A monstrous interest in our native birds

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Small (and doubtless sticky) fingers thumbed through the book again. It was my favourite, with all the very best dinosaurs in it.

Across pages filled with plus-size font, pastel-coloured herbivores and carnivores were busily engaged in bloodless combat.

It was the Ladybird 1989 first edition of Dinosaurs – glossy hardback –
which described ‘a large number of these exciting creatures’.

The book also showed how fossils formed, how palaeontologists found and interpreted these fossils and how birds were now thought to be relatives
of dinosaurs.

My eyes (swimming behind ultra-thick NHS glasses) slid from the large typeface, up through my grandmother’s sparkling patio doors, and out to the bird table.

Scabby sparrows and blackbirds were tugging at bits of dry bread. Wood pigeons bimbled fatly around its freshly creosoted base, pecking at the
fallen scraps of scraps. It wasn’t exactly the cretaceous out there.

But maybe birds were worthy of a second glance. Perhaps, upon closer inspection, interesting ghosts of their more glamorous past might still be discernible. I picked my nose, thoughtfully.

Fast-forward to 2019, and birds have delighted me for 30 years. Everything they do is intriguing. The satisfaction that I get from watching birds go about their business is mere shorthand for the uncountable riches that a love of nature has conferred.

My life has been better, more interesting, more fun (not to mention more eccentric) because of birds.

No surprise, then, that I love being on Tiree, where they zoom in and out of my day with joyous regularity.

But this isn’t the case everywhere. Many species that are locally abundant in the Hebrides face precipitous declines elsewhere in the British Isles. On the Cheshire farm where my father lived, the glitzy swooping of lapwing and the burbling crescendo of curlew have dwindled to a tragic silence.

Standing in those ragged fields, all I hear instead is the dull, exhaust-fumed banality of commuter traffic. This loss happened in my lifetime: we loved to watch the birds, but now they are gone.

Last week, I visited Tiree Primary School to talk with some of the younger children about lapwings, oystercatchers and ringed plovers. By teaching them about ground-nesting birds (and how to keep their tiny families safe when enjoying the countryside), I hope the children might want to look closer.

Next time they see a lapwing, oystercatcher or ringed plover, maybe they’ll have their own ‘dinosaur moment’ – and be enthused and empowered by the knowledge of its name.

Fabulous posters were dutifully produced for the ranger service office – to educate island guests about our vulnerable ground-nesters and how to help them. Admittedly, some young artists adopted quite a firm stance on the issue.

A personal favourite depicted ringed plovers, gathered in a demure family unit at the head of a beach. Above them, in the screaming white void between the bottom of the sky and the top of the dunes, the words ‘STAY AWAY OR WE’LL GET ANGRY!’ were boldly inscribed.

Protecting birds on Tiree is all the more important because of declines elsewhere. Encouraging people to stay alert to distressed adults, to keep their pets under close control and to avoid driving off-road away from marked areas helps to safeguard nests and nestlings against accidental disturbance, damage or predation.

But the problems faced by these species are highly complex, and they are national.

Nature makes our lives richer. It enhances our existence however (and however much) we choose to engage with it. A less diverse world has a negative impact on all of us – not just binocular-toting bird nuts like me.

Biodiversity is linked to the health and functionality of our ecosystems, the security of our food supply, the quality of our immediate environment and our emotional wellbeing. Perhaps saddest of all, species loss insidiously prunes away opportunities to enjoy the magic of discovery.

When I first saw dragon-green lapwings swatting the air above their secret nests, it left an indelible mark. At heart, I’m still that 1980s kid in bottle-bottom glasses, slack-jawed with amazement at how very beautiful they were.

So, as you enjoy the countryside between April and August, please spare a thought for my beloved ground-nesters. They’re really up against it – and every considerate act will help to secure their future. Be alert to anxious parent birds, and move carefully away if you’re disturbing them. Keep your pets under close control so that eggs and chicks aren’t hoovered up. Don’t off-road drive away from signed areas, where eggs and baby birds might be hidden.

In the words of John Buxton, a prisoner of war who passed his Second World War captivity studying redstarts: ‘What mattered to me is that the redstarts lived, and lived untroubled except by their own necessities, where I could see them.’