Chorlitejo patinegro – Kentish plover

By Conservation, Ecology

I was asked to participate in the “Save the Kentish plover” campaign.  I didn’t know so much about the Kentish plover and I was very limited with time but as there was no one else in my local area to carry out the census I accepted the invitation. The Kentish plover is a ground nesting shore bird and being a ground nesting bird suffers from the impact of tourism to the beaches of Cadiz. 

This was one of the species that did well as a result of the pandemic. People weren’t allowed to go to the beach for long periods, a time that coincided with the breeding season. Left undisturbed by people walking through dunes, dogs, quads and all the other threats, the kentish plover did rather well. 

Still, this is a bird that has seen a 70% decline in numbers in Spain. Being widely distributed worldwide, the kentish plover is considered a species of least concern. However, it is considered vulnerable in Spain, because its coastal habitat and breeding area is under threat. Of eggs laid only a small percentage make it to hatching, most are trampled by unknowing humans or straying dogs. It is close to being lost from certain areas.

Interestingly in English the name Kentish plover comes from Kent, where the bird was once resident but has not been present for a long time, not there nor anywhere else in Britain now. I learned this and more about the kentish plover and the threats it faces. Mostly what I learned is what it is like to follow a bird through a season. 

I committed to a minimum of a two weekly census of my local stretch of beach where the Kentish plover are present and breeding. Early in the year this meant bracing walks in the wind on empty virgin beaches. There is an area where a freshwater stream flows into the sea, there is a small lagoon area and there are always kentish plovers. My first encounters it were exciting, this small yet distinctive bird has a special charm. As time went by, I saw a drastic change in the same beach environment; the water in the pool reduced and there was an increasing presence of human activity as the weather got nicer; humans and dogs, quads, bikes and horses. 

All this time I followed the bird. As the crowds grew on the beach I saw it dash between people. Mostly, it seemed to go unnoticed. Which can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it can exist at the same time as this increased human activity. A curse because it’s nest is camouflaged, easily trodden. One time I came to the beach to find a chiringuito, a beach bar, right next to the once pretty natural lagoon, the most important habitat of the chorlitejo on this particular beach. A bar, with wooden walkways, loud music and people, lots of people, and their rubbish. 

I became quite depressed by the plight of the Kentish plover. I had grown very fond of it. I couldn’t see how anything could be done to help it. No one is going to convince people to stop going to the beach in the heat of the Andalucian spring and summer. Tough job to convince people with dogs to keep them on their leash, they take them to the beach to run free. Signs warning that the dunes are a “sensitive habitat” seem to attract people, to hang their towels, sunbathe, picnic underneath. I despaired. I am witnessing extinction, I thought. 

Then on one of my visits, an especially grim day, late evening, windy and hot, some party in the “Polo Club” on the beach, loud music, something decadent in the air, I saw two Kentish plover in the distance then I saw a tiny chick. I was astounded, one had made this far, despite it all. A glimmer of hope. 

So whilst it seems futile sometimes there is hope. There is hope in raising awareness and education. The “Salvamos el chorlitejo patinegro” group which I am now part of works to bring awareness and educate people with travelling exhibition and workshops for schools. Different local groups in the province are linked, networked in collecting data with regular census of local populations. Local councils are asked to collaborate, to provide resources, to help by protecting certain areas where the birds are known to nest but often the help is too little or uncoordinated. The same council might put up a sign to warn people to take care with the chorlietjo but them “clean” the beach daily with tractors that scrape and rake the sand, destroying nests.

I am still processing what I learned through this experience. Processing and thinking about what other solutions can be implemted. Conservation can be complex.

6th International Swift Conference Segovia

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

Swift lovers of the world unite! This was a highlight of my year. The aqueduct of Segovia is full of swifts, early morning and in the dusky evening the skies around this impressive structure are filled with the screams and flight of swifts. It is breathtaking. I loved being in Segovia, with its textured and decorated buildings. An unfamiliar Spain to the South I am used to. 

It was great to participate in this event. By participate I mean join in, listen, engage, meet people. I wasn’t giving a presentation. The first person I met, as I shly, awkwardly wondered how to speak to people during the first morning coffee break was Lyndon Kearsley, a swift expert whom I had actually been in touch with via email but never met. Lyndon had answered my call for help about the swifts in Vejer, he had also GPS tracked a swift which was spotted right over my house in the South of Spain. A more than happy coincidence which made me feel like I was in definately in the right place, and things just got better from there. I also met Dick Newell swift brick engineer extraordinaire and Edward Mayer who had both been very helpful and instrumental in guiding me through the swift colony crisis I had the previous year.

I listened to days of talks. I learned about swift behaviour, nest boxes, morphology, so many details and so much information. I connected with people who had the same concerns as me, the same interests, working to the same goal. It is so reassuring to find people who will freely, happily, generously share information or even tools with you because they have the same goal. Lynn Fomison and Tim Norriss of Hampshire Swifts kindly donated me swift calls with speakers to attract the swift to the nest boxes I am installing in the school in Vejer. 

More than swifts I saw the Choughs of Segovia. Elusive to me during my time in Cornwall this population of city dwelling Segovian choughs are noisy and very present in the city, circling the beautiful towers of the churches and being brawdy on the windows of the cathedral. Impressive. I also saw two tree creepers on a walk around the river, the only tree creepers I have ever seen other than the one that stinned itself on a glass window in the Sierra de Grazalema, which given the circumstances didn’t  feel very fair. Also crag martins, that was a beautiful experience. 

It was decided that the next swift conference will be in Trieste, Italy in 2024. There is no doubt that I will be there. With my swift friends.

Photo showing a crowd of seated people in a conference type room / gallery space.

Women in Science: Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

I was asked to give a talk about the swifts in Vejer by the Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural (SGHN). I don´t really talk in public. Even in those situations of a small group of 5 people when you´re asked to introduce yourself I feel really anxious. So generally I would never accept an invitation to speak in public. But speak in public I did. And in Spanish.

Sometimes what you have to say, what you have to share, is bigger than yourself, bigger than your own feelings of discomfort. This is a subject that is important to me and I had to get over myself. This turned out to be an interesting learning experience and I reflected a lot on my feelings of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety serves a purpose. I learned this from a therapist I once went to and it helped it to contextualise my anxiety.

Poster for a Women in science event for the Natural History Society in Spain.

When I was first faced with the destruction of the swift colony I felt anxious but at the same time I found peace in my resolve. I channelled my anxiety into action. I know that this isn´t always possible but I recount how this was possible for me because it is interesting to record it for myself. 

Firstly, I understood that this feeling of anxiety when faced with the destruction of the natural world is NORMAL. In fact I think it would be abnormal to not feel in response to the destruction of another species. The clarity which came with this realisation was helpful. Secondly, I decided to use the energy of my anxiety to ACT – to create, to move things, to communicate.

I recounted all of this, along with the story of what happened with the swift colony in Vejer to a crowd of people. I recounted how it was to feel alone and to find a network of support. I recounted how it feels to accept your own limits, to do what you can. I spoke out loud my gratitude to all those who have helped and guided me. It felt good. 

2021: 28 Birds

By Birds, Conservation, Ecology

The summer of 28 birds. Suddently it seems birds just fall from the sky. The summer of 2021, I took in 28 wild birds, 4 died, 24 survived:

1 Sardinian Warbler
2 Blackbirds
9 Swifts
11 House Martins
5 Sparrows