28 October 2012

Autumn Migration of Garden Birds. A Sad Story

Images from Spurn Bird Observatory

I am aware this blog is where I routinely reveal my ignorance of the natural world, but today’s disclosure is damning ... I didn’t know garden birds migrate across the sea.

Yes, I knew of heroic geese and astonishing swallows, and David Attenborough has explained the epic journeys of arctic terns a number of times, but I didn’t realise little suburban brown birds fly across the North Sea and English Channel. When they disappear from my garden after producing the year’s chicks I thought they simply left the city to live a less pressurised life in the surrounding countryside. I had visions of them chirping in a hedge in Alderley Edge; never thought they were eating worms in Worms (see what I’ve done there?). Admittedly my Mancunian robins may be doing just that, but many, many garden birds arrive on British coasts during the autumn months.

As an example here are reports from Spurn Bird Observatory on the Yorkshire coast:

23rd October

“14 Woodcock, 8 Swallow, 5 Rock Pipit, 5 Grey Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail, 700 Robin, 14 Black Redstart, 1 Redstart, 1 Whinchat, 5 Stonechat, 1 Wheatear, 43 Ring Ouzel, 1250 Blackbird, 1580 Fieldfare, 80 Song Thrush, 1870 Redwing, 4 Mistle Thrush, 14 Blackcap, 61 Chiffchaff, 1 Willow Warbler, 515 Goldcrest, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 2000+ Starling, 44 Chaffinch, 367 Brambling, 7 Siskin, 3 Lesser Redpoll, 1 Lapland Bunting.”

I’m shaking my head with wonder. 515 Goldcrest! 700 Robin! 1250 Blackbird! I didn’t know.

Unfortunately, this new nugget of knowledge entered my consciousness for a sad reason. On Friday the RSPB reported fishermen on the south coast had seen tired birds struggling across the sea with many not making it at all.

“An appalling combination of fog and winds around England’s coast this week have created terrible conditions for migrating birds, with some fishermen reporting to the RSPB the deaths of many exhausted and disorientated ‘garden’ birds plunging into the sea around their vessels.”

“One respondent, a professional boat skipper, said: “While fishing about 10 miles south of Portsmouth, we witnessed thousands of garden birds disorientated, land on the sea and most drowning. Species included goldcrests, robins, thrushes and blackbirds. The sky was thick with garden birds. I estimate I saw 500 birds die and that was just in our 300-yard sphere. On the way home we just saw dead songbirds in the water: it was a harrowing sight.”

“Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. He said: “The scale of these reports are truly shocking, and it has the potential to adversely affect the status of species which may be declining for other reasons.”

This is the official account of what had happened, presented in a neat easily understood fashion. I notice the news has got to the other side of the world, with it already being reproduced in Australian news. The overall story is of bad weather – climate change – yet again devastating populations of vulnerable animals. It is interesting that this news story coincides with the wider media getting hold of the ash-dieback story. Sadness upon sadness. “The end of the world is nigh”.

But what of the hundreds of birds coming across the North Sea without any apparent problems?

Putting my ‘I Know Nothing, But ...’ hat on I wonder whether what was admittedly a tragic event on the south coast in reality counts as a normal occurrence for birds every year and throughout the world. Fog and high winds have always occurred in autumn. Evolution has engineered it that in autumn birds fly across the sea to Britain to escape the cold continental winters. This has been happening ever since woodland birds have existed in Europe. For 10,000 years?

Here is what actually happened in the words of some of the fishermen who witnessed the event (found on The Solent Fishing Forums).

23rd October
“The fog and mist must have completely disorientated then as they were flying in all directions and some of them were completely knackered flying very close to the surface of the sea.

Several landed on the boat, we had goldcrests, thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and robins all over the boat, sitting on rods and anything they could get a purchase on.

The sad thing was a large number did not make it and we saw loads going into the sea, while trying to get to the boat, and struggling on the surface before succumbing to the sea and drowning. It was pretty awful to watch and there was nothing we could do.”

“Was a shame about the little birds we had them landing all over us as well, also saw them landing on the water for a rest with there wings and tail feathers spread out then would take off again a short while later, didn't see any drown.”

25th October

“For anyone with concern for birds it was a dreadful day, to see the poor little blighters go into the sea was quite distressing. They were being attacked by the gulls as well so they stood little chance.

There was also Gold Crests, Willow Warblers and Starlings in trouble.”
Source  (face blanked out for privacy)

Certainly sounds horrible doesn’t it? And these are men with a firsthand knowledge of nature. Again ‘I don’t know’ but I would imagine they’ve seen some disturbing things while out at sea and wouldn’t be so bothered. In fact one contributor to the forum said, “get a grip of ya’self boys.” But then came the shell-shocked reply:

“You had to be there to see it for yourself, it was not something I would like to see again.”

It must have been a terrible thing to see. One of the fishermen on the forum said he had contacted the RSPB and got a reply. Compare what they said to him to the words of their official news report.

“Many Thanks for your enquiry, we have had a number of reports of this.

At this time of year the UK is receiving a large amount of migratory birds fleeing colder weather in Europe and heading to the UK to spend the winter, most of these birds will not be resident UK birds but European breeders so the effect would probably be more devastating to Europe, however most of the birds you mention are not of conservation concern and their numbers are doing really well so hopefully this will not make too much a dent in population numbers.

Obviously what has happened here is extremely devastating for each individual bird, these birds must have become disorientated (due to the weather) during their migration and struggled to find land, exhausted they must have simply given up which is a real shame, the good news is that all over the country on our coastal reserves are reporting many thousands of Thrushes, Goldcrests, Robins etc turning up which suggests that many have made the migration and are doing ok.”

An interesting contrast isn’t it?

What I get from this episode is that Nature is a force that inexorably moves through the world indifferent to the concerns of humans, be that fund chasing charities, sentimental fishermen, or ignorant gardeners ... or little brown birds.

RSPB report
The Solent Fishing Forums
Photos of Birds At Sea