22 May 2013

Intelligent design - the RSPB Minsmere nature reserve

We were recently invited to the UK by the RSPB to give a talk at their headquarter, the Lodge. In addition we had a small bird hide workshop and  visited a few of their reserves. The aim of our trip was also to look into the possibility of new bird hides that could cater to a diversified group of birders. That is both birders, birdwatchers (yes, there is a difference), bird photographers, sea watchers and more generally nature interested people. In our norwegian projects we have sought to make a series of bird hide types that will do just that. The idea is simple: you can't fit everyone in the same box. We are grateful to be invited to the UK to share knowledge and ideas. We returned to Norway much more inspired ourselves. As with many birding adventures, this one too turned out to be both more educational and inspirational then we expected!

On our recent trip we have been very fortunate to witness an important part of the future. No less! Everyone who pays a little attention to the state of nature knows that it is under an immense pressure from human development. Nature too often looses. A wide range of species are suffering from loss of habitat. Nature need us to be more clever.

Being an eager birder for many years I knew a fair bit of the work of bird conservation organization RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Still, after seeing the dedication and detailed knowledge behind RSPB reserve projects, I am left with a very positive sense of peoples ability to produce niceness! They are in fact showing us the shape of things to come: It is the necessary making of concentrated and highly productive nature. It is man made eco systems. People have become very good at producing for consumption. This happens at the expense of nature, and we simply need to improve our skills and our ways of treating nature. Experiencing the RSPBs making of nature is an uplifting experience. It provides an insight into how we should start producing and manage nature. Simply put, we need nature intact, and we can make that happen! Literally.

Aerial of a part of the Minsmere nature reserve. Made by the RSPB. 

The front and the garage. For people and for nature.
Thanks to Mark Thomas at the RSPB hq and Adam Rowlands, Minsmere reserve manager, we stayed at a reserve cabin, and we got a tour of the reserve. It is great to see the wide variety of tasks the reserve team handles. From the business end to the massive job of managing the reserve. About 40 people man the reserve, and it serves a couple of hundred thousand people every year and bird wise it caters to a wide range of species and I don't know how many hundred thousands of birds. This is serious!

It seems when running a business, like the visitor centre (café, shop, etc) a job well is done is easily noticed. By good service, great food, a shop with things of use (bird books, optics, etc) and welcoming people. I am very impressed by the whole people-business enterprise. Then there are the things that is managed extremely well, but at first glance we don't take that much notice of it. Like the reserve nature. The amount of work behind such a rich reserve is enormous. It is only when seeing the big tools garage and see the fact that the habitats are man made and maintained, you realize that such a reserve is run like any farmer would run a big agricultural enterprise. This is the very clever making of nature, with detailed knowledge of species requirements, preferences, productivity and endlessly much more. Nature is easily taken for granted, but when birds are your clients they will let you know if you fail or succeed. Judging by the rich bird life of the Minsmere reserve, it is without a doubt a success. 

Bird city Minsmere - a densely inhabited place with a wide variety of species. In Norway the Black-tailed Godwits are very rare, in fact critically endangered. In Minsmere we saw many, and wide variety of other species.

Birders seemed to love the reserve too. 

Marsh Harrier and Swifts over the reed bed.

Going aerial - tools for birder architects

At our architectural office we often need aerial views of places we do projects. When putting up a bird hide you need to know where the birds are and which routes they fly in the landscape. Location is the number one thing to consider. No point in setting up a bird hide at place where you will not find birds. Good aerials helps in the understanding of the landscape and habitats, and in turn the movement of birds. But, most importantly, good aerials help explain a project to other people involved. To be better birder architects we have acquired our own quadrocopter, letting us do our own aerials. A great tool. We just had to bring it on our UK tour. When Adam at Minsmere asked us if we could do a series of aerials for the reserve we happily provided that.

A birds perspective of Minsmere - a varied habitat with something to offer for a wide range of species. The variety of water depths, plants, open and dense growth. This is both feeding-, breeding and resting grounds for a large number of species. And it is all designed that way. Intelligent design and nature in a very productive blend. The magnitude and detail of this man made bird city is striking. 

When looking at the aerials we took, some of the images remind me of those elaborate crop circles, typically featuring an extremely strict order and geometry. Often envisioned as proof of intelligent design, almost beyond earthly capabilities. That is the idea, it seems. However, one may also argue that someone simply had to much time on their hands. The first ´wow´ can very quickly turn into a ´why?` (when you realize that the first wow was the reason for making it in the first place). Seeing the Minsmere from above leaves me with the ´wow´ hanging around. I just love to see all the small ponds, edge zones and mixed habitats. It is a job that requires very detailed planning and management, with an extreme insight in the biology of a very wide variety of species. The Minsmere is actually proof of intelligent life, and it is full of life! It is production of nature and it is working very well! It is highly intelligent design. Not over designed, but made to let every singular part make its presence on its own terms. 

Ladies and gentlemen: we are making nature! Lets do much more of it!

The Minsmere reserve from above:

Birds, birders & bird hides
We were very interested in studying the birder architecture in the UK. In Norway it was the lack of a type of architecture dedicated to birders that sparked our idea of being birder architects in the first place. In Norway it seemed the very same type of sheds where used for every occasion. We felt something was lacking, and that by diversifying the architecture for birders we could greatly improve the birding and the experience of nature. So we set out to design new concepts and then meet with people who where interested in making new things happen: Like a wind shelter / sea watch hide at Steilnes in Vardø, and a floating photo hide dedicated to close up views of arctic sea ducks and the bird tower and outdoor amphitheater catering to tour groups and school kids in addition to birders. Things are improving in Norway. I must admit too, that after seeing a few places in the UK, that it seems a wider variety of hides could be beneficial to birders, birdwatchers and nature interested people in the UK. However, the fact that great numbers of bird hides are in place is without a doubt fantastic! Very often the box bird hide is a great solution, but other times different approaches should be taken. This subject is still very much open to exploration!

Box bird hide and open type box bird hide

From the bird hide: The Bearded Tit - a bird that have eluded me many times. It really became quite the issue on mine and Martin Garners recent ´Pushing the Boundaries Tour´. Wherever we went the Bearded Tits seemed to hiding from me. And we did visit several places where we were told ´you will definantely see it here´. Like in Dorset or in Cley or Titchwell. On this trip too the tits where hard to find. We visited several places where they should have been, before finally seeing these über cool birds at Minsmere. Thank you Minsmere, for fixing the Bearded Tit issue! Got some pretty cool views, but did not manage any photos to brag with. For me this was still a trip highlight. In addition to the Savi´s Warbler found by our friend from Gullfest 2013, Jonny Rankin! I was second man on that rarity that day. Thnx Jonny for finding this bird! Check out the encounter story on his bird blog extraordinaire. Birding is cool. 

Bearded Tit!!! A heavy crop, but still BT niceness. From the Island Mere bird hide.

We also saw loads of the very stylish Avocet and got close to the very loud Cetti´s Warbler.

The ultimate flying machine! Swifts are absolutely super stunning birds. Masters of flight - and very hard to photograph. 

The birders 
It was great meeting fellow birders and sharing ideas and inspiration. There are so many good stories to tell, and I am certain we will find time for them too. For now I would like to thank the very cool birders we met at the RSPB. Thanks Mark Thomas, Graham White, Graham Hirons, Adam Rowlands, Martin Davies and many other good people we met. Meeting Martin Garner again was of course nice as the RSPB hosted our ´Pushing the Boundaties talk´ at the Lodge lecture room. Thanks all birders and pro nature people we met on our UK tour!

Further explorations in architecture and nature:
I would like to make a proposal for an architectural contest, or in fact which ever profession is suited for the task, but this should concern architects! The RSPB have clearly shown us all how to make a ´bird city´. 
Now: who can design the most productive and ecologically sound built environment, with people as a part of it? How to make a living environment with a high number of people combined with the highest possible biodiversity? 
Could we even design urbanity with intact ecosystems catering to many species? 
How dense could we populate a rich and sound ecosystem, without degenerating it? 

For the record: Todays urban environment has loads of fast food stores,  and thus produces loads of pigeons. Yes they are birds too, but this does not count as proof of an ecologically sound environment. Even if you have some super cool Peregrines sat of top of that food chain. The key is species complexity and habitat variety. How cool would it not be to see that architectural contest?! I would definantely have the RSPB in that competition jury. 

We need to explore and figure out these things in a much more dedicated manner. The alternative is business a s usual, and that is obviously not working. 

Experiencing the Minsmere reserve is huge inspiration, and a very good reminder of the amazing pro nature work taking place today. Making nature: A few more Minsmere aerials to end this post.

We will be back. To be continued..

Tormod A. / Biotope