Monday, 22 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #3

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Spring Picture 4, below, shows rooks in their rookery in elm trees with, in the background, a flight of rooks mobbing or chasing off a solitary heron.
As a child, this picture resonated strongly with me as there were lots of rooks and rookeries around the East Lothian farm and woodlands where I lived. The rook (latin name: Corvus frugilegus) belongs to what I think of as the “cheeky chappy” bird family, the crows (or corvids), containing some of the most intelligent of all birds. Rooks are birds of farmlands and grasslands and I always find it slightly pleasing that, even though their linguistic roots are unrelated, the words “raucous” and “rook” sound similar, as the overwhelming experience of a rookery in Spring is one of sound. Yes, rooks are incredibly noisy when they are all together – not for nothing is the collective noun for rooks, “a parliament of rooks.” As shown in this picture, in Spring, pairs of rooks rebuild the nests they used the previous season. Britain’s rook population is in a healthy state, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, with an estimated summer population of 1 to 1.3 million pairs. The counting of nests in rookeries suggests a shallow upward trend in numbers plus, for rookeries, a 40% increase in abundance between 1975 and 1996 (also according to the BTO). it is suggested that this probably reflects the species' "considerable adaptability in the face of agricultural change". Counting of individuals in the Breeding Brid Survey, rather than nests in rookeries does suggest, since 2000, a The BTO does conclude: "There has been little change in breeding productivity since the 1960s but a minor decrease in brood size is now becoming evident."

These rooks are shown nesting in elm trees. I described the cataclysmic effect of Dutch Elm Disease on Britain’s elm trees (since these books were published) in the previous post in this series.

The wonderful wading bird, the heron (or grey heron) only features in this one picture in the “What to Look for in Spring” book (although it does also feature later in the year). I love the heron, one of Britain’s largest birds, with its dagger beak, what I think of as a graceful, slow flapping flight, sentinel-like approach to fishing, and its loud, harsh cries. In his song, Now westlin winds, Robert Burns described the heron as; "The soaring hern", and my old Observer's Book of Birds describes the heron's flight thus: "When it takes to its great grey wings with dark tips, the unusually slow and languid wing-beats are distinctive."

We used to see herons over our house nearly every day when I was a child, flying between the Peffer Burn Estuary on Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve and a major heron colony (or “heronry”) located high up in the branches of a conifer plantation a mile or two inland. I recall the courtship of herons in that heronry, and the demands of their chicks for food, being just as noisy and raucous as that of rooks! The heron in Britain is the subject of the longest-running breeding-season bird monitoring scheme in the world, through the BTO Heronries Census which began in 1928. The best idea here is simply to show the results of this survey, as presented by the British Trust for ornithology on its website:

Herons are very susceptible to high mortality during harsh winters and this is clear from the graph above. I think the extremely extended and harsh winter we have just emerged from may also create another low point on this graph. Many bodies of freshwater in the UK have been frozen over for up to two months this winter and, while estuarine and coastal waters have been ice-free, inland heron populations are bound to have suffered. You will see, however, that there has been a general upward trend in heron numbers over the course of the 20th Century, levelling off a little  after the turn of the 21st Century. This upward trend is described as "moderate" for the whole Uk and "shallow" for herons in Scotland. It is thought (as reported by the BTO) that the general upward trend may reflect: "reduced persecution, improvements in water quality, the provision of new habitat as new lakes and gravel pits mature, and increased feeding opportunities at freshwater fisheries". Numbers of herons has apparently also increased across Europe since 1980.

It is also stated that: "High rates of nest failure at the chick stage were noted in the late 1960s, but not subsequently", a fact I believe is almost certainly linked to the decline in the concentration of organochlorine pesticide residues measured in herons since that time. This has been studied since then through an annual monitoring contract issued by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC, and its predecessor bodies) to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH, and ITS predecessors!). The programme was started in the early 1960s, when there were serious concerns over the effects of organochlorine pesticides and organomercury fungicides on a range of bird and mammal species in the UK. High concentrations of these toxic compounds are now well-known to lead to a range of causes of reproductive failure in birds. This early work demonstrated the effects of the organochlorines and eventually contributed to the ban on their use in the UK and abroad. The assessment of a range of organochlorines and also the toxic metal mercury in the livers of herons has revealed significant long-term declines in liver residues of organochlorine pesticides and mercury during the monitoring period. These declines appear now to have largely levelled off.  I have copied the relevant trends in these from the JNCC's website below. You can read the original report here.

A final issue for the heron in Britain that is worth identifying here as it is directly relevant to Spring-time is that, since 1968, presumably in response to the general warming of the climate and the advance of Spring, the average egg-laying date for herons in Britain is now some 29 days earlier than it was back then, as shown by the BTO here.


  1. There are a lot of herons on the Ythan estuary, I see them regularly, and they sometimes fly over the house. No doubt some will move inland if there has been a reduction as a result of the winter. I'll try to be more observant...

  2. I love those big birds too. For me, herons and hares are the signature creatures of East Lothian.

    Nice post.


  3. Kate - that's what I love - a volunteer!

    Thanks for that Al - I'm enjoying writing this run of posts - bringing back lots of nice memories of early nature influences from EL!


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