an uplifting morning. As reserves go, Straw’s Bridge is hardly spectacular, its list of regularly occurring species totally unremarkable, and yet this is a truly wonderful place to chill out with Nature. We’ll be back again very soon, although next time I hope we can manage without the thermal underwear!

Scouting for squirrels

Last Saturday, 21st January, was Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure, until it was mentioned in passing on Winterwatch, the BBC’s seasonal wildlife programme. I think the presenter referred to it as Red Squirrel Appreciation Day, because – and let’s be brutally honest about this – nobody here gives much thought to grey squirrels. Reds, however, are an iconic species in the UK, universally loved and widely regarded as a national treasure.

Grey squirrels are everywhere, impossible to miss and, for some, difficult to love. Red squirrels, however, are altogether more elusive. Brownsea Island, located in Poole Harbour on the south coast, is one of the few places in England where a sighting of red squirrels is pretty much guaranteed. Also guaranteed, if you visit at the right time, is a sighting of Boy Scouts, a reflection of the island’s special place in the history of the scouting movement.

Background

The origins of Squirrel Appreciation Day lie in the USA. In 2001, wildlife rehabilitation specialist Christy Hargrove founded National Squirrel Appreciation Day in Asheville, North Carolina. Her aim was to encourage positive attitudes towards, and practical support for, her local squirrels. It’s perhaps ironic, therefore, that it is American squirrels that are responsible for the collapse of our own native red squirrel population.

It’s difficult to believe that here in the UK grey squirrels were once regarded as an exotic species. Some wealthy landowners thought it would be a great idea to brighten up their estates with wildlife superstars from across the Atlantic, and grey squirrels seemed like the ideal candidates. Adaptable, resourceful and tougher than the native reds, the greys soon began to out-compete them. Worse still, the greys were carriers of a disease – squirrel pox – which did them no harm, but was lethal to the reds.

The first recorded release of grey squirrels in the UK was in 1876, at Henbury Park in Cheshire. They thrived, as did other greys that were released elsewhere. Before long, the red squirrel population was in steep decline as greys spread rapidly across the country. Today, Brownsea Island, which is protected from a grey invasion by the waters of Poole Harbour, is one of only a couple of places in southern England where red squirrels still run wild.

Brownsea Island

Brownsea Island is tiny, just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide. It consists of around 500 acres (200 ha) of woodland and heathland, and a brackish lagoon. The island is owned by the National Trust, and much of it is actively managed for the benefit of nature. As well as squirrels, the island is home to a wide variety of bird species, including dunlin, kingfishers, common and sandwich terns and oystercatchers. A major conservation project is currently underway to improve habitats for wildlife, focussed on woodland management, heathland restoration and the removal of invasive plant species.

The island is also notable for having played an important part in the development of the International Scouting Movement. In August 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, its founder, held a week-long camp there to test out his ideas. The experiment was deemed a success, and the following year he published his seminal book Scouting for Boys, thereby kick-starting a ground-breaking organisation which thrives to this day.

Boy Scouts and Girl Guides continue to camp on the island, but none were evident when we took a trip out to Brownsea a few years ago. But that didn’t bother us, as the purpose of our visit was to go scouting for squirrels. We were not disappointed. The red squirrels for which Brownsea is justly famous were present in large numbers, and not at all camera-shy…I guess the feeders, well-stocked with tasty and nutritious nuts, probably had a lot to to with that. Mrs P snapped 335 pics of squirrels that day, some of which are featured in this post. Oh, the joys of digital photography!

Over the years we’ve been lucky to watch red squirrels in several parts of the UK where they are still gamely hanging on, but nowhere have we ever had such wonderful views as those we enjoyed that day on Brownsea Island. I think it’s probably time for a return visit!

Back to nature – a day at Pensthorpe Natural Park

Finally, after more than two years confined to barracks by the pandemic, we’re back on the road again. Not overseas: the timing still doesn’t seem right, and in any case the burning desire to visit far off foreign parts has cooled a bit. Maybe the passion will return in due course, maybe not, but unless and until our outlook changes there’s plenty to keep us occupied here in the UK.

Created by the gravel extraction industry, the lakes at Pensthorpe are now managed for wildlife. This shot shows only a small section of one of the reserve’s lakes.

The county of Norfolk is one of our favourite English destinations, and it was the obvious place for us to take our first proper UK holiday (that’s “vacation” to you guys in North America!) since summer 2019. And every time we visit Norfolk we make a point of spending a day at the wonderful Pensthorpe Natural Park.

Mandarin ducks are one of the more exotic species found at Pensthorpe

Pensthorpe started out as a large gravel extraction enterprise, with over 1 million tonnes being dug out and carted off to who-knows-where. But instead of becoming a permanent scar on the landscape the site has been sensitively transformed into something of real value to the local community, and to visitors from further afield like Mrs P and I. Today it’s a bit of an oddball mixture, part old-fashioned waterfowl exhibit, part nature reserve, part conservation hub, part sculpture park, part kids’ activity centre. There’s something for just about everyone at Pensthorpe Natural Park.

We were pleased to get good views of this Four Spotted Chaser

The Park is run as a business, which in principle sits a little uncomfortably with me. In practice, however, the owners – Bill and Deb Jordan, top dogs in a family-owned breakfast cereal company – appear genuinely committed to the restoration and protection of the natural world. There’s nothing to suggest they put profit ahead of sound conservation practice, and I’m therefore relaxed in saying that they get my vote.

“Wild Boar” by George Hider (2014), one of the eye-catching sculptural pieces dotted around the Park.

Bill and Deb win further brownie points from me for setting up a charitable trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, to work with their commercial operation. Established in 2003, the Trust aims “to establish a centre of excellence, habitat management and restoration alongside conservation of wetland and farmland bird species through captive breeding programmes in national conservation partnerships.” Corncrakes, cranes, red squirrels and turtle doves are amongst the species currently benefitting from the Trust’s activities.

Pensthorpe is a partner in a captive-breeding conservation project to boost numbers of wild corncrakes

Our return visit to Pensthorpe last month did not disappoint, even though the management has yet to erect a commemorative plaque at the spot where I broke my ankle in a fall on a snowy winter’s day in 2013! The lakes and woods teemed with wildlife, and although there was nothing exceptionally rare to be seen on this occasion it was great to get back into natural world after the miseries of Covid.

Lucky visitors to Pensthorpe may stumble across a muntjac deer

It was also great to bump into a former work colleague, albeit totally unexpected given that we were around 120 miles (nearly 200 km) from the office and had not seen each other since she moved on some eight or nine years ago! Amanda is a lovely lady, passionate about sport, physical fitness and wellbeing, and – as I now discovered – birdwatching too.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, an unexpected Pensthorpe bonus

Amanda explained that she is currently working on the government’s Green Social Prescribing project. The initiative enables doctors to help improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities amongst suitable patients by prescribing “nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.”

Families of Egyptian Geese wander the Park, helping to keep the grass short!

I was previously only vaguely aware of Green Social Prescribing. But hearing Amanda talk about the initiative as we sat together in a bird hide, gazing out over a tranquil lake where ducks, geese, and swans were going about their daily business and squadrons of swallows whizzed happily overhead, it now made perfect sense.

A large walk-through aviary allows visitors to get close to Bearded Tits (aka Bearded Reedlings), birds that are tricky to see in the wild

I felt more at peace on our day at Pensthorpe, and during the visits we made the same week to several other Norfolk nature reserves, than at any time since Covid hit. For me there is no doubt that getting back to nature – close to wildlife and wild places, distant from the stresses and strains of 21st century urban life – revives the spirit and nurtures the soul.

“Stag” by George Hider (2017)

Before our visit last month it had been around three years since our last trip to Pensthorpe. But guess what – we’ll be going back real soon!

So, follow our example and get back to nature, guys. You know it makes sense!

The goose that never was

Here’s a question that I know has been on your mind for ages: when is a goose not a goose? The answer is, quite simply, “When it’s an Egyptian Goose.” Despite its name and goose-like appearance this bird is actually a type of duck, most closely related to the Shelducks. And to complicate matters even further it’s not strictly Egyptian either, being native to large swathes of Africa and not just the land of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Goose is plainly a bird suffering a full-scale identity crisis!

This non-goose species appears to have got the first part of its name because it featured in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred. It was first brought to the UK in the late 17th century, when its pale brown and grey plumage, with distinctive dark brown eye-patches, made a striking addition to ornamental wildfowl collections.  Some of the captive birds soon made an understandable bid for freedom, and the escapees established a small feral population in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England.

Numbers remained tiny for centuries, the British climate proving to be a bit of a challenge for a species that is native to sub-tropical regions and habitually breeds in January. The bird remained stubbornly confined to Norfolk, so when we encountered one at Rutland Water – just 50 miles (80km) from Platypus Towers – around 20 years ago I refused to believe that the creature in front of us could possibly be an Egyptian Goose. Mrs P stuck to her guns, however, and was eventually proved correct, something I am never allowed to forget!

Indeed, this sighting was a sign of things to come. After being static for so long, numbers of Egyptian Geese in the UK have expanded rapidly in the last three or four decades. The reason for this sudden change is uncertain, although the finger of suspicion inevitably points at climate change.

While Norfolk remains the Egyptian Goose’s UK stronghold, it has now spread widely – and is breeding successfully – across eastern and southern England. We regularly see them at the nearby Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire, and have encountered them at several other wetland habitats in our region. The RSPB tells us there are now around 1,100 breeding pairs in the UK, with an overwintering population of around 3,400 birds.

Plainly, the Egyptian Goose – the goose that never was – is here to stay.

Year of the (Amur) Tiger

According to the Chinese calendar, a few days ago the world transited from the Year of the Ox to the Year of the Tiger. At Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP), however, it’s always the year of the tiger. Or, to be more precise, the year of the Amur Tiger, three of which currently call the Park home.

The Amur Tiger, also known as the Siberian Tiger, is one of six tiger sub-species, and is the largest big cat in the world. Adult males may weigh up to an impressive 200kg (440lb). These are majestic, iconic animals, and YWP visitors can often be seen gazing in awe at Vladimir, Sayan and Tschuna as they prowl around their ample enclosure.

Our consciences may be troubled at seeing such magnificent beasts living behind a fence, but the sad truth is that those tigers are lucky to be alive at all. In the 1940s the Amur Tiger was teetering on the edge of extinction. Fewer than 50 individuals remained in the wild at that time, after decades of political instability that had seen Russia bloodily reborn as part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had a wretched reputation in the latter half of the 20th century. Those of us who lived through the Cold War, wondering anxiously when the Kremlin’s missiles might come a-calling, don’t have particularly fond memories of the Soviets. On the face of it, theirs was not a regime that would be expected to place much emphasis on wildlife conservation.

But when it came to saving the Amur Tiger, the Soviet Union certainly stepped up to the plate. In 1947 they gave full protection to the tigers living within their borders, the first country in the world ever to do so. Killing tigers was outlawed and hunting of their main prey species, boar and deer, was restricted.

Government intervention came just in time and numbers have recovered, albeit very slowly. By 2005, the population of wild Amur Tigers had reached 330, and according to a recent report in the Moscow Times is now estimated at over 600.

So successful has the recovery been in Russia that a few Amur Tigers have now crossed the border into north-east China. The Chinese government is encouraging the process through the creation of two new nature reserves, one of which (the Tiger and Leopard National Park, or TLNP) is 50% larger than the USA’s wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Meanwhile zoos throughout Europe, including Yorkshire Wildlife Park, are participating in a European Breeding Programme which acts as an insurance policy potentially supporting numbers and genetic diversity in the wild population.

In 2015 one of YWP’s females (Tschuna) gave birth to three cubs called Harley, Hector and Hope. The youngsters are now grown up, and have been dispersed to zoos in other parts of the world as part of the ongoing species breeding programme. This all happened some time before I retired from work and so, sadly, Mrs P and I never got see them. But we’re regular visitors to Yorkshire Wildlife Park these days, and are hoping for another similarly “happy event” very soon.

One day, maybe, such captive breeding programmes will be unnecessary, and the encouraging news emerging from Russia and China offers some cause for optimism on this count. In the meantime, however, it’s good to know that places like Yorkshire Wildlife Park are doing their bit to protect the future of this magnificent species of big cat.

You can enjoy some film of YWP’s tigers by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

The third Monday of January is known to some in the UK as Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The theory was first espoused in 2005 by a “life coach,” which immediately raises a vitally important question: what the hell is a life coach? Stage coaches – definitely! Football coaches – maybe. But a life coach – really? Surely life’s complicated enough already without total strangers waltzing up to tell us how to do it better. Dear god, why do we insist on doing stuff like this to ourselves?

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

But I digress! According to believers in Blue Monday, on this particular day we’re likely to be regretting the impact of Christmas excesses on waistline and wallet, and will already have miserably failed to stick to our New Year Resolutions. Daylight hours will be short, the weather inclement and television schedules probably packed with unwatchable rubbish and unwanted repeats. And Mondays are, of course, loathed by anyone with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work pattern.

“Most of the usual suspects were there, including…Mute Swans”

It’s nonsense, of course, total bunkum. Even the guy who first came up with the notion is reported to have subsequently disavowed it, describing Blue Monday as a self-fulfilling prophecy that “is not particularly helpful”. But, just to be on the safe side, this year Mrs P and I decided to banish the Blue Monday blues from our lives by doing a spot of birdwatching.

The weather, as it turned out, was perfect, one of those crisp, cold and gloriously sunny midwinter days that make you feel glad to be alive. So we quickly got togged up in our thermals, grabbed cameras and binoculars, and headed off up the M1 to Hardwick ponds.

A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of our home county’s most significant stately homes, and its impressive parkland includes several large bodies of water that are a haven for a variety of wildfowl. We try to visit Hardwick ponds several times each year, and are never disappointed.

On this occasion both of the larger ponds were partially frozen. Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice contemplating this unexpected turn of events. The ducks and geese, however, were having none of it and instead sought out those areas of the ponds that remained ice-free.

Female goosanders are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wings

Most of the usual suspects were there, including Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe. A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain. Nothing remarkable in any of this, of course, but what really caught our eye was a gang of good-looking Goosanders.

Goosanders are streamlined diving ducks, fish-eaters that use their long, serrated bills to catch and hold on to their slippery prey. They are members of the sawbill family, which also includes the similar-looking Red-Breasted Merganser. To add to the confusion Goosanders can also be seen in the USA, but there they are known as Common Mergansers!

Male goosanders have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. They have a black back, and a grey rump and tail.

Whereas the Red-Breasted Merganser is most commonly seen around the UK’s coastline in winter, Goosanders favour freshwater. Their summer habitat is the fast-flowing upland rivers of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, where they nest in holes in riverbank trees. In winter they move to gravel pits and reservoirs, as well as lakes or large ponds such as those at Hardwick.

In common with most species of duck, the Goosander displays a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Adult males have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. The have a black back, and a grey rump and tail. Females are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wing.

A graphic lesson in sexual dimorphism: male on the left, female on the right, but both the same species!

The Goosander is a relatively new arrival in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Its numbers slowly built up there for a century, until in 1970 the species crossed the border to begin colonising England and Wales. There are now thought to be close to 4,000 breeding pairs across the UK as a whole, with the wintering population numbering around 12,000 birds.

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

At least a dozen members of that wintering population were present at Hardwick ponds on 15 January, many more than we’ve ever encountered before at a single viewing. It was a delight to see them, and all the other birds that were strutting their stuff that morning. You can catch a glimpse of the Goosanders – and some of Hardwick’s other avian residents too – by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Blue Monday may have come calling for us last week, but I’m pleased to report that we were very much not at home!

“Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice”. See also one female and two male Goosanders in the open water to the rear of the gulls.

Yorkshire Wildlife Park: Saving the Warty Pig

Yorkshire Wildlife Park has plenty of iconic critters that are certain to impress visitors. The black rhinos, polar bears and Amur tigers, for example, are guaranteed to provoke appreciative oohs and ahs from delighted punters. But there’s other stuff too, animals that are pretty much unknown to all but the most dedicated wildlife geeks, animals that are maybe a bit more difficult to love. Warty Pigs, for example. I mean, whoever heard of a Warty Pig? And who cares?

I care! It’s true that Visayan Warty Pigs aren’t obviously cute or charismatic, but so what? All living things are intrinsically valuable, worthy of our respect and protection regardless of their looks or lifestyle. And there’s a reason why we’ve never heard of them: they’re all but extinct in the wild, and hail from the Philippines, a little known and unglamorous part of the globe that few of my fellow citizens could locate on a world atlas even if they’ve heard of the place at all.

The Visayan Warty Pig is classified as “critically endangered.” It is endemic to six of the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines, but is believed to be extinct on four of these. Their natural habitat is the rainforest, but between 95% to 98% of it has been lost to commercial forestry and slash-and-burn farming. With their natural food sources severely depleted, the pigs have resorted to raiding cultivated land, and are consequently persecuted as agricultural pests. They are also hunted for bushmeat.

There seems little doubt that, without a major conservation effort and captive breeding, the Visayan Warty Pig is doomed to extinction. Fortunately, there are many programmes, both in the Philippines and in zoos across the world, that are dedicated to saving the species.

And here’s where Yorkshire Wildlife Park is doing its bit. We’ve visited YWP several times over the last couple of years, and have been pleased to see a decent-sized group of adult females and youngsters going about their business in the ample, wooded Warty Pig enclosure. They are feisty, entertaining animals and you can enjoy some of their antics by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

The adult male – which boasts impressive facial warts, as well as a stiff, spiky crest of hair – lives next door to the main family group, replicating behaviour in the wild where males live apart from the females most of the time.

The male plainly knows his stuff, and his managed encounters with the females have produced multiple, humbug-striped piglets. My brief research on the internet confirms that other zoos are having similar breeding success, suggesting that Visayan Warty Pigs can thrive in captivity. Hopefully, one day, some of their descendants can be reintroduced to the wild, where they rightly belong.

A colourful evening at Yorkshire Wildlife Park

We first visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) a few months after I retired, and have returned several times since I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but the place seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. I’ll write more about some of these conservation projects later in the year.

To help raise the money needed to care for its animals YWP is always looking for new ways to encourage visitors. Last year we’d planned to visit the Park’s Light and Lantern Festival held around Christmas, but Covid restrictions got in the way. This year the restrictions have been, well, less restrictive…but the weather was miserable throughout December, so we gave it a miss.

Finally, last week, conditions improved and we made the decision to hot-foot it 45 miles (72km) up the M1 to the outskirts of Doncaster to catch the Festival before it ends in mid-January. It was definitely worth the trip, as Mrs P’s photos show. With the exception of one hyena, which was racing madly around its spacious enclosure like Usain Bolt in his prime, living animals were notable by their absence. I suspect they were all sleeping peacefully in their dens and nests, blissfully unaware of the numerous visitors trekking round the Park, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the spectacular illuminations.

The lanterns celebrate many of the animals living at the Park – including lions, leopards and okapi – and some that don’t. A T-Rex and sundry other dinosaurs paid homage to animals that none of us will ever see in the flesh. Let’s hope that the conservation initiatives supported by YWP, and similar bodies throughout the UK and beyond, mean that the species currently living there won’t suffer a similar fate to that of the dearly departed dinos.

Call of the wild – starlings fly home to roost over our house

I hear them long before they become visible. Starlings are gathering over the hills to the south of the estate where we live. It begins as an avian whisper, barely audible above the ambient sounds of wind and distant traffic. And then it starts to build, unseen birds chattering excitedly with one another, shouting, squawking, screaming joyously. A wall of sound, the call of the wild.

The cacophony echoes all around me. I scan the sky in the direction from which I know they will appear. Still nothing. But it’s only a matter of time. They will be here. At this time of year they fly over our estate every day at around 4pm, heading towards their roosting site. Today will be no different.

At last they start to arrive. First a lone outrider, silent and determined, appears from behind the house at the rear of our garden. It passes over me and disappears into the distance. Then two others, calling to one another as they fly.

Seconds later the main flock arrives, hundreds of birds in close formation. A deafening, spellbinding squadron of starlings, known to science as a murmuration, fills the sky.

Although the birds clearly have a destination in mind, they briefly break off from their journey to swoop and swirl above my head, like a bunch of boastful aviators flaunting their skills at an air show. The murmuration takes on a life of its own, sketching ever more complex and beautiful patterns on the canvas of the evening sky. The noise is louder than ever, drowning out everything else.

And then, as suddenly as they arrived, they take their leave. The flock heads off to who-knows-where, and the sound of their relentless chitter-chatter fades. A few laggards appear from the south, flying swiftly in pursuit of the main flock, keen to catch up with their buddies before they roost for the night.

Seconds later they too have gone and I’m left alone with my thoughts, marvelling at the extraordinary event I have just witnessed.

* * * * *

In some parts of the country murmurations at this time of year can number several hundred thousand birds, occasionally more than a million. By these standards, the aerial display that takes place above our garden every winter’s afternoon is tiny. But to me it is far from insignificant.

What a privilege it is, to stand in our modest back garden on our boring suburban housing estate in the unremarkable, overpopulated East Midlands of England, and experience the call of the wild. It is a moving, mesmerising experience, and the wonder of it fills me with joy. Long may it continue.

A remarkable woman, Little Egrets and birth of the RSPB

Our birdwatching has been limited this year, as a result of the Covid restrictions and our continuing caution in the face of this frightening pandemic. We’ve seen no rarities during our occasional birding forays, but one bird we have been pleased to meet up with is the Little Egret. When we started birdwatching over three decades ago these elegant members of the heron family were almost entirely absent from the UK, but they can now routinely be seen in many parts of the country. Their return is a conservation success story.

* * *

Little Egrets were once present here in large numbers, but were wiped out by mankind’s greed. In 1465, for example, 1,000 egrets were served up at a banquet held to celebrate the enthronement of a new Archbishop of York. A century later they were becoming scarce and by the 19th century they’d all but disappeared.

Egrets in continental Europe fared little better, although here it was fashion rather than food that drove the decline. They had been a major component of the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century demand exploded for feathers, and other bird parts, to decorate the hats of wealthy upper- and middle-class women. We know, for example, that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins.

Seen from a modern perspective the wanton slaughter of any species to feed the vanity of shallow fashionistas is appalling. Fortunately, however, it also appalled some of the women at whom the plume trade was notionally directed, initiating a chain of events that led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Today the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.

One of the women determined to stop the slaughter was Emily Williamson (1855-1936). At first she appealed to the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union to take a stand, but when they ignored her letters she realised this was a problem that women themselves could solve.

In 1889 Emily invited a group of like-minded women to her home in Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, to discuss how to the stop the vile plumage trade. The meeting established the Plumage League. Its rules were simple, and to the point:

  • ‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’
  •  ‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food.

Two years later, in 1891, the Plumage League joined forces with the Fur and Feather League. This was also an all-female group and had been set up in the south of England by Eliza Phillips (1823-1916), who shared Emily’s values and aspirations.

Their new organisation was called the Society for the Protection Birds. Led by Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon (1860-1953), and with the Duchess of Portland Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck (1863-1954) as president, the Society grew rapidly. By 1893 it boasted 10,000 members. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

One hundred years ago, on 1 July 1921, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by the Society, Parliament finally passed the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. The Act banned the importation of exotic feathers, and thereby helped save many species from extinction.

Since then the RSPB has gone from strength to strength, campaigning to protect habitats and species both in the UK and across the globe. The RSPB’s nature reserves are also a valued resource for British birdwatchers, and Mrs P and I are proud supporters (Life Fellows, in fact) of this brilliant conservation organisation.

From small acorns do might oak trees grow, and Emily Williamson can never have imagined that her humble initiative in a Manchester suburb would have such profound consequences. She and her fellow founders of the Society were remarkable individuals, all the more so when we reflect on the degree to which women were marginalised in Victorian society.

Thankfully, Emily Williamson is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves. In April 2023 a statue of Emily will be unveiled in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, close to her former home.

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Needless to say, Emily Williamson was not at the forefront of our minds when we spotted our Little Egrets a few weeks ago. I’m sure, however, that she would have been thrilled to see them back in the UK and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

Little Egrets first returned to the UK in significant numbers in 1989. They arrived here naturally, following an expansion of their range into western and northern France during the previous decades. They first bred in 1996, in Dorset, and continue to thrive. There are now thought to be around 700 breeding pairs in the UK, while the over-wintering population is around 4,500 birds.

Little Egrets are handsome birds, and a welcome addition to any wetland habitat. It’s great to have them back here, where they belong.

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Postscript: This essay on The History Press website provides further details on women’s role in the foundation of the RSPB