Sunday, 6 September 2015


WHY are there so few black or ethnic birders in this country (and probably the rest of Europe)?

The query cropped up in one of the talks at last month's British Bird Watching Fair at Rutland Water.

During  a question-and-answer  with birder, author  and broadcaster, David Lindo, who is himself of Jamaican  descent, a fellow (from Southampton)  who was also of West Indian descent, was blunt.

"How can we get more people like us interested in birds and birding?"he asked. "Why aren't more coming out from the ghetto?"

The questioner  went  on to make the point that, in Africa, many of the safari park guides and rangers are black. They speak authoritatively on wildlife and conservation issues.

His comment was borne out by many of the trade stands in the marquees at the fair. They were variously being manned by Africans, Asians and West Indians, all keen to publicise and promote holidays in their respective countries.

David Lindo reflected for  few moments but was unable to come up with an explanation except to confirm that black birders were few and far between.

Until he was well into adulthood, he himself mostly kept quiet about his interest even though it stretched back to early childhood - largely because he feared he  would be singling himself out for derision.

"And you couldn't get a girlfriend for love nor money," he recalled. "You couldn't let on about your interest until she was  hooked!"

In his fascinating book, The Urban Birder, Lindo  says more about the subject.

When his parents generation arrived from the West Indies in the 50s and 60s,  most came from rural backgrounds and had "strong relationships with their  native flora and fauna".

But once they arrived in Britain's cities, "their survival priorities immediately kicked in".

Lindo writes: "I feel that, in those days, newly-arrived immigrants were convinced that if they ended up in a quaint country village they would have been gasped at, racially abused and chased out of town by Alf Garnett-type locals.

"Forget about a stroll in the countryside to take in the chorus of yellowhammers and skylarks - having a house party or chilling with mates were the only downtime  options."

When his own interest in birds in slipped out at his school, he says he was "especially ridiculed by some of my black brethren who felt I had let the side down".

He continues: "Some of the more threatening boys accused me of being a coconut - black on the outside and white on the inside.

"That really hurt - this early experience left me wary of exposing my interest to other black people well into adulthood."

Nowadays, however, it is a different story - he flies the flag for birds and birding to whomever he meets, whatever their race, colour or creed.

In his talk at the birdwatching fair, he claimed  too much discussion about wildlife tended to involve "conservationists talking to conservationists".

He said: "Many, if not most, inner city people see the countryside as boring -  I aim to bring the countryside into the city. I try to be a conduit betwen the experts and non-experts.

"Lots of townspeople are completely unaware of the wealth of birdlife around them until you point  it out to them - then they often become fascinated."

Lindo's own favourite bird is the ring ousel, and, to this day, he still recalls with excitement seeing his first one on his local patch, Wormwood Scrubs, near the prison of the same name.

"I've seen many since because the site is on their migration path,"he said. "But that first one blew my mind!"

One bird that Lindo tends to dislike is the ring-necked parakeet  which has colonised many parts of London and the South-east.

When he was giving a talk once at the prison, an inmate asked him what he thought should be done about the parakeets now that they had become so plentiful.

To laughter from his audience, he replied: "Send them all back!"


STAYING with Lindo at the birdwatching fair, he also took a swipe at developers who have long eyed the Scrubs, which is currently designated a park, as a potentially valuable area of  real estate.

Describing the threat to his patch, he likened developers to mosquitoes.

"However many you swat, many more come back,"he declared. "They want to metropolitanise the area."

Lindo was particularly critical of London's mayor, Boris Johnson, who is encouraging these
aspirations .

"He's humungus,"he continued. "He keeps changing his position - you can never pin him down."

The session was hosted by another high-profile birder and author, Stephen Moss, who Lindoonce approached for advice about branding himself as an urban birder.

Back came the reply: "Don't bother - Bill Oddie's got the market sewn up!"

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


Diminutive - but both fierce and intelligent

A RED-backed shrike which spent the whole of August Bank Holiday (and longer) in Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, attracted plenty of interest.

Its chosen habitat was an area of scrubland, thought to be owned by ports company ABP, on the coastal side of Blundell Park - home of Grimsby Town FC.

Judging by its plumage coloration, it was probably an adult female or a juvenile.

The bird was first detected by John Nelson who has a history of coming up with gems - including great grey shrike and white-spotted bluethroat - on this particular patch which he knows well.

Subsequently, the sighting was posted on the website of  Lincolnshire Bird Club by a member, Dave Bradbeer.

Although smaller than a starling, few  birds have as fearsome a reputation as the red-backed shrike.

Also dubbed  the "butcher bird", it sometimes impales its prey - usually insects such as grasshoppers but sometimes small birds or rodents - on a  thorn known as a "larder".

So it was with this particular bird.

As perching points, it mostly seemed to favour hawthorn, buddleia, mountain ash saplings or one of the security fence concrete stanchions on the edge of the neighbouring  factory - but never the buckthorn which is widespread on the site.

 Then, at 11.20am on September 2, the shrike  was spotted in flight with what appeared to be a large insect in its bill. Moments later, it temporarily settled low down in the bush of a wild rose before flying off.

Subsequent inspection of the bush revealed a bumble bee impaled, back first, on a thorn.

The incident was a reminder of  the intelligence of the species - not only its save-it-for-later feeding behaviour but also its capacity to remember the location of its larder.

Soon after 5pm the same day, the thorn "larder" was again inspected - the bee’s corpse had gone.


Only one or two pairs of red-backed shrikes are thought to nest in the UK, and the Cleethorpes bird will probably have blown over from the continent on its migration to tropical or southern Africa.

 But writings of yesteryear reveal them once to have been so plentiful that they were quite regularly trapped, kept in cages as  pets and sometimes shown at bird exhibitions.

Writing in 1909, ornithologist and  trapper Sumner Birchley  describes them as "generally common" in southern and midland counties, especially  Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Berkshire.

He wrote: "In a rough hedge surrounding a large meadow, I knew of no less than five nests.

"I had many a good catch, but not before, in most cases, having had  taste of their formidable bills, often fetching blood, so great was their pinching power."

Mostly Birchley  would use a net to trap the shrikes, but on one occasion he resorted to using sticky lime on a twig from which, after perching, one  luckless catch  was unable to break free.

He continued:"The result was marvellous for he was caught in an instant, but I am sorry to say he lost his tale  in the melee."

As well as being illegal, such conduct now would be regarded as barbaric  and unethical. Even the though of it is enough to bring a shudder to the spine.

But times were different then. It is just possible that Mr Birchley even thought he was doing the shrike a favour in providing it with food and board  - albeit the accommodation being  a tiny cage in a shed in his garden. 

* Photo, above, of red-backed shrike by Pierre Dalous via Wikipedia)

Reached via railway crossings at  Fuller Street or Suggitts Lane, the scrubland  is close to Blundell Park whose floodlights are seen in the  background

Another view of the site - this time with a factory backdrop

The wild rose bush where the shrike made its larder

The impaled bumble bee - it was probably consumed later on the day it was caught