Girton Birdwatch - September 2006
Last month, when writing about the trapping of chaffinches for singing contests, I assumed I was dealing with an historical situation and, thankfully, so far as Britain is concerned, that is the case. However, I was dismayed, as I assume most readers of this column will be also, to read in the August edition of Bird Watching magazine that a group of Belgian politicians are planning to reintroduce bird trapping in the Belgian region of Flanders. In June, a so-called 'finch decree' was presented in the Flemish parliament by MPs of the Liberal and Christian Democrat parties, proposing the legalisation of the trapping of finches for singing competitions until 2013. This initiative is apparently the result of complaints to their local MPs by 'bird lovers' about the alleged poor quality of the song of captive-bred Chaffinches. The would-be trappers use as evidence of this, a current English study recording a difference in singing intensity between captive-bred and wild finches. Alex Hirschfeld, from the German Committee against Bird Slaughter (CABS), states: 'The study in fact proves that the song of Chaffinches in the wild is based on strong sexual selection stress'. The volume and intensity of the calls help the females in the wild to estimate the quality and health of potential partners. In captivity, where pairing as a result of random natural selection does not occur, the musical quality is at best of average quality. Hirschfeld continues: 'To use this rather banal biological fact as reason for the reintroduction of bird trapping is outrageous and completely frivolous'. CABS, together with the Royal Belgian Society for the Protection of Birds (RBSPB), has begun a protest action, the details of which may be found at http://tinyurl.com/h9les, which allows one to either sign the RBSPB online petition (drafted in Flemish) or send an e-mail yourself to the political parties involved, text provided in both English and Flemish.
On a far happier note, we have had Humming birds around the village. Sorry, that should be Hummingbird hawkmoths! However, many people who have watched this insect hovering in front of a flower as it feeds on nectar, mistakenly believe they have seen a hummingbird in Britain. The moth unrolls a long tongue which it uses, as a hummingbird uses its beak, to suck nectar from flowers. The first time I saw this moth, masses of them, was in the Cevennes, Southern France, where they were feasting on that well-known 'butterfly bush', the buddleia. That was 15-20 years ago but, more recently, I've encountered them on St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly and, a few years ago, in the garden of the Red Lion, Histon. Now, John McGibbon has reported seeing one in his Thornton Close garden.
The Hummingbird hawkmoth, a day-flying moth, is about one and a half inches long with a wing-span of two inches. It has a brown, white-spotted abdomen, brown fore-wings and orange hindwings. The wings beat so rapidly that, as John will testify, they produce an audible hum and can be seen only as a blur. They migrate here from southern Europe, often flying as far as 100 miles a day, arriving here from June onwards. Some arrive every year in the south of England, but rarely survive the winter. In good years - and this must surely be one - they spread throughout the British Isles and sometimes they breed here, in which case the caterpillars feed on bedstraw. The new generation of moths either migrates back to the Continent or dies in the winter. Eggs are laid on lady's bedstraw (so-called because it was used to stuff mattresses in the past) and similar plants in July and August. Hummingbird hawkmoths frequent parks and gardens well-stocked with flowers and are particularly partial to red valerian, honeysuckle, jasmine, buddleia, lilac, escallonia, petunia, phlox and - in Thornton Close - geranium.
Talking of migration, the Girton Swifts left for Africa en masse on 1st August. If you saw large numbers - 30-40 birds - over the Rec and NIAB land on the 6th, as I did, these were probably not 'our' birds, but northern migrants stocking up for their journey south, August being a month of heavy hirundine (Swallows, Martins) and Swift, passage through the UK. One of the best ways of becoming aware of migrants is to count the birds you see at sites you visit regularly; any large increase in the norm when it comes to numbers is a sure sign that migrants are present.
The small group of Whimbrel observed on the stubble field opposite the Milton Tip recently (D.H.) was probably a migrant party on its way south; they never winter here. The Whimbrel is a smaller version of our largest wading bird, the Curlew (which most people will recognise, not least because of its distinctive call). The Whimbrel can be told from the Curlew by its quicker wing-beats, shorter bill and entirely different call - less evocative and eerie than the larger and more common bird. It is a whinnying, rippling, tittering peal very unlike any of the Curlew's usual calls. At close range the Whimbrel is also distinguished by the bold striping on its head: a pale streak sandwiched between two streaks of dark brown.
For me this year so far has been characterised by absences: I didn't hear the Cuckoo; I've not seen a Hobby and have yet to see any Spotted Flycatcher.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com