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Birding in Britain

by Margo Hearne

As we stepped into the view blind in Minsmere our voices dropped to a whisper. We crept to a viewing spot and peered out onto the 'scrape' or wetland, scanning for migrant shorebirds. The door creaked as people came and went quietly. There was none of the cheery discussion one encounters in Canada, no shared sightings, wide open spaces and distant horizons. In Britain most of the natural bird use areas have been lost to development and protected areas have been designed and managed to protect what few wild species remain. Those who enjoy birds and want to find concentrations of them have to go to theses controlled areas. Viewing blind 'etiquette' has developed and when I accidentally banged by scope against the door I felt like a common criminal and slunk silently to my seat.

Minsmere is the premier sanctuary or 'reserve' of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the United Kingdom. It is carefully managed and controlled to protect birds and control human access. The Society has been an outspoken advocate for preservation since it began in 1889. It was initially formed by a group of women working to oppose the slaughter of birds for feathers which were used to decorate fashionable hats. The Society's aim has widened over the years and they now manage 113 nature reserves and have a budget of over $25 million. Many of the species we saw at Minsmere were similar to those seen in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary in Masset, with shorebirds feeding among the dabbling and diving ducks.

Very few of the nature reserves in the UK are untouched by human hand. For instances, following our trip to Minsmere, my sister and I travelled an hour or so to Havergate Island in the River Ore in Suffolk. Previous to 1939 the original salt flats had been drained to create meadows for cattle grazing and during the war the island was used for military practice. When the RSPB purchased the island in 1948 a major management regime was undertaken to restore some of the original salt flats. Six shallow artificial lagoons were created to and water levels are now constantly monitored, controlled and altered to cater to various bird species at different times of the year. Vegetation is sprayed to control it and the island's perimeter is reinforced with concrete blocks and sandbags to prevent natural erosion. Blinds have been built near each of the lagoons for optimum viewing. A bird 'hotel' has been created which requires vast amounts of time and money to maintain with full time staff on hand year round. Havergate is probably an extreme example of the efforts made to restore once pristine areas, however, every reserve we visited requires continuous and ongoing maintenance. The RSBP has saved many birds from extinction in the UK and the cost has been tremendous. It is only through the work of the many volunteer groups and individuals that both fundraise and financially support the RSPB that it has been able to continue.

Havergate Island was beautiful. The sun shone as we wandered along the trails. Wild sea lavender provided a carpet of blue and butterflies floated from flower to flower. It felt exclusive, and was, as it was only through my sister's membership in the RSPB that we were allowed to visit. Sometimes it seems as though birds and birdwatching are not really free here.

After leaving Havergate Island we drove to Weeting Heath National Nature Reserve north of Cambridge, one of the very few nesting sites for the Stone-curlew in the UK. The Stone curlew is a stocky shorebird with large yellow eyes. Neither of us had seen one before and it only required a slight detour on our way home. Twilight was falling. Stone-curlews are active at night so we had high hopes of seeing one. Weeting Heath is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, "part of The Wildlife Trust, a nationwide network of local Trusts working to protect wildlife in town and country," (NWT brochure). After parking we read the notice listing both bird and butterfly species recently seen. Our bird was listed. We paid $5.00 and hurried to the viewing blind and scanned the large, stony heath, alive with rabbits. It took a little time to find the Stone-curlews but we were delighted to see six and two chicks! Our day was made.

Bird watching in Britain is very different from birding on Haida Gwaii. The human population of England is in the millions and there are few undisturbed places. Financial assistance from government, is poor and groups rely almost entirely on private donations to continue the work of protecting both birds and their habitat. The coastline of Britain is dotted with small reserves and almost every river has a protected site. Despite this, bird numbers are steadily declining. The Corncrake, once common, is now endangered and even Skylark numbers are decreasing. Recent research indicates that birds cannot hear one another singing over traffic noise along the motorways. Bird song is critical to successful breeding and even little "Jenny Wren" is disappearing. On a positive note, interest in protecting birds is high and where once highway verges were sprayed to kill encroaching vegetation, now trees are planted and wild grasses left to grow. It may not be too late to turn things around but i cannot help thinking that, compared to the UK, the Islands of Haida Gwaii are a bird paradise.


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