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.

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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

Swan Lake lives up to its name

Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.

Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.

There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.

Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.

Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)

In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.

Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks.  Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.

Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.

By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked. 

Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!

Escape to the country

Last week, after three long, weary months, the government lifted its “Stay at Home” Covid instruction. We quickly decided to escape to the country for a few hours. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year and we expected to find the car parks at Carsington Water overflowing with ecstatic visitors making the most of their first day of freedom in 2021. As it happened numbers were modest, ensuring our visit was a good deal more tranquil than we’d feared.

Canada geese grazing next to the reservoir

Carsington Water is the ninth biggest reservoir in England. It was formally opened in 1992 after what can only be described as an eventful construction: in 1983 four workers tragically died, asphyxiated while working in a 16 foot (5 metre) surface drain, and a year later part of the dam wall collapsed. Nearly 30 years on, however, the reservoir has been seamlessly integrated into the Derbyshire landscape and is a popular centre for a range of recreational activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and canoeing. With a good proportion of Carsington Water designated as a nature reserve, it is also a favourite spot to watch birds.

Great tit

In our experience rarities are rare at Carsington! However this isn’t a problem for us: we are not twitchers and have never been motivated by the desire to “tick off” rarities. All birds, whether uncommon or not, are wonderful and worthy of attention. Even Canada geese!

Robin

Inevitably, Canada geese were liberally scattered throughout the reserve last week, some floating serenely on the water, others grazing greedily on the meadows adjoining the reservoir, and a few honking noisily as they flew overhead in search of pastures new. You can be sure of getting your fill of Canada geese on any visit to Carsington. Not to mention mallards, coot and black-headed gulls!

An unexpected nuthatch

Although Carsington Water is an obvious spot for watching water birds, on this occasion some of the best action was on and around one of the feeding stations. Great tits and robins were the most frequent visitors, and a nuthatch the most unexpected.

Primulas prove that spring has sprung

The woodland in which the feeding station is situated was dotted with primulas, evidence that spring has well and truly sprung. And mindful, no doubt, that Easter was fast approaching a rabbit put in a brief appearance, while at one point a vole scurried across our path, way too fast to be photographed. Again, nothing exceptional here, but all such welcome sights after thirteen weeks of lockdown.

One of Carsington Water’s very own Easter bunnies

We’re fortunate that Carsington Water is just a few miles from our home town, and now Covid restrictions are being relaxed we’ll be escaping to this part of the country regularly to sample once again the joys of birding on our local patch. After all, a man just cannot see too many Canada geese!

* * *

POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday 6 April, 2pm. Having written this post over the weekend, this morning we made a return trip to Carsington Water and were thrilled to spot no fewer than 16 swallows, newly returned from Africa, wheeling and whizzing over the water. It’s official then, spring really is here!

Where have all the sparrows gone?

Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.

House sparrow

Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.

House sparrow

The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.

* * *

Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.

Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.

In happier times. House sparrow at Platypus Towers

It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!

* * *

In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .”  Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”

Tree sparrow. Note the diagnostic brown crown and black cheek spot

Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

* * *

The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.

While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.

Tree sparrow

It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

* * *

And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words

Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Flies so high and feels no pain

Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.

Celebrating World Wetlands Day: return of the cranes

Yesterday was World Wetlands Day. Held on 2 February every year since 1997, the Day aims to celebrate and raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. To the casual observer wetlands may not seem vital at all, but instead an inconvenient and undesirable quagmire of mud, mosquitoes and misery. The truth, however, is very different.

Wetlands take many forms, including rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, fens, swamps, mangroves, estuaries, floodplains and lagoons. Why are they considered vital? To put it at its most basic, wetlands are all about water and so is life. The equation is very simple: no water equals no life. Whether we’re talking about drinking water, food production or storing carbon emissions, humankind needs healthy, thriving wetlands.

And so does the rest of life on Earth. Wetlands are vital for biodiversity: although freshwater wetlands cover less than 1% of the planet’s surface, 40% of all species rely on them.

But despite their importance, wetlands are in big trouble. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) estimates that 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the last 300 years, with vast swathes being drained for housing, industry and agriculture. Those wetlands that remain often suffer from serious pollution, and are also threatened by climate change.

Monty

The Ramsar Convention, which dates from 1971, seeks to secure international agreement and co-operation to protect wetlands. And yet, despite no fewer than 171 countries signing up to this intergovernmental treaty, the loss of – and damage to – wetlands across the globe continues unabated, with an impact on biodiversity that’s difficult to overstate. In this context, World Wetlands Day and similar initiatives – both large and small – are to be welcomed as a means of raising awareness of the continuing wetlands crisis.

* * *

Mrs P and I are big fans of wetlands, which offer superb opportunities for birdwatching. We are lifetime members of the WWT, a UK-based conservation trust which seeks to “conserve, restore and create wetlands, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands can do for us.”

Sadly we live around 90 miles (145km) from the nearest WWT reserve, so our visits aren’t as frequent as we’d wish. But every visit we’re able to manage is worth the effort, none more so than our 2014 trip to the Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. Here we were able to witness first hand the positive impact of the Great Crane Project.

Eurasian cranes are unmistakeable birds, standing more than four feet (1.2m) high, with slate-grey plumage, a red crown and a bold white streak extending from the eye to the upper back. They were once common in British wetlands, and countless place names – like Cranford in West London, close to where I grew up – include the element ‘cran’ to signify a locality where these majestic birds were known to congregate.

But loss of habitat due to the drainage of wetlands led to a decline in numbers, and hunting made things even worse. For example, in 1251 King Henry III served 115 cranes at his Christmas dinner, while in 1465 a feast to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York involved the consumption of 204 cranes. I can only hope these medieval displays of unrestrained gluttony were followed by unrelieved bouts of chronic indigestion…serve the buggers right, I say!

Unsurprisingly, by around the year 1600 cranes had become extinct throughout Britain. They remained absent from the British landscape for nearly 400 years.

In 1979 a small number of cranes crossed the sea from continental Europe to settle in the Norfolk Broads. They began to breed three years later, but the location was kept secret to avoid the unwelcome attention of egg collectors. The population survives, and has crept into other parts of East Anglia and a few other isolated spots in eastern Britain. But cranes mature slowly and typically have poor breeding success, with the result that after around 40 years the descendants of the Norfolk population remain pitifully small in number.

Chris(tine)

With the prospect of cranes naturally recolonising other parts of their ancestral range being remote, conservationists needed an alternative strategy if the bird was to spread in reasonable numbers to wetlands in the west of Britain. And thus was born the Great Crane Project, with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining breeding population of 20 pairs on the Somerset Levels by 2025.

The project saw a coalition of conservation organisations (WWT, RSPB, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits) join forces to work on this highly ambitious, ground-breaking project. Each year between 2010 and 2014, around 20 Eurasian crane eggs were taken under licence from Brandenburg in Germany to be hatched in the UK. In all, 93 chicks were carefully raised in captivity. Dedicated “human parents” hand-reared the youngsters, educating them in the ways of the world at “crane school” before releasing them into the wild on the RSPB reserve at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels. Simultaneously, work was undertaken at some sites to restore and improve the habitat for cranes.

* * *

When Mrs P and I visited Slimbridge WWT reserve in 2014, the prospect of seeing cranes never entered our heads. We’d previously enjoyed a couple of fleeting, distant views of cranes in East Anglia, but it seemed wildly improbable that any birds from the Great Crane Project would end up at Slimbridge, around 66 miles (106km) from where they were released.

And yet, amazingly, we were treated to fantastic views of a pair of cranes, strutting, preening and displaying just a few metres from where we were sitting. What a privilege, to spend an hour in such close proximity to majestic birds that once graced British wetlands in huge numbers, but which are now so scarce.

Monty

The coloured rings on the cranes’ legs make it possible to identify the individual birds we saw that day: the Great Crane Project website confirms them to be Monty and Chris(tine). Theirs was one of the first breeding attempts by any of the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project, but sadly they failed to raise any youngsters, either in 2014 or subsequent years.

The 2020 Annual Report, authored by Elizabeth Antliff-Clark and Damon Bridge from the RSPB, indicates that the cranes released between 2010 and 2014 have so far fledged 31 youngsters, of which 27 are still alive. Sadly 2020 was not a particularly good year for breeding success. The annual report tells us

“27 pairs of breeding age birds were observed in 2020 – two more than last year. Of these, all 27 pairs were thought to be holding territories. 15 pairs made confirmed or probable breeding attempts. Because monitoring activities were minimal on account of the Covid 19 restrictions, there were a higher proportion of pairs in the ‘possibly bred’ category than in previous years so it is likely that this confirmed/probable figure would have been higher in a ‘typical’ year. Nine of the 15 pairs successfully hatched chicks with four of these going on to fledge.

The 15 confirmed and probable nesting attempts this year were made on the Somerset Levels and Moors (7 prs); WWT Slimbridge Reserve Gloucestershire (5 prs); Oxfordshire (2 pr); Cambridgeshire (1 female).”


SOURCE: The Great Crane Project 2020 Report Public Version (section 4.1), published on Great Crane Project website, retrieved 28/01/21

The report goes on to suggest that the explanation for 2020’s poor success rate lies in the near-drought conditions experienced at the time, which led to the drying-out of nest-sites and an increase in predation. If this is correct then last year’s poor performance may be regarded as a blip, and improved breeding success can reasonably be anticipated in 2021.

Let’s hope so. Cranes are a welcome addition to the biodiversity of British wetlands. If the Great Crane Project succeeds in its ambitions the species will continue its slow recovery from nearly 400 years of local extinction, allowing many more birders – and ordinary members of the public – to marvel at the sight of these magnificent birds. Wouldn’t that be an achievement for wetlands conservation!

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STOP PRESS: Just as I was about schedule this post for publication I picked up a press release from the RSPB / Crane Working Group. It reports that “the latest common crane survey reveals a record-breaking 64 pairs of cranes in 2020, bringing the total population [across all of the UK] to over 200 birds.” This number includes the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project and their descendants, and the descendants of the birds that returned naturally to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. The 64 pairs produced a total of 23 chicks.

What brilliant, timely news! There are bound to be bumps along the road, such as the drought that coincided with the 2020 breeding season, but taken as a whole the prospects for cranes in the UK look better than at any time since the Middle Ages. Give Nature half a chance, and She WILL fight back.

A touch of the exotic: the Mandarin Duck

As the UK’s first Covid lockdown began to ease last June, one of our earliest trips out was to Straws Bridge nature reserve close to the small Derbyshire town of Ilkeston. It’s known to locals as Swan Lake because … well, because it’s a lake that boasts several handsome swans amongst its residents. The swans were out in force when we visited, but were overshadowed in our eyes by the unexpected sight of a family of mandarin ducks.

Mandarins favour small wooded ponds and avoid large expanses of open water, so the Straws Bridge reserve is ideal for them. Comprising three modest bodies of water set in a landscape of mixed woodland and meadows, it’s one of those habitats that shows how nature can bounce back when man lends a helping hand. In the 1970s and 1980s the area was scarred by open cast coal mining, but when the company concerned got into financial difficulties the local council took it on and restored the site as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. 

We’ve visited this reserve many times over the years and have always found it busy with families out for a stroll, often with a loaf of bread in hand to feed the swans and ducks and – inadvertently – sustain the burgeoning rat population at the same time.

In June last year the place was heaving with visitors, all grateful to get into the open air after the relaxation of the government’s stay-at-home Covid restrictions. None of them, other than Mrs P and I, appeared to have a clue that they were in the presence of a bird that’s regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful duck.

Mandarin ducks look far too exotic to be native British birds, and that’s absolutely right. They hail from East Asia – China, Japan and eastern Russia. The male sports a bright red bill, a reddish face with a large white crescent above the eye, a purple breast with two vertical white bars, and ruddy flanks. It also has two orange “sails” at the back. These comprise large feathers that stick up like the sails of a boat, and are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of what is a very elaborate bird.

The female, however, is drab, with a grey head, brown back and mottled flanks. Her white eye-ring and stripe can’t disguise the fact that, in common with the females of most duck species, she’s unremarkable.

Although the disparity in their looks might suggest otherwise, eastern folklore tells us that a pair of mandarins make the perfect couple. The birds are said to mate for life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, mandarin ducks are therefore regarded as symbols of marital faithfulness. They are a favourite of artists, and also feature in Buddhist legends where they are said to represent compassion.

Male and female. No prizes for guessing which is which!

The supposed everlasting bond between mandarins is captured in a Japanese folktale, which begins with a great lord capturing a male bird so he can forever enjoy its beautiful plumage. Separated from its mate, the male is desperately lonely and begins to pine away. Seeing that the bird will soon die of a broken heart, the lord’s maidservant and her samurai lover decide to do the decent thing and reunite the lovelorn pair. However they get caught in the act and the furious lord condemns them to death for their treachery, proving beyond all doubt that for mankind and birdlife alike the course of true love does not always run smoothly!

* * *

It was in the mid-18th century when mandarins were first brought to Britain, with the intention of adding a bit of oriental glamour to the ornamental waterfowl collections of the idle rich. They escaped with monotonous regularity, and sometimes were deliberately released, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that a significant self-sustaining population of feral birds became established.

Juvenile mandarin

Since then numbers have grown rapidly, and there are now reckoned to be close to 8,000 mandarin ducks scattered widely throughout England. There are also feral populations in parts of continental Europe, as well as California and North Carolina in the US.

Spotting a lucrative gap in the market, China exported tens – or perhaps hundreds – of thousands of mandarins over several decades. Although the trade was banned in 1975 its impact, combined with widespread habitat loss, has resulted in a big fall in the wild Chinese population. Luckily mandarin ducks are reputed not to taste very good, otherwise pressures on the wild population would have been even greater in a country with over a billion mouths to feed.

Mandarins are notable for perching in trees, and the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs. After hatching, the ducklings jump to the ground and avoid injury thanks to the cushioning of their fluffy down. The mother swiftly gathers her brood together, and leads them to water. At Straws Bridge the female had plainly done a good job, and we got clear – although distant – views of some juveniles.

However, without doubt the male is the star of the mandarin show. What a looker!

Celebrating National Robin Day

The good folk at SongBird Survival (SBS), an independent charity which funds research into the declining numbers of Britain’s songbirds, have declared next Monday – 21 December – to be National Robin Day. And who can blame them? The instantly recognisable robin has an appeal that extends way beyond dedicated birders, so celebrating this bird table superstar is an inspired way of gaining more publicity for their worthy cause. To mark the day, I thought I’d share some random facts and folklore about this iconic bird.

1 Robins are British Christmas card icons

It’s no accident that the SBS chose mid-December as the best time to celebrate National Robin Day. In Britain robins have been associated with Christmas since the 19th century, when postmen were dubbed robin redbreasts because of their red tunics. The mail they delivered at Christmas brought happiness to householders across the country, and the link was quickly made between redbreasts and seasonal merriment. Robins soon started appearing on Christmas cards, and they’ve been there ever since.

Worthy of a Christmas card

2 The naming of robins

The original English name for the robin was purely descriptive: our ancestors called it the redbreast. But they got it wrong. Even a cursory inspection in good light will reveal the bird’s breast to be orange, or perhaps an orangey-red, rather than pure red. The word orange, describing a colour, was unknown in English until the 16th century when it appeared as the name of the now-familiar citrus fruit. But by this time earlier generations had already adopted the next most appropriate word in the language – red – to describe the colour of the robin’s signature plumage.

The word robin, when applied to the bird, emerged in the 15th century when it became popular to give human names to familiar species. This new practice resulted in the birds becoming known as robin redbreast, which was eventually shortened to robin

3 The robin is Britain’s unofficial National Bird

In the 1960s the Times newspaper organised a poll of its readers to find Britain’s most popular bird, and the robin came out on top. Around half a century later, in 2015, popular birdwatcher and author David Lindo organised a similar survey. Over 200,000 people took part and the robin won again, having received 34% of votes cast, ahead of the barn owl (12%) and the blackbird (11%). Despite these public votes the UK government has remained on the fence and, for now at least, officially we don’t have a National Bird. Unofficially, however, the robin clearly takes the title.

Britain’s unofficial National Bird sings out, warning others to keep clear of its territory

4 Robins are nestbuilding mavericks

When it comes to choosing a place to nest, robins aren’t fussy. Just about anywhere will do. Most commonly their nests can be found about two metres off the ground, within some kind of hollow or crevice and sheltered by vegetation. But others will nest on the ground, perhaps behind the overhang of a grassy tussock, or occasionally beneath fallen twigs covered by leaf litter.

However, radical freethinkers within the robin population choose to nest amongst the flotsam and jetsam of human life. Old teapots, discarded kettles, watering cans, coat pockets, wellington boots, farm machinery, flowerpots, hats, barbecues, an unmade bed and the body of a dead cat have all been selected by robins as a suitable place to bring up a family!

Although their nestbuilding strategy may seem bizarre, it delivers the goods. There are estimated to be 6,700,000 breeding territories in the UK. Since 1970 the robin population has increased by around 45 per cent.

5 Male and female robins both have vivid breast plumage

Robins are highly territorial, and – particularly in the breeding season – adult males like to show off their vividly coloured breasts in an attempt to intimidate other males. Although females are less competitive, they too have orangey-red breasts. The two sexes look very similar, and their brightly coloured breast plumage got them into trouble towards the end of the 19th century when robin skins were for a time a popular adornment for ladies’ hats.

It’s worth noting that juvenile robins have a speckled brown breast and don’t develop the species’ distinctive plumage until after their first moult. The youngsters therefore belong to the group that is the nemesis of birders everywhere: they are Little Brown Jobs.

Juvenile robin (aka a Little Brown Job)

6 Robins sometimes fight to the death

You wouldn’t think it to look at them, but robins are aggressive little birds prone to acts of violence. It’s all about territory. It begins with a singing contest, males belting out their songs at one another while trying to get to a higher perch from which to flaunt their brightly coloured breasts. If one or the other doesn’t back down the dispute can become physical, resulting in injuries and even – on occasion – the death of one of the combatants. Shockingly, in some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to these avian turf wars.

7 Robins, friends to gardeners everywhere

Putting aside the connection with Christmas festivities, another reason for the robin’s popularity is its confiding nature. The robin presents as a friendly, trusting bird, more so than any other species that regularly visits British gardens.

Gardeners in particular often get up close and personal with robins. As ground feeders, robins enjoy nothing more than cheekily scavenging earthworms and other invertebrates dug up by gardeners going about their business. They’re also regular visitors to bird tables during the winter months, feisty feeders that aren’t shy about claiming their share of the feast.

Interestingly, robins are less confiding on continental Europe. This is thought to be because in many parts of the continent, particularly in the southern part of the robin’s range, the locals have the detestable habit of hunting small birds. It therefore pays the robin to keep its head down, skulking in the undergrowth, where hunters are less likely to find them. In Britain, where this horrible hunting tradition doesn’t exist, there is no evolutionary incentive for such caution.

The robin is a regular visitor to British bird tables

8 How the robin became

Unsurprisingly for a bird that associates so closely with humans, many stories have grown up to explain the robin’s distinctive colouring. One legend says that when Jesus was dying on the cross, a robin flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him. At this point the robin’s plumage was a dull, unremarkable brown colour. However the blood from Jesus’ wounds stained the robin’s breast. In that moment the world welcomed its first robin redbreast, and from that day onwards all robins bore the mark of Christ’s blood.

An alternative version of this tale tells us that one day an ordinary brown bird was flying high over Golgotha, near Jerusalem, when it looked at the ground below and spotted Christ suffering on the cross. Determined to ease Jesus’ torment it flew down and tried to remove His crown of thorns, but as it tugged in vain at the cruel affliction some of the Lord’s blood stained its breast. And this was how the robin became.

A third robin creation myth also makes a link between Jesus and the robin’s colouration. According to this story, shortly after Mary had given birth in the Bethlehem stable a small brown bird appeared and – in a noble attempt to keep the Christ Child warm – started to fan the flames of the dying fire. However, embers from the fire scorched its chest feathers, leaving the bird red-breasted. Mary saw what had happened and declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s devotion to the Lord. She went on to promise that the bird and all its descendants would forever onwards wear a red breast in memory of this selfless act of love.

9 Q: When is a robin not a robin? A: When it’s an American robin

The species of robin seen in British gardens is found all over Europe, extending as far east as Western Siberia and south to North Africa. Robins are also found in North America…or are they? Well, no, actually they’re not. The American Robin isn’t really a robin at all, and belongs instead to the thrush family. Early European settlers in the Americas, desperate for reminders of home, noticed its reddish coloured breast and named it after the bird they knew from back home. Ornithology plainly wasn’t their strong point as, other than the colour of the breast, the two species bear little resemblance.

Interestingly, in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews, the director got the wrong bird. Despite Dick van Dyke’s laughable attempt at a London accent, Mary Poppins is clearly set in England. However the bird that lands on Mary’s finger during the song A Spoonful of Sugar is an American Robin rather a European robin. Why am I not surprised by Hollywood’s cavalier relationship with factual accuracy?

The American Robin…is not really a robin at all!

10 Who killed cock robin?

The robin appears in the well-known English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?, a gruesome tale describing the murder and the funeral of a robin. The unfortunate redbreast is shot by a sparrow, and subsequent verses reveal who organises his funeral, who digs his grave and who plays the role of chief mourner. The person who concluded that such a verse constitutes suitable entertainment for children was clearly in need of therapy.

The nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1744, in a volume entitled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. However the story appears already to have been an established part of England’s oral tradition. A stained glass window dating from the 15th century and showing a robin killed by an arrow can be seen Buckland Rectory (Gloucestershire), while in the early 1500s John Skelton wrote and published a similar story called “Phyllyp Sparowe.”

There are now multiple versions of the nursery rhyme, some of which have been put to music. My favourite is by the American folk-singing duo Dana and Susan Robinson. They are brilliant performers – we’ve seen them perform on a couple of occasions in the UK – and for us Who Killed Cock Robin? is always the highlight of their gigs.

So, dear reader, as you reach the end of this little post, please join me in celebrating our National Robin Day by listening to Dana and Sue’s rendition of the tragic tale of one robin’s untimely end, courtesy of the YouTube link below.