Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 9th March 2011

The diary of the making of a film and an on going fascination with birds and their accompanying cast of human characters. By Ceri Levy.

As I was importing footage into my computer to begin working on some rough edits and start the ball rolling for The Bird Effect, I had another eureka moment regarding the film. I had started putting together a sequence of a twitch I had filmed for a Sociable Lapwing, which turned up on Saint Mary’s in The Scilly Isles back in October 2008. I quickly realised this could be a key moment for the beginning of the film, symbolising the start of my bird odyssey and encapsulating the bird watching aspect of the bird effect. The piece captured something of the excitement and joy that comes with finding such a bird, which was a first for Scilly and only the 41st Sociable Lapwing for Britain. There hasn’t been one seen since upon these shores.

A lot of birders use walkie-talkies on Scilly to keep up with the latest news, and in my footage, when the first tentative reports of the Sociable Lapwing come over the airwaves, there is a wonderful exchange of disbelief and disparaging remarks as at first, people doubt the actuality of a Sociable Lapwing being on Scilly, and then as the reality of the situation dawns upon them, a new urgency leads everyone on a march up coastal path, down hillocks and into ever increasing gloom and wet weather, to get to the rarity situated at Saint Mary’s small airfield. It is a great moment when hundreds of birders arrive before night sets in to find the displaced visitor waiting for them. I am also with my friend Jim Lawrence, who is responsible for BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions programme, which has under its remit, the Sociable Lapwing, a critically endangered species.

Copyright Tom Tams – Sociable Lapwing on Scilly October 2008

As my friendship with Jim has grown, I have seen the work that BirdLife is involved in, working tirelessly on behalf of the world’s endangered birds. I realised that if I were going to explore the conservation world in action, then Jim’s Preventing Extinctions programme, in particular, would be a perfect vehicle for that. We started talking about BirdLife projects I could explore to represent the work that they do within the film. I always knew that this was the arena and the organisation for me after I heard Margaret Atwood talk at Birdfair a few years ago when I first learnt through her and her husband, Graeme Gibson, of the problems there were for birds in the world and the work of BirdLife. It was just a matter of finding the right project.

Once I started cutting the Sociable Lapwing sequence together I finally realised that the answer was staring me in the face. This bird could be the film’s figurehead and motif that I had been looking for. It suddenly all made sense. I had filmed the bird from the birders’ point of view and as I was looking for a bird supported by the Preventing Extinctions programme to highlight the work of BirdLife and their partners, and wanting to end the film with a conservation aspect, why not utilise the very same bird, the Sociable Lapwing and its story, as the bookends for the film. Ending the film on its breeding grounds of Kazakhstan exploring the Sociable Lapwing Project would show my filmic journey from birdwatcher to potential conservationist. It provoked a moment of clarity for me and excited me as I have never been to Kazakhstan and love the prospect of immersing myself in a new culture. Follow the bird and there’s often a surprise ahead.

The Sociable Lapwing Project has been running since 2004 when it became apparent that the species was in major decline and in 2005 The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan was joined by the RSPB in the efforts to discover the reasons for the decline and to address whatever problems would be discovered. It had been estimated that the Sociable Lapwing’s numbers had inexplicably crashed by 90% within the previous 15 years and work was needed to find out the causes of these events and the project has been expanding ever since. There were theories as to why the bird was in trouble including loss of habitat and other problems en route to and in its wintering grounds. One of the main problems was that little was known about where the birds flew to in the winter and what their routes were. Often it is migratory species that are the most threatened birds as they pass through many territories and numerous problems can occur along the way. To find out the problems for the birds it was important to ascertain where they go. A tracking system was devised and hi-tech, low-weight transmitters were attached to a number of birds, which are proving invaluable in providing information over the course of the project.

Perhaps because of this use of technology, as well as wanting to be involved with BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions programme, Swarovski Optik, who make top quality binoculars and telescopes and are involved in high-end technological optical development, have become a Species Champion, in partnership with the RSPB, for the Sociable Lapwing. Being a Species Champion, means financially supporting a Critically Endangered bird and helping to pay for the project. It is no mean undertaking and Champions really are what they say they are on the tin. Champions.

Thanks to the technology being used, routes are starting to become understood as the birds fly south on a broad front and end up in various places for their winter break as far apart as Sudan and India. Flocks have been discovered stopping off in Turkey and Iraq that were hitherto unknown ports of call. The project has grown exponentially and now involves researchers and conservationists in Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Sudan, India, Iraq and Iran. BirdLife coordinates the activities in what has become a huge international conservation alliance.

Data has flooded in from the transmitters attached to the birds to provide enough information to suggest that hunting is the most likely cause of the devastation of the population. Efforts are now being made to appeal to hunters and falconers in Syria, Iraq and Iran to desist from hunting Sociable Lapwings as they pass through these regions during the spring and autumn migration. Hunters in these regions used to hunt Houbara Bustards and Sand Grouse but they have been over hunted and have become all but wiped out. Saker Falcons are often used and when flown into flocks of birds have a success rate of 100%. They are frighteningly successful killing machines. The hope is that the appeal will mean a change of target from the hunters and the Lapwing can be spared. Already measures have been taken and conservationists in Syria and Iraq have successfully changed hunters’ targets. To really make this work it is important to know where the birds are and when. This is crucial to keep up pressure upon the hunters. These transmitters are doing this job and doing it well although the more transmitters the more information can be accrued. I have had an idea and have found out that these transmitters are approximately £2000 a piece. I would love to sponsor a bird as it would be great for the film to, in effect, adopt a bird and film it being tagged in Kazakhstan. It is a gamble considering that out of nine birds tagged last year only 4 seem to have survived but I would take my bird aside and give him a few tips on survival and the like. They just need a decent manager with some words of wisdom.

BirdLife has created a site, which documents all of the work that is going into saving the Sociable Lapwing. It is called The Amazing Journey and is a nerve centre for the project with easy access to a feast of knowledge and info about the ongoing work. It also contains a real time map which tracks the Sociable Lapwings they have tagged with transmitters as they headed south for the winter from Kazakhstan and who are now just beginning to make their spring journeys back north.

Copyright Tom Tams – Sociable Lapwing on Scilly October 2008

The need for bird conservation has struck me hard, and whilst I have learnt a great deal about birds and have enjoyed their company and where they have taken me in my wanderings, I have begun to feel that because of this joy that they have brought to me that I should personally find some form of payback for the birds. I find it frightening that there are so many species in danger in our modern world and want to find a way that I can help in their plight.

The Bird Effect tells an array of stories and introduces characters that have shown me the love, affinity and passion that birds engender within us, and I want to do something for the birds as well as making the film. In some way or another I want to involve people that I know from the worlds of art, music and literature as well as the various scientists, conservationists and birders I have met and create a forum within which these voices could help raise awareness about the problems that face the world’s bird population today. But what would the premise be? That is my thought for bedtime. I think I need some help with this one.

Click here to read previous diary entries.