Liebster Award (part 2)

Last week’s post featured my replies to eleven questions posed by New Zealander Liz Cowburn of the Exploring Colour blog, who had nominated me for a Liebster Award. This week I complete the Liebster process by revealing 11 things about me which readers may – or may not – find vaguely interesting or amusing, before moving on to ask 11 questions of my own and nominating a few bloggers to answer them.

11 things about me

1. I was born and raised in west London, under the Heathrow Airport flightpath. I left London at the age of 18 to go to Cambridge University, and never lived there again. I don’t miss it at all, but when I go back and mix with the locals my London accent returns within minutes!

2. In my childhood our garden backed on to a small river – well, more of a stream really – and my happiest days were spent on the riverbank, chasing butterflies, searching for slow-worms and wielding my fishing net in pursuit of sticklebacks. My love of nature and wildlife was born right there. More than any other place on Earth, that riverbank and what I found there made me what I am today.

Red Admiral – one of my favourite childhood butterflies

3. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to one of London’s top schools, an hour’s journey by bus and tube train from my suburban home. It was a Direct Grant Grammar School. These don’t exist any more, but back in the day they were a noble attempt to promote social mobility and greater equality. Most parents had to pay to send their children to these A-list academic establishments, but a few places were reserved, free-of-charge, for children of the “deserving poor.” I was fortunate to win one of those free places, and the quality of education I received as a result was brilliant. It was life changing.

The experience of being a child from a family with a modest income surrounded by youngsters from much wealthier backgrounds helped shape my political outlook. At the time several contemporaries suggested that a career in politics beckoned, but luckily I grew up!

4. Early on I had ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, but at secondary school it became clear that I wasn’t good enough at science to achieve this. However I also discovered an interest in, and talent for, the study of history. I carried that interest through to my university studies, where I also got into archaeology. History remains one of my passions.

5. During my mid and late teens I became a fervent supporter of Brentford F.C., a local soccer club playing in the (then) Fourth Division of the English Football League. My new best pal Pete introduced me to dubious pleasures of league soccer, and having quickly caught the bug I probably didn’t miss more than half a dozen home matches over a period of six or seven years. To be honest, as well as being the least fashionable team in London, Brentford were rubbish most of the time. Supporting them therefore taught me important life lessons, particularly with regard to managing my expectations and coping with disappointment!

white and blue soccer ball on ground inside goal

IMAGE CREDIT: Brandi Ibrao via Unsplash

6 On leaving university I spent 6 months in Bristol training to be an accountant. However the experience of spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing was profoundly depressing, so I gave it up and opted instead for a career in public service.

7. I have lived in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands of England, for over 40 years. Derbyshire has several claims to fame, including the UK’s first National Park (the Peak District), the world’s first industrial cotton mills established along the Derwent Valley in the late 18th century, several notable stately homes including Chatsworth, Kedleston, Haddon and Sudbury Halls, and the production of world-class ceramics at the Royal Crown Derby factory.

Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, built between 1660 and 1680

8. In Prague a few years ago I found myself falsely accused of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic! We were wandering in some sort of wooded parkland on a hill overlooking the city centre and, it seems, innocently blundered into an area frequented by ne’er-do-wells. Suddenly two plain-clothed officers leapt out from behind a bush and confronted me, saying that since I was in this place I must be smuggling Albanians, or failing that drugs or foreign currency, into their Mother Country.

When I protested my innocence the goons said only “Is OK, is control, is control, is OK.” I did not find this reassuring. However, having subjected me to a thorough body search and found no illicit drugs, illegal currency or unwelcome Albanians secreted about my person they let me go with a cheery wave. Bizarre, but true.

9. Mrs P and I have visited all 50 states of the USA. The “project” took around 18 years, but could have been completed a lot sooner had we not returned time and again to the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

10. Over the last few years I have rediscovered my love of folk music, particularly English and Celtic traditional folk. The best folk music is earthy and authentic, echoing a simpler world with fewer frivolous distractions (you know what I mean, stuff like Facebook, the X-Factor and endless selfies,) and more connected with nature, the land and the seasons.

When I was studying history I came across The World We Have Lost, a book by Peter Laslett about English social history before the Industrial Revolution. For me, much of English folk music is a reminder of the lost world that Laslett writes about. This song, sung by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith about the rhythm of the seasons in an agrarian landscape, is a case in point:

I have no musical talent whatsoever, but wish more than ever that I could sing in tune or maybe knock out a few notes on a fiddle, guitar or mandolin, so that I could be more than just a passive consumer of the folk music genre.

11. My favourite bird is the humble oystercatcher. Although I’ve watched birds on 6 continents and seen many rare and beautiful species, the oystercatcher gets my vote because it’s a bit of a Jack-the-Lad: loud, feisty and unapologetically full of itself, always strutting around to show off its good looks and screaming abuse at anyone or anything encroaching on its turf. In human form these characteristics would be a nightmare, but in a bird they’re strangely endearing … to me, anyway.

Eurasian Oystercatcher, an avian Jack-the-Lad

11 Questions for my nominees

  1. Why do you write your blog?
  2. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
  3. What do you usually eat for breakfast? And what would be your dream breakfast, prepared free-of-charge by a top chef?
  4. Dogs or cats?
  5. Which four historical figures (2m, 2f) would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
  6. Where is your favourite place to visit?
  7. How important is Nature in your life, and how do you get close to it?
  8. If you were reincarnated, what animal or bird would you like to be?
  9. Do you have a favourite book, one that you return to time and again? Why is so special to you?
  10. Your house is burning down. All the other people and their pets have got out safely but you only have time to save one personal possession. What will you save?
  11. We all know about the terrible impact of Covid-19 on individuals and communities, but is there an upside? Has the crisis had any positive impact on you and your life?
Newfoundland, Dark Tickle, 2017 (7)

Dogs or cats?

My nominations for a Liebster Award

This has been difficult. Some of the blogs I would have nominated have declared themselves award-free, while others have recently been so-honoured (Liz, Ann, Mike, this means you!) So my list comprises a few blogs that have kept me entertained, diverted or informed during the Covid-19 lockdown. If you’re not listed here but fancy having a go, please do so with my best wishes.

If, however, you appear on the list but don’t want to take part that’s OK too. There’s no obligation whatsoever, and I won’t be offended. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and had fun doing it, but I know it won’t suit everyone. The choice is yours.

My nominations, in no particular order, are

  1. National Parks with T
  2. Living in Nature
  3. Still Normal
  4. Butterflies to Dragsters
  5. Back Yard Biology
  6. Anyone else who wants a go!

A reminder of the rules for nominees

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Variable Oystercatcher, a Jack-the-Lad seen in New Zealand, November 2019

Reflections on World Penguin Day

What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?

Penguins: cultural icons, and very tasty chocolate-covered biscuits! P..P..Pick up a Penguin!

Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.

And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!

So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.

The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.

In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.

Galapagos Penguin: 48 cm tall, weight around 5.5lbs

During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.

*

It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.

Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.

Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.

On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!

*

Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin makes landfall!

Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.

Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin returns to the ocean, grubby from its overland journey

Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.

Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.

The Fiordland Crested Penguin walks with a distinctive stooped posture

The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.

*

New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.

Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.

A Yellow-eyed Penguin emerges from the sea, dripping like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie

The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.

The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!

Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.

While the sealion is distracted, this Yellow-eyed Penguin follows a fence-line to return to its chick

At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.

Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!

Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”

World Curlew Day

Yesterday – 21 April – was World Curlew Day! It probably passed you by: let’s face it, the news media are concentrating pretty much all their attention on one topic right now, understandably focussing on Coronavirus rather than curlews. Environmental issues aren’t perceived as a priority today, but while we follow the life and death struggle of fellow citizens coping with the COVID-19 virus, this magnificent bird is engaged in a battle of its own. Curlews are in big trouble.

The curlew is the largest of all European waders, an unmistakable bird with a brown body, long legs and a diagnostic downward-curving bill. And then there’s its liquid, evocative and haunting call.

Curlews overwinter on tidal mudflats and saltmarshes, and this is where Mrs P and I mostly see them, during our winter birding breaks. They used to breed widely both in upland and lowland Britain, but changes in farming practices have massively reduced lowland breeding success.

There are reckoned to be around 65,000 breeding pairs of Eurasian Curlews in Britain. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it, until you realise that this is a reduction of about 65% since 1970. And given that Britain accounts for around a quarter of the world breeding population of these birds, the decline here is bad news for the species as a whole.

In 2008, Eurasian Curlews were added to the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of birds deemed to be of global conservation concern, becoming officially classified as “Near Threatened.”

Ours is not the only species of curlew under threat. A century ago the world boasted eight species of these large, long-lived waders. Today there are only six, of which three are on the Red List. As a group, they are claimed to be among the most threatened migratory birds on Earth. In response to their plight the first World Curlew Day was announced in 2018.

World Curlew Day has been described as “a grassroots initiative supported by environmental organizations such as BirdLife International and Wetlands International. It is a one-day global event aiming to raise awareness about the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.” This blog post is my own modest contribution to the World Curlew Day initiative.

*

The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) website summarises what is believed to be behind the decline of the Eurasian Curlew, noting that “the evidence to date suggests declines are largely due to poor breeding success alongside the loss of breeding grounds.” It continues:

“Like many wading birds, curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground – known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further four weeks, until fledging

Studies from across Europe have found that in most cases breeding pairs are failing to raise enough young to maintain stable populations.
 
Egg predation by mammals and birds has emerged as a key factor behind poor breeding success. However, this abundance of predation is in itself associated with changes in land-use and management.
 
Farming is essential to maintain the mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats curlews need, but large-scale grassland improvement ultimately leads to the degradation and eventual loss of breeding habitat. Changes in grazing pressure can also have a more direct impact in the form of nest trampling by livestock.”

SOURCE: RSPB WEBSITE, retrieved 18 April 2020

Having identified the problem, the RSPB is now urgently seeking a solution. Its Curlew Recovery Programme is undertaking research to better understand the management practices required to reverse the decline in Eurasian Curlew numbers. At the heart of the programme is a Trial Management Project.

The Trial Management Project is carrying out work at sites across the four countries of the UK, looking at a range of possible interventions including habitat management and targeted predator control. Baseline monitoring at the six sites in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland was undertaken during the 2015 breeding season, and research to identify and develop appropriate “curlew-friendly” land management strategies is continuing.

*

In a separate project, the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) started work last year on a project to protect curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales.

“The plan is to throw everything we’ve got at the problem in the vale. Curlew protection will be driven by farmers, that’s the logical reality. If we can work with them to turn things around here, that’s a great start. But we also want the vale to be a test ground for ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere and, ultimately, incorporated into new government agri-environment policy, so that farmers can effectively be paid for curlew-friendly management.”

SOURCE: GEOFF HILTON, WWT’s Head of Conservation Evidence, quoted in Waterlife: The WWT Magazine, April/June 2020, page 36

When a curlew nest is located within the study area, the WWT researchers must weigh up carefully the risks and benefits of intervention. Approaching the nest may alert predators to its existence, or may disturb parent birds and cause them to abandon it. However if the risks of predation are high, the project team may decide that, on balance, the interest of the birds is best served by approaching to erect an electric fence around the nest in an effort to keep foxes and badgers at bay.

The scientists are also keen to collect data that will give them a better understanding of the challenges to be overcome in halting the decline in curlew numbers. To this end researchers may visit the nest briefly to weigh the eggs and deploy a temperature logging device; the data collected can provide valuable insights into laying and hatching dates, and incubation patterns. The nest may also be visited again, just before the chicks fledge, to ring and radio-tag the birds so that further information on their progress may be collected at a later date.

The WWT’s most drastic intervention of all is “headstarting,” where vulnerable eggs and chicks are removed from the wild to be raised in captivity, before being released in a more favourable location. The recent article in Waterlife magazine describes the removal of 50 curlew eggs from airfields in East Anglia, where they would have been destroyed to prevent airstrikes. After being hatched and raised by the WWT, the young birds were released in the safer surroundings of its Slimbridge Reserve. A good news story, if ever there was one!

In doing my research for this post I’ve been shocked at the plight of the curlew, which is worse than I’d realised. It’s a bird I love to watch, and the prospect of its becoming extinct is heart-breaking. However the levels of work currently underway to better understand the problems it faces, and to find appropriate solutions, give me cautious grounds for optimism. I wish the researchers every success in their endeavours.

Birds don’t come here any more

We stand at the window. Watching. Waiting. It’s been the same story for around 20 years, taking part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Every year, on the last weekend in January, faithfully recording the birds that visit our garden. Our findings, and the records of tens of thousands of other participants up and down the country, are combined by the boffins at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They use the data to work out which species are doing well and which are doing badly, and then look for the reasons why. It’s said to be one of the largest “citizen science” exercises in the world, and it’s always been a pleasure to be part of it.

Robin: MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

But this year it’s different. You see, birds don’t come here any more.

Of course, birds have never flocked to our garden in large numbers. We live on a suburban estate, several hundred metres from open country. Our garden is small, although a well-stocked bird table and a bird bath are provided to attract visitors, and several large bushes offer them security and shelter.

Despite the limitations of our garden, in the past we have logged a number of species during the allotted Birdwatch hour. They include house sparrow, dunnock, blackbird, robin, wren, starling, magpie, blue tit and woodpigeon. One year – our very own annus mirabilis – a grey wagtail dropped in to say hi.

Male blackbird: the ONLY BIRD SEEN in our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

This year, in two full days of monitoring the garden, we see just one bird! A solitary male blackbird comes to the bird table a couple of times, but doesn’t stay long. Other than him, our garden is an avian desert throughout the entire Birdwatch weekend.

I am reminded of the seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring, in which Rachel Carson wrote of the impact of the indiscriminate use of pesticides – in particular DDT – on bird numbers in the US. I don’t know what impact – if any – pesticides in the local environment may have had on the disappearance of birds from our garden. There are a number of other possible culprits also in the frame, including habitat loss, new agricultural practices, environmental pollution and human-generated climate change.

Woodpigeon: MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

Yes, it’s complex, but there’s no excuse for inaction. Carson was writing nearly 50 years ago and society is now much better placed to understand the environmental impact of its actions. Yet the birds continue to disappear, from our back garden and from towns and countryside throughout the UK.

It cannot – must not – be allowed to continue.

The solutions will not be simple. That much is certain. Also certain is the fact that we – humans – are at the root of this. If we are the problem then we must also become the solution. The clock is ticking, the birds are dying.

Rachel Carson put it like this:

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

In January 2021 the RSPB will doubtless run another Big Garden Birdwatch, but I don’t know if we’ll take part again. You see, birds don’t come here any more.

When will we see you again? Blue tit, MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

Farewell Lady Kaka

Last Friday I said goodbye to a dear friend, my constant companion for the last few months. My life feels empty without her. She’d been with me day in and day out, and in the darkness of the night I’d lie awake thinking about her. We shared so many stories, through the good times and the bad. Together we laughed a lot, and even cried a little when the news came through about White Island. But now we’re finished, and I need to move on.

She wasn’t my first, of course. There were three others before her, and today – as you must know, because you are reading this – I’m with someone else. But for a few brief months we were inseparable.

She was a harsh mistress, always wanting more. Every day she expected me to perform, even when I didn’t feel up to it. I totted it up, and in total we got it together 89 times. Sometimes she let me have a day off, but the next day I had to make amends, to come up with the goods twice in just a few hours.

There were moments when I hated her for her insatiable demands, but mostly I loved her for believing in me and for driving me on to do things I didn’t know I could do. She got under my skin, seduced me, cajoled me and always encouraged me to be the best I could be.

I’m sure most of my friends wondered why I bothered with her at all. I could see it in their eyes, sense the unasked question in their emails, what’s the bloody point, why waste your time locked up with her, glued to your laptop when you could be outside soaking up the rays, or maybe getting rat-arsed in a pub?

And my answer is simple. I wrote a blow-by-blow blog of our visit to New Zealand to prove that I could, to show that there’s still life in this old dog, to demonstrate that intellectual and creative atrophy is not an inevitable consequence of retirement.

Writing a travel blog also allows me – forces me, in fact – to experience things differently. Regardless of the blog I would still have seen the parrots on our porch. But without the imperative to write something that family, friends and followers could relate to it would have been just a fleeting, casual acquaintance, soon to be forgotten. Without my blog I would never have met Lady Kaka. Here’s part of what I wrote about her in early December 2019:

*

She’s perched on the railing that guards the edge of our veranda, or porch as they call it in North America, staring into our room through the full length glass sliding door. I’m looking back out at her, captivated by her audacity. We’re separated by no more than a couple of metres and a sheet of glass. The kaka can see me but is totally un-phased.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1607.jpg

Even when I slide the door open and step closer she’s untroubled, and simply watches me calmly. She doesn’t need reassurance but I offer it anyway, whispering to her, telling her that I find her beautiful and won’t ever harm her. She tips her head to one side quizzically, weighing me up.

I can read her mind. Are you for real? she’s asking. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand other meetings she’s had before with guests occupying our room.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1521.jpg

I, however, haven’t read the script. I’m lost for words, unsure what to do next. Wild birds aren’t meant to be like this. Is she ill? Or mad? Or am I the crazy one, standing here in awe of this kaka, this big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous bill?

I watch her intently, and she watches me back. It’s a Mexican standoff, and neither of us wants to make the first move. Finally she gets bored – I’ve obviously buggered up the audition – and utters a piercing, eardrum-exploding squawk as she flies off into a nearby tree. Lady Kaka has left the building

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1620.jpg

*

The Platypus Man in New Zealand was my fourth and most ambitious road-trip travel blog. It runs to over 61,000 words spread across 89 posts. Designing it, researching it, writing it, editing it and responding to comments about it has dominated my life for several months. It’s been a deep and meaningful relationship that has changed and developed me in all sorts of ways. But in the manner of most relationships it’s run its course, and now I have someone new in my life.

Now I’m 64 is my new Best Friend Forever, a fresh challenge to keep the brain active and the pulse racing.

So, farewell Lady Kaka, my dear old friend, and thank you for the good times. I promise I won’t ever forget you.

Why I’m not a twitcher

Recently I’ve posted several pieces about birds and birding, and I guess the casual reader might have concluded I’m a twitcher.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In day-to-day conversation most people use the words “twitcher” and “birdwatcher” interchangeably, but this is completely wrong.  To be absolutely clear: I’m not, never have been, and never will be a twitcher. Neither is Mrs P. Capiche?

Twitchers may enjoy seeing wild a Eurasian crane, which is bouncing back in the UK after a reintroduction programme

So just what is a twitcher? 

Twitching is … “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” …. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. … The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists.

SOURCE: Wikipedia, retrieved 25 August 2019

Twitching is anathema to me. It sounds like a sad and lonely activity undertaken primarily by sad and lonely men who really need to get their priorities in order. 

Sadly, no self-respecting twitcher would give this wood pigeon a second glance

Twitchers appear to care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase.  For them it’s all about the quarry. Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge.  It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about.  But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet moment watching an everyday bird like a wood pigeon or a bullfinch as it does to glimpse a rarity. 

Sex and the City: peregrines mate on a ledge at a local disused cotton mill. Twitchers and peregrines in simultaneous ecstasy?

Even if it’s as common as muck, a bird is still a masterpiece of nature.  Birds are tangible evidence of evolution in action, sculpted from bones and flesh and feathers.  I love nothing more than to marvel at their very existence, to learn about their lives and to enjoy their antics as they go about the everyday business of living.

Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them the satisfaction they crave.  Mrs P and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking simple pleasure in the wonder of nature. This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen. 

Twitchers, please don’t dismiss the bullfinch just because it’s a common bird

There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps?  My next project, maybe?

Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

*

We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

An unlikely place for birdwatching

Washington, on the outskirts of Sunderland in the north-east of England, seems an unlikely place for a day’s birdwatching. Although Washington Old Hall, the greatly remodelled home of George Washington’s distant ancestor William de Wessyngton, is nearby, the area is best known for its heavy industry. The coal and chemical industries were both big business hereabouts, and although these are long-gone a variety of other industries have taken their place.

Goldfinch

Who on earth would choose to put a bird reserve here, in such an unnatural and unpromising landscape?

The answer is, of course, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), and good for them. It must have been a brave move at the time (the 1970s), but it was a stroke of genius.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Like other WWT sites, Washington Wetland Centre combines managed habitats for wild birds and displays of captive birds, most of which are part of conservation-driven breeding programmes. There is a strong emphasis on learning and education, with the Centre giving many local children their first close contact with the natural world.

There’s also a Field of Dreams element to this bird reserve: build it and they will come. However improbable it may seem that wildlife could thrive here amongst the industry and urban sprawl, the WWT took the risk and have been richly rewarded. Birds galore and other wildlife – including otters – now call this place home, or drop in for a while during their annual migrations.

Jay

The WWT is a massively important part of our conservation infrastructure. It was instrumental in saving the nene (Hawaiian Goose) from the brink of extinction, and remains at the heart of wetland-focussed conservation projects both in the UK and overseas. Its stated vision is:

We conserve, restore and create wetlands, save wetland wildlife, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands achieve for people and nature.

Source: WWT website, retrieved 7 October 2019

Mrs P and I are passionate supporters, and life members, of the WWT, so it was a pleasure to drop in at the Washington Wetland Centre on our way back from Scotland earlier this year.

For once the wetland birds were unremarkable as the autumn migration had not yet begun. However there were plenty of other treats to savour, including common terns bringing back beaks full of fish for their youngsters.

Common Tern

We were also thrilled to see a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, and a very confiding jay which jumped manicly between branch and feeder, then back again. Not at all what we’d expected would be the highlights of a visit to a wetland reserve, but great just the same.

Washington Wetland Centre may be an unlikely place for birdwatching, but it definitely delivers the goods. It’s a place we’ll happily continue to visit whenever we’re in the area.

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

My last post was an account our August trip to the Birdfair, an annual three-day celebration of the natural world held on the shores of Rutland Water.  It’s a huge affair, a joyous jamboree with at least a dozen massive marquees and thousands of visitors who park up in the surrounding fields and pastureland before making their way to the site.  At Birdfair a carnival atmosphere reigns … unless, that is, it rains.

Although the rain had stopped, by Saturday morning the ground was saturated and was soon churned to mud

This year we’d noticed for the first time that Birdfair is being styled as the “birders’ Glastonbury.”  Now you can call me an old worry-guts, but I was inclined to think that this is tempting fate given Glastonbury music festival’s uneasy relationship with the rain gods.  And so it proved to be: in the making of this reckless comparison the curse of Glastonbury was duly invoked.

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

We’ve been to more than 20 Birdfairs, and on the whole have been blessed with good weather.  But all good things come to an end, so it came as no surprise that the forecast for Friday afternoon and evening was dire. 

In these circumstances you hope the weathermen have got it wrong – no surprises to be had there, of course – but this time, regrettably, they were spot on.  The rain set in shortly after midday and got steadily heavier. Soon we were enduring a downpour of biblical proportions. 

When the mud dried on our shoes it turned as hard as concrete

We made a run for it at about 4pm on Friday, back to the comfort of our hotel where, it transpired, television reception was non-existent due to the intensity of the storm. 

I was pleased to get out of the field in which we’d parked without much trouble, but we learned later that folk leaving after us were less fortunate. Many of them had to be pulled out by a tractor, until the tractor got stuck and had to be rescued by another, stronger tractor.  You couldn’t make it up.

The bog-lands of Birdfair

The next day the site was in a wretched state.  Despite the organisers’ best efforts the main pathways were rivers of disgusting mud and slime, interrupted by occasional pools of standing water.  Visitors slipped, slid and paddled between marquees, and the stall selling wellington boots did record business.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Older visitors could be heard belting out the Flanders and Swann classic ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,’ while one of the less ancient birders treated us to a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip sliding away.’

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

By Sunday afternoon the mud was turning more glutinous than liquid, and a degree of normality had returned to proceedings.  The foul conditions underfoot didn’t spoil the Birdfair – we Brits are made of sterner stuff – but I fear for next year’s event, lest we once again fall foul of the curse of Glastonbury.

Birdfair: hanging out with friends I’ve never met

Like most couples, I suppose, Mrs P and I have a few anchor dates in our diaries, days of fun, feasts and finery that are also milestones marking the passing of the year.  Chief amongst them are Christmas, our birthdays – both in March, just a couple of days apart – and of course our wedding anniversary in May. But no less important than any of these is the annual British Birdwatching Fair – or Birdfair as it’s known to its thousands of admirers – held every August on the shores of Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.

Offers abound in one of the Birdfair marquees

Birdfair began in 1989, and Mrs P and I have missed only one since we first decided to give it a try in the mid-1990s.  At first, we just went along on a Saturday to see what all the fuss was about. We were so captivated that pretty soon we were making a weekend of it, but eventually we realised even that wasn’t enough.  For about the last 15 years we’ve stayed at local hotels and been on site for all three days of Birdfair.

Specialist travel companies and interest groups are thick on the ground

So, just what is Birdfair?  In short, it’s a three-day celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond.  It was the first-ever event of its kind anywhere, and has been the inspiration for countless similar festivals across the world.

At Birdfair you can go to fascinating talks on conservation issues, hear about wildlife travel destinations and maybe buy the holiday of a lifetime.  You can browse stalls selling a staggering variety of high-quality wildlife art and top-end optical equipment, and watch a range of media personalities and birding experts making complete fools of themselves in spoofs of TV quizzes.

You can even pop along to the British Trust for Ornithology stand to watch a bird-ringing demonstration, or walk out to the Rutland Water nature reserve for a spot of birdwatching. Finally, you can go home feeling good about yourself, as the money raised from entry tickets goes towards vital conservation projects around the world.

TV personality Mike Dilger hosts a birding quiz

This year’s Birdfair was as good as ever.  We were inspired by Isabella Tree’s talk about a farm rewilding project in West Sussex, and excited by Mark Elliott’s account of bringing beavers back to Devon. 

We were given food for thought by Ian Carter’s talk on the red kite’s recovery in the UK, and got wildlife photography tips from the master himself, David Tipling.

A chance for some last minute research before our autumn trip to New Zealand

Mark Warren’s presentation on birding breaks in Scotland gave us a chance to reminisce, while Ruary Mackenzie Dodds’ talk on a bizarre New Zealand dragonfly suggested something else we should look out for during our trip Down Under.

Iolo Williams, possibly the funniest wildlife raconteur I’ve ever heard, made us laugh until we cried, and Simon King tried hard to convince us that Shetland has more to offer than rain.

Conservationist and TV presenter Simon King tries to convince us it doesn’t always rain in Shetland

We even found time to buy a new camera, and at a 26% discount on the price I was quoted a few days earlier in our local store.  Result!

During the Birdfair we were able to catch up with some friends and family who’d also made the trip.  And, just as important, we could spend three days in the company of people who share our interests and values, briefly hanging out with friends we’ve never met.  It may sound trite, but Birdfair feels like a family, everyone connected by the shared DNA of a passion for the natural world. 

Queueing for a talk on rewilding … with 100s of friends I’ve never met

In an article in the Birdfair programme Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert touched on this theme when they wrote: “This is the natural history clan coming together, the British wildlife constituency gathering in thousands on the shores of an inland sea.”

Exactly!  Long may it continue.