I’ve just read a report of a recently re-captured arctic tern that had been ringed in the Farne Islands thirty years ago. Arctic terns are among the greatest travellers in the bird world, making an annual round trip from Arctic to Antarctic and back, so this bird has already travelled over a million miles – and still going strong!
To us land-living creatures, a life lived almost entirely at sea, at the mercy of storm and tempest, seems fraught with danger, but for the arctic tern it is its natural environment offering plentiful food and safety from predators. Ashore, where it must come to breed, is where the dangers are – animal, avian and, indeed, human predators. No – a life at sea is best: we have only to compare the life expectancy of our cherished garden birds to that of our wandering terns to demonstrate that.
Think too of the swift. This year’s chicks are already well on their way to Africa. Once a swift makes that momentous step from its nest hole into thin air it’s on its own. Hunting, eating, sleeping, even mating on the wing, it will not set its tiny clinging feet to a firm surface until it returns to breed. What’s more, the young set off before their parents, finding their own way south. With our feet firmly on the ground, it takes some imagination to understand a life with such different norms.
October is the month when all our birds seem to be on the move: long distance migrants like swallows and martins are leaving us and winter visitors beginning to arrive. I’m used to keeping a lookout for those large flocks of redwings and fieldfares in our autumn fields and hedgerows and scanning local reservoirs and wetlands for newly arrived ducks and geese. These are relatively easy to see and to identify. However, a couple of conversations with fellow naturalists recently gave me a timely reminder to take a good look at those parties of rather nondescript small birds often seen resting in the lee of a wood or flitting along a sheltered hedgerow. Among the tits or finches you can often spot some summer visitors on a more unobtrusive drift south. Both my informants had picked out spotted flycatchers in just such situations, one lot at Otley Wetlands, the other high on Rumbolds Moor. A particular pleasure, as this attractive little bird is in serious decline.
Yes, everything is on the move – even the birds we think of as sedentary. What we think of as ‘our’ blackbirds and starlings are being joined by lots of continental comers-in. Perhaps even the garden robin isn’t the same one as I fed through the rigours of last winter. Robins only live for two or three years. He reared two broods of youngsters this summer, any one of which may well have taken over the territory. Movement and change – the world of birds.