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February 20 2014

August 31 2012

TERRA 716: Chasing Birds in Beringia

Enter into the ultra-adventurous world of bush-pilot biologists chasing wild birds in the no-man's-land north of the Arctic Circle. Their world is one of beauty, grit, humor and science. The tundra swans they study venture back and forth across the narrow stretch of water that separates Alaska and Russia. This east-west connection is what endangers the birds, and potentially the humans that interact with them. (Winner of the Science Award, Imagine Science Film Festival 2011)
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July 25 2012

Lego birds: the tropical collection - in pictures

Following on from his series of British birds made out of Lego, Thomas Poulsom has designed a collection of tropical birds

June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…" © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Another wind turbine rouses campaigners on Yorkshire's coastal cliffs

Protests supported by David Hockney are revived, as proposals for a Flambrough tower replace those recently withdrawn near Bempton's famous seabird reserve

Local people's defeat of a controversial wind turbine proposal at Bempon, close to the famous seabird nesting cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, has been followed by only the briefest of respites.

The call to arms has gone out again almost immediately, to fight a similar application close to South Landing and Danes Dyke on that famous county landmark, Flamborough Head.

Taller by 25 feet than Flamborough lighthouse at 112 feet, the tower is the latest of an extraordinary run of applications in the East Riding which have aroused huge concern and been the subject of previous Guardian Northerner posts. Opponents include David Hockney whose work and crowd-pulling exhibitions at Saltaire and the Royal Academy have been a tonic for visitor numbers to the quiet beauties of the Wolds this year.

Bempton parish council and the town council in Bridlington, where Hockney lives much of the time, voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday 6 June to object to the latest planning application. Flamborough parish council meets on Monday and is expected to take a similar view. Holiday camp owners, buoyed up by the Government's recent U-turn on VAT and static caravans, are joining the campaign.

The tower would be built at Hartendale Farm, some 600 metres from Flamborough village and fewer than 250 metres from the noble cliffs. David Hinde of No to Wolds Windfarms says:

The site is surrounded by some of the most important wildlife sites in the whole of the UK as well as the Flamborough Headland Heritage Coast Landscape, designated by Natural England and with the highest protection rating possible

The turbine would be be highly visually intrusive from Bridlington bay, Bempton cliffs, many parts of Flamborough, the heritage features of the ancient Danes Dyke earthwork and coastal footpaths around South Landing as well as the country park heritage trail.

Campaigners are also determined to keep turbines out of a proposed 'Yorkshire nature triangle' which would link the famous Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve at Bempton cliffs to the Living Seas Centre which is being built at South Landing. The RSPB plans to expand its facilities and the project is reckoned to have great potential in terms of attracting more visitors and creating tourism jobs.

So far, East Riding of Yorkshire district council has received 36 objections to the new application. The Bempton turbine, proposed for Norway farm on Cliff Lane, was withdrawn after 169 objections and well-publicised protests from local people, visitors to the bird reserve and the Ministry of Defence which has radar facilities at nearby Staxton Wold.

The Hartendale farm application is Ref 12/01846/PLF and can be seen on the East Riding council's website or via County Hall, Beverley HU17 9BA Tel: 01482 393939. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 18 2012

Birds made from Lego - in pictures

Lego enthusiast, avian admirer and professional tree surgeon Thomas Poulsom has taken inspiration from birds to create this brilliant series of Lego models

April 02 2012


John Gould, Sophia’s Erythronote 1845

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November 11 2011

April 19 2011

January 21 2011

The week in wildlife – in pictures

Giant new crayfish species, waxwings with punk hairdos and a wren that uses the 'scary movie effect' to get a date are highlights of this week's pick of images from the natural world

December 02 2010

Northern exposures: how to take a perfect winter wildlife photograph

Winter light offers photographers and nature-lovers fantastic opportunities to take memorable shots

Share your photos of nature at dusk and dawn on our Flickr group

Twilight is a time of magic, as night is banished by the first faint glow in the east, or when the western sky gives a golden fanfare that heralds night. Although dawn and dusk in December can be short-lived and monochrome affairs when compared to the splendour of summer and autumn, there are still opportunities for photographers. An obvious advantage is that one can enjoy a normal sleep pattern and still be up and about before the sun rises.

Given a clear sky, the light in winter is good at any time of day. The low aspect of the sun means that the bleaching highlights and deep shadows that can ruin any shot taken either side of midday in high summer simply do not occur. Taking advantage of the "golden hours" may not be as crucial in winter, but the rich colours at the ends of the day are still worth taking advantage of.

Your position in relation to the sun is crucial. With the sun behind you, your subject will be bathed in a warm reddish glow; shooting against the backdrop of an orange sky can make for a truly atmospheric image.

Shutter speed will also be important, there may only be sufficient light to capture correctly exposed images of static subjects. On the other hand silhouettes, especially of instantly recognisable outlines such as trees, deer or a stalking heron can make for a top-class image. A slightly slower shutter speed could also lend a sense of movement to flocks of birds threading their way across the gloaming.

The lower temperatures during this month can lead to mist forming in low-lying areas, especially along rivers or over lakes. Providing it's not a pea-souper this can lead to ethereal effects at dawn, whether it's the spectral shadows cast by a tree or a flock of wildfowl partly shrouded by pastel-tinted vapours. Warm-blooded subjects may also give off a fog of breath as temperatures are close to freezing. Capturing this could transform a fairly ordinary picture of an Exmoor pony or a singing wren into a truly wonderful image.

The last autumnal leaves clinging to a tree or brightly coloured fruits can often be embellished by droplets of dew in the first hour of light. If nights are cold and the air moist enough, then hoar frost can give a delicately beautiful coating to vegetation. The skeletal remains of hogweed or a velvet shank fungus erupting from the base of a tree can be given a magical crystalline crust that elevates your image from the ordinary to the spectacular.

Owls are famous for being nocturnal but at least three species regularly hunt by day. The little owl preys mainly on insects and earthworms and can often be found perched on prominent places, such as telegraph poles and fenceposts as well as mature parkland trees. The short-eared owl is mainly a winter visitor, at least to southern and lowland Britain, and is often active during the morning or evening. Barn owls are a more traditional night owl but if feeding is made difficult by wind, rain or shortage of small mammal prey, these ghostly birds will extend their hunting hours, too. Any of these could be seen flying at midday in December but late-afternoon light will give a more suitably crepuscular feel to proceedings.

At the time of writing, Britain is in the grip of an unusually cold spell. One vitally important piece of advice to bear in mind is that if temperatures continue to stay below freezing by night and day our wildlife will be hard-pushed to survive. Some birds will need to feed almost constantly during daylight hours to make it through the long cold nights. If temperatures are low enough, they can lose a fair proportion of vital body fat each day. Getting that extra foot closer to capture the perfect shot may cause animals to flee, not only wasting valuable calories but also preventing them from refuelling. Water birds will flock to the last areas of deeper water that remain ice-free, so keep your distance so as not to cause disturbance. Remember that a true nature photographer always put the wildlife first.

• Peter Brash is an ecologist at the National Trust © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 01 2010

Startling starlings

It's the time of year when these birds come together to produce one of nature's most impressive sights. Grahame Madge has some tips for capturing it on camera

Share your photos of starlings in flight on our Flickr group

Even as an ardent birdwatcher, I'll confess that a single starling is a rather drab sight. But you can capture stunning images of starlings if you see them in a new light. In summer, the drabness of their dark plumage melts away to reveal an iridescent show of greens and purples. In winter, the birds develop a completely different look as the plumage becomes spangled with white spots.

In my opinion, the best way to see starlings is just before dusk when flocks – known as murmurations – gather in autumn and winter skies for one of our most celebrated wildlife spectacles. Sometimes up to 1 million birds - from a radius of 20 miles - join vast flocks that twist and turn against the fading light, creating a pageant of ephemeral, ever-changing patterns - like smoke on a breeze.

Many of the birds will have travelled to the UK from Scandinavia, or even Russia, to join starlings that have nested in the UK. Starlings gather in huge flocks to spend the night in safety in reedbeds, or on buildings, such as Brighton pier. It's always been a slight mystery to me why these birds put on such a prominent display before roosting for the night. The primary aim of creating a large flock is to confuse predators, such as peregrine falcons or sparrowhawks: so, why do starlings advertise their presence so obviously?

The ecologist in me says they are probably encouraging others into the roost site, creating an ecological advantage for the starling's survival. However, my fun-loving side yearns to believe that starlings put on a Red Arrows show just because they can.

These spectacles happen at specific sites across the UK from October to early spring, allowing anyone with a camera, or even a mobile phone to capture an impression of this aerial ballet. However your image will strip away most of the sensations that you felt at the time; the chattering of a million calling birds; frost nipping at your nose and toes; or perhaps the scent of distant bonfires.

So how do you create an image that best captures the impressions of the event? Firstly, think about the location. Try to position yourself on the eastern side of the action. As the sun sets in the west, standing facing the sunset will allow you to include the sun, or sunlit clouds, as a backdrop for your composition. Even on a cloudy day, the light in this part of the sky will be brighter and will last for longer after sunset.

Think about how you frame your picture; including a distant church spire; a line of trees; or some other feature on the horizon will lend your picture a sense of scale and also a sense of location. You could also include other spectators for added human interest. Consider whether you want to capture a single image or create a sequence of pictures. Locking the camera on a tripod could enable you to take a set of pictures with the same framing. Including the same foreground while capturing the different patterns of the swirling flocks is one way of trying to describe the choreography of these.

Photographers with a little more technical know-how might want to create more impressionistic images. You have a choice where you can use a fast shutter speed to freeze each bird or use a slow one, allowing the movement of each bird to register as a streak across the frame.

However you choose to capture the event, be sure to take a few minutes to soak up the atmosphere of the event before the birds tumble from the sky and settle down for the night.

Where to see starlings

Gretna Green, Scotland

Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, Lancashire

Saltholme RSPB reserve, Middlesbrough

RSPB Snape Warren, Suffolk

Brighton pier, Sussex

Westhay Moor, Ham Wall (RSPB) or Shapwick Heath, in Somerset

RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk

Conwy RSPB reserve in north Wales

Blacktoft Sands, east Yorkshire

• Grahame Madge is a media officer at the RSPB © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 16 2010


March 16 2010

How an egg stopped the show

The Barbican's new exhibition features birds playing musical instruments – which leads to the occasional unexpected drama

There was a look of mild panic on the face of the steward at the Barbican's Curve gallery when she politely asked everyone to leave on Monday evening."I'm sorry, we are having a technical difficulty," she said.

Half an hour earlier, the only problem had been you couldn't hear the cymbals in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's exhibition. They had microphones on them, but all you could hear was the guitar and bass. Oh, and the vocals; the soft, busy chatter of the live flock of zebra finches sharing the room with us. They are the players in Boursier-Mougenot's rock band, inadvertently plucking and scraping the strings of the guitars as they perch or take-off, or shuffle along the fretboard while preening.

At one point a finch appeared to be doing an experimental solo, as he weaved Marram grass around the bridge of a guitar; one man's Hendrix is another bird's doomed attempt at nest building. The loudspeaker in the far corner seemed to be a favourite place to take a crap, but hey, this is rock'n'roll.

Whatever Ozzy Osbourne did with a bat on stage doesn't come close to what happened next. To intakes of breath from the crowd, an egg was laid on one of the horizontally mounted Les Pauls. It rolled perilously close to the edge, but came to a halt. The collective wisdom seemed to be that no one should touch the egg: it would cause the mother to abandon it. So, we were ushered out while the bird expert was called. The band, meanwhile, played on.

"It's sort of abandoned anyway by not being laid in a nest," says naturalist writer and broadcaster Stephen Moss. But the perceived wisdom, he says, is misguided: "If you touch an egg in a nest, a bird will not abandon it. Birds have a strong instinct to incubate."

So what did happen? "The breeder has taken it back to the aviary for another bird to sit on," says a Barbican representative. "We've now installed boxes so if any of the birds want to nest they can. The gallery is not the right environment for baby birds, but the birds in the exhibition are happy in the environment."

I hope so. The Barbican says it has consulted both the breeders and City of London animal health inspectors to make sure this is not a damaging experience. But I can't help thinking I'd find accidentally being in an experimental rock band every time I got up to lay an egg a bit stressful. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 11 2010

Walk on the wild side

Wildlife photographer Philippa Scott, honorary director of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, has died aged 91. Here are some of her images

April 10 2009

TERRA 510: On the Wing PART FOUR

On The Wing is a new documentary which tells the story of Portland, Oregon's Chapman Swifts. Each fall these birds roost in the chimney of a Portland elementary school and put on an amazing nightly aerial display to the delight of hundreds and thousands of observers. The event has become a cult phenomenon over the past 15 years and is a shining example of people choosing to coexist with nature rather than smoking it out. On The Wing captures the community, energy and excitement of the entire Swifts phenomenon.

March 11 2009

TERRA 507: On the Wing PREVIEW

On The Wing is a new documentary which tells the story of Portland, Oregon’s Chapman Swifts.

Each fall these birds roost in the chimney of a Portland elementary school and put on an amazing nightly aerial display to the delight of hundreds and thousands of observers.

The event has become a cult phenomenon over the past 15 years and is a shining example of people choosing to coexist with nature rather than smoking it out.

On The Wing captures the community, energy and excitement of the entire Swifts phenomenon

February 28 2008

TERRA 417: Army Naturalist PREVIEW

When you think of military bases, the tanks, artillery, and explosions probably don't seem very conducive to wildlife. The fact of the matter is that these installations harbor an diverse array of wildlife that finds protective niches in these sometimes violent ecosystems. Join Jen Brown as she takes us to boot camp with an "Army Naturalist"!
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