Category Archives: Birds

Travelling by numbers


By George McKinney

Number 200 was rather special, and not just because it was the target-number.  The weather was hot and sticky as we were visiting the Delta de l’Ebre (Ebro Delta for non-Catalans).  Not even the mosquitoes could spoil the view out over the browning rice fields and past the large-tired machines needed to harvest the crop.   Come to think of it, number 190 was rather fine too as I swam on my back in the hotel pool and looked up into the skies above Rodalquilar in Almeria, Southern Spain.   But, of course, number 1 was the reason I started this list as it acted as a trigger for this one-year experiment.

We all remember places we have visited in different ways.  This year many of my memories have numbers associated with them; as you can see.   By now you may have guessed that the bird, a Black Stork which had deviated from its more usual territory and flew over our cortijo in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Southern Spain on the 1st of January, inspired me to keep a list of all the bird species I identified throughout the year.   That is why this year’s travel memories are associated with my progress towards listing 200 different species.

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Across the water to the Farne Islands


At Seahouses we found a pay and display parking space amongst the bucket-and-spade shops and award winning fish and chip restaurants, and made our way through the ice cream slurping crowds towards the collection of ticket shacks down by the harbour. We wanted to go to the Farne Islands – that scattered collection a couple of miles off the Northumberland coast – but other than that we had no preference for which of the companies competing for our custom would take us across the water, so we picked based on size of queue and the picture of the boat on the side of the ticket shack.

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From Hermsdorf to Rosenthal – a walk across the top of Berlin


The first section of our walk took us along the busy road from Waidmannslust S-Bahn station and into Hermsdorf, past garden centres and discounter supermarkets, a couple of rough and ready corner pubs and an organic grocers, before we ducked through the railings where the Tegeler Fließ passes beneath the main road and within a handful of footsteps we had left the traffic behind and were left only with the sound of birds singing in the trees. We had been here before, a few months ago in fact, when it looked as if spring was upon us as we explored the old village of Hermsdorf before picking up the trail down by the river, but this time we really had moved beyond winter, and our walk would take us further as well.

We made our way alongside the Hermsdorfer See before the path became a wooden walkway along the bottom of pleasant gardens, raised on stilts above the soggy bog of the wetlands that spread out from the river bank in either direction. Here the Tegeler Fließ is two things… it is incredibly bendy, twisting this way and that, and it also happens to be the border between Berlin and Brandenburg. From the division of Germany after the Second World War until the events of 1989 and the reunification of 1990 this was an international border, although the planners building the Berlin Wall obviously did not fancy doing battle with the swamp and so set their fortifications further to the north, which left one bank of the river and its wetlands technically part of the German Democratic Republic, but sitting on the West Berlin side of the concrete and barbed wire barrier.

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Something about birds


Illustration by Julia Stone

Our feathered friends have become the number one topic in our house, thanks to it being the current project in Lotte’s first grade class. As well as the fact that each walk to school now takes twice as long as we try to identify the various sparrows, tits, blackbirds, ducks, crows and pigeons along the short stretch of the Panke river we walk along to reach the U-Bahn station. She has a book as well, a lovely thing from the RSPB that has pictures of the most common birds and tick boxes so that she can start her collection. In school the project allows the teacher to cover all kinds of things, from reading and writing to drawing and maths, without the kids cottoning on that they are actually learning. Because after all, birds are fun.

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Ghosts of Gone Birds

Ghosts of Gone Birds is about raising a creative army for conservation through a series of multimedia exhibitions and events that are concerned with breathing artistic life back into extinct birds species, whilst raising awareness of those species that teeter on the edge of extinction but can still be saved. Over 120 artists, writers and musicians took part in the London phase of the project, which featured a couple of events in the English capital last November.

Alongside the events, the website features a gallery of images by the different artists involved, a shop where you can buy limited edition prints (including some wonderful drawings by legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman) and a series of “Ghost Stories” in association with BirdLife International as part of their Preventing Extinctions programme. Here’s an example:


Dying at a rate of around one every five minutes, the albatross family is fast becoming the most threatened family of birds in the world. In fact, they are disappearing at a rate faster than they can actually breed – so 18 out of the 22 species of albatross are now facing global extinction.

BirdLife International set up the Albatross Task Force to work with local fishermen in countries throughout the world to introduce new practices that would reduced the life-threatening danger to seabirds.

And as a result, in countries like South Africa there has been a 85% decrease in the number of seabirds caught in fishing lines.

It is the combination of the creative with the campaigning that gives Ghosts of Gone Birds such a persuasive message, and it will be really interesting to see what they have planned for future exhibitions and events. You can see a complete list of the artists involved in the project so far here.

Giving my right arm: Tristan Reid

This was sent to us by Ian Wright, a good friend of Under a Grey Sky, and we think that not only is this for a good cause, but a fairly unusual and distinctive way of raising money, so we would like to wish Tristan all the best with his efforts:

I have set myself a rather unusual challenge to raise funds for the Turkish wildlife charity DogaDernegi. After a recent wildlife holiday in southern and central Turkey, I fell in love with the country. The amazing biodiversity, awesome scenery and fantastic culture meant that it had a huge impact on my life.

On return to the UK, I was devastated to learn that the Turkish government had sold off all the country’s waterways to private corporations. There are now over 2,000 dams being built and over 1,730 hydro-electric schemes planned. The impact this will cause is disastrous. Not only will the habitats of one of the most biodiverse countries in the Western Palearctic be damaged beyond repair, but many small communities are likely to be displaced, thus destroying these traditional micro-cultures.

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RSPB Marshside, Southport, UK

Chris Hughes on the birds of Marshside at the Ribble Coast and Wetlands Regional Park:

The River Ribble flows from Yorkshire via Settle, through Clitheroe and Preston in Lancashire and out into the Irish Sea between Lytham St Annes and Southport, a total length of 75 miles.  It is tidal for 11 miles up to Preston and the estuary is 10 miles wide.

Up to 340,000 water birds over-winter on the Ribble estuary making it the most important wetland site in the UK.

In the 1960’s the last new sea bank was built north of Southport using household rubbish for the core of the bank and later the coastal road was built on top. Finished in 1976 it enclosed a large area of salt marsh which later became fresh water marsh. In 1994 the RSPB leased the marsh from Sefton Council and the RSPB Marshside Nature Reserve was created.

The reserve is now part of the Ribble Coast and Wetlands Regional Park, and is recognised as internationally important for several species of waterfowl.

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What’s in a view?

George McKinney reflects on how we appreciate what it is we have before us, from the sun setting behind the island of Rhum to a Sea Eagle making graceful progress across the sky:

Of course the simple answer to the title-question is; whatever you see.  Line ten people up to watch the sun set behind the Scottish island of Rhum and you will find that each will see something different and the process of sharing their thoughts can add something for everyone.

This process is only disturbed if any of the ten argue to impose their own perspectives on the others or if one person adopts a position that seeks to degrade any other person’s contribution by suggesting that s/he is not competent to appreciate what is there before them all.

In his book, ‘How to be a bad bird-watcher’ Simon Barnes excellently captures this sentiment and defends the importance for individuals to have confidence to simply enjoy what they see.  If a bird is seen and the watcher marvels at its colours or actions, then that is absolutely fine as an end in itself.  The same is true for the feelings and thoughts that an individual might have when watching that sun go down behind Rhum.

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Our Garden Birds by Matt Sewell


We found this film thanks to Caught by the River. Not only does Matt Sewell’s Our Garden Birds look absolutely lovely, but I think this is one of my favourite examples of “book trailer” that I have seen. It seems to have become a new trend. Anyway, the animation at the end is superb and the book looks as if it will be as well.

Take some time to explore Matt Sewell’s website as well, for more examples of his work as well as his bird illustration of the week.

Searching for the Trumpeter Finch

By George McKinney:

The south east corner of Spain is the only place in Europe to find this sparrow-sized bird so we started our search near the village of San Miguel del Cabo de Gata.  Shingle beaches stretch several miles west from the pueblo towards the old fishing village of El Retamar, in the direction of the Almeria Airport and the newer tourist centre of El Toyo.  A short distance in that direction we happily spent time scanning the Ramblia Morales and enjoyed seeing White-headed ducks, flamingos, egrets, crag martins and, although it is ‘impossible’ according to the bird-books, we spotted the white rump and square tail of a Little Swift which visited the ramblia just as we did, then flew off east along the coast.

In that direction beyond the pueblo lies a 400-meter wide sand-bar which separates the Mediterranean sea from the still-operational Salinas of Almadraba de Montelva. This large area of wetland habitat is designated as a Special Protection Area for birds [SPA (1989)] and as a Wetland of International Importance [Ramsar (1989] so we spent happy hours overlooking these Salinas in good hides and watching a fine variety of ducks and waders in the shallow water, and warblers and larks in the scrub along the edges of the pools. Continue reading