Thursday, 7 April 2011

The past is a foreign country...

...they do things differently there.

Thankyou to LP Hartley for my nicking of his opening line in 'The Go-between'.

It's as good a summing up of how our birding, and the birds, have changed in what is a fairly small time span. The first time that I had any of my observations published, they appeared in the 1976 Surrey Bird Club annual report. I've got a copy in front of me. The illustrations look dated and are but approximations of the species they depict, but at the time were admired. There are four plates of photographs - all black and white - and tellingly all but one of the six photos are of birds at the nest. So far so Victorian.

The systematic list is revealing. Very few scarce, let alone rare birds. Cormorants were scarce away from the winter months. There were but four records of Common Buzzard (I can see that many soaring over my garden at the same time now); a Marsh Harrier was the first in the county for ten years; only three sightings of Peregrine were recorded; Grey Partridge was still widely breeding and largely ignored; 30-40 pairs of Lapwing bred; passage Ruff numbers were bouyant; the highest counts of gulls were insignificant compared to todays glut; a single Mediterranean Gull was the fourth county record; breeding Turtle Doves didn't even merit a round-up as they were 'many'; there were seven records of Wryneck; Hooded Crows popped up regularly enough in the winter months; Willow Tit was present in at least 22 areas - today it is extinct; Grasshopper Warblers could be heard reeling at a minimum of 11 localities (try and find one this year and you'd be doing well); Wood Warblers were recorded in the breeding season at 27 localities - if you subtract 27 from that number you'd be close to the population now; Spotted Flycatchers were 'widespread'; Tree Pipits likewise; Yellow Wagtails still bred at three localities; the entry for Red-backed Shrike reads 'Sadly it is perhaps worth recording that for the first time this century this species was not recorded in the county at all'; Hawfinch was to be expected in small parties in central and southern Surrey, including 5 pairs in Priory Park, Reigate; Corn Buntings were recorded from at least 16 widespread areas, including a gathering of 60, plus a scattering of breeding records - since 2000 there have been four rcords in the county; Cirl Buntings were still clinging on at Pewley Down, but as any latter-day Surrey lister will tell you, they are now rarer than Glaucous-winged Gulls in the county. There were no records of Red Kite or Little Egret back in 1976...

These changes have all happened in 35 years. To me, that's not a great deal of time. To younger readers it must seem like several lifetimes. I would love to pick up a copy of the 2046 Surrey Bird Report to see what another 35 years will do to our bird life. No Turtle Doves. No Spotted Flycatchers. Massive twitch for a Marsh Tit. Big counts of Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egrets and Fan-tailed Warblers. I'd be 87 then. I wonder if I can last that long and find out?

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