Last Week

This time last week (ed. Monday) I was on my way home from speaking to the Hampshire Organic Gardening Group. My subject was insects in gardens; of those two sides of the equation I’m certainly more knowledgeable about insects, but now that we’ve actually got a garden to manage I’m slowly working on my so far not very green fingers. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak at length, although I pity my audience for having to suffer the sound of my voice for 70 minutes. I don’t usually enjoy being the centre of attention (or indeed hearing the sound of my own voice) but longer talks allow you to relax into your stride: all you experience in a 15-minute slot is the initial nerves. My next public speaking engagement will be at the Berkshire Ornithological Club on March 21st next year when my subject will be ‘A birder’s guide to insects’. With insect declines making newspaper headlines in the past week, this is as good a time as any to start paying more attention to ‘the little things that run the world’.

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Speaking of the BOC, attendees at last Wednesday’s indoor meeting were treated to a masterclass in science communication from Tim Birkhead. His topic was an overview of 45 years of research on the guillemots of Skomer Island in Wales, but such is his enthusiasm for science that he couldn’t resist straying into his other (but not unrelated) work on bird promiscuity and sperm selection. Did you know that bullfinches have perhaps the smallest testes of any passerine and unique sperm morphology? I didn’t! Birkhead also featured in last week’s edition of The Life Scientific on Radio 4, from which the whistling bullfinch section seems to have been quite a hit.

Perhaps the most important finding he presented from guillemot research was the convincing hypothesis – backed up by decades of breeding data and old photographic records – that oil spilled from sinking ships during WWII caused a crash in guillemot numbers on Skomer, and they are still a long way from recovery. Despite high annual adult survival of 95% and breeding success of 80%, each female lays only a single egg* each year, so a population that slow-breeding is always going to take a long time to bounce back. Without long-term monitoring data we wouldn’t have any idea of how sea birds like guillemots are responding to environmental change, making it all the more shocking that the modest funding for Birkhead’s guillemot programme was cut by Natural Resources Wales in 2013. A successful crowdfunding campaign managed to keep it going, but the future is by no means secure. Donations towards next year’s efforts can be made here.

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Finally, on Friday I attended a performance by folk/blues guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson. He’s an absolute megastar of the folk world, though it’s quite likely you’ve never heard of him. That’s how it often seems to go in the folk world; the bonus is that it hasn’t therefore been infected by the cult of celebrity – like most folk musicians I’ve seen, Simpson came across as very down to earth and came out to chat to audience members and ‘scribble on things’ during the interval. It was a fantastic evening: two hours of peerless acoustic guitar and banjo music, including every song from his brilliant new album, Trails and Tribulations. To tie everything from the week together nicely, a central theme of the album is our relationship to nature, with one of the original songs inspired by watching red kites soar over the Ridgeway and another by the relationship between poets Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney, as told in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places.

Somehow I squeezed all those evening events around three full days of teaching: freshwater invertebrate sampling on Monday, a field ornithology trip on Tuesday (aka going birding) and fly identification on Friday. It’s going to be hard to top that as a week of busy inspiration.