Thursday 18 February 2021

Notes on the 'bearded eagle’

I cannot be the only person in lockdown digging out books that are normally rarely opened, which prompts me to share an extract from Cassell’s Natural History Vol III edited by P Martin Duncan MB FRS*.

The text (including the splendid drawing shown here) runs to 3½ pages and is based on accounts by various correspondents. These two paragraphs particularly caught my eye, about the 'Bearded Eagle, or Lämmergeier’.

Line drawing scanned from Cassell’s Natural History Vol III.
‘In Algeria, the Lämmergeier is said to feed largely on Land Tortoises, which it carries to a great height in the air, and drops upon a convenient rock, so as to break the shell. So much has been written upon the habits of this bird that it would be impossible to give here one tithe of the interesting notes which have been published in various works and periodical; but no history of the species, however brief, would be complete without a passing mention of the little girl who was said to have been carried off in childhood by one of these birds. The history, believed by him to be well authenticated, is related by Naumann as follows. “Anna Zurbuchen, of Hatchern, in Bern Oberland, born in 1760, was taken out by her parents, when she was nearly three years old, when they went to collect herbs. She fell asleep, and the father put his straw hat over her face and went to his work. Shortly after, when he returned with a bundle of hay, the child was gone; and the parents and peasants sought her in vain. During this time Heinrich Michel, of Unterseen, was going on a path to Wäppesbach, and suddenly heard a child cry. He ran towards the sound, and a Bearded Vulture rose, scared by him, from a mound, and soared away over the precipice. On the extreme edge of the latter, below which a stream roared, and over whose edge any moment would have precipitated it, Michel found the child, which was uninjured, except on the left arm and hand, where the bird had probably clutched it; its shoes, stockings, and cap were gone. This occurred on the 12th of July, 1763. The place where the child was found was about 1,400 paces distant from the tarn where it had been left asleep. The child was afterwards called Lämmergeier-Anni, and married Peter Frutiger, a tailor in Gewaldswyl, where she was still living in 1814.”

‘The circumstantial way in which the above narrative runs appears to leave little doubt of its reality, but it is difficult to give it credence, as the Lämmergeier has but little power in its feet, which resemble those of the Vultures; and most of the stories of its prowess have been discredited by the researches of modern naturalists. Dr. Brehm observes: “To my intense astonishment, the Spanish hunters did not regard this bird as in the slightest degree as a bold, merciless robber: all asserted that it fed on carrion, especially bones, only attacking living animals when driven by necessity. They called it ‘Quebranta-Huesos,’ or the ‘Bone-Smasher,’ and assured me that this favourite food was broken in a singular manner. My later observations proved nothing which would justify my treating their statements as otherwise than correct, so I was forced to come to the conclusion that the Lämmergeier has been much maligned.”’

Quite an anecdote, but credit to Professor Duncan for challenging it, and to the observations of the Spanish hunters that chime with what we know now about the bearded vulture or lammergeier, a bird much appreciated by many Honeyguide groups in the Pyrenees and Crete.

* A fuller listing says edited by P Martin Duncan M.B. (Lond.), F.R.S., F.G.S., Professor of Geology in and Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London; Correspondent of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.


Tuesday 9 February 2021

Vaccination progresses

“Have you had the jab yet?” It’s a regular question as my barbershop chorus meets on Zoom on a Wednesday evening. So I keep my end on mute, but it’s trickier one-to-one in break-out rooms. I am trying to master saying, “I’m too young” without sounding peeved that I look like I’m in the currently eligible over-70s demographic. I can’t blame Zoom for grey hair.

But I admit to just a little envy of those who’ve been able to get vaccinated and seeing at first-hand the steady progress of the nationwide programme. So when an email from Voluntary Norfolk arrived asking for help at a vaccination clinic withing walking distance, I was happy to accept a shift and to see how it all works, especially as requests for prescription collection/delivery have gone from very occasional (four since lockdown) to none at all.

Walking to Lionwood Medical Practice in heavy snow, I wondered what the PPE on offer would be for ‘vaccination stewarding support (patient flow)’. Snowshoes and full Arctic gear? The email warned that I might be outside and to wear appropriate clothing.

Snow and ice at the medical centre.

Actually, it was a mask, surgical gloves and yellow Covid-19 hi-vis vest. I was inside, so had strip off several layers of outdoor clothing to look after what I called the ‘departure lounge’, where those driving waited for their regulation 15 minutes before leaving. It involved showing people where they could best sit, socially distanced, where to keep an eye on the time (with help offered on the arithmetic) then cleaning seats with surgical wipes after they’d gone.

Overall impressions were as good as the reports I’d heard from others and read in the newspaper. There was an atmosphere of calm efficiency, fitting what the email had advised “as a marathon, not a sprint.” Everyone did what they were asked, some expressed grateful thanks, and some were happy to chat as far as it was possible given the spread-out seating and masks. The task was ideal for a first-time volunteer: what in my job evaluation days might be called ‘routine repetition of skills’.

A few more lines might come in handy. “Welcome to the departure lounge, your flight departs in 15 minutes” seemed OK. “There’s room to sit on the front row; you’d pay extra for that on easyJet.” “Been self-isolating anywhere nice recently?” No, I didn’t try that one.

An experienced hand thought that it was quieter than usual: about 80% turning up, given the conditions, where usually it was 95+%. It was good to see the expert advice on BBC Look East that evening that a few closed vaccination sites and no-shows was sensible and rational: a real danger from icy conditions trumps a jab that can be postponed for the theoretical risk from Covid-19.

Writing this as the vaccination total is more than 12 million, it is at last feeling like there is some hope of Honeyguide activities resuming, perhaps back to rule-of-six or similar within the UK. We’ll see what the promised ‘road map’ says later this month.

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