There is a tree in my garden that is quite literally alive with sound. As I write this, even with the window closed tight, I can hear it calling. There’s a loud and busy cacophony of chirps and chirrs emerging from the branches. The tree chatters non-stop from dawn to dusk, a natural alarm clock and a constant reminder of nature’s presence.
But trees can't sing can they? Okay, you’ve got me: the culprits of the sound are quite often hidden away among the prickles and berries. But who are these champion chirpers that find refuge in the holly tree?
House Sparrows, lots and lots of House Sparrows. The sparrows are calling in what is known as a flock call: it helps keep the group together and also highlights the availability of food to other members. These cheery birds have come to feed in the garden on the tasty selection of food we provide. They enjoy feeding on the seeds feeders and scraps dropped on the floor by the other birds.
Sparrows are a social birds, so there’s a fair amount of them that visit the garden. Mainly females, they drop down from the holly tree and queue up for the rich pickings. I’ve tried to count them, but it’s damn tricky. They’re such a busy and lively bird, always hopping and flitting around. There can be as many as ten, even fifteen or more of them feeding at once: so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s many more in the tree. With this behaviour, it’s no surprise sparrows are often associated with human habitation and even human characteristics:
‘a sharp-eyed, quick witted exploiter…relies at all seasons of operating in gangs’ (Max Nicholson as quoted in Birds Brittanica)
I never tire of watching or listening to the sparrows. Admittedly their calling isn’t tuneful: it’s high-pitched and monotonous, but lively none-the-less. A few years ago, the tree never sang, but now it doesn’t stop, and that’s certainly a good thing. The sparrow has seen a decline of 67% since 1969 and is considered a red list species. In London, they have declined by ¾ between 1992 and 2000. Hard to imagine as they seem such a common sight, but a shocking and mysterious decline. I’m glad therefore that providing food in my garden has helped at least one population thrive. Why not provide food in your garden too and help your trees sing too?
A recent A-level biology trip to the Shropshire countryside worried me. The disconnection, and even fear, my fellow peers had for nature was quite frankly, shocking. In this blog I want to share with you my personal experiences relating to young people and nature and share my #VisionforNature - for more young people to have a respect for the natural world.
Before going on the trip, I already knew things weren't the best at my school when it came to young people's appreciation for nature. I go to school in Croydon, and although not everybody fits in with your typical South-London stereotype, I'm sure you can imagine how most people spend their spare time; and it appears to me that most people get annoyed at even the slightest mention of anything green.
I'm pretty certain most of my year, if not the whole school, know that I am a very keen photographer. I'm glad that my photography is appreciated, but I can't help feeling that the natural history aspect is widely ignored. People will ask me how my photography's going and they'll be interested to look at my images, but if I dare mention anything furred or feathered, they change the subject, or poke a bit of fun at me. Obviously, my closer set of peers are aware of my "obsession" with the natural world, but it remains the same that whenever nature need be mentioned, it's in a joking matter: even my form tutor can't help but take the mickey.
Despite all this, setting off on the coach to Shropshire I was confident that an escape from the urban jungle would prove enjoyable for many. I thought that the fresh-air, lush green fields and wildlife would prove to be just what my fellow teenagers needed to spark their imagination. Of course, some people enjoyed being in the countryside and for them it was a positive experience: they appreciated the nature that surrounded them, but as a whole I was unimpressed by the reactions.
"This place smells like sh*t!" was one of the first comments I heard when we arrived. "Where is everything!" another exclaimed. "This place looks so lame." another commented. I was beginning to question whether people even knew what the countryside was! People rushed into their rooms as quickly as frightened rabbits, ignoring what awaited them outside. They were oblivious to the buzzards soaring over the fields, unaware of the swallows nesting under the eaves and quite frankly couldn't care less about anything living apart from their own kind.
Carrying out field work was just as bad. Many were scared of frogs that we found, even the boys jumped up in the air in apparent fear. Some tried to refuse to enter a field because it contained livestock. People appeared terrified of anything that moved when carrying out the pond study; everything was either dangerous or dirty. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a little. People did get stuck in, but were not nearly as fascinated by the creatures as one would hope.
There was one occasion on the trip that got to me the most. We were at breakfast, just about to go and check the small mammal traps that we had set the night before. The girl sat opposite me made it clear she wasn't interested in checking the traps. Curious, I questioned her as to why. The obvious answer went something like:
"What's the point? I don't like animals. Animals are boring."
I was already annoyed. I told her this was her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see wild mice, shrews and voles that many will never have the privilege to observe. She wasn't impressed. I asked her:
"Shouldn't it excite you to see some of the amazing species that share this earth with us?"
"Are you telling me that I have to travel around the whole world and see every single animal that lives on it?"
She'd used the extreme argument on me. Of course that wasn't what I was saying. She, like many, was a lost cause. I don't think attitudes like that can ever change, and we need a respect for nature at a younger age.
"Re-connecting" young people with nature is a widely discussed conservation issue. There are so many opinions on the importance of nature, so many ideas about how we can get children involved in the outdoors, and so many different things to blame for the apparent disconnection that I could easily write a book about it - don't worry I'll remain fairly brief today.
There is no doubt in my mind that nature is important for us all. Studies of nature deficit disorder show that time spent outside increases happiness, health and well being. It's obvious to me that we need to make young people more respectful of the natural world that surrounds them from an earlier age.
But how do we go about re-building this appreciation for nature in children?
A recent poll by BBC wildlife asked "So, how do you reconnect children with nature?"
Myself, part of a 41% majority, said "Educate parents on better ways to get kids connected to nature." I had trouble choosing which option to vote for, but I think parents have a profound influence on children. Using a personal experience as an example: my parents often took me out to the countryside on holidays and walks and as I entered my teenage years they refused to let me have a games console, encouraging me to do something else to fill my time. This was to pick up a camera and start photographing wildlife. My parents didn't force me at all, but I think a little bit of persuasion from adults to enjoy the natural world can go a long way.
Saying this, I believe giving children time off school to explore the outdoors, making environmental studies a key part of the curriculum from an early age and reducing the amount of technology children have access to could all make a difference to how future generations view our natural world. How to you think we should encourage respect for the natural world? Are young people a lost cause in the modern world? More importantly, what's your #visionfornature?
My second day in Northumberland greeted me with another early start as I headed to Haydon Bridge near Hadrian's wall, to spend three hours in a hide photographing the red squirrels and woodland birds.
On my way I received a message from the young photographer, Will Nicholls, who was running the hide saying that the local squirrels recently gave birth to kits. Due to this, they were being unpredictable, so it was unlikely they would turn up while I was in the hide. Therefore I was offered me as long as I liked in the hide until one showed up.
The first three hours in the hide was spent photographing the woodland birds that visit the feeders, as well as scaring away the pesky pheasant while no red squirrels appeared. The feeders were always filled with birds such as blue tits, great tits, coal tits, siskins, redpolls, chaffinches and robins, which provided good opportunity for portrait shots. The siskin's were particularly aggressive towards the other birds so I was able to get some Siskin action too!
After a Lunch break, the afternoon was spent with more waiting, and waiting and.. then, after another two and a half hours, a flash of orange came bounding towards the hide. This was a red squirrel kitten. It was such a special moment for me, as it was my first wild red squirrel. Such a lovely creature and definitely worth the wait!
The next day I took another short trip to the Farnes , keen to see more of the abundance of birds; yet it wasn't the birds that excited me the most on this occasion. I was watching a grey seal bobbing its head in and out of the water in the distance when the driver of the boat excitedly said through the speaker "A minke whale just surfaced to the left!" I was watching the seal at the time so, convinced the driver was mistaken, smugly announced to the people next to me that the driver had in fact seen the seal. It was me whom was proved wrong however, as the whale soon came to the surface again, directly where I was looking. A buzz of excitement went up around the boat, and people jostled for the best view. The whale came up six or seven times, once just a few metres from the edge of the boat! That was certainly one of the highlights of my trip to Northumberland, and something which will remain in my memory for a very long time.
It was then time for a quick hour's landing on Inner Farne. I had set myself the task of capturing a puffin in flight. This was to be quite a challenge for just one hour, as puffins travel at speeds of up to 55mph and flap their wings at 400bpm! I was so engaged in photographing the bird that I almost missed my boat.. but In a way I wish I had missed it, because I didn't want to leave!
My first day in Northumberland was arguably one of the best and most memorable days of my life. It began at Seahouses at 9 in the morning, where I would catch a boat to my destination: the Farne Islands. Waiting by the harbour wall overlooking the sea my body was starting to fill to the brim with excitement. I was swimming with anticipation over what awaited me; 150'000 nesting birds of 23 species, hardly any of which I had seen before.
Overlooking the bay, bobbing up and down along the rocky shoreline were a group of about 20 large brown ducks. "Eider ducks!" I announced elatedly to my parents as I pointed to what looked like rocks out at sea. It must be said, from a distance the female eiders and their young are surprisingly well camouflaged against the shoreline, which is useful as they are often found very close to the coast. Eiders have such a rich connection to Northumberland. St Cuthbert, a hermit who lived on the Islands in the 7th Century, protected them, giving the ducks the nickname 'Cuddy's Duck.' Later that day my experience with eiders was it was to improve 1000 fold, as I had the mothers and their ducklings feeding right from my hand!
Soon it was time to board the fishing boat towards the Islands. Approaching the islands I was keen to spot birds flying over the sea as they travelled back from fishing expeditions. The first bird that greeted us was the great northern gannet, a super seabird with an impressive two metre wingspan, which towers above the sea. I was taken aback by how gannets soar gorgeously against the sky, with cloud white feathers and wings dipped neatly in black ink, as well as a soft ginger head of hair.
As the boat toured us around the islands, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of birds that I saw. Dressed up smartly to greet us as we approached the rock faces were the guillemots and the razorbills, wearing their neat tuxedo plumage. The Chubby little puffins added a splash of colour to the scene with their rainbow bills and matching flippers that flare out behind them as they zoom out to sea. The Shags stood proudly on the top of the rocks with their necks outstretched as if keeping watch, and the kittiwakes announced themselves by calling their own names.
Before it was time to stop and admire the birds though, we paid a quick visit to the grey seal colony. 3,000 grey seals live on the small rocky shores of the islands, and each autumn 1,000 pups are born. As we approached the colony some very inquisitive heads popped out of the water just a few metres away.
Our first stop of the day was to Staple Island. There was so many birds to choose from I was a little overwhelmed as what to photograph, but I soon focused on the puffins as, let us be honest, who can ignore a puffin? The puffins were popping up everywhere and, with 10,000 pairs nesting on Staple Island alone, they were very enjoyable subjects. I took lots of portrait photographs using selection of techniques to get a good variety of images.
Perhaps my favourite subject on staple island were the shags . As the shags nested close to the path at the top of the cliffs, they were particularly good to photograph. Adult shags are a large, black and quite elegant bird, but if there was a competition for the ugliest chicks, shags would certainly win. The shags are often seen with their beaks hanging open and it is thought this is to cool them down, like a panting dog: this made for some quite humorous shots.
On staple island I also enjoyed photographing the kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. One of my favourite shots from this island was of a guillemot and it's chick standing proudly on a rock edge against a nice dark backdrop. The adult guillemot in question was a bridled guillemot, with a white spectacle marking around its eyes due to a genetic mutation. I would be interested to see if the young inherits this when it develops its adult plumage.
Next we headed to Inner Farne. On Inner Farne there is one bird that you cannot escape; the arctic tern. The air is filled with its piercing call which echos around the island. As you walk along the paths, the terns dive bomb you from above, so a hat is certainly a useful bit of kit. The terns are trying to protect their chicks that are in the nests at the side (or even on) the path. Aside from the violence, arctic terns are pretty wonderful birds. They do the furthest migration of any other bird, clocking up a 43,000 mile trip each year. In its lifetime this is equivalent to travelling around the Earth 60 times or completing 3 round trips to the Moon! I spent most of the time risking being pecked time again to get some shots that I was proud of.
It was sad to leave, but as you will discover in my second blog, my second visit was filled with even more excitement!
Yesterday was a busy day for me bird wise. I got up at 7 O'clock to participate in the BTO's Early Bird survey - which hopes to further study the effect of light pollution on bird feeding habits. The first bird to my feeding station was a single starling at 7:24, which I could only make out by its silhouette as it flew away. I watched for about an hour and a half, one by one noting the various species that visited. Robin, Magpie, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Collared dove and an hour and a half after I started, a group of house sparrows, that's all the garden regulars! Amazingly, a large clump of the birds all came down just around the minutes before and after sunrise, not sure if that was co-incidence or not!
Later that morning, I headed down to Hove on my first proper twitch to see a little bird that has become quite celebrity - a lonesome Grey Phalarope. When I first heard about where this bird was I laughed aloud and thought it was just a joke, until I saw the photographs that is! This bird has amazingly made itself at home in a children's paddling pool which has now become surrounded by flocks of photographers and birders, eager to get this unique viewing...
..and what a unique viewing it was! It had made itself right at home in the pool, feeding, preening, swimming, sleeping, squeaking. Certainly great for the cameras. Immensely tame too, it may as well have been domesticated. At one point it came so close to me I could have grabbed it and done a runner. Quite tempting seeing as it is such a beautiful bird, even when in its comparatively dull winter plumage.
Of course, the Phalarope isn't meant to be here, it's a little lost to say the least. The Phalarope is a member of the wader family and spends the summer, its breeding season, in the arctic where it displays stunning red plumage. For the winter the Grey Phalarope migrates a great distance to spend time at sea on tropical oceans. Unluckily for this individual, yet luckily for the birders, it probably got blown inland by the hideous weather we have been experiencing. This has opened the opportunity for a very rare viewing, especially considering only around 200 are seen around the UK per year.
Although not experienced today, Phalaropes also have some interesting behaviours. Relatively unusually for birds, in 3 species of phalarope the sex roles are somewhat reversed as the more colourful female leaves the male to incubate the eggs and bring up the young. Also, when feeding, the Grey Phalarope will spin in rapid circles to create a whirlpool to stir up its meal.
Overall this was an immense first twitch. I could have never expected it to come so close and to get such a variety of shots I'm proud of. What a great start to the year! Its gonna be hard to top!
© Jack Barton Nature