I have flown over Afghanistan many times – probably too many for the health of the planet – on the way to countries in South East Asia, and back. When conditions have permitted, I have stuck my compact camera against the window and grabbed some shots of the amazing mountain scenery.
Looking back at some of these images (which date from 2008 and 2015) I am struck by how beautiful this war-torn country looks from 35,000 feet. So I have chosen some of the better ones and sharpened them up slightly.
Flights on great circle routes from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, to London, have, in recent decades tended to fly on a route which (going West) passes from India, across Pakistan, Afghanistan and over the deserts of Turkmenistan. One tends to be awake on daytime return flights.
Of course, individual flight paths vary, so it is not easy – especially after a long passage of time – to determine exactly what one was seeing out of the window. Nevertheless, the map shows that this route passes over the Central Highlands to the west of Kabul. These mountains are an extension of the Hindu kush system and diminish in height as they stretch westward. Nevertheless, toward the middle, near Kabul, they still tower up from 4,500 to 6,000 meters; whilst further west, they attain heights of 3,500 to 4,000 meters.
The highest mountain in Afghanistan, Noshaq, is the second highest peak of the Hindu Kush Range at 7,492 m (24,580 ft), and is situated on the border between Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. I.e. to the north of these flight routes.
I am always excited to see amazing geographical features from the air, and my heart sinks when the air stewardesses move through the cabin closing all the window shutters, so people can sleep. I am also surprised that more people are not as excited as I am to look down upon these natural wonders!
There is no doubt in my mind that Afghanistan must be a spectacular country to visit, were it not for the rather considerable security considerations.
I am just about old enough to remember the hippies going to India on the Hippy Trail. Old, brightly painted buses, full of marijuana-puffing hippies passed through Iran and Afghanistan on their way to India, and back! One of the consequences of this hippie culture was the Afghan coat, a long sheepskin coat with fleecy collars and sleeves. I never had one!
Bird Island lies off the north-west tip of South Georgia, (Lat. 54°0’0″S, Long. 38°2’59″W) (below).
There is a small research station – Bird Island Research Station – which is run by the British Antarctic Survey, and is ideally suited – being right in the middle of a huge fur seal colony! – to study the amazing wildlife present on this small island, which is only about 3 miles long.
According to Wikipedia (the figures may not be completely up-to-date) there are, on this small island:
We arrived on Bird Island on 1st Dec 1982, having previously sailed all the way up to Montevideo and back, on the RRS John Biscoe, to collect more personnel to take south. (N.B. it was not possible for civilians to fly via the Falkland Islands at the time). See previous blog here.
Although we had a limited time at this location, and the priority was to resupply the base (see below), I was very keen to get ashore and see some of the wildlife.
We all mucked in and helped with the unloading. Parcels and supplies were carried from the scow (above), up the beach and along a temporary plank walk (below) to the base.
Because we were walking through a breeding colony of Antarctic fur seals, the large, territorial males had to be temporarily walled off behind a row of oil drums, to dissuade them from sinking their teeth into our thighs!
The large males are very splendid fellows in the middle of their large harems (above).
Once we had finished unloading, some of us climbed up the nearby hill to photograph some of the Black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) which were nesting above the base (below).
We probably came too close to these birds than we should have done (below), but none of us had long lenses in those days!
I will include a few more recent pictures of these graceful birds (below) which some photographers have donated to the Creative Commons, meaning that they are licensed to copy and in any medium or format (CC BY-SA 2.0). Otherwise photographs are usually ‘All Rights Reserved’ and cannot be copied and reused without permission (and often with payment) from the photographer. I suspect that most people who cut and paste images off the internet are unaware of these rules; but that’s getting off the point. It is just great that some photographers allow their images to be used freely, like some shown in this blog.
Unfortunately, the Black-browed albatross population on Bird Island has been in a long-term decline in breeding numbers since the mid-1970s (see graph below). It shows how numbers of birds have declined markedly since I visited in 1982.
Tragically they are often “caught on fishing hooks (bycatch or incidental catch), by longline trawlers. Read more about this terrible crisis which is decimating albatross numbers, here and here.
Another majestic bird breeding on Bird Island is the Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) (below).
There was a Wandering albatross chick wandering about the base, getting in the way of our unloading, which had to be persuaded to go elsewhere for the day!
The wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any living bird, typically ranging from 2.51 to 3.5 m (8 ft 3 in to 11 ft 6 in).
Unfortunately, it’s the same tragic story again, with Wanderers declining in numbers between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s (>4% per annum), although the rapid downturn appears to have stabilized, with numbers remaining relatively stable over the last 7-8 years, “albeit at a substantially reduced level compared with the number of breeding pairs present in the 1960s and with no signs yet of a recovery in numbers.” (See graph and reference below).
We can only hope that with more people visiting the Antarctic, and becoming aware of the fact that these magnificent creatures are getting caught up on fishing lines, or ingesting our plastic rubbish floating in the oceans, that more is done to say the thousands that are getting killed each year. Especially by illegal fishing: see here and here.
Continuing my journey aboard the British Antarctic Survey ship, RRS John Biscoe, in 1982, we left James Ross Island, heading around the Antarctic Peninsula towards Wiencke Island in the Palmer Archipelago of Antarctica. Our first destination was to be Damoy Point, a transit point, where personnel and stores were unloaded and then flown further south to the BAS research station, Rothera (Station R).
There was very little to see at Damoy (64 deg and 49 mins south) just two tiny little huts (above) and a temporary snow runway on the glacier above (see below).
It was not possible to sail all the way south to Rothera (67 deg 34 mins) this early in the season, due to sea ice, so people and supplies were flown down by aircraft. The De Havilland Twin Otters (below) flew down from Canada every season, all the way down South America and across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.
It was amazing to see these little, but highly versatile, planes landing on the ice above the huts, on the 400m skiway which ran along the spine of the glacier (below). All they needed was a row of red fuel drums to mark out the landing site.
The Damoy Point hut was established in 1975 and used until 1993/94, I think. After that date, the British Antarctic Survey started flying directly from the Falkland Islands to Rothera base (which is now Britain’s largest research station), so the Damoy Air Facility was no longer required. The hut is now designated a Historic Site and Monument, and is visited by cruise ships, I understand.
The location off the west coast of Wiencke Island, Antarctic Peninsula, was a beautiful place (above). Mount Français (2,760 m), on Anvers Island (below) loomed above the ship.
One of the nice things about arriving at Damoy Point so early in the austral season (10th Nov), was that the penguins had only just returned to their colonies (below).
Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are probably my favourite penguin and it was interesting to see them standing around on their colonies, waiting for the last of the snow to melt away.
After dropping off the people heading further south by plane, we also set a southerly course, heading for the BAS base, Faraday Station (Station F), about 40 nautical miles away. This short journey took us through one of the most spectacular places on the Antarctic Peninsula: the Lemaire Channel (below).
The Lemaire Channel is a narrow strait between the Kiev Peninsula and Booth Island, and is affectionately known as “Kodak Gap” because everybody who visits takes pictures here. It’s not hard to see why, although I have had to include a modern photograph (below) to illustrate the stark beauty. It was rather a dull day when we sailed though in 1982 (above).
The Antarctic Peninsula is a vast area of stunning natural beauty, and not surprisingly many cruise ships visit the islands and wildlife sites along this finger of land and ice. In 1982, one of the few passenger ships to visit this area was the MS Lindblad Explorer, which I had the pleasure of going aboard a few times (in 1983/84). Since then, cruising to the Antarctic has taken off so to speak (at least it had prior to the current Covid-19 pandemic). At least 50 different cruise ships, of all shapes and sizes, visit the Antarctic each year, taking some 45,000 people (perhaps less, numbers vary). It’s not hard to see why as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful and unspoiled area in the world. But it is also fragile, and the land and wildlife need protecting and managing to ensure that it is not despoiled by the many threats – climate change, irresponsible tourism, invasive species, over-fishing, mineral exploitation etc. – that an expanding human population pose to it.
We left the Falkland Islands behind us and headed south into the infamous Drake passage. I was on the RRS John Biscoe, heading eventually to the South Orkney Islands, but depositing first, scientists and other support personnel, in various locations on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Very few cruise ships visited the Antarctic in 1982, I was extremely lucky, and very excited to be visiting some remote locations before I disembarked at my final destination: Signy Island (a British Antarctic Survey research station).
We were heading due south, towards the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather was kind to us on the crossing and we were able to pass fairly close to a number of icebergs. Seeing an iceberg for the first time is very exciting, and everybody – apart from some of the older hands, perhaps – rushed out on deck clutching cameras. A lot of photographs are taken of the first few icebergs, then gradually, one learns to accept that they will be a constant feature of your life as you head further south! The vast majority of an iceberg is underwater, of course, as this amazing photomontage (below) by Prof. Dr. Uwe Kils, illustrates.
We sailed down towards Antarctic Sound, at the very tip of the peninsula, an area called Trinity Peninsula (see map below). We were heading to James Ross Island to drop off a field party of geologists, who were going to spend the austral summer working there.
It was an extraordinary experience to sail along a coast of mountainous terrain, covered in glaciers going down into the sea (below).
It was also a strange experience to sail along a coastline and know that there are no humans there, apart from a few tiny huts, research stations, at one or two locations.
There were huge areas of exposed sedimentary rocks (below), replete with fossils no doubt, that make this area so geologically interesting.
As we neared James Ross Island, we came up against loose pack ice. The sound of the ship moving through these pieces of ice is rather disconcerting: thump, thump, thump! But she was ice strengthened and perfectly capable of pushing through (below).
The odd crabeater seal was seen hauled up on an ice floe (below).
Eventually however, we came up to thick pack ice and could go no further. So, the geologists were deposited on the ice, together with their sleds and ski-dos, some 7 miles away from James Ross Island (below).
In 1982, James Ross Island was connected to the Antarctic Peninsula by the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf . However, this 15 nautical mile (28 km) tongue of ice retreated rapidly between 1989 and 1995, and finally collapsed in 1995 (below). It had gradually shrunk over time from an area of ice covering 2,000 square kilometers (in 1945), to 1600 sq km in 1957, to nothing , in 1995 (Cook & Vaughan, 2010).
The Prince Gustav Ice Shelf is just one a number of glaciers (Jones, Wordie, Prince Gustav, Larsen A) that have totally disintegrated, i.e. collapsed within the last half-century in the Antarctic. So James Ross Island looks rather different today (photo taken in 2009, below) than it did in 1982.
There has been a steady decline in total area of the ice shelves that occur in the Antarctic Peninsula, that began in the 1970s (Cook & Vaughan, 2010), with the areas of ice decreasing by thousands of square kilometers, presumably as a result of global warming. These gone-forever ice shelves have been called ‘ghost-ice-shelves‘. There were there when the first Antarctic explores visited these lands – Nordenskjold was the first person to travel in this area in 1902 (Reece, 1950) – but they are starting to disappear. Slowly breaking off and melting into the sea, which has risen by about four inches, roughly, since I made this trip in 1982!
The following beautiful photograph of James Ross Island was taken during a NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club, I think!) expedition to Antarctica in 2018. Other (modern!) photographs can be viewed here.
This part of the world is still very isolated and remote, although not quite as much so, as when I visited it in 1982. There are a few cruise ships which venture into the Weddell Sea and attempt to sail through the Prince Gustav Channel, and there is a Czech Antarctic Station (called Mendel) situated on James Ross Island, which was built in the years 2000–2006. So the Antarctic is gradually opening up to humans, but our presence is still very thin, thank God, and the animals – which I will illustrate in forthcoming blogs – mostly have it to themselves.
Cook, A. J., & Vaughan, D. G. (2010). Overview of areal changes of the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years. The cryosphere., 4(1), 77-98.
Cooper, A. P. R. (1997). Historical observations of Prince Gustav ice shelf. Polar Record, 33(187), 285-294.
Glasser, N. F., Scambos, T. A., Bohlander, J., Truffer, M., Pettit, E., & Davies, B. J. (2011). From ice-shelf tributary to tidewater glacier: continued rapid recession, acceleration and thinning of Röhss Glacier following the 1995 collapse of the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology, 57(203), 397-406.
Reece, A. (1950). The ice of crown prince gustav channel, Graham land, Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology, 1(8), 404-409.
On 21st September 1982, I boarded one of the British Antarctic Survey’s ships, RRS John Biscoe, bound for the Antarctic. I was heading for the BAS base on Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands (above and below), where I was going to spend 18 months studying the cold hardiness of the few insect and mite species that are found there.
Family and friends came to see us off at Southampton; an emotional farewell for some, especially those ‘FIDS’ who were going to be away for the full BAS tour of two and half years. The word FID, as I was soon to learn, is slang for someone living and working in the Antarctic (for the British Antarctic Survey), a term derived from the name Falkland Islands Dependencies. I was to be on board for the next three months.
It was not that long after the end of the Falklands War, (Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) and the John Biscoe had been moored alongside the SS Uganda which had been used as a hospital ship in the Falklands war (below). Strangely enough, I had spent a wonderful two weeks on the Uganda as a schoolboy, in 1970, back in the days when it was used for school cruises. But that is another story!
Our little ship (1,554 tons), the RRS John Biscoe, looks a lot smaller in these photographs, than I remember, but we felt very safe and secure in her. Her steel plates were riveted together – they don’t make ships like that any more – and she was, technically speaking, 100 A1 ice strengthened (below). More importantly, she and her crew – under the command of Captain Malcolm Phelps – had completed many journeys to the Antarctic and back (since 1956).
The Biscoe, as we called her, was a tough little ship, as we soon found out when we ran into some rough weather in the Bay of Biscay (below). Little did I know at the time, that this sort of weather was nothing at all compared to what lay in store for us further south in the Atlantic!
The journey down was a delight. We ‘Fids’ were not required to do an awful lot on board ship. There was a ship’s crew, mostly made up of tough Falkies (from the Falkland Islands), and they did not have any use for us, over than to do a bit of chipping and painting, to keep the ship looking nice.
I soon learnt that it was a ship not a boat; toilets were called the heads; forward was aft; a tea break was a smoko, and so on. Fids got to do things like sweeping the bridge and waking up the Mate at 4 am. The fact that some of us had two dgrees (BSc and Phd) cut no ice on the ship, we were the bottom of the pile on board. I didn’t mind and spent my time working – writing up a paper from my Phd research – and sunbathing.
It was a long journey down the length of the Atlantic at 12 knots (!) and it took about three weeks to reach our first port of call, Rio de Janiero, Brazil. There were no stops en route, although we did sail close to the Cape Verde Islands and the Saint Peter and Saint Paul rocks – a group of 15 small islets and rocks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean owned by Brazil (below).
Luckily there was plenty of alcohol on board (duty free!) so one of the daily rituals was to observe the sunset (below), clutching a glass of your favorite tipple!
Another time honored tradition was that of the Crossing the Line Ceremony. I can’t say that I enjoy these rites of passage, and luckily I escaped on this occasion as I had crossed the equator before on a ship.
This period of steady ocean travel was one of the most peaceful and enjoyable experiences of my life. I recall seeing a pod of spinner dolphins moving along in an opposite direction to us; the odd ocean sunfish swimming along just under the surface and seabirds of course. I am ashamed to say that I was not a bird watcher at the start of this adventure, but I was an avid birder by the time we returned to the UK (in 1984).
I probably should add, that the British Antarctic survey only recruited men to overwinter in the Antarctic in those days! Fortunately, it is a very different state of affairs these days, and the Director of BAS is now a woman: Professor Dame Jane Francis. Much could be written about this policy, which did not change for a further 10 years or so (see here: The evolving role of women at BAS) after I went to the Antarctic, but that is not my purpose here.
We eventually arrived in Rio de Janeiro about the 11 Oct 1982, and we were let loose to sample the delights of the city for a couple of days, whilst the ship refueled and stocked up on fresh food.
After leaving Rio, we headed out into the Atlantic, bound for the Falkland Islands. As a result of the Falklands conflict, we had to steer clear of Argentinian territorial waters as we sailed south. Soon after leaving Rio we ran into an almighty storm, which reached Storm Force 12 on the Beaufort scale at one point. At those wind speeds, the definition between sea and sky becomes blurred and air is filled with foam and spray. I took the following photo (below) long after the peak, when we were certainly not allowed on deck and had to lie down in our bunks wedged between the mattress and the bulk head. Even going to the toilet (sorry, heads!) was a dangerous activity.
To make matters worse, the ship gradually started to lose power during the storm. The fuel pumps started to pack up, and one by one the cylinders started to give up. Eventually we were left bobbing about in the open ocean. Fortunately, by the time the ship lost power completely, the storm had abated. The rumour was that the Brazilians had spiked (adulterated) the fuel we loaded in Rio, as an act of support for the recently defeated Argentinians. Whether this was true or not I don’t know, but it meant that we had to wait for an ocean-going tug to come out from southern Brazil and tow us into port, where we stayed for about 8 days (waiting for spare parts to be flown out from the UK).
We eventually arrived in the southern Brazilian city of Rio Grande do Sul , on 22 Oct 1982.
The inhabitants of this small city were very welcoming and it was a great experience to get a taste of southern Brazil.
Local people were allowed to visit the ship, so we got to know, and experienced the hospitality of some of them. I am sad to say that I have never been back to this part of the world, but I would like to.
After leaving southern Brazil, we sailed south towards the Falkland Islands. As we entered into the Falkland Island exclusion zone, we were buzzed by a RAF Hercules aeroplane, just checking out who we were I suppose. Early the next day, as we got closer to the islands, a Royal Navy frigate (HMS Phoebe) appeared, going much faster than our stately 12 knots.
We did not stay long in the Falkland Islands and were not allowed to wander far from the ship. The war had only ended a few months previously and there was still a lot of activity going on, most notably mine clearance operations. The only time I managed to get ashore was to get my tooth fixed by an army dentist!
Because of all the ships that were still there, we had to tie up against the burned out hulk of the RFA Sir Tristram (below), which was badly damaged at Fitzroy on 8 June 1982. It was however, still being used as an accommodation ship.
The awful damage to this ship, and its sister ship RFA Sir Galahadwas inflicted during the Bluff Cove air attacks in 8 June 1982, during the Falklands War. A total of 56 British servicemen were killed, and 150 wounded in this bombing, and is was harrowing to walk around the remains of the ship. One couldn’t help but imagine what a horrifying inferno it must have been for the Welsh Guards on board. Horrific events were suffered by both sides in this conflict.
After a brief stop in Port Stanley, we left the Falkland Islands in early November 1982, heading south across the Drake Passage, bound for the Antarctic Peninsula (which I will descibe in a following blog).
All photographs were taken by me using an Olympus OM10 film camera, using Kodachrome film. The rather ageing transparencies were digitised using a Nikon Coolscan V.
Readers of my blog may know that I am a frequent visitor to the Province of Galicia, in NW Spain. There are many reasons to visit this attractive region, tucked away on the shoulder of the Iberian peninsula: the beautiful countryside, the empty beaches, the cold waters of the Atlantic!, the cuisine, the rustic architecture, the Gallegan culture (Gallego is the native language of Galicia) and so on. But one I have not dealt with before, is the cows!
Galician cows are adorable. First of all they are such an attractive colour. The commonest breed by far, is the Rubia Galega, or the Galician Blond beef cow. Whether or not you are a meat-eater, I think it is fair to say that these animals are well-treated and seem to me to have a very comfortable existence. As these photographs show, they are usually to be seen sitting in an idyllic meadow, quietly chewing the cud, far away from any stress or hassle!
Galicia is a rural land of smallholders, with many small farms and scattered plots. Whilst agriculture in this autonomous region is becoming more intensified, it seems to be much more small-scale and self-sufficient than many others parts of Europe. Whilst that might not be good for productivity and profits, it certainly is good for cows!
Alas, this quiet, small-scale way of life is probably not sustainable in the long term. Galicia has been changing since the 1950s, but it is still a relatively poor area – compared to other regions of Spain – without too much major industry, and a largely rural economy. Many people have left Galicia to look for work elsewhere, in Europe, and the rest of the world. So, many of the traditional stone farm houses – with their characteristic slate roofs (below) have been left to slide back into the earth from which they came!
I get the impression that, like a lot of agricultural communities (the UK included), the people working the land are getting on in years. Whilst it may be an idyllic and healthy life-style for some, running a small farm or smallholding does not make much money. Yet there must be opportunities to turn this unspoiled and pristine land into high value – i.e. high quality – crops, be they plant or animal.
Galicia is a very tranquil and uncrowded part of Europe. Most foreign tourists head to the beaches on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain. The Spanish themselves know to head north (not south!) in summer, and some parts of the coast do fill up a bit in August. But for the most part, Galicia is remarkably uncrowded, the roads are largely empty (by UK standards), and the cows get to life in peace and harmony! Have I painted an attractive enough picture yet?!
There are other cows in Galicia, including plenty of black and white Friesian milk cows in some areas, and a number of rare breeds. One of the strangest is the Cacehna cow (below), which seems to be a sort of all-purpose cattle breed; it can be used as a draft animal, for milk and for meat.
Of course one reason why Galicia is so good for cows, is the grass! And the grass is good because it rains! But the climate is mild. Galicia, sticks out into the Atlantic, so expect sunshine and showers most days, and you will not be disappointed! So I’ll finish with a cow enjoying the sunshine in early June, by the sea.
The Kittiwake nests are all empty now in Scarborough; on the cliffs and in the town, the birds have all gone. Long gone. Gone to sea.
Katie did not want to go to sea; she wanted to stay on her ledge above Marks and Spencer and try all the lovely food her gull-friends on the roofs around her were eating. But it was not to be. Her parents had looked after her and fed her well all through the summer, but now they were tired and needed a break. They wanted to go to sea. Katie would either have to come with them or look after herself, but she was quite incapable of finding food. Walking about the town begging for chips, like the herring gulls, looked like fun, but she didn’t think she could do it. Her legs were too short and she was not cut out for street life. Reluctantly, she came to conclusion that Yes, it was time to go. So one day in late August they all set off.
Katie had been down to the sea a few times with her parents. She had had a go at sitting on the ocean and trying to peck at the occasional morsel that passed by, but she had never really been out to sea. She had not flown far out, far away from the land. She had just jumped in and out, and sat on the sea wall smelling the ocean and watching all the other gulls.
This time was different. Her parents looked serious and in no mood to put up with her reservations. Her Dad, Harold, said: ‘Come on Katie. If you don’t come with us now, you will sit here and starve. A Kittiwake has to go out to the sea. The ocean is where we really belong. You’ll see.’ So off they went; flying high and further out than Katie had ever been before.
A lot of other gulls were leaving Scarborough at the same time, and soon they joined up with others in a large flock, heading north along the coast. The were soon joined by some other Kittiwakes flying over from the land. ‘Where do you come from?’ Katie asked one of them. ‘Newcastle’ he replied, in a strange accent she had not heard before. ‘Ooh eye, its great there said one of the older gulls; we have nests on a bridge, high above the river’. ‘Oh I was born on a bridge’ said one of the other birds from Scarborough. ‘It’s great, you have a lovely view and it’s very safe. There were so many of us, all close together on the bridge.’ ‘Sounds just like Newcastle’ said the newcomer. ‘So we have something in common then’ he said, flying closer to the bird from Scarborough who happened to be a female. ‘Perhaps we should stick together for a while’ he smiled. Yes Kittiwakes can smile, only they can see it. Humans don’t know what a Kittiwake smile is!
In winter. many kittiwakes move in small flocks …. Some flocks include both adults and first-year birds, but I doubt if there is any kinship between the individuals, as pairs and their offspring separate once they leave the colony in autumn. (Coulson, 2011).
After joining up with all the new birds from Newcastle, Katie looked around to see where her Mum and Dad had gone. They weren’t there. She couldn’t see them anywhere. ‘Where’s my Mum and Dad?’ screamed Katie! They’ve gone!
‘You are on your own now’ said one of the older birds from Newcastle. ‘You probably won’t see them again until next year now.’
Since Kittiwakes are not fed by their parents after they leave the nest sites, successful (and rapid) dispersal to good feeding sites is probably critical for the survival of the juvenile birds. (Wernham et al., 2002).
‘How am I going to survive!’ moaned Katie. ‘I don’t even know how to catch fish!’ ‘Don’t worry’ said the older bird. ‘Stick with us and we’ll show you. You’ll soon get the hang of it’. ‘Yea stick with us’ said some of the other juveniles. ‘Our parents have left us as well! We’ll be OK if we stick together’. So off they flew; a small flock of adults and juveniles, not related, but with a shared purpose and common interest. Flying into the unknown, but armed with the instincts and adaptations millions of years of evolution had provided them with. Enough to give them more than a sporting chance of surviving in this new world.
Katie and her companions flew north helped by a strong wind blowing from the south-west. They made rapid progress and were soon up near the coast of Norway.
‘My Dad came from Norway’ said Katie, excitedly. ‘Let’s go and find him! ‘It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack’ said one of the older birds. ‘What’s a needle and what’s a haystack said Katie’, confused. ‘Forget it’ said the older bird. Stick with us and we will look after you’. ‘OK’ said Katie, looking wistfully across to the foreign shoreline they were flying next to.
‘We are going to go much further north, and then we will head over to Greenland for the winter’. Greenland sounds nice thought Katie. It should be warm there by the sound of it. Little did she know!
Some young Kittiwakes probably remain on the other side of the Atlantic, off Newfoundland and Greenland (Wernham et al., 2002).
They flew on, stopping off to rest and feed on the surface of the sea at night. Eventually the reached a new land. A strange place with huge cliffs and thousands and thousands – hundreds of thousands – of Kittiwakes. Katie had never seen so many Kittiwakes. They joined up with the huge flocks and Katie started chatting to some of the other juvenile birds.
Hundreds of thousands of Kittiwakes nest at Diskobukta on Barent’s Island (Barenstøya), Svalbard Archipelago, where they are preyed upon by Arctic foxes.
‘Where do come from’ asked one of them. ‘Scarborough’ said Katie.
‘Where is that?!’ the other bird asked. ‘It’s a town far to the south from here. I was brought up on a ledge above Marks and Spencer’ said Katie. What’s that?’ said the other bird. ‘It’s a shop’ said Katie. ‘That sells food’.
‘Are there foxes there?’ said the newcomer. ‘Well a few’ said Katie, ‘but we don’t see them much’. ‘Here the foxes try and eat you’ said the local bird. It’s a nightmare I can tell you. My sister was taken by a fox. I can’t wait to get away from the land and head out to sea!’
So off they flew travelling west this time. Soon they saw something floating in the sea. ‘What’s that?’ asked Katie. ‘It’s ice stupid! Haven’t you ever seen ice before?’ ‘No’ said Katie. It looked very strange, and she was not sure if she liked it. ‘Look, you can stand on it’ said one of her new friends’ swooping down and landing on a small lump of ice.
In winter, some Kittiwakes remain as far north as the Arctic Circle, so how do these birds feed and survive in the total darkness? The answer is not known. Some may feed behind fishing boats using floodlights, whilst others may be attracted to luminous prey. (Coulson, 2011).
Katie was born – if born is the right word for a bird which hatches out of an egg – on a ledge, three storeys up, above the back entrance to Mark’s and Sparks.
Katie’s parents had nested there for many years and brought up all of Katie’s brothers and sisters on this tiny ledge. Katie’s parents had been together for five years. Before that her Mum, Flo, had been married to another bird, Sid, but tragically he had died in a terrible storm in the mid-Atlantic whilst coming back from Newfoundland. Yes he was a Canadian.
Kittiwakes don’t need aeroplanes to cross oceans, they just fly across, stopping to rest and feed on the surface of the sea, whenever they need a break. But sometimes, even the most experienced birds get caught in a storm and perish.
Katie’s Mum waited anxiously for weeks for Sid to return, but gradually she came to realise that he was not coming back, and rather than sit and grieve for her lost love for years and years, she decided to get on with her life and make a new start.
A handsome young kittiwake called Harold had been hanging around and making eyes at Flo for some time. He was a lot younger than her, but she was a good catch, still in her prime and with plenty of valuable experience. Wisdom counts for more than youth in kittiwake lives. Harold was happy to find such a clever and wise partner and soon the pair settled down together.
Kittiwakes live for a long time. Flo was already 23 and had successfully raised 29 chicks so far. It was a big family. Harold was only 15, but together they had already had eight offspring. Katie was their ninth. Sometimes, some of Flo’s other children, all grown up now with their own partners and families, would fly over and scream a greeting. Only Flo knew who they were.
The oldest known kittiwake lived for more than 28 years in the wild. There are probably even older birds.
Harold was from Norway, and despite having lived in England for five years, he still had a slight accent. Kettiwoke, kittiwoke, he would cry, and all the other kittiwakes would laugh! Harold doesn’t know how to speak proper, they would say, before screaming “kittiwake, kittiwake” in the local accent.
Katie’s ancestors used to live on cliffs overlooking the North sea, but long ago her great, great, great great grandfather – still affectionately known in the family, as Old Bob – decided to start a new life in the town. Other kittiwakes had started to nest on ledges high up on buildings. They looked very much like cliffs to a kittiwake, but had the advantage of being much more protected and secure – and best of all, there were no terrible peregrines there. Peregrines were hawks which made the lives of kittiwakes a constant nightmare: suddenly swooping down out of nowhere and snatching a poor gull out of the air. The victim was then killed and eaten in front of all his friends and family! What a terrible fate. Peregrines lived on the cliffs like the kittiwakes, so to get away from them was a real blessing, and since Old Bob made the move, together with his faithful partner Gladdis, generations of their descendants had grown up in relative safely, high above the same street where Katie now lived.
This year, when Flo and Harold returned to their ledge at the start of summer, there were some horrible spikes sticking up. Some human had put them there to try and stop the kittiwakes from nesting. Harold and Flo were a bit worried at first, but they knew what to do, they had watched other birds with the same problem. For 10 days they flew back and forth from the seaside, bringing bits of seaweed, mud, discarded fishing nets and anything else they could find; pilling it up over and between the spikes, until their little hill of material rose above the sharp projections, and they had a comfortable platform on which to lay their eggs.
Katie hatched out on the 5th July. Although she was balanced on a ledge 30 foot up above the pavement, there was no danger of her falling. She knew how to stay safe. Millions, probably billions, of kittiwakes had balanced on ledges for millions of years. Those that had vertigo,wobbly knees or poor eye sight had all fallen off already! Those that were left were the descendants of expert balancers, surefooted seabirds than never put a webbed foot wrong, or felt a tinge fear, and were happiest high up and safe.
Katie loved the smell of food which came up from the supermarket below. Gulls have a very good sense of smell, and she could smell the freshly baked bread, sandwiches, fruit and lots of lovely things. But Katie’s parents only brought her fish. Fish, fish, fish every day.
“I’m fed up of fish!” Katie told her parents. Why can’t I have something else!? But you’re a kittiwake sweetheart, her mother said; kittiwakes eat fish.
“But Glenda gets chips!” Said Katie. Glenda, was her friend; a young herring gull who lived on the roof next door. Glenda’s parents brought her all sorts of different food: chips, bits of sandwiches, ice creams, even the odd sausage roll! “Why can’t I have some chips like Glenda”? Katie she said, petulantly.
Well we don’t pick things up off the street like those gulls, said her father. We fly out to sea and bring you back fresh fish every day. Only the best for our little Katie!” She smiled. She knew her parents meant well and cared for her, but she still longed to try all those delicious things she saw people, gulls – and even pigeons! – eating every day. When she grew up, she thought, then she would eat chips and ice creams.
There were lots of other kittiwakes on ledges nearby. They were always screaming and making a fuss, especially when one of the parents came back from a trip to the ocean. Some of the other chicks were getting quite large and starting to flap their wings.
“You are going to to have to fly soon” said her father. “We will fly down to the sea and try some swimming”.
“I don’t want to” screamed Katie. “I don’t want to go to the sea. I just want to walk around the streets with Glenda!” Glenda had just left the roof now – well falled off really! – and was walking up and down the street making pathetic begging noises.
“Squeak, squeak, squeak” she cried, as her herring gull parents looked down anxiously from above.
“No, I’m not going to sea” said Katie. “I’m going to stay on land and go to school. In fact, I want to be an astronaut; the first kittiwake in space!” She laughed!
“Don’t be silly said her mother” Kittiwakes don’t go to school and they definitely don’t go into space” she laughed! “We will teach you everything you need to know. We’ll fly off together and spend the winter on the open ocean. You will learn how to fish, how to ride out a storm, and how to take care of yourself”. You’ll meet a nice kittiwake boy and then you’ll settle down together.”
“Shan’t!” said Katie. “Shan’t, shan’t, shan’t!”
Find put about what happened to Katie in the next installment of Katie the Kittiwake.
A came across this amazing tree earlier this year in Galicia, Spain. It was partially prostrate, but still growing. The beautiful, plate-like bark was adorned with mosses and lichens, which gave it a strangely artistic effect, almost like an abstract painting! It is, I think, the stone pine (Pinus pinea L.).
What struck me most about this tree however, was the remarkably beautiful composition and texture. The presence of the lichens pointed to clean and pristine environment.
The bark of this tree is thick and plate-like, an adaptation which protects it against fires.
Just a natural phenomenon, but a joy to see because somehow it conjures up a deep seated desire to connect with the substance of the world from which we have emerged.
And also, I think, a love of patterns and textures, which must somehow be related to our ability to find meaning in the complexity of nature.
We tend to take bread pretty much for granted these days. There seem to be abundant supplies – indeed much of it goes to waste – in every supermarket I go into (in the UK). But it was not always that way! There have been many times of bread shortages in the past. There was a Bread Crisis in Britain, 1795-96, when the country was fighting wars with France. Poor harvests and extreme cold even led to a bread riot in 1795. There were shortages of bread during the First World War, and bread was also rationed after WWII, for a couple of years.
Could it happen again? I think the answer is probably not, unless we do something very stupid! UK farmers now supply most of the wheat (as well as oats and rye) required by flour millers. I was surprised to learn that flour mills now source more than 80% of their wheat from British farmers, compared to less than half of that in the late 1970s (Grain Chain, 2016).
One reason I have an interest in wheat, is that for one period of my life (studying for a PhD) I spent a lot of time sitting in a wheat field! Studying this lovely creature (below). Very high populations occurred in 1979; there were hundreds of these aphids on each tiller, with billions (maybe trillions) taking to the air at the end of July that year!
Wheat – most of which is winter wheat (planted in the autumn) – is a classic monoculture; a single crop stretching out to the horizon (below). Farmers get about 8 tonnes per hectare on average, resulting in a total British harvest of somewhere between 15 to 17 millions tonnes. That sounds good, but we are a fairly small producer on a world scale, although the EU as a whole is the largest producer (just above China).
So, it seems to me that UK farmers are doing a good job on the whole, although how sustainable the whole system is, is another matter. We rely on a few varieties of wheat, grown as monocultures, reliant on inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers from the past would no doubt be puzzled to see the wheelings (below) left in fields to make these applications!
Similarly, the carbon footprint is not exactly light! We now have huge tractors and harvesters. The tractors race around country roads carrying their massive trailer loads (below); the fields at harvest time are a dangerous place (and not just for field mice!); I don’t think anyone gets out of their vehicles if they can help it. The drivers sit in their comfy cabins listening to their favourite music!
Some might argue that all this industrialisation is the price we must pay for our current abundance, but vast amounts of bread are wasted, almost 900,000 tonnes of bread every year, reportedly. Nearly, half the bread produced here in the UK, 44%, is thrown away! So, I think this shows, that a little more care and respect for the sacred loaf, could free up resources to enable a more sustainable production system, with more attention on preserving the health of the soil and the well-being of the wildlife that lives in and around these fields.
Cannon, R. J. C. (1986). Summer populations of the cereal aphid Metopolophium dirhodum (Walker) on winter wheat: three contrasting years. Journal of applied ecology, 101-114.