July, 2008

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  • The cycle of life

    Swifts devouring insects over a church tower30 degrees and counting. It's hot and London's mosquito season is in full swing, evidenced by the itchy and angry red swellings on my ankles. Flying insects outnumber frazzled and fractious people in the Capital, luckily there's a horde of swifts and other birds having a feeding frenzy high above us. If only they could gobble-up all the mosquitos!

    More earth-bound birds have sensibly taken to the shade and lie-low to keep cool. I must have blackbird genes because I wilt quickly and prefer to loll in the shadows rather than dash about in the blazing sun like a seagull. Cycling to and from work in this weather is fine, until you stop moving. I won't bore you with the details but once I lose the cooling effect of moving through air, my entire body does an impression of a sieve filled with water. Our Tate Modern peregrines always look cool and to maintain that chilled out composure they need to remain cool, so they've been hiding on the shadey side of the Tate's chimney, avoiding the full glare of the sun.

    You can try to catch sight of them from our pergrine watch by the Millennium Bridge on the South Bank. These birds are the world's fastest creatures and have a wingspan as long as the average ten year old child is tall. Loitering at the Tate you also get to see some twenty or more other bird species, including cormorants diving for food in the Thames and drying themselves on the buoys and bridges nearby. They perch with wings outstretched like capes to help them dry faster. I'm told by one of our volunteers that it takes some 20 minutes for cormorants to dry-out and restore their buoyancy before they're able to dive for food once more; they don't fare too well with heavy, sodden feathers.

    One encouraging trend that I'm hearing from visitors to our Tate pergerine watch is of the increasing number of finches in London. Most tell me how proud and pleased they are to see goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches in their gardens. Almost without exception they report this increase followed their decision to put nyjer seed feeders in their gardens. Nyjer are small black seeds and finches love them. Whatever you do, don't just pour nyjer seed in to a conventional seed feeder. They're so small you'll just end up with a pyramid of seeds on the ground. You'll need a new feeder with smaller appertures to prevent all the contents spilling out.

    I've resisted temptation so far, but finches are such colourful little birds that I've come close to buying that new feeding kit. Instead I'm playing the long-game and planning my garden accordingly. I'm setting aside an area for teasel, nettles and thistles. This should provide seeds and insects that will attract goldfinches and help fatten-up them up before they migrate to Spain come winter. As a parent with a small child I'm still debating whether to create a pond or water feature. Our Homes for Wildlife advice pages offer a wealth of free gardening information and we'll be conducting two surveys in August that we're urging participants to join.

    A couple of weeks ago I started to lose my garden birds as they went to hide in the trees and shrubs while their feathers moulted. Some are starting to reappear and are bringing their young with them. I've a fearless juvenile blackbird that has come close to taking food from my fingers. No doubt its parents tell it off when it returns to them, but for the moment I'm enjoying the encounter. There's something quite wild and emotional about the experience. Two species, eye-to-eye, exploring issues of trust and generosity. I hope this young blackbird stays nearby. I have images of me resting in the shade while my friend the blackbird sits on my knee, singing to me, as we share a bowl of nuts and seeds. The odds on that ever happenning are probably higher than David Cameron getting his stolen bicycle returned!

  • Not abstract nor cubist, just awe inspiring

    Seeing is believing, it's a peregrine falcon in central London!It's started. Our Aren't birds brilliant! Tate peregrine watch is underway. The birds are using the Tate Modern's chimney again as their favourite daytime perch. The female and male sit there watching us, watching them.

    From the ground they're a couple of grey smudges, sitting about 90 metres up on the front face of the chimney on some ledges created by raised brickwork. It's not quite the top. If it gets too windy or too hot they'll hop around the side to seek shelter.

    The female's a bit bigger than the male, about a third bigger and heavier. It's this extra weight that gives her the advantage when diving on prey.

    There are a variety of top speeds quoted for peregrines but everyone's agreed they are the world's fastest living creatures. They can achieve speeds of 200 mph when diving or "stooping" on prey, but a speedy 160 mph is more usual. It's no surprise to discover that the impact of being snatched from the air by a bird travelling at that sort of speed is enough to instantly kill the prey.

    So what's so interesting and important about these birds? Well pardon my language but they're just bloody stunning! They remind me there was a time when people didn't have such an impact on the planet and shared it more equitably with creatures like this. The fascination and awe is more than the mere sight of their pointy wings, hooked yellow beak and yellow feet ending in sharp talons. It's not just about their grey banded feathers and powerful muscles. Nor is it the special baffles in their nostrils that allow them to breathe when diving at top speed or the fact they can spot lunch (usually a pigeon) a mile and half away. They embody raw power but in a casual way that only a wild creature at the top of the food chain can.

    Peregrines are now amber listed, which means we're worried about their future but not as much as some other species. We almost wiped them out through using the pesticide DDT and a Ministry of Defence policy of shooting them to protect messenger pigeons during the war years. DDT got in to the food chain and affected peregrine's eggs, which hit breeding success. After a serious low in the 1960's the population has steadily increased but London and the Southeast were struggling. Our history with the peregrine dates backs hundreds of years. They were prized hunting birds, kept by Royalty and you'll often see peregrine imagery in coats of arms.

    Traditionally they nested on ledges on cliff faces. Then they colonised the steep sides of our old quarries. Now, more and more of them are moving in to urban settings. They are protected  by law and in fact our Tate peregrines forced the organisers of a classical concert to postpone a planned firework extravangaza because it would have disturbed them on their nest!

    Come and visit us outside the Tate Modern, next to the Millennium Bridge on the southbank, any day until 14 September from noon until 7 pm to find out more about peregrines and our Birds of Prey campaign. The birds, Misty and Bert, are regular visitors to the chimney, but even if they're not there we have some video footage of peregrines with their chicks. We can't guarantee you'll see Misty or Bert in the flesh, or should that be feathers. They are wild birds and I'm delighted to say we now have six breeding pairs of them in Greater London. We want to find out more about them all so if you've been lucky enough to have encountered them, come and tell us.

    David Lindo in actionOn Friday 8 August at 1 pm you'll also have the chance to meet David Lindo, the Urban Birder and presenter on BBC1's The One Show. He's been fascinated by peregrines since an early age and will be on hand to chat and explain just what it is about birds that hooked his interest.

  • Putting the wild back into life

    I ate my first wild blackberry Saturday (12 July), plucked from a bramble in Woodford that was overburdened with fruit!

    I'm more used to them being ready in August/September and although my first blackberry of 2008 was a bit sour, it was plump and juicy and a day of warm sunshine would have set it to rights. It's another example of the changing seasons. Just another plant running ahead of schedule. Strangely, that evening as I sat in my Hackney garden watching the clouds zip past against a dark, stormy sky, it felt like the end of summer. I half expected the forty strong gang of swifts overhead to wave and shout "goodbye, we're back off to Africa before it gets too cold here."

    Swifts doing what they do best - flying.Whether it's climate change or adaptation it's a reminder that nature is not static. Breeding, feeding and growing seasons all bend to its whims, but we still expect it to remain a constant in our busy lives.

    Gardening and watching wildlife are two ways of staying in touch with the pace of the natural changes going on around us. I'm sure I feel better for being aware of, and therefore being part of, that natural change; the waxing and waning of seasons, the cycle of life that surrounds us.

    So it was that I was saddened by a chat with a primary school teacher who says her class are really reluctant to touch soil. "They're worried they'll get dirty," she said. These same children apparently believe all meat is "chicken" and only know that their food comes from the supermarket or a take-away. These will be the same kids that aren't allowed out to play for fear of knife crime?

    My partner has a theory that our childhood was as good as it gets and that since the seventies it's been downhill for children. It's a powerful argument. Generally, we were allowed to be free-range (within reason), we got grubby, played outdoors and ate food our parents cooked. Our parent's childhoods were not so great in the austere post-war years and their parent's childhoods were actually damn hard.

    What's this got to do with birds and the RSPB? Well actually, quite a lot. We are all as much a part of the natural cycle as a magpie, and we've not been playing our part. A survey out last week claimed most children can't identify common UK wildlife such as a red admiral butterfly or even a woodlouse. How can we feel part of the natural cycle of the world if we can't even identify bits of it and are afraid of getting some soil under our fingernails? Go and get grubby. Plant some seeds or look under a log to see what alien lifeforms you can see.

    London's wildlife needs you! Our Capital is a hot spot for threatened stag beetles, it contains rare orchids, growing numbers of finches reside here and increasing numbers of powerful birds of prey. When people talk of diverse London, they're probably not aware that more than two-hundred different species of birds share the same space as us. Common species like the house sparrow, starling and blackbird are declining and we're not sure why. It's depressing to think that soon, people won't even be able to identify these common garden birds to be able to do anything about it. Will anyone notice when they're gone?