Monday, 19 September 2016

The migrant Greylag is no laggard

The Greylag (Anser anser) is a large grey goose, the Anser ancestor of most domestic geese and the bulkiest of the geese found in Europe. It can be distinguished from other grey geese by its large head, thick neck, dull pinkish legs and heavy pinkish-orange bill.

In the UK, truly wild Greylag occur only as winter visitors to Scotland and Northern Ireland, to which they migrate in autumn from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Elsewhere, particularly in eastern England, the Greylag has become established as a resident species after being released in suitable areas. These non-migratory birds tend to be semi-tame and can be found around gravel pits, lakes and reservoirs, just like the introduced Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese with which they often associate.

By now, the more prescient readers will have noticed that I call the species Greylag rather than Greylag Goose. That is because I have always understood that the “lag” part of the name is an old word meaning goose, so that referring to the bird as Greylag Goose is tautological. 

But recently, after coming across a couple of Greylag at my local birding patch, where they are not regularly found, I started wondering whether I was right about the origin of the name. So I checked a range of online dictionaries (via the wonderful OneLook metadictionary) and was surprised to find that only two sources seemed to agree with me. 

One of these, the mighty Oxford Dictionary, states that the name has its origin in the early 18th century and that lag is an old dialect word for goose, of unknown origin. The other, Wiktionary, says that lag is an old name for a goose “derived from the call used to move such animals along”. Oxford agrees that “lag” was formerly used in calling or driving domesticated geese but suggests, not unreasonably, that the call was derived from the name rather than the other way about.

But apart from those two sources, every online dictionary that ventures to offer an origin for the name states that “lag” is a reference to the bird’s supposed habit of remaining in Britain relatively later than other migratory wild geese before setting off for its breeding grounds. 

This claim seemed to me to be nothing but crass folk etymology, since I was not aware of any evidence for a delayed spring migration for this species. So I decided to check. And what did I find? I came across a study carried out for the British Trust for Ornithology suggesting that, rather than lagging behind other wild geese, Greylag actually tend to leave their winter quarters in Scotland significantly earlier than their grey goose relatives. 

Combining records for Scottish departures and Icelandic arrivals between 1950 and 1997, the study reported that the greatest Greylag movement was from April 11 to 15, compared with April 17 to 21 for White-fronted Goose, April 25 to 28 for Brent Goose, April 26 to 30 for Pink-footed Goose and April 27 to May 1 for Barnacle Goose. 

I rest my case. Far from being castigated as a slowpoke, the wild Greylag should be lauded as a migratory pacesetter. Labelling it a laggard is clearly wrong. The Oxford/Wiktionary etymology must surely be right and the other dictionaries are all mistaken. 

So I am justified in continuing to call the bird just a Greylag rather than a Greylag Goose.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Farewell, Einojhani Rautavaara

From a somewhat belated obituary in The Times of 14 September 2016, I recently learnt of the death on 27 July 2016 of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, aged 87. He was a composer I have admired since I first heard his romantic and impressionistic Cantus Arcticus, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, which is probably his best-known work. 

Many years ago, when I was still unaware of any Finnish composers other than Jean Sibelius, I was scanning the Radio Times and came across details of a Radio 3 performance of Cantus Arcticus. Intrigued by the reference to birds, I recorded it on cassette tape and listened to it over and over again.

I know now that the work originated in 1971 in a commission from the University of Oulu for Rautavaara to write a cantata for performance at the following year’s degree ceremony. However, after accepting the commission, the composer discovered that the university choir was not up to scratch and so decided to replace them with the best voices in the world — those of wild birds, and specifically those from the area around the city of Oulu. 

Oulu is on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Finland, close to the Arctic Circle. Rautavaara ventured out into the chilly landscape surrounding the city and recorded bird calls and songs both within the Arctic Circle and in the Liminka wetlands, a few miles south of Oulu. He then interwove these sounds into the orchestral texture of a three-movement work that also requires various wind instruments to mimic bird sounds.

The work’s first movement, Suo (“The Marsh”), opens with two solo flutes, which are gradually joined by other wind instruments and the sounds of marshland birds recorded in spring. I recognise some of the commoner bird sounds and I have read that the recording also includes Terek Sandpiper and possibly Ortolan Bunting. I would love to hear an expert’s analysis of all the birds on Rautavaara’s recording. 

In the plaintive second movement, Melankolia (“Melancholy”), the featured bird is the Shore Lark, but birders might not easily recognise it because Rautavaara brought its call down by two octaves to give it an eerie “ghost bird” effect. The mournful bird sound is accompanied by tender string figures.

The third movement, Joutsenet muuttavat (“Swans migrating”), features the calls of migrating Whooper Swans. As the movement progresses in a long crescendo, the texture becomes gradually more complex and the calls of the swans are multiplied to create the impression of swelling numbers. Finally both the bird calls and the orchestra fade away as if lost in the distance.

Cantus Arcticus is a majestic work that conveys a wonderful image of big skies, wide open spaces, bleak marshes, chilly winds, etc. If listening to it does not send a shiver up your spine then there may be something wrong with you. 

NOTE (1): for anyone who may be interested, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s name is pronounced EH-ee-noh-yoo-hah-nee RAH-oo-tah-vaah-rah.

NOTE (2): My recommended recording of Cantus Arcticus is a version by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra with the Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, found on the Ondine label. Almost as good is a low-price Naxos recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by another Finn, Hannu Lintu (whose surname happens to be Finnish for bird). If you don’t want to buy a recording you can find several versions to listen to on YouTube. Musicians may like, which lets you follow the sheet music while listening to a recording by the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbr├╝cken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppend. If you like pretty images, try, in which the RSNO recording is accompanied by a live kinetic painting by Norman Perryman, apparently representing the Finnish landscape. At you can watch a video of a performance by an excellent amateur orchestra, the Calgary Civic Symphony. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Great Crested Grebe and the Plumage League

In 1970, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds introduced a logo in the form of a graphic representation of the head of an Avocet (or a Pied Avocet, if you like, to distinguish it from three New World species of Avocet). 

The Avocet was an apt choice because over the previous couple of decades the RSPB had played a major role in re-establishing this species as a breeding bird after its extinction in Britain in 1893. However, an equally suitable logo might have been a Great Crested Grebe, because without this species the RSPB might never have been founded. 

Although previously well established in Britain, the Great Crested Grebe almost disappeared in the 19th century. Why? Because of wholesale slaughter in the interest of ladies’ fashion. Smart ladies in the Victorian era loved to wear large hats with wide brims decorated in elaborate creations of silk flowers, ribbons and colourful feathers — and sometimes even the stuffed skins of entire birds. 

Because of its exotic head and neck plumes, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the species slaughtered to meet this fashion. Thanks mainly to plume-hunters, Britain’s breeding population plummeted until, in 1860, just 42 breeding pairs were recorded. 

In 1889, from her home in Didsbury (now a suburb of Manchester), Emily Williamson set up the Plumage League to campaign against the use of feathers in hat-making. She was concerned at both the cruelty of plume hunting and its severe effect on the population of some species.

The league had just two simple rules: (1) “that members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection”; and (2) “that Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purpose of food, the ostrich only excepted.” (The Ostrich was excluded because its tail-feathers could be harvested without harm.) 

As the British species most at risk from plume hunters, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the league’s main concerns. Non-British birds being decimated by plume-hunters included the Roseate Spoonbill and various species of egret, flamingo and bird of paradise. By the time the league was founded, the fashion industry had almost extinguished some of these birds.

In 1891, the league merged with a similar protest group established in Croydon by Eliza Philips, who hosted regular “fur, fin and feather” meetings at her home. They called the merged group the Society for the Protection of Birds. The organisation went on to be granted a Royal Charter in 1904 and has subsequently grown to become the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, with more than a million members. In 1989, on the centenary of Plumage League’s foundation, a plaque was placed on Emily Williamson’s former home to honour her work.

Thanks to the campaigning begun by Emily and Eliza, there are now more than 5,000 breeding pairs of Great Crested Grebe in the United Kingdom, spread across most of England, lowland Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.