August, 2008

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South East

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  • Peregrinations. Again.

    They soared, they dived, they harrassed seagulls and filled the sky with their antics. We stood, necks craned and swivelled our bodies to track them as they flew around the Tate Modern chimney, over the Thames, past Blackfriars Bridge and buzzed the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

    Peregrines in playful flightI am, of course, talking peregrines. The two adults and one of their young. He must be about six months old now so this aerial dance was about teaching him how to fly. A bit later the male landed on the Chimney and stayed for about an hour and a half. He's now getting to the age where he can look after himself. Staying on the chimney perch was, therefore, a mistake! The chimney is Mum and Dad's favourite perch in the middle of their territory.

    We'd been calling people strolling along the South Bank over to our telescopes to show them the male peregrine living wild in the Capital. An amazing bird to see in a city. His parents were among the pioneers of peregrines that are increasingly choosing to live in cities on our high-rise buildings. We were all so engrossed and focused on the young male that we failed to notice Mum and Dad return. We heard them screech and then watched as they chased him away. This is THEIR spot. Soon the young male will be banished from their territory; sent off to find a mate and his own space.

    This was all a very public performance but there's something intimate about it it too. A shared moment in a families life. We'd been joined by David Lindo of the BBC's The One Show. He was popular with visitors of all ages and his enjoyment and interest in the lives and abilities of the peregrines was infectious. David's travelled the world looking at birds but even he had to admit, the peregrines put on a great show for us.

    One visitor started to tell her grand daughter that keeping birds of prey for falconry is still a common practice across the Middle East, especially among their Persian ancestors. Immediately a boy nearby chimed in that peregrines are the birds of kings and that lesser "nobles" weren't allowed to keep peregrines - the world's fastest living creatures. That's another one of the great things about our peregrine watch by the Millennium Bridge. People talk with each other in a way not commonly seen in London. By which I mean they make eye contact and actually have a conversation. Another lady, visiting from Bristol, told me of her close encounter with a young peregrine. She'd found it stunned after an apparent collision. Covering it with her jacket she was able to lift it up and take it for some expert treatment. The bird was later released, non the worse for its experience, back in to the wild in the Cheddar Gorge. What an encounter.

    A common query we get on the South Bank is, "can you please tell me how to get to....". We have GPS, route finders and sat-nav's to help us get around but birds appear to have an innate ability to migrate from A to B, often over great distances, and still manage to take the most direct route. We're not sure how they do it but studies have revealed a range of tricks including navigating by the stars, using the Earth's magnetic fields, odours carried on the winds and visual landmarks. It seems birds use a variety of these methods to get around, and sometimes have to rely on alternatives; you can't navigate by the stars if it's too cloudy to see them!

    We still have so much to learn from the birds, plants and other creatures that share our environment. Over the next couple of weeks this blog will be silent as I imitate a migrating European bird. I'll be bobbing over the Channel to France to forage for food and drink. I'll test a range of navigation systems to get me there and back and will endeavour to use as little energy as possible in the process. While I'm on my holiday, do pop down to the Tate to marvel at the birds of kings but remember to look at the birds around you too. Even the common starling can amaze and confound with its ability to mimmic different sounds or being able to fly in close formation with hundreds of its mates. Nature truly is amazing, but we need to work together to keep it this way.

  • Guilt trip

    I've an owl. It sits on the dining table and it's starting to rule my life. This is no Harry Potteresque messenger, but it constantly delivers scary news and has confirmed a suspicion I've held for some time.

    My owl is a bit of technology that connects to the mains electricity supply of my house and tells me how much carbon my energy use is creating. It measure power consumption in my whole house. Why it's called an owl is beyond me. It has a number of display settings telling me either how much energy I'm using, how much carbon is emitted as a result of my energy use, or how much it's costing me to run all the electrical stuff in my house.

    As a conservationist I know I should be most concerned with the amount of emissions I and my family are responsible for, but the thing that makes us all run around switching stuff off is the setting that shows how much it's costing us when we leave unnecesary stuff switched-on or plugged-in. My children have a new game; to see how low we can get the reading. So, my suspicion that financial controls are more effective than playing on people's emotional concerns for the environment have predictably been proven right; sadly, by me! How ashamed am I?

    The discovery that saving money is a more powerful personal motivator than saving the environment was shaming enough, but that shame has been deepened by an event we organised at the weekend for a few of the vast army of volunteers that support the work of the RSPB. Put simply, the RSPB could't deliver half of what we do without the dedication and drive of thousands of people who give their time and energy for nothing. These people give so much and care deeply about the world around them. The event we organised for them was a way of saying thank-you.

    Winston Churchill once said, "we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." That's a grand philosophy and one that rings true. Having faced the fact that I am a selfish environmentalist I have now vowed to try harder.I can't afford to install solar panels on my house. I can afford draught-proofing and insulation. I can save water and I can cycle and walk more. All these tiny acts do have an impact on the environment and will help reduce the effects of climate change.

    The government's latest sustainable development indicators have just been released and show that Londoners produce less rubbish per person than any other UK region but we recycle less than anywhere else. We're building more and more homes within smaller and smaller spaces; which means we're losing space for wildlife! Our rivers and waterways continue to improve in quality but with all this development our drainage systems are increasingly stressed. More than a third of Londoners give their time as volunteers in one way or another but most of us are unhappy with the quality of our environment and don't feel safe in our neighbourhoods.

    There's plenty we can all do to improve these findings. Volunteering in schools and with community groups can help tremendously. Being less selfish and NOT following the advice in the Homes section of the Sunday Times of flogging off back-gardens for development would hugely benefit London's wildlife. Planting trees, shrubs, hedges and flowers can improve neighbourhoods and also benefit wildlife.

    Driven by my shame instead of my wallet I will be pursuing some of these suggestions with renewed vigour. I will also try harder to recruit support for the RSPB [join here] knowing we can do more to improve our world by acting together than we can achieve on our own. Oh! My wallet wil benefit too (eventually - via lower energy bills and by growing some of my own fruit and veg), so a litle bit of enlightened self-interest is allowed.

    If you'd like to find out more about the work of the RSPB, visit us on the South Bank at our Tate Modern Peregrine Watch. You'll find some of our volunteers and staff by the Millennium Bridge ready and waiting to chat about conservation and London's wild peregrines.