Changing times

lowflyingkiteIt is surprising how sensitive and responsive nature is to changes in the environment. Two days before Christmas, standing in a neighbour’s garden I became aware of a loud buzzing round a large winter honeysuckle in full bloom. It was absolutely alive with honey bees. Two days before Christmas?! This set me thinking of changes in the natural world during my lifetime and of birds in particular.

Before the 1990s, buzzards were largely confined to Wales and Scotland. I remember in my teens my excitement at seeing my first buzzard atop a telegraph pole in west Wales, astonished at its size. Today, buzzards circling effortlessly high on thermals is a common sight.

As a child, seeing ravens involved travelling to Cornwall or the Tower of London. Crow-like with a ten-year lifespan, ravens are monogamous. They have a variety of collective nouns – a ‘bazaar’, a ‘rant’ and even an ‘unkindness’! Their distinctive croak in flight is now a familiar sound and they are relatively common here.

Egrets are a recent arrival. These elegant dazzling white herons with attractive crest and bright yellow feet have occupied the Evenlode Valley for the last four or five years. They colonised the U.K. in 1989, and first bred in Dorset in 1996. There are now 700 breeding pairs in the country, most commonly occurring around the south and west coastal areas.

Despite their majesty, historically, red kites were reviled as scavengers. In Scotland, King James II decreed they should be killed. In England they were protected because they cleared the streets of carrion and rotting food. Fifty years ago there were only a handful of breeding pairs in the wilds of west Wales. Today they are numerous. I have counted as many as 43 on the M40 travelling between Oxford and the M25.

Historically, buzzards and ravens were persecuted by game keepers. More effective legal protection has enabled their recovery. The territorial extension of egrets is attributed to climate change. The success of the red kite results from human intervention. In 1989, five birds were released in Buckinghamshire – subsequently over time 93 kites from Spain and Sweden followed.

So much for the winners. Who are the losers? Fly catchers and willow warblers bred here regularly 35 years ago, but not in the last ten years. Yellow hammers once common up the lane are rarely seen now. Skylark song in a summer sky, once guaranteed, is now rare (we had a pair two years ago). Starlings and sparrows are far less numerous and green finches have almost gone. Lapwings and thrushes are seldom seen. There are more but which are the birds you miss most?

Bystander

June-July 2019