7th January 2020 – Nature and Child Development

Rachel Atkinson, a consultant paediatrician from the East Sussex NHS Trust, began by talking of her increasing awareness of the reduced time that children nowadays spend playing outside compared to when she was young. She has also noted a rise in the numbers of children who have mental health issues and anxieties not previously seen.

There is increasing evidence suggesting that the two things are linked although this is a very complex area. A lot more research is now being done into the benefits of being outside more. The RSPB says that children playing in a woodland with adults are an endangered species. Only about one in four children are adequately connected with nature and it is very important that children are connected if they are going to be guardians in future. In 2005 Richard Louv wrote a book “Last Child in the Woods” to describe what he calls “nature deficit disorder” and is concerned that this is one of the most important challenges of our time.

The National Trust has carried out a review which has resulted in a report “Natural Childhood” by Stephen Moss. There is growing evidence that it would be better to allow children to play and not to start school as early as 4 years old. In other countries like Estonia and Finland where they start formal education later adolescent children do better in tests and have better mental health. Children in the UK are also among the most tested in the world.

Some say it is difficult to find true nature in many parts of this country. However, Rachel remarked that even when children live in a concrete tower block they do better if they are surrounded by some greenery.

She then showed some photos of children looking at nature and asked us what skills they were learning to use. Answers included focussed attention, concentration, fascination, visual skills plus awe and wonder and having fun. Tests and research carried out have shown that it is restorative just being outside.

In an increasingly very risk-averse society children do not always get the chance to play outside and therefore to learn how to understand the world around them and understand risks. Two reasons cited are traffic and danger from strangers although sometimes the risks can be distorted by the media. Schools, too, are reluctant to take children outside because of risk assessment. If a child is not allowed to climb trees for example the lack of experiencing a feeling of risk means that there is no proper basis for understanding risk in adulthood. Some children will also find wildlife frightening.

Other benefits from being outside include the likelihood of being involved in physical activity and children are therefore less likely to become obese.

Rachel then went on to say that the latest Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped several words in its latest edition of which several were to do with nature including acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, kingfisher and conker and have been replaced by new ones like broadband and social media. This reflects something about the tools at our disposal and is both a huge loss and a massive challenge. As a response in 2017 Robert Macfarlane wrote a series of “poems” illustrated by Jackie Morris conjuring up these words and this beautiful book “The Lost Words” has proved enormously popular and is used in many schools.

Research has also been carried out by the Wildlife Trust with the University College of London. Forest and Beach schools have been set up which have shown that children benefit from being outdoors, with those who have low wellbeing or additional needs (like ADHD) benefiting the most. While at primary school one hour a day learning and playing in wild places improves confidence and wellbeing. Less than 1 in 10 children now have access to natural areas compared with when we were younger, and the exploration area is now very restricted from several miles to 50 yards away. Common pastimes like blackberrying are much reduced. There is also the fact that as children’s time is heavily structured when they want to relax they are not keen on going outside.

Rachel then asked us to share any special memories we had of playing in the wild and how it had shaped us as adults too. These included rockpooling, seeing dragonflies and birds, studying the night sky, even playing on a bomb site, all of which help listening and focusing skills to develop. This connection as a child is very often missed today.

There are encouraging signs that more is being done to get children outside. Schools are helping them to create wildlife gardens and there are the activities of Nature Tots organised by the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The afternoon ended with members’ thoughts. The general feeling was that the system is embedded in the curriculum with competitiveness being the national policy. It was generally felt to be a good idea to write to our local MP pointing out our concerns backed by evidence (Rachel said she would supply this).

What an informative afternoon. We all learned a lot about children’s development, what we can do ourselves in terms of helping grandchildren and the opportunity of doing something to influence the Government.

Susan Painter

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21st January 2020 - Looking For Whales and Dolphins

On January 21st, the Society was treated to a truly fascinating and eye-opening presentation by Anna Bunney of the ORCA organisation, all about the various dolphins, porpoises and whales that can be seen even in British waters.

ORCA undertake cetacean surveys using scheduled ferry services, such as those operated by Brittany Ferries between England and the north coast of Spain. The Bay of Biscay is particularly good for observing these animals. In fact, it is possible to book on a round trip from Portsmouth to Santander then Plymouth, on certain trips when a skilled ORCA guide is present to point out sightings of interest. During the talk, many things were learned. Firstly we learned how to distinguish between a dolphin and a porpoise. Dolphins have a dorsal fin situated about half way along its body. In the case of the porpoise the fin is located further back - about two-thirds away from the head.

Fascinating facts were learned about the blue whale - one of the world’s largest cetaceans. A fully grown blue whale has a length of about 3 buses end-to-end. Calves of the blue whale drink 450 litres of milk a day, and gain 4.5 Kg weight per hour! An adult blue whale can take in 100 tons of krill-filled water in under ten seconds!

The classification “cetacean” covers whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They are however split into two groups: those having teeth, and those that use a baleen - a filter system. There exists both toothed and baleen whales.

During the six month period April to September 2018, surveys operated by ORCA from scheduled ferries had nearly 600 cetacean sightings, with half of these being the common dolphin, followed by Harbour Porpoise with 140 sightings. The rarest was the Minke whale with 3 sightings.

The Bay of Biscay is a hot spot for various elusive beaked whales. They can be very hard to identify, and some species are only known as a result of animals becoming stranded. They are deep diving, and feed on squid.

There are a number of threats to cetaceans. These include over-fishing, habitat destruction or modification, pollution, and direct harassment including being struck by shipping.

Sound is very important to these creatures, both for communication, and for echolocation of prey.

Half of all whale, dolphin and porpoise species are considered “data deficient” in the IUCN classification. ORCA’s work is considered to be vital in identifying critical habitats for cetaceans in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Mike Kerry

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4th February 2020 - Getting to Grips with Birdsong - Adrian Thomas

Adrian Thomas has 20 years involvement with the RSPB, currently as Project Development Manager based in Brighton. He outlined his recent association with bird-related natural history projects – Medmerry Lagoon near Selsey Bill, Nightingales at Lodge Hill near Maidstone, and his new RSPB Birdsong Guide. The latter arose out of a 4-week sabbatical which RSPB allow employees every five years, to do their own thing. Adrian chose to record birds singing using a parabolic reflector, having been enthused by listening, with his family, to late evening nightingales in a wood near his home in Worcestershire; and this talk and his book (a very useful aid for this report) are outcomes. So what better person to talk about ‘getting to grips with birdsong’?

Briefly, Adrian outlined the concept of sound – vibrations in the air as air particles interact in a chain reaction that ripples out as sound waves. Our flappy outer ears funnel the sound waves into the inner ear where the vibrations trigger electrical impulses to our brain for interpretation as sounds. We make sounds using the larynx at the top of our windpipe; birds use their syrinx, lower down the windpipe, where it splits into a Y-shaped tube to enter the lungs. Remarkably, birds can make two sounds simultaneously one in each tube, as air rises upwards.

The language of birds can be separated into ‘calls’ - usually “short and straightforward…given by both sexes, at any time of year…often to signal some kind of intent or action” (contact, alarm, take-off, threat, parenting, for example) – and ‘songs’ which “tend to be longer, and…mainly given by the male, at a particular time of year, driven by hormonal changes”. The latter “are usually linked to defending a territory or attracting a mate”. ‘Advertising’ calls, like the cuckoo’s, and ‘display’ calls as part of a visual ritual, like that of the black grouse, can also be related to mate attraction, and the more melodious examples (e.g. cuckoo, pigeons) are often referred to as songs.

It’s quite difficult to put birdsong into words, translating bird sounds into our language. Books often use short phrases, like ‘sispi si-hi-hi-hi-hi’ (blue tit), to give an impression of songs, but different people’s transcription can vary enormously. However, there is an alternative, which Adrian focused on for the rest of his talk. This is the Sonogram, rather like a graph, with time on the horizontal axis and pitch (kHz) on the vertical axis, capable of conveying more complexity and precision (see examples below, courtesy of Adrian Thomas).

Seven attributes of songs and calls - duration, volume, pace, pitch, pattern, timbre and overall effect - were differentiated and exemplified with a series of sonograms, photographs and recordings. Space doesn’t allow all the sonograms to be illustrated but a few will give a feel for how sonograms can greatly assist in memorising songs and calls, beginning with ‘duration’. Sonogram S1 illustrates the variety of call length.

Sonogram 1

‘Volume’ was illustrated by the bullfinch (very quiet even when close) and the crane (loud, even from 400m). The wren (Sonogram S2) has exceptional ‘pace’, stringing together up to five verses each with maybe a hundred+ notes, many also with a very high ‘pitch’ and ‘volume’ to create a characteristic shrillness that is difficult not to recognise.

Sonogram 2

Fortunately, the ‘pitch’ (high or low) of most birdsong is within the range of the human ear, though with deafness the highest notes (e.g. goldcrest) may become less audible. Globally, the bittern emits the lowest sound, just a series of four to six very low bars, a second or so apart, at the base of the sonogram. In some birds the pitch rises (e.g. curlew) or falls (e.g. buzzard) from beginning to end.

With some birds their song or call often shows a distinctive ‘pattern’, such as the ‘tee-cher, tee-cher’ song of the great tit, illustrated below (Sonogram S3) along with the chiffchaff and the collared dove. All show a similar temporal pattern but with different ‘pitch’.

Sonogram 3

‘Timbre’ is more tricky to define but can be compared to a singer’s ‘colour’ or ‘tone’. Words to describe ‘timbre’ include fuzzy, liquid, musical, nasal, piping, rich, staccato, thin etc. And then there is ‘the overall effect’, perhaps not very scientific as an attribute of sound, but, according to Adrian, “can sometimes be the most valuable piece in your jigsaw. It is the impression the whole sound gives you, the images it sparks in your mind, the memories it invokes”.

Spontaneous applause at the tea break clearly indicated members’ enthusiastic response to the quality of the first half of Adrian’s presentation. He was then surrounded by members wishing to discuss issues further, or buy his excellent book. And the second part did not disappoint either, with consideration of a range of different aspects of bird sounds, again focussed on sonograms.

Some birds, such as the curlew and chiffchaff are named after their sounds. Others, like the wheatear, can emit two very different sounds simultaneously, because it has flaps in both of the Y-tubes of its syrinx. But the voice is not the only means by which birds communicate. The great spotted woodpecker produces a “loud, short volley of rapid strikes on resonant tree trunks with its beak”. The snipe, at nightfall, climbs to some height around its territory before diving so that its outer tail feathers vibrate and produce a sound known a ‘drumming’, “like a throbbing hum”. The mute swan has ‘singing wings’ in flight, as “the wings beat a consistent three times per second making a distinctive, pulsing singing sound, full of beautiful harmonics”.

Some bird songs – blackbird/mistle thrush and reed warbler/sedge warbler can be tricky to tell apart, as parts of their songs can be similar. They need time to settle into their distinctive rhythms so give them time to reveal themselves as you listen. The woodpigeon has three song varieties, the most familiar one, a deep, repetitive five-note cooing phrase which Adrian likened to ”I DON’T want to go”. And just for the record a birdsong single rose to 18th in the hit parade!

But all is not sweetness and light; there has been a catastrophic decline in bird numbers. Some 40,000,000 have gone in the last 50 years, and of course their songs have gone with them. I can vouch that willow warbler, skylark, nightingale are heard less and less these days having begun my birdwatching in 1962. Yellow Hammer was a regular on Seaford Head when I arrived in 1992 but I haven’t recorded one on the Head for a couple of decades. Make the most of song birds while they last!

If you really want to learn about birdsong, I can recommend Adrian’s excellent ‘RSPB Guide to Birdsong’, complete with CD and digital download of more than 100 bird sounds included.

Finally, thanks to Mike Kerry’s recording of the talk, which helped me to remember a few more details!

Colin Whiteman

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page updated 16th March 2020