Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wetland Bird Surveys.

Today was the routine monthly WeBS ( Wetland Bird Survey ) count. Such is administered by the British Trust for Ornithology via its volunteer "workforce" on behalf of the funding partnership comprising the RSPB, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.  The objective is to monitor non-breeding waterbirds in the UK. The data is then used to  assess the size of waterbird  populations , establish trends and use the results to prioritise the importance of sites used and in their protection should they fall under threat. It commenced in 1947, so there is a long run of data that can usefully be used to establish the "health" of given species, and if in decline, to better try and understand the factors involved.

Sounds all very formal but, in reality, it's great fun. Certainly weather can play a major part as , for example, a lot of birds had left Islay last year at this point as we , and many other places too, were in the throes of  a freeze up!! This year, by contrast, is relatively mild ( well, relative to last winter that is! ). I count various sites with the most important one being being the majority part of Loch Indaal, the remainder being completed by .other volunteers. Additionally Loch Gruinart is  (thankfully) counted by RSPB staff given the reserve covers most of the key area. We are very lucky in that the suite of species encountered can be varied given we have  "pure maritime" sites, e.g Outer Loch Indaal,  sea lochs with large sheltered feeding areas and a good number of freshwater lochs. A bonus for those with a year list!

So that was my day!  Thankfully most , not all, of the geese we play host to on Islay are out grazing fields often far away from wetland areas. Due to a government subsidy scheme aimed at compensating farmers for the pressure arising from this aspect,  Scottish Natural Heritage organize regular counts of the geese and establish their distribution on a field by field basis over the island, so the figures arise from this source.

Saturday run around!

The beginning of the day proved to be almost calm and a real change to recent times!  Later the southerly wind became quite fresh and things turned quite cold.
Given the still conditions I went looking for Crossbills in a couple of places where they'd been last year, but with no success. Not a single suspicion of presence! So the first initiative of the day fell foul. Between general birding I also looked again for the Snow Goose , but without any success either. A long hour going through a large Barnacle Goose flock in the location used previously produced absolutely nothing different. It poses the question as to whether the bird is still here, as no further reports have arisen. It is a bit of "57 variety"  looker and certainly doesn't stand out very prominently.....and we do have a lot of Barnacle Geese, so I shall remain optimistic!
By this time I'd seen odd "white gulls" and resolved to try and complete what had failed a couple of days ago, so I continued to visit a wide variety of locations. Reaching Bunnahabhain the adult Iceland Gull, known to be around wasn't present on this occasion!! It first visited as an immature bird and now must be in its eighth winter. Last year I had a similar experience, when wanting to photograph the bird. I then spotted it perched on the gunwhale of one of the local fishing boats returning into Port Askaig.......nothing like easing yourself into the   local  scene. Travelling around a bit I was amazed again at how few small birds are around, odd Starling flocks, pathetic little groups of birds around garden feeders , but little else. I was also amazed at how soddened the land generally with some well-defined "mud flows" on downward slopes.
Time spent on the eastern side of Loch Gruinart was a real joy with a good variety of duck and waders, particularly good numbers of Shelduck. Here too were a couple of "white-winged"  gulls! So, in the end I'd had five such gulls, three Glaucous and two Iceland but with another likely Iceland Gull not recorded. With birds now been recorded very widely within Britain the final number associated with this incursion must be quite large.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Overall, a pretty satisfying day!

A look at the sea after the more local patch area showed fairly calm conditions, with a little swell given a light SW wind. Nothing was really on the move other than a few distant Auks flying north and odd Fulmars. moving on northwards alongside Loch Indaal the sun in the SE unfortunately meant the surface glare from the sea negated any worthwhile observations could be made.

Moving on towards Loch Gorm to complete the monthly WeBS count, the first of two observations involving Buzzard took place. Above Foreland a single Buzzard and a Mistle Thrush , within a metre of one another, moved forward across the sodden field searching for what I imagined could only be earthworms on or near the surface. No competition, no interaction!  Later , quite the opposite was observed when an obviously immature Grey Heron took on a Buzzard as they squabbled over a Pheasant carcass!!  Nearby a very large adult female Peregrine watched from a fence line perch with interest!!. A little farther on, a female Hen Harrier hunted along the eastern part of the loch with no obvious success. It struck me that some raptors must be having a difficult time of it at present as there appears to be so few small birds around.

By contrast Roe Deer  currently appear to be in good numbers and were seen in several places.

A call at the RSPB Gruinart Reserve showed a good selection of common species on the "lagoons" adjacent to the salt-marsh, foremost amongst which were a number of Pintail, but with Little Grebe and Whooper Swan present as well. Loch Skerrols also had the latter two species present as well as Mute swans and several Goldeneye.  A search for the goose flock within which the Blue Snow Goose is present proved fruitless  but provided some great views of Barnacle Geese which should never be set aside!

Towards the end of the afternoon I settled down to try and count the waterfowl etc on the central, inner part of Loch Indaal. What a treasure trove of birds this can be when viewing conditions are suitable. Mallard, Teal, Shelduck, Eider, Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Scoter, Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, and Long-tailed Duck plus Slavonian Grebe, a Great Northern Diver plus various wader and gull species provided an absorbing picture. With dusk approaching I began to make my way around the inner confines of the loch and parked up in the hope of getting shots of geese coming in to roost. I then got sidetracked by a 2nd winter Glaucous Gull that was carefully picking through debris and vegetation at the head of the loch.

Eventually I left,with the final bonus of the day being a couple of Woodcock rising from the edge of the grass moor near home in the fast diminishing light. Overall , a good day!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Local winter birding!

Due to having some other work on board I elected to have a good mooch around my local area as the day was sufficiently pleasant , despite a brisk wind that had been even stronger overnight and thrown the bins across the yard! Whilst I live only a kilometre in from the coast , I'm surrounded by grass moorland but with a fringing boundary of coniferous woodland to the east. All "neighbours", a farm in either direction , are well out of sight which puts me in a nicely isolated position to observe what is happening and easily note movement or arrivals of birds.

Excuse the Daffodils as the photograph was taken somewhat later than early January, although I have to say that I have Daffodils peeping up already at various points.

So I set off from the house where the local Starlings appear to have returned, and the odd Blackbird is wintering.  The coast showed the inevitable G.B.B.G and Herring Gulls wheeling around and a couple of passing Shag, but little else. Surprisingly, as yet, the gulls have been absent  from the hill slopes opposite the house, which is often a feature of early in the year and centres on areas where fodder is being put out for cattle. The only regular visitors to those areas are Hooded Crows and Ravens , both species of which were around at different times during the day. Prominent as well were two, possibly three, Buzzards which flew over or were perched on fence posts.

Otherwise the only species encountered were odd Pheasant, a Redwing , a few Fieldfare and a single Woodpigeon. No small birds were on the woodland fringes, which was a surprise, nor was there even the odd Wren, Reed Bunting or Meadow Pipit present. After the usual autumn influx, Robins have strangely disappeared , as have Stonechats, which were at a low population level anyway as a result of last winter. So , a salutary reminder that we are still in the depths of winter, although things could be far worse and replicate the conditions we were suffering from early in 2011. Given I've just retrieved most of my scattered garden bird feeders after the "big blow" last week, I'm sure a resumption in food being available outside my window will soon see a handful of eager visitors appearing.

As dusk fell overflying Barnacle Geese and a few Greenland White-fronted Geese moving to roost from local feeding areas added quality to the day!  

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Raptor persecution.....a continuing shame!

Over the thirty or so years in which I've had an interest and concern about raptor persecution generally much has been said , many statistics have been trotted out and an increasing number of incidents taken to prosecution or reported on. The situation nowadays is no better than at the end of the 1970's, indeed, it would be very easy to conclude that it has got worse, which is most certainly my own view. At some point in the near future I intend putting out a background summary, based on one area, showing how much things have deteriorated.
Despite the best efforts of many, particularly the RSPB which, in staff time and resources alone, has put an appreciable proportion of  its funds into combating these shameful acts, the malpractice still persists, carried out by an arrogant and self-serving minority associated with game management who set themselves above the law. Whilst I currently live in Scotland, my abiding concern is with the situation in England and, in particular, with the ever diminishing population of Hen Harriers within the Forest of Bowland with which I had a nigh on twenty year involvement prior to my early retirement from RSPB..  The harrier population has contracted,  numbers less than 10 pairs, and is largely concentrated on the upland estate of the water utility company, United Utilities, who have a close "operating partnership" with the RSPB. Now don't run away with the idea that I personally and exclusively agree with the approach taken currently in the Bowland area, because I don't, as I feel it is insufficiently inclusive of the wider "collection" of estates which comprise the magnificent Forest of Bowland landmass. However, such disagreements are  best  resolved  "in house" or "within the family", a sentiment which I have always embraced and shall continue to believe in.

What I feel can be increasingly condemned is the arrant behaviour of the upland estates who feel they can divorce themselves away from the collective wishes of the electorate,  the requirements of the law and a recognition that they have a responsibility to nurture some of the most iconic members of our natural heritage.  These latter species, such as Merlin, Peregrine and Hen Harrier , even have especial status under the provisions of Schedule 1, Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 ( as amended ). Now, I give you an analogy!!  If such upland estates were Trustees of our National Art Heritage and willingly and deliberately allowed the deterioration of our most treasured and beloved items within our cultural heritage to be damaged, lost and generally abused, what do you feel the outcome would be?  Uproar, public condemnation and a call for them to be brought to book.   More importantly, what do you think the implications for the self-serving incompetents would be in the sense of being allowed to continue in such positions of responsibility? And yet in the cause of commercial gain the persecution of raptors persists and a convenient blind eye is taken by many who could, if they wished, through peer pressure and condemnation , put paid to the dubious side of what is painted as a continuation of a romantic Victorian "pursuit". It is carried out to make money , very often with subsidies from the public purse being made available to manage areas given special status based on their suitability to play host to the very iconic species which are then removed. Nice one!!

Now all this might suggest the conservation charities, the police and others, even a proportion of the most responsible upland estates , are doing nothing. This couldn't be farther from the truth! Similarly, as is evidenced by a steady flow of court cases  linked to such incidents ( see Raptor Persecution Scotland's web site),  details of campaigns carried out to bring about changes in the law and so on, much is being done.  One thing that is sometimes evident is the absence of independent condemnation and action by the public, and sometimes, let it be said, by birders themselves!! Grumpy old man and ill constructed comments by all too regular contributors on websites are not action. They may make you feel better but have little effect.  So, with rightful indignation now in full flow, let me highlight a time when hopefully hackles can be raised and protest can flow unabated!!  As I  understand things DEFRA has asked the Law Commission to review inadequacies within wildlife legislation , with a report being issued mid year 2012. Doubtless many wildlife bodies will carefully scrutinise the details and recommendations, and either provide wholehearted support, or the opposite against any inadequacies. Clearly the circumstances attached to raptor persecution should figure prominently at that  point and a more precise situation suggested for the future.  If such is absent then all hell needs to be let loose on a Government, which has claimed will be the Greenest ever, and whose Leader ( David Cameron )  pledged, even as recently as last week, that he would offer as much protection as needed towards the countryside.   Unfortunately, it has to be said, the E-petition relating to raptor persecution,  and embodying a call for a  " vicarious liability " clause to be debated in Parliament, may have been a little pre-emptive in the light of the above, but it has until November this year to run. It certainly will do no harm to sign it now, but its time may yet really arrive in the middle of 2012!!!  Vicarious liability has already been approved, but not yet enacted, in Scotland and provides for upland estate owners to be considered for prosecution alongside their keeper(s) if incidents occur on their Estate.  In the event of blatant inadequacies appearing in the report anticipated from the Law Commission  then a period of intense action will be ready for it and don't fail the wildlife resource you love best!!!

Monday, January 9, 2012

A taste of things to come!

A great day for weather with sunny periods , no rain (!) , a little breezy but, overall, a general feeling that the worst of times was now behind us. I'd a few tasks to see to so the day was broken up into two or three distinct parts.
After a wander round locally, which didn't really produce much, I went down to the coast to do some seawatching. However, within all this time, numbers of geese, mainly Barnacle Geese and Greenland White-fronted Geese plus some Grey lag Geese, were repeatedly flying around the area near home or moving from one favoured feeding area to another. Such short term frenetic activity is uncommon and was being caused by the repeated passage overhead of a helicopter associated , I suspect, with the power company which is still in the process of checking line damage etc.There was quite a brisk WNW wind that was backing the sea. As far as you could see large white capped waves were rolling in and meeting large upwellings of water closer in to the coast, all culminating in a dramatic seascape picked out by the bright sunlight coming from the south. Interestingly around 40 Auks flew south in singles, twos or threes, a single Black Guillemot, besides small numbers of Shag and gulls ( Common, Herring and GBBG ) being around.
Later I went to check on the presence, or otherwise, of a pair of Golden Eagles, and had a most enjoyable hour watching the birds at a distance as they "patrolled" over their territory. The size difference between the two birds was so apparent and, whilst the female bird maintained a series of straight flight lines, on a couple of occasions,  the slightly smaller male rose high in the air and then plummeted downwards in a spectacular diving display that was quite breathtaking.. Seen in the afternoon sun ,with the strong sunlight catching the  " golden heads" of both birds, this was an experience to treasure and an indication of how early such raptors enter into the initial stages of their breeding cycle. A great afternoon.
Distraction of the day came in the form of the Horizon TV programme dealing with the |Higgs bosun Particle  ( the GOD particle! ).  I'd so looked forward to it , but in the final analysis I didn't really enjoy it at all.  I'm afraid once the presentation entered into the realm of Super Symmetry I lost the plot entirely!!  Best to stick to birds I guess.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A disappointing outcome.

The day dawned somewhat murkily to say the least and conditions continued until late afternoon. After delivering a couple of sets of BTO WeBS forms for waterfowl counts within the next few months my intention had been to try and establish more precisely how many "white winged gulls" ( Glaucous and Iceland ) there were on Islay at the present time. Various reports of birds at a number of locations suggest we've a reasonable number, which mirrors reports of small numbers of birds being seen on Lewis within the past couple of weeks too. I'd planned a route commencing at Portnahaven and then taking in all the locations in sequence where birds had been seen. However, visibility and the weather overall made it less than worthwhile and I decided to postpone things half way through the exercise given we're to have better weather later in the week. In the meantime I'd had good views of both a 1st winter and a 2nd winter Glaucous Gull between Foreland and Bridgend, but birds were being moved around a lot by numerous walkers.
At Gruinart I could hardly see beyond the lagoons across to the saltmarsh so, by mid afternoon, I packed things in altogether, only to find the last hour of the day improved a little.
"Distraction of the day" was the ever exciting clash between Manchester United and Manchester City football teams which, thankfully, I'd remembered to record! Later the second programme on the Great Barrier Reef showed some phenomenal footage of Great Hammerhead Sharks, White-bellied Sea Eagles and Spectacled Fruit Bats.  Best of all, for me , was the shot of the Queensland Grouper fish, which is known colloquially as the VW Grouper as it's as big as a VW car!!  Blimey.    

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thankfully.....back to birding!

Whilst the weather was still a bit mixed, with a strong sea and robust breakers making seawatching a bit of a waste of time, although , in all honesty, nothing much seemed to be on the move after an hours dedicated observation.
Outer Loch Indaal was much less disturbed although not all that much was on offer. A total of  23 Great Northern Divers was counted, although there might well have been more as visibility wasn't brilliant, a single Red-throated Diver and a total of  210 Common Scoter in various flocks. These were very "flighty" which proved none of them , unfortunately, had the odd Velvet Scoter amongst them !!

The head of Loch Indaal was very choppy and counting wasn't easy. Red-breasted Merganser, Eider, Greater Scaup were all in evidence but numbers were difficult to establish.  The evidence of recent storms was apparent given the amount of debris way up on the inner merse near Bridgend but, strangely, there appeared to be an absence of waders excepting 30/40 Lapwing huddled down in a tight group at Gartmain. At this point the weather turned a bit grim so I went up to Newton where a Snow Goose had been reported previously.Various large groupings of Barnacle Geese were present, plus a few Greenland White-fronted Geese, ,  but despite a lot of hard work and time no Snow Goose was seen. The geese were very flighty due to gas guns, aimed at disturbing them anyway, were going off at various locations locally but some consolation  was gained from good views of  a Lesser Canada Goose which appeared perfectly and then, just as easily, disappeared amongst the ever moving ranks of geese working the field.

Sadly it has to be said some people have come off badly given the recent storms. Roofs, tiles, outhouses all have suffered in various places and some people have only had power restored to their houses today! The bizarre sight of an oil  storage tank marooned on the beach at Uiskentuie and, elsewhere, other various  pieces of unexpected debris, brought home the strength of the recent storm we've suffered. In a local context, the fact that the lighthouse at Portnahaven has had its power supply cut off, and  has now "worked through" its emergency supply is a real concern. Here , local people know and respect the power of the sea , and  very much care for the people who have a maritime involvement. Many locals have small boats of their own and, indeed, have themselves served their time in a variety of roles at sea and they , and their families, have a close affiliation with all seafarers.  God Bless all those who sail at sea is not an empty sentiment in this part of the world!  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Back to normality!

A much better day in some respects with even the odd sunny period, which somehow made such a difference to the overall atmosphere. Nonetheless a quite robust wind remained and some occasional showers were quite fierce. BUT, finally, the power came on in the early afternoon, so , after 56 hours, normality hopefully reigns.
Not for all though as, previous to my writing this, I've just been down to the nearby village to visit friends and transfer the contents of their freezer into mine as they are still suffering from a lack of power provision.

Previous to all that I'd had a lengthy telephone conversation with a colleague about the varying aspects that face the conservation movement relating to the ongoing problem of raptor persecution. There are equal elements within the short to long term future which need to be addressed surrounding a problem which has not improved markedly within the last thirty years. So , much to be done.

Hope hangs eternal. 4.1.2012.

News that 32,000 homes within Scotland had been affected by power losses doesn't incur optimism, as obviously the scale of the task for engineers and others is immense. As the day went on the number came down    and the Scottish Hydro bulletins more frequent, including the news that 400 engineers had been drafted into the affected areas, of which Argyll was one of several. The weather had improved a bit , but I was personally surprised to hear the ferries had run, but relieved to learn that our quota of engineers had arrived.
With none of the "domestic facilities" being restored it was sadly unfortunate to cancel a visit my two daughters were intending to make for a few days, commencing tomorrow, but given all the uncertainty I guess it was somewhat sensible.
With high winds and intermittent rain and hailstones it became increasingly obvious another night of reflection and contemplation was in store. The mantelpiece of my parlour fireplace more resembled an altar, indeed, all that was missing was a background of Grigorian chants.  Multi-flickering candles cast ever changing light on my favourite picture hanging on the chimney breast. It's by Tim Wootton  and depicts a male Hen Harrier flying across a desolate moor. A windswept vista within matched by similar conditions outside!!!

And so another long night ensued!  It ended up in two parts as I spent a couple of hours mid way through the night looking out for any of the predicted Quandrantid Meteors which were destined to show. Ever changing cloud and light conditions sadly resulted in nothing being recorded I'm afraid.

Training Day 3.1.2012.

Not the film Training Day,  but the events that followed an horrendous night of  building westerlies and the eventual house shuddering squall around 0615 hours that knocked out the electricity supply. The noise had gradually built up until there just remained an all enveloping wall of sound within which events then happen. Daylight eventually established itself properly around 0830 hours. given Islay's location at the very southern extremity of the Inner Hebrides, and revealed no damage had occurred. Later reports from the airport advised that winds had reached at least 106 mph, and other sources suggested higher levels.
The wind persisted so , falling back on training from past lives, "the survival room " was set up downstairs complete with cooking stove , food, bottled water, lighting ( candles and torch ), lots of warm clothes, blankets and sleeping bag  etc in anticipation of the worst. As my water supply is off the hill the final essential link, in the form of an electric pump pushing the water into a tank upstairs within the house, was obviously hors de combat and imposed disciplined usage!! Having lived in a house where the roof was stripped in a similar gale shortly after moving to Islay I was taking no chances, hence seeking out the safest haven! It was all a bit of an adventure really, particularly as the telephone line remained intact ( mobiles don't work where I live and radio reception is rubbish ) and I could pick up on some information and link up with family. All this was fine of course during the day, as you can read and keep busy , but then starts the night around 1630 hours. I think many of us have lost the skill and fortitude to read in candlelight and so, as someone once said, early to bed!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Progress made slowly, very slowly!

I love dedicated birding days, but I hate incidental birding. From the start the day was due to fall in the latter category given the weather conditions as , however hard you tried , it was going to be impossible to sustain anything for very long and most things were going to be picked up from the car!!

This was the view down near my seawatching spot!  High winds backing a boiling sea, a pregnant sky threatening worse to come, so abandon that idea!

On up the Rinns on the western side of Loch Indaal to find the latter was largely obscured by incoming banks of rain, that eventually turned to sleet and even hailstones. Tantalising interludes of occasional sunny periods promised better things, but didn't deliver, so , all in all, the day was a disaster and little was seen. A few Wigeon, Light-bellied Brent Geese, Starling, Curlew and Common Gull amounted to "new" species for the year, none of which were seen under enjoyable circumstances. A saturated pasture showed 240 Common Gulls present , most of which were indulging in the paddling behaviour aimed at bringing prey to the surface. Commencing before Christmas the next days and weeks will see increasing numbers of gull species arriving back, the last of which will be LBBG in late February and into March.

Diversion of the day! I'm a great fan of Jeff Randall Live ( Sky TV ) and his financial analysis of what's happening around us, plus his "number for the day" sign off line. This is going to be my personal "take" on that approach although applied to a much wider canvas. Usually there'll be a 24 hour delay gap for obvious reasons. 
For yesterday there are four items! Having got back for the last 15 minutes of the game, the winning goal in the Sunderland versus Man City match scored in the last minute by the former was an unexpected pleasure. Similarly the now annual New Years Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra of music by the Strauss family was tremendous, particularly the conductor playing on two anvils whilst still presiding over things! I was disappointed by the Vienna Boys Choir and all it did was make me acutely aware of the high quality and professionalism of our own Kings College Choir, Cambridge, although admittedly the latter contains some older members.
Finally the documentary programmes on the Great Barrier Reef and the Orkney Stone Age Temple Special. The latter presented details on the newly discovered 5000 year old Neolithic archaeology at Ness of Brodgar on Orkney  built 500 years before Stonehenge, which it has been shown to have connections with. . The suggestion that social culture in Britain had spread not northwards, as previously postulated, but southwards from this obviously well  developed community was argued convincingly. Strangest aspect of all was that the Orkney community then "closed itself down " and nothing further of it appears to exist. Inspiring stuff!  

Sunday, January 1, 2012


It's a new dawn
It's a new day
It's a new life
An' I'm feelin' good

And so, in time honoured fashion, I set out to commence battle and start a new year list!  Whilst dawn broke clear, and with promise, even to an odd shaft of sunlight here and there, the entirety was somewhat different. Down at the coast the SW wind was whistling in the wires and the sea decidedly robust with large breakers coming into the bay. Nothing appeared to be on the move other than a few Shag, but a pair and three single Fulmar were on the usual breeding cliff on Eilean Mhic Coinnich island around the corner from where , last year, the Gyr Falcon had so often perched. No such luck at present  and , shortly after , the pattern for the day set in when, at the point I was farthest from the car, it grew dark and absolutely threw it down for quite a time..

Eventually I returned home after seeing a few routine species ( Barnacle Goose, Grey lag Goose, G.B.B.G., Herring Gull, Rock Dove but little else ) to both get changed  and see how things turned out. " Mixed " would be the most charitable way of describing the rest of the day, so I was content to have a couple of walks out from home over the nearby grass moor to the coast  and toward the conifer plantations in the other direction. In the end a modest list of birds was seen including Chough, Raven, Hooded Crow, Buzzard, Fieldfare but nothing else of particular note. The ground is absolutely saturated at present and outwintered cattle are having a miserable time of it besides it being a difficult job getting fodder out to them. The forecast holds out little hope for improvement with another promised bashing from high winds mid week.