The disappearing dove

Every year millions of migrating songbirds heading from Africa to Europe get blown out of the sky by weird people with shotguns. That combined with the policy in the UK of destroying habitat at an alarming rate is making life impossibly possibly difficult for some of our iconic bird species, one of which is the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur, Dansk: turteldue).

But last summer I was exploring one of my regular haunts, Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on a warm Saturday morning and the air was buzzing with insects including this handome hoverfly known as the ‘footballer‘ due to its rather fetching black and yellow striped thorax. This species is common in England reaching a peak in July which is when I snapped this individual.

The footballer hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus

And hoverflies aren’t the only abundant insects to be found in July. Milton Country Park is also home to mumerous species of Odonata, the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera).

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum – perched on a seedhead

The Park has 4 big lakes:

MCP map

…and a few other streams and pools, and despite the abundant human presence it remains a haven for some properly exotic wildlife including a bittern that appeared for a week or so last year, and the occasional osprey stopping off on migration from sub-Saharan Africa to breeding sites further north in the UK.

The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) isn’t an exotic migrant but it’s a beautiful bird and can always be found here:

The grebe was almost hunted to extinction because its dense feathers were coveted as a substitute for fur. But it has recovered and can now be found on lakes over most of the UK. The one above is an adult and the one below still has the striped head markings of a juvenile.

But getting back to the point, the undoubted star of the show on this trip was the turtle dove:

The turtle dove is in very serious decline, I believe we have lost around 97% of our breeding population and it is anticipated it will become extinct in the UK by 2020 as it’s also under increasing pressure in Europe. The reason for its catastrophic decline is that it feeds on seeds from cereals and other plants and both of these are a scarce commodity in the fields of the UK at the time the doves need them.

So the birds arrive here in the UK exhausted after a heroic migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. And those that avoid the gun-toting imbeciles in southern Europe arrive here to find there’s not enough food. So as it takes them a long time to rest and feed and get back into breeding condition, they only have time for a maximum of one brood per season before they have to head all the way back. And this enforced curtailment of there breeding window means they just can’t sustain their numbers.

They arrive back in the UK from around mid April so I’ll try to capture some more photographs before they finally stop coming here all together.

29 responses to “The disappearing dove

  1. So sad, Finn! What’s the deal with the gun-toting imbeciles in Malta? Sounds like a travel & tourism boycott campaign may be in order. Education, outreach, and boycotts are powerful tools.

    • Isn’t it just! I’m not sure what the story is in Malta. And the shooting’s not the worst of it either, I’ve heard they use glue strips to trap the birds where they alight to feed on bait and get glued down and can’t take off. It’s brutal and utterly pointless. I think a well publicised boycott campaign is an excellent idea.

  2. What a heartbreak Finn… I feed about twenty here… it’s very expensive all the grains they consume !!!

    • Hello Valerie, isn’t it tragic? I didn’t know you had turtle doves down in NZ. But it sounds as they are faring rather better than ours. Do your migrate as ours do?

  3. Oh thank GOODNESS! I thought I had lost 4 months there and the aliens had deposited me back in my computer chair 4 months later! “Whew!” it was only internet time I lost ;). That is terrible about the turtledove 😦 I am constantly amazed at our stupidity to be honest :(. The gosshawk was back and I managed to get some (rather bad) photos of him as he sat on the side of our chook enclosure selecting the next baby chick to eat… it would appear by the size of his stomach that he has been pick-and-mixing our chicks for a while now but he is safe on Serendipity Farm (unless something bigger and hungrier comes along then it is each to their own! 😉 )

    • Apolgies for the confusion – I’m still catching up on last year and I’m mixing current posts with some from last year – don’t adjust your calendar!

      Just dived over to SF to see your goshawk – he’s a beauty. Hats off to you guys for tolerating his presence too – I can think of nothing better than having a garden/smallholding that attracts such fabulous birds of prey, but alas not everyone thinks that way. Respect!

      • I figure he was here first. Dad always told us about a white goshawk that would visit (ate his doves 😉 ). Its live and let live here on Serendipity Farm and if he pinches a few baby chicks I can only hope that they were roosters and he saves us a job in the future! 😉

      • The only attitude that is going to end up in a positive result for everyone methinks. It isn’t like the predators are going to stop coming just because I don’t want them to eat my chooks…if I want to keep chooks I have to make sure that they can’t get them is all. I learned that lesson from my veggie garden 😉

  4. I had absolutely no idea… None. This is just beyond shocking and devastatingly sad. Thanks so much for this wonderful article — and your love and work to document.

    • It’s not a nice tale. The problem we have is that our part of the world is the destination for many migratory birds but we are rapidly becoming so overcrowded, particularly in the south and east wher so many of them make landfall, that there is little or no space for the other creatures. Something needs to change but alas, it’s difficult to see what and how.

      • Your sad tale sounds strikingly familiar to our area… But I do believe that the more people that speak up to the area’s imperiled status, and the creatures’ existence, good MUST come of it. Even a bit of awareness and education must help!

      • Hello FeyGirl, you’re dead right about education. People need to be made aware of the perils of environmental destruction. It does no one any good in the longer term, and at the current rate of loss the longer term is getting closer and closer.

  5. Beautiful photographs Finn, the turtle dove is now my screen save, I had no idea that they were under such serious threat. How much is being done to rectify this? A visit to Milton country park armed with binoclars are in order. Keep up the good work.

    • Hello Esther, lovely to hear from you. I can definitely recommend a trip to MCP armed with your binoculars, there are treecreepers, kingfishers, lots of ducks and other waterbirds there, as well as the turtle doves. At this time of year, with the migrants returning, there’s always lots to see. And the insects are starting to gather in some profusion too.

  6. So why isn’t there enough food? Why do they come here at that time?

    • Hello Ross, there’s not enough food because farming practices since WW2 have become so efficient there is no ‘waste’ or left over seed for the wildlife, and the wild flowers which they can feed on too are destroyed by chemicals. And they come to the UK to breed because the conditions that prevail in a ‘normal‘ British summer are ideal for breeding. The problem is that on the way here they have to pass over countries such as Malta where stupid men with guns try to slaughter as many as they can, and they account for millions of birds every year. It’s not easy being a turtle dove in this day and age.

      BTW I’ll take the beer question offline!

  7. The poor turtle doves, I had no idea they were in such decline. That hoverfly is a splendid fellow and beautifully photographed.

    • They’ve been absolutely hammered by habitat destruction. It’s real tragedy as they’re iconic and beautiful. And the sound they make is delightful too – redolent of warm summer days. Remember them (the days or the doves!)?

  8. That is terrible about the turtle dove. I don’t know if we have them here.

  9. Sad that such gentle creatures with their soft, mournful coos are being extirpated by thoughtless humans.

    • Your so right, and it is down to sheer thoughtlessness. I was recently discussing what it would take to provide sufficient habitat to sustain our wildlife with the farms liaison officer from the RSPB, and she said if 3-4% of the land could be managed for wildlife that would be enough. It doesn’t seem like much to guarantee the survival of the ecosystem, which after all is said and done, includes us too. A fact a lot of people seem to forget!

  10. A noble mission, Finn, and a fine photo of your main subject. As I’m sure you know, hoverflies and damsels are right up there in my list of favorites as well. Sure would love to visit Milton Country Park some day!

    • Thanks Gary, if you ever make it to Cambridge make sure you let me know and I’d be honoured to be your guide through the ‘wilds’ of East Anglia!

      • You’ve got a deal, Finn. the UK is very high on my short list of places to include on our mini world tour, which we hope to be doing in just a few years. Rest assured that I’ll let you know well in advance if we can spend any time in your area. Thanks so much for your kind offer!

      • Hello Gary, please do – I’d love to show you my corner of the globe!

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