Although I’m currently over 3,000 miles from home on a different continent that’s stuffed with exotic animals, birding here can be a strangely familiar affair. I’m not just referring to the teeming masses of house sparrows and starlings, which it is hard not to look at without feeling a twinge of postcolonial guilt. What I’m more interested in seeing are those species which have a globe-circling distribution – that is, those found right around the northern hemisphere – but which didn’t achieve that status with the helping hand of the “American Acclimatization Society.”
Most of these like-for-likes shared by British and American birders are waterfowl, waders or birds of the open sea of one kind or another; which makes sense in terms of ability to disperse across oceans. From pintails, shovelers, gadwalls and (inevitably) mallards on a pond to dunlins or sanderlings on a mudflat, to herring gulls in a harbour town, encounters with these old friends can lend an uncanny, déjà vu-like sensation of being at home whilst at once remaining geographically far away.
Then there are American representatives of bird families which also occur in Europe. Birds to which I feel like saying: “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Sharp-shinned instead of sparrow hawks, Bonaparte’s gull instead of black-headed, downy and hairy woodpeckers for lesser- and great spotted. Also consider black-capped chickadees and American robins, which rather than forming a direct pair with a European counterpart combine features of several species, tits or thrushes respectively. I might even include the New World flycatchers, which hunt with exactly the same sallying-forth method that the Old World flycatchers employ back home despite being from completely different families.
Our birding forays this week have tended to follow this exotic to familiar pattern. At Lake Artemesia on Monday, we started with a breathtaking Caspian tern (present in Europe but hardly a regular sight for British birders) before moving through Bonaparte’s gull to arrive at barn swallows – that’s just plain old ‘swallow’ to us – and a superb pair of ospreys soaring, fishing, and whistling to each other.
On Tuesday morning we visited a cypress swamp, where the trees have knees and a waterthrush is a sort of warbler. A subtropical world away from England. But by the afternoon we were walking downhill through a beautiful stretch of woods managed by the American Chestnut Land Trust, enjoying wood anemones – almost but not quite like ‘ours’ – and swarms of the large bee fly Bombylius major, busily flying above the leaf litter. It isn’t just birds which follow the same pattern on both sides of the pond. The trail wound to an end with a view over where Parker’s Creek meets the bay, as serene and unspoilt a spot as I’ve seen anywhere in Maryland. Ospreys hovered gracefully over the shallows.
Yesterday afternoon we walked around a small suburban lake, and there once again ospreys drifted overhead. And it’s this shared species in particular that has got me thinking. For at this time of year and in this part of the world, ospreys are near ubiquitous. One can’t say the same for my native England. In Britain as a whole there are still only 200 breeding pairs of ospreys, most of which are in the Scottish Highlands. Maryland, which is one eighth the size of the UK, has about 1600. Maryland also boasts over 500 breeding pairs of bald eagles compared to Britain’s 57 pairs (as of 2011) of the very closely related white-tailed eagle, again confined to remote parts of Scotland.
Of course the two landmasses are not directly comparable; differences in climate, landscape and human culture range from subtle to substantial and complicate my argument a little. Chief amongst these differences is the fact that a substantial chunk of Maryland is within a short raptor’s flight of the Chesapeake Bay, which enjoys a humid subtropical climate and is the largest estuary in the USA – a superb resource for fish-eating birds. But as a crude comparison, the numbers above at least serve to show that on the eastern seaboard of the USA a dense human population is able to coexist with large numbers of avian top-predators.
For whatever reasons, the same is not currently true in Britain. But when I look at the estuaries and harbours of the south coast, through which ospreys migrate every year, or at the eagle-ready marshes of East Anglia, I wonder what’s stopping them from recolonising naturally or stopping us from giving them a helping hand. Similar reintroductions have proven successful with red kites, and indeed with ospreys at Rutland Water. Is there a good ecological reason why we’re not yet doing so, or why British wetlands shouldn’t support these big birds in the sort of numbers present in the Old Line State? I suspect Anglophone nations have much more to learn from each other, and as a conservationist I’ll say there are worse places to start than with our mutual bird friends.
Photos from top to bottom: Louisiana waterthrush, downy woodpecker, Battle Creek cypress swamp, large bee fly, Anemone quinquefolia, Parker’s Creek.