Friday, January 4, 2013

Is this pessimism or impatience?

Immediately previous to Christmas and up until the New Year I indulged in what I would call relaxed birding, a few surveys , but nothing terribly organized. Repeatedly it seemed "things were very quiet"! Now it's always difficult to explain that up here, given the various and convenient iconic birds that are present. How can things be "quiet" when there are species Golden Eagles, Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese and three species of divers to be seen.?  OK, so it's necessary to think of the comment as referring to numbers, but also variety too in some respects.

Over Christmas and more recently I had the opportunity to talk to various people about birds when , invariably, the same subject cropped up. Have we reached a critical point where bird numbers have actually gone down so far that the situation is beginning to be apparent generally, as opposed to more locally or in the very noticeable absence of a particular species from the nearby woodland or whatever. Have we now reached a situation where there are noticeably fewer birds in ALL the regular habitats we visit?

Now it would be easy for me to say, Yes, and do the old boy bit by saying, "I can remember when...", but I think it's more relevant to try and refer the question to more recent times and within the memories of a bigger majority!  I know we keep being told that the populations of certain species have declined, some drastically so , even to the point of disappearing from traditional local spots. but are we going to be faced with searching out , say, Song Thrush in as determined a way as ,say, a Turtle Dove?  Perhaps not quite yet, but it feels a bit that way. I was dismayed to hear a comment from a friend who lives in an idyllic part of England say that, when it comes to birds, the area is like a green desert!

An interesting situation arises when considering Islay.  Regular visitors are adamant in saying there are fewer birds about than, say, ten years ago. Set that against my having been here thirteen years now and confidently saying that, by and large, little has changed. Habitats are intact, even particular and favourite sites are still present and unchanged. There's stubble fields in winter and an increasing trend for island farms to grow "local" barley for the distilleries may even have boosted the total area available. So we are less likely to see reductions in some senses compared to other places. An oasis with fewer influences of change. But is that true?  Looking at our wintering Greater Scaup flock on Loch Indaal then it's plain that the numbers, particularly over recent winters , have reduced substantially. But within those times we've had several waste water improvement schemes take place and new regulations no longer permit the direct offloading of effluents from distilleries into the loch ( lucky Scaup! ).  Accumulative effects that doubtless have had a quite far reaching influence on the feeding ecology of the loch and made it less attractive than previously, But, of course, not necessarily caused an absolute loss of birds, which could simply have moved elsewhere. So we've to be a bit careful how we interpret events.

By contrast, what has happened to Grey Wagtail?  Largely a resident but increasingly being seen far less than previously and with numbers of migrant birds being fewer in number too. What of Linnet and of Meadow Pipit?  Are changes simply reflections of different seasons or something else? I've thought for the last couple of seasons that breeding numbers of these have been noticeably down. Many of both species move off for the winter, but Linnet flocks have been a feature of most winters until more recently when they've been notable by a virtual absence. The list could go on and on, but I do wonder whether, even here, things have finally begun to bite. It's an interesting exercise to apply to the area you know best and to realistically appraise whether it's more difficult to see particular species than ever it was before. Weather, food availability, poor breeding seasons all affect such assessments and I suppose it's easy to get alarmed at what is no more than a temporary change. I've always felt cocooned to some great extent due to living here and  being at a distance from the major influences of change. But have those changes elsewhere even begun to have an influence on this oasis?  Much will be revealed by the results within the much anticipated new BTO Bird Atlas but, in the meantime, I hope it's me who's simply being impatient (not an unknown quirk I'm told by some!! ). 

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