Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lower School, Ampthill

“It’s the first time that he’s sat through an assembly!”

The teacher’s words this morning regarding one of her more challenging pupils, and coming at the end of an assembly on the topic of migration, were a real encouragement. Every few months, I lead a wildlife assembly at one of the Lower Schools here in Ampthill. It started with an assembly that a group of us at the Bedfordshire Natural History Society put together, and the relationship has continued and grown. Sadly, the vast majority of our children seem to be losing touch with our local wildlife. When I held up a photo of a Swallow and asked if anyone knew what it was, the answers ranged from Blackbird to Magpie. It's the same story at the other schools I’m involved with, including the local Middle School, so it's a real privilege to be able to help at least some enthusiastic young people re-connect with their natural heritage, if in a small way.

The children range from pre-school to nine years of age, and I find it a real challenge to include all of them. I think good teachers earn every penny they make! This morning I began by telling the exciting story of Doug Holden’s discovery of the Eastern Crowned Warbler in Trow Quarry last month. We thought about just how far this bird had been blown off course from its home in Asia, and then considered the deliberate migration of a number of our birds.

We thought about how the Swallows that grace our skies in the summer are now catching insects on the wing some 6000 miles away in South Africa, and followed their journey across Europe and southwards through Africa, with many avoiding the Sahara by flying down the western coastline, or alongside the Nile.

We paused to consider how people used to believe that Swallows spent the winter hibernating alongside Frogs in the bottom of ponds, and I asked how it is we now know what really happens. “Because people on the telly tell us,” one young boy responded wisely! I talked about how, in the past, White Storks in Germany were sometimes found pierced with African arrows, and went on to discuss the importance of bird-ringing studies today.

We then thought about the House Martin, a bird that has built its delicate mud nest under the eaves of several of the homes represented in the hall. The children were amazed to learn that, out of some 3,000,000 birds ringed over the years, only one has been recovered south of the Sahara – in Nigeria, though small flocks have been observed in the mountainous regions of Zambia.

The next bird we considered was the Cuckoo. Asking the children if they knew what sound a Cuckoo makes was a masterstroke - there was a spontaneous chorus of mellifluous 'cuckoos' from all over the hall as both the youngest and the eldest children joined in! One of the younger children told us about the way in which the female Cuckoo lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, which helped me to emphasize just how amazing it is that a young Cuckoo never even sees its parents and yet, in August, migrates all the way to Africa. But it’s another mystery as to where they spend their winter because their familiar voice is silent there, and only a solitary ringed individual has been recovered – in Cameroon.

Our birds don’t only migrate to Africa, of course…and so I told the story of the Manx Shearwater that flies all the way from our coastline to the ocean waters off Brazil and Argentina.

The children were amazed as I went on to discuss a few species of insects, too, that make amazing journeys year on year. There were oohs and aahs as I showed them a photo of a Painted Lady butterfly. Millions migrated to the UK earlier this year…from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa! And only in the last few weeks has the return journey finally been proved thanks to the observant viewers of BBC's Autumnwatch. It involves several generations, but it's an amazing journey nevertheless. And the same can be said for the Monarch Butterfly whose annual cycle takes it from southern Canada to Mexico and back, though the returning insects are the ‘great-grandchildren’ of those that set off.

Until this year, the journey of the Monarch Butterfly was believed to be the longest round trip by any insect in the world – some 7000 km. But we finished the assembly as we thought about how this has been trumped in an amazing way this year with news of the migration of the Globe Skimmer dragonfly, and the work of the biologist, Charles Anderson. Charles lives in the Maldives and, after years of research, has all but confirmed the migration journey of these amazing insects between India and eastern & southern Africa, an incredible round trip of some 14,000 to 18,000 km!

Wow! Isn’t wildlife amazing!! That’s my strap-line for all of these assemblies and, judging from the round of applause and whistles, and the excited comments and “thank-you’s” of the children as they made their way out of the main hall and back to their classrooms, they thought so, too!


  1. I really enjoyed this post about your presentation to the school kids. This certainly would have held my interest in school. I hadn't heard about the Globe Skimmer dragonfly. I'll have to do a little research on this.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Steve - I really appreciate it. The story of the Globe Skimmer is quite amazing. There's a useful summary with maps at

  3. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.