Citizen Science, the Love of Nature & the Birds of the Undercliff, from the Marina to Saltdean.
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
The focus of this post is considering what we can do to conserve diversity and abundance of species in our local area. Toward the end of the post there are photos of the birds I saw on Saturday 20th March 2021 between Brighton Marina and East Saltdean.
As my interest in conservation has extended, with regard to bumblebees and birds, I have more and more come to appreciate the importance of basic counting. Science is based on measurement. "Citizen scientists" can play an important role in the development of conservation science by counting the number of species we see (diversity); and the abundance of those species (the number of individuals of each species we see), and reporting that data systematically.
Accurate data on which species are where (and how abundant they are) is essential to tracking declines in populations. As a result of climate change and loss of habitat (through inappropriate farming, loss of "wild" land to development etc.) the abundance and diversity of birds is declining; dramatically with some species in some areas, leading to local, national and international extinctions of some species. Conservation is only possible if the declining population trends are discernible: targeted conservation work can only occur if we know what is declining and where; moreover, data on changing abundance and diversity when conversation interventions have been made is the best way toevaluate the efficacy of those interventions.
Much biological surveying work is done by volunteers; if volunteers were not doing this there would be a great dearth of data for academic scientists to analyse. There is also a benefit for volunteers too: research into volunteering has shown repeatedly that volunteers often experience enhanced wellbeing as a result of the sense of meaning and purpose they get from their volunteering, especially from Citizen Science volunteering e.g. Nisbet, Elizabeth. (2013). Connecting Citizen Scientists with Nature Promotes Nature Relatedness and Well-Being. (See end notes for further references)
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) encourages amateur ornithologists to submit regular "complete list" observations of their local environment, where birders walk a transact (route) and record everything that they see or hear, to the best of their ability, and upload that data to the BTO BirdTrack data system, see BirdTrack | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology.
You can upload two types of observations: "complete lists" and "casual lists" . What to record | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology
Complete Lists "We can make much better use of your data if you provide such a complete list. Please note that this only needs to be a complete list of the birds seen and heard by you, not everything that was in the area."
Casual Lists "Sometimes it may not be possible to record every species on a visit. We would still like you to enter these partial lists onto the website ,,, These data are still valuable but can be used for fewer purposes than can complete lists".
"Recording birds regularly from the same site can contribute to a greater understanding of the ornithological value of the site and may provide important information for site safeguard and to evaluate the effects of site management. This gives real conservation value to your records.
By submitting your records to BirdTrack throughout the year you will not only be storing your records in a secure place but also increasing their conservation value as they are pooled with records from other observers across Britain and Ireland to create the wider picture of the migrations, movements and distributions of birds." Bird recording | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology
Therefore, I have decided to try and undertake a regular "complete list" survey of one transect in my local area each month, viz. east of the Marina to Saltdean East. As for marine environments tide levels are critical to the number of birds seen, as many waders are only present when forage becomes available; I am undertaking my count at tide times when foreshore forage is available. I aim also to continue to submit "casual" reports to BirdWatch anytime I see species in places that I think are particularly of note on other birdwatching outings.
If you are interested in contributing to bird science but want to do it from home, the BTO also has a weekly Garden BirdWatch scheme (in addition to the RSPB's yearly Big Garden Birdwatch | Join the fun - The RSPB), where you can submit information on the diversity and abundance of birds in your garden every week. It is very quick to do; and very enjoyable: Join Garden BirdWatch | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology
If you are interested in Bumblebees, you can monitor their diversity and abundance in a location near you, through the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's (BBCT) BeeWalk project, where you walk a 1-2K transect once a month from March to October. I do a BeeWalk on Whitehawk Hill, and it's a great way to get to know the bumblebees and flowers of your local area. There is free on-line training on the BBCT website: BeeWalk - Bumblebee Conservation Trust
If you are interested in recording wildlife other than birds you see casually, you can record your observations on iRecord | Manage and share your wildlife records (brc.ac.uk).
"The goal of iRecord is to help bring together wildlife sightings from many sources, so that they can be checked by experts and made available to support research and decision-making. It is operated by the Biological Records Centre (BRC) as part of the work of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH).
The "feel" of nature: the value of lived experience of local nature
I don't want to walk the same transact methodologically purely for the statistical information that that yields; I want to do that to develop a "feel" of the birdlife from the Marina to Saltdean over time; to gain knowledge of what species are present in different seasons, which birds are resident all year, which birds are migrants, etc. from direct lived experience; to "know" my patch with my heart and senses not just to be able to recall the names and numbers of what I see.
Whilst scientific methodology is very important, there is also something very important. about getting a gut feel for the flora and fauna that live in your local area through experience of just walking and observing with no target or agenda; developing experiential knowledge (not just the knowledge gathered by reading books and articles, not that that isn't important) enhances wellbeing and connectedness with nature, which in turn promotes pro-environmental behaviours (Caroline M.L. Mackay, Michael T. Schmitt, (19919). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis: direct lived experience of being in the habitats that sustain wild animals and plants, developing a direct connection with the animal and plant life of you area, is a strong motivation to act to conserve those plants and animals.
A beautiful description of the life-enhancing and life-changing, and pro-ecological-beahviour-prompting, quality of human-animal connection is described in the documentary My Octopus Teacher directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, which documents a year spent by filmmaker Craig Foster developing a relationship with a wild octopus in a South African kelp forest through swimming daily in the same environment.
It was easier to truly "know" local plants and animals when more of the population lived in or near the countryside, but as a result of urbanisation, and changes in labour patterns from land-related work to other forms of work, fewer people now have the opportunity to develop an intuitive understanding of the animals an plants in their local area in their everyday lives, and thus perhaps fewer of have an awareness of the dramatic decline in species and numbers of individual animals or plants within within a species type in local environments, through lived experience. Perhaps this is a reason why local extinctions are happening more frequently; many people haven't noted this decline in diversity and abundance in their local area, even though they may be aware of the declines in global "headline species" such as White Rhinos or Polar Bears.
In the eightieth and nineteenth centuries the origins of today's scientific botany and zoological started with the activities of amateur naturalists, the first "citizen scientists" (albeit mostly white, middle class people with sufficient monetary resources to devote time to nature). There is a value I believe today in returning to the methods of amateur naturalists, like Gilbert White and Susan Fenimore Cooper, who walked through their local landscapes regularly; learning about their local flora and fauna (and palaeontology) through direct lived experience of them.
Gilbert White (1720 – 1793), is now considered a pioneer of ecology and ornithology, known for his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, who observed birds and animals in their own habitats over many years; his local area, creating knowledge from the accumulation of detail. Gilbert White: the modern naturalist | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk) and Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813 – 1894), is now considered America's first recognized female nature writer, [who] broke new ground with a book about her observations of plant and animal life in Cooperstown, New York ... Cooper .. made insightful observations on dwindling bird species, who suffered the consequences of overzealous hunting and the destruction of their forest habitat"; her local forest habitat. Meet Susan Fenimore Cooper, America’s First Recognized Female Nature Writer | Audubon:
"It is not surprising, perhaps, that a man whose chief object in life is to make money should turn his timber into bank-notes with all possible speed; but it is remarkable that any one at all aware of the value of wood, should act so wastefully as most men do in this part of the world. Mature trees, young saplings, and last year's seedlings, are all destroyed at one blow by the axe or by fire; the spot where they have stood is left, perhaps, for a lifetime without any attempt at cultivation, or any endeavor to foster new wood." (Susan Fenimore Cooper, 1850, Rural Hours)
I think I prefer the term "amateur naturalist" rather than "citizen scientist", as it emphasises connection with nature. Whilst I do not doubt the centrality of empirical science to conservation, I am not sure that science is sufficient to halt the decline in diversity and abundance of species; connectedness to nature, appreciating nature with awe and wonder, i.e. a love of nature, is also required. We have to love nature to preserve it; and I think the term "naturalist" encapsulates that better than scientist. Early naturalists were motivated by the love of nature; and being an amateur, in the sense of being a person who engages in a pursuit voluntarily, is something of virtue; and does not betoken incompetence; not that I deny the importance of paid work and the centrality of professional scientists to conservation
The birds I saw east of the Marina to East Saltdean on Saturday 20.03.21
Because I walk or cycle this route at least three times a week (on my visits to care for my mother) I already have a partial "gut feel" for some of the birds I am likely to see: I know when I am likely to see Oystercatchers, and where they'll be; and sometimes, Little Egrets. I know I will always see Herring Gulls, Black-headed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls and I know where the Great Black-backed Gulls are likely to be. I know I will often see Fulmars, and I know the parts of the cliffs they are likely to be perched on. I know where I will see Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails and Jackdaws. But because I have only been taking note of birds I see on this route since October 2020, I do not yet have an understanding of the seasonal variation in species and their numbers; nor do I have year-on-year knowledge from observation of what might by typical in terms of the range of species seen and their numbers, so I do not know yet if what I am seeing represents a decline or an increase in abundance and diversity; although I know there has generally been a great decrease in abundance an diversity in Sussex's birds through consulting the Sussex Ornithology Society's annual Sussex Bird Reports. Thus, I do not know if what I saw on Saturday is typical. I hope over the months and years to come I will develop that awareness through my lived experience of this walk
This post record is in two parts
(a) walking East to West from the beach east of Brighton Marina to Saltdean East. I recoded all the birds that I could see on the cliffs, on the path, on the beach/foreshore, at sea (where identifiable) and in flight from 10.30 to 13.00 (as a "complete list" survey for the British Trust for Ornithology's BirdTrack recording system).
- Herring Gulls: 216
- Feral Pigeons: 27
- Jackdaws: 19
- Black-headed Gulls: 15
- Oystercatchers: 9
- Fulmars: 6
- Rock Pipits: 5
- Great Black-backed Gulls: 2
- Curlew: 1
- Little Egret: 1
- Starling: 1
(Birds occasionally seen on past walks of this route, but not seen today: Grey Herons)
This observation started 1 hour 50 minutes after low tide (09:10), on a rising tide, so for most of the observation the rock pool environment of the undercliff (between the Marina and Saltdean) was exposed. (High tide14:52).
(b) walking West to East from Saltdean East (along the Undercliff path) to the Marina (including the Marina itself). This was a "casual" observation of birds and behaviours that were particularly interesting to me.
In addition to the species seen in (a) I saw:
- 5 Great Crested Grebes (in the sea close to the East Harbour Arm of the Marina)
- a Cormorant (in the Marina)
- a Pied Wagtail (in the Marina)
- and many, may House Sparrows (in the Marina)
(Birds typically seen on past walks that include the Marina but not seen today: Mute Swans)
Individual species seen.
The following photographs are nearly all presented in the chorological order of sighting
East to West (beach East of the Marina to end of the Undercliff Path (East Saltdean)
Jackdaws Corvus monedula UK conservation status: Green. These jackdaws are showing evidence of breeding. Jackdaws are unusual amongst corvids in that they will nest in crevices in cliffs. This is a human-made crevice; the ceiling of the crevice is concrete, presumably the casing of a former water pipe.
This bird is holding a twig , evidence of nest-building, although there didn't seem to be any nests on the ledge on which these two jackdaws are perching. It is easy to mistake the Jackdaw for a small crow at distance I find, but when you can see the distinctive silvery sheen to the back of its head, it is a Jackdaw!
Oystercatchers. Haematopus ostralegus UK conservation status: Amber. I frequently observe Oystercatchers along the foreshore of the undercliff, foraging for molluscs and crustaceans at low tides when the foreshore is exposed - mostly eating mussels, whelks and limpets. There is no suitable roosting or nesting sites along the undercliff so the Oystercatchers here are daily tidal visitors for forage; they probably travel form nearby sites, perhaps from the Adur estuary where there is a sizable resident population.
This is a video of foraging behaviour I saw on 13.03.20 of an Oystercatcher eating a limpet
Curlew Numenius arquata UK conservation status: Red. Curlews are extremely rare sightings on the Undercliff, as far as I know; I have never seen one there before. It is probable that this bird is a passage migrant on the way from somewhere else to somewhere else (e.g. Europe to Northern England). Curlews mostly breed in the UK on wet grasslands and moorlands in northern England, Wales and Scotland.
Herring Gulls. Larus argentatus . UK conservation status: Red. Despite the ubiquity of Herring Gulls in Brighton, Herring Gull populations have decreased in the UK; we are very lucky to have so many beautiful Herring Gulls in Brighton. The plumage of the gull below tells you that it is at least two years old; as the the plumage of first-winter and second-winter herring gulls is different; see: Herring Gull Bird Facts | Larus Argentatus - The RSPB
This is one of many Herring Gulls I saw (216); I saw them preening, foraging, sitting on the undercliffs walls, sitting on the tops of the cliffs, around cafes, and flying.
Little Egret. Egretta garzetta. UK conservation status: Green. I rarely see Little Egrets along the undercliff, but they are not rare in Sussex. The Little Egret "first appeared in the UK in significant numbers in 1989 and first bred in Dorset in 1996. Its colonization followed naturally from a range expansion into western and northern France in previous decades. It is now at home on numerous south coast sites, both as a breeding species and as a winter visitor." Little Egret Bird Facts | Egretta Garzetta - The RSPB/ Although Thomas Bewick, in his History of British Birds, the first field guide to birds in Britain, identifies Little Egrets as a British resident bird in 1804, in the The History and British Birds Volume II: Water Birds; he may have been mistaken and was referring to historical sightings
Little Egrets have the most beautiful large yellow feet I think.
Fulmars. Fulmarus glacialis. UK conservation status: Amber. The cliffs at Ovingdean and Saltdean are a well-known breeding site for Fulmars; up to the mid eighteenth century they were not known outside the off-shore islands of St Kilda (north west of Sctland). Whilst Fulmars are now common in the UK they are relatively rare in the South East.
"An increase in food discarded by commercial fishing has been suggested as a contributing factor to the spectacular growth in numbers and distribution of northern fulmars in Britain and Ireland and the North Atlantic. Prior to the mid-18th century, they bred in only one or two colonies in Iceland and in St Kilda (Western Isles). They then expanded their breeding range around the coast of Iceland and onto the Faeroe Islands and in 1878, formed a second British colony on Foula (Shetland). Subsequently, they have spread around Britain and Ireland and NW Europe and across the Atlantic to Canada. Throughout most of the 20th century numbers rapidly increased but during the last 15 years of the century this rise ceased with declines recorded in some areas.The environmental change which is most likely to have affected northern fulmars since the 1970s has come from a decline in the North Sea whitefish industry and a corresponding decline in the amount of offal discharged from its fleets – a trend which is likely to continue." Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) | JNCC - Adviser to Government on Nature Conservation
I am recoding my sightings of Fulmars systematically through this breeding season: my observations can be found on this blogsite at https://www.simelliott.net/fulmars-2021
Rock Pipets. Anthus petrosus UK conservation status: Green
I frequently see solitary Rock Pipits between the Marina and Saltdean; they are normally solitary and I typically see one to four birds on the journey. Of late I have seen breeding behaviours with pairs undertaking pair-bonding and apparent nest-site exploration. Rock Pipits "breed around the coast where there are rocky beaches and most of the birds which breed in the UK are residents, with only the young birds dispersing once they become independent. Some birds arrive here from Norway to spend the winter." Rock Pipit Bird Facts | Anthus Petrosus - The RSPB
Here is a photograph of two Rock Pipits displaying pair-binding behaviour at the same location. taken on 15.03.20
I am fascinated by birds' behaviours. I derive as much pleasure from seeing a new-to-me behaviour displayed by a bird as I do from seeing a new-to-me species. On 15.03.20 I watched the Rock Pipit below for a considerable time. Initially it stood on the top of the sea wall at Ovingdean, making short flights into the air of about 6 inches high repeatedly. After a while I realised that it was doing: it was catching small seaside flies (Thrips). It hopped down the steps to the beach, carrying on making mini flights to cacth them.
I wrote a short article on my sense of connectedness with Rock Pipets for the March edition of the Brighton Friends News ; the Monthly Publication of Brighton Quaker Meeting which can be accessed at Brighton Quaker Newsletter March2021.pdf (brightonquakers.co.uk) (It is in an appendix to this post)
A few more Jackdaws, because I love them:
Stallings. Sturnus vulgaris. UK conservation status: Red
I only saw one Starling this Saturday. I normally see about five or six on the cliffs. Starlings are more apparent on the cliffs close to roosting time; I am unsure whether they join large murmurations before larger collective roosting or whether they remaining in small groups on the cliffs to roost; they may also nest in holes in the cliffs; I have not seen evidence of this yet.
I did not take a photograph of the starling I saw on 20.03.21, but it was singing, so possible it was a male trying to attract a mate. Here is a photograph I took on 15.03.20 of a single Starling singing. I have to date only seen them perching on the cliffs in isolation. Starlings are relatively common garden birds, although I never see any in my garden - although I do seem them regularly on aerials, telephone lines and chimney pots on around East Brighton, but the Starlings' dramatic decline elsewhere makes it a Red List species.
Rock Doves / Feral Pigeons Columba livia domestica. I saw several Rock Doves/Feral Pigeons, possibly inspecting possible nest sites on the cliffs. We tend to see feral pigeons as birds of towns and cities; and as a bit of pest; whilst we see doves as noble symbols of peace; but Feral Pigeons and Doves are the same species. What we think of things is influenced by what we choose to call things. Domestic pigeon are descendants of wild rock doves who used rock ledges and cliffs for roosting and breeding. The dove of peace is basically a white pigeon; the nearest we have to wild white doves in Brighton is the Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto (nearly white). I did not take any photos of Feral Pigeons/Rock Doves on 20.03.21; but here is a photo I took of some on 02/03/20 on the cliffs at Saltdean
I find Feral Pigeons both fascinating in their behaviour and beautiful.
Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus UK conservation status: Amber.
Black-headed Gulls (which don't have full blacks heads in their winter plumage) are talented surfers: when the sea is choppy in a heavy wind, it's the Black-headed Gulls that surf the waves when Herring Gulls are flying above the choppy sea. Here is a Black-headed Gull on the relatively still sea of this Saturday.
(This a picture taken on the return leg of my journey, at Saltdean: I was too busy counting the many Herring Gulls, when I saw some Black-Headed Gulls to photograph them. This picture is out of the chronological sequence)
Here is a picture of a Black-headed Gull (in winter plumage) surfing a choppy sea on 03.01.21 (near the mouth of Shoreham Harbour arm).
and here is a Black-headed Gull flying in a strong wind, just west of the Marina a few weeks ago (13.03.21)
Great Black-backed Gulls Larus marinus UK conservation status: Amber
Not to be confused with the Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which is - surprise, surprise - smaller. I frequently see Great Black-backed Gulls ay Ovingdean, on the groyne near the café, which I did on on 20.03.21. They are majestic looking birds, and are the largest British gull.
(This a picture taken on the return leg of my journey, at the Marina: I was too busy counting the many Herring Gulls, when I saw the pair of Great Black-backed Gulls to photograph them at Ovingdean. This picture is out of the chronological sequence). There is more on Great Black-backed Gulls to come in the next section.
West to East (end of the Undercliff Path (East Saltdean) to Marina (including Marina)
I saw all of the birds listed above again on my return journey; however I saw considerably more Fulmars, ca. 10. I have noted since I first saw them in January that their numbers fluctuate considerably; sometimes there are none; sometimes there are some, and sometimes there are up to 20. When I have seen Fulmars they are either perched of the cliffs singularly, or more often in pairs, often displaying pair-bonding behaviour; and sometimes in groups of 3 or 4. Frequently I see Fulmars flying out to see making short circular flights and returning to the cliffs without landing. After watching this behaviour for a couple of months I think the not landing is the consequence of the difficult of landing (i.e. changing uplift from the cliff according to the weather, the difficulty to of calculating speed and angle of descent), which results in many landings being aborted and then retrying, on multiple occasions. I have never seen the Fulmars foraging off the sea along the undercliff, and the literature on Fulmars reports that Fulmars often fly many mile from their nesting sites to forage (see end notes). They can fly 6200km in 15 days to forage in the mid Atlantic; which may explain the fluctuating numbers of Fulmars that I see.
The following photos and video are of flight behaviour - there are multiple photos of some birds
On the way back I also found these Fulmars right at the top of the cliff near Ovingdean, seemingly using a cavity formed by topsoil erosion, although this possibly was originally a rabbit burrow (as there are many rabbits living in the narrow strip of land at the top of the cliffs between the cliff edge and the A259 coast road).
Great Crested Grebes. Podiceps cristatus. UK conservation status: Green
I have never seen Great Crested Grebes off the coast by the Marina before 20.03.21; although they are common nationally. On 20/03/21 I saw five (in summer plumage); a glorious site. I checked with members of the Shoreham and District Ornithology Society and Great Crested Grebes winter off our inshore coast in good numbers, with some birds wintering from northern Europe.
The Great Crested Grebe is a rare success story in terms of being brought back from near extinction (32 pairs) to a healthy breeding population (ca. UK breeding:4,600 pairs; UK wintering:19,000 individuals). However, the initial cause of their near extinction was the use of their feathers for clothing; the threat to all birds from habitat loss and climate change is a threat of infinitely greater magnitude; however, the recovery of the Crested Grebe population is a ray of hope, because it shows what can be done with focussed campaigning.
' Up until about 1850 the species was distributed across much of central and eastern England but the latter half of the 19th Century saw the breeding population reduced to as few as 32 pairs. The reason for this dramatic change in fortunes was the Great Exhibition, at which the furriers Robert Clarke & Sons exhibited the pelts of four birds in full breeding plumage. This led to the development of a trade in which the pelts were used as a substitute for animal furs in boas and muffs; the feathers were also used in the millinery trade. Successful campaigns against these trades led to a succession of bird protection acts that ultimately saw the population recover.' Great Crested Grebe | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology
and some more Black-headed Gulls (near the Marina), as I love them
abd some more Great Black-backed Gulls (in the Marina) as I love them
Cormorants. Phalacrocorax carbo. UK conservation status: Green
Here is a cormorant fishing for thrown-away fish around the fishing boats of the small fishing fleet in the Marina; I often see Cormorants here. However this Saturday I saw a behaviour from the Great Black-backed Gulls which I haven't seen before; the gulls effectively "mugged" the cormorant each time it came up from a dive with food, taking the fish from its beak when they could. This time the cormorant "decided" to emerge further from the gulls, not to be mugged. Well, did he decide, in terms of cognitive planning, or did he respond to a situation that it had been in before with a learnt behavioural response from a repertoire of learned behaviours, the learnt behavioural response to sensory input (the sight, sound, smell and/or tactile feeling of a gull too close), or was it just chance (luck)?
On other occasions I have seen larger groups of cormorants in the Marina. I saw twelve cormorants in one group on one of the quays in the Marina, some drying their wings in their distinctive way; on 08/01/20:
Another Herring Gull!
This gull found a discarded small flat fish in a net next to a moored fishing boat. It eventually swallowed it in one gulp; enormously expanding its throat to to do so
Herring Gulls are the swallowers of extraordinary things; and sadly their ingestion of micro plastics from the sea is a significant threat to Herring Gulls and all marine life.
Camphuysen et al. (2008) were interested in finding out what the breeding gulls of Texel, in the Netherlands, were eating, so they collected and studied the regurgitated pellets that the gulls produced. ... They analysed 3876 pellets By far the majority of pellets contained the remains of 'expected' prey. That is, the remains of bivalves, crustaceans and fish, and it really should be emphasised that virtually all of the pellet contents represented prey of this sort. However, Gulls are highly opportunistic, highly adaptable birds that don't seem shy about 'experimenting' with novel or risky prey, and the study also revealed a really interesting list of anomalies. Evidence for the ingestion of berries, grapes, fly larvae and snails was recorded. One juvenile Lesser black-backed gull had been fed rat-tailed maggots by its parents, but these evidently disagreed with it and it regurgitated them intact (Camphuysen et al. 2008). Potentially less harmless were the plastic or metallic food-wrappers eaten by gulls, including cheese and sausage wrappers, metallic tubes and bottle tops .. Bits of elastic, foil and paper were also discovered in some pellets, as were balloons. As is hopefully well known, marine birds are routinely eaten huge quantities of floating plastic these days, and are dying as a result. This is not a trivial problem: there are indications that some populations, and probably some species, are being seriously affected by this.
... But then we get to the really weird stuff: in a study as large as this, quite a few anomalies were found. One gull had swallowed the legs of a small plastic doll. Another one ate a plastic squid-like fishing decoy (which is not so surprising, as the object looks like a real squid). 16 small army figures had been swallowed by one gull , hence the reference to a 'whole army' in the article's title (note, however, that the toy soldiers were little ones, not the more typical 50-mm-tall ones we're used to). Another gull had eaten a whole medal (still with complete ribbon attached ...), and another one had swallowed a whole mobile phone] (Camphuysen et al. 2008). Mobile phones, medals, a doll's legs, an entire army... is there anything a gull won't swallow? | ScienceBlogs
Pied Wagtail. Motacilla alba. UK conservation status: Green
Pied Wagtails belong to the group of birds, like the Oystercatcher and Turnstone, whose names tell you an important characteristic feature of their behaviour. I don't often see Pied Wagtail on the path between the Marina and Rottingdean, but I do see some regularly on paths in the Marina (where there are many food outlets) or at Rottingdean near the café, possible suggesting that they like locations where humans have left crumbs of food. When I see Pied Wagtails there are mostly dashing about on paths or areas of concrete looking for food, as can be seen in this video and photo:
on the path between the berths and the cafes in the Marina.
I have seen 100s of Pied Wagtails on the beach immediately to the west of the Marina gathering before dusk before going somewhere to roost. I have not discovered where these birds roost, but they can be seen gathering to roost most days, flying backwards and forwards between that beach and the waste ground due north of the beach. When the Wagtails are on the beach it is extremely difficult to spot them as they blend in with the pebbles. Here are some of the Pied Wagtails gathering before roosting on that beach on 01/02/21/
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, UK conservation status: Red
Whenever I walk past the flats in the Marina in the late afternoon I am struck by the loud calling of House Sparrows in the hedges, shrubs and tress around the blocks of flats. Sometimes they are heard but not seen; but there must be several hundreds of House Sparrows in the Marina's hedges.
All the birds that I have mentioned so far do not depend on humans, in fact, for most of them, human activity has resulted in population decline. The House Sparrow is different; it is an anthrodependent species; their survival depends on our exitance.
"Human activity has had a dramatic impact on life on earth, both negatively and positively with respect to biodiversity. With the advent of agriculture and establishment of more permanent settlements following the Neolithic revolution, came the creation of novel niches that a number of species have been able to utilise. Species that have adapted to a life in anthropogenic surroundings, ranging from pests such as bedbugs or head lice to the precursors to domesticated animals, have had a profound impact on our own societies. ...
Anthrodependent or human-commensal taxa [taxonomic groups of any rank, such as a species, family, or class] differ from domesticated species in that humans do not play a direct role in their reproduction, i.e. they do not experience artificial selection. Archetypal examples include our most common rodents such as the house mouse and black and brown rats that have spread with agriculture, colonialism and urbanization . Such species were likely predisposed to use human resources as opportunistic scavengers and subsequently adapted to a dependent relationship with humans. ...
Anthrodependent species may act as bioproxies for our own history . The distributions of human-commensals are largely linked to human activity and their evolutionary history should reflect large-scale human movements. House mice populations of the northern and western British Isles harbour an mtDNA lineage that is also present in Norway, suggesting mice were likely transported to the regions as stowaways on Norwegian Viking ships . ...
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a ubiquitous human-commensal bird species occupying cities and farmland where it feeds on food waste and crops. Its native range covers Western and Central Eurasia; however, due to deliberate and accidental introductions by humans, its current distribution also encompasses Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. It is strongly associated with human settlements with a clearly human associated ecology; the species is known to go locally extinct in abandoned settlements.
House sparrow human-commensalism is thought to have arisen once in the Middle and Near East with the Neolithic revolution . The species likely spread with the subsequent introduction of agriculture and establishment of fixed settlements in Europe" Signatures of human-commensalism in the house sparrow genome | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)
Sparrows indicate clearly that humans are part of the ecology of the planet; we are not separate from Nature; we are part of Nature, for the good and ill of other species.
House Sparrows, despite being the most commonly seen garden bird in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2020, are declining - they could eventually become extinct. They are a salutary reminder that just because we see a lot of a species in our gardens does not mean that that species is doing well nationally in terms of their previous numbers; the same is true of Bumblebees.
"UK house sparrow populations have fluctuated greatly over the centuries, with a gradual decline during the last 100 years. Causes for the rapid recent declines, particularly in urban and suburban environments, remain largely undetermined, although research is underway that aims to establish the cause(s), and develop conservation solutions. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to changes in agricultural practices, particularly the loss of winter stubbles and improved hygiene measures around grain stores.
House sparrow numbers were not monitored adequately before the mid-1970s. Since then, numbers in rural England have nearly halved while numbers in towns and cities have declined by 60 per cent. Because of these large population declines, the house sparrow is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern". House Sparrow Population Trends - The RSPB
House Sparrows are the birds I see most in my garden; they are an everyday part of my life; I feed them, and count them every day (with the BTO Garden BirdWatch), and they are currently nesting in the eaves of our house. Here are some feeding on the day of the RSPB's Annual Big Garden Bird Watch (31.01.21)
The future of all the red list birds I have discussed in the post, including House Sparrow, is in our hands; if we want to still see them in the world we need to act to conserve them. Perhaps adopting some of the practices of the amateur naturalists of former years (in you are lucky enough to live near wild green spaces), who walked through the land around near where they lived regularly, noting what was there, may offer a template for engagement with nature now, and increasing pro-environmental behaviours today. It is not necessary to travel miles to see nature, it is all around us, even in towns and cities where the recreational parks developed in the nineteenth centre still offer the opportunity to see nature in urban environments (see: https://www.simelliott.net/post/park-life-more-than-pigeons-bird-watching-in-queen-s-park-preston-park-and-st-ann-s-well-gardens)
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Appendix: "Nature, Well-being, Conservation and Spirituality"; my article from Brighton Friends News; the Monthly Publication of Brighton Quaker Meeting, March 2021
During the Covid-19 pandemic much has been said about the importance of nature for our well-being. I have walked and cycled to watch birds, and “bathe” in landscapes as much as I can during the pandemic. Before the start of the 2011 lockdown, I regularly cycled to parts of the Sussex coast to watch marine birds and enjoy seascapes and estuary ecologies; seeing Lapwings, Turnstones, Redshanks, etc. The natural patterns of the flora and landforms of estuaries became very important for my well-being. When the lockdown regulations prohibited travel outside your local area, I felt bereft; and feared a decline into sadness (as I have had episodes of depression). However, I decided to make a virtue out of a necessity. The one journey that I have to make is from my house to Rottingdean (as I am my Mother’s carer, and she lives there).
Before January 5th, my trip to Rottingdean was functional, not nature-focussed, although I noted the self-declaring “big nature” of the route; Herring Gulls, Great Black-Backed Gulls, and Black-Headed Gulls flying, and the distinctive calls of Oystercatchers, heard but not always seen, as I cycled along. I decided from that point to attend more to what was on that route; it has been a revelation. By giving myself more time to stop and look, rather than just journey through the ecology of the undercliff, I have noted Fulmars nesting on the cliffs and flung out to sea (their flight pattern distinguishing them from similar-looking Herring Gulls); Pied Wagtails foraging on the beach; a single Rock Pipit foraging on the path at Ovingdean (which I see on every journey along the Undercliff); Little Egrets (with their huge yellow feet) fishing in rock pools, and even a majestic Grey Heron perching on an old groyne.
Various reasons are discussed in psychology as to why immersion in nature has well-being benefits, including:
• Reducing negative thoughts: attention to nature provides a distraction from troubling thoughts, which can be explained as a process of immersion/flow (being so absorbed in something that troubling thoughts do not occur) or mindfulness (a focussed attention on an object of contemplation, with conscious acceptance of, but non-engagement with, troubling thoughts
• Joy: noting beauty promotes joy
• Meaning. Purpose and value congruence, i.e. identifying and deepening the value in an activity that you undertake. I record my observations - uploading them to the citizen science conservation projects e.g. Bird Track (British Trust for Ornithology).
• And for me there is also a sense of well-being that comes from feeling part of a bigger picture; a deep connection with nature. This could be conceptualised in a scientific way – feeling part of the interconnectedness of the eco-system of the Undercliff environment, or in a spiritual way – feeling part of the divinity of nature; both perspectives are compatible.
Each time I make the journey from my home to Rottingdean I look out for ‘Rocky’ the solitary Rock Pipit (right) that forages on the cliffs, path and beach just before the Ovingdean café. I feel a deep sense of connection with this single bird. I recognize this Pipit; I get off my bike and look at him/her and photograph his/her behaviour. Sometimes the Pipit looks at me and I believe this bird recognises me, and this may not be magical thinking.
Douglas J. Levey, et al., in a 2009 article in "Urban mockingbirds quickly learn to identify individual humans" (US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) noted that “Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) nesting on the campus of a large university rapidly learn to assess the level of threat posed by different humans, and to respond accordingly”. John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University, was quoted by Jackie Grom as saying "It's amazing what a bird brain can do… the[se] findings expose the subtle interplay between the natural and human world. Most people assume that birds are minding their own business, ... when in reality they are quite in tune with the people passing by". That Bird Knows Who You Are, American Association for the Advancement of Science ScienceMag, May 18, 2009."
Animism beliefs (that animals have souls and personalities) were a key part of “primitive” religions and are central to many indigenous belief systems. Post-enlightenment rationalism has dismissed animism; but animism – or at least a deep connection to animals (individually, in groups or in general) – is a key motivation of pro-environmental behaviours. Developing an individual relationship with a wild animal (in a way that preserves the dignity of that animal and does not damage its habitat) may have global outcomes.
Theodore Roszak identified loss of an animist sensibility as a significant cause of both ecological crisis and existential discontent. ‘[I] call for a democratic and dialogical ecopsychology capable of engaging with other-than-human agency as well as the full spectrum of human vulnerability, and [I] argue that contemporary animist responses to dualism and transcendental spirituality need to attend to extra-ordinary experience.’ Brian Taylor. The generosity of birds: Ecopsychology, animism, and intimate encounter with wild others. European Journal of Ecopsychology 6: 1-22 (2018)
If you want to read my blog posts on nature, conservation, well-being, and philosophy, they can be accessed at: https://www.simelliott.net/. You can follow my nature photographs, mostly of birds, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/simelliott-nature-photos/
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