Monday, 29 September 2014

Thinking about Tiger's

Following a recent visit to Banham Zoo in Norfolk where along with one of my little boys we saw their Siberian Tigers and some news pieces on London Zoo's 'Tiger Territory' I've been thinking a little about Tigers.

Siberian Tiger, Banham Zoo, Norfolk
In 1794 William Blake wrote his immortal lines

"Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry"

More recently in 1968 Judith Kerr wrote and illustrated the children's classic 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea', in which a large, vividly orange and black striped tiger visits a small girl and her mother and precedes to eat them out of house and home.

Both are manifestations of the degree to which these enigmatic big cats have permeated the culture of a country many thousands of miles outside their natural range.

And yet at the same time that we have eulogised tigers in poetry and prose and co-opted them to sell everything from petrol to sugary cereals, we have also driven the species to the very edge of extinction in the wild, through over hunting of their prey, habitat loss, and the hunting of the tigers themselves. Indeed we have lost forever the Japanese, Caspian and Javan races of tiger and the Chinese race may not be far behind them in fading from the face of the Earth.

In 21st century London a small girl turns wide eyed to her teacher and says "You never told us they were real". This child until then had never realised that something as magical could burn so bright in her world, somewhere beyond the garish CGI landscape of children's computer games, books and television.  Like many before her she had been awe-struck by a life force bundled up in a living and breathing blanket of fiery orange and black fur, that emits the over powering charisma and sheer attitude of a Tiger.

Siberian Tiger, Banham Zoo, Norfolk
Her first Tiger experience came at London Zoo, where last year the Zoo opened its new 'Tiger Territory', home to their pair of Sumatran Tigers. Critically endangered in the wild and at risk of going the same way that their Caspian and Javan cousins have already done. There is a real risk that the descendants of  these adopted Cockney Tigers will one day have no wild cousins and perhaps no wild for their descendants to return too.

Tigers do well in Zoo's, they breed freely, too freely perhaps as Zoo's have finite space. But just as humans who have known nothing but modern city living have little in common with their hunter gatherer ancestors and whilst living longer, healthier lives would not have the skills to survive in the wild. So too captive bred Tigers do not have the store of cultural knowledge of a wild home range learned from their mother in their formative years. Or over the generations the brutal pressures of natural selection passing on the genes of the Tigers best adapted to a life in whatever wild there is left.

So, much as modern urban man's basic DNA is the same as that of our hunter gatherer forebears, so too is the DNA of these Zoo Tigers the same as that of their wild cousins and yet both we and the Tigers would struggle to go back to our respective wilds.

Does the loss of this cultural learning matter for tigers? I couldn't practice the hunter gatherer skills of my ancestors but the chances are, I hope, that I will live a longer, healthier and probably happier life. Is the same the case for captive tigers? Where could you release them back into the wild anyway?

Perhaps it is hoped or assumed that we will one day be able to find a way of giving captive bred tigers the store of knowledge and experience they need to lead a wild life.

So if reintroducing zoo bred tigers to the wild is a long shot because there may not be sufficient wild left and even if there is equipping tigers to survive in it may be beyond us. Does beg the question what is the point of keeping tigers in Zoo's? Well firstly we have them and we can either keep them well or euthanize them. But also I think that there are two more fundamental drivers hope and inspiration.

As the little girl at London Zoo showed, Tigers inspire wonderment and awe in the natural world and from this can come hope. Hope that maybe just maybe we can save the wild places that tigers call home and with that a hope that future generations will be able to know the frison of walking through wild tiger country or perhaps just having the satisfaction of knowing that somewhere out there such places exist inhabited by Tyger's burning bright in the forests of the night.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Vagrants and colonists from the east

Wednesday 17th September
I had to work late into the evening, so I treated myself to a morning walk out to Burnham Overy Dunes, I knew that there had been a few goodies here the day before but I set out more in hope than expectation.

First stop was the reed fringed pool and despite giving it a long hard look over I couldn't find the Black Necked Grebe that had been present, the effort I put in wasn't wasted as I found a Green Sandpiper and had my first Pinkies of the winter, six flying overhead their distinctive "wink, wink" calls as they flew giving them away, their arrival as sure a marker of the changing seasons and autumns inexorable slide into winter, as the first swifts screaming through the air in late Spring herald the dawn of summer.

A passing birder told me that a Yellow Browed Warbler was showing, so I quickened my pace. On arrival I was told that a Red Breasted Flycatcher was on view and as I lifted my binoculars a Pied Flycatcher popped onto the wires of the fence below me.

Red Breasted Flycatcher, Burnham Overy Dunes

Whilst waiting for the Yellow Browed Warbler I added Garden Warbler, Whinchat and Wheatear to my mornings tally. At last the Yellow Browed showed well if briefly, it is always a treat to see one of these birds that bring to mind associations with scrappy bits of scrub and woodland on the east coast of England in autumn and also of winter birding trips I made to Asia many years ago. Here I also saw a single Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat in the same binocular field of view. It was at this point it became apparent that there were two Red Breasted Flycatchers present. one of which worked its way along the fence in front of me and at one point was maybe 6 feet away, it really was classic east coast autumn birding.

With time pressing and a long car journey ahead of me to a meeting in Essex I dragged myself away from what had been a top mornings spotting.

Thursday 18th September
Got home not much before midnight on the 17th and up and out the house in good time this morning to catch the train to London for another meeting. My route in London takes me on a short and enjoyable walk through Green Park and St James's Park. The Parks were very busy with tourists enjoying the fine autumn weather. Time was tight but I paused for a moment on the bridge over the lake in St James's Park, looking into the clear water I could see a huge shoal of Perch and Rudd, the Perch are easy to Identify with their vertical barring, the Rudd are less obvious but my friend The Grumpy Ecologist tells me that they "Look like Rudd - bright red fins, mouth has longer lower lip (rather than roman nose and long top lip of roach)".
Rudd and Perch, St James's Park Lake.
Ring Necked Parakeet in Indian Bean Tree, St James's Park

Once across the bridge I was further distracted by the distinctive call of a Ring Necked Parakeet from some mature trees just off the path, after a little searching through their large densely packed green leaves, I spotted a couple of well camouflaged birds feeding on the seed pods of what was a large Indian Bean Tree, for such dayglo green birds it's amazing how they blend in.

On Googling this behaviour at home it is clear that London's Ring Necked Parakeets regularly exploit this food source and observers who have had more time to observe this suggest that they are feeding on the pulp not the seeds. Interesting how a tree from the Americas and a bird from Asia have come together in the man made habitat of central London.

Friday 19th September
A busy day in the office in Snettisham, but had a quick 20 minute stomp through Ken Hill Woods and bumped into a large mixed feeding flock including several each of Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Coal Tit.

Saturday 20th September
Holme Church from Holme Marsh
A busy morning, first I went swimming, then I shot home got no1 son and took him for his swimming lesson, finally I had 90 minutes spare and opted for a walk around Holme Marsh on the grounds that its less than 10 minutes drive from home, not many folk go there, there are lots of birds about and therefore I might have a chance of finding something good. The last part of this line of logic is where it fell apart, Holme Marsh was nice but quiet, still I did find Chiff Chaff 4, Blackcap 2, Wheatear 1, Marsh Harrier 3 and as ever the Konik Ponies were photogenic.
Konik Ponies, Holme Marsh

Sunday 21st September

A quick visit to Titchwell more to buy some bird food than to go spotting, a cold north wind was keeping passerines down but I did manage to pick out three distant Little Stints on the Fresh Marsh and three different Chinese Water Deer around the reserve. At home a couple of skeins of Pink Footed Geese totalling maybe 40 birds flew over calling as I put out the washing.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Brief encounter with a Norfolk Fox

Note below a direct transcript of the lines I scribbled in the notebook whilst watching this Fox in Brancaster.

Been a while since i had the luck to spend any time watching a fox. This one seemed small, sleek and in good condition. Classic russet [Red Panda coloured] body, dark blackish tail and a shining / glowing white tip to its tail [like a Tigers].

Fox in twilight, Brancaster
In the rapidly fading twilight it exuded suppleness and energy as it hunted a yellow field of scrappy overgrown grass. Arching its back as it paused , face, eyes, ears and muzzle pointed down. Then springing into the air and landing as it pounced on a vole.

Fox pouncing
One unfortunate Vole / Mouse was tossed forwards by the Fox two or three times.

After 20 minutes in its company it moved away towards some trees and into longer, thicker grass. Got a sense it was aware of me and would take in my presence as it looked around.

Fox, Brancaster

Mid August to Mid September catch up - things are moving

Fells like a long and fun summer since we returned from holiday in Yorkshire, notes below a quick summary of what I've seen.

Monday 18 August , Thorpe Marshes NWT [Norwich]
A short lunchtime walk, managed single Sparrowhawk and Green woodpecker and four Swifts in amongst the House Martins.
NWT Thorpe Marshes

Wednesday 20th, Holme Beach
Picked two rt three Arctic Skuas whilst playing with the kids on the beach.

Friday 22nd, Titchwell Creek
Quiet, with only three Common Seals hauled out, not helped by loose dogs swimming in the creek. Heard Avocet, Whimbrel and Greenshank
Common Seals at Titchwell Creek

Sunday 24th
Inland of Titchwell a single Hobby over the car.

In and around Brancaster
Single Swift and Sparrowhawk
At dusk a hunting Fox and Daubentons Bats over the marsh

Monday 25th Titchwell Marsh
I set myself a target of finding 50 species in two very wet hours and crept in on 51 species, few highlights in awful weather included Golden Plovers, Spotted Redshank and Bearded Tits.
The way onto Titchwell Beach

Tuesday 26th
Perhaps the same Fox in Brancaster this time after dark on the Branodunum housing estate

Thursday 28th, Titchwell Marsh
A short, productive evening walk with a Great White Egret, 12 Spoonbills, six Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Greenshank, five Spotted Redshank's, three juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, a Cetti's Warbler, one Swift, two Muntjac and a single Chinese Water Deer.
Chinese Water Deer, Titchwell Fresh Marsh

Friday 29th, Holme Beach
Intermittent seawatching whilst playing with the kids, found a single Arctic Skua, Gannet 2, Fulmar 3, Wigeon 4, Common Scoter 1, Sandwich Terns and a Common Seal.

In the evening a Fox in Branodunum [Brancaster]

Saturday 30th, Brancaster Saltings and adjacent scrub and gardens
Swift 1, Pied flycatcher 1 female and nearby a Wild Bee nest.
On way home a pair pf Bullfinches flew across the road through Courtyard Farm [Ringstead].
Wild Bee's nest, Brancaster

Wednesday 3 September
Great views of a perched Kingfisher during a work visit to Fen Drayton Lakes [Cambs]

Saturday 6th, Titchwell Marsh
Little stint 2 juveniles, Curlew Sandpiper 3 juveniles, Spoonbill 6.
Juvenile Common Sandpipers, Titchwell Marsh

Thursday 11th, Titchwell Marsh
Curlew Sandpiper 3 juveniles, Greenshank 1, Spotted Redshank 2, Hobby 1, Stonechat 1, Wheatear 1.
After dark in Hunstanton heard a Whimbrel flying over.

Saturday 13th, Titchwell Marsh
Very quiet in the bird front but a nice Stoat ran across the West Bank path.

Sunday 14th, Holmne Beach
Arctic skua 1 - 3, Bonxie 1, Gannet 12 - 14, Sandwich Terns still present.

Sea watching at Holme Beach

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Things to do and not to do in the Yorkshire Dales with kids.

Spent 26th July to 9th August in the Yorkshire Dales on a family holiday, we stayed in a small cottage between Hubberholme and Buckden at the top of the valley of the river Wharfe. Always nice to get a dose of the Uplands even if the birding in the Dales can be a little slow at times.
Grange Cottage near Hubberholme [left of picture]
This is an area that I know pretty well from childhood holidays and somewhere that we have visited several times with our own two young boys [aged 2 and 5]. So from the perspective of a family that likes the outdoors and wildlife here are some thoughts on things to do and maybe not do.

River Wharfe at Hubberholme

Six things to do
Go to Bolton Abbey its brilliant, great coffee and cake in the cafe, lovely buggy accessible riverside walks, pebbly beaches from which to skim stones and generally mess around in the river Wharfe and especially in the spring some great birds including Dipper, Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, Wood Warbler, Mandarin Duck, Grey Wagtail etc.
Stone circle, Langstrothdale
Visit the inspirational Chris and Fiona Clark at Nethergill Farm just south of Hawes and learn about how they are linking Farming the Environment and People, enjoy one of their home made flapjacks, see the rare white shorthorn cattle, take a walk around the farm, or perhaps stay in one of their holiday flats.
White Shorthorn, Nethergill Farm
Walk south alongside the river Wharfe from Kettlewell along one side of the river as far as the stepping stones and then come back along the opposite bank, a great stretch of river for Dippers and Kingfishers and a nice length for small kids, no good for buggy's though.
Upper reaches of River Wharfe
Drive over to Bolton Castle and find your way through the maze or wander the battlements.

Bolton Castle and maze
Catch fish and Crayfish in the River Wharfe, you can do this pretty much anywhere.

Signal Crayfish, River Wharfe

Go to Malham, enjoy the well made path that takes you out to Malham Cove where in spring and summer you can look through the RSPB telescopes at the nesting Peregrines and wander why there are three times as many nesting in London as manage to breed in the Dales. If you have the time and energy walk up the steps on the side of the cove and across to Goredale Scar and back down into Malham where you could try out the Lister Arms for lunch.

One to maybe avoid

We went to Eureka the national children's museum in Halifax and were disappointed by the long and badly managed queues to get in and to eat, the crowded exhibition space and word heavy exhibits, an expensive mistake.