Isle of Wight is ‘Go’!

dramaticflight

Now that we have the Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) back in Cornwall and, therefore England – something that’s been dear to my heart all my life, certainly since I started working with them in the 1970s. They took up a good five years of my life in the eighties, as anyone who knows me knows.  The results of all that work can be seen in my thesis here https://chough.org/research-papers

So it was great to be involved in someone else’s project for once and view it from a more dispassionate angle.  This is part of what I wrote to Steve Jones – indefatigable and a huge source of knowledge about the island’s wildlife – after I visited last week and was shown  lots of key sites.  His energy and imagination will I’m sure achieve results.  

Dear Steve,
Thank you very much for taking the time to show Sam and myself round many potential Chough sites on the island on Tuesday. It was an exciting, if very hot, visit which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

The experience far exceeded my expectations. I was not prepared for such a varied and extensive range of different highly suitable habitats.

Despite the fact that it was high tourist season, with increased numbers due to ‘staycation’, large areas we visited were devoid of human (and dog) presence. In contrast, the invertebrate populations were more dense than anything I’ve seen on the mainland recently, so prey resources are well catered for – the richness of bird life, resident and visiting the island on migration, supports this view – nesting sites similarly.

There is ample short-grazed / naturally exposed sward available with plenty of mosaics and earth exposures of different kinds with good areas of varied wild cliffscape and inaccessible coves and beaches; the quality of geology and botany is extensive and rich. In short, I was deeply struck by the extent and variability of suitable Chough habitat; it was difficult to think of anything which was lacking! 

Considering the island is (surprisingly!) large, all compass points and aspects are available viz a viz shelter, breeding, feeding, and exposure (including east for early morning solar irradiation).  There is generally sympathetic stewardship with the National Trust being principal, and also wealthy independent landowners keen on chough re-establishment. The entire island contains within its ca.150 sq mi (380 km2) and coastline of approximately 70 miles (113km) a surfeit of extensive fine habitats.

We talked quite a lot about suitable sites for the location of captive-breeding/soft release sites, and you showed me a few possible places. 

I can only send my the very best in your endeavours and just wish the birds were available now for you to progress quickly. To sum up briefly, I have no doubt the island, as it is, can support a viable Chough population. 

Thank you once again for the expert guidance you gave us and your kind hospitality.

[NB. The Chough is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, in other words, if it can support this top species it can support everything else ‘beneath’ it (in food chain terms).]

The Robin I wrote about last time is still with us but now in perfect adult plumage; I still find it hard to believe that a totally wild animal can, after all we throw at wildlife, be so trusting.

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Bird in the hand

So I get to pondering why some birds are born tame. Why some show little or  no fear of our towering human presences, while others, from the same brood, behave like normal wild animals and avoid close contact at all costs. Perhaps they are the sensible ones.

Perhaps, the Robin – emblem of countless Christmas cards – more than any other species has been spared human cruelty and persecution: gardeners enjoy their close association and naturalists love their winter song (on account of the fact they hold territories through the year). Those are some of the reasons, but why this particular individual?

 

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Slightly blurry photo taken with one hand!

Straight from the nest, she was confiding and tame, on the ground round our feet, soon coming to the hand for food. Slightly wary at first but now she comes and demands it, as though I’m her natural parent (anything less like is difficult to imagine).

When she lands confidently, her tiny claws pressing into my flesh, I know I’m in direct contact with a life form which has come down through millennia despite all the vicissitudes of climate, predators, man and habitat change.

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This confiding little creature enlivens and enchants. I just hope that losing her fear of man, does not dull her reflexes, because there are plenty of other dangers: cats always a danger here. And Sparrowhawks need to feed too.

Revenge of the Introverts

The Merlin and a Raven-Buzzard dogfight
(plus a sneaky look at a drab little bird with a remarkable sex life)

April, 2020:  Unless you are affected medically, or trapped in an impossible (or just very difficult) domestic situation, this is a unique time. Especially for naturalists and for all those who savour the spectacular sound of silence which now covers the countryside in a sublime shroud, although it is slowly being removed. For sound recordists of natural phenomena, it is an unparalleled opportunity: so little traffic and aircraft noise, and I’ve even noticed a quieter strimmer serenade – one of the more irritating sounds of summer – or maybe they just haven’t quite found their voice yet.

Unable to travel to nature reserves, beauty spots or just one’s favourite haunt, be it a gravel pit, reservoir, park or wood, we can stay at home with a chance to get to know better what used to be called Common or garden birds.  And we notice they are not so ‘common’, in fact they are rather rare and fascinating; and we realise how little we actually do know them. The humble Dunnock (Hedge sparrow, or even ‘Hedge accentor’ if you will) for example possesses a sex life to be marvelled at, and you may notice their polyandrous trios bumbling about hedgerow bottoms; Mrs Dunnock is very free with her favours. I haven’t myself counted but Dr Tim Birkhead has, and he advises that male Dunnocks can copulate 100 times a day.

Dunnock-minDunnock Prunella modularis

The intriguing sex life of Dunnocks apart, I was sitting in my North Devon garden in April with Mij (a non-polyandrous wife), enjoying the astonishing quietness all around and waiting impatiently for our first Swallow (my daughter, Josie, saw hers ages ago, but she always beats me to everything), a bird come fleeting up the valley over the woodland. “A Swallow,” I cried; Mij immediately, “No, it’s a bird of prey” (she always contradicts me and is frustratingly usually right), but I, quick as a flash, came back, “A Merlin then.”  And we watched in awe as this little falcon flew quietly over us, not hunting just waving. Only the third I’ve ever seen.

My son, Sam, phoned that night from his home in rural Hampshire. I told him about the Merlin, and he said he’d never seen one but thought he’d spotted a Hobby once. “Where could I see a Merlin?” he asked, I replied, “Well, you’ve just got to be lucky, like we were. I wouldn’t like to say ‘Hey, Sam, we’ll go up to Exmoor and I’ll show you a Merlin, it’s not like that.'”

So, what have I learned?  You can stay at home, save your petrol (and the environment), and have just as much chance of seeing something interesting and beautiful as if you trek off somewhere special in full birding gear. It might be a sexy female Dunnock or even a spectacular Will-o’-the-Wisp Merlin.

It could even be as exciting as the sequel to our Merlin adventure. For immediately after he had winnowed off, the stage was taken by a contest between a nesting Raven and loafing Buzzard. We watched these two sparring for twenty minutes before a second Buzzard arrived. I don’t think they were really interested in the Raven chicks (probably quite a size by early April) but gave the impression of just enjoying winding-up the parents. In effect we were greeted to a dogfight worthy of Manfred von Richthofen: the Raven swooping down from… out of the sun? I wouldn’t like to say… but it was pretty spectacular.  As the Buzzard turned over to meet it, the Raven would come within inches of its tormentor plummeting to the nadir of its descent, and from there, with the momentum gained, rapidly climb high for the next assault. The Buzzard appeared merely to flick the Raven aside and continue riding the thermals in carefree arabesques.

It is not always so charming. In a book I wrote under another name many years ago*, I included a photograph of a Raven with its top mandible ripped off by a Buzzard (it was then being cared for in a Wildlife Hospital, and survived by swallowing day-old chicks whole).

I so hope that whoever has a window on the world – preferably one which opens – can get a glimpse such as this. My daughter, Emma, who lives in a high flat in Ealing can see Sparrowhawks from her window, and I wouldn’t doubt Peregrines, and her partner, Raoul, a sound recordist, has sent me a recording of their dawn chorus. On it I can hear Nuthatches, tits, Blackbirds, sparrows, Wood pigeons, and ‘seagulls’ of course.

There is no need for isolation, birds and bees obey no human social distancing. I am sending Emma a window bird feeder and some seed. She claims they are too high up to attract small birds, but I challenge that. We will see who is right; if things run according to rule when it comes to women and me, I know the answer. Rosie Wood, a badger colleague, sent me an epithet which said, ‘If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?’ And I know the answer to that one too.

* As Richard Mark Martin, First Aid and Care of Wildlife, David & Charles, 1984.

The raven – Evermore!

The raven –
Evermore!

Then it was January already
And I see a raven atop its tree.
Very early in the year it’s come
With sparkling life so barely begun.
Here now the king and queen of crows
High in the pine with me far below
Wishing for certain I wasn’t here.
But, for my part, wish he had no fear.

Those centuries of persecution
Have caused this undeserved exclusion
And brought about such calamity
By those with sighted eyes that can’t see
The glory of its magnificence.
Despite all their poison, guns and sense-
lessness they’ve failed in their regicide,
For safe in London’s Tower Rex survives!

Scorning humdrum landscapes, the raven
In its vaulting poise will freely reign
Over tree, mountainside and cliff edge.
Tail fanned full free, they say like a wedge –
But not really, much more arcuate
For the soar and swoop of mate on mate.
It reminds us, wherever it be,
Of primeval pre-man history.

You prehistoric fantastic beast!
Remembered from where we used to meet
In limeston’d quarry when I was young,
Where once I stopped a kid with a gun
Even though myself scarcely older.
Passion made me angry, nay bolder.
And becoming a man from fey youth
Surprised even myself by such proof.

* * *

The raven’s rasping corronking call
Gives notice; fearing nothing at all
Except endless man – arch enemy –
Who darkly shadows his destiny.
Now see the Raven, still beguiling
In its lonely ancient travelling.
This gaunt grim ominous bird of yore.
What is meant in croaking ‘Nevermore’?

Over our Welsh pinewood winter home,
Where the goshawk and red kite have flown,
Came a strange cork-extracting popping.
Not the usual pruk-pruk toc-tocking
Nor the oft heard bubbling and creaking.
This bell-like liquid gong sent me seeking
Off to Heinrich’s ‘Ravens in Winter’;
Myself once more eager researcher.

In his pages I found a treasure –
That this call is of peace and pleasure.
Now in Devon I hear it a lot
Though from childhood remember it not.
Bold comes its cousin, the common crow
(Less bold the jackdaw) to our window
And raps thereon to be fed some more.
But no raven tapping at my door.

Foolhardy to be any bolder:
Keep your distance from human murder;
Groups of crows are so designated
By man to raise fear of the hated.
O, ebony bird, so beguiling
You set my face gratefully smiling.
Stately raven, quoth I, from my door
I would give you shelter…
Evermore!

© R M Meyer (with respect to Edgar Allan Poe)
Devon, February 2019