Bird of the Year 2007

It’s that time again. Last year when I did this, I’d been birding in Spain in the spring and then the Galapagos and Ecuador in the autumn. This year has been less dramatic—no albatrosses or toucans—but I did see some great stuff in Crete in April.

First, though, some local stuff. There have been Little Grebes in the local park this year, I think for the first time, and they successfully raised a chick, so that was good. And also in the park, a Mandarin Duck (an Asian species, but there’s quite a large breeding population in the UK now). Back in February, this Stock Dove was the year’s only new bird for my garden list:

stock dove

And there were also a couple of birds which I haven’t had in the garden for a long time; I heard a Tawny Owl in July, and perhaps the most exciting of the lot, I saw a House Sparrow on the bird feeders in August. Sadly, she was the only one.

On, then, to Crete. Crete was pretty fabulous, bird-wise. Lots of stuff, and some of it special. Apart from anything else, what could be nicer than being in the Mediterranean in the springtime? It’s nice just seeing all the common Mediterranean species like Crested Lark, Serin, and Sardinian Warbler:

Sardinian Warbler

Then there were species I’d seen before, but not for a long time, or not very well, which I had great views of; like the amazing flock of Golden Orioles flying one by one up the valley above Paleohora, or the oh-so-elegantly coloured Blue Rock Thrush nesting in a cliff face I saw from about the same spot, or the Wryneck I eventually saw after about an hour spent wandering around the Lasithi Plateau, trying to track them down by their call. Or this Cirl Bunting, a bird I think I last saw at Mycenae when I was 18.

Cirl Bunting

And Woodchat Shrike, Griffon Vulture, Squacco Heron and Purple Heron, which were all species I also saw last spring in Andalucia, but no less pleasing for all that.

I saw eight lifers in Crete, which I think is pretty good for a holiday in Europe. Any life tick is pleasing, but the least exciting would be Short-toed Lark (small, brown, distant; even the name is boring) and Ferruginous Duck (a good bird, but a very brief, distant sighting). Black-eared Wheatear [below] and Collared Flycatcher are both really attractive birds; Quail are famously skulking and difficult to see in Britain, so when a couple of them suddenly flushed out from almost under my feet it was a bit of a rush.

Black-eared Wheatear

But my best photographic opportunity came at the reservoir at Ayia. A lot of the birds were remarkably approachable, I think because they were simply exhausted by migration. I got close to some commoner species, like Whinchat and Cuckoo, but the really amazing sightings were two species that are, normally, very difficult to see because they spend all their time lurking in deep vegetation. The first was a species I’ve seen before, but never expected to see as well as this: Little Bittern.

Little Bittern

Both times I’ve seen them before, it was just a quick moment as a bird flew from one reedbed to another. I never expected to be able to approach one to about 25 feet, set up a telescope and take a picture. Even better, though, was another species, Little Crake. The bittern eventually, when I got really close, ducked into the reeds and stayed hidden. But the crakes just wandered around feeding at the water’s edge, blithely ignoring any birders nearby as though they were natural exhibitionists. I saw about eight individuals, and the only reason I didn’t get more good photos of them was that the little buggers never stayed still for a moment. Still, I’m particularly pleased with this one:

Little Crake

But even that wasn’t my bird of the year. My bird of the year was a European Roller. It’s big and colourful, I’ve wanted to see one ever since I had my first bird book—so probably for about 25 years now—and, just as icing on the cake, it’s even a rarity for Crete. I didn’t have my telescope with me when I saw it, so I couldn’t take a picture, but since it’s my bird of the year, here’s one taken by someone else:

» ROLIEIRO, posted to Flickr by sparkyfaisca.

Sparrow!

I was reading in the garden today and heard a distinctive chirp: there was a female house sparrow on the bird feeder. Once, this would have been normal, but British house sparrow numbers have plummeted in the past few years; the sparrow population of London declined 75% between 1999 and 2004. It was the first one I’ve seen here for years.

No-one quite knows why they disappeared. Loss of nest sites because of changing roofing materials? Loss of hedging? Less waste ground? Inevitably some ‘bird lovers’ blame sparrowhawks and magpies, or cats or squirrels; equally inevitably some people have tried to blame it on mobile phone masts. It seems difficult to account for the suddenness and scale of the decline by any obvious change in the environment, and it’s tempting to suggest disease; but honestly we don’t know.

Food Fight!, originally uploaded by ScottCatskill.

There’s a particular poignancy because Londoners have long identified with the house sparrow as the ‘cockney sparra’. In Victorian London, when the air was murk and anything left in one place for too long was gradually covered in a layer of flaky soot, and city gardeners had to choose their flowers from species which could survive the pollution, there weren’t many birds found in the heart of the city. But the sparrows were there, nesting in the gutters and tiled roofs and any little nook in the brickwork which would offer them enough space to build a nest out of sweet papers and cigarette butts. The very character of them—drab, scruffy, gregarious, chirpy, impudent, noisy, tuneless, and given to squabbling and shagging in public—makes them seem like proper London birds.

Behind the most ancient part of Holborn, London, where certain gabled houses some centuries of age still stand looking on the public way, as if disconsolately looking for the Old Bourne that has long run dry, is a little nook composed of two irregular quadrangles, called Staple Inn. It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears, and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let us play at country,’ and where a few feet of garden-mould and a few yards of gravel enable them to do that refreshing violence to their tiny understandings.

—from Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The idea that the house sparrow is a cockney bird is admittedly parochial. Sparrows are found nearly everywhere there are people. And they are only found where there are people; they have become so closely tied to human habitation that no-one knows quite what habitat the ancestral sparrows preferred, or what part of the world they lived in. I like to think that sparrows started hanging out around people at about the moment some Mesopotamian farmer built the first granary, and they’ve been with us ever since, hopping around our barns and farmyards, our parks, markets and pavement cafés; nesting in our thatch, under our tiles, and in our lamp-posts.

Little bandit,……, originally uploaded by Hans Viveen.

I also feel a certain kinship in the fact that house sparrows, like the other species that have hitched a ride with humanity—rats, pigeons, cockroaches—have been successful because, like us, they are generalists. They are adaptable. They may not be exquisitely adapted to efficiently exploit a particular evolutionary niche, but provide them with a new environment like a city, and they find a way to thrive while other species are left stuck in their evolutionary rut.

When the sparrows disappeared from this bit of London, I didn’t consciously notice them go. But when I’m staying somewhere that does have them—if I’m woken in the morning by their chirping, if they try to steal the crumbs from my morning croissant—there is a sense of order restored. Deep down, I feel that a house without sparrows is lacking something important. I know that people in the Americas and Australia, for whom the house sparrow is an invasive, non-native species, may not feel the same way. But to me, the sparrows are our companions, our familiars, our symbionts.

I just hope that today’s was the first of many.

God’s cock and hen

I woke up this morning to see something fluttering against the inside of the window-panes. Without my glasses, I couldn’t think what it was – it seemed too big for a moth and too small and whirring for a bird. It turned out to be a wren. They’re such nice things, but they are slightly unbirdy – like little russet mothmice.

Lucky it wasn’t a robin; I recently learnt from Birds Britannica that if a robin flies into your house it’s a omen of death. I assume that only applies to the European Robin and not its American namesake, but maybe the power of superstition is transferable through the power of names.

The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen;
The spink and the sparrow are the de’il’s bow and arrow.

The ‘spink’ is the chaffinch. I guess it and the sparrow are damned mostly by rhyme and alliteration. You can find more wren rhymes and folklore here (pdf).