Wednesday, 19 December 2018

More about gulls- and a really good book

After I wrote my blog-post about 'seagulls' last week ("Seagulls" and another green area in North Ormesby) a couple of comments by friends on Facebook made me realise that I still had a bit of work to do to convince people that gulls are anything other than flying nuisances that exist to cause annoyance for humans.

Then yesterday, completely unconnected, I picked up a book I started reading earlier in the year and hadn't quite finished. It is called Field Notes from a Hidden City - An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (and incidentally it is one of the things that inspired me to start writing this blog). Esther Woolfson lives in Aberdeen, in the North of Scotland and this is a lovely book, tracing the course of a year and describing affectionately, but also scientifically, some of the creatures, plants and wild places that she encounters in and around the city and even in her house.
Just by chance (it's a few months since I last put it down and I couldn't remember where I was up to), my bookmark was in the middle of a passage about urban gulls and how unjustly vilified they are. Rather than try and paraphrase it I am going to quote sections of the entry from the 11th of August (page 313-322).

On the playing field of a school near the centre of town, a collection of infant gulls is resting on the grass, twenty or so of them, their parents lying nearby, or padding around them in the careful way they do. A row of soft-feathered, grey-brown chicks stands neatly along the edge of the roof of an old garage on the periphery of the field, lined up one by one on the moss-covered grooves… I watch them for a while, this peaceable, domestic scene, adults and chicks dotting the grass, pursuing their social, complicated lives.
This is gull season, even more than the other seasons in this sea-edge town of harbour and fish-houses and long-term city-gull residences. All year round, gulls and their young are everywhere, feeding, flying, calling. The sight and sound of them are as much a part of the place as the stone or air but now is the culmination of the months of gull preparation for nesting, egg-laying and hatching, months during which there have been calls from rooftops, imperious white heads peering from among chimneys; weeks where the fledglings were being fed in the nest.
Although the gulls’ move inland has been fairly recent in other places, Aberdeen’s gulls are long-time residents, nesting on city roofs for the past fifty years at least. Among the reasons we know of for gulls becoming more urban are the usual ones, the ones we caused ourselves. Following the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956, prohibiting the burning of waste, gulls began to feed at landfill sites. In the years since, as we’ve increasingly depleted the life of the seas and filled the streets of our towns and cities with edible rubbish of every sort, gulls have moved into cities to feed on still more of the things we’ve left behind.
Most commonly, the gulls are Herring Gulls, Larus argentatus, the birds referred to dismissively, often contemptuously, together with every other large, white-and-grey coastal bird as ‘seagulls’… When I think about the word and the way it’s used, I regret that so many people in urban areas where gull numbers are increasing appear to have so little time or sympathy for these remarkable birds. It seems ironic too that a single word seagull should be used of one of the most complex families of birds to be found on earth. (pages 314-5)
Woolfson goes on to talk about the work of Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch zoologist, who spent a lifetime studying the behaviour and ecology of Herring Gulls. Although I've been hearing about Tinbergen since I was at university, to my shame I have never read his great work The Herring Gull's World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds, but after reading about it here, it is now on my list of books I have to read very soon.

Visible, audible, omnipresent, drifting endlessly in the sky above us, L. argentatus is another of the ‘urban exploiters’ who seem numerous, safe in their very existence, but who aren’t; birds whose numbers have been falling until now they occupy their own place on the ‘red list’ of endangered species in the UK.

In a newspaper article, someone complains of the sound of gulls in London, on the grounds that they ‘squawk’. ‘Squawk?’ Tinbergen writes: ‘The voice of the herring gull is wonderfully melodious…’ and I agree, it is. There are few sounds as evocative, as stirring, as the profound plaintive beauty of their calls. Tinbergen enumerates the calls of Larus argentatus: call-note, charge call, trumpeting call, mew call, alarm call, ‘choking’ and the sounds made during courtship and mating. The ‘mew’ call, the one most associated with desolation and tristesse, the call that seems to be the summation of loneliness and sorrow is, Tinbergen says, nothing at all to do with sadness, but instead ‘indicates breeding activity, with an emphasis on the friendly attitude towards mate, territory, nest and young’. (page 317)

Incidentally, other urban exploiters who seem to be numerous and free from danger include our two most archetypal city birds - the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), both of which, along with the Herring Gull,  are on the most recent version of the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (Birds of Conservation Concern 4), because of how steeply their numbers have dropped in the UK in recent decades. 

Field Notes From a Hidden City - An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (2013) is published by Granta Publications and is still available from bookshops (you'll probably have to order it) or online.

The Herring Gull's World: A Study of the Social Behaviour of Birds by Niko Tinbergen (1953) was published by New Naturalist, with the most recent edition being from 1990. 

[NOTE - The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced following London's Great Smog of 1952, which, according to government estimates was the direct cause of at least 4000 (possibly up to 10,000) deaths]

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Weeds and wildflowers revisited

During my recent visit to Henry Street Rec (see Seagulls and another green area in North Ormesby )
I photographed a couple of undistinguished-looking little plants which most people would classify as weeds but which I think are worth looking at nonetheless.

The first, Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum) was growing at the side of the main path near the entrance on Henry Street. This is one of a group of small, white-flowered plants in the family Caryophyllaceae (the Campion family) which fill some botanists with dread but which I really love. In early spring I can often be found with my head down and my bum in the air looking at one or other of these little beauties with a hand-lens (for some reason, some people think this is rather eccentric behaviour).  
Sadly lacking its pretty little white flowers at this time of year, Common Mouse-ear  may get  its name
from the shape of its leaves. A single plant can produce as many as 6.500 seeds.

The other plant, Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) is one of the many yellow-flowered plants in the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae). It can be a troublesome weed of arable crops and looks quite similar to Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) from which we get the mustard seeds that we use in cooking.

Charlock - Sinapis arvensis

"Seagulls" and another green area in North Ormesby

Seagulls are a bit like grass. That may sound like an odd statement but the thing they have in common is that a lot of people think that there is one thing called grass and one thing called a seagull.
In fact there are  about fifty species of gull in the world of which seven are common in the UK (and many more that can be seen here more infrequently) while grasses are even more diverse with about 12,000 different species worldwide of which over 200 have been found growing wild in the UK. I might talk more about grasses (which I think are amazing) in a future blog but gulls are my main focus today.
A couple of weeks ago I visited a small park near to my house and took some photos of what I found there. The park is called Henry Street Rec ('Rec' is short for Recreation Ground) and it is just around the corner from my house. I recently learned a bit about the history of the  Rec. This part of North Ormesby used to be a very popular place to live, with houses on McBean Street, which faces directly onto the park, being the most expensive in Doggy. Then at some point (I haven't been able to find out exactly when - if you know, please leave a comment below) toxic waste was found under the surface of the field and, overnight, fences went up around the park with "Hazardous Waste" signs stuck to them and nobody was allowed in. The toxic material seems to have been left over from some industrial works that used to be on the site. This situation lasted for a long time and nobody wanted to live on McBean Street, or the nearby roads, anymore. Local people say that it caused the death of North Ormesby and made it into an undesirable area.
The hazardous material was eventually cleared away and the park restored but many people still think of it as 'the toxic site', years after it has been turned back into a lovely open space with a wide area of mown grass as well as some wilder areas with trees, bushes and long grass,

One of the first things I saw was a Common Gull, which was being very faithful to one small patch of grass next to the St Alphonsus Primary School field. The Common Gull, despite what you might think, is not our most numerous gull and there are some authorities that say that it gets its name from the commons, or public grazing land, where it could be seen in the winter. This medium-sized gull has a yellow-green bill and legs and a grey back. Its scientific name, Larus canus, means Grey Gull.

The 18th Century English naturalist John Ray suggested that this bird should actually be called the 'uncommon gull', although it is now a frequent sight on school playing fields in the winter - often far from the sea
Very near to the Common Gull, but unfortunately not close enough to get both species in one picture, were a couple of Herring Gulls. This is probably the species that most people are thinking of when they talk about 'seagulls'. It is fairly similar looking to a Common Gull but is a larger bird, with a lighter grey back and it has a red spot on its beak. 

The Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is part of a very complicated group of
closely related species found across the whole northern part of the globe
At this point a Lesser Black-backed Gull flew overhead, and I managed to get an in-flight photo of it. As its name suggests this species has dark wings and back but is not as big as its relative, the Great Black-backed Gull.
The dark grey/black of the upper wings can just be seen on this Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) . To be absolutely certain that this was not a Great Black-back I would like to see its yellow legs and feet
The fourth gull species that I saw at Henry Street Rec that day was Black-headed Gull. This small gull really has a chocolate-brown hood, rather than a truly black head, and only during the breeding season at that. For most of the year it has a white head with a greyish smudge behind the eye. It has a red bill with a black tip, and reddish legs. I didn't manage to get a picture of any of the 'Black-heads' I saw on that day.

These four species are the ones you are most likely to see in towns all over the UK, and none of them is actually called a seagull. In fact there is no species called a seagull anywhere in the world, unless you are using the scientific names, in which case the Great Black-backed Gull, whose name Larus marinus literally means 'gull of the sea' is the bird you are looking for. This is the largest gull in the world and can be told from the Lesser Black-back by its jet black, rather than dark grey, back and wings, and by its pink legs. Although it can be found inland it is much more commonly seen at the coast.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

North Ormesby Nature - Wilkie's Field

I was talking last week to a guy who grew up in North Ormesby (or Doggy, as it is called by local people) and he was telling me about some of the places he used to go and play when he was a kid.

One of these, Wilkie's Field (I'm not sure about the spelling), is about 200 metres from my house. The chap I was talking to, who was a similar age to me, told me that the name came from a Mr Wilkie who gave it to the people of North Ormesby. I have not been able to find anything out about who Mr Wilkie was or when and why he made this generous gift, so if anyone reading this knows more, please leave a comment below.

On the first sunny day after this I went to have a look at Mr Wilkie's legacy. It is a small (slightly over 1 hectare (1ha=100m x 100m)) area of mown grass with trees around three sides and a nice patch of fairly recently planted woodland in the southern half. The Ormesby Beck flows northwards on the western side and there is an old-looking stone wall (very overgrown with brambles) separating it from the beck. A beck, by the way, is a small to medium-sized stream in many parts of the north of England - including Middlesbrough which has several of them.

Although Wilkie's field is no Maasai Mara, and is unlikely to have any rare species of plant or animal, it is a nice little patch of green which, I suspect, is not visited by all that many people. This is probably mainly because of where it is - hidden away, behind a pub and a bingo hall, with the only access points being down a small road of fairly posh houses, or through two car parks.

Wilkie's Field from above. The blue line is the Ormesby Beck 

View from the north-west corner looking east towards the bingo hall
View from same place looking south-east

It got me thinking of my own childhood and of Lewis's Field. This was a similar area of grass and trees behind the house that I grew up in in Liverpool. I used to play there with my friend Gavin, as did countless other kids of my generation and before. It was where I saw my first Tawny Owl. It was also where my brother Simon and I met the lady who led the local Cub Scouts pack (4th Allerton, Drake Pack) which led to many happy (mostly) years for both of us in the Cubs and then the Sea Scouts, which I believe has been an important part of making me who I am now. I have lovely memories of hiding in the long grass (which at that time wasn't being mown by a cash-strapped Liverpool City Council), walking along the top of the high brick wall which ran along one side and playing in what remained of a burned-out sports pavilion (from when it was a sports field owned by Lewis's department store).

It seemed enormous to me when I was in primary school, but in fact, using the amazing free-to access technology that we all have at our fingertips now, I can see that  it was actually pretty small and only slightly larger than Wilkie's Field (13,923 sq. metres compared with 12,150 sq metres for Wilkie's Field).

You may have noticed that I am talking about Lewis's Field in the past tense. This is not just because it was forty years ago that I used to play there, but because Lewis's Field is now covered in houses. Sometime around 1980 or '81, when I was starting in secondary school, the council sold it off to a developer and with surprising rapidity, it disappeared.

Reminiscing about my childhood haunts has made me realise that we need to value what we have got, and to fight for it if we want to be sure of keeping it. By the time I was playing there, Lewis's Field was probably already doomed - it hadn't been maintained for some years, the tennis courts were long gone,  the former pavilion was a hazardous eye-sore full of broken glass and goodness knows what else, the wall I walked along was old and crumbling, and fewer and fewer children were actually using it. The campaign to save it (during which our teachers encouraged us to go there to play (on the day when councillors were coming to assess how well used it was)) was too little, too late and its demise was inevitable.

Last week, at a series of meetings over three days, about how we can make North Ormesby better, several people said that we needed more green places for children to play in. I went home on the first night and after looking at Google Earth for a while, I came to the realisation that there is actually quite a lot of greenery, from mown parks to more wild semi-natural spaces, within a few minutes walk of every house in Doggy. The problem is that people don't know about them, or they do know but in their heads those places are far away and 'unsafe' and not places they would think of taking their children or encouraging them to go on their own.

When I was making dens in the undergrowth on the edge of Lewis's Field it was still normal for kids to play out in any patch of rough ground, climb trees and cycle for miles. I know the world has changed, that roads are busier, people are much more aware of dangers that were in fact always there and kids have many more things to occupy them at home than when I was young. In many ways, the world (at least for children growing up in urban Britain) is a much, much better and safer place than it was forty years ago, but I think there is a real danger that if we insulate our children, and ourselves, from the natural world, and don't allow them to get their hands dirty, to pick blackberries, climb trees and make dens in the undergrowth they will grow up immeasurably poorer (while seeming richer, perhaps) than they might have done and they won't even know what they have lost.

                                           Some more pictures from Wilkie's Field

The planted woodland in the middle of the field - it contains several
native tree species including Ash, Silver Birch and Hazel
Hazel (Corylus avellana) coppice 'stools'. There have been many traditional uses for Hazel
including fencing, basket making and boat-building (plus the nuts which are
nice to eat, of course). Maybe we'll see some of those crafts being practiced again in
North Ormesby one day.
The tree in the middle is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior), by the way 
A clump of Hard Rush (Juncus inflexus). Its presence on the southern edge of the
field might indicate that it gets a bit boggy at certain times of year
Although much of the field is very species-poor municipal grassland, there are some patches, such as this one, with a few common wildflower species. In spring and summer this spot will be white, yellow, purple and yellow-brown with the flowers of White Clover (Trifolium repens), Daisies (Bellis perennis), Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata). To some gardeners these would all be considered weeds but to me, especially in the absence of rarer or more interesting wildflowers, they are a welcome sight and will provide nectar for the insects that pollinate them.