Eagle Clarke – master of migration

The advance of spring (from Clarke 1912)

In his two volumes of ‘Studies in Bird Migration’ (1912), Eagle Clarke published the results of groundwork – 47 weeks in lighthouses and a lightship, and 14 weeks on St Kilda and Ushant – which established foundations for much subsequent work on migration through Britain. In the process he discovered Fair Isle, amongst others, and immediately recognised it as a site of outstanding importance. Those who have visited even a few of the sites explored by Clarke will know that they remain relatively inaccessible and require sustained physical effort to ensure reasonably complete recording. For example, a team of three wardens covers Fair Isle each day during the migration periods, which makes Clarke’s discoveries all the more impressive.

Amongst other things, Clarke was interested in the effects of climate and weather patterns on bird migration. It is reassuring that, despite the impact of climate change, the patterns he described a century ago (for example, the progression of migration during the spring) are much the same today. What has significantly changed is the volume of migration: the numbers of many species are now a fraction of what they were.

From the perspective of the age of the selfie, it is notable that nowhere in Clarke’s work will you find a photograph of himself. As Ticehurst put it in his appreciation in ‘Ibis’, published following Clarke’s death in 1938:
To his friends he was a very genial and lovable man, ever willing to help those who were keenly interested in ornithology, and a very great gentleman in all senses of the word. But he had no use for the dilettante or “pot-boiler,” and the only thing which would raise his ire and show that his tongue could be caustic on occasions was anything which savoured of humbug or of advertisement. 

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