July, 2012

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  • How many?

    Thousands. No millions. Sorry, forget that, it's probably billions. Yes, billions of ants have taken to the skies of London in their annual mating flight, and those that survive hungry birds and spiders' webs will soon shed their wings and die.

    Antastic swarm orgy in Hackney, E5The point to this apparently futile existence is procreation. Winged males and females  synchronise their flight with other colonies, so it seems the UK's entire flying ant population is airbourne at the same time. It's thought the flight is triggered by heat, so today [Weds 25 July] should be THE DAY. It maybe a tad later in the north of the UK, particularly as the North is forecast to have more rain as the South sizzles.

    Most of the males will not survive the week. The females will go on to establish new colonies. It's a weird way to go about your life. This mass, synchronised orgy isexplained by experts to be a way of surviving predation and/or widening the ant gene pool.  A bit like the human habit of going clubbing at the end of the week.

    Whatever the reason, it's pay-day for birds (and pay-night for bats). All that juicy ant protein clumsily flying around makes for the best feast day of the year; plumping up migrant birds such as swifts and giving fledglings plenty to help them grow.

    It's an ant explosion that maintains the species and it seems we people have been doing something similar. London's human population has shot up from the previous estimate of some 7 million towards 8.2 million.

    Bearing in mind we were facing a water shortage a few months back - before the floods - it's a worrying trend. How will we accomodate, feed and provide for this growing population? Our farmers are struggling to grow and rear the food we eat and the stress of sustaining Londoners is having an impact on wildlife. It's time we all gave some serious thought to the way we treat the world we rely on.

    The final arrival of summer should draw more of us outdoors. Pause briefly if you can, in the middle of the rush to accomodate the Olympics and its sideshows, to look at the natural athletes around you. The plants that grow and flourish where nothing else does. The speed of the bugs or birds overhead. Maybe the strength of a tiny ant carrying something huge across a baking hot pavement. Then be humbled by the sheer hard work nature puts in to survival.

  • Thomas and the trackside habitation

    It was a beautiful morning in the city of Sondon but the Fat Controller was not happy. "My really useful engine is in the wrong place and its all the fault of those nasty conservationists." He harumphed, stamped his foot and clenched his fists.

    Early evening but still early enough to enjoy birdsongThe previous day, Thomas, a cheeky, fussy little engine, had delivered letters to local residents saying the Fat Controllers' contractors were coming to clear the banks of the rail-line just after midnight. Similar work nearby had already been stopped by angry passengers who were worried baby birds had been killed during the work.

    Thomas was worn out and needed a rest. On his way back to the yard, he spotted a red-faced man peering over the trackside wall. He remembered seeing the same man leaning over a bridge taking photos of the trees and shrubs earlier in the evening. The Man had been on a bike. That explained the red-face thought Thomas as he puffed along the track, saying "good-day" to a pair of jays nesting in a trackside oak.

    The Fat Controller was very pleased with his tidy station and hoped it win a medalOverhead crows and magpies squawked from the tree canopies and blackbirds could be heard from the scrub. Thomas was so taken by the wildlife that he accidentally turned off down a branch line. Some hours later he came gently to rest against some buffers and promptly ran out of steam and fell asleep.

    While Thomas slept, the red-faced man had hastily pedalled off to talk to the British Transport Police.... Safety comes first he told the Inspector, and in the bird breeding season the law is clear. If safety is threatened, the right paperwork can be sought. The birds' must be allowed to raise their chicks and add their song to the soundtrack of trains that so charm Thomas, that cheeky, fussy little engine.

    Meanwhile Thomas was fast asleep. He gave off occassional whistles as he dreamed about a perfect rail line. Scrub and trees were managed in rotation outside of the breeding season. That kept leaves off the tracks dreamt Thomas. In summer, the banks and station approaches were a riot of colour from wildflowers. Birds and bees patrolled the tracksides and passengers smiled at the nodding cornflowers, which glowed blue, mimicking Thomas's blue bodywork.

    "What a really useful engine I am," Thomas murmered to himself. "I must share my vision with the Fat Controller in the morning." And with that, he drifted off into a deep and restful slumber.

    The author stresses that this story bears no resemblance to events which recently took place in north east London.

  • Facing bankruptcy?

    Interest's high and the question on everyone's lips is: "will the final statement be in the redThe Urban Birder, David Lindo, lifts his shades in tribute to the giant sparra he found on the Southbank, or the black?"

    I refer not to the banking crisis, not to the world economy, but to our Cockney Sparrow Count. It closes on Thursday 12 July, with a few days grace to submit results. Ten years ago the first London sparrow census revealed a black hole of sparrows in central London. Alarmingly this once common bird had quietly died-out in the heart of the Capital.

    The more reports we get, the better, so please do add your sparrow experiences to our online database. It only takes a few minutes of your time but the info you supply, even if you have NO sparows in your life, is important. We need to know where there aren't any sparrows as well as where there are sparrows. So log-on and chirp-up. Please.

    It's at this point that I expect some Jeremy Paxman wannabe to chip-in with a knife sharp comment demanding to know... why?

    There are lots of reasons.

    1. London has lost seven out of every ten sparrows
    2. We have a moral responsibility for other living things sharing our planet
    3. Sparrows form part of the natural cycle of things and losing bits of that natural cycle disrupts its smooth running
    4. Sparrows and people are like apple pie and custard - it's traditional
    5. Sparrow chirping is part of the soundtrack of our days
    6. Sparrows are one of the world's most widely spread bird species (so adaptable)
    7. We have no idea .. yet ... what's truly behind their sudden population crash
    8. They are so much a part of our lives that we no longer really register their presence
    9. If we let sparrows die-out, what's next
    10. Sparrows are inter-galactic warriors, the only thing standing between us and the hell-trogs of Magblore

    OK, that last one was made up, but the rest are factual.

    I discovered this week that your average adult house sparrow weighs the equivalent of three pound coins. If we added up the number of lost sparrows using that comparison as our guide, we'd find the answer somewhere in the high millions.

    We're also losing starlings, swifts, bees, butterflies and the fight against flab. Strangely, one way to address all of these things lies in our countryside. Our rivers, woodlands, gardens and parks are part of the answer. Managing these spaces sustainably to produce food and to encourage walking, discovery and enjoyment of the great outdoors is a winner.

    Have you explored the Thames estuary? There are really wild, really beautiful, really cultured and really wild places along both banks of the river. I know the Romans had some bad experiences with the natives, but there are some really nice people living there now. You can visit the Kent marshes that inspired Dickens. Follow in the footsteps of invading Vikings in Essex. You can stare in wonder at the milk chocolate brown waters of the Thames which carried so may people into and out of the UK. The Thames estuary is a landscape which helped shape the world we live in today. How sad it would be if that landscape were to lose some of its defining features, such as the cocky, though somewhat tatty and plain, house sparrow.