Author and journalist Charlie Elder visited Shetland in search of an endangered British bird as part of a quest to see our most threatened species, described in his newly-published book While Flocks Last. Travelling the length and breadth of the UK, Mr Elder spent a year attempting to track down Britain’s birds of highest conservation concern and find out why they are in trouble.
Armed with a field guide and binoculars, and relying on the help of experts, he journeyed from Wales to the West Country and the Highlands to the Hebrides to find all 40 birds on our national Red List, which is compiled by the RSPB among a number of conservation organisations.
In Shetland Mr Elder visited Fetlar, one of the few places in Britain where red-necked phalaropes breed.
“It was extremely windy when I visited and the birds were sheltering out of sight, so with limited time I faced the real prospect of failure,” he said. “However, with the help of the island’s RSPB warden, I finally got lucky – a memorable encounter and well worth the journey.”
His quest to encounter birds on red alert proved a daunting challenge, and involved scrambling up mountains, tramping across bogs and trekking through the snow to find species ranging from corncrakes and bitterns to Scottish crossbills and hen harriers.
“It was about trying to be in the right place at the right time, especially as many on the UK Red List are seasonal visitors,” he said. “For some of the rarer birds I had to turn ‘twitcher’ and race the clock to stand any chance of a sighting, while other evasive species required a more patient approach – or plain good luck! To be honest, when I set out I never realised just how hard it was going to be.”
Meeting with experts along the way Mr Elder, who lives in west Devon, explored what is being done to help threatened species, asking whether they are worth worrying about in the first place, and also considered the popularity of birdwatching.
While many birds in need of urgent conservation action face an increasingly bleak future, there have been success stories as the fortunes of some species have improved. Mr Elder said he was determined that his book should highlight good news as well as bad, and be a light-hearted read rather than an environmental manifesto of doom and gloom.
“Every bird tells its own story about the environment, and fortunately more and more people are now listening,” he said. “Certainly more and more people are birdwatching, which can’t be a bad thing. And one thing became evident on my travels: that all of our threatened species are worth seeing, and worth saving.”
While Flocks Last is published by Bantam Press, priced at £14.99.