Englishman, Mad Dogs

Englishman, Mad Dogs

I had a short birdwatching excursion yesterday morning of rare good fortune. At Greenham Common I enjoyed a brief but excellent view of a stunning male whinchat, a species I usually struggle to find. Despite regular good finds by other birders I usually struggle to find anything at all at Greenham, so this was a good omen. The morning continued with nine species of warbler and four waders: not bad for Berkshire. From the hide at Lower Farm gravel pit I saw my first swifts of the year, twisting in the distance over Newbury Racecourse, whilst a pair of common terns mated on one of the rafts. Further spring cheer came in the form of a gorgeous female orange tip stationary on garlic mustard, sprays of May wildflowers on the hedge banks and a dingy skipper basking on short turf back near the Greenham car park.

At the Crookham end of the Common at least three nightingales were in earshot. However, when I turned my binoculars back towards Greenham and looked across the expanse of open ground my mood finally began to sink. It was a bank holiday, and dog-walking families dotted the Common. People out enjoying fresh air, exercising, spending time with their families – surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes. But it occurred to me that any number of the rare species inhabiting the rich mix of habitats comprising what BBOWT call the West Berkshire Living Landscape could disappear and the vast majority of visitors to these sites wouldn’t notice. Indeed, their purpose for visiting would be completely unaffected. Many wouldn’t recognise any of the nine warbler species, know what a dingy skipper was, or be particularly affected if they heard or saw any of them. They’re mostly little brown jobs anyway – even the butterfly!

Dingy skipper. Only a thrilling butterfly if you know what it is!
Feeders at Lower Farm providing valuable ecosystem services for rats.

There is experimental evidence that sites richer in species offer a heftier dose of whatever psychological benefits we get from nature. Rarity has a genuine allure, as demonstrated by this rather playful experiment at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Yet I still can’t imagine a family’s dog-walk being dampened by a lack of rare birds. Indeed, the gentleman in black striding purposefully across a closed area* with his dog running off the lead had already decided that the presence of sensitive species meant nothing to him, nor did he care if his potential disturbance of them spoiled other people’s enjoyment of the site.

Nature conservation, then, is clearly a niche pursuit. Does this matter? Are we mistaken in thinking it is for everyone? Perhaps a bit of common scruffy nature is quite adequate for the vast majority of people who don’t suffer from the peculiar condition of being a naturalist. I’m not sure. But when we talk about ecosystem services – and as a rule I don’t – it’s worth questioning exactly what these services are and who or what they are being delivered for.  Miles King wrote about ‘ecosystem services for dogs’ a couple of years ago, and when I looked around the Common yesterday morning I certainly saw a lot of dogs having a rather excellent time.

*One might think he could have been excused by poor signposting, but no. The system for protecting ground-nesting birds at Greenham and Crookham Commons is admirably simple, clear and usually policed. An attempt, at least, to accommodate multiple user groups. The gentleman in question was so obviously off the path that I can only think he had deliberately chosen a route to thumb his nose at the Wildlife Trust authorities who dare to tell him and his dog where they can and cannot go.


The Easter Insects

The Easter Insects

As a festival of commerce and gluttony, Easter apparently now rivals The Big One and can be considered The New Christmas. I don’t know about that, but there was certainly a lot of Easter tat in the supermarkets this year. As a natural historian, I find the secular spring-fest a bit twee. It’s all pastel shades, rabbits clutching carrots, cute little chickens and lambs frolicking amid a host of daffodils. I suppose I’m an old grump ahead of my time.

The still much-debated religious elements of the season at least bring with them a refreshing dose of blood and sacrifice. I don’t know enough about the pagan rites of spring to know how they fit into the picture, but the Judeo-Christian tradition certainly highlights a painful truth of the natural world: for something to live, something else often has to die; ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’*

Among the most prolific, alluring and remarkable fruit produced from dead matter will be insects. They can make new life out of seemingly anything, and by life I mean fully fledged little multi-cellular lives with legs and eyes and neurons. From dung to dry skin to grass stems or that old bag of flour you’d forgotten at the back of the cupboard, almost any organic material you can think of has at least one insect willing to sink its mouthparts into it. Not so many home decorations will be sold featuring dung-heaps or desiccated corpses, but they’d be at least as appropriate as daffodils.

If all that death still seems too heavy going, consider the fact that the production of chocolate, now a foundational part of the secular SpringFest, depends entirely on some miniscule flies, the chocolate midges. There are flaws with the ecosystem services argument for conservation, but in this case it works well up to a point: it’s clear that without insects we’d be up to our necks in, well, everything except chocolate**. So since the Easter Bunny is misnamed anyway – by all accounts it should be the Easter Hare*** – perhaps it is time to institute the Easter Midge, Easter Dung Beetle or Easter Skin Moth as new mascots for the season.

Bee-fly (this one is Bombylius major). Another good candidate as they appear fairly early in spring. 

*John 12:24

**And possibly a few other tasty foods, though as a stand-alone argument for insect conservation, ecosystem services still doesn’t quite cut it. Some species simply don’t do anything all that useful, or perform a small portion of a service that could easily be picked up by another species. Even the fun fact about cocoa midges is spoiled a bit when you discover that worldwide we’re talking quite a few species in the biting midge family, Ceratopogonidae. We could probably lose some of these and still have plenty of chocolate, so as an argument for conserving midge biomass in general this works, but for midge diversity it is less convincing.

***I enjoy the hare scrape / lapwing nest folktale – look it up! – and as well as insects I’d be all in favour of hares (which are much better than rabbits) and lapwings having a higher profile in Easter imagery. 

Looking for nature at Nature Matters 2016

From the outside, the David Attenborough building – home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – is unpromising. Not so much an ivory tower as a concrete one. But the building has a quite literal green heart, for a four-storey living wall takes centre stage in the building’s atrium. Sir David himself abseiled down it at the centre’s official opening earlier this year: not bad for a 90-year-old. The CCI incorporates staff from RSPB, Birdlife, Fauna & Flora International and the IUCN, as well as Cambridge University scientists, so perhaps the true green heart of the building is provided by its human occupants. The reason for my visit was the 2016 Nature Matters conference, hosted in Cambridge this year to add another node to the CCI network.

Arriving early for the second day, I was struck by the irony of the Attenborough building’s surroundings. From the multi-storey car park across the road to the impressively extensive cycle storage facility out the back, there was not a plant to be seen. Not much space for nature, but still, wildlife is often surprisingly resilient. Surely I could find something of interest lurking even here?

I had a short poke around. On the east side of the building, fronds of spiderweb dangled from gaps in the Fibonacci-spiral-themed slate wall. They appeared to be gathering no flies, only a thick grey dust reminiscent of volcanic ash. These spiders must have been early colonising pioneers, but by their current absence had perhaps not been rewarded for their optimism. On a ledge across from the west side, a pair of feral pigeons flapped and jostled. One maintained the higher ground and kept dislodging the other, which would regain a perch further along each time only to be knocked right off again. High wildlife drama? Perhaps not.

So, I think I can safely say that the most engaging vision of nature present during Nature Matters was not the real thing, but that running through the minds and hearts of the conference participants. Through one evening and two days of main sessions and workshops we listened, we watched, we debated, we laughed, we ate, drank and socialised, maybe one or two of us shed a tear or two.

Perhaps it was the presence of the great Sir David himself, but the atmosphere was electric in the final session. Our theme was hope. Contributions from the panel on stage were kept brief, leaving plenty of time for conference delegates to offer their own positive stories from the floor. Attenborough rose to offer some closing remarks, and when he finished, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for the address he had just given – though it was a fine one – but for the fact of who he was, for his life’s work. And perhaps it was for ourselves too, for each other. A needed fillip, a defiant statement that yes, nature does matter, and what is more, it is within our grasp to secure its future.

Quoth the Raven

Last week we saw a raven fly across the road. That’s an increasingly unremarkable happening back in England, and perhaps here in the US too: I don’t know whether or not the American population is increasing. Certainly where we’re staying in Pennsylvania we’re not far from the Appalachian mountains, a stronghold for ravens outside of their more usual northern haunts.

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Speaking of corvids, I enjoyed watching a large party of American crows settling to roost in the city of Baltimore on Sunday (read about our charming trip to charm city over on Bookish Beck). Being the city Edgar Allen Poe was living and writing in when he wrote The Raven it should of course have been a raven roost, but it’s close enough. I’ve often seen lines of American crows heading toward roost at dusk but ever been close to the roost site itself. It was reminiscent of watching rooks come to roost, though if I may be biased for a moment I reckon rooks are generally more entertaining in both flight pattern and call.

One of the curious things about North American birdlife is the relative paucity of common corvids. On an average day’s birding in the UK one could expect to see 4 to 6 species without any trouble. Here I imagine 2 would be the norm – American crow and blue jay – unless you were in coastal regions (fish crows), the north or mountainous areas (raven) or those parts of the west that have Yellow-billed magpies. There are plenty of other bright, intelligent birds to see in the Americas but I miss the constant presence and chatter of rooks, magpies and jackdaws.


Whiteknights Park, the university campus where I work, has happily shared in the considerable bounty of goldcrests currently in the country. One birder reported two flocks of 10 each in a small corner of the campus this afternoon. Even better, firecrests are being found among them. I saw one at dusk on Monday, mixing with goldcrests probably prior to roosting. Yesterday morning I saw two, among a mixed flock of tits and nuthatches (four nuthatches in close proximity, in itself quite unusual behaviour). David Flack from the Meteorology department – probably one of the more dedicated campus birdwatchers – went one better and saw a definite three near the Harris Garden fence this afternoon. It puts my lengthy wait in the cold for a first of this species more than four years ago in increasingly sharper perspective, but however common they get here I’ll always think of them as a bird of rare brilliance.

We’ve also been blessed by a plentiful fall of additions to our campus species lists. Today 27 MSc students were sent forth to gather woodlice as part of an introduction to keying out species. Not only was one of the woodlice they found a new species for campus (Porcellio dilatatus) but they also came bearing a fancy weevil with extraordinarily long tarsi and a beautifully sculpted little beetle that lives under bark called Uleiota planata. It also happens to be a national rarity.

It’s amazing what 27 pairs of eyes can find, but I think it also demonstrates nicely the genuine beginners luck phenomena in natural history. A beginner will look anywhere, even places an ‘expert’ wouldn’t bother because we think we know better. In the next week or so I’ll endeavour to post a bit more information about what we found – well, really what they found – both here and on the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog.

Return of the Ivy Bee

Two years ago I reported on my first ever ivy bees (Colletes hederae), seen on Beech Lane in Earley, Reading. At the time I lived about 10 minutes walk from where I saw them. I’m delighted to say that the species has followed me to Ruscombe, and is now on the wing in good numbers on flowering ivy patches near here. It’s the last solitary bee species on the emergence calendar, and can fly into November: well worth tracking down and apparently becoming increasingly easy to find as it spreads north. This weekends bees were too speedy for pictures, so you’ll have to make do with these stills and video from 2013. Or even better get out there, find the real thing and send in the records!

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Ivy Bee from Chris Foster on Vimeo.