For the Birds: Our Avian Friends Compile Amazing Flight Records, While Most Humans Remain Grounded by COVID-19
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Dear readers, I hope you are safe and well on this July Sunday, on what should be a fine summer’s day throughout the northern hemisphere.
For today’s post, I have chosen a feel-good topic. I don’t know about you, but the relentless drumbeat of depressing world news weighs on me – as I’m sure it does on many if not most of you.
COVID -19 continues to spread – lin part because countries have failed to absorb the best practices followed in Asia, and too many – I’m looking at you, big Tech and big Pharma- are more interested in grifting that quelling the pandemic. Not to mention that various aspects of the world economy are in the process of collapse. And civic unrest proceeds in the US — whether it be mask scofflaws, or riots in our cities: Louisville, Portald, Seattle. Having just finished compiling the daily Links for today, I’m well aware there’s precious little good news to report.
The Guardian, however, yesterday published a cheery piece, British birds’ long-distance feats and longevity are revealed, discussing some amazing feats of British birds. Although a small quibble: I am not sure it’s kosher to appropriate human nationalistic labels and apply them to birds. Surely the disease of nationalism is a human construct, and it is ludicrous to assign birds a nationality, particularly in a piece that discusses their remarkable geographic flying range?
But I digress. Back to the article.
Britons love their birds. And in fact, IIRC, at least 1 out of ten is ’twitcher’ – what they call birders or bird watchers on the eastern side of the pond. I picked up the hobby from my English husband back in the 1980s and I always port my bins with me wherever I may happen to go.
Over to the Guardian:
Flying around the world may have become an unappealing prospect or a distant dream for most people during the coronavirus crisis.
If you are a Manx shearwater, however, there is no limit to your long-distance travel, and one of these small seabirds from the Hebridean isle of Rùm was last year clocked journeying more than 7,564 miles from its Scottish breeding colony to the seaside resort of Las Grutas in Argentina.
An arctic skua from Scotland flew to Brazil – a straight line of 6,845 miles – while a swallow covered at least 6,400 to reach South Africa. A sanderling and a sandwich tern also made journeys of a similar length from Britain to South Africa.
How do we know these things? Well. volunteer citizen scientists collect the information. Again, over to the Guardian:
The records were collected thanks to uniquely numbered rings fitted by volunteers to more than 1 million birds in Britain during 2019, enabling individuals to be identified for the rest of their lives.
The records, collected by the British Trust for Ornithology, provide insights into the remarkable migrations of birds but also the human and climatic pressures they face – and their longevity.
Several species set new age records in 2019, including a fulmar humanely caught on Scotland’s Sanda Island found to have a ring that was placed around its leg 41 years, 11 months and 17 days earlier. A siskin captured and ring-checked near the village of Tarbet in Argyll and Bute was found to have been ringed at the same site in 2010, making it the oldest known individual of its species.
A 50-year-old Manx shearwater caught by a ringer on Bardsey Island in Wales in 2008 holds the record as the longest-living wild bird in Britain after being ringed on the same small island in 1957.
The collection of this data is not just an idle pursuit, but allows policies to be made to protect birds. As well as allows for the publication of reports such as these, APEP 4 – Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The thought did occur to me that this tracking may hurt individual birds. As it happens, the BTO has studied this issue, Effects of tracking devices on individual birds – a review of the evidence and found the answer depends on the invasiveness of the tracking device, and these have improved over time to reduce their impact on the birds tagged and tracked.
As twitching and surveying is an outside activity, and can be done easily while socially-distanced, it can at least in theory continue throughout the age of COVID-19 – especially on a pleasant English summer’s day. I see from BTO’s website that some of that survey work is now partially suspended and subject to government guidance about outside activities in their geographic regions. Let us hope that this type of activity can continue again at its pre-COVID-19 level, now that the UK is slowly emerging from its lockdown policy.
As to the work already undertaken and recently reported, according to the Guardian:
“Without fitting birds with uniquely numbered rings and monitoring their nests we wouldn’t be able to follow their lives and our knowledge of them would be much poorer,” said Rob Robinson of the BTO.
“The data gathered by our fantastic volunteers help us to determine whether species are in trouble and, if they are, at what point of the lifecycle the problems are occurring.”
Of 1,047,521 ringed birds, the most-ringed species was the blue tit, not known for its epic migrations. Second was the blackcap, traditionally a summer migrant which is now increasingly seen during winter because of global heating and the lure of garden bird feeders.
Crowdsourced Observations Throughout the World
It’s not just in the UK, but throughout the world, that much of what we know about birds is based on the daily observations logged and posted by local birders. People do their counts and it’s a rare birding lodge, national park, or wildlife refuge that doesn’t keep some records of such things. Many individual birders also compile their own life lists – a comprehensive count of all the species ever seen.
And each year, various local Audobon Societies organize the annual Christmas Bird Count to observe and log local bird populations, giving us a worldwide snapshot of bird life on a particular day. No government gets involved, no funds change hands, but still, millions and millions of volunteer birders show up to survey local bird populations. When I can, I’ve participated in counts wherever I might happen to be on the day – various places in the US, Peru, India, and on a couple of memorable occasions, Whistler, British Columbia.
That was doing my ski bum days, and I always took time off the slopes to help the locals record bird life on count day. The treks were difficult, as much of the valley was submerged under deep snow at that time of year and most of the routes forced a slog through deep snow. The bird life was scant. And a good thing it was. Because the leader of the local birding group was a mad partisan of black Russian Mix. So his convention was to make everyone down a shot of his favourite tipple at day’s end when we gathered to compile that year’s count and whenever we found a bird that hadn’t been seen before on the Christmas count. Each year, we logged no more than a couple. I can down a shot when necessary – and actually enjoy it -provided it’s something I like to drink: single malt, armagnac, cognac, vodka. I was happy we never recorded more than one or two new birds during our evening report. Black Russian mix is well and truly vile!
I envied the people who got to do the Christmas count down the hill in Squamish – a winter roosting site of American bald eagles. That was an easy count, strolling along the river, where thousands of pairs of bald eagles could be spotted. What a sight! And I doubt there was any black Russian mix involved.