November, 2008

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South East

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  • Put a buzz in the air, not a jet engine roar

    Jack sparrow looking for a tasty treatIn all the coverage about insect loss being responsible for the alarming decline in house sparrows, not one journalist has asked 'so what?"

    The answer is that house sparrows may be small, brown & grey and, well, a bit common. But they are chirpy, happy little birds that add sound and movement to many people's lives. They are part of the natural world and part of our culture. Their loss would indicate that we simply don't care, and I firmly believe we as a society do give a damn if a species starts heading towards extinction.

    The RSPB research that has linked house sparrow decline with insect loss actually proves another thing. Birds are a top-indicator - an early warning system - of when things in our environment start to go wrong. Falling sparrow numbers were recorded well ahead of reports of insect and moth declines. Being at the top of the average UK food chain, birds are uniquely placed to alert us when our surroundings start to fail. If we lost house sparrows, we'd all be poorer. It is more serious if we continue to lose insects. Insects help keep the plant world ticking over and provide food for a wealth of other creatures.

    So what can we all do? Lots. The good news, most of the things we can do are easy, free or very cheap. Allowing nature a bit of a free hand in our gardens and parks is a good starting point. Planting ivy, holly, native trees, shrubs and flowers is the next step. All of these support native wildlife. Creating different areas in your garden will support different types of wildlife. A discrete pile of leaves; a loggery; water feature; lawn; hedges and flowers. All of these will be home to different types of butterfly, moth, beetle or bird.

    If you want to see a sparrow, this coming weekend, weather permitting, will be your last chance to visit our sparrow watch at Bernie Spain Gardens on the South Bank.

    Of course, if climate change is not addressed then our world will change and we'd lose vast numbers of species, including a lot of us humans! Resolving insect and sparrow loss seems easy when compared with the juggernaut of climate chaos. Last Friday a group that advises local government planners across London, the South East and East of England urged development of high-speed rail links so that more people can get to our expanded airports to fly. Using rail links to reduce air travel is more financially and environmentally sensible. Increasing airport capacity is utter madness.

  • Urban woodcocks

    Can you see what it is yet? A woodcock.There's been a real buzz among bird lovers in London this week thanks to a woodcock.

    These bulky waders are mostly nocturnal, favour woodlands and are incredibly shy, so to see one during the day in London, Lambeth no less, is a bit of a surprise. Well, I say surprise, but in fact there have been more than ninety confirmed sightings of woodcock in Greater London since the mid-seventies. My theory is that they've nipped in to town for a bit of excitement.

    Our staff and volunteers at the Abb Sparrow watch on the South Bank are on the look-out for woodcock. They've an impressive list of birds spotted at the site, including gulls, cormorants, peregrines, robins, tits and magpies, but no woodcock. Other frequent visitors to the feeders at the watchpoint are squirrels.

    They're out in force at the moment and are made more apparent by the falling leaves. Urban birder, David Lindo explored some of the options available for defending bird feeders from marauding squirrels on the BBC's One Show this week. I can confirm that within a day of the feeders featured in David's film being put out, all, bar the Birds and squirrels do mix - as evidenced by this coal titone with the sliding metal sleeve, had been breached and emptied by the squirrels.

    I don't mind when they empty the feeders, but it gets a bit expensive when they tear them apart or knaw great holes in the plastic tubes. What's worse though is that my urban squirrels stripped my garden of flowers, fruit and veg. I put out enough food for them, but they still ate my sunflowers, tomatoes and courgettes.

    There is little that can stop these ravenous beasts. I've tried pretty much every deterrent going. One tip that does work is sprinkling chilli powder on your nuts or seeds. Squirrels can taste it and should be put off by the heat, so you could always try alternatives such as paprika or a hot curry mix. Birds aren't affected by the heat. Sadly, the sort of heavy downpours we've suffered of late washes the powder away, so you'll have to apply regular top-ups for this method to remain effective.



    The week after this was posted I was contacted by a teacher at a Lambeth school who reported one of their pupils had found the body of a recently dead woodcock. If you are a teacher interested in exploring urban wildlife, why not visit our Education pages or take part in January 2009's Big Schools' Birdwatch.

  • Watch the birdie

    I need a hug. Damp, grey and cold is how I feel, so how apt that the weather has obligingly changed to fit my mood. What I need is a swirling cloud of starlings, a murmuration, to lift my spirits.

    Starlings massed over Brighton pierThere are a few small clusters of starlings that perform mini sky-dances around London but I've a full month to wait until the Brighton Pier starlings are fully up and running. The sheer number of starlings perched on the long hand of Big Ben were once so numerous they stopped the clock in its tracks! Bring 'em back.

    On the South Bank you can view a small colony of house sparrows from our pitch at Bernie Spain Gardens every Friday, Saturday and Sunday this month. The sight of them raiding the feeders in the trees is enough to give you a warm glow.

    I did get hot under the collar the other day at the announcement that planning permission was being granted for Donald Trump's golf courses and luxury housing development in Aberdeenshire. It means the destruction of a unique dune habitat and a designated and supposedly protected Site of Special Scientific Interest.

    The RSPB commissioned a golf course architect to Dunes of the Menie Estatecreate a plan that would equal Donald Trump's, without destroying the SSSI. These plans were offered to the New York based billionaire and presented to the Scottish Government. Both ignored them. The implications for other SSSI sites and protected areas must surely now be in doubt in Scotland. You cannot put a value on nature and wildlife, yet it is proved time and time again that the promise of financial gain proves more alluring than our precious surroundings - surroundings that provide us with the resources we need to survive. How short-sighted.